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Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve |
Honduras -- The Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve (RPBR) encompasses one of the largest protected areas in Central America with over 5,200 square kilometers. It was established as a United Nations World Heritage Site in 1982. It includes prime examples of lowland tropical rainforest, coastal lagoons, undisturbed beaches, mangroves, grasslands and patches of pine savannah. It is the home of members of the Miskito and Pech tribes as well as the Garifuna ethnic group which live in small communities on the coast and along the major rivers. You can visit anytime of the year but it is usually best to avoid the heavy rains during November, December, and January. The driest months are usually March, April, May, August, September and October.
Apart from relaxing in the slow paced life along the coast there are several interesting things to see and do in this area. The butterfly farm at Raista is a pilot project in sustainable development that raises the colorful butterfly species of the area to sell to live butterfly exhibition houses throughout the world. They offer guided tours in Spanish for $2.00. There is a project to protect the leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles that nest along the coast centered in Plaplaya. Each night during the breeding season (March to June) members of the village patrol the beaches to find nesting turtles, carefully gather the eggs and transplant them to a guarded area to be watched over until they hatch. Visitors can accompany them on their beach patrols for a small donation to the program. Last year they ensured that about 1800 of these endangered species hatched and made it back to the sea. Occasionally, the Garifuna people of Plaplaya hold traditional dances which provide an interesting evening's entertainment. Check with Eddie Bodden in Raista to hire a boat and guide to take you on a day trip across Ibans lagoon to visit the rainforest of the Biosphere Reserve. These are wild areas rich in wildlife. You have a chance of seeing deer, tapir, macaws, jaguar, armadillo, sloth, monkeys, anteaters, manatee (in Ibans lagoon) and over 300 species of birds. Rain can come at any time of the year and trails can be muddy so be prepared. Efforts are underway to improve visitor services and infrastructure within the reserve to support a system of ecotourism that protects the reserve, provides benefits to the local villages and offers outstanding experiences for visitors.
Along the river you will see Miskito and Pech families living as they have for centuries - planting rice, beans and yuca in the fertile soils in the river's flood plain and supplemented by what they can gather from the rainforest. Their small numbers and low impact techniques have not changed the reserve much over the years. In Las Marias, there are several basic but clean places to stay all priced at about $3 per night (in the Tinglas, Martinez or Pagoada hospedajes).
Meals are available at the same places for about $2.00 each. The local women's group sells handicrafts, locally produced cocoa and sometimes baked goods which they bring around to the hospedajes. The residents have declared Las Marias to be alcohol free so you are encouraged to respect their wishes and avoid bringing alcohol or drugs to the area. Please don't force your vices on cultures that don't want them.
Once in Las Marias, you will be approached by a representative of the guides in the village to let you know what services are available and to help you make arrangements to suit your needs. A number of guides have been trained in Las Marias to deal with international visitors. They have formed a group, agreed on a set price structure and work to share the benefits of ecotourism with all of the guides and the village. The prices and rules are posted on the walls of all the hospedajes. This is ecotourism at its best where income from visitors benefits local populations and gives them and economic incentive to protect the reserve. Once you figure out what you want to do, the head guide will make all the arrangements for you. This service costs about $3.50. Typical guided trips include day hiking on trails around the village, a 3 day hike to scenic Pico Dama (very strenuous), a day trip by pipante upriver to see the petroglyphs at Walpulbansirpi left by an unknown people or multi day trips upriver to visit other petroglyph sites and view wildlife in the heart of the reserve.
Guides are required even for day hikes due to the possibility getting lost on the faint jungle trails and close encounters with very poisonous snakes. The cost for a guide for hikes is about $7 per day for groups up to 5. Overnight hikes require 2 guides. All prices include whatever food and equipment the guide should need. The cooks at your hospedaje can fix you a meal to take with you on your trip if you ask them. In the village, you are welcome to wander up and down river without a guide along the trail that connects different parts of the community. Since the trail goes along the river it is hard to get lost and the dangers are less. Chiggers and no-see-ums can be bothersome in Las Marias so be sure to pack some insect repellant.
The trips upriver from Las Marias are an amazing adventure in the small, dugout canoes called pipantes. The river is too shallow in many places to use a motor so the boats are propelled as they have been for centuries by paddle and wooden pole. Pushing the boat upriver against the current, even through small rapids, is a labor intensive chore that requires 3 guides per boat. Two visitors and their gear will fit in each boat with the guides. The trip can be wet so make sure your gear is waterproof or covered well. A day trip to the petroglyphs will have you in the boat most of the time occasionally walking around difficult spots in the river.
An overnight trip will give you a fuller experience and give you the time to take some interesting hikes up side drainages such as Sulawala or Wahawala. These small, clear streams offer a magical interlude to your boat trip. There aren't developed trails up these drainages but floods during the rainy season opens enough room along the stream to allow for easy hiking with little fear of snakes. The jungle rises on both sides of you offering an opportunity to spot wildlife. You have to wade back and forth across the stream many times but this is a welcome relief from the tropical heat. A trip like this will cost about $25 per boat per day. This includes the boat rental, the 3 guides and their food. You will need to bring your own camping gear as none is available in the village.
You can buy basic food for a trip upriver such as rice, beans, yuca and plantains in Las Marias but it is better to bring it with you from the coast so you don't deplete the limited food stock available in the village. The guides will prepare this food for your group over an open fire as part of their duties. While sitting around the fire you can sometimes get them to tell you legends and tales of the creatures and spirits that inhabit the rainforest. No matter what impression you get from nature shows on TV, animals are hard to see even in a healthy forest. If you are hoping to see wildlife be sure to get an early start, walk quietly and look carefully. The animals quiet down in the heat of the day.
Arden Anderson works for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and can be reached via email at Arden_Anderson@co.blm.gov. An earlier version of this article debuted in the May 1997 issue of El Planeta Platica and has been updated three times since the original publication.
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