Parks, reserves, and wildlife refuges dot the northern coast of Honduras like a string of emeralds, starting in the west at the Barras del Rio Motagua National Park, tucked away on the Guatemalan border, and reaching the vast expanse of the Rio Plátano Biosphere Reserve in the east. The reserve cuts off the easternmost province of Gracias a Dios from the rest of the country and is covered with the largest remaining expanse of virgin tropical jungle in Central America.
I approached the north coast of mainland Honduras by ferryboat from Roatán, thinking of two antecedents: Christopher Columbus, who was real, and Allie Fox, who was not. Columbus passed this way by ship in 1502 and claimed the shore for Spain. The existing human residents, the Tolupan, Pech, and Tawahka, lived in hidden jungle settlements, so Columbus would have seen an unbroken wall of green rising from the sandy beach up to the 8,000-foot peak of Pico Bonito. As my ferryboat approached, the peak loomed over the coast, first hazy in the bright morning sun, then greener as we got closer to the shore.
As the wilderness has become a place that humans visit by choice rather than necessity, the “leave no trace” credo has evolved into a mantra for outdoor enthusiasts. In my case, it’s been ingrained since grade-school day hikes. So it’s odd to think just how new this philosophy is to Western thinking. Columbus, I’m guessing, would have considered the idea of leaving no trace incomprehensible. Every Spanish name, every cathedral, every empty silver mine in Central America is testament to the belief that the bigger the trace, the better. Or consider the Babylonians, the Romans, the Mayans—the entire history of civilization is one of bending the earth to the needs and wants of humans. Today, we might worship at the altar of low-impact living, but I’ll wager that our brains have not yet adapted. On a purely psychological level, impact is good. Who wants to be forgotten? We have families, make art, and build McMansions precisely so that we leave a trace.
Allie Fox and his family also approached the north coast by ship in The Mosquito Coast, a novel by Paul Theroux, who seems to have chosen the region as a metaphor for the opposite of civilization. Fox wants to escape a corrupt and materialistic modern United States, and he has notions that the Mosquito Coast savages, as he sees them, are a purer version of mankind. But once in the jungle, he is desperate to civilize it. He plants neat rows of beans and builds a giant ice machine.
My parents met me at the ferry terminal with Mark, a guide from a local company that specializes in aventuras ecológicas. The outfit is called Garífuna Tours, after an African-Indian ethnic group that lives along the north coast. This was supposed to be a group tour, but we were the only customers. We felt a bit decadent.
We drove through the modern, low-rise city of La Ceiba, which, despite its banks and restaurants and grid-patterned streets, looked bleached and weathered, as though it were still trying to assert itself against nature. The impact of humans on the north coast accelerated considerably after 1502, culminating in today’s cultural peak, which comes complete with Dunkin’ Donuts and KFC. Mark whisked us west of the city, turned off the paved road, and drove through a field of pineapples. A mechanical conveyor with a green-painted metal boom sat idle in the field.
The low, spiky pineapple plants grew right up to the edge of Pico Bonito National Park, 414 square miles of mountain and jungle encompassing Pico Bonito itself, the jutting peak I had seen from the sea. Entering the jungle was like stepping into a yawning palace, one made of ceiba and mahogany and rosewood trees, lit only by a few sunbeams that penetrated a latticework high above. Up there—30 or 40 yards up in the trees—existed a whole world of insects and animals that never deigned to touch the ground. The trail began to climb, and small unseen creatures rustled and were gone before I could get a look. When we came upon a termite nest, Mark urged me to eat one of the insects, and when I refused, he told me that at least I knew now that they were edible, in case I got lost in the forest. * We passed a sign that banned venturing off-trail into the pathless woods beyond. Mark said a group of Spaniards had recently headed that-a-way, gotten lost for six days, and had to be rescued.
In an hour, we arrived at a waterfall. A foamy white feather spewed out of the jungle, down vine-covered rock, and eddied and churned its way to the deep, calm pool that spread out at our feet.
Outside the air-conditioned rooms, the heat had been constant since I arrived in Honduras. It was the kind that pressed on your body like a physical force, barely lessened by an evening breeze or a dip in the bath-water sea. During our short jungle climb, it seemed to have grown even thicker. Now here was a chance to be cool. I dove under the water and felt the blood rush to the surface of my skin.
As I was drying off, a troop of teenagers from the town of Tela arrived at the fall. They were on a Sunday hike with a lone American friend, a redheaded Peace Corps volunteer from Texas. Honduras is host to 192 volunteers—the Peace Corps’ second-largest deployment in the world (only Ukraine has more)—who are scattered around the country on their vague but benign mission to be of use. Jonathan was at the end of his two-year tour, which he had spent advising the Tela mayor’s office on business development. “The Peace Corps has been in Honduras for 40 years,” he told us. “So you might well ask, just how much good are we doing?”
Perhaps not much. But the urge to leave a trace is irrepressible.
Correction, June 10, 2008: This piece originally and incorrectly referred to termites as ants. (Return to the corrected sentence.)