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.
In addition, FUPNAPIB recently installed trail bridges and interpretive signage along the Zacate River and completed a new visitor's center on the park's eastern edge, where the Cangrejal River makes a mad, 20-mile dash from cloudforest to the Caribbean Sea.
On the Cangrejal I spend an adrenaline-laced day in Pico Bonito with Jose "Pepe" Herrero, USAID's regional director for the watershed natural resources project, and a handful of local river guides and whitewater kayakers. The river pours through powerful Class V rapids, supporting a handful of ecotourism lodges that cling to jungled cliffs. First I plunge over five-foot ledges as the river twists through gravel bars and boulders. Now my rafting crew faces Lava Rapid, a boiling train of six-foot waves where rock walls compress the river into a chute only nine feet wide.
Herrero taps me on the knee. "If you are thrown from the raft," he warns, "be careful of revolcadero. The Maytag." It's the paddler's term for tumbling in a rapid like a towel in a clothes dryer. I tighten my grip on the paddle.
In 2001, these rapids came close to drying up when plans were announced to dam the Cangrejal for a hydroelectric project. Community activists, including Herrero, fought the dam bitterly. Although conservationists caution that dam plans are never fully shelved, for now the river flows freely, and the campaign to halt the dam has helped many Hondurans appreciate the river's natural splendor. "I bring congressmen and agency ministers to the Rio Cangrejal, and they tell me, 'This looks like another country,' " as if they had no idea their homeland is so beautiful, Herrero says while we catch our breath in an eddy below Lava Rapid. "The most enlightened people in Honduras are only now learning what we have here."
With that threat averted, FUPNAPIB opened a soaring footbridge over the river, and USAID organized interpretive training programs. It still takes a bit of creativity and planning, but a savvy visitor can now schedule a multi-day hike into Pico Bonito or take a mountain bike or mule tour of local villages.
"Not so long ago," muses Guillermo Anderson, FUPNAPIB's former president, "it was crazy to tell Hondurans who were growing beans from a hole in the ground that people will come here to see a hummingbird, and that their kids will make money taking people down the river in rafts. But it is no longer just a dream."
Late one night at the Lodge at Pico Bonito, David Anderson and I sprawl under ceiling fans hung from the dining hall porch. After exploring the threats to Pico Bonito National Park from dams, poaching, and illegal logging, it is a guilty pleasure to retreat back to this luxury. Suddenly we hear a frantic call from the darkened ground: "Dah-veed! Dah-veed!"
Jose Maria Calderon takes the porch steps in one leap. In a hushed tone he says, "Dah-veed. Black-and-white owl."
Anderson leaps up without a word and tears off into the darkness. I follow, and after a hundred-yard dash we skid to a stop under a pair of tall Cecropia peltata trees, which locals call guaruma. Two spotlights illuminate the striking, aptly named black-and-white owl with an orange beak the color of Halloween candy.
For five long minutes we don't speak a word. Then Anderson leans over and whispers to me, "A lifer. I have seen more than 500 Honduran birds. But never this."
A few more moments of silence pass.
"Tantos anos," Anderson murmurs. So many years.
Behind him, Calderon, the pineapple laborer turned nature guide, whispers a reply. I'm not sure whether he's speaking of the bird and its magical appearance, or the lodge, or the park, or perhaps of his native country, which seems to be embracing its natural wonders right before his eyes.
"Sus sueno hecho realidad," he says.
Here, dreams really do come true.