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.
One of the most prized is the lovely cotinga, a plump, fruit-eating bird that perches high in the rainforest canopy. There the lodge has built observation platforms that give birders a rare chance to see the elusive species. True to its name, the male bird's blue feathers nearly glow in the sun. The plumes were so coveted by ancient Mayans that they were gifts of tribute to clan lords. "I looked for the lovely cotinga for 20 years before finally seeing it here," nature videographer Greg Homel tells me at lunch one day. Since breakfast he had filmed six without leaving the grounds.
Despite its upscale trappings, a visit to the Lodge at Pico Bonito offers connections with Honduras in ways that transcend typical tourism. Consider German Martinez. Left homeless after Hurricane Mitch pummeled Central America in 1998, Martinez has since learned English and completed a course in a local village that trains rural people to become bilingual nature guides. I've already logged a sunrise bird walk when Martinez walks up to the lodge's dining deck. Stocky and affable, he's one of a half-dozen local guides on the lodge's staff who lead bird walks around the property and day hikes into the national park. From there, guests can even take trips to remote villages to see how women use "micro-loans," funded by the U.S.-based Adelante Foundation, of as little as $50 to start businesses such as selling firewood or organizing sewing cooperatives.
"There are two ways to Unbelievable Falls," Martinez announces, giving us early birds a testing look with dark, twinkling eyes. "Easy way, and hard way." The choice, he says, is ours.
His "hard way" ascends a ridge that rises like a machete blade between the Corinto and Coloradito rivers. There are more than six miles of maintained trails on the lodge property, and along our route, Martinez points out every bird and dozens of plants.
At a saddle between two ridges, he nods toward the dark woods. Fifty feet away I spot branches lashed high in a tree.
"Illegal hunters," Martinez says, his eyes flat now, and glintless. "I find many platforms."
Martinez once worked as a park ranger for Pico Bonito National Park. "Is one of the most dangerous jobs in Honduras," he says. "Your job is to protect the nature, the forest, the animals. But the job for the bad people is to destroy everything." Martinez knows of rangers who have been beaten and killed in retaliation for turning in illegal woodcutters and poachers. The fact that he now makes a living showing people the value of the park's trees and wildlife is a privilege that he hardly could have dreamed.
"I love my job," he says. "People all over the world come to hear me tell about the nature of Honduras. Is unbelievable, no? Like the falls! Almost there!"
Almost. For an hour and a half more we climb accompanied by the bubbly warble of the Montezuma oropendola and the high whistle of purple-crowned fairy hummingbirds. Then the trail plunges 400 feet through a tangle of rock and vines. Martinez nurses us down with motherly caution.
"Loose rock!" he calls. "Spiny branch! Very slippery!"
Suddenly we burst into the open, where Unbelievable Falls' sun-drenched exclamation point of water tumbles 80 feet through dense jungle. I shimmy out of shoes and dive in. True enough, the water here is unbelievably clear and gorgeous. And unbelievably cold.
Two days later and five miles west of the lodge, I'm on a different river trail when guide Jose Maria Calderon issues a challenge.
"You eat the termite before?" Calderon asks offhandedly. "Is good."
I hesitate for a moment. "You first."
He pokes a hole in a brain-shaped termite nest, which clings to a nearby sapling. Red termites swarm up his index finger. Calderon sticks it in his mouth. "Mmmmm," he murmurs. "Taste like chicken."
My bluff called, I lick a finger, swipe up a few dozen insects, and chew quickly to keep them from devouring my tongue.
We are a few hundred yards up the trail, which climbs through a recently refurbished access area along the Zacate River. Narrow enough to cross by hopping a few boulders, the river pours off the northern flanks of the park's highest mountains in the La Ruidosa waterfall, a cascade out of proportion to the river's small size. Calderon punctuates our conversation with the names of singing birds: Barred antshrike. Brown-hooded parrot. Slaty-tailed trogon. Ten years ago he toiled in the chemical-laced pineapple plantations that ring the park's coastal plain, a machete in hand and little hope for a future beyond the next muddy row of fruit. Then he landed a job in a supermarket, which paid him enough to take time off for English classes and the nature guide-training course sponsored by the USAID and Pico Bonito National Park. He's now a full-time guide for the Lodge at Pico Bonito.
In fact, much of the conservation work at Pico Bonito National Park emphasizes social programs as a bridge to environmental preservation. The park's core areas are protected from development, but outside that zone, more than 200 villages are found within the park borders. There locals still cut down the forest with axes and machetes, burn the trees, and plant corn and beans in the ashes. To mitigate human impacts and educate locals about the fragile ecology of the rainforest, FUPNAPIB, the park foundation, assists villages with projects as diverse as watershed protection, tree planting, medical aid, and school construction.