Some 190km east along the coast from San Pedro Sula, steamy LA CEIBA, the lively capital of the department of Atlántida, is the gateway to the Bay Islands. Although the town is completely bereft of architectural interest and its sandy beaches are strewn with rubbish, it does enjoy a remarkable setting at the steep slopes of the Cordillera Nombre de Dios. La Ceiba is home to a cosmopolitan mix of inhabitants, including a large Garífuna community, and really comes into its own at night, with visitors and locals gathering to take part in the city’s vibrant dance scene.
Ceiba, as it’s generally known, owes its existence to the banana industry: the Vaccaro Brothers (later Standard Fruit and now Dole) first laid plantations in the area in 1899 and set up their company headquarters in town in 1905. Although fruit is no longer shipped out through La Ceiba, the plantations are still important to the local economy, with crops of pineapple and African palm now as significant as bananas.
Most things of interest to visitors lie within a relatively small area of the city, around the shady and pleasant Parque Central, with its busts of Honduran historical heroes. The unremarkable whitewashed and powder-blue cathedral sits on the Parque’s southeast corner. Running north from the Parque almost to the seafront, Avenida San Isidro, together with Avenida Atlántida and Avenida 14 de Julio, frame the main commercial district, with shops, banks, a couple of supermarkets and the main municipal market. Stroll a block west of the Parque and you’ll find the Oficinas del Ferrocarril Nacional, which is planted with tropical vegetation and dotted with museum-piece train carriages, many dating from the days of the peak of the banana trade.
All the beaches within the city limits are too polluted and dirty, even for the most desperate. It’s better to head east to the much cleaner beaches a few kilometres out of town. Calle 1, at the northern end of town near the seafront, extends east from the old dock and over the river estuary into Barrio La Isla, a quieter residential district, mainly home to Garífuna.
The most exciting time to be in La Ceiba (book well in advance) is during Carnaval, a week-long bash held every May to celebrate the city’s patron saint, San Isidro. Dances and street events in various barrios around town culminate in an afternoon parade on the third Saturday. The 200,000 or so partygoers who attend Carnaval every year flock between the street events and the clubs on Calle 1 in the Zona Viva, where the dancing continues until dawn.
A couple of well-run companies offer tours to the surrounding area and further afield.
La Moskitia Ecoaventuras 2441 3279 or t 9929 7532, lamoskitia.hn. Jorge Salaverri is an expert on La Mosquitia and the Río Plátano, and his company also offers tours to Pico Bonito (from US$35), Cuero y Salado and Cayos Cochinos (both from US$53), plus rafting (from US$35) and sea-kayaking (from US$35). Its office is located in Colonia Toronjal 2 close to Megaplaza mall: turn right at Pollitos La Cumbre, continue for two blocks then turn right again.
Omega Tours Río Cangrejal valley, 19km from La Ceiba 2440 0334 or 9631 0295, omegatours.info. Extensive range of tours including rafting, kayaking, horseriding (from US$76) and trips to Cayos Cochinos and La Mosquitia. All start at their lodge, which borders both Pico Bonito and Nombre de Dios parks, and prices include a night’s stay.
About 1km south of the plaza is the private Museum of Butterflies and Insects, Etapa 2, Casa G-12, Colonia El Sauce, where more than 12,000 specimens from 68 countries are on view, though almost three-quarters are native species. Displays explain trapping techniques, and there are videos in English and Spanish.