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by Tyll Sass, West End, Roatan, 2002
Off in the distance, behind La Ceiba, on the North Coast of Honduras, stands a peak usually shrouded by clouds and mist. At 8000 feet plus, it houses an ancient forgotten jungle with many waterfalls pouring down from its nearly vertical walls.
Jungle expert, Paul David, and his trusty sidekick Tyll brave the rugged terrain up the slopes into the heights of the Pico Bonito National Park. Our native guide, Christiano with "Terrible", his dog, lead us through thick rainforest, up into the cloud forest along a steep path at the edge of the Zacate River Gorge. It is an intense 3-hour hike from the first waterfall to another waterfall that is at around 2000 feet. The jungle is very beautiful here, and it is not uncommon for us to see up to five or six blue morphis butterflies at any given trip.
The blue morphis is world-famous and people come here from all over the world to see it. It is about 5 inches wide and around 4 inches long. Its color is bright blue and black on top. When it lands, it folds its wings up and, underneath, the wings are brown and perfectly camouflaged to look like tree bark or leaves. This makes it seem to disappear when it lands.
The jungle is the same as it was hundreds of years ago, no chopping, burning, or hunting has been allowed for many years. Real wild jungle animals abound. The river gets its name from the "Zacate" grass, a forked clinging sawgrass that grows everywhere up and around the river.
The modest cost of the trip is well worth this once-in-a-lifetime experience. The SOSA flight leaves at 7:00 a.m. from Roatan Airport and, as soon as "liftoff" is achieved, the pilot turns on the cloudforest mist and rain simulator to let the eco-trip candidates feel the "real thing." At this point, Paul David and I dawn umbrellas, which are included in the packs provided for each participant. Each pack contains hat poncho, insect repellent, 3 liters of drinking water, binoculars, and boots for those who need them.
The bus from the Goloson Airport (La Ceiba) takes us to a privately owned ranch at the foot of the peak, from where a short hike takes us to the first waterfall that comes from the inside of a large cave. There, we cross the river (usually by balancing on a long plank).
On this day, a 60- (plus) year-old financially challenged hippie called Ed was making his way towards the plank. He was covered in tattoos and hat lots of piercings adorned with stainless steel pins and rings; he even had a tattoo on a round bald spot that was on top of his head of a skull cap! He had somehow wandered onto a patch of slime, just above a pool about 20 feet below. He started moving. His feet looked to be planted solidly and, as gravity took over, he gathered momentum and his movements mimicked the Michael Jackson "moon walk." Somehow, Paul David was close enough to grab him by the collar as he was going down.... avoiding the long, slippery slide into the pool below. After we pulled both of them back to level ground, I retrieved his camera from the edge of the rock using a forked stick.
Picture of a Stream in Honduras
Picture of Honduras Pico
After everyone has crossed, we start up a flight of 201 steps carved and built into the mountainside. It is around 8 o'clock, and at this early hour, mere wisps of moisture surround the ancient peak. Sometime around noon, heavy clouds will roll down into the Zacate Gorge that will produce the rain that keeps one of the last cloud and rainforests alive. Just before that hour, we plan to be back at the ranch, eating our gourmet roast chicken and potato salad lunch.
At the top of the near vertical steps, there is a clearing with a magnificent view of the pineapple fields and the ocean around La Ceiba. At this point, an eco-candidate, whom we will call "Gilligan", had to be "med-o-vac'd" back down the steps and, after consulotation, it was decided he should observe restraint around and near the beer and lunch coolers.
"I'll catch up." I explained.
"Not a good idea!" exclaimed Christiano.
"Why?" I retorted.
"Jaguar bait!" he answered.
On the way down with Gilligan, two wild turkeys dive-bombed two other turkeys.... (and nearly made us jump off the 201st stair step, they flew so close).
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When I caught up with the others, the trail had narrowed, and the tree-canopied jungle darkened the day. Christiano pointed out plants and trees used for food, medicine, or building as Paul David translates into English. Then Christiano points to some fresh jaguar tracks; we're not the only ones using this trail.... The trail becomes very steep and we take abreak at a small bridge close to a painted sign that designates the park boundary. But not for long -- Terrible has somehow flushed out the jaguar, and they go crashing around the underbrush with lots of growling and barking. We closed ranks immediately and speedily made for high country. As the barking became distant, we imagined the dog as jaguar lunch! Then we arrived at a huge ceiba tree that Christiano said is more than 700 years old! It looked to be 12-15 feet in diameter and had fallen across the river clear to the other side as a result of Hurricane Mitch (October, 1998). The tree is truly spectacular and there is another one, live and exactly the same size, within a few feet of the huge upturned roots. Then came another small bridge where we took a rest. I took my canteen out and took a huge swig - aach! It's Italian red wine! It seemed that in the morning, when I reached into the fridge, I must have grabbed the wrong canteen.... oh well, this ain't so bad.
Mine is the heavy pack; it contains 150 feet of nylon rope, three sets of gloves, two first aid kids including snake bite kids, 2 liters of water (not wine), one machete, one Bowie knife, a folding saw, one set of extra clothes, two cans of tuna, and one can of beef ravioli (Sure Fine), binoculars, a VHF radio, and an industrial size can opener....!
Then, after a 30-minute hike through dark and dense jungle, we arrived at a clearing and were treated to a view of a spectacular 160-ft waterfall that emits a fine, misty spray covering the surrounding boulders. After a 30-minute break here, we made our way back down into the Gorge near the giant ceiba tree for the final river crossing. Someone spotted a pair of water nutria (lutra longi caudus), but the shy creatures quickly disappeared under the water. These nutria can weigh up to 30 lbs, catch fish, and hold their breaths for up to 8 minutes. They look like otters, but have short tails, around 2 inches.
At this point, we decided it would be easier to hand the backpacks across the river. The eco-candidates were already across, Christiano on the other side, Paul in the middle, and me on the side with the backpacks. I had a pack in each hand and 'hopped' over a slippery spot. That 'hop' landed me on an even more slippery spot, and I found myself slideing toward the river at a good clip. By the time I landed in the river, I was on my back, holding the packs high. As I 'surfed' past Paul (who was balancing on a rock), he managed to grab the packs just before Iwent under. After I fished myself out of the river, everyone agreed that, since the backpacks were dry, I now held the rank of "river expert...."
After the crossing, we climbed straight up for about 500 feet where there is an open area with a beautiful view of the pass behind us, and we could see the mountain tops, now covered in clouds that are slowly rolling down towards us. At this point, we reached a small plateau where there are huge ferns, and the plants are different from the high canopy in the Gorge.
One plant is called "donkey dong" (and certainly there is a resemblence). Then Christiano pointed to some small green fruit that grows in pairs "Monkey balls" he stated.... "Colito mono," (monkey tail) Paul explained. I pointed to something (that I didn't have a clue as to what it was....) "Vibrating bush"....
Suddenly someone spots a long green snake on some rocks -- Terrible charged! The snake attacked, barely missing the dog's ear. "Tomagas!" yelled Christiano. It is a tommy-goff and extremely poisonous! The dog and the snake (thrashing wildly with his tail) go round and round. Then the snake and dog crossed the path right in the middle of the fleeing hikers, crossing right in front of Bong-Bong, Paul's girlfriend, who went straight up an almost vertial 'slope' into the jungle. Meanwhile, the snake and dog were at the edge of the cliff and Christiano threw a huge rock. Snake, dirt, and rock, went over the edge and landed in the gorge with a crash! Terrible was balanced on the edge looking down and barking.
At this point, we begin our steep descent using tree roots for handholds. One can hear the clack-clack of a flock of toucans. Christiano pointed to one on a limb above us, the lime green billed toucan, very rare.
Then we proceeded with Christiano in the lead, followed by Paul. Suddenly Christiano signaled everyone to a halt! There was a fer-de-lance coiled up, resting just inches off the path between him and Paul. Luckily it was not hunting! The park ranger with us nodded and Christiano made three snakes out of one: the one with the head crawled slowly away...
Picture of "swimming pool" in the
Picture of Traveler Cooling Off
On this eco-adventure, we had two gentlemen well into their 70's who had done exceptionally well so far. As I always bring up the rear, they were in front of me. One had the name "Moe" (Larry and Curly were close behind) At the beginning ot the trip, I had cut him a walking stick. We were the last ones to go down the steep trail ending at the waterfall, where we had first crossed the river. We were well behind the front of the group when Moe put his walking stick into a hole at the base of a tree containing a hornet's nest. At that point everyone went wild. Moe ran across the boulders below the waterfall and dove in. Others threw down their packs and jumped into the river, arms flailing. Killer bees was the first thing to come into my mind! Paul and Christiano were too far ahead to get stung, Terrible went yipping off into the jungle and disappeared. I tried to get "Curly" back up the trail away from the fiasco but, by this time, he was exhausted. A young couple in front of us, but behind Moe, had made an 'otter slide' straight to the River, avoiding the bee area, sliding down the side of the mountain and landing in some bushes on the river bank without apparent harm. Well, I put Curly on the slide and followed close behind. After extracting ourselves from a glob of muddy bushes, and figuring out that the hornets were not killer bees, we slogged back to the ranch in the rain. Everyone was too worn out to snorkel in the pool under the waterfall (filled with beautiful tropical fish). All I wanted was a beer!
Christiano commented "I guess the bees got Terrible"
"The jaguar didn't get him" mused Paul.
"Neither did the snake" I added.
"Brave dog" lauded Moe, with tears in his eyes (from the bee stings).
Thanks to our ponchos and umbrellas, we made it back to the large comfortable veranda surrounding the ranch house, without getting too much wetter.... When we arrived, there was Terrible waiting, wet and muddy, with his tongue hanging out.
"Well, he knows where the chicken's at" Moe said.
Someone said "Well we didn't really SEE the jaguar...."
While Paul was handing out the lunches, he commented, "But we heard him!"
Taxiing down the runway later, five people including me, saw a big jaguar loping alongside the runway towards the jungle, its long tail gracefully bouncing in stride....
Tyll Sass, besides holding up his role as one of Roatan's longest running and most colorful ex-pats, is the owner of Tyll's Dive in West End, Roatan, in the Bay Islands of Honduras.
About the Rainforest Photos on this page: To view full-size, high resolution versions of these (and many other) Pico Bonito photos, please click this Webshots, Photos of Honduras Travel, La Ceiba, and Pico Bonito National Park link.
Check the sites below for exciting Pico Bonito Rainforest (and other) tours: