Pico Bonito National Park, Honduras -- Although best known for its white beaches and Mayan ruins, Honduras boasts enough unexplored wilderness to make it a growing eco-tourism destination. One of its largest nature preserves, Pico Bonito National Park contains over 100,000 hectares of virgin rainforest and cloud forest. It's a 90- minute drive from San Pedro Sula, the jumping-off point for diving trips to the Bay Islands.
I head to Lancetilla Botanical Gardens and Biological Reserve at the edge of the park.
"It is beautiful here," says Arturo, my taxi driver, as we travel the 6 kilometres from Tela, the nearest Caribbean beach town. "But the government has forgotten about us."
He explains that despite promises of a new marina, few of the planned tourist developments have materialized. Tela is virtually a jungle at its edges. At the gardens, I meet guide Yadira Murilla. For $5, she'll be my personal escort through Lancetilla's 1,680 hectares. The largest section is the Biological Reserve, an unexplored territory of heavy forest. We head for the public gardens, research station, birding trails and plantation. There are no other visitors in sight in the 40¡C heat, just towering trees and billowing dust from the gravel road.
After a quick look at the museum's collection of Coleoptera (giant cockroaches) and rusty jars filled with soggy snakes in embalming fluid, we go outside to the Wilson Popenoe Arboretum. Originally an experimental he adaptability of imported trees, it's now a living tree museum.
Stretching over 78 hectares, it boasts the world's largest collection of Asiatic fruit trees, orchids and tropical trees. Its plants are so rare that they're of international significance as a germ plasm bank for new cultivations.
Soon we're face to face with the Javiello tree; its poisonous sap is used to kill fish. Next comes the strychnine tree (Nux vomica).
"Don't touch," Yadira says.
I'm not tempted to try. It turns out we're in the "venoso" section - every tree is poisonous.
"Muy, muy venoso" says Yadira, with serious intent, pointing at a terminalia tree. "Your throat will swell up and choke off your breath," she says, gesturing to her throat. "Then your face will swell until it explodes."
Worse, each tree teems with insect activity. Biologists have counted 54 species of ants on one tree alone, Yadira explains. I begin to wonder what kind of a house of horrors I've ventured into. Each tree is more poisonous than the last.
Thankfully, the next copse offers the antidotes. The mulberry tree gives respiratory relief. A white jasmine shrub releases its sweet fragrance as we brush past. Giant arches of bamboo tower above us like a gothic cathedral. Under the shade of marzipan tree I imagine I'm in The Nutcracker Suite, transported to a heavenly world of dreams that banishes the growing 45¡C heat.
An hour later, as we near the museum, Yadira suggests exploring some of the 1,000 varieties of exotic ornamental plants and orchids. The museum was founded by the United Fruit Company in 1926, and research teams still use the park for exploratory scientific missions into new methods of conservation and management of tropical resources.
For eco-tourists, it's a good base for exploring nearby parks. From kayaking the canals of Punta Izopo Wildlife Refuge to hiking Punta Sal (accessible only by water) or whitewater rafting in Pico Bonito, a wide range of outdoor adventure options beckon.
In the cafeteria conveniently located beside the museum's cockroach display, I notice an interesting decor feature. Above the dining patrons hovers a demon that could've appeared in a medieval manuscript. It's Artibeus inopinatus, the Honduran fruit-eating bat. Perfectly preserved, its fangs locked in a state of insatiable hunger, the bat seems to be eyeing our dinner plates.