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Parque Nacional Sierra de Agalta

The vast, untrammeled mountain range of Sierra de Agalta National Park contains one of the largest tracts of virgin cloud forests in all of Central America and forms the mountainous backbone of the country that separates most of the population from the jungles of La Mosquitia. The 27,000-hectare (66,718-acre) protected area is most often visited on short day hikes from Gualaco and Catacamas, or to see the Talgua caves, though a steady number of travelers make the 2- to 5-day trek to the heart of the reserve at Pico La Picucha, one of the most difficult and most rewarding hikes in the country.

Began in 1987, the park covers a range of climates and microclimates that hold a goldmine of biodiversity. Above 2,000m (6,562 ft.), you will find cloud forests pulsating with rare birdlife (400-plus species) and 61 species of mammals, such as monkeys, jaguars, and tapirs, that have yet to be frightened off by human traffic. Rare plant life, including a dwarf forest, waits at every turn. Trails are not well marked here, however, so hiring a guide for hikes is a must.

There are two main entrances to the park: one at the Cuevas de Talgua near Catacamas and the other on the complete other side of the mountains near Gualaco. The Catacamas entrance is newer, shorter, and quickly becoming the more visited of the two. Improvements to the trails here are ongoing. From the Gualaco side, the trail starts about 16km (10 miles) north of town near the town of El Pacayal -- look for a small sign that reads "Sendero La Picucha."

Disappearing Waterfalls -- If you read in an old guidebook about the Chorros de Babilonia, a series of eight beautiful waterfalls that drop a collective 150m (492 ft.), you won't find them. A controversial dam project has slowed the falls to nothing more than a trickle.

Pico La Picucha

One of the most challenging and fascinating treks in Honduras, the climb to 2,354m (7,723-ft.) Pico La Picucha, brings you face to face with one of the most unspoiled cloud forests anywhere. You'll likely spot many brightly colored hummingbirds, toucans, a few monkeys -- howler, spider, or white-face -- and with luck, even a tapir or jaguar. There are only a few simple shelters but no villages to stop and buy food, so carrying sufficient supplies and equipment is a necessity. There are clean streams throughout the trip to fill up water bottles, though.

The route can be climbed from either the Catacamas or Gualaco entrances. From Catacamas, the hike is steeper, yet you can reach the summit and back in 2 days. The Gualaco route takes 3 to 5 days but gives you more time to enjoy the forest and search for wildlife. Plus, it is a bit easier. As mentioned above, hiring a guide is essential. Tour agencies in La Ceiba, including La Moskitia Ecoaventuras (tel. 504/2550-2124; www.lamoskitiaecoaventuras.com) can arrange multiple-day hikes here with food and transportation, including to La Picucha. For lower fees (L200-L250 per day), you can ask around at La Comedor Sharon in Gualaco for local guides who are no less knowledgeable on the trails and wildlife.

La Cueva de Talgua

This might be a big disappointment to some -- it was to me -- but I think it is best to get it out of the way immediately: you can't see the skulls in the so-called "Cave of the Glowing Skulls." The part of the cave where the skulls are stuck in calcite is blocked off behind a locked gate, so there is no getting by it. You can't even bribe the guides. Forget I said that.

Anyway, the 30-minute guided walk through the cave -- which is intersected by metal walkways, rails, electric lighting, and geological formations -- is average compared with other caves in the country and often is filled with noisy school kids. Still, you cannot deny the link to history this cave has and the allure of the sheer mystery that surrounds it. The trained guides give a detailed account of the discovery and the latest in the archeological research on the site, along with pointing out the more interesting stalactites and stalagmites.

Maybe even more appealing to the cave is the short walk through Sierra de Agalta National Park along the river and through the forest. There is a small site museum near the bathrooms with photos of the skulls, artifacts found in the caves, and information on the biodiversity found within the park.

To get to the caves you must drive about 4km (2 1/2 miles) from town, continuing on the road from Juticalpa, which becomes a bit rougher, though was being paved at last visit. Look for signs for the turnoff that will take you on a very bumpy grass and mud road -- if it rains, you will need four-wheel drive -- towards the village of Guanaja. The site is just beyond the village. You can hire a taxi for about L300 round-trip or catch the 6, 11am, or 3pm bus -- returning at 7am, noon, and 4pm -- from Catacamas at Colonia Palmira (ask around in town). Cave admission is L120, which includes a guide. The caves are open Tuesday through Sunday, from 9am to 4pm.

The Cave of the Glowing Skulls

George Lucas couldn't have written up a story like this. Err, wait. Tales of crystal skulls of Mesoamerican origin have long been a common theme in adventure folklore. There have even been actual skulls found -- including in Honduras -- though most, if not all, of them have been proven frauds, depending on whom you speak to.

In April of 1994, a group of amateur spelunkers from the U.S. and Honduras inspected a small chamber while exploring an unmarked cave in Olancho. No one was prepared for what they would find. When they turned their flashlights into the chamber, dozens of glowing skeletons were staring back at them. Through radiocarbon dating the site has been traced to the Early to Middle Pre-Classic period, or, in human terms, about 850 to 1000 B.C. More than 20 skeletal deposits have been found in the cave, nearly all of them containing more than one skeleton and numbering more than 200 in total. The bones were painted in red pigment and later research determined that they had been carried to the cave in bundles.

Technically, the skulls are not glowing. Years of water dripping from the limestone roof have cemented them onto the cave in a thick layer of calcite, which has made the bones difficult to remove and study. When a light is shone on the bones, the calcite reflects it. The discovery alerted archeologists who had previously focused all their attention in the Copán Valley and never suspected that an advanced society could have developed here. Further studies have revealed a village, not far from the cave entrance on the west bank of the Río Talgua, with the remains of more than 100 small structures that resemble others in southeastern Mesoamerica. It was likely that the people had formed a trade network with the Mayas, as jade and other objects have been discovered with the skeletons and at the village site.

Las Cuevas de Susmay

Although they are less developed and have no significant historical appeal like caves at Talgua, the Susmay caves are much more interesting to spelunkers. Prior spelunking experience and proper equipment are a must. The three main caves are best known as sand, dry, and water. The water cave is the favorite. You'll need snorkel equipment to make your way through the deep underground river, filled with tiny black fish. Not far inside, you come to a large cavern with thousands of spooky black bats overhead. The other caves are connected, and all are unmarked. It is best to hire a guide in Gualaco or nearby villages to be safe. To reach the caves, you will need your own transportation. Head from Gualaco to the village of Las Joyas de Zacate and follow the trail across the creek and into the forests until coming to the cave.

In Yoro

What to See & Do -- The 11,206-hectare (27,691-acre) reserve, Parque Nacional Pico Pijol, is yet another large tract of cloud forest with few to no facilities but an abundance of wildlife. The only way to visit the park is with a guide, which you can hire in Yoro (check with the tour office on Parque Central). Bird life, including plenty of quetzals, is the main lure to the park, so be sure to get there early in the morning. A machete is a must here, as you literally must chop your way through the forests, though you can occasionally find a hunting trail. To get there, you will need to first head to the village of Morazán near Santa Rita, where you can catch a bus or taxi to any of the small villages that sit within the boundaries of the park.

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.