Occupying the northeast corner of Honduras is the remote and undeveloped expanse of La Mosquitia (often spelt “Moskitia”). Bounded to the west by the mountain ranges of the Río Plátano and Colón, with the Río Coco forming the border with Nicaragua to the south, this vast region comprises almost a fifth of Honduras’s territory. With just two peripheral roads and a tiny population divided among a few far-flung towns and villages, entering La Mosquitia really does mean leaving the beaten track. There are few phones in the region, and all accommodation is extremely basic, often without electricity and with latrine-style toilets. Food is usually limited to rice, beans and the catch of the day, so if you’re making an independent trek, bring enough food with you for your party and guides. Getting around requires a spirit of adventure, but the effort is well rewarded.
To the surprise of many who come here expecting to have to hack their way through jungle, much of La Mosquitia is composed of marshy coastal wetlands and flat savanna. The small communities of Palacios and Brus Laguna are access points for the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, the most famous of five separate reserves in the area, set up to protect one of the finest remaining stretches of virgin tropical rainforest in Central America. Puerto Lempira, to the east, is the regional capital.
The largest ethnic group inhabiting La Mosquitia is the Miskitos, numbering around 30,000, who spoke a unique form of English until as recently as a few generations ago. There are much smaller communities of Pech, who number around 2500, and Tawahka (Sumu), of whom there are under a thousand, living around the Río Patuca.
Some 30km east along the coast from Palacios, on the southeastern edge of the Laguna de Brus, is the friendly Miskito town of BRUS LAGUNA. The town is mostly seen by visitors as they are coming or going – regular flights connect the town with La Ceiba, and guides and boats can be hired for multi-day trips, travelling up the Río Sigre into the southern reaches of the Río Plátano reserve.
Before the Spanish arrived, La Mosquitia belonged to the Pech and Sumu. Initial contact with Europeans was comparatively benign, as the Spanish preferred to concentrate instead on the mineral-rich lands of the interior. Relations with Europeans intensified when the British began seeking a foothold on the mainland in the seventeenth century, establishing settlements on the coast at Black River (now Palacios) and Brewer’s Lagoon (Brus Laguna), whose inhabitants – the so-called “shoremen” – engaged in logging, trading, smuggling and fighting the Spanish.
Britain’s claim to La Mosquitia, made nominally to protect the shoremen, though really intended to ensure a transit route from the Atlantic to the Pacific, supposedly ended in 1786, when all Central American territories except Belize were ceded to the Spanish. In the 1820s, however, taking advantage of post-independence chaos, Britain again encouraged settlement on the Mosquito Coast and by 1844 had all but formally announced a protectorate in the area. Not until 1859 and the British–American Treaty of Cruz Wyke did Britain formally end all claims to the region.
The initial impact of mestizo Honduran culture on La Mosquitia was slight. Since the creation of the administrative department of Gracias a Dios in 1959, however, indigenous cultures have gradually become diluted: Spanish is now the main language, and the government encourages mestizo settlers to migrate here in search of land. Pech, Miskito and Garífuna communities have become more vocal in recent years in demanding respect for their cultural differences and in calling for an expansion of health, education and transport infrastructures.
Sited on what was once the British settlement of Black River, PALACIOS lies just west of one of the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve’s three coastal lagoons, Laguna Ibans. This is frequently the starting point for organized trips to the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, and, for independent travellers, a logical place from which to begin exploration of the region.
Dotted along the Caribbean shoreline around Palacios is a cluster of interesting Garífuna villages, including Batalla, just to the west of town across the Palacios lagoon, and Plaplaya, about 8km to the east, where a turtle project has been established. Highly endangered giant leatherbacks, the largest species in the world (reaching up to 3m in length and 900kg in weight), nest in the beaches around the village between April and June. Rais Ta and Belén are also worth visiting.
Capital of the department of Gracias a Dios, PUERTO LEMPIRA is the largest town in La Mosquitia, with a population of eleven thousand. Set on the southeastern edge of the biggest of the coastal lagoons, Laguna de Caratasca, some 110km east of Brus Laguna, the town survives on government administration and small-scale fishing and shrimping. Like Brus Laguna, Puerto Lempira is mostly used by travellers as a transit hub – flights connect it with the rest of Honduras, and it’s close to the border with Nicaragua.
The RÍO PLÁTANO BIOSPHERE RESERVE is the most significant nature reserve in Honduras, sheltering an estimated eighty percent of all the country’s animal species. Visitors usually come to experience the rare tropical rainforest, but the reserve’s boundaries – which stretch from the Caribbean in the north to the Montañas de Punta Piedra in the west and the Río Patuca in the south – also encompass huge expanses of coastal wetlands and flat savanna grasslands. Sadly, even its World Heritage status hasn’t prevented extensive destruction at the hands of settlers: up to 60 percent of forest cover on the outer edges of the reserve has disappeared in the last three decades.
To get the most out of the park you should head for the small Pech and Miskito village of Las Marías, where plenty of prospective guides are available to help you explore the river and surrounding jungle for US$10–15 a day. One pleasant, if rather wet, trip you can make is by pipante (pole-propelled canoe), five hours upstream to rock petroglyphs at Walpaulban Sirpi, carved by an unknown people – these are more or less at the heart of the reserve. The journey itself is the main attraction, along channels too shallow for motorized boats to pass; in sections you’ll be required to leave the boat and make your way through the undergrowth. Pipantes require three guides each, but carry only two passengers and cost around US$30 (excluding guides).