Welcome to Honduras. Beware the Laughing Fish.

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside Magazine, November 1994

Welcome to Honduras. Beware the Laughing Fish.

Tourism arrives in yet another Third World country. But out there beyond the fire, Wasa is still muy profundo.
By Tim Cahill

Once upon a time, in the past and in the future and even now as you read this, in a place not so very far away, there lived and continues to live a monstrous fish that laughs, named Wasa. Wasa reigns in a black lagoon and is said to be allied with monkeys who howl and...well, what these monkeys do is not precisely unspeakable, and if they are not doing it to you--if they're doing it to someone like Grant Thompson, for instance--it's even pretty funny.

Grant Thompson runs Tofino Expeditions, a kayak touring company out of Vancouver, Canada. He and one of his guides, Rob van Egmond, were interested in scouting out new places in Central America to take their paying clients. Baja, they felt, had become saturated with kayak companies. It seemed like the time to move on. But where? Costa Rica had more than its share of ecotourism. Belize was developing a similar reputation.

But here was Honduras, a country the size of Tennessee with a scant five million inhabitants. Nobody seemed to know that you could drive south out of Texas and be there in three days. The place had everything: mountains, jungles, deserts, a Caribbean coast replete with graceful tropical islands, and some of the most impressive of all Mayan ruins.

Honduras, with its forbidding comic opera reputation for coups and its proximity to various war zones, had effectively repelled tourists for decades. The country, Grant felt, was pretty much virgin territory in ecotourism terms.

Photographer Ted Wood and I were along for the ride.

Flights inside the country, we discovered, were extraordinarily inexpensive--the equivalent of $20 or so, one way--and everyone aboard each flight crossed himself just as the aircraft revved up for takeoff. It was like a holy drill team, and it worried me just a bit. Maybe we weren't paying enough to keep the plane airborne without divine intervention.

Or maybe this was just a very, very foreign country. In 1969, tensions between Honduras and neighboring El Salvador erupted into a fierce five-day war following a soccer match between the two countries. They called it the Soccer War.

Listen: Soccer. War.

A war over a game in which it is illegal to use your hands?

In addition, Honduras is a country with a history of political instability, mostly having to do with bananas, arguably the world's silliest fruit. For almost 50 years, Honduras led the nations of the earth in the export of bananas. It was a place where rival U.S.-owned fruit companies--and the CIA--had attempted, often successfully, to control the politics of the country. Honduras is the banana republic.

Hondurans had every reason to resent visitors from the United States, or so I imagined. In fact, people on the streets in the major cities are friendly, relaxed. There is a certain Latin grace about the country. In the resort town of La Ceiba, for instance, there is a shady canal where lovers stroll hand in hand at dusk and police officers drift by on mountain bikes with automatic weapons clipped to the frame.

In the town square, caretakers throw garbage pails full of cow guts into a cement wading pool, which immediately stirs with caimans five to seven feet long. Alligatorlike carnivores, they seize the long white streamers of guts and then twist and turn impressively until shrouded in gore. Crowds of La Ceibans watch with the disinterested amusement of long familiarity. The animals, satiated, pull themselves up on concrete slabs, basking there in the dusk with slanting eyes and curled smiles.

He Who Laughs
In Cocoa Lagoon, where Wasa dwells, 16 miles or so from La Ceiba, there were said to be caimans as well. The water was black, a strong tea brewed of fallen leaves and rotting vegetation. The lagoon was surrounded by mangroves that dropped branches down into the brackish water so that there were no banks anywhere, only a wall of green.

It was Concepcion Martinez who told us about Wasa. He was our guide for the day, a young man from the nearby village of Cocoa, who often fished the waters and knew them well. Several sluggish rivers fed the lagoon, and we turned our kayaks up one. There were clouds of yellow and orange butterflies, and all around we heard strange birdcalls: melodic whistles and sibilant songs interspersed with various horrid, strangled croaks. The temperature stood near 100 degrees, and the sky above was a hazy, cloudless blue.

We were in fancy folding kayaks, double Feathercrafts, and Concepcion was paddling along in a wooden dugout. I asked if there were monkeys here, and just as Conci said yes there were, I saw a big one moving through the branches overhead. It was brown and orange, about the size of a cocker spaniel. And then a mother with a baby clinging to her back ran up over a nearby branch, and suddenly my eyes adjusted to the presence of monkeys. There were at least a dozen more in the bright green foliage.

"Howlers," Conci said.

And sure enough, one of the monkeys began to howl.

"It sounds like fish laughing," Ted said.

"Really loud, great big fish who live in trees," I offered.

"Maybe," Conci said, "they howl to tell Wasa we are here."

Wasa, according to lagoon legend, is a fish. The name, loosely translated, means He Who Laughs.

"What kind of fish?" I asked.

"Big," Conci said, and he gestured to describe a fish considerably larger than I am. Apparently, Wasa is dangerous. He lives where the narrow river we were paddling flows into the lagoon and where, Conci said, the waters are muy profundo.

"How do you know the water is deep?" Rob asked. "Did you drop lines?"

"No," Conci said. "Everybody knows it's deep. The whole world knows it's deep."

"Are you afraid of Wasa?" I asked.

"Maybe," Conci said, and then he laughed. "Yes, maybe a little."

"Have you ever seen a manatee in this lagoon?" I asked.

Yes, Conci said, there were manatees in the lagoon, but--and here Conci indicated that he understood the thrust of my question--he damn sure knew the difference between a manatee and a monstrous laughing fish.

"It sounds," Grant said in English, "like something a bunch of mothers dreamed up to keep young kids out of the lagoon."

I liked the idea of myth as baby-sitter, but it seemed to me that the caimans could do that equally well. You only had to watch them scarf up cow guts once to get the idea.

Grant and Ted, in the lead kayak, moved carefully upriver. The forest canopy formed a shady green archway, and the monkeys were agitated, scampering overhead, keeping pace with our slow-moving kayaks.

"Back up!" Grant shouted suddenly. Immediately he and Ted were paddling backward, rather comically I thought, as something like rain fell around their bow. There was solid material as well, stuff I was able to identify as an astonishingly large number of howler-generated fecal depth charges. Our primate cousins, it seemed, were displaying their profound appreciation of our visit.

We camped on a sand spit that separated the lagoon from the cresting waves of the Caribbean. The sun sank to our left, so that we cast attenuated pink shadows as we set up the tents. Grant trotted out his shortwave radio and tuned in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, assuring Ted and me, the Americans in the party, that we would hear important news denied us on typical U.S. outlets. It was true. As the sun sank below the horizon and the pastel sky burst into flame, we listened, not quite breathlessly, to the results of the curling championships in Bulgaria.

I tried to imagine a curling war. Disputes over corked brooms. Lumpy ice. Fighter jets screaming out of a snow-shrouded sky. Shattered limbs and field hospitals.

The lagoon was now fringed with gloom. A school of bait fish rose out of the water, flying over the surface, in panic. It was dusk, the time caimans like to dine.

Grant was talking about ecotourism, about how it brought money into places like Honduras, which is, in fact, one of the poorest countries in Central America. Often--in places like Mexico and Bali--resorts excluded local people, except in the capacity of busboys and chambermaids. Visitors got no real idea of the country or of how people lived. And the resorts themselves generally occupied areas that would otherwise speak to the soul. Might as well drop a putting green into the cathedral.

No, Grant thought that operations like his were the preferable alternative. Bring people in, get supplies from local stores, buy fish from the nearest markets, camp on the beaches. You didn't need a nation of busboys and chambermaids to travel in that fashion.

Out in the lagoon, in the sanguinary light, an egret snagged a frog but seemed to have trouble swallowing it. The bird's neck jerked convulsively, its beak snapped open and shut, but the frog wouldn't go down. Its back legs jerked spasmodically beyond the egret's beak.

Wasa came to mind. It wasn't exactly clear what the big fish would do if he caught you, but I imagined it was a frog-and-egret sort of scenario.

The sky began to fade until we felt as if we were covered in a great bruise, and then it was dark. My flashlight beam caught two small red reflecting lights out in the lagoon: the predatory eyes of a caiman, moving silently.

And somewhere, unseen in the depths, was He Who Laughs.

This Man Cannot Speak
We were paddling along the Caribbean coastline of Honduras, moving east from Cocoa Lagoon, looking for a village that was called, inexplicably, New Armenia. The people there were said to be Garífunas, the racially mixed descendants of African ex-slaves and indigenous Carib Indians.

After a few hours, we came to a large sand spit that opened into another lagoon on the outskirts of the village. It was lined by green lechuguilla plants that looked like a cross between lily pads and aloe vera and were alive with purple flowers. Women washed clothes and children splashed about, shrieking and laughing.

A man motioned us to shore, introduced himself as Rafael Arzu, and invited us to camp at his mother's house. A hand-lettered sign fronting the river identified the place as Villa Hermosa. Chickens, pigs, and ducks littered the dirt yard in the shade of banana trees and coconut palms. For a dollar a plate Ralph's mother, the estimable Alberta "Berta" Arzu, served us lunch on an outdoor table: rice, plantain chips, eggs, and small chunks of chicken in a mildly spicy yellow sauce, heavy on the inexpensive local saffron. The eggs were small and oblong, with a leathery skin. I chewed on one for some time without making any appreciable progress in regard to breaking the skin.

"Uh, what kind of egg is this?" I asked Berta in Spanish.


The trick, I learned, was to hold the egg in one hand and bite off a small piece of leather with the canine teeth. Pop the thing in your mouth and chew the yolk out of the leather sack. Spit out the sack. The egg was all yolk, yellow-orange in color, like that of a free-range chicken but much richer in taste and vaguely creamy.

"This meat," Grant said, holding up a knuckle-like forkful. "I don't think it's chicken."

It was, in fact, a tail section of what must have been a fairly large iguana.

"Chicken of the trees," Grant said.

In English, Ted said, "May we see the endangered species menu, please?"

I asked Berta if there were lots of iguanas about, and she said that there were many, many. Because, I continued, I know that there are almost none left on some of the Bay Islands.

"Well," Berta said in Spanish, and shrugged. She looked toward the islands. People there were very different. They were islanders, her expression said, and they went and killed off all their iguanas and acted stupid in so many other ways it was difficult to delineate them all. The imbeciles.

After lunch, Rafael introduced us to a thin man with an exceptionally expressive physical presence. He was, in fact, an involuntary mime, a man who could not speak. Rafael said he was "family," but the man was not an Arzu. He simply lived in New Armenia, was a Garífuna, and was troubled in some way; that made him "family." The only name anyone knew him by was Ganunu.

The man acted out a brief play in which a hulking, malevolent policeman put him in jail for the serious crime of not talking. It occurred to me that Ganunu ought to have some sort of a card that could explain his disability. In so many gestures, he agreed, and I tore a page out of my notebook and wrote, in authoritative block letters and precise, grammatical Spanish, "This man is not drunk, nor is he insane. This man cannot speak." Ganunu looked at the paper, then at me. His face was glowing. He shook my hand, gave me a thumbs up, did a restrained little dance, and tucked the note away in his shirt pocket.

Grant, for his part, liked the feel of New Armenia. The town had a rough-looking bar, a café, and a small hotel. The people were friendly, and the music, a mélange of African, salsa, and reggae called punta, was the sort of thing that made fat guys get up and dance. Berta and Rafael could arrange accommodations for a fair price. Visitors could soak up the culture. Grant and Rob paddled off down the canal, looking for a grassy field to rent, a place where FOPs--clients "fresh off the plane"--might feel comfortable.

We were up at 3:30 the next morning, stumbling around and packing our kayaks in the dark. We planned to paddle out to the Cayos Cochinos, the Islands of Pigs. They were the nearest of the Bay Islands to the mainland, not more than ten miles away, and we figured we could get out to them in four hours, easy. Still, the weather had been dicey, kicking up a heavy wind and big swells by late morning. We needed to start well before dawn.

Suddenly, Ganunu was standing next to me, in the dark, a question on his shoulders.

"We're going out to the Cayos Cochinos," I explained.

Ganunu shook his head violently. He pointed out to the dark sea, then to himself. I understood that he was an islander and would show me how islanders act. Ganunu lifted his head and stared down his nose at me. His face looked like he'd just accidentally eaten something the dog left on the lawn. He turned his back in contempt. He spat on the ground.

I got the impression that Ganunu didn't think the people who lived on the Cayos Cochinos were very friendly.

The Islands of PigsG By five o'clock it was light enough to see the breakers beyond the sand spit. We punched through them easily enough and paddled into the rolling five-foot swells of the open sea. Half an hour later, a bright orange sun rose in a perfectly blue sky. We paddled for two more hours, but the mountainous islands in the distance never got any closer until the last half hour, when every stroke seemed to send them looming higher above us.

We made for an island with an expansive white-sand beach, where we had heard that a Canadian couple was building bungalows to house travelers. A man in dreadlocks sat on the dock, holding his infant son. He said the owners were away and that his orders were not to let anyone land.

Well, where could we land?

Nowhere, it seemed. The whole of the Cayos Cochinos were "private," owned by Americans, Italians, Canadians, and wealthy Hondurans. Closed to folks like us. And Ganunu. The only place we could go was the island of Lower Monitor, a low, half-moon-shaped speck of sand in the distance, choked with thatch-roofed Garífuna huts. It was basically an adjunct of New Armenia, a fishing village where men stayed for stints of six months or so.

On Lower Monitor we were met by several Garífuna men in tattered shorts who seemed impressed that we had paddled all the way from the mainland. Further conversation revealed that, in fact, they thought we were morons for paddling when any child could have rigged a sail.

The men said we could set up our tents in back of the village, in the shade of some palms. Did we require food, a cook? No, but it seemed to be the expected trade-off.

Our cook, Nancy, turned out to be Berta's niece. Lunch was one three-ounce fish fillet, a dollop of beans, and a spoonful of rice. So was dinner. And breakfast. It was what everyone on Lower Monitor ate. Every meal, every day. Fishing had been poor of late, due to the heavy winds. People were going hungry.

I swam out to the reef fronting the island. It was a shallow, craggy affair with brain coral, golden sea whips, and purple fans. A lone parrot fish, in his court jester's garb of blue and green with patches of red, nibbled at a limestone cup of coral, trying to get at the living polyp inside. I could actually hear the crunch of coral in those powerful jaws. My shadow passed over the feeding fish, which veered off in a series of sharp angles, excreting powdery streams of chewed-up limestone at each turn.

Some time later I was sitting on the beach when a motor launch from a large scuba resort on another island landed. A tourist couple in their early forties, decked out in fluorescent travel wear, strolled into town. I talked with the boatman, another American who was also the dive master. You could, he said, rent a room at the resort for $125 a night per person, which included three dives. People usually stayed for a week. The food was good, and tonight was the steak barbecue.

The dive master said that although fish life was now sparse off Lower Monitor, laws had recently been passed. Fishermen could no longer use nets; only hand lines were allowed. "Actually," the fellow said, "they're talking about making a national park out of this island. A marine reserve. When they get rid of these people"--he gestured toward the rows of ramshackle huts--"the fish life should recover fairly quickly."

And here we had the paradox of ecotourism in a clamshell. Get rid of the local people who, it was clear, were overfishing the reef, thereby raising the property values of the surrounding islands which were, by and large, owned by wealthy foreigners. In time soldiers would come to Lower Monitor, the people there would be forcibly evacuated, and the wooden huts burned to the ground. The argument is that traditional fishermen could be retrained to make good money waiting tables at the luxury resorts.

"More tea, sir?"

The tourist lady returned to the dive boat carrying a shell necklace. She said to the dive master (and I quote precisely): "I gave the woman $5. Didn't even try to Jew her down. What am I going to do with their money? It was so funny. The woman said, 'Sank joo.'" She was amused, this ignorant harpy in an orange halter top, that an underfed woman in a Latin American country should speak English so poorly.

On the other hand, $5 for a few shells strung together with a length of discarded fishing line would feed the Garífuna woman's family for a week.

Ecotourism. Of a type.

Another day, we paddled out to a small uninhabited island several miles away, a desert cay where we picnicked on tortillas and jam, pineapple and coconut. The fish life was abundant here, miles from Lower Monitor. It was a tropical-island wet dream of a place, Grant said. Clients would love it.

Presently a motorboat powered up onto the beach beside our kayaks, and a Hispanic man with long black hair jumped out and stomped over to where we were sitting. The man carried a machete at his side and did not return our greetings--buenas tardes--but launched into an angry barrage of Spanish the gist of which was, "This is a private island. When are you going to leave?"

I didn't like the man's attitude or his machete, and I moved to my right, thinking I could take him from the side if it came to that. Rob drifted off to the other side, while Grant and Ted shifted about for some frontal advantage. The man was short and wiry. His eyes were cold.

"When," he demanded again, "are you leaving this island?"

Rob, who spoke the best Spanish, has the habit of repeating what was just said. Fewer misunderstandings that way.

"When," he repeated carefully, "are you leaving this island."

I noticed that Rob had unconsciously used the singular "you," so what the man heard in response to his question was a challenge: No, pal, the question is, when are you leaving.

Machete Man's eyes passed over us: four guys spread out in combat formation, not one of them much under six feet tall, not one weighing much less than 200 pounds. A bad feeling like electricity crackled across the beach.

Most people, I suspect, meekly left the beach when challenged. The machete man was likely just doing his job. Fishing was a dying vocation. This guy was the occupational wave of the future. But he had come on like an officious little prick, and we weren't moving, not even a little bit. The man broke eye contact with Rob, walked 50 yards down the sand, drew his machete and began furiously hacking away at some brush fronting the beach. Behavioral scientists, I believe, would call this "displacement activity." He walked stiffly back to his boat and sped off across the water without looking back.

In retrospect, I suppose Ganunu's wordless description of the islands had been our best advice. This was not the sort of confrontation that Grant's clients might enjoy. The islands were gorgeous, closely spaced and good for kayaking, but everything was private. Or resort based. There were angry little dipsticks running around threatening people with machetes. On the Islands of Pigs.

Guanaja was more typical of the Bay Islands than were the Cochinos.

It was on Guanaja that I met Mrs. Melba Hyde-Jones, an 80-year-old dowager who showed me various ancient Indian artifacts collected by her late husband, Frank. There were maize grinders and small figurines with round faces and round eyes and round mouths. Frank Jones had been a local history buff, and he had written a poem not long before he died, a poem about the history of the island. He had said, "Melba, this one's for you."

Mrs. Hyde-Jones sat in a big wooden chair and recited the poem--a very long one--from memory. It was about the islands of Guanaja and Roatán and Utila, and the 60 or so smaller keys that form the Bay Islands of Honduras. The Indians who came from the mainland considered these islands sacred, and warfare was forbidden. The islands were, according to the poem, "an earthly paradise."

Enter the villains of the poem. Columbus landed in the summer of 1502 on his fourth and final voyage. Soon there were Spanish galleons in the bays, and blood ran in the sand and under the trees. Peaceful Indians were taken as slaves to work in the gold and silver mines of Mexico. Spanish ships took the spoils back across the sea to Seville.

Ah, but then the English began to raid the Spanish treasure ships. By 1600 there were 5,000 pirates in the coves and bays of Guanaja and Roatán. Blood once again ran in the sand and under the trees. The poem strikes several triumphal chords here, the gist of which seemed to be that the Spanish pretty much deserved to get whacked by English pirates for what they had done to the Indians and to what had once been an earthly paradise.

The poem didn't quite get to the time, in the early 1800s, when wealthy Englishmen who'd run into trouble on Jamaica or the Caymans made their way to Guanaja and Roatán for a second chance on a plantation or in the commercial fishing business. The people of Guanaja, black and white, spoke English. They mostly made their living from the sea. They traded with other English-speaking Caribbean nations and protectorates: Belize, Jamaica, the Caymans.

Then, in 1859, the British ceded the Bay Islands to Honduras. Most people of English heritage on Guanaja still consider this an act of treachery. Today the tensions on the islands are primarily cultural: English-speakers versus Spanish-speakers. Officially Guanaja's main town, where Melba lives, is called Guanaja, but English-speakers like her--who call themselves "islanders"--prefer the name Bonacca.

In the 1980s, piracy again played a part in the history of Guanaja. In September 1985, Edgar Hyde-Jones, Melba's son, set out on a commercial fishing trip with a crew of nine English-speaking black men. They were approached by a boat carrying men who said they hadn't eaten in days. The hungry crew was invited aboard Edgar's boat and was fed. After dinner the visitors produced weapons of some kind--probably MAC 10s or Uzis--and killed nearly everyone on board. One crewman leapt overboard and was miraculously rescued at sea. The incident was drug related, and investigative agencies from the United States tracked the pirates to Colombia. They rescued another survivor, a 14-year-old cabin boy who, Melba said, would have been sold into slavery.

Edgar had been Melba's only son. She told me the story in a firm voice, but her eyes glistened as she spoke. She said that she was raising Edgar's daughter, who was now 14. Melba had never been able to tell her granddaughter precisely how her father died. "An accident at sea," is the closest she'd been able to come to the awful truth.

We sat in silence for some time. Her house, perched on stilts, had been built in the 1880s, constructed of cypress imported from the United States. The bare wooden floors showed more than a century of foot traffic, but they were clean and newly oiled. There was a picture of Edgar on the wall. He was wearing some sort of uniform and staring off into the distance at a future that would never happen. A clock somewhere in the house ticked off the seconds, loudly.

"Do you know why houses here are built on stilts?" she asked after a time.

She said that malaria had killed so many people on Guanaja in the nineteenth century that people began building a new town on a shallow reef. "Islanders," she said with some pride, "settled a piece of water."

The town--Bonacca or Guanaja, depending on your linguistic preference--has no roads but is intersected with canals and is sometimes called the Venice of the Caribbean. Narrow walkways, threading between frame houses and small shops, cross over the canals in a series of humped-up bridges. Deliveries are made by boat: ice and groceries and beer and clothing consignments all floating down the canals.

Windows are left open for the sea breezes, and a stroll through the town gives a taste of its life. People singing in the Adventist church; a large family gathered for dinner, heaping platters of fillets on the table; a man scolding his wife, the wife turning to leave, then turning again to deliver the last angry word. American country-and-western music blaring out of bars catering to Spanish-speakers.

Grant was thinking of basing his kayaking business out of Guanaja. There were some good campsites on the island, and the landowners liked the idea of people coming in, spending money locally, and leaving without a trace. Plus, the diving and the snorkeling were spectacular, as I soon found out. The reef was alive with purple fans, yellow sea whips, and giant purple sponges. The occasional mounds of hard-plating coral looked like pagodas, if you could conceive of Buddhist architects on psychedelics. Slanting shafts of late-afternoon sunlight illuminated the whole affair. Everything swayed in a gentle surge so that, drifting among the sinuous tubes and fans, I felt as if I were slow-dancing with the Caribbean.

Melba told me that the young people, sons and daughters of islanders, were leaving. Fishing didn't pay much anymore. Young people went to school in the United States and then took jobs there. No one wanted to stay and work for virtually nothing in some little island shop. The stores in Guanaja were often run by "Spaniards," that is, Spanish-speakers from the mainland. Many of them were industrious. They did well, and after a time they bought little chunks of property from islanders who might be down on their luck. Melba felt the whole place sort of falling away from her.

"But what can you do?" Melba asked. "The new people--it's their country, too."

I talked a bit about Grant's project and the idea that people might pay to visit an essentially unspoiled Guanaja.

"You think so?" Melba asked. There were a couple of very good scuba resorts on Guanaja already. She couldn't see why many more people would want to come to her island.

"It's an earthly paradise," I said.

Melba caught the echo of her late husband's poem and smiled in a way that broke my heart.

We sat in silence, while Melba's clock ticked away the seconds in her century-old home.

The Lone Ranger
We were driving along a network of bad dirt roads in the highest and most remote mountains of Honduras, looking for a way to enter the newly established Santa Bárbara National Park. It was steep country, very green, and the mountains were closely spaced. The land, to my eye, possessed the logic of a sheet of paper crumpled in the hand and dropped on a table.

Grant thought that some of his clients might want to extend their trips, leave the kayaks behind and explore the mainland of Honduras. So here we were, driving around aimlessly, looking for a park that we couldn't find.

The dusty road we elected to follow dropped down to the country's major north-south highway, which ran along the edges of Lake Yojoa: a hundred square miles of clear water fringed with coffee plantations, a few resorts, and dozens of prosperous-looking farms. The lake, seriously picturesque, was stocked with large bass that were apparently both tremendously fertile and exceedingly dumb. There were at least 30 restaurants lining the highway, each serving bass and only bass. We stopped at one of the upscale places, redundantly named Only Bass. It served bass with hot sauce, with tartar sauce, with garlic butter; we could have our bass fried, grilled, or baked. Everything was delicious except for the only beer on the menu, a sour American brand whose uniquely honest sales pitch is, "It doesn't get any better than this."

It wasn't until the next day that we found an entrance to Santa Bárbara National Park beside the mile-high village of San José de los Andes, one of the highest settlements in Honduras. The town was set out along a sloping, dusty street lined with wooden houses. The people were mestizos, of mixed European and American Indian heritage. They directed us to the home of Peggy Chiu, a young Peace Corps volunteer, who lived in a small wooden house with a bucket flush toilet, a kerosene stove, and a battery-powered shortwave radio.

We cooked dinner for Peggy and ended up talking on her porch under a sky studded with Van Gogh stars while the lights of various fishing resorts twinkled on the shores of Lake Yojoa, far below.

Peggy was working with the village farmers, developing better methods of hillside agriculture. The people of San José, she said, got bad seeds, which they sowed in poor soil. Last year, when the bean crop had come in sparse, some people had gone hungry. More than half of the country lived like this, Peggy said, whole villages existing hand to mouth on subsistence agriculture.

But--and this was hard for her to express exactly--the people in San José seemed...well, contented. Happy. Pero como was the stoic motto: What can you do? It had taken Peggy a year to feel at home in the village, and now it was a part of her. There were evenings, she said, when a cool fog rolled up out of Lake Yojoa and enveloped her, times when she felt as if she were living inside a glittering cloud.

She introduced us to her neighbor, a man named Octivilo Ramos, who had been the chief (and only) ranger for Santa Bárbara National Park since it was established in 1987. It was an unpaid position. He was also the only guide in the area and agreed to take us into the forest for 40 lempiras apiece. Rob and I bargained in the Honduran manner, which is to say we stared at the ground in a silent agony of grief until Octivilo suggested he could do it for, say, 35 lempiras apiece. Deal. We shook hands and agreed to start off into the forest at dawn the next day.

Later, after Octivilo went home, Peggy said 35 lempiras was his usual price. It was damn good money in San José. When people picked coffee, for instance, the average wage in the area came to about ten lempiras (a little over a dollar at the time) per day. On our two-day trek, Octivilo would earn the equivalent of 28 days' average wages.

Not many people came to San José to visit the forest, Peggy said. There had been only five parties her first year, ten the following. I pointed out that while the numbers were small, visitation had doubled. Since people sometimes went hungry in the village, was it possible that some sort of trekking tourism could make up the slack?

Peggy was torn on the issue. In the best of all worlds, the people of San José would improve their farming methods, feed themselves, and live as they always had. You only had to go to Copán, the country's major tourist destination, to see what San José could become. The people there, in Peggy's view, were aggressive, fixated on profit. Most of all, they didn't seem happy.

And yet...the poverty in San José could make your heart ache in dozens of small ways every day. Look at the children, Peggy said. There was no dentist anywhere nearby, no money to get one up to the village, and no real understanding of the techniques of oral hygiene. When the children, these beautiful children, smiled up at you, their mouths were full of rotting black stumps. So yes, Peggy supposed, you could put in a visitor center, charge each trekker some kind of fee, and pay for monthly visits from a dentist. The thing was, where did something like that end?

The next morning at dawn, Octivilo marched us through town, out over the coffee plantations, and up through a clear-cut area that ran smack into the national park.

An hour or so into the park, we came on a small canyon that had been slashed and burned. Octivilo stopped there to give us a quick ecology lecture. Whoever had burned the canyon area would plant a crop, using water that would naturally flow into the area. The problem, Octivilo said, was that heavy rains later in the year would erode the gully and cause mudslides, destroying cropland below. In addition, the thick forest floor acted as a giant sponge, storing rainwater that fell during the wet season and releasing it slowly during the dry. Cut the forest, he said, and the rivers would begin to dry up. All the crops below, all the way to Yojoa, would die of thirst.

Octivilo said he'd known about the burn and was investigating. He was an honest and knowledgeable man, but essentially a volunteer. In a town of 500 people, could he really turn in one of his neighbors?

The cloud forest above the burn was thick--you couldn't see more than ten feet in any direction--and the trail was narrow, sometimes nonexistent. We passed giant mahogony trees whose branches were hung with great masses of moss. In all the trees there were red parasitic flowers the size of basketballs. Looking up induced a kind of vertigo: All the smaller trees bent and twisted their way toward a patch of open sky. There was a sense that every living thing longed for the death of its nearest neighbor. The mosquitoes were fierce.

Our campsite was a limestone overhang with dangling woody vines. Octivilo shared my tent that night, and he told me that there were some nonpoisonous snakes in the forest, a number of small deer, a few ocelots, and a lot of foul-smelling, bad-tempered peccaries. The monkeys were gone, hunted out, but there were plans to reintroduce them.

Not everyone, Octivilo said, agreed about how the new national parks of Honduras should be administered. There was some dissension in the capital city of Tegucigalpa. One group, noting the economic benefits that Costa Rica was enjoying from ecotourism, wanted to open up everything to unrestricted travel. Another group was more cautious and felt that some areas should be preserved to protect the wildlife and the watersheds. Octivilo wasn't sure which was really the right approach, but he seemed proud that Santa Bárbara wasn't all that accessible to the outside world.

There were times, he said, when it felt as if he were the only person in the forest. He especially liked the winter months, when it sometimes snowed at the higher elevations. There was a very distinct line at 1,800 meters. Everything below was green; everything above, white, the branches of the trees bowed, the red flowers covered in snow.

Drifting vaguely in the direction of sleep, my mind fastened for a time on Wasa, on all the other beasts beyond the fire: Nessie, Sasquatch, the Yeti. These creatures seemed to personify a notion of wildness. They are unknown and unknowable, a set of intriguing fictions that embraces sanctity of a sort.

I imagined that Santa Bárbara National Park had once been the land of Wasa, or something like him, and might be again. That is, if the Lone Ranger had anything to say about it.

The Ozymandias Express
The drive from San José to the ruins of Copán, located near the border with Guatemala, was exciting in unanticipated ways. At first we thought it was a bad accident ahead: a school bus blocked the road, and there were plumes of black smoke rising behind. In fact, it was a protest of some kind. Tires burned along the pavement, and men carrying sticks of various sizes motioned us to pull over in such a way that our van, like the school bus ahead, blocked traffic. "Avoid violence," a man with a bullhorn shouted. "Violence has bad consequences."

The bus ahead was full of ten-year-old schoolgirls wearing white blouses and blue skirts. It was nine in the morning, and already 90 degrees. The driver wouldn't let the girls off the bus.

Grant, Ted, Rob, and I split up and walked down the line of cars, trying to find out what was happening. Truck drivers, who seemed unperturbed and used to this sort of thing, had strung hammocks in the shade under their trucks and were lying there scratching their stomachs and smoking cigarettes.

Rob and I chatted with an older man carrying one of the smaller sticks. Everyone, he said, was protesting recent price hikes. Clothing cost too much, as did food and transportation. It was all tied to the price of gasoline, which had doubled in the last five years.

A younger man, carrying a bigger stick, explained, quite pointedly, I thought, that the United States was behind the price jump. We were? I tried to sort out the mechanics of that, came up with several possible scenarios, and kept my mouth shut. Rob said that he was Canadian and that the U.S. was always doing that sort of stuff to him.

"The bastards," I added, temporarily Canadian. A gentle breeze blew a cloud of black tire-smoke my way. An hour passed. Two. It was edging toward noon, and the protest was beginning to wind down in the heat. Television cameras had come and gone. Most of the protesters had discarded their sticks, and people were chatting amiably enough. When a man carrying a rusted automobile fender walked by, someone yelled, "Hey, are you taking your car through one piece at time?" and everyone laughed.

I figured the protesters wouldn't let those little girls swelter in the bus much longer. People in Honduras were more civilized than that.

They let us go about one that afternoon. A few hours later we drove into the town of Copán Ruinas, less than a mile from the ruins themselves. It was a graceful place of cobblestone streets and colonial buildings, with a variety of hotels, restaurants, and cafés catering to international travelers. Tourists thronged the streets. Near a shop selling T-shirts I saw a man wearing plaid Bermuda shorts, black socks, and black wing-tip shoes. Gee, I thought, this place is utterly unlike San José de los Andes.

On my first morning in the ruins proper, a mist was rising off the Copán River. I stood silently in the Great Plaza, an open grassy area dotted with monumental statues commemorating the accomplishments of various rulers. The whole city was designed to inspire awe, and it still did.

Small deer wandered toward the Central Court and the Acropolis, an aggregation of steps and temples rising 120 feet off the plain. The ruins had just opened for the day, and there were only a few other people walking in the mist. No one spoke. The place was like a cathedral: It enforced that sort of solemnity.

There had been people living in the Copán River valley 2,000 years before Christ. A city of monuments and temples and ball courts had grown up the banks of the river. The game played in the courts apparently bears this relationship to soccer: It was probably illegal to use the hands. Some archaeologists believe that the games were related to warfare, and it appears likely that the losers of important games--often captured enemy soldiers--were put to death.

The structures at Copán are smaller than those found at other major Mayan sites--Tikal or Palenque or Chichén Itzá--but it was here that the culture found its fullest expression in art. If Copán was the Athens of the Mayan world, the ruler 18 Rabbit was its Pericles. One reading of the glyphs at Copán strongly suggest that 18 Rabbit was put to death after a losing effort in a nearby ball court. There may have been treachery involved, maybe warfare, but the figures carved into the stone clearly outline a pattern of pre-Columbian soccer war. Apparently, certain traditions die hard.

The Classic era at Copán lasted from about A.D. 465 to 800. Then, very rapidly it seems, the city fell into ruin. No one knows why. There might have been war or disease or famine. Some archaeologists, examining the various sedimentary layers in the riverbed, have postulated that the Copánecs simply overused their agricultural resources and that the catastrophe that devastated the Classic city was an ecological one. Slash and burn. Copán could have used a man like Octivilo Ramos.

The next day, as if to illustrate Peggy Chiu's comments about the pernicious effects of tourist dollars, a local sharpie took me to the cleaners on a fast horse deal. The agreed-upon four-hour ride lasted only three because "another tourist is waiting for your horse, señor." Rather than argue, I paid the full price. The guide stared at the money I gave him and glared at me.

"Where's my tip?" he demanded.

Since violence has bad consequences, we stood in the town square and discussed the sexual morality of our respective mothers for a time. I don't know whether the man was happy by Peggy Chiu's definition. I did notice that he was wearing a $60 pair of Reeboks.

Later that day, I found myself sitting on the ancient stones of the Mayan Acropolis and contemplating the Ozymandias Express: How could a city that produced the greatest art in all of pre-Columbian America fall into ruin in the space of a few generations? I sat there a very long time, trying to absorb what occurred to me was a very hard lesson.

Grant, I knew, planned to take his clients to Guanaja, maybe visit New Armenia with them, but skip San José in favor of Copán, which, we both thought, tended to put things in perspective. Hey, pero como? You do what you can, throw up your own version of a few stelae, and in the end only He Who Laughs prevails.

Tim Cahill is Outside's editor-at-large. His most recent book is Pecked to Death by Ducks (Vintage).

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Access & Resources: Roaming Honduras

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