The Mosquito Coast Part 1, Honduras

January 2009

On Utila Jamie and I met two travelers from Israel that were interested in exploring the Mosquito Coast of Honduras. Dan and Etan were traveling after finishing their compulsory military service and like us wanted to see some wilderness. The Mosquito Coast in Honduras is famous mainly for being the main cocaine smuggling route through the Caribbean but is also home to the largest stretch of jungle north of the Amazon. That jungle, a mixture of ecosystems, is protected by a huge roadless area called the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve. The Mosquito Coast and Río Plátano are also home to a diverse mix of cultural communities, each with their own languages and customs. It was to this huge roadless area we planned our journey. We got in touch with a non-profit ecotourism venture called La Ruta Moskitia, that helped local communities in Río Plátano, but they were not running any tours. The owner was really helpful however and gave us detailed directions on how to get to Raista and Las Marias. He also gave us approximate coasts for everything so we could bring enough cash to cover all expenses. The Mosquito Coast is remote, there are no roads, very little electricity, no phones, no ATMs, no cell service and no wi-fi, so we didn’t plan out any accommodation ahead of time. From La Ceiba we caught a bus at 4:30am to the town of Tocoa. The ride was about 2 hours and once in Tocoa we needed to catch a paila, a shared pickup truck, to Batalla. There were no buses to Batalla because there were not really roads out there. As soon as we got off the bus helpers from the various pickup trucks were trying to grab our bags and get us into their trucks. Our white faces meant money in these parts and the drivers were looking to get some extra fare money. After some serious haggling, mostly done by Dan, we arranged a ride and only needed to wait for the truck to fill up. We were getting ready to make a 7 hour journey in a Nissan pickup, absolutely stuffed with supplies and people. Since I was the lone female in our group of 4, I was allowed to sit inside the cab with 6 other people. Jamie, Dan and Etan had to ride in the back with 6 other people sitting on 2x4s with their feet by their butts due to the bed of the pickup being completely full. There was one additional passenger who rode mostly on the hood through out journey, that made for a total of 17 people and hundreds of pounds of supplies in our truck.  Our driver and most of the passengers were Garifuna, descendants of slaves and Native Caribbean peoples, who are English speaking. It was a a nice to change to converse in English though the young women I spoke to through most of the drive didn’t understand why we wanted to visit that part of Honduras. “All we have is miles of beaches” she said to me! As the trip progressed she mentioned we would be getting near our destination when we crossed the “pangas”, I had no idea what a panga was but realized they were small ferries the trucks could drive onto in order to cross rivers and tidal estuaries.

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Dan stands in front of our truck as we cross the first river on a panga
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Horses grazing near a tidal estuary
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Our truck unloading from the panga (it had 17 passengers!)
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Another truck headed to Batalla off loading from the panga

It was a relief to get out of the truck and stand while we crossed the rivers, we were packed so tightly we could barely move our legs. The boys in the back were getting even more beat up as they bounced on a 2×4 over rutted and potholed dirt roads. Most of the pangas consisted of wooden boards held up by blue plastic barrels and we were pulled across most of the rivers by rope. The final crossing was quite large and so a motorized canoe pushed the pangas across. Most of the drive had been on dirt roads through palm oil plantations but after the pangas we simply drove on the beach, which was slightly terrifying as the tide was lapping against the wheels of the truck and we were certainly overloaded and top heavy. Once we got to the Garifuna community of Batalla we needed to catch a collectivo or shared motorized canoe to Raista, a two hour journey. As we waited for the collective we saw a Cadillac Escalade with only two people in it, cocaine smugglers we were told, the only blatant evidence of the drug trade we encountered. We loaded into our collectivo and set off for Raista. The boat stopped at several communities along the way and a military check point, for drug smugglers we were told which is a total joke because they have fancy boats, cars and airplanes. When afternoon rains started up the boat driver passed up a tarp which everyone help over their heads, since we were in a canoe we were seated in a single line and the tarp kept us dry.

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The view from our canoe ride

Finally after 12 hours of travel we reached Raista. The collectivo driver dropped us off at the Bodden families hostel in Raista and it was awesome. They had no other guests and we were shown to our rooms which had comfortable beds, mosquito nets and a shared bathroom. They were some of the nicest rooms we stayed in on our entire trip through Central America despite how remote we were. There was a small restaurant on premises and we all got an awesome meal for dinner. The Mosquito Coast got its name from the indigenous Moskitio people that live there. We were told the name came from the fact they had muskets which were given to them by the English in the colonial days. Raista was a Moskitio village and so mixture of languages including Moskitio and Spanish were spoken by the residents. After our meal that night we heard singing coming from one of the buildings and were told that residents were trying to help a woman with a back injury by singing and praying. The song was beautiful and was sung in Moskitio, unintelligible to any of us but haunting none the less. We decided to spend the next day in Raista as Jamie and Dan had sore bottoms from our truck ride and didn’t look forward to sitting in another canoe for 7 hours without healing up a bit first. When we got up in the morning our rooms were overlooking a clearing surrounded by large trees and we saw a lot of people dressed in their Sunday’s best gathered. We though there might by some sort of wedding as people were chatting away socially but shortly a man with a black leather case and a metal pan showed up and set up shop under one of the largest trees. Everyone queued up, ladies first, and one at a time they talked to this man under the tree who would examine their mouths and pull out their teeth. We could hear the teeth drop into the metal pan with a clink and then people would walk away hand to the face. The dentist was Cuban and he travelled all over Honduras visiting remote communities that didn’t have access to dental care otherwise. After that surreal scene we walked around Raista and its neighbor Belen.IMG_1812_2421

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Houses on stilts in Belen

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That afternoon a young man from the Bodden family came to get us. He was saying something about an oso, a bear, and we were all stumped. He finally got us to follow him and he showed us an anteater in a tree! An oso de hormigo, an ant bear, in Spanish.IMG_1818

We also spotted a caiman splashing into the Ibans Lagoon and a neotropical river otter! We were treated to an amazing sunset that night and we rested up for our journey to Las Marias and the heart of the Río Plátano Biospere Reserve.

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A dugout canoe or pipante
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Sunset behind Baltimore Peak on the Ibans Lagoon 

 

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