|Where's Yuki? Honduras|
| The place to be right now: Honduras
Honduras' pristine coral reefs, verdant rain forest and laidback pace will keep you blissed out from sunup to nightfall.
By Yuki Hayashi
If (like me) you missed out on Prague in the early '90s, Thailand in the mid '90s, or Machu Picchu in the early aughts, be the first in your crowd to set your sights on Honduras in 2008. Here's why: it's gorgeous, unspoiled and just about ready to explode. This Central American country has both a mainland with extensive coastline on the Caribbean Sea, as well as numerous islands in the Caribbean. The Bay Island chain includes both Roatan and Utila, both of which are on the radar of travel cognoscenti and dive lovers internationally. The sexy young Brits are already there, as are the moneyed celebs, but it's not your typical Caribbean tourist trap. (And, if its conservation-minded tourism authority has its way, it never will be, thankfully.) Think: pristine coral reefs, verdant rain forest, a relaxed, laidback pace and enough sand and sea (or outdoorsy pursuits) to keep you blissed out from sunup to nightfall. Think of it as the Meta eco-tourism Mecca.
Best part? You don't need to be a trust fund babe to enjoy the splendor of its numerous small islands, or the Edenic wild of its rainforest. When I went in the late-summer low-season (hurricane season, actually, during Dean, which missed us, though we did feel its outer storm bands, and just before early-September's Felix, which caused minimal damage in Honduras, but plenty of misery in neighboring Nicaragua), flights cost $1,000 return from Toronto via Continental Airlines and hotels ranged from $15 per night on the happening island of Utila to $180 US per night at the ultra-luxe Lodge At Pico Bonito in La Ceiba, on the mainland's coast.
While I have to admit, Honduras was never on my list of must-visit places, it changed my life in profound ways. For one, I now plan to get my scuba certification. For another, I now plan to abandon my family, quit my job, and move to Utila. Wait, did I say that out loud? Maybe we should backtrack a bit.
DAY 1: TORONTO TO HOUSTON TO ROATAN, HONDURAS
My day starts with a 4am drive to Toronto's Pearson International Airport. In the off-season, Continental Airlines flights from Toronto to the Honduran island of Roatan, travel via Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport, although direct flights are available in the high season via WestJet. (Delta flies to Roatan via Atlanta, and TACA via Miami.) I'll spare you the details of my airport travails, but suffice it to say, no one ever said getting away from it all would be easy.
I'd say the highlight of the departure is my stop at the currency exchange. It's like student travel all over again: I have only $80 to change (my bank account is drained, only nowadays, that's courtesy of my mortgage, not textbooks). But my $80 Canadian gets me 1,600 lempira (roughly 20 lempira to the dollar, US or Canadian). Suddenly, I feel rich. And indeed, as I am to find later, your dollar does go far in Honduras. TIP: Everyone accepts American currency in Honduras, so don't feel like you need to buy lempira. In fact, you may notice prices in my travelogue alternating between lempira and US dollars, given the ubiquity of both. But start with a cash stash of some sort, because bank machines can be temperamental and bank lineups long.
Roatan Island Airport is teeny-tiny, but clean and efficient. There's nary a lineup to get through customs and a snack bar beckons with its homemade 20-lempira burritos. Crammed into a tiny passenger van with my friends, we drive through the city of Coxen Hole, which shocks me out of my First World stupor. Kids walk through dirty puddles en route to school, dogs run through traffic with boils on their bodies, chickens peck at the dirt in front of tiny dirty houses where people loll in doorways. (Honduras is one of the poorest of the Central American nations. Its gross domestic product per capita is just $3,000 US; compare that to Mexico's $10,600, Costa Rica's $12,000, or, for that matter, America's roughly $44,000.) Music blares and the van bumps through potholes. Soon we leave the city core and hit the hills to get to our West End beachfront resort. The drive is not unlike an amusement park ride: all bumps and jolts and the thrill of possible spills. As we climb higher, houses fall away and all we see is the lush green of trees, grass, hills, and way, way below, the impossible blue of the Caribbean Sea.
The Mayan Princess Resort (one-bedroom suites from $165 per night, mayanprincess.com, 011-504-445-5050) is located on the West Bay Beach, Roatan. The waterfront resort features white, talcum-powder fine sand and all the amenities any non-intrepid traveler could want: air conditioning, room service, WiFi, TV, buffet breakfasts. It also boasts private beach access to gorgeous coral reefs just a stone's throw from shore, as well as the onsite Mayan Divers shop, where you can rent snorkeling or scuba gear. There's also the requisite lagoon-style, beautifully azure-blue pool with swim-up bar, all enclosed by lush tropical flora and darting butterflies and hummingbirds.
While the standard suites aren't exactly luxurious (think basic-issue yellow-and-blue "tropical" bedroom decor, towels that have seen better days), they're comfortable, clean and the perfect place to catch your bearings before you venture out into the Honduras that I have come to love, the wilder, more adventure-oriented La Ceiba, Cayos Cochinos and Utila.
That night, another white-knuckle drive takes us to Roatan's West End strip, which is where the restaurants and bars are, as well as tiny budget hotels for the backpacking set. We share the packed-sand road with roving crabs and idling locals and walk the long wooden dock that takes us out over the water to Eagle Rays Bar & Grill (Note: You'll find many establishments in Honduras don't bother with street addresses. I list websites and phone numbers where available, but generally, if you ask at your hotel, someone will know how to get wherever it is you need to go. eagle-rays.net, 011-504-445-4283). Fresh-caught, grilled whole snapper with jalapenos, plus a couple bottles of local Port Royal beer await, all for under $15 per person and all enjoyed under the open sky, beneath an unbelievably bright moon and stars. Unfortunately, neighboring restaurant The Lighthouse, burned to the ground soon after my trip, when electrical problems set the rustic wooden building ablaze. If they rebuild, be sure to visit for its to-die-for cioppino fish stew and friendly vibe.
DAY 2: MORE CARIBBEAN SPLENDOR IN ROATAN
I'm easy to feed, so the buffet breakfast is just my speed: sausage, eggs, fresh fruit and yogurt, and, my new favorite carb, corn tamales. The Mayan Princess' buffet is served in an open-air dining area with white-shirted waiters bringing coffee and spiriting away dirty plates. You're just a few steps away from the Caribbean and its
- crystal clear ...
- tranquil ...
- warm and welcoming-as-a-lover's-embrace ...
- all of the above ...
A planned morning trip to nearby Coral Cay Marina and Nature Park (coralcayroatan.com, 504-991-123-75) is curtailed by some behind-the-scenes-trip-organizing conflict, so we rent some gear from the Mayan Princess' lobby dive shop, Mayan Divers and hit the reefs just beyond our own private beach instead. Truthfully, while Coral Cay Marina and Nature Park is much touted for its private mangrove-dotted island, snorkeling and sea kayaking, I'm content to stay where we are. The marina's music, volleyball courts and beachfront massage treatments may make it a good place to hit if you like your sun and sand with a side plate of distraction, but I'm more than happy to just explore the reef in peace and quiet.
It doesn't disappoint. While, oddly enough, the beaches are far from deserted, most visitors seem content to sun or read under an umbrella, oblivious to the incredible coral reef not 25 yards away. Swim out from shore and first you'll see snook and flounder swimming in the sandy shallows, along with schools of tiny white minnows. As you get further out, sand is traded for sea grass, and then, a border of dead coral, damaged by wave action, errant snorkelers (Remember: don't touch the coral and WATCH THOSE SWIM FINS!), or who knows what. Soon, though, spectacular branches of sea fans, massive brain corals and reefs filled with Technicolor fish appear on the scene, wrasses, angelfish, triggerfish and more. The water depth varies from quite shallow (again: WATCH YOUR SWIM FINS!), to drop-offs into 20-foot-deep water where fish of every color appear.
It's tempting to reach out and touch, but remember: if you touch it, you kill it. The coral reef is as sensitive as it is lovely, and it's nasty, too: scrapes from coral are notoriously painful and slow to heal.
Being on the leeward side of Roatan, the waters here are very calm and safe. The water is intoxicating and I have to force myself to return to the shore. My friends have long since arrived at our meeting spot and I'm running late to get to our next stop, The View (located on the road between French Harbor and Oakridge, near the entrance to the Parrot Tree Plantation; no phone number. It's for sale, BTW, in case you're looking for the perfect reason to leave the rat race and open your own island restaurant). This restaurant boasts a view of verdant hills, as well as the Caribbean exposure on the opposite side of the island from where we'd been swimming earlier. Fish tacos, steak burritos and orange Fanta, plus plenty of homemade hot sauce all sate hungry appetites.
More free time at the resort, which is wonderful. Travel journalists are a grumpy lot, often due to the attention-deficit-disorder inducing schedule some trip planners put us on, so this break time is appreciated. I run to my room to get my snorkel gear and hit the reefs again, working in some fin time before we head out to the ill-fated Lighthouse Restaurant on West End mentioned earlier. While I waited over an hour and a quarter for my meal, the friendly cats and cozy atmosphere of this rickety wooden structure over the water more than made it worthwhile. Here's hoping they rebuild.
After dinner, we walk along the sandy road, looking for souvenirs. They're overpriced and frankly, identical to anything you could find at 10,000 Villages or Pier One. Lucky for me, I find an empty conch shell washed up on the beach. It becomes the first of many I admire over the course of my trip.
DAY 3: LIVIN' LA VIDA ECO-TURISTA IN LA CEIBA
Back at the Roatan Airport, I'm pleased to discover the 20-lempira burritos are available even in the wee hours of the morning. A short flight will take us to La Ceiba, a coastal city on mainland Honduras, the third largest city in the nation. La Ceiba is the administrative hub of Honduras and one of the main port cities for fruit export. La Ceiba's agriculture includes pineapple, bananas and grapefruit. Indeed, the drive from La Ceiba International Airport to the luxurious Lodge at Pico Bonito (cabins from $180 per night, picobonito.com, 888-428-0221) takes us past rows of pineapple as far as the eye can see, as well as cattle, which often roam into the highway.
The Lodge at Pico Bonito is roughing it gone luxe. The nature resort is about a 30-minute drive from the airport and tucked into the Pico Bonito National Park's lush rainforest, which itself is mere preamble to the Nombre de Dios Mountain Range, including the 8,000-foot-high Pico Bonito mountain. The eco-resort's 200-acre property boasts private trails leading to rushing rivers cut through banks of giant boulders, an onsite butterfly farm and serpentarium (where the much-maligned snake gets its moment of glory), and groves of banana, cacao and citrus. Numerous activities from bird-watching walks to horseback riding through the forest take advantage of the to-die-for location.
The lodgings consist of beautifully austere wooden cabins, tastefully decorated with plantation shutters, humming ceiling fans, wide-plank teak floors and crisp white matelassé bedding. No TV. Each cabin has its own veranda with hammock, most of which face the forest. Getting to your cabin is a bit of a trek, along pea-gravel paths surrounded by thick forest. Flashlights are provided in each cabin, and are a necessity when it comes to finding your way back from the main lodge after dinner.
The main lodge. What can I say about it? It's stunning. High ceilings with exposed beams, white plaster contrasted with dark wood, more of that wide-plank teak flooring, gorgeous exotic flower arrangements and, when we arrive, a friendly waiter offering us the lodge's signature drink, a sweet elixir of grenadine, pineapple and orange juice, and rum, served in a hollowed-out pineapple shell. The drink goes down easy but packs a wallop, I find, about a half hour later, once checked in, as I stagger up one of the lookouts along a rainforest trail. I'm instantly revitalized, though, after I plunge off a boulder into the cool, green river at Los Pilas, a swimming hole a 15-minute rainforest hike from the lodge. What a change from the almost bathwater-warm Caribbean!
Climbing granite boulders in search of the perfect spot to rest, I'm washed over by a sense of wonder. All around me is the rainforest. Wander off a path and who knows if you'd ever make it back to the lodge. (In fact, the hotel asks you to inform them before you hit the trails, so they can keep an eye open for your return.) Birds shriek in the background, water rushes below me, and above me, fringed by trees, is the blue sky. I'm alone in the world, a very unusual feeling for a mother (I have a five-year-old, numerous animals and a husband back home), but one I welcome when I can find it.
Back at the resort, it's dinnertime. Besides a beautiful Balinese-meets-island-Colonial decorating style, all dark teak, clean lines, white linen and freshly cut exotic blooms, you'll find a romantic, high-ceilinged dining lounge and a yummy menu. While dinners are $25 per adult and $15 per child, pricey by Honduran standards, this will get you an ambitiously cosmopolitan menu with as many hits – delectably fiery chipotle-glazed pork chops – as near-misses: overcooked chocolate-and-coffee spiced beef tournedos. The local grass-fed beef isn't as fatty and rich as our feedlot raised beef, and the rangy chewiness is quite pleasant in everyday lunchtime fare such as the dining room's muchos yummy fajitas.
Scaring myself silly on the dark walk back to my cabin (thanks a lot. Jimmy Im, New York club DJ, travel writer and purveyor of gruesome pulp-fiction horror novels taking place in the Mayan rainforest), I forget to raid the bunch of tiny honey bananas hanging on the lodge's deck, from which guests are welcome to treat themselves. In my room, a tiny nest of ants is making itself at home beside the spare bed. After DEETing the hell out of the legs of "my" bed, I hit the hay. The rainforest? It's LOUD. Just so you know. If you're a light sleeper, pack earplugs.
DAY 4: DAY TRIP TO CAYOS COCHINOS WHERE YOU FEEL YOU'RE AT THE END OF THE WORLD
Were I into yoga (and I am, emphatically, passionately NOT into yoga), I'd be downward dogging and sun salutin' all over the grounds of The Lodge at Pico Bonito. They are spectacularly suited to the sport, methinks. So many perfect perches for yogis: on the lodge's numerous planked walkways, by its darling little pool, or on a boulder by the winding river in the rainforest. The grounds offer much to the avid pre-breakfast morning walker, too. Strolling through the orange, cacao or banana groves, feel free to grab a fruit to nibble—it's all organic, baby.
So, day four sees us up at the crack of dawn to hitch a half-hour drive to the Palma Real Beach Resort & Villas (011-504-429-0501) for Turaser Honduras' (800-220-8687) day trip to the Cayos Cochinos islands. If you're in La Ceiba, don't pass up the opportunity to catch this glimpse of the Caribbean that few tourists get to see. It's a bargain at a mere $50 (plus $7 for lunch). The Hog Islands, as they would be known in English, are an archipelago of 13 doll-size islands 18-nautical miles off La Ceiba, and are accessible only by a rocky, 45-minute, wave-tossed speedboat ride (beware if you have a tendency to get seasick). But they're absolutely gorgeous, and protected as a Marine Biological Reserve due to their rich coral reefs, which form part of the Meso-American Barrier Reef system, the second largest in the world. Some islands are uninhabited, while others are home to the indigenous Garifuna people.
We hit three islands on our trip, the first where we sat through a short lecture on proper Cayos Cochinos etiquette (Don't touch the coral reefs. Don't touch the coral reef inhabitants. Don't steal things from the coral reef.) while touching up our sun block.
The second island was a deserted, nearly treeless, windswept isle flanked by a reef, where we snorkeled, snapped photos and, in my case, beach combed for washed-up shells and fan coral. Walking the perimeter of the island took less than five minutes: it was that small. And blindingly sunny with nowhere to escape the sun. Without exception, we all got sunburned.
On our last stop, the island-village of Chachahuate (population 200), the Garifuna families who live on the island play a part in the eco-tourist economy by selling handmade jewelry to visitors, and by preparing fresh seafood for you to devour after your grueling morning of snorkeling, sunning and swimming. Crammed into tiny huts with straw thatch roofs, the families live polygamously and their children are boated to a larger island for schooling. Sitting under the straw roof just steps away from the blindingly aqua water, swaying palms and a band of pelicans, devouring the feast that the Garifuna cooks had prepared from fish caught just moments before (grilled yellowtail snapper, fried plantains, rice and beans) was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of travel memory. My island experience par excellence.
Après lunch, my swim at the far end of the island almost ended in disaster when I got caught in a riptide that threatened to pull me out to sea. Thankfully, I made it back, just in time to learn through a Garifuna woman's hand gestures and elementary Spanish that, "There's a strong tide in that spot!" The high-tide mark's bounty of empty shells, shells, and more shells (interspersed with surreal bits of garbage like a bear-shaped honey bottle and multiple pens) made my near-death experience worthwhile, though I decided to cool it with the swimming.
The day deteriorated for me after that. The boat ride back to the mainland found me in the wet spot: the seat of the boat that gets ALL of the splashing, so my clothes were soaked, and then we ended up at the mall in La Ceiba, where my trip in search of a bathroom ended with me being laughed at by locals as I strolled in my swimsuit and towel sarong. I don't think I'll ever be able to show my face at the strangely named Carrion department store ever again.
DAY 5: UTILA, BEAUTIFUL, YOUTHFUL, I'LL-BE-BACK-IN-MY-DREAMS UTILA
Hop on board the Utila Princess ferry and it'll get you from La Ceiba to Utila for about $16. Utila is the smallest of the three main Bay Islands, only three-miles by seven-miles big. It's set between a coral reef and a 2,000-foot-deep continental shelf. So, uh, yeah: you can see its appeal for divers. The pace is slow and the vibe is young and relaxed. Um, did I mention the hot young Brits? Uh, yeah. Apparently, Southeast Asia isn't where the UK crowd goes to "find themselves" after university now: the Central American tour is the new big thing.
When exploring Utila during the day, it's best not to make plans. The pace, as I've mentioned, is super slow. Just wander around, go swimming, snorkel, rent some jet skis, eat lunch for an hour ... or four. Walk on Main Street, away from the ferry dock, and eat at a cheap ‘n' cheerful restaurant like Munchies (left side of the street, no address, no phone), where you can find a fresh tuna filet sandwich for, oh, under $2. Stroll further and you'll hit the Driftwood Bar & Grill, built on posts over the ocean, right across the street from the Margaritaville Hotel (rooms from $16 per night, 011-504-425 3366). Commandeer a picnic table on the Driftwood's deck for the entire afternoon. Toss food to the snappers schooling in the water under the deck, or just jump off the deck into the sea while you wait for your conch ceviche or fish tacos to arrive. Cheap, deliciously prepared meals with beer or icy cold Fanta – what could be better? Add a jukebox with classic Del Shannon tunes and you start to understand why people just up and quit their jobs, maybe rob a bank or two, then move to off-grid places like sweet, sweet Utila.
If you're in town on a Thursday night, be sure to go to the Underwater Vision Dive Center (011-504-425-3103) for its weekly booze cruise. (Or stay at it, or another local dive-package hotel, if you think economy lodgings, shared bathrooms and no air conditioning are more than made up for by fascinating fellow travelers, a youthful boho vibe, and earning your PADI open-water scuba certification.) Forget the stilted office parties conjured up by the phrase "booze cruise." Imagine a tiny tugboat filled with comp bevvies, a couple dozen young dive lovers and a soul-stirring sunset instead. Back on dry land, a passable barbecue dinner is paired with more drinks and lively dinner convo with scores of twenty something divers. Sure, there are some couples, but guess what, ladies: single guys outnumbered women by far. Um, can I just say, nothing's better for a 32-year-old mom's at-this-point-barely-there body-image than being majorly hit on by a smokin' hot 24-year-old Irishman named Colm.
Lodgings on Utila run the gamut from $16/night rooms to luxurious private villas. We stayed at the exceedingly eccentric Cabins at Nightland, (Jade Seahorse) (from $69 per night, jadeseahorse.com, 011-504-425-3270). Go there for a boho experience like no other. Eight colorful and crazily decorated cabins house guests (picture thrift shop decor meets Anna Sui on acid, and you get my drift), while the compound's Treetanic tree house bar and raised walkways are a hot nightspot. Where else can you party in the mango trees? Complimentary jugs of purified water and a windfall of ripe mangoes falling onto your porch for you more than make up for the hotel's lack of room service and distinctly economy feel of the "amenities." The Mono, yes, Mono, Lisa cabin is probably the most private and romantic of the bunch. Faded linens, yes, but a sexy blue-room vibe and wrought iron bed set the mood, if you know what I mean.
DAY 6: RETURN TO ROATAN WHEREIN THE INTREPID TRAVELER STARTS UNDERGOING WITHDRAWAL PANGS
A short and bumpy car ride from the surreal oasis that is Nightland, we arrive at an airport. Well, not an airport really, but a tarmac runway in a clearing, by some trees, in a field. This is Utila Airport. Aerolineas Sosa (book through the local travel agent Morgan's Travel, 504-425-3161) flies out of here, weather permitting, a few times per day, and can get you to La Ceiba or Roatan. My friends are cranky and insect bitten and it's probably around six in the morning and none of us has been fed. Our plane is parked and soon a van pulls up, depositing our pilot, co-pilot and flight-attendant/baggage handler. Our L410 Turbolet holds a mere 19 people and was designed, according to one website I've consulted, "to Soviet requirements." Let's just say, sometimes you just have to put on your iPod and hope for the best. This was one of those instances.
Our return to Roatan is anticlimactic. Back at the Mayan Princess, I'm put in a deluxe suite, much swankier than my earlier accommodations here. But then, back then I was right near the beach, now I'm above the lobby, albeit three floors up with a huge veranda and great view of the pool. Although, as one resort developer we meet at the airport the next day points out, "If that damn pool were placed better, more of the units would have a sea view!"
After lunch at the resort restaurant, I meet my compatriots to hit Gumbalimba Park (gumbalimbapark.com, 011-504-914-9196), high on the hills overlooking the sea, where you can take a zip line canopy tour through the treetops. A series of about one dozen zip lines makes for a safe and gradual descent from the top of the hill down to the beach, but the whole experience was a bit tepid: I got stressed over this? All in all, pretty tame stuff, although kids will like it and it's fun to catch a glance of the park's wild capuchin monkeys and iguanas while you're cooling your heels on one of the platforms between zip lines. Gumbalimba is also home to a group of semi-tame spider and capuchin monkeys, most of who are free to explore the park at their leisure, as well as a macaw sanctuary. Both offer photo opps to share with the gang back home, along with the comfort of knowing these animals have plenty of roaming space and are not exploited into doing silly tricks for the tourists.
Next, a dolphin experience at Anthony’s Key Resort ($84 to swim or snorkel with dolphins, resort rates from $1,068 per week, meals and activities included, 800-227-3483). Anthony's Key Resort feels like a tiny island village with wooden cabanas built over a lagoon, and a main lodge built on a hillside covered with coconut palms. The resort is also home to the Roatan Museum and the Roatan Institute for Marine Sciences. After gamely boating out with other tourists to break into pods where we get to pet dolphins in their huge lagoon, with each dolphin's personal trainer present to prevent any interspecies misunderstandings and brawling (keep those fingers away from the animal's blowhole!), some of us get to don snorkeling gear and swim with the dolphins. This results in several people going nuts in search of the suddenly elusive dolphins. (They have a special area they can flee to if they don't want to interact with the paying public. How's that for performance rider? What entertainment lawyer set arranged that clause for them?) I'm not too keen on chasing disinterested dolphins, so I explore the ocean floor instead, which proves fruitful as I find a sea cucumber and a live conch. Then a couple dolphins swim by to check me out. While I do enjoy petting them and it is charming to have them pop up out of nowhere in the now-murky tide-swept water, I have to be truthful: I think I'm more of a cat person.
Back to the Mayan Princess. The idea of missing that killer sunset and one last chance to take it easy by the shore makes me bail on our group‘s farewell dinner. We'll be leaving tomorrow and I want to enjoy my last moments of paradise. I'll order a succulent whole grilled snapper and a bowl of spicy conch chowder (my second of the day; it was so good at lunch, I want more for dinner!) and eat it in front of the TV watching Pirates of the Caribbean, of all things. (I find out later the farewell dinner was short and everyone was tired, and one of our party was in a foul mood because the hills of Roatan are "too winding" and it made him carsick. Uh, okaaay.) But first, I hit the beach one last time. Sipping pineapple juice in the surf, then floating under the moon, I know: I'll be back.
And no, I won't abandon my family, in spite of what I wrote earlier. While Utila's off-grid environment isn't on our family-travel itinerary, Roatan's pace is perfect. We plan to return in summer '08, daughter in tow. She'll partake in Anthony's Key's kids' programming while mom and dad earn their scuba certification. Hope to see you there.
Yuki Hayashi is a Hamilton, Ont-based lifestyle writer whose work has appeared in the Globe & Mail, National Post, Flare, Chatelaine and various websites.
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All information presented here is accurate at the time of publication but prices, dates and other details are all subject to change. Please confirm all information before making any travel arrangements.
Note: This trip was sponsored by Honduras Institute of Tourism.
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