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.
CATACAMAS, midway along the Valle de Catacamas beneath the southern flanks of the Sierra de Agalta, is a smaller version of Juticalpa. The fact that it’s at the end of one of the paved roads through the region contributes to the affable, small-town charm of the place. It certainly has a more spectacular setting than its larger neighbour: a short walk up to the Mirador de la Cruz, fifteen minutes from the centre on the northern side of town, gives superb views over the town and valley.
The main reason for coming out this far is to visit the local Cuevas de Talgua, one of the country’s foremost historical sites.
Located 8km northeast of town on the banks of the Río Talgua, the Cuevas de Talgua are notable for the discovery here of a prehistoric burial ground featuring hundreds of skeletons arranged in chambers deep underground. Though the burial ground itself is out of bounds to visitors, the rest of the site has been developed for tourists, with a museum telling the tale of the finds and trails leading through the caves.
Situated towards the southern end of the Valle de Catacamas, about 170km from Tegucigalpa, JUTICALPA is a pleasant little provincial city where the streets are busy night and day with bustle and commerce – it can be a refreshing place to spend a few days. The focal point is the leafy Parque Banderas, which includes a small pool of rather disgruntled-looking turtles. The majority of facilities are on the streets around here. The general market stretches for a few blocks to the west, along Calle Perulapan. When the town’s attractions have worn thin, try the cinema at Calle 1, Avenida 2–3.
Some 20km east of Juticalpa, MONUMENTO NACIONAL EL BOQUERÓN, one of the last remaining tracks of dry tropical forest in Honduras, is home to a wide variety of wildlife, including more than 250 species of bird.
To see the forest properly, you’ll want to hike the moderately strenuous main trail through the reserve. The trail runs from where the bus drops you off near the Puente Boquerón bridge to a point a few kilometres west of the main entrance; the walk is manageable in one day if you get an early start.
Follow the track starting on the left-hand side of the Río Olancho – though it crosses over several times, so be prepared to wade – and after about a kilometre the path enters the gorge, eventually emerging onto the floodplain at the other side. From here it is around two more easy hours through level pastureland to the village of La Avispa. Beyond the village, the path loops steeply uphill and through the cloudforest section of the park; you have a pretty good chance of seeing some of the country’s elusive bird and animal life here, including mixed flocks of brightly coloured trogons and quetzals that feed together at fruit trees. The reserve is also the only known Honduran location of the white-eared ground sparrow, fairly easily seen in the undergrowth. Beyond the cloudforest the walk is downhill all the way, with the path finally emerging a few kilometres later on the highway at Tempisque, west of the main entrance.
Draped across the sweeping ranges of the Sierra de Agalta, the vast PARQUE NACIONAL SIERRA DE AGALTA shelters the most extensive stretch of virgin cloudforest remaining in Central America. Though the area has been designated a protected area since 1987, large stands of pine and oak in the lower parts of the park have nonetheless still been logged, and much of the land cleared for cattle pasture. The higher reaches of the mountains, however (including Honduras’s fourth-highest peak, La Picucha), are so remote that both vegetation and wildlife have remained virtually untouched. Here a typical cloudforest of oaks, liquidambar and cedar, draped in vines and ferns, covers the slopes up to about 2000m, where it gives way to a dwarf forest.
In addition to the flora, the park’s isolation ensures a protected, secure environment for a biologically diverse range of mammals and birds, many of them extremely rare. Tapirs, jaguars, ocelots, opossums and three types of monkey are among the species of mammal recorded. More evident are the birds, of which more than four hundred species have been sighted.