Stretching east of Tegucigalpa to the Nicaraguan border and north into the emptiness of La Mosquitia, the sparsely populated uplands of Olancho are widely regarded as the “Wild East” of Honduras: an untamed frontier region with a not entirely undeserved reputation for lawlessness. Over time, everyone from the first Spanish settlers to the Honduran government has had trouble imposing law and order here, and in many respects today is no different: the region’s profitable cattle-ranching industry (which has encroached into national parks and other protected areas) and the logging of its massive forests (much of which is done illegally) have led to the creation of a powerful local oligarchy supported by military and police connivance. As a result, environmental issues have been sidelined, and activists have been threatened and even killed.
Despite Olancho’s size – it makes up a fifth of Honduras’s total territory – tourist attractions are few, and its high, forested mountain ranges interspersed with broad valleys make getting from place to place difficult and slow. However, these same ranges harbour some of the country’s last untouched expanses of tropical forest and cloudforest: the national parks of El Boquerón and Sierra de Agalta are awe-inspiring. Along the valleys, now given over to pastureland for cattle, are scattered villages and towns. Both Juticalpa, the department capital, and Catacamas, at the eastern end of the paved road, are good bases for exploring the region.
Olancho’s climate is generally pleasant, with the towns at lower altitudes hot during the day and comfortably cool at night; up in the mountains it can get extremely cold after dark. Once off the main highway, travelling becomes arduous, with the dirt roads connecting villages served by infrequent and invariably slow public transport.