Honduras’s north coast stretches for some 300km along the azure fringes of the Caribbean. A magnet for Hondurans and foreign tourists alike, the region provides sun, sea and entertainment in abundance, especially in the coastal towns of Tela, La Ceiba and Trujillo, with their broad expanses of beach, clean warm waters, plentiful restaurants and buzzing nightlife. San Pedro Sula, the region’s major inland city and transport hub, provides amenities of a strictly urban kind. Dotted along the north coast between these main towns are a number of laidback villages blessed with unspoilt beaches. Populated by the Garífuna people, descendants of African slaves and Carib people, these villages are often very much removed from the rest of Honduran culture and society, and can feel like visiting an entirely different country.
When beach life loses its appeal, there are several natural reserves to visit in the region. The national parks of Cusuco, Pico Bonito and Capiro y Calentura, whose virgin cloudforest shelters rare wildlife, offer hiking for all levels; the wetland and mangrove swamps at Punta Sal and Cuero y Salado require less exertion to explore.
The region’s rainy season generally runs from November to January, while the hurricane season is August to October. Obviously, it’s best to visit outside of these times but you won’t necessarily be battered incessantly by rain or winds if you do visit during this period. Temperatures rarely drop below 25–28°, but the heat is usually tempered by ocean breezes. Transport is reasonably good, with frequent buses along the fast, paved highway that links the main coastal towns; as usual, reaching the remoter villages and national parks requires some forward planning.
The broad sandy beaches and clean water at Playa de Perú and the village of Sambo Creek are easy day-trip destinations east of La Ceiba. A trip to explore the cloudforest within the Parque Nacional Pico Bonito requires more planning, although the eastern edge of the reserve, formed by the Río Cangrejal, is still easily accessible, and also offers opportunities for swimming and whitewater rafting. Finally, a trip to the serene islands of the Cayos Cochinos is thoroughly worthwhile.
Lying 30km offshore, the Cayos Cochinos (Hog Islands) comprise thirteen privately owned cayes and two thickly wooded islands – Cochino Mayor and Cochino Menor. Fringed by a reef, the whole area has been designated a marine reserve, with anchoring on the reef and commercial fishing both strictly prohibited. The small amount of effort it takes to get to the islands is well worth it for a few days’ utter tranquillity.
Based in Sambo Creek, Pirate Islands Divers (3228 0009 or 9563 9172, pirateislandsdivers.com) is run by PADI Master Instructor Tony Marquez and offers two-tank diving trips, open-water courses, four-dive overnight trips and snorkelling trips.
Directly south of La Ceiba, the Cordillera Nombre de Dios shelters the Parque Nacional Pico Bonito, a remote expanse of tropical broadleaf forest, cloudforest and – in its southern reaches, above the Río Aguan valley – pine forest. Taking its name from the awe-inspiring bulk of Pico Bonito (2435m), the park is the source of twenty rivers, including the Zacate, Bonito and Cangrejal, which cascade majestically down the mountains’ steep, thickly tree-covered slopes. The park also provides sanctuary for an abundance of wildlife, including armadillos, howler and spider monkeys, pumas and ocelots. The lower fringes are the most easily accessible, with a few trails laid out through the dense greenery.
The easiest way to get into the park is to enter via the luxury Lodge at Pico Bonito, a world-class jungle lodge with bungalow accommodation, gourmet cuisine, a pool and a sublime setting in the foothills of the forest reserve. Trails from the lodge snake up through the tree cover to a lookout from where Utila is visible, and down to beautiful river bathing pools. You don’t have to be a guest at the lodge to access the park and trails, but you will have to pay a US$33 fee, which includes lunch and a guide.
The Río Cangrejal, which forms the eastern boundary of the park, boasts some of the best rapids in Central America; whitewater rafting and kayaking trips are organized by tour companies. There are also some magnificent swimming spots, backed by gorgeous mountain scenery, along the river valley.
Some 10km east of the city, Playa de Perú is a wide sweep of clean sand that’s popular at weekends. Any local bus running east up the coast (towards Trujillo) will drop you at the highway-side turn-off, from where it’s a fifteen-minute walk to the beach. About 2km beyond the turning for Playa de Perú, on the Río María, there’s a series of waterfalls and natural pools set in lush, shady forest. A path leads from Río María village on the highway, winding through the hills along the left bank of the river; it takes around thirty minutes to walk to the first cascade and pool, with some muddy sections and a bit of scrambling during the wet season.
Some 30km west from La Ceiba, the Refugio de Vida Silvestre Cuero y Salado is one of the last substantial remnants of wetlands and mangrove swamps along the north coast. The reserve is home to a large number of endangered animals and bird species, including manatees, jaguars, howler and white-faced monkeys, sea turtles and hawks, along with seasonal influxes of migratory birds.
There are deserted expanses of white sand at the friendly Garífuna village of Sambo Creek, 8km beyond the Río María. As well as the beach and a clutch of low-key seafood restaurants, there is Sambo Creek Canopy Tours and Spa, 500m beyond the village, which offers ziplining and hot springs. Boats to Cayos Cochinos also depart from Sambo Creek.
Tela is a good base for a number of attractions. These include the Garífuna villages along the bay on pristine beaches on either side of town, the Punta Sal wildlife reserve, and Lancetilla, probably the finest botanical reserve in Latin America, just 5km south of town. To get to any of these places, you can take taxis or rely on local buses, but renting a bike is probably the most enjoyable way to get around; ask at Garífuna Tours for rental information.
The Garífuna communities of the north coast have an entirely different history and culture from the mestizo people who represent the majority of Hondurans. The villages, located on quiet and expansive stretches of beach, are an interesting getaway for a few hours. Weekends are the best time to visit them, when people congregate to perform the traditional, haunting and melodic drum-driven rhythms of Garífuna music.
Heading west from Tela, a dirt road edges the bay between the seafront and the Laguna de los Micos, which forms the eastern edge of Punta Sal. Some 7km along this road is the sleepy village of Tornabé, and, beyond that, Miami, which is set on a fabulous stretch of beach at the mouth of the lagoon. Though Tornabé has a few brick-built houses, Miami consists of nothing but traditional palm-thatched huts.
The extensive grounds of the Jardín Botánico de Lancetilla, 5km south of Tela, started life in 1925 as a United Fruit species research and testing station, and over time has grown into one of the largest collections of fruit and flowering trees, palms, hardwoods and tropical plants in the world. There are also 365 recorded species of bird. Guided tours of the arboretum and birdwatching tours are available, and visitors are also free to wander along the marked trails; maps are available at the visitors’ centre at the entrance to the park. A small, refreshing swimming hole in the Lancetilla River is at the end of one of the trails.
The Parque Nacional Jeanette Kawas (prolansate.org), commonly known as Punta Sal, is a wonderfully diverse reserve encompassing mangrove swamps, coastal lagoons, wetlands, coral reef and tropical forest, which together provide habitats for an extraordinary range of flora and fauna. Jeanette Kawas, for whom the reserve is named, was instrumental in obtaining protected status for the land, in the face of intense local opposition; her murder, in 1995, has never been solved.
Lying to the west of Tela, curving along the bay to the headland of Punta Sal (176m), the reserve covers three lagoons: Laguna de los Micos, on the park’s eastern side; Laguna Tisnachí, in the centre; and the oceanfront Laguna El Diamante, on the western side of the headland. More than one hundred species of bird are present, including herons and storks, with seasonal migratory visitors bumping up the numbers; animals found in the reserve include howler and white-faced monkeys, wild pigs, jaguars and, in the marine sections, manatees and marine turtles. Boat trips along the Río Ulúa and the canals running through the reserve offer a superb opportunity to view the wildlife at close quarters. Where the headland curves up to the north, the land rises slightly to Punta Sal; a trail over the point leads to small, pristine beaches at either side.
It’s possible to visit parts of Punta Sal independently – you can rent a boat in Miami to explore the Laguna de los Micos and surrounding area – though most people opt to join an organized tour. You could also hike the scenic 8km from Miami to the headland along the beach, though you should check the security situation first and certainly not attempt it alone.
Expanses of white-sand beach stretch for kilometres around the bay from Trujillo. All beaches are clean, wide and perfect for swimming; don’t take anything valuable with you, though, and don’t venture onto them after dark.
Taking a hot bath in the heat of the Caribbean may not strike everyone as an appealing thought, but a soak in the clean and very hot mineral waters of the Aguas Calientes springs (L50), 7km inland from Trujillo, feels delightfully decadent. It’s closed most of the time, but ask the caretaker of the hotel Aguas Calientes (where the pools are located) if you can use them. Any bus heading to Tocoa will drop you off at the entrance; the last return bus leaves at around 5.30pm.
Spreading inland from a deep bay at the point where the mountains of the Sierra de Omoa meet the Caribbean, OMOA was once a strategically important location in the defence of the Spanish colonies against marauding British pirates. Its popularity with travellers has waned in recent years, thanks to a gas company’s decision to construct jetties here to protect their tanks. This has altered the current of Omoa bay, causing the beach to shrink – it is estimated that 60 percent has disappeared over the course of four years. The best beach now is to be found behind the fort.
Omoa’s one outstanding sight, the restored Fortaleza de San Fernando de Omoa, stands amid tropical greenery in mute witness to the village’s colourful history. Now isolated 1km from the coast, having been beached as the sea has receded over the centuries, the triangular fort was originally intended to protect the port of Puerto Barrios in Guatemala. Work began in 1759 but was never fully completed due to a combination of inefficiency and a labour shortage. The steadily weakening Spanish authorities then suffered the ignominy of witnessing the fortress be temporarily occupied by British and Miskito military forces in October 1779. A small museum on site tells the story of the fort and displays a selection of military paraphernalia including cannons and period weaponry.
North of San Pedro Sula, Highway CA-5 runs through the flat agricultural lands and lush tropical scenery of the Sula valley. After 60km the four-lane highway reaches the coast at PUERTO CORTÉS, Honduras’s main port. There’s nothing here to entice, and you’ll likely pass through only to change buses en route to Omoa or to hop aboard a boat for Belize.
The country’s second city and driving economic force, SAN PEDRO SULA sprawls across the fertile Valle de Sula (“Valley of the Birds” in Usula dialect) at the foot of the Merendón mountain chain, just an hour from the coast. Flat and uninspiring to look at, and for most of the year uncomfortably hot and humid, this is a city for getting business done, rather than sightseeing. It has also been dubbed the most violent city in the world, thanks to the burgeoning activities of drug gangs and traffickers. Take special precautions here (see Crime and safety).
San Pedro Sula is the transport hub for northern and western Honduras, however, which means a visit here is usually unavoidable, even if only to pass through. Luckily facilities – an international airport, foreign consulates and a wide range of hotels, restaurants and shops – rate alongside those in Tegucigalpa.
San Pedro’s dangerous reputation generally precedes it, causing most tourists to get in and out as quickly as possible. There are a few sights, however, though it is important to exercise caution and common sense when taking them in.
San Pedro’s centre is in the southwest sector of the city. Running west from the Parque Barahona, Calle 1 is also known as Boulevard Morazán for the twelve blocks before it meets the Avenida Circunvalación ring road, which separates the city centre from San Pedro’s wealthier residential districts. Most of what you’ll want to see in the city is within walking distance of the centre, and the city’s main general market is towards the southeastern edge of this area. The streets south of the market and over the old railway track are rough and are not places to be wandering around.
The Museo de Antropología e Historia(museodeantropologiadesanpedrosula.com), a few blocks north of the Parque at Av 3, C 4 NO, is worth a visit. The museum’s fine collection of pre-Columbian sculptures, ceramics and other artefacts, the majority recovered from the Sula valley, outlines the development of civilization in the region from 1500 BC onwards; weaponry and paintings from the colonial period continue the theme.
San Pedro’s central plaza, the large Parque Barahona, is the city centre’s focus, teeming with vendors, shoeshine boys and moneychangers. The Parque’s centrepiece is a large fountain with bridges and bronze statues of washerwomen beating their clothes on the rocks. On its eastern edge, the colonial-style Catedral Municipal, completed in the mid-1950s, is open to the public, but there’s nothing of particular interest inside.
There are numerous tour agencies in San Pedro Sula. Some of the best include:
Eli Gonzalez email@example.com. An independent tour guide with more than twenty years’ experience.
Jungle Expedition Banana Inn hotel, near the airport 9762 6620, junglexpedition.org. Reliable outfit offering excellent hikes into Parque Nacional El Cusuco (US$40–80), plus shuttle buses throughout the country, trips to Copán and mountain biking.
Mesoamérica Travel Col Juan Lindo, Casa 709, C 8 Av 32 NO 2558 6447 or 2558 6258, mesoamerica-travel.com. A 15min taxi ride from the centre (around L80–100), this company offers tours throughout the country, including La Mosquitia, and responds promptly to enquiries.
Sula Tours Gran Hotel Sula, northern side of the Parque Central 2545 2660 or 9618 1305, hotelsula.hn. A number of different tours, to destinations far and wide, starting at US$35.
Sitting midway around the Bahía de Tela, surrounded by sweeping beaches, TELA has a near-perfect setting. In the past, the town has suffered from a reputation for violence, but a pilot force of tourist police is substantially cleaning up the town’s image. Whether you choose to partake in the nightlife or not, the wealth of fantastic natural reserves – including Punta Sal – within minutes of the town makes Tela well worth a visit. The town is also one of the main destinations for Hondurans during Semana Santa (Easter Holy Week): it’s best to book several weeks or months ahead for that period.
Today’s Tela is a product of the banana industry. In the late nineteenth century United Fruit built a company town – Tela Nueva – here, on the west bank of the Río Tela; the old town became known as Tela Vieja. These distinctions still stand. The old town, which lies about 2km north of the highway and two blocks from the beach on the east bank of the river, encompasses the Parque Central and main shopping area. Five blocks west from the Parque Central is the Río Tela, beyond which lies Tela Nueva. A fifteen-minute stroll covers practically everything there is to see.
It’s the beaches that most people come for; those in Tela Vieja, though wide, are more crowded than the stretch of pale sand in front of the hotel Villas Telamar in Tela Nueva. Even better beaches can be found along the bay outside town – if you walk far enough in either direction you should be able to have one entirely to yourself.
Perched above the sparkling waters of the palm-fringed Bahía de Trujillo, backed by the beautiful green Cordillera Nombre de Dios, TRUJILLO immediately seduces the small number of tourists who make the 90km trip from La Ceiba. Beautifully relaxed, the city has a very different feel from its big north-coast neighbours, La Ceiba and Tela.
The area around present-day Trujillo was populated by a mixture of Pech and Tolupan groups when Columbus first disembarked here on August 14, 1502; the city itself was founded by Cortés’s lieutenant, Juan de Medina, in 1525, though it was frequently abandoned due to attacks by European pirates. Not until the late eighteenth century did repopulation begin in earnest, aided by the arrival, via Roatán, of several hundred Garífuna. In 1860, a new threat appeared in the shape of US filibusterer and adventurer William Walker, who briefly took control of the town. Executed by firing squad three months later by the Honduran authorities, he is buried in Trujillo’s cemetery.
Apart from its wonderful beaches, much of Trujillo’s charm lies in meandering through its rather crumbly streets. The town proper stretches back five or so blocks south of the Parque Central, which is just 50m from cliffs overlooking the sea. On the north side of the square is a bust of Juan de Medina, the town founder. Southwest from the centre, a couple of blocks past the market, is the Cementerio Viejo, where Walker’s grave lies overgrown with weeds – collect the key to the gate from the office in the fort.
The town’s most outstanding attractions by far are its beaches, which have long stretches of almost pristine sand. The glorious sweep of the Bahía de Trujillo is as yet unaffected by excessive tourist development, and its calm, blue waters are perfect for effortless swimming. The beaches below town, lined with champas (thatch-roofed, open-sided huts), are clean enough, but the stretches to the east, beyond the disused airstrip, are emptier. It’s also possible to walk east along the beach to the reserve of Laguna de Guaimoreto or west to the Garífuna village of Santa Fe.
In town, near the Parque Central, is the sixteenth-century Fortaleza de Santa Bárbara, site of William Walker’s execution. The low-lying fort hangs gloomily on the edge of the bluffs, overlooking the coastline that it singularly failed to protect against pirates. The museum charts the town’s often-colourful history, and has an exhibition room on Garífuna culture.
Turn right beyond the Cementerio Viejo and a ten-minute stroll brings you to the privately run Museo y Piscinas Riveras del Pedregal, an eccentric collection of rusty junk. Almost all of the original pre-Columbian ceramics once held by the museum have been sold off, though the replacement replicas are pretty convincing. Outside, the wheels of an American jumbo jet that crashed in the area in 1985 can be seen. Behind the building are a couple of small, naturally fed swimming pools.
Directly above the town lies the dark-green swathe of the Parque Nacional Capiro y Calentura. The reserve’s huge cedars and pines tower amid a thick canopy of ferns, flowering plants and vines. As a result of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Fifi in 1974, much of the cover is secondary growth, but it still provides a secure habitat for howler monkeys, reptiles and colourful birdlife and butterflies. You can walk into the reserve by following the dirt road past the Villas Brinkley – it winds, increasingly steeply, up the slope of Cerro Calentura to the radio towers just below its summit; a 10km walk, this is best done in the relative cool of early morning. Alternatively, you could negotiate with a taxi driver to take you to the top and then walk down. Unfortunately there aren’t any trail maps, so you’ll have to do a bit of exploring.