Sunday, August 7, 2011

Just Another Day at the Beach

It’s been a month, but I’m finally getting around to writing about my parent’s trip to Honduras. While Nicki and I are not really beach people, my parents are, so we decided to take them somewhere on the north coast, Tela, which is pretty close to San Pedro, where they flew in and out of. Plus we had never been to Tela, and had heard good things about it.

Tela grew and developed largely in the early 20th century as the Honduran headquarters of United Fruit Company (Chiquita). While there is still banana production in the area, United left Tela in the 70’s and there are only a few of their buildings left in part of the large beach resort in town. The agricultural production seems to have switched to palm oil, since now the entire highway there is surrounded by rows of massive palms as far as the eye can see. The main visible infrastructure left behind in Tela is the railroad. United built an extensive network of trains to transport its people and bananas. The only remaining rail in Honduras is a passenger train from Tela to San Pedro Sula. While I’ve always been intrigued by the train when Nicki and I see it near the bus station, we took the much safer alternative in Honduras, a private rental car. Being PCV’s, we are forbidden from driving, so my parents were forced to take the wheel, not always a relaxing endeavor in Latin America. But after driving on a lot of dirt roads near our town, and constantly cursing them, my parents were delighted that Tela was big enough to be completely paved.

We stayed at Hotel Caesar Marisco’s, which was recommended by our friends. Few Honduran coastal towns have much of a beach, but Tela has one of the best. Our hotel was right on the small boardwalk along the beach, a group of 4 or 5 hotels and restaurants. It is only a couple blocks long, but is also one of the few areas in town where you can be reasonably safe walking around at night. There were plenty of people in the hotels and restaurants, so it was fine to walk to dinner, but not really anywhere beyond that. We ate at the restaurant in our hotel a couple times, which was no better or worse than the others. The best part of the hotel was the roof top pool, from which we could watch the people walking up and down the boardwalk. It was a nice relaxing spot to get away from the heat of the coast.

The main reason we chose to go to Tela was its proximity to several national parks, and plenty of tour companies to take you to them. We went with Garifuna Tours because they had a three day, three tour package for the price of two. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough people to do that tour, so instead we went on two tours with them, and drove ourselves to the final one.

For the first tour, we hopped in a boat that took us across the bay to Punta Sal National Park (officially Parque Nacional Jeannette Kawas). Jeanette Kawas was an environmentalist who was one of the leading voices trying to prevent development and deforestation in the area of Punta Sal to preserve the natural wildlife. While the group she organized succeeded in creating a national protected park, Kawas herself was murdered in 1995 by opposing activists, so they named the park in her honor. The boat ride got off to a slow start, seeing as how the river we were on lacked the strength to reach the sea. We jumped out and watched as the guide, driver, and several other guys pushed the boat on halved PVC pipes over the beach to get to the bay. As we sped away, we noticed a guy digging a trench to connect the river and bay and wondered if he would even be close to done by the time we got back. The boat ride was about an hour, and when we got there, we disembarked and followed the guide through the jungle. He explained about pirates who used certain trees as masts, and provoked the howler monkeys with his calls. My dad walked straight into a spider web with the gigantic golden silk orb-weaver spider. Luckily the spider didn’t seem to notice and my dad made it out alive. It was an interesting hike, except for the swarms of mosquitoes and the Peruvian couple who lagged behind and who needed everything re-explained in Spanish. At the end of the trail, we met up with the boat driver again who drove us back around the point, crashing over huge waves, to a small clearing and beach where we had lunch, typical Garifuna fare of fried fish and rice. It was nice relaxing at the beach, but unfortunately the water was too choppy for any good snorkeling, which was supposed to be the highlight of the trip. On the trip back we confirmed the trench wasn’t quite low enough yet for the boat to get through. We went for it anyway, and this time my dad and I helped push the boat through.

Guys pushing the boat across the beach into the bay

Golden silk orb spider (leg span of about the size of your hand)

Beautiful Punta Sal

On day two, we set off in the opposite direction, east, to Punto Izopo, another national park, this time to kayak up the Rio Platano. On the way, the driver started asking us where we were from, in English.

The States, we said.

Yeah, ok, where? asked the driver.

Michigan, we said.

Yeah, ok, where? asked the driver, maybe a little rudely.

Grand Rapids, do you know where that is? we asked.

Yeah, of course, I used to work at Steelcase. (Obviously….)

It turns out he never actually had been to Michigan, he had worked for Steelcase in California, but being that Grand Rapids was the headquarters, he knew about it.

The whole protected area of the park turned out to be traversed by a labyrinth of rivers through mangroves and trees. The driver turned out to also be our guide so we jumped in our kayaks and started exploring. It was quite a long exhausting day paddling up and down the small side streams, but fun learning about the different legends of ghosts (which turned out to be birds), and seeing all the tiny crabs crawling into our kayaks that we kept mistaking for spiders. It was cool and quiet in the secluded inlets, where more than once we thought we were lost for good. The day ended with another Garifuna lunch of tasty seafood soup at a beach shack, but first we stopped to watch a local woman making casabe, a grilled flatbread made out of mashed yuca (or cassava) root. It’s somewhat bland when plain, but very good when sprinkled with garlic salt.

Kayaking the Rio Platano

Getting lost in the tannin colored inlets

Adorable Garifuna girl watching us as we unload our kayaks

On day three we went to the Lancetilla Botanical Gardens, a joint project of USAID, ESNACIFOR (a forestry school in Siguatepeque), and the Honduran national government. More than anything it serves as a recreational park for the residents of Tela and educational area for Honduran school children. There were swimming holes and bike rentals, and even a visitor’s center. We opted to get a guide who took us on a one hour walk through the park, telling us about all the trees and their fruits along the way. We saw a cannonball vine whose fruit are so big and heavy they could be used as cannonballs, a cork tree, a decorative red pineapple plant, a naked Indian which is has a smooth and reddish bark, and a gamba whose big hollow roots can store hundreds of gallons of water. He also plucked things off trees to let us taste like kettle fruit, which had a soft spongy textured flesh around huge seeds and applepears, a red apple shaped fruit with the texture of a pear. All very fascinating tropical plants. Because it was close to town, we opted to go back for lunch and relax the rest of the day in the pool.

Decorative pineapple

Bob and Nolan around the ol' cork tree

Eating an applepear

El tunel de bambu

It was tough to see my parents leave, but it was good to be able to see them, and show them where we’ve been living for the past year and a half, and even to take a vacation to the beach (once in awhile).

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