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The Affordable Caribbean: Total relaxation for under $15 a day

Travel in Honduras, Naturally

Budget $30 a Day for This Rugged, Undeveloped Country

A stream in Honduras
At several points along the trail near El Pino in Pico Bonito National Park hikers can stop for a rest and a dip of the toes in the clean, cooling waters found in between the cascades.

Honduras is one of the unsung destinations of the Americas, somewhat lost in the shadows of Costa Rica and Guatemala. Still, the government has had the foresight in recent years to set aside many national parks and preserves for the time when tourists will start straying from the top two destinations, the Maya ruins at Copan and the diving paradise of Roatan, to explore other parts of this rugged, undeveloped country.

“Budget travel” are redundant words for Honduras. As one of the hemisphere’s poorest countries, you will not have to lose a lot of time on budget management. About $30 a day is fine, although half that is also possible. When you stay in budget accommodations you also help keep your money local, as most of the higher end tourist hotels are owned, at least in part, by foreigners. La Tigra National Park is one of the country’s best developed parks and the site of a former American mining operation that extracted $60 million worth of silver and gold from 1882 to 1954. An abandoned U.S. consulate building decays nearby.

There are two park entry points. You can get a cab from the capital, Tegucigalpa (known locally as Tegus), to the Jutiapa Visitors Center on the El Hatillo road (21 km, fare negotiable but around $10-$15), which has picnic and camping areas, a snack kiosk, and interpretive center. If taking public transport, catch a bus to the handicraft town of Valle de Angeles from in front of the Hospital San Felipe (costs about $1 and takes 30 minutes), and try to catch another bus or hitch a few more kilometers to the valley town of San Juancito. From there, you might get lucky and catch a passing jeep, or hike the 2 km up to the Rosario Visitors Center, situated in what’s left of the former mine’s hospital.

Entry to the park for non-Hondurans is $10. You can stay at the dorms as long as a group has not taken over (common on weekends); there is a posted charge of $15. From here you can take several trails, one of which goes past the ruined mine works. The longest, the Los Plancitos trail, is about eight hours or less roundtrip, and rambles through wonderful cloud forest and peaceful vistas.

Inquire about Carlos, a helpful and friendly English-speaking park ranger, and ask him if you can visit the nearby “White House Disco Bar,” a local hangout. Also check in with the cafeteria and let them know that you hope to have a few meals there; you can usually be accommodated. (The cafeteria is located in what was the hospital’s morgue, but meals, [$2], are okay.)

It should be noted here that a basic knowledge of Spanish is vital for travel through most of Honduras. You will not find many English speakers outside of the Bay Islands and Copan, but everyone will work with you.

Local Children in Honduras
The Garifuna fishing community on the tiny islet of Chachaguate is a microcosm of the diversity and friendliness of the north coast of Honduras; The rattling trips in the old school buses provide an ideal forum for meeting the locals.

From Tegus you can head south to the Golfo de Fonseca on the Pacific coast, an area of much national reserve land. Base your explorations out of the regional center of Choluteca or head to the Isla de Tigre; there is no useful tourist information available, so look around for local guides and suggestions.

From Tegus you can also catch a longdistance bus north to the industrial center of San Pedro Sula (4.5 hours, $5.75) and catch buses in several directions from there. Most buses used in Honduras are ancient American Blue Bird school buses. It is worthwhile in Tegus and San Pedro Sula to get a taxi to take you to the long-distance bus departure point you need ($1.50 to $3); stations are scattered and not always easy to find, especially in Tegus, and a taxi (for once) can save a lot of trouble. Negotiate a rate before setting out.

West from San Pedro Sula are two main attractions, the Copan ruins and Celaque National Park near the quiet town of Gracias. Information on the former is easy to come by, so let’s look at the latter. Buses from San Pedro Sula go to La Entrada, Santa Rosa de Copan, or, possibly, all the way to Gracias; take what’s available but inquire whether the bus is an express or not.

Stay at the Hotel Erik in Gracias for $3.50 (private bath, cold water) or the Hotel Guancascos ($11, hot water). Look for English-speaking local guide Walter Muria (waltermuria@hotmail.com, phone 656-1113), who hangs out there. He has trail maps and can be hired for various tours in the area, including indigenous Lenca indian village visits.

It’s a 2.5-hour hike just through town (pick up the trail behind the pink and white Santa Lucia church) to the guest registration house ($2.50 entry), then on to the visitors center, where you will need to have breakfast at Comedor Dona Alejandrina. It is sort of an unwritten tradition for hikers; she’s been cranking out simple meals for nearly 20 years and will fill your water bottle and toss in a couple of extra tortillas and wonderful empanadas, all for $1.50. You will also have to stop in there and see her son, the park ranger, if you want the key to stay in the park dormitory ($2.50).

From the visitors center you can take the main trail up into the cloud forest to a couple of overnight camping areas (5-8 hours), or take the Rooster Trail loop to the left through the enchanting lower cloud forest, most of it virgin land (under 8 hours). The park gets relatively few visitors so you will certainly be at one with nature, although I found less bird life than at La Tigra. A guide is not required as the trails are well marked, but a local may also be able to better find wildlife.

You can hitch (easy in Honduras) or take a few buses to get back to San Pedro Sula. The bus terminals are scattered but in the same general area; stay at the Hotel Roma for $5 to $7 (#28 Calle 8). From there, several buses depart daily for the many parklands along the northern coast, based around Tela and La Ceiba.

Stay at the wonderfully horrible Hotel Sara in Tela, a tumbling wooden contraption near the bus station overlooking tin shacks and the beach, which serves as the backpackers’ dive, for $3 nightly. There are several other hotels on the western edge of town with prices from $13 upwards. Check with the Tourist Police office near the beach about going to the national parks of Jeannette Kawas and Punta Izopo, or the Lancetilla Botanical Gardens outside of town. There are also Disneyesque jungle boats that cruise around the park lagoons, leaving each morning from the bridge at the west end of town.

Near La Ceiba, the sprawling Pico Bonita Cloud Forest has been getting a lot of attention. One entry point is a few miles west of La Ceiba near the town of El Pino. Head west 2 km out of town, go past the Quebrada Seca bridge and turn left after 100 meters, going another 2 km through a pineapple plantation. Follow the road right as you near the woods, and pay the $6 fee. From there you will have a splendid 3-hour hike up along a cascading river, with several clear, waterfall-fed pools along the way in which to cool off.

An expensive option in El Pino is The Lodge at Pico Bonito (www.picobonito.com), a private ecolodge (the country’s first), where a guided day hike is $30 to $40. You can also stay in this premier resort starting at $220 nightly (double). For a more economical experience, stay in a palm cabana at the Natural View plant nursery ($10).

Entries to Pico Bonito are also found on the park’s western border along the Cangrejal River near the communities of El Naranjo and Las Mangas. Try stopping by the offices of FUPNAPIB (Fundacion Parque Nacional Pico Bonito) near the Suyapita Church in La Ceiba, or call 504- 442-0618 for information.

For a real adventure, head to the eastern regions of the Mosquitia, or Moskito Coast. The term “wild west” easily applies here. The roadless region includes the U.N.-designated Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve, the indigenous Tawahka Asangni Biosphere Reserve, and the Caratasca Wildlife Refuge, among others.

A visit is best made through some type of tour, unless you have unlimited time and resources. You can, for example, take a cargo boat along the coast, or fly into one of three or four towns from La Ceiba. A bus along the coast, or cargo trucks, can also get you to the perimeters. See the recommended www.larutamoskitia.com and also www.honduras.com/moskitia or www.turtletours.de for sample tour information. For a good summary of options go to www.hondurastips.honduras.com/english/lamoskitia.htm.

Low season airfares to Honduras from Miami start in the $400 range, and U.S. connections will add another $100-$250. Fewer tourists arrive during the rainy season (called “winter” locally) between May and October.

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