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Ecotourism in Honduras

Lancetilla Is an Unexplored Frontier

You could stay at an eco-lodge for $275 a night or immerse yourself in the heart of the action for only $15 a sleep. Best known for its white beaches and Mayan ruins, Honduras also boasts enough unexplored wilderness to make it a growing ecotourism destination. One of its largest unexplored frontiers, with more than 100,000 hectares of virgin rainforest and cloudforest, is Pico Bonito National Park. Lancetilla Botanical Gardens and Biological Reserve, located nearby, is a good destination for nature lovers who don’t need luxury with their wilderness. Plus, the proceeds of each visit go directly to preserving the biosphere.

I headed there via taxi—a short 6-km ride from Tela, the nearest Caribbean beach town. At the gardens, I met my guide, Yadira Murilla, who showed me the public gardens, research station, birding trails, and plantation. There were no other visitors in sight—just 40 degree heat, towering trees, and billowing dust from the gravel road.

After a quick look at the museum’s collection of Coleoptera (giant cockroaches) and rusty jars filled with soggy snakes in embalming fluid, we headed to the Wilson Popenoe Arboretum. Originally an experimental farm established to test the adaptability of imported trees, the site is now a living tree museum. Stretching some 78 hectares, it boasts the world’s largest collection of Asiatic fruit trees, orchids, and tropical trees—plants so rare that they are of international significance as a germplasm bank for new cultivations.

Soon we were face to face with the Javiello tree—its poisonous sap is used to kill fish. Next came the Strychnine tree.

“Don’t touch,” Yadira said. I wasn’t tempted to try. As it turned out, we were in the venoso section. Every tree could kill in precisely measured increments of time. “Muy, muy venoso” said Yadira, pointing at a Termenalia tree. “Your throat will swell up and choke off your breath,” she said, gesturing to her throat. “Then, your face will swell until it explodes.”

Thankfully, the next copse of trees offered the antidotes. There was the mulberry tree for respiratory relief and even the marzipan tree. A white jasmine shrub released its sweet fragrance as we brushed past. Giant arches of bamboo towered above us like a gothic cathedral. A swimming hole offered a refreshing swim in the calm waters of the Lancetilla River.

An hour later, as we neared the museum, Yadira suggested exploring some of the 1,000 varieties of exotic ornamental plants and orchids. Originally founded by the United Fruit Company in 1926, research teams still use the park for exploratory scientific missions into new methods of conservation.

For eco-travelers, it is a good base for exploring nearby parks. Dormitory rooms are available for $5 per night and private cabins that sleep three are $15. From kayaking the canals of Punta Izopo Wildlife Refuge to hiking Punta Sal (accessible only by water) or whitewater rafting in Pico Bonito, there is a wide range of outdoor adventure options.

As we headed into the cafeteria conveniently located beside the museum’s cockroach display, I noticed an interesting feature. Above the dining patrons hovered a demon lifted from a medieval manuscript. It was Artibeus inopinatus, the Honduran fruit-eating bat. Perfectly preserved, its fangs locked in a state of insatiable hunger, it seemed to have its eyes riveted on one person’s dinner plate.

As I pondered the sight, I considered that with all the money saved on accommodations, a visitor could afford to stay a month or longer. Assuming they could handle the wildlife.

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