A journey down Honduras' Mosquito Coast
Travelling up that river was like being slowly digested. For three days we endured swarms of mosquitoes, blackflies, sandflies and ticks. The heat and humidity sapped our bodies and there were few moments, crouched in the dugout canoe, when I wasn’t dripping with sweat. And yet, for all the discomfort, there was something strangely compelling about our journey up the Río Plátano in the heart of La Mosquitia – the fabled Mosquito Coast.
A sense of mystery and the rare promise of untouched wilderness lured me to this remote region of north-east Honduras. Popularised in Paul Theroux’s novel, it is still a rarely visited place. Even so, the vast tracts of virgin rainforest, pine savanna and mangrove that crowd this enigmatic Caribbean shore are surprisingly accessible – one of the gateways to La Mosquitia, a fishing community called Palacios, is just a daily 40-minute flight from the city of La Ceiba. The superficial ease of your arrival in the Mosquito Coast, however, soon evaporates when you step from the small propeller plane onto a grass airstrip that doubles as a cattle field and football pitch. No roads lead to Palacios – only rivers lead out.
A small crowd of onlookers gathered around the plane as Jorge Salaverri, my guide, unloaded our gear. He was a familiar face to the villagers. Raised on the banks of the Rio Coco along the Nicaraguan border of La Mosquitia, Jorge’s passion for the region was obvious. When he wasn’t chatting to friends or finalising plans for our trip into the 5,251km2 Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, he teased children with his extraordinary bird calls. Jorge was a perfect mimic. It seemed that few of the 730-odd species found in Honduras were beyond his powers of imitation. In the days that followed, I frequently found myself reaching for binoculars, only to trace the tantalising cry of a kingfisher or toucan to the bearded, grinning man sitting in the canoe behind me.
Other birds were less cryptic as we set off from Palacios and travelled by motorised tuk-tuk canoe towards Ibans Lagoon. Herons and spoonbills stood motionless in the shallows, while jacanas tiptoed across rafts of purple-flowering hyacinth. Overhead, black vultures spiralled against thunderclouds that swelled ominously in the sultry heat of midday.
The tuk-tuk served as a local taxi, gradually disgorging a dozen other passengers at small thatched settlements along the riverbanks. It was laundry day. Women pounded washing on upturned dugouts, while naked children splashed around them like boisterous otters. Jorge pointed out a young boy with much fairer hair than his siblings. “That one has your English blood in him,” he shouted over the monotonous beat of the tuk-tuk’s engine.
When Columbus sailed along the Mosquito Coast in the early 16th century, it was inhabited by Sumu and Pech Indians who are thought to have migrated to Central America from the Colombian rainforests. The Spaniards made one or two attempts at colonising the region, but soon gave up and headed inland in search of gold. In turn, British pirates moved into La Mosquitia’s protected lagoons – perfect lairs from which to prey on Spanish galleons. By the mid-1600s, the English had settled the coast and formed a strong alliance with the coastal Sumu. Along with shipwrecked African slaves, this cultural mêlée eventually gave rise to a distinct new race – the Miskito – who now number some 30,000 in Honduras.
“Many of the people who live here still have English surnames,” Jorge told me. “Later, I’ll introduce you to Mr Wood, Mr Brewer, Mr William...”
“But why ‘Miskito’?” I wanted to know.
“The British gave them muskets to fight the Spanish,” Jorge explained. “So the Spaniards called them mosqueteros and maybe from this comes Miskito.”
In spite of the growing number of welts appearing on my ankles, I found some relief in the knowledge that the term ‘Mosquito Coast’ had little, if anything, to do with voracious biting insects. It was just one of many misconceptions left in our wake as the tuk-tuk butted the wind-scuffed waters of Ibans Lagoon. I had braced myself for this trip – La Mosquitia had always seemed inhospitable; a place to escape from, or in the case of Theroux’s novel, to drive you slowly insane. In my ignorance as an outsider, it had barely occurred to me that this ‘lost world’ offered sanctuary to thousands of people.
We landed at Raistá, a small Miskito village on the narrow coastal strip separating Ibans Lagoon from the Caribbean Sea. A couple of mahogany dugout canoes were beached nearby. Chickens scrabbled through a pile of brittle mangrove leaves, while yellow-naped parrots noisily raided the small orange fruits of a nance tree. Jorge squawked at them and they squawked back. “I like to eat anything the birds eat,” he said, plucking a handful of the cherry-sized fruits. “Look, here’s some guava – try it.”
Every tree left standing in the village clearing was in some way useful. Many, like mango, orange and cashew, were edible. Others provided raw materials for thatched roofs or canoe paddles; some even formed ‘living fences’ to protect rice and bean crops or to stabilise the lagoon shore against erosion. It seemed that everything was there to sustain a traditional, subsistence way of life – but as their ancestry proves, the Miskito have never been afraid to embrace external change. It was perhaps inevitable that, sooner or later, the dollar would enter their lives.
Now, young Miskito men join commercial fishing boats out of Roatán Island to spend two weeks at a time diving for lobsters. A diver might earn as much as US$500 a trip, but the costs could be high. Despite improved safety from a diver training programme, the lobsters are becoming scarcer and the men are being forced to dangerous depths to find them.
Some villages, like Raistá, have specialised in less hazardous ways of supporting the shift towards a wage economy. One Miskito man, Eddie Bodden, is hoping to restart his butterfly farm, selling pupae to the zoo in San Diego. His wife, Elma, offers simple accommodation for tourists, including staple meals of rice, fried plantain, beans and perhaps some grilled fish or chicken. Earlier that day we had passed the Garífuna village of Plaplaya where locals run a subsidised turtle conservation project, collecting and safeguarding the eggs of leatherback turtles until they hatch and can be released into the sea. Descended from West African slaves shipwrecked near St Vincent in 1635, the Garífuna people were exiled to Honduras by the British over a century later. Like the Miskito, their unique culture is being torn between the old self-sufficient ways and the lure of jobs in the modern world.
“La Mosquitia is changing,” Jorge told me as we followed a trail through sand dunes behind Raistá. “But it needn’t be for the worse.” He went on to describe his ideas for small-scale ecotourism – village-owned nature trails, forest handicrafts and other sustainable projects. Beyond the shelter of the dunes, a brisk sea breeze laced the air with brine, while a haze of fine sand stung our eyes. A lone woman and her child braced the otherwise deserted shore. The beach stretched for miles, east and west, desolate and forbidding. It seemed inconceivable that anyone or anything could have penetrated such a lonely frontier.
The following morning, Eliseo Tinglas, our boatman, arrived in a smaller eight-metre-long canoe with an outboard engine. We continued east across Ibans Lagoon before threading through a channel carved in swathes of manatee grass and water lilies. A swamp forest began to close in around us – twisted branches, festooned with tree ferns and orchids, grappling above our heads. Iridescent dragonflies quartered the tannin-rich water and, once, we glimpsed a large basilisk lizard draped over a vine. It looked like a dinosaur – and it looked right at home.
Just when I thought I couldn’t crouch any lower to avoid the pressing tangle of the swamp, we emerged into dazzling sunshine. Eliseo gunned the outboard and we swung in a broad arc across the current of a 30m-wide river. A cool spray leaped from the bows of the canoe as we headed upstream and Jorge began bird whistling. We had reached the Río Plátano and were about to probe the largest remaining tropical rainforest in Central America.
In its lower reaches, much of the land adjacent to the river was cultivated or cleared for grazing, but as the hours and kilometres passed, the rainforest gradually reigned supreme. One of the last Miskito farms we encountered belonged to Eliseo’s uncle where we stopped for lunch. Perched on stilts high above the riverbank, the thatched house conveyed a stark reminder of how the Plátano could swell and flood during the rains. Inside, there was a couple of string hammocks, a rusting rifle and a long harpoon made from the unusually straight wood of the sihnak tree. Eliseo’s uncle was an expert at hunting cuyamel – a type of large river fish.
By mid-afternoon, the thunderclouds looked gravid and moody and the air was so humid it felt like I was breathing through a damp sponge. The downpour caught us in midstream, an hour from our final destination. When we arrived at the settlement of Las Marías, we were soaked – but feeling refreshed. Six hours from Raistá, this mixed community of Miskito and Pech Indians was as far upstream as Eliseo would take us. To venture further we would have to hire dugout canoes, or pipantes, as well as the men to propel them.
The next morning, Jorge led me on a muddy path through the scattered village. A group of barefoot children played football next to a wooden 1930s Moravian church. An old oxygen cylinder, strung up by the entrance, served as a bell. Blackflies plagued the open village area and we hastily made our way back down to the river where Jorge had arranged to meet our pipante crews.
There were two dugouts – both about five metres long and three buttocks wide. Each would carry one passenger, plus two men poling at the bow and a third paddling and steering from the stern.
Having travelled so far under engine power I hadn’t, until that moment, appreciated just how swiftly the Río Plátano was flowing. The current tugged vigorously at the dugouts, but remarkably we began to move upstream. It was an extraordinary sensation – almost as if some supernatural force was at work. Metre by stubborn metre, the four Pech Indians poled the pipantes upriver, throwing their weight onto the long, wooden shafts until every muscle in their bodies was flexed and beaded with sweat. But it took more than brutal strength to make progress. Guided by a deep instinct, born from millennia of forest life, the Pech tapped the river’s weaknesses – harnessing every eddy and patch of ‘dead water’, criss-crossing the channel to follow the line of least resistance or to make use of overhanging vines to haul us through small rapids. Nevertheless, it was five hours before we reached the mysterious site of Walpulbansirpi.
The petroglyphs were carved on large boulders, stranded midstream and surrounded by shaggy manes of vines and creepers cascading from rainforest giants. First was a stylised impression of a monkey with a coiled tail; the next was a series of staring faces. And then, the most elaborate of all – a double-headed crocodile.
“No-one knows who made them or how old they are,” said Jorge, leaping from his pipante onto a nearby rock. “They must be a thousand years old, maybe more.” But why here, I was asking myself. Why in this jungle, in the middle of a river? Local legend tells of an ancient lost city called Ciudad Blanca waiting to be discovered deep in La Mosquitia. Were the petroglyphs part of the same vanished pre-Colombian dynasty? Various explorers claimed to have found the fabled city, only to die in strange circumstances.
As I studied the crude, but mesmerising images, it struck me how little we knew of this intriguing rainforest. In three days I had barely scratched the surface and yet, in that time, I wondered how much had been lost to loggers and cattle ranchers. Despite being declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992, the Río Plátano reserve and adjacent protected areas are under huge threat. The immensity and isolation that once protected La Mosquitia may not be enough to withstand the harsh realities of modern Honduras.
Abandoning the pipantes to the exuberant will of the Río Plátano, we drifted downstream back towards Las Marías. The pristine rainforest drew a green veil across the petroglyphs and the river chuckled beneath the dugouts as if sharing some great secret.
A kingfisher piped excitedly from a half-submerged branch and, in the distance, I thought I heard the raucous outburst of a flock of rare scarlet macaws. I glanced at Jorge. He smiled and nodded. His lips were sealed.
When to go: The coastal lowlands are humid and hot, with temperatures ranging from 28 to 35°C plus. Central highlands are cooler. Usually the rainy season lasts from May to October, although there is often a three-to-four-week dry spell in August. Hurricanes are most likely to strike the Caribbean coast of Honduras between September and November.
Country highlights: Copán is unique in the Mayan realm for its elaborate sculptures and hieroglyphs. Guides will show you around the spectacular ruins, revealing the temples, plazas and altars of a 400-year dynasty of 16 kings. The Spanish colonial past can be traced on the Lenca Trail which links several highland villages still dominated by whitewashed churches. On the Caribbean coast, Tela Bay boasts two wetland reserves which can be explored by sea kayak. Pico Bonito National Park, near La Ceiba, has excellent birdwatching, hiking and white-water rafting, while the Bay Islands are renowned for their coral reefs. Finally, La Mosquitia, Central America’s ‘Little Amazon’, provides a fascinating opportunity to venture into remote rainforest and meet the indigenous people who live there.
Food & drink: The national dish, plato típico, consists of beef, rice, beans, fried plantain, sour cream and a stack of tortillas on the side. Fried chicken is also common, while grilled fish is available along the Caribbean coast. At Garífuna villages, you may be served variations, such as coconut rice and brittle pancakes made from pulped cassava roots.
Health and safety: As well as the usual vaccinations, a course of malaria prevention should be discussed with your doctor. Take plenty of insect repellent, plus a mosquito net. Sand flies often seem immune to DEET – instead locals use baby oil or Avon’s ‘Skin-So-Soft’ to deter them. Street crime and beach muggings can be a problem, but as long as you take normal precautions, Honduras is a perfectly safe country to visit.