Honduras part 2, La Moskitia to Copan

Trip Start Aug 30, 2007
Trip End Jun 30, 2008

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Sunday, May 4, 2008

When we arrived in Honduras we thought we would scoot through the country leaving as much time as possible for Guatemala, which is what the majority of travellers to Honduras seem to do. But then we started discovering that this country had a lot more to offer. Specifically, we read about the north west region, La Moskitia, described as the Amazon of the northern hemisphere, where a network of rivers wind through a massive area of primary rainforest, an unexpoited, untouristed region without roads, electricity or running water; a place sparsely populated by Miskito and Pech peoples living in timber and thatch houses, and for whom life hasnīt changed much for thousands of years. Tourism is a relatively rare and new phenomeon in the region. Only a very few people head to the area every day, so we figured this would be something special. And it was amazing. Hard travelling but well worth it. Rewarding, real travelling stuff.

People often go to the Mosquito coast on organised tours, but we wanted to do it on our own. Save money, do it our own pace, have more of an adventure etc. We started early on Monday, 21 April to get a bus to Iriona. We waited and waited for four hours until a chicken bus arrived and we piled on, standing room only. (Chicken buses are old yellow school buses that the US sends to Central America to end their days. There are hundreds... thousands of them all over Central America... and poss South America too?)

The journey was slow, hot and incredibly dusty. After a few hours we broke down but mercifully by the side of a clean river where I was grateful to rinse off the thick dust that was glued to my sticky suncreamy skin. The driver did something with a rope and we continued our slow, trudging way. Six and a half hours later we reached a town near Iriona, too late to continue our journey by boat as planned so we checked into Don Tinos for $4 a room including an ensuite tap. The next morning we walked half an hour in the rising heat to Iriona to find a boat to Belen. After various negotiations we arranged a guy to take us. Fuel is double the price in La Moskitia compared with the rest of Honduras and since travel is all by boat prices are fixed irrespective of the number of travellers, so we were glad to have recruited Tom and Michelle.

The two hour speedboat journey by sea was exhilarating and when we arrived in Belen we discovered the haven that is Mario Millerīs Pawanka beach cabins -  traditional timber constructions on stilts with thatched roofs, good beds, crisp white linens, and right on the beach. Belen is a tranquil, idyllic settlement of a few houses spread out across a strip of land between the ocean and a lagoon, accessible only by boat. Pigs, chickens, cats, dogs and cows all roam freely around the village.

The locals were all immediately so friendly. Marioīs mother welcomed us with coconut water to drink straight from the shell. Mario himself was the local dude, always in trendy jeans and shades glued to his head. They served us delicious fish coconut stews, as well as the daily diet of mashed beans and torillas. The beach was picture perfect and deserted except for locals line fishing in the early mornings and evenings. We decided to sit back, relax and stay for three nights. We swam, chilled out, read and went for strolls through the villages. One afternoon we walked through Belen and found the football field which doubles as an airstip. Some boys were prepaing for practice so Chris joined in while I practised my Spanish chatting to one of the lads.

On Friday (25 April) we got up early for the next stage of the trip -  a journey by motorised dugout canoe, a Cayuco, to the settlement of Las Marias, with our captain and his boatman. We motored across the lagoon and into narrow canals, thinking "this is awesome". Before long, we realised that the engine didnīt have enough oomph and we stopped on two occasions for a repair job. Being the end of the dry season the river is low and about two hours in, disaster struck. We hit a submerged tree and the engine and back of the boat fell into the river. Amazingly the captain kept hold of the motor and we parked up while they bodged another repair job. Back on the river, about twenty minutes later the same thing happened again, except this time the captain wasnīt quite so fast and the engine fell to the bottom of a very deep, cloudy stretch of river with a strong current. Captain and boatmen started diving but we soon discovered that these chaps werenīt the strongest swimmers so Chris, Tom and Michelle dived in to assist. I assessed the likelihood of my helping against the likelihood of my getting into a drowning situation in the fast moving brown water and stayed on the banks to helpfully point to where I thought the engine might have sunk. After a fruitless half hour we agreed to paddle back to Belen and try again tomorrow.

It took four slow hours to paddle back, and Mario was furious with the captain for losing his engine. Not easy to come by or afford in those parts I guess. We tried to defend him, but I donīt think heīll ever work for Mario again. Shattered from all our sitting, and not having eaten anything all day we sat outside Marioīs house and drank several coldish beers. I soon felt happily dizzy and grateful for my tortillas, beans and eggs.

The second attempt looked like it was going to be another failure when the engine propeller wouldnīt work, but our new captain got it fixed and we made it to Las Marias in 6 hours. Going upriver and the water being shallow made it slow going, several times we all climbed out to push the canoe across the sand and stone banks, but it was a beautiful ride through the jungle. Lots of birds, occasional houses and many women washing clothes in the river.

Las Marias is an even smaller, very remote village right in the jungle consisting of a few houses, three churches, a school and the largest pig population in Central America (I made that up). (We were dismayed to discover five Canadians in our guesthouse. How dare there be other people on our off the beaten track adventure!) Dona Dianaīs was right by the river, which was perfect for cooling off after a long hot day in the direct sun, and hey, no need for the bucket bath! Surprisingly great food -  fish, chicken, and even homemade chocolate cake and smarties.

The village is all organised for tours. They not stupid. The sacaguia (guide coordinator) came to discuss what trek we wanted to do, and arranged a two day trip. He asked if we had any water purification tablets, which we didnīt, but he didnīt press the matter so we didnīt worry about it... Proved to be a slight error.

The following morning we set off with six guides, all locals from Las Marias, to take the four of us in dugout canes pushed by paddle and pole (pipantes) further up the river. We boated for a couple of hours, through ever more dense jungle, spotting countless birds (no hoped for crocs) before stopping for a couple of hours hiking in the rainforest. Gentle hike but interesting as the guide told us about the medicinal and edible plants and the fauna of the forest. Tom and Michelle spoke almost no Spanish so I got lots of translation practice.

We headed further up river to see the petroglyphs carved in stone. They donīt know much about these except they predate the Mayan civilizations so around 2,000 years old.

Our guesthouse for the night was completely basic and way close to nature. After another hot day Tom and Michelle gulped down a glassful from the bucket of water on the table before we wondered where the water came from. I asked Dona Maria if it was purified and she said no. I asked if it had come directly from the river, and she said yes. Oops. Whoīs going to sympathise if we all get sick from drinking water straight from a river! I asked her to boil up a load for us for the following day hoping that might help. All started to feel a bit dehydrated.

Lack of electricity meant we were going to bed around 7 pm and getting up at about 5.  Went to use the latrine before bed and discovered a scorpion and a massive spider at the foot of the bowl. Gave it a miss.

On Monday morning we rose early for our longer hike. This was great stuff, hacking through the dense jungle with a machete. Much  wilder than any hiking weīd done before. Guide told us lots more stories about the plant and animal life, pointing out tracks of tapirs (like emus) in the ground and the purring of wild cats in the distance. We spotted a toucan, a white eagle, various spiders, wild chickens and several more birds. The guide hacked off a section of a vine, called a liana vine I think(?) with his machete, and we drank the clear water that dripped from inside. The water Dona Maria had boiled for us was utterly rank, tasting of smokey beans. We poured it away and filled our bottles from a sparkling river creek. It was delicious and we knew that water that good couldnīt hurt us.

The walk was steep and in the close jungle humidity we all got just a little damp. Getting back to the river it was the most delicious feeling to dive into the cool water fully clothed. From there, the boys paddled us back down river through rapids to Las Marias. Tom mentioned having seen the guide take his trousers down and check himself at one point on the hike. Realising what this meant, we passed an entertaining half hour together searching for and removing ticks. Horrid little critters.

On Tuesday we boated back down river to Marioīs place at Belen. It was a cloudier cooler day and we saw several turtles by the side of the river (and lots more women washing clothes, and smiley waving children).

Had a final meal with the Aussies and exchanged mutual positivity that it had been a real pleasure travelling together. I took it for granted at the time but itīs not everyone you can spend 10 days with, in rough conditions, sharing rooms, and not have any trouble getting on with. But it was easy going and fun. They were grateful for the experience since they wouldnīt have done it if we hadnīt said "Wanna come with?"

The journeys failed to get less eventful on our own. Chris and I woke at 2.30 am to catch a colectivo boat to Batalla from where we would catch a pick up to take us back to Corocito and Trujillo. The "hour" journey took two and a half hours. But at Batalla the pick ups were waiting and one shouty man bundled us into the back of a truck that we shared with one old guy, a young dude, and a little girl. An enormous woman squeezed into the passenger seat and three children sat behind. As soon as we starting moving I got nervous. The driver was going at unbelievable speed through the village. We were ducking to avoid the roofs of houses, tree branches, overhanging bushes. We drove on to the beach where he swerved and sped along like an utter lunatic, through deep waves at times. Only when we broke down the first time did we discover the driver couldnīt have been older than 15.

As we sped along I could barely speak for the air rushing in my face. It was impossible to hold on to the truck and my hat at the same time, impossible to drink water, put suncream on, anything. I said to Chris that this was so awful I wanted to take the bus but after a while we passed a bus going SO slowly that I was seduced by the idea of getting  back faster. On the "proper" dirt roads things seemed to be a bit smoother and I hoped for the best.

After a couple of hours, however, for some inexplicable reason the idiot boy drove off the side of a concrete bridge into a river. The truck rolled and landed on its side. Fortunately it was only a metre deep and no one was hurt, but it was pretty shocking. We were sitting on the back right so I was able to hold on until I tumbled into the water and pushed away from the vehicle. It seemed to happen in slow motion. Once everyone was out and Iīd recovered from the shock I yelled in anger at the driver and Chris leapt back into the water and gave him what for! The kid just looked shocked. Stupid boy! After the large woman forced herself out of the cab, the door swinging down and smacking her on the head as she did so, we saw that she was pushing her way out in front of the three little kids trapped in the back of the cab.

We managed to get another passing pick up to take us on the rest of the journey and as we were leaving, the driverīs mate ran over and asked for our fare. I yelled at him, though in the heat of the anger my Spanish failed me and I said something which translates as "We have luck to be life," and told him he was getting nothing. He told us he wished to kill all our kind and made the cut throat gesture at me. Charming.

Our new driver also drove at alarming speeds but somehow felt safer. We got to Trujillo and hitched a lift back to Casa Kiwi where weīd left Pepita. Me shuffling along with broken flip flops.

As I finish these last two epic entries I am sitting in Copan Ruinas, a pleasant if touristy town near the Guatemalan boder. Itīs Sunday 4 May. It took two days of driving to get here so we spent Saturday chilling (well, mostly writing for me, so sorry if any of this is nonsensical - was at it for hours.) Today, Sunday, we explored Copan, a major site of Mayan ruins and tomorrow we hit Guatemala... at last! Only two weeks till we need to be back in Nicaragua to pick up JJ and Farah. How will we fit it all in? Eeek!
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