October 15, 2010

Punta Sal - Jeanette Kawas National Park

arriving to theJEANETTE KAWASnational park
denseFOLIAGEup above
amazingCOLORcontrasts, your camera's best friend 
fantasticINSECTSroam all around
rock formations in mid ocean akaFARALLONESin Spanish
If you stare out to sea, say to the left from the main pier in the town of Tela, you will find the Punta Sal National Park. This wildlife refuge, located on a small peninsula some (3.5km./2.1mi) NW of the port city of Tela is comprised by some 78,400 hectares of nearly unspoiled land, which gracefully meets with the sea, creating a picturesque landscape resembling what the Spanish conquistadors might have witnessed upon their arrival to the new world. 

The park was renamed the Jeanette Kawas National Park (PNJK in Spanish) after a local environmental activist who fought against and succeeded in protecting this land from future development. It did come at a large cost, as her voice was permanently silenced in 1995 by those threatened by her actions. This terrible crime was ruled a homicide and it remains unsolved to this day.

However, because of her efforts this park is now protected by law and is currently in the short term plans for sustainable development by the Honduran tourism authorities. The PNJK has been included in the list of the top 10 Honduran protected areas to be given priority for eco-tourism development given its unique characteristics and proximity to other areas of similar biological importance. 

One of the park's most remarkable attributes includes being host to a diverse number of ecosystems; you can find at least 14 different types of habitats in the PNJK including mangroves, swampland, rivers, lagoons, rocky formations (farallones, in spanish), rocky and sandy beaches, and my favorite - coral reefs. These eclectic environments, apart from creating idyllic natural landscapes, also serve as a central breeding ground for a large number of endemic animals species that inhabit the area, thus, a great venue to see all kinds of wildlife in a single place. Given its relative isolation, the park has been spared most of the damaging effects caused by indiscriminate human exploitation, however the park itself is not completely exempt from all the exogenous pressures created by mankind (i.e. fertilizer runoff from two major rivers) which has been a major issue for the local conservation authorities over the years. It must be noted that with the Bay of Tela becoming a focal point for future tourist development, the situation could very well make a turn for the worst in no time.

Fortunately for my crew and I, those negative elements which are so detrimental to the health of this park went pretty much unseen when we went on our guided tour with Garifuna Tours during July 2010. However, we did come across a relatively large gathering which had formed at the end point of the tour, on a beautiful half moon beach (they save the best for last) which we sadly found littered by garbage most of which was not put there on purpose; this was mostly garbage carried away by the wind as a result of not having enough trash bins and/or them being filled to capacity - underlying the need for the local conservation authorities to implement adequate sustainable tourism practices

As far as Garifuna Tours is concerned, this is probably the first tour operator which comes to mind when you think of Tela and the surrounding areas. so with that in mind, we knew exactly where we were headed - straight towards their office which is located in downtown Tela, next to the main square. I could certainly go ahead and recommend this outfit given that they have been operating since the mid 1990s, and thus they possess all the experience, logistics, and personnel necessary to offer good quality service. Proof of this was properly displayed by a decent sized motorized boat which could probably fit 12-15 people comfortably, and a guide who you could tell knew his way around the place, but more importantly, had useful information to share about the park and the fauna we saw on our way. They did have a small glitch in their service, when we were told we could go snorkeling right in front of the half moon beach mentioned earlier, only to provide us with just masks and snorkels for our swim. Apparently they had forgotten that vital piece of equipment - the highly reliable fins. Take this as careful advice... NEVER ever go snorkeling without them, unless the water only goes up to your waist, or you happen to have mutant-like webbed feet. If you do decide to venture out into the deep, you most likely will end up gasping for air while returning to shore faster than you can say the word fin. Bare feet are ok if you are just gonna hang close to shore, but if you really want to see the good stuff, you will need the fins to swim for a while, through the waves and through the currents. After nearly avoiding death and becoming splattered fish feed against the rocks we were satisfied to have seen some nice coral heads and other marine life hanging out in Punta Sal. Although waves do form in the area, these are not large in size so the visibility was pretty decent, all things considered. 

Prior to that snorkeling snafu, the trip went very smoothly as we arrived to the PNJK via boat from the port of Tela (bout 30-35mins) and then we began our march, Indian style, through some of the park's winding trails. It's good to have a solid pair of walking shoes at this point, as the terrain gets rough, muddy, and slippery as you make your way into the jungle. You can find an abundance of insects along the way including butterflies, spiders of all sizes, and blue colored dragonflies creating that perfect color contrast amongst the vast greenish hues. One of the trip's highlights has got to be the Howler Monkeys pacing in the trees in front of us, and us waiting from the boat for their formidable calls to make way onto the wide open sea. 

Still, one of the park's greatest spectacles has got to be its amazing views, in particular when the trails meet the ocean. Parts of the jungle open up to sandy stretches of land while others rise up against the edge of the rocky cliffs which come in direct contact with the crashing waves as if these extraordinary formations had been pushed upwards from the depths below. Very nice indeed!