When the Tough Get Going...

Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve

Oct 1, 1998
Outside Magazine

Look closely at a map of Honduras and you'll notice the entire province of Gracias a Dios has not a single road leading to the rest of the country. This is La Mosquitia, the legendary Mosquito Coast, of which nearly two million acres of rainforest, savanna, mangrove swamps, and lagoons have been protected since 1980 as the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve.
The best way in is to catch a short flight from the north-coast towns of La Ceiba or Trujillo out to Palacios, a small village at the mouth of the Río Sico. Circling Palacios in one of Aerolíneas Islena's weathered, 19-passenger turbo-props, you might begin to wonder where the landing strip is. Fear not—it's the grassy field in the center of town, right next to that wreck of an earlier flight.

After your plane bumps to a halt, head for the docks just past the Islena office to catch a water taxi ($3) to the Butterfly Farm in Raistá, a small village on a narrow strip of sand between lagoon and ocean. The farm—which sells larvae to U.S. zoos and research institutes—and the adjacent guesthouse are run by a lanky, amiable Miskito named Eddie Bodden. His place is much quieter than the two hotels in Palacios and has the added bonus of a deserted Caribbean beach a couple hundred yards away. Manatees frequent the shallow, calm lagoon.
Bodden can help arrange for a boat up the Río Plátano to Las Marías, a small Miskito and Pech village in the heart of the reserve. Gas is expensive out here, so don't be surprised at the price: around $80 round-trip, plus $10 for each night the captain spends in Las Marías waiting to ferry you back. If you're not already with a group, try to hook up with a few other travelers to split the cost. The tuk-tuks (so called for the unhurried chugging sound of the ancient outboards) take six to eight hours to reach Las Marías, so bring a towel for the hard seat and a hat for the sun—and ask your captain to brake for especially swim-worthy eddies. Along the river's winding route you'll pass Miskito families in slender, mahogany dugout pipantes: women and children huddled in the middle, men standing up in back to impart leverage to the long poles they use for propulsion.
By the time you've secured a two-dollar bed in one of Las Marías's five unmarked "hotels"—stilted wooden buildings set high on a bluff above the river—Martin Herrera will no doubt have made himself known to you. Leader of the local guiding cooperative, Herrera arranges all trips, at fixed prices and led by a rotating crew of 80-odd guides. The best outing is the four-day journey south along the unpopulated upper reaches of the river, where you'll see otters, packs of howler monkeys, and even six-foot-wingspan king vultures. Overnight trips cost $22 per pipante per day, which includes the three guides needed to pole the boat upriver. Each dugout holds two tourists plus supplies.
A few hours south of Las Marías is the mysterious petroglyph of Walp'ulban'sirpi (the Miskito word means "small carved stone"), a two-headed serpent etched into a river boulder. If you camp nearby, the next morning you'll reach the Class II Brokwell rapids, named for an American gold miner who lost all his gear here in the '50s. To avoid Brokwell's fate, the guides will portage if the river is high. A bit farther upstream is Walp'ulban'tara ("big carved stone"), more extensive petroglyphs depicting monkeys, birds, and human figures.
If you make it this far, it's worth traveling at least one more day upriver into the rainforest near the confluence with the Río Cuyamel, where you'll have a good chance of seeing rare tapir and wildcats long since hunted down closer to Las Marías. Unfortunately, many guides see these trips as a great opportunity to go on a backwoods hunting binge, occasionally even spearing a monkey and offering to share bites of the highly coveted brain. If you'd rather avoid such gourmet morsels, insist that you don't want them to hunt for you and do your best to discourage hunting for themselves. Though you may have trouble understanding them unless your Spanish is good, the guides are immensely knowledgeable about the surrounding jungle. One of their favorite stunts is to reach up and grab a thick bejuco de uva vine, slash it open with a machete, and quench your party's thirst with the water stored inside.
With the current at your boat's stern, you'll be back in Palacios in no time, availing yourself not of vine juice but of the aptly named Salvavida (Lifesaver) beer. Damn tasty, both beverages. But as you pack up and get ready to brave the flight home, odds are that the flavor of the quietly gathered raindrops is the one that's trickled deeper into your imagination.

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