Tropical Paradise in a Vine-Tangled Web
|Easy Being Green: Pico Bonito National Park, as seen from the Lodge at Pico Bonito (Nathan Borchelt)|
From my vantage point in the low-flying 30-seater Russian twin-prop airplane—the standard vehicle for domestic transport while in Honduras—the north-central stretch of the country appears as one massive, jungle-ensnarled jade-green carpet with wide, chocolate-colored rivers carving through the landscape and more twists than a child's crayon scribble. In the distance, the dense foliage stops only when it reaches the coast, halted by a thin stretch of white sand, the rivers dispersing into the aquamarine Caribbean in a cocoa-shaded watercolor swirl.
As we bank and descend toward the airport, the ocean slips from sight and the country's inland topography jumps into dizzying, three-dimensional relief. Two-thirds of Honduras is mountainous, and when I step onto the runway at La Ceiba, the third-largest city in Honduras and the gateway to the tropical Bay Island and Pico Bonito National Park, the proximity of the towering jungle makes it feel as if the rainforest is about to slither onto the tarmac. Directly to the east looms 7,989-foot tall Pico Bonito, the tallest peak in the eponymous national park, its upper half obscured by late-afternoon rain clouds. But while the mountains themselves stand in dramatic relief against the storm-streaked sky, the deep-emerald jungle itself looks just as impenetrable and featureless as it did from 10,000 feet.
In large part, that's because it is. Pico Bonito National Park measures in at a massive 265,144 acres, second only to the two-million-acre Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve on the Mosquito Coast. But even though the park practically touches La Ceiba's airport runway, the park remains one of the least-explored regions in the country, an insanely dense, trackless swath of jungle with more than 20 churning rivers, cascading waterfalls, broad-leaf plants, and cloud forest-swaddled mountains.
Given its overwhelming density, you'd likely anticipate an exploration of Pico Bonito to swallow days of my itinerary like a traveler's black hole, which makes the Lodge at Pico Bonito all the more remarkable. After driving 20 minutes west from the airport, then cutting down a 1.2-mile dirt road lined with coffee and cocoa plantations, I reached an eco-resort that embraces the park's foreboding character with easy access into its depths, while also offering luxe accommodations, gourmet meals, and full-body massages or the lazy swing of a hammock to wind down after a day of jungle exploration. They even arm you with a tropical cocktail made of fresh fruit served in a coconut shell the moment you walk into the lobby.
The lodge itself is composed of 22 free-standing cabins arranged in a U across a 200-acre property that butts up against the eastern border of the park. You won't find cable TV or in-room Internet access, but each cabin in this eco-lodge has its own private balcony outfitted with the afore-mentioned hammock, comfortable beds, and warm showers, and the lodge sports an expansive pool and bar, in-room massage treatment, a gift shop and educational center, and a full-service restaurant with some of the best smoked grouper in the country. A short walk back down the gravel road brings you to the Tropical Butterfly Farm and Gardens, with a screened-in "garden house" fluttering with more than 40 species of butterflies. And the lodge can also arrange for a variety of outings, from mountain biking on dirt roads through nearby farms to scuba and snorkeling on the Bay Islands to horseback riding, whitewater rafting, sea kayaking, and in-depth tours to neighboring indigenous populations.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication