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Reserva de la Biosfera del Rio Platano

This is simply one of the most astounding natural reserves in the entire world. The Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980, is home to more than 525,000 hectares (1.3 million acres) of wetlands, beaches, pine savannahs, tropical forests, and rivers. Here, indigenous communities of the Pech and Miskito live much the way they have for hundreds of years. The reserve is home to some of the highest levels of biodiversity anywhere in the world, and nearly 400 species of birds have been recorded here, including great green and scarlet macaws, harpy eagles, jabirus, toucans, kingfishers, aplomado falcons, and numerous migratory species. The lagoons and rivers are home to manatees, southern river otters, caimans, and several rare species of sea turtle. On land, you'll find Baird's tapirs, jaguars, giant anteaters, spider monkeys, white-tailed deer, and white-lipped peccaries, among others. While extensive tourism infrastructure is lacking here, and there isn't even a visitor's center or park admission fee, community-based ecotourism programs are steadily growing in Las Marías and Raista/Belén.

It's easiest to visit the reserve via a guided tour, though coming on your own is not unrealistic. The easiest way is to make your way to Las Marías or Brus Laguna, both inside the northern end of the park, where you can find lodging and arrange for tours deeper into the wilderness. To get the most out of the reserve and increase your chances to see wildlife, a rafting trip down the Río Plátano is a must. The best time to visit is during the dry seasons, which run from February to May and from August to November. The rainy season, from November to January, can sometimes make travel here difficult. Regardless of when you come, there is little chance you will not encounter a short downpour.

Las Marías

Las Marías is, traditionally, a Pech community on the Río Plátano, near the highlands of the rainforest. It is the village farthest into the biosphere reserve from the coast and the base for most to explore the reserve. Community-based tourism programs, with the help of international NGOs, have created more than 150 trained workers in tourism (124 secondary guides, 24 primary guides, and 7 naturalists) out of 106 Pech and Miskito -- roughly 50/50 -- families. A variety of tours exploring the wilderness, hikes to several nearby peaks, wildlife watching, and community-based programs and basic tourist facilities have helped make Las Marías one of the most successful cultural and natural conservation projects in all of Latin America.

One boat landing near several guesthouses, a couple of churches, a small pulperia, and a school clustered together in a general area mixed with patches of wilderness is often considered the village of Las Marías. That is half true. The term village is applied quite loosely here. There is not exactly a center of town, but rather clusters of thatched-roof wooden houses scattered along both sides of the sloping banks of the Río Plátano for several kilometers.

Getting There

Las Marías is easiest reached by motorboat from Raista/Belén or Brus Laguna, though it can also be reached by rafting downriver from Olancho. The price isn't cheap: L4,000 round-trip per boat for the 5- or 6-hour ride from Raista, with a 3-day wait. The price is fixed, so there is no use bargaining.

What to See & Do

Since taking the path of tourism, Las Marías has not let a moment go to waste. Over the past few years, the community has been developing numerous new tours and hiking routes, all the while training guides and naturalists. They have become highly organized, as you will come to find out. Upon your arrival you will be approached by the sacaguia, a head guide elected every 6 months to be the go-to person for visiting groups and assigning guides to them. He will handle the money, arrange your tours and walk you through them, and answer any questions you might have. For every tour you book, the sacaguia will get a small coordination fee (L100) from the group. He'll also ask for a small donation for repairs and trail maintenance. It is not obligatory, but L50 to L100 is a nice gesture and definitely appreciated. Prices per tour depend on the number of guides required -- which get a per-day fee multiplied by the number of guides. Primary guides receive L250 per day, while secondary guides receive L150 per day. At the end, a small tip (10% or so) is suggested. Keep in mind that these prices are per group and going towards a community that has chosen to preserve the wilderness around them, rather than tear it down.

The most popular tour is without a doubt the pipante canoe ride to the Walpaulban Sirpi petroglyphs (2-3 guides). The 1-day excursion involves traveling upriver from Las Marías for 1 to 2 hours to the famous ancient petroglyphs found carved into rocks right in the Río Plátano. Before arrival, you will stop at the entrance to the Cuyusca trail, and then hike for 1 to 2 hours to search for wildlife such as monkeys and toucans while walking and from a small observation tower. After lunch by the petroglyphs and a soak in the river to cool off, you'll return back to Las Marías.

A second set of petroglyphs, Walpaulban Tara, can also be visited on a 2-day trip (3 guides) that has a similar itinerary to Walpaulban Sirpi, which you will also see, but spends the night in a small hospedaje at the start of the trail and heads farther upriver the following day.

The most difficult hike, which is gaining in popularity, is to the jungle-clad, jagged point of Pico Dama. The 3-day round-trip hike (3 guides, plus canoe) begins 2 hours upriver at Quebrada Sulawala, where you will make your way across farmland and into unspoiled primary and secondary forests that climb the mountain. The path is often slick and muddy, so proper footwear is a must. You reach a simple cabin the first evening, which you will make your base for the next 2 nights. On the second day, you will ascend through the lush jungle for 2 hours to the base of the peak. You'll have excellent prospects for spotting birds and mammals the entire time. You will be rewarded with a view of the treetops that will extend as far as the Caribbean. You'll return to camp that day and hike out to the river the next and back to Las Marías.

The 2-day hike (2 guides) to Pico Baltimore is another crowd favorite. It is slightly less difficult than the trip to Pico Dama, yet will give ample chances to spot wildlife while hiking to an impressive tract of primary and secondary forests. You'll leave right from Las Marías and sleep in a simple cabin at the base of the mountain. On the second day, you will wake up early to hike to the summit and return to Las Marías that afternoon.

Even easier is the 1-day hike (1 guide) to Pico el Zapote. For the best chance to see wildlife, leave as early as you are willing. You'll start from Las Marías and walk over relatively flat terrain, apart from the short but steep hike up the mountain. You'll be back in town by the afternoon.

The 2-day hike (3 guides, plus canoe) to Cerro Mico doesn't face any steep inclines, though it does cover a mix of flat and rolling terrain and is set mostly in thick jungle. After a pipante ride to the mouth of Quebrada Sulawala, you will follow the creek for a few hours, set up camp, and reach the top of the small Monkey Hill. As you suspect, there are good chances of spotting monkeys. You'll return to the Río Plátano by following another creek and be back to Las Marías by the early evening.

While you can arrange for a guided walk along the Village Trail loop (L250), this is one you can easily do on your own if you just want to walk and have no desire to learn about medicinal plants. From the boat landing, just follow the dirt footpath, passing Pulperia Yehimy, to the small airstrip that's overgrown with grass and weeds. Here, you'll find another guesthouse, school, and a small medical center. Continue across a little bridge, past two churches, and you will come back to the river. The entire walk should take only a couple of hours.

Where to Stay

There are a half-dozen simple guesthouses in Las Marías, though the majority of visitors stay at the two on the river next to the boat landing. Doña Rutilla is the only place in town with a generator and a public telephone, and can accommodate the greatest number of visitors -- 20 -- in its six stilted, thatched-roof cabins. Each room has several beds, with a comfortable mattress and mosquito net. The toilet, like all others in town, is an outhouse with bucket flush. Meals can be prepared for a small fee. Doña Justa next door is quite similar, though the rooms are a bit bigger, have porches with hammocks, and overlook a nice flower garden. If either of these is full, you can follow the village trail to reach another three small guesthouses with similar facilities. Rooms run from L80 to L120 per person.

Rafting Down the Río Plátano

One of the most -- if not the most -- incredible journeys in all of Central America is a 10- to 14-day rafting trip down the most remote parts of the Río Plátano, sure to suit your adventure lust. You begin in the mountains of Olancho, just east of Catacamas, where you will likely camp the first night. Early the next morning, you'll load up all the gear on mules and trek over steep, often muddy hills and through mestizo farms for about 8 hours before reaching the headwaters of the river, where you will make camp. For the next 5 or 6 days, you will travel down the Plátano as it makes its way towards the Caribbean. Each night, you will stop at beaches and small clearings, and set up camp, and your guides will cook dinner over an open fire. At some campsites you can trek into the forests to see waterfalls, explore caves, and visit little-known archeological sites.

You'll paddle anywhere from 5 to 8 hours every day, at times through Class III-IV rapids. Massive, 2m-long (6 1/2-ft.) green iguanas will drop from the trees and cannonball into the water as you go by because they are frightened of the raft -- they rarely, if ever, come into contact with humans. Most who make this trip will not have another chance to get this close to rare wildlife in their lifetime, outside of a visit to a zoo. On one particularly rainy trip, I have seen with my own eyes: two enormous tapirs, several river otters, several snakes, an anteater, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, white-faced monkeys, a harpy eagle, dozens of macaws and toucans, kingfishers, herons, hummingbirds, toads, butterflies, and hundreds of other tropical creatures. This is on one trip! The isolation of the park has kept general human traffic at a minimum, thus retaining the abundance of wildlife. While the majority of visitors make it only as far as Las Marías, from where going upriver is impossible outside of a short distance, only a group or two come this way every month.

Likely on the seventh day, depending on the speed of the river and how hard you paddle, you will come to the Walpaulban Sirpi petroglyphs (and several other petroglyphs), a few hours above the Pech community of Las Marías, where you will spend the night. Some will stay here and hike to Pico Dama or do another excursion, while others will continue the next day by pipante to the coast and then transfer back to La Ceiba.

The price for a 10-day trip isn't cheap ($1,300-$1,500 per person), but you must consider it includes all food, guides, transportation in and out of La Mosquitia, and the pipante ride from Las Marías. If you head to Las Marías on your own on a shorter trip, there's a good chance you will spend half that price. Regardless, this is an adventure you are always going to remember, and you will feel satisfied knowing that few have ever gone the same path. The trip was named as one of National Geographic's Top 50 Adventures of a Lifetime in 2006.

For those who have any fears on making the journey, I have seen a mother from New Jersey and her five kids, one just 5 years old, do the trip with ease.

Tours can be arranged in Las Marías or Brus Laguna.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.