Story by Norma Davidoff
Lodge photos courtesy Pico Bonito Eco Lodge
Cotinga Amabilis, J. C. Lizard and Tree-Frog images courtesy of Hector P. Wolfe
Brief Trip, Big Rewards
I am aboard a small boat at the Cuero y Salado Wildlife Refuge -- 35,000 acres near the Caribbean coast of Honduras. From our boat we can view the jagged top of famed Pico Bonito Mountain peeking through the clouds. This quiet treasure of mangroves and waterways was set aside in 1987 to protect manatees. It would take 20 hours to see it all. Elmer, our guide, explained, “To see animals you must be in the right place at the right time.” He hoped we would see manatees and crocodiles. Armadillos and anteaters could be hidden along the river bank. All of us must be on alert to find them; it is up to us to be good sleuths.
Our two hours there brought surprises. What seemed like little growths on a tree turn out to be tiny long-nosed bats that take flight when our guide pinpoints them with a laser. A bird, the Northern Jacana, has a rust-colored body, yellow beak and wide-spread feet stalking atop water plants. Turkey vultures take flight, their gigantic wing spans like wavy punctuation marks in the sky.
Here’s a Jesus Christ lizard. (It can walk on water!) Our guide is making huh-huh panting sounds, like a monkey. Soon we spot a pair of howler monkeys and their four offspring on a tree. We all stare at one another for a long time.
My, that’s a big log. No. It’s a 10-foot crocodile! It submerges, heading toward us. We make our getaway, into a canopy of trees almost touching our heads. Birds tweet. Cormorants flee. Breezes cool us. It’s serene in this small private world covered by fig trees, mangroves, and coil palm. This was sublime, and the rail trip to get here was an entree into Honduran life.
For this outing, we took a pair of small yellow metal open-air coaches, 6 feet across. Its top speed was perhaps 25 miles per hour. More like a trolley than a train, it clicked and clattered along on two slim metal tracks past palm trees, cabins, tethered horses, and the occasional chicken. We wheezed to a halt to pick up a mother and child; another time two teens hopped abroad, parking their bikes on the “running board” of this narrow-gauge train. I was hurled back in time to 1910 when this rig transported bananas.
Honduras, sandwiched between Nicaragua, El Salvador and Belize in Mesoamerica, has 8,500 square miles of protected land. It is known for great coral reef diving and zip-lining in Roatán and for outstanding Mayan ruins at Copán, both reachable by side-trips from Pico Bonito Lodge, where I was staying. Life is good at Pico Bonito, an eco-lodge in a tropical rainforest, three miles from La Ceiba city on the north coast.
Pico Bonito towers at 8,000 feet. So pristine and bio-diverse is this area that UNESCO has declared Pico Bonito National Park a World Heritage site. Its 250,000 acres -- much of it unexplored -- are a wild-life sanctuary and a birders’ paradise… 500 species of birds are concentrated here. Honduras has as many as 725 species. The U.S. has about 900 species but dispersed in a country far larger.
At the base of the imposing mountain, within the Park, sits Pico Bonito Lodge. This rainforest luxury hide-away has amenities -- Wi-Fi, warm showers in Mexican-tiled bathrooms, a swimming pool, and telephones. Trails beckon on the Lodge’s 400 acres, all available to guests. You need never leave the grounds to enjoy nature.
But adventure opportunities abound. You can go white water rafting on the Rio Cangrejal through the park, or hike to waterfalls. But let’s hear it for the birds! Indigenous ones, like the Motmot and the sought-after “Lovely Cotinga” are rarities in most of Latin America, but readily seen here. Other birds migrate from North America.
The main building and its 22 well-spaced chalets are plantation-style; dark burnished wood and a hammock on every deck. The beautiful tropical plantings, cacao and coffee trees, and six miles of nature trails enticed Sports Illustrated to shoot a swimsuit issue here and have drawn celebrities like Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta Jones, and America Ferrara to stay here.
Excursions are easily available, including to the wildlife refuge. The Lodge takes botany and biology seriously. Plants are designed to attract birds. Cameras are set up to record the jaguars that come through. A whiff of Calvin Klein’s “Obsession” in the camera trap keeps the big cats around long enough to get an image.
On a brief night hike, we reached a pond and waterfall that the Lodge built to attract wildlife. It is pitch black. We hear only the waterfall and crickets, until a loud repeating hiccup resounds. It turns out to be a small tree frog. These green frogs with red bulging eyes are emblematic of Honduras and Central America. And I’ve just been up close and personal with one belching away loudly as though it had a megaphone.
Next day we rise early for birding. Bird watching is a favorite pastime for millions, a multi- billion dollar industry. Our guide’s bird calls bring out feathered neighbors. the resident biologist, points out a white-crowned parrot almost immediately. Its wings open to a riot of color. On the lodge’s terrace, I spy a keel-billed toucan, often called the rainbow toucan because of its bright red, yellow, and green bill. “This is the toucan capital of the world,” says the biologist.
Seen through the scope, a gray pygmy owl, its yellow eyes staring back, looks wise but vulnerable. After moving through palm ferns and morning glory vines, we climb one of the lodge’s three observation towers to view the Name of God mountain range, Pico Bonito’s sawed off peak within it. Soon we spot local birds that we would never see stateside: a blue-crowned Motmot, the bright blue chest and purple throat of the sought-after Lovely Cotinga, a Montezuma Oropendola with its bright tail, and a turquoise-browed Motmot. I was experiencing psychedelic colors, softness, and utter amazement.
Our guide explained, “Birders come with a target bird, but then they want to see everything.” The lodge lists sightings on a blackboard. So far they’ve identified over 425 bird species. Animals are listed too –ocelots, jaguars, agoutis, monkeys, and more.
Family-friendly here, children under 11 stay free for room and breakfast. Staff members baby-sit for a fee. Many cabins have two connectible rooms. The child in me was entranced with the Butterfly Farm set amidst flowers. An Iguana Farm and nearby Snake House provide environmental education along with thrills and chills… all included.
Food here is excellent. Some has a Latin flavor – baleadas (tortillas with scrambled eggs and refried beans) or coffee-chili marinated ribeye. Many dishes use fruit from the Lodge’s own trees. Mango sauce covers an airy chocolate mousse; avocado foam and guacamole are perfection; and soursop ice cream is a delight with a pina colada.
Meals are taken, as hummingbirds hover within reach. While I savor coconut shrimp, a furry agouti noses around the giant crimson torch flowers. Vanilla bean orchids cling to branches. All of this is in one of the largest remaining true wildernesses. Two and–a-half days at the Lodge seem a world away. A full size spa is right alongside the lovely swimming pool. Bonito, yes?
IF YOU GO:
Delta Air Lines flies to San Pedro Sula in 4.5 hours, through a connection in Atlanta. From San Pedro, you either take a 30-minute commuter plane to La Ceiba and then a short drive to the Lodge, or take the Lodge’s van for the 2.5 hour drive.
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