June 27, 2013

The Cuero y Salado Wildlife Refuge: A Less Conventional Tourist Destination


Are you tired of reading about the same old places that appear over and over again in most Honduran tourism websites or magazines (e.g. Bay Islands and Copan), and would like to be exposed to something perhaps a little less conventional? If that is your case, then I have a wild and exotic destination just for you – one which is located so much off the beaten track that the actual thought of bringing a sharp machete to clear the dense brush or to fend off against creeping snakes and crocodiles may not seem like such a bad idea. The place I have in mind is the Cuero y Salado Wildlife Refuge (CSWR), which given its relative isolation and lack of commercial promotion has virtually gone off the travel radar, even though it has been blessed with an abundant biodiversity and some of the most spectacular natural landscapes in all of Honduras. It addition to these already amazing features the CSWR has one of the most original entrances to a nature park ever imagined; access is gained via motorized transport, not the type you would expect and definitely one with Honduran public transportation’s typical abandonment written all over it, yet, this unorthodox mode of transport has all the elements of a historical ride, as you will soon read on. 

amazingLANDSCAPESin theCSWR
Its unique entrance is located in the small community of La Union, some 35 minutes away from the city of La Ceiba via the Ceiba-Tela main road. There you can leave your car parked at a cost of HNL 30.00 per day (Dec. 2012 prices). If you are left wondering where the park’s unusual name comes from, this is not hard to figure out once you realize that the park has two main waterways, the Cuero River and the Salado River, which converge to create this jungle refuge in the Honduran tropics. It is made up of 13,225 hectares, comprised mostly of subtropical wetlands, marshes and swamps, with another handful of canals flowing quietly into the Atlantic. The place has pretty much gone unspoiled except for the occasional tourist and the local fishermen who use the rivers for transit; some have gone as far as to compare it with the Honduran Mosquitia, definitely our most virgin and least explored territory and our equivalent to the Amazon Rainforest.

amazingSEAESCAPESin theCSWR
I first had the chance to witness the CSWR’s natural splendor during the month of November 2012 when I was invited by Alejandro Gallo to tag along in what was more of a reconnaissance mission, than anything else. Gallo needed to scout the area in order to find an adequate route for one of his future expeditions with the outdoor school, MSSOA (to learn more about MSSOA follow this link). This required covering an extensive area of the CSWR, including some sections of the park not usually reserved for tourists. 

MSSOAcamp for local nature guides
For my second visit, I once again joined efforts with Gallo and MSSOA, yet on this occasion our mission was a little bit different. The objective was more educational this time, with team MSSOA (made up of an enterprising and dynamic group of six twenty-somethings), organizing a three day seminar instructing the local nature guides on how to set up and run a summer camp. Given my tourism background and friendship with Gallo, I was asked if I could pitch in as a guest lecturer; naturally, I did not hesitate to help and contributed with some technical recommendations and creative business ideas which the guides could easily apply to improve their customer service and the overall quality of their operations. I can honestly say we felt very proud that the seminar went so well, considering the guides actively participated in all of the activities and seemed very receptive towards this new found knowledge.
 
However, an unexpected series of events gave this second trip an alternative storyline worth narrating over and over again; you see, on the very last night of the seminar, just as we were starting to fall sleep after a long but accomplished workday, we were suddenly startled by a gargantuan boom that shook the earth below us. There was a thunderstorm going on so there was no reason to panic, am I right? Well, if you read the epilogue from the previous entry then you already knew we were visiting the CSWR on the 21st of December – and if you had any notion of current events around that time or the days or months prior, you probably also were aware of the apocalyptic circumstances being associated with this special date from some far away ancient civilization. It just so happened that this distant civilization everybody was talking about was the Mayan, and guess where we were standing? – Pretty much in the epicenter of it all considering Honduras is Mayan territory; except that since this subject matter is so close to our roots, we practically already knew all the facts behind it; sorry for the Armageddon prophecy lovers out there, but this moment in time simply marked the end of the Mayan Calendar and the beginning of a new era, thus, there was nothing to stress about… or was there? No thanks to the constant barrage of television programs, documentaries, news reports, and all other media imaginable intrinsically connecting this date to the end of the world and quite possibly four “amicable” trotting horsemen, we basically had this idea in the back of our heads that something terrible might eventually happen; specially, after setting up camp in the middle of nowhere (next to a river and a few hundred meters away from the ocean), whilst bugging each other with things like, “look over there, is that a tsunami?” or “why is there a black hole in the sky?”. Add total darkness and six hours of torrential rains later, in addition to having seen the unusual interplanetary alignment which had been predicted by the Mayans to go with it, and you will automatically crawl back into your sleeping bag after the faintest sound, not to mention, the loudest thunder you have ever heard in your lifetime! Fortunately this incident never evolved into an end of days scenario, but it did turn into that special story to tell that will forever be linked to this remarkable place, and consequently a good laugh.  
  
theCUERO RIVER BARa bird sanctuary
be on the look out forMANATEESin this pictoresqueESTUARY
But back to my eye-opening introduction to the Cuero y Salado Wildlife Refuge from my first trip. Gallo had said to me that I was going to love this place but to be honest, I had no clue as to what to expect, in fact, I didn’t even know where to find it on a map. Truth is, I imagined it to be a mountain park with some backwoods trails which we would later hike, instead, this park is spread out flat and is more than half wetland including a 12km coastline and some of the most spectacular seascapes made in Honduras. A boat is a requirement if you want to see its entirety – so with the help of local guide Eric Herrera, we slowly navigated down the river and through narrow canals which could only be reached by boat. For a while there, I felt like Captain Willard going up the Nung River to put an end to Colonel Kurtz, but seriously – arrow slinging natives aside, the terrain turned quickly into a wet marsh, engulfed by dense mangroves and a tightly knit aquatic weed growing on the river’s surface making trespassing by motorboat a careful endeavor. We did manage to stay clear past the tangling weeds and made our way across a broad river and onto a mirror-like estuary, just pausing for a second in the middle of the lagoon, allowing us the pleasure of admiring the lavish vegetation and exotic panoramic views this park has for show. It was so peaceful and beautiful, there was no one around to make a sound, and all we could hear was the occasional bird calling and the water flowing downstream, definitely nature at its best. I don’t want this to be an overstatement, but this place really turned out to be an unexpected assault to the senses – the waterways, and in particular a small section in the estuary, meshed together perfectly with the blue skies above creating a unique composition worthy of a painting to be framed and admired – the Cuero River bar with the large amounts of bird species flocking together and crashing waves in position behind them seemed to have been taken out of Darwin’s notes from the Galapagos Islands – and the sounds, oh man, the sounds of the tropical jungle where just as imposing to say the least. It all started with me waking up at 4:30am to the echoing sounds of howling monkeys hollering away from left to right and then back again. They are said to be the loudest animals on land with their howls traveling as far as 3mi/4.8km through dense forests, proof of which I got to listen for myself, as their haunting, Jurassic Park-style vocalizations sounded off until 5:00am; at about which time, it was the turn for the local birds to perform their little Ode to Joy to a brand new day. One bird in particular chirped in a somewhat comical, 80s-like computer game tweet, you had to hear for yourself to believe. 

 theRED EYED GREEN FROGa.k.a, Kermit the Frog
another nice sighting, aPORCUPINEtrying to stay dry
NIGHT-TIMEphotography
As mentioned earlier, the CSWR also has a rich and diverse ecosystem with an abundant amount of wildlife located in a single place; definitely more than what I have seen in all of my travels throughout Honduras combined. So with the expertise and talent of our local nature guide Eric (who is the son of Dona Fatima, the local matriarch who provided us with food and a place to set up our tents), we set out to find some of those hard to find species not easily seen by the unsuspecting tourist. This included the almost undetectable red-eyed, green frog, a beautiful creature we were longing to see from the moment we arrived at the park. It is not easy to spot this green amphibian as its skin color blends well with the tropical rainforest, but Eric knew exactly how to find it; simply go after dusk and follow its call – and that’s how within 30 minutes of literally playing Marco Polo with Kermit the frog, Eric had located our little friend with his powerful headlamp. The search turned up yet a second unusual sighting, an adorable furry porcupine in plain sight perched up on a tree in front of us. These unique animal encounters are not so common in everyday life, so all of us immediately had our cameras drawn to take advantage of this unexpected photo op with these two gracious Honduran natives. Let there be no doubt, if you ever decide to pay a visit to the CSWR and you are in need of a guide to show you around plus you want to see cool stuff, then Eric-the Human Spotting Scope, should be your man. He’s not only good at spotting animals on land; he also has the uncanny ability of spotting wildlife by air and sea, no translation needed. In fact, birds are his true specialty, so much that had I not already christened him as the Human Spotting Scope, his nickname would have been Eric “the Birdman” Herrera as he is an avian connoisseur if I ever met one; he obviously knows their territory, their gender, whether their young or adult, and when it is the perfect time to find them – everything an knowledgeable bird watcher requires.

the roseateSPOONBILL
morePELICANS
According to FUCSA, the foundation in charge of the protection of this wildlife sanctuary, a 1991 study revealed close to 200 bird species living in the area, with those most visible being the orioles, toucans, woodpeckers, herons, parrots, and kingfishers, just to name a few. To be modest, the varied assortment of birds found in the CSWR is so impressive that even the most experienced bird watching aficionado can have a moment of truth with a specific bird, as evidenced by Gallo’s overly excited reaction after seeing for the first time his favorite bird of prey, the Peregrine Falcon. He must have taken at least 100 photos of this exceptional bird, said to be the fastest animal on the planet. Even Eric who is a long time visitor to this park was really surprised to see a specific flock of ducks floating nearby; a species which apparently is not endemic to the area and is rarely seen in the CSWR. I was just as equally amazed to witness how effortless it was to see these fantastic birds all at once, considering it only took one morning of patrolling the river to find them – but wait, there is more. 
aMANATEEon display in the visitor's center
I cannot go without mentioning the first prize, the Sasquatch encounter of a lifetime, that native creature everybody hopes to see in this park but rarely has the opportunity to come across one. Of course I am talking about the beautiful but endangered manatee. Like I said, Eric also demonstrated his ability to spot animals by sea, as this encounter took place during our brief pause in the estuary; and it was not just one, but rather two or perhaps even three of these slow-moving, marine mammals which surfaced intermittently close to the Cuero River Bar, unfortunately, we only got a brief look at their snouts, backs, and their tails, given that as soon as we tried to get close, they quickly descended and disappeared from view. Still, I must recognize that catching even a small glimpse of these peaceful creatures has to be up there as one of the best life-experiences that someone who appreciates nature can have.    

observe the solar panels in theVISITOR CENTER
It is important to point out that there are no Ritz Carltons in the CSWR, just very basic accommodation in the visitor center as well as some tents available for rent; as a matter of fact, there isn’t even electricity in the community, with many of the locals using solar panels for their electric needs; at least in the visitor’s center you can find a working bathroom in fairly decent condition which can save you from “going in the bush”, literally. There are also no restaurants in the neighborhood either, just a small pulperia (store with snacks), however, if you are in the mood for a home cooked meal, you can purchase very wholesome food at an affordable price from the locals at Barra Salado, just ask for Eric’s mom. 

ALL ABOARDon the CSWR EXPRESS
remnants from theBANANA PLANTATIONSof yore
There was however, that one special feature at the CSWR which I alluded to in the starting paragraph which really stood out and needs to be explained; and this was no natural wonder; I am talking about that man-made means of transportation used to gain entrance to the park – the old train. Yes, you read correctly, there is an actual working train that takes you into the heart of the reserve. It is no safari type jeep, you actually hop on a train wagon which barely fits 10 comfortably, but which more often than not is filled to excess of 20 or so passengers with some of them standing on wooden planks strategically located on each side. It is a remnant of the Standard Fruit Company, one of those foreign companies which established camp in the north coast of Honduras during the late 1800s, exploiting the banana fruit and coconuts while exercising their powerful influence in Honduran politics, giving birth to the derogatory term “Banana Republic”. It should be noted that this transport is not really a train, it is more of a motorized car adapted to use the rails as facilitators; no matter its original design, it is one of the few operational railways left from the National Railway System which offers this “historic” line deep into the jungle.

These were just a few of the most enduring impressions left on me by the CSWR. After what I saw, there is no doubt in my mind that this place in an incredible tourist destination with plenty of tourism potential deserving further investment by the local tourism authorities. Many a repeat visits are needed, as one trip is definitely not enough to fully appreciate the poster-worthy scenery, biodiversity (in particular bird diversity), and historical background, this gorgeous wildlife refuge has to offer; trust me, it leaves such a good first impression, you will leave wanting more – and that is why it only took me a couple of weeks to come back for a second tour.