Since Cayman Airways relaunched its direct flight connection to La Ceiba, Honduras, last summer. Cayman residents have access to a holiday destination that could not be any more different. Although Honduras offers the Caribbean Bay Islands of Roatan, Utila and Guanaja, located not far from La Ceiba, , it is eco-tourism in the rain forests of the surrounding national parks that dominates the region’s tourist attractions.
“We have several different national parks, Pico Bonito National Park probably being the biggest icon,” says John Dupuis, president of La Ceiba Tourism Chamber. He also lists the Nombre de Dios National Park, Cayos Cochinos Marine Park, and the Cuero y Salado Wildilfe Refuge, a mangrove area and habitat to much exotic wildlife, from crocodiles and Caribbean manatees to monkeys, Toucans, parrots and other bird species.
“We are blessed with nature,” says Dupuis. “We have an incredible amount of nature around us. So we think we actually have the potential to be the eco-tourism centre of Central America.”
While eco-tourism means different things to different people, most travellers will find something to their liking in the national parks around La Ceiba. Although in many ways still a fledgling industry, several lodges have been established, targeting a wide range of tourists from luxury travellers to adventure hikers and nature lovers.
“We are a luxury eco-hotel,” says James Adams, assistant manager and owner representative of the Pico Bonito Lodge. “We try to focus on both of those things.” The lodge consists of 22 detached cabins, wooden houses in the midst of cacao trees, on a 350 acre property within the buffer zone of the Pico Bonito National Park. The Lodge at Pico Bonito borders on the completely protected zone of the 270,000 acre park that is home to different types of rain forest and cloud forest habitats, most of which are very mountainous.
Visitors can start their hikes into the wilderness, with or without one of the hotel’s knowledgeable guides, from the lodge up to beautiful waterfalls on both the rivers Rio Coloradito and Rio Corinto.
Adventurers who want to climb to the peak of Pico Bonito, the 2,700 metre mountain that overlooks the park, should plan for a gruelling seven to ten days of hiking and hacking their way through a largely unexplored jungle, as there are no tracks leading all the way up into the mountain range.
Many bird watchers come to the Lodge, where even next to the restaurant and bar humming birds make their short stops at the various heliconias and feeding stations that are dotted around the garden. In total the area of Pico Bonito has confirmed sighting of more than half of the 800 bird species that are known in Honduras.
Although the lodge organises a multitude of activities, including horseback riding, white-water rafting, nature boat tours and even snorkelling tours at the nearby Cayos Cochinos archipelago, many guests come simply to relax, says Adams.
“Most visitors are interested in hiking, exploring or bird watching. Still, we have a lot of people who are just looking for an elegant yet rustic accommodation in a fairly unexplored country,” explains Adams, who says that the lodge has seen celebrities like Michael Douglas and his family, diplomats, presidents and ex-presidents, who, while they really appreciate nature and their natural surroundings, really focus on relaxation.
On the mainland the Lodge at Pico Bonito is the flagship for sustainable or eco tourism. “There are different routes you can take in eco tourism,” says Adams. “You can go super green and you could have solar or hydro energy, you can do recycling and have organic produce and all these different things and you can try to have a great social impact.”
The Pico Bonito Lodge tries to do a little bit of both. While it is still very difficult to maintain the level of luxury and make extensive use of renewable energy or a constant garden, says Adams, he wants to ensure conservation by impacting on the people who live in the area.
The fact the National Parks have been created in Honduras is not the result of conservationist ideals, but the simple fact that Congress recognised all lands above 1,800 meters as valuable fresh water resources. The eco-tourism, biodiversity and overall protection that came as a result of it, is really just a by-product, albeit a beneficial one, he says. Adams, who has a background in biology, recalls that when the lodge was first set up local staff had a long way to go in their understanding of the natural surroundings. “If anyone found any kind of interesting wildlife like a snake for example, they would come and show it to me on the end of a machete,” he says. “That is how we would see wildlife and now ten years later, even some of our maintenance staff know the scientific names of birds and snakes and frogs and all sorts of other fauna that lives here.”
By making locals understand that businesses can grow based on eco-tourism the natural habitats can be conserved. Part of this social interaction is the lodge’s sponsorship of an annual environmental art contest for children from the schools in the neighbouring town of El Pinto. “We have 50 to 60 kids up here for a lunch and a motivational hike with some of the guides who are actually members of their community. They go out and learn a little bit of what these guides have to teach and have learned over the years.” The children are then provided with art materials. Their artworks, whether sculptures, paintings or drawings, are exhibited at the lodge and judged by the hotel’s guests. On Earth Day, the lodge invites the local press and awards cash prizes and art materials to the winners of the contest.
Udo Wittemann, owner of Omega Tours, represents another part of the spectrum of eco-tourism around La Ceiba. He describes his business as an “eco-adventure jungle lodge”. “We are in the middle of the jungle, where we are doing a lot of adventurous trips and also what we call soft-adventure. And we try to be as ecological as possible since we started the project,”he says.
To make tourism sustainable, Wittemann particularly considers his impact as an employer on the community. “Of all the tour companies in La Ceiba we have the most people employed and all our workers come from the valley or from villages in the immediate proximity.”
Omega Tours helps out in school projects and 5 per cent of the company’s income goes into the local school and kindergarten, he says. The company also supports both Nombre de Dios National Park, where the adventure lodge is located and Pico Bonito National, on which it borders.
Ecologically Wittemann has set up a regime that seems more akin to his home country Germany than Central America.
“We don’t use any poison or fertiliser on the land, where we have about a 150 different kinds of fruit, that are all organic. We are the first ones on the mainland who work with a black water system. We don’t separate our black and grey water. Nothing gets pumped out into nature. It all gets recycled with this new system, that won the eco award in the US.” Omega Tours also breeds iguanas and turtles for release into nature.
“For cleaning we use only bio-degradable products and we try to use our cars only if absolutely necessary,” he adds. “Most of our trips would start and end right without the use of any vehicles.”
The eco lodge features two luxury cabins with a view of the 100 meter El Bejuco waterfall on the opposite mountain range and a creek cabin, which is built over a creek so guests can hear the rushing water during the night.
Of all the activities offered from hiking, mountain climbing, horse back tours and longer expeditions the lodge’s main attraction is white-water rafting on the Cangrejal river. Wittemann discovered the river’s potential for rafting himself, when he travelled the world as a young white water rafting guide in the early 1990s.
“The river has the biggest rocks I have ever seen in any river of the world,” he says, “a beautiful and very scenic river.”
John Dupuis, who has a house in the same valley as the Omega Tours lodge, also believes the river has a special draw. ”Personally I am in love with the Cangrejal river. The whole area with the options of rafting, bird watching, nature hikes, the exotic scenery that is available throughout the area is unique.”
The river features some of the world’s most demanding and top class rafting with intermediate and upper-intermediate rapids near the lodge. “Your adrenaline will definitely come up a few times,” says Wittemann, “but everything is very safe.”
The company’s guides all have ten or more years of experience and Wittemann is a former and trainer of white-water rafting guides across Europe.
Whether it is luxury or adventure eco-tourism that appeals, both are now closer than ever.
“In an hour people from the Cayman Islands could be in something they would probably equate with somewhere in South America or may be what they would be accustomed to seeing in Costa Rica, which is hours and hours of travelling away. Now you could come over here for basically a long week-end,” says Adams.