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Perhaps no region holds as much potential as Olancho, the wild, sometimes lawless cowboy country of Honduras that occupies nearly one-fifth of its total territory. Some of the best attractions in the entire country can be found here. Near Catacamas, you will find the increasingly popular Talgua Caves, a place where a few amateur spelunkers discovered a chamber filled with the remains of several hundred skeletons glowing with calcite that date back thousands of years.

In Sierra de Agalta National Park, whose mountains separate the country from the jungles of La Mosquitia, you can climb to the top of Pico La Picucha, one of the most difficult and untrodden treks in all of Honduras. The region is a place that the rest of the population has seemingly forgotten -- even the largest city, Juticalpa, doesn't surpass 35,000 people, though little-known indigenous groups such as the Tolupan continue to make their home here. Raw and unspoiled, you'll find an abundance of unexplored mountains, bio-rich forests, and ecological reserves all within access of every major airport on the mainland.

In fact, the area has every reason to be hopeful. However, for the time being, Olancho is almost entirely ignored by most travelers and left out of many guidebooks because of a plethora of safety concerns and a poor series of roadways. While there is help on the horizon -- a gradual paving of the highways and an increasing police presence -- it is going to be a long time before you will see a Hilton here.

Like in La Mosquitia, scientists are discovering that history extends much further in Olancho than anyone had previously thought. The discoveries at Talgua have set off an investigation into the pre-Columbian cultures that date back more than 3,000 years and inhabited the plains of the region, which were important meeting points between indigenous ideas moving in both directions between the Americas. Dozens of small ruins have been found throughout the region, and Stone Age tools are frequently pulled up from building sites in the Belén neighborhood of Juticalpa.

Weather varies drastically here, as the region is the country's largest. The dry season runs from approximately February to April, but in the mountains and forests in the north of the region, a heavy downpour can occur at any time of year. The changing altitudes keep the temperature from getting out of control like on the coast. At night, especially if you are hiking in the mountains, be sure to bring a light jacket. During the month of April, fields are burned throughout Olancho, and the air quality tends to decrease drastically.

Keeping Safe in the Wild East

All is not roses in Olancho. There are dangers here that are slowly being addressed, or at the very least, acknowledged. While police presence can be seen throughout the region -- expect to be stopped at roadblocks several times and asked for ID and registration -- the region is not exactly under full government control. The road between La Unión and Olanchito has even become known as "El Camino de la Muerte," or Road of Death, because of the number of highway robberies that have occurred here.

That's not to say everyone who drives here will experience some sort of trouble. Most do not. I have driven the road myself and lived to write this book. However, you should take extreme caution when driving in this region. Do not drive alone, do not stop to talk to anyone, and absolutely do not drive at night. Most of the roads, including the highways, are unpaved, full of potholes, and prone to causing flat tires. A truck with four-wheel drive is a must in most parts of the region, especially when it rains, which is almost always. Drug traffic coming up through La Mosquitia from South America has been another issue in recent years, and corruption within the police force has even helped to enable it. I have heard unconfirmed reports of everything from small planes landing right on the highway to roadblocks only being held on the opposite side of the road during days a shipment might come through. As long as you stay away from any drug activity here, this shouldn't be a concern to travelers. Olanchanos are actually quite hospitable to foreign visitors and proud to show them around.

Horse Rage

While passing through Olancho, you might see an unusually high number of dead horses on the sides of the road. This isn't due to some tropical outbreak, but rather retaliation by drivers against ranchers who do not control their livestock. Horses on the road put drivers in danger, especially at night on the unlighted highway, so the armed drivers take action and kill the creatures. Sadly, this happens on a regular basis.