Where Dreams Come True
Welcome to one of Central America's new up-and-coming eco-destinations, a birder's paradise that's home to half of Honduras' 700 bird species--from the marvelous masked tityra to the elusive lovely cotinga.
Oh-baby, oh-baby, oh-baby!" Fourteen stories above the ground, David Anderson is having a fit. He straddles a branch of a common rainforest tree known locally as the San Juan rojo, where the tree's massive crown erupts into a broccoli top of leaves and open sky. "Look-look-look! Do you see them?"
My binoculars tangle in climbing ropes, but I weave them clear. Ten feet away a troop of golden-hooded tanagers boils from a viny treetop. Blue-cheeked and turquoise-rumped, they are resplendent. "British birders call birds like that 'cripplers,' " Anderson whispers. "See one, and your knees go weak."
This is not the time for vertigo. For three hours Anderson and I have clambered through the rainforest canopy in Honduras' 265,000-acre Pico Bonito ("Pretty Peak") National Park. A doctoral student at Louisiana State University, Anderson has spent untold hours over the past few years tethered to the region's trees, studying how birds use the park's lush rainforest canopy. Still, he is hardly immune to a crippler.
Nor am I. I watch the tanagers pluck tiny fruits, one by one. Behind them mountains rise in countless shades of green, a verdant carpet scored by three hanging waterfalls that glint like tinsel. Dangling from a rope while focusing binoculars is a delicate balancing act. But this view from above the second-largest national park in Honduras would be hard to match from any other vantage point.
Anchored by the 7,989-foot-tall Pico Bonito, which rises upwards of 2,000 feet above the surrounding peaks, Pico Bonito National Park is striving mightily to establish itself as a Central American ecotourism destination. The park hugs the country's rugged north coast, just three miles from La Ceiba, the third-largest city in Honduras. For years, however, visiting Pico Bonito has been a daunting adventure. Few trails penetrate the forest, and services for travelers have been practically nonexistent. Most of the park's approximately 5,000 annual visitors--itself a tiny number--only raft a river on the far eastern border of the park. Perhaps 2,000 travelers venture farther into Honduras' interior.
But that's now beginning to change, thanks in part to a twist on conservation that marries social justice with environmental protection. Supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and organizations such as the American Bird Conservancy, the park's nonprofit Fundacion Parque Nacional Pico Bonito (FUPNAPIB) is working to reduce poverty, improve sanitation, and develop sustainable tourism. "These co-management strategies are common in Mesoamerican countries because federal funds for conservation are so limited," says Mark Willuhn, executive director of the Mesoamerican Ecotourism Alliance, a nonprofit that is nearing completion on a USAID-funded study of ecotourism along the northern Honduras coast. "But FUPNAPIB is doing a very good job and serving as a good example for Honduras and the region in efforts to integrate community-based tourism and critically needed social programs." I'll spend a week here, hiking, birdwatching, and rafting, and learning how these efforts are helping to preserve one of Central America's greatest wildernesses.
One thing is unquestioned: Pico Bonito is a dream destination for birders. More than half of Honduras' 700 species are known in the park, from the endangered Honduran emerald hummingbird--found in no other country in the world and seen just outside the park's borders--to the great curassow, a three-foot-long, turkeylike ground dweller with a lavish, curly head crest.
Suddenly, another of Anderson's exclamations jolts my attention.
"Oh-oh, look-look. Right there, right there!"
I swivel on a branch to meet the stares of two keel-billed motmots, a notoriously timid species. "Honduras has more species of motmots than any other country--seven of the ten," Anderson whispers. "You can see six right here in Pico Bonito." I watch the striking green-crowned birds flick their blue racquet-tipped tail plumes. "Two at 20 feet," Anderson sighs. "That was a gift."
To get face-to-face with a motmot, Anderson first launched a crossbow arrow into the rainforest canopy. The arrow trailed a length of cord, which we used to pull climbing rope over the high branches. Scaling the dangling rope using hand-held ascenders was the most physically demanding hour I can recall in two decades of wilderness travel.
Fortunately, there are easier ways to explore Pico Bonito. Our survey tree grew along the park's border with the Lodge at Pico Bonito, a 400-acre property that serves as an unofficial visitors' center. Nestled between two rivers, cabins made of stone and native pine are scattered among old cacao groves. Lounge chairs circle a tiled swimming pool, lined up for drop-dead views of the park's namesake peak. An open-air restaurant dishes up gourmet meals with a local twist--think beef medallions coated with cacao.
But nature tourists croon over other amenities. Boardwalks tunnel under lancetilla and other palms where tree frogs lay eggs. Observation platforms afford intimate views of the waterfalls and rainforests where jaguar tracks are found. The lodge's bird list tops 400 species, from antwrens and ant-tanagers to parrots and parakeets. "Many guests," says chief naturalist James Adams, "will leave a plate of fine food to go see a bird."