Brews and Views – Lake Yojoa & Cerro Azul National Park, Honduras

Travel just south of San Pedro Sula and you’ll find the biggest lake in Honduras. Lake Yojoa (Lago de Yojoa in Spanish) was formed in a volcanic crater and is shaped vaguely like the state of Florida. On the lakeshore there’s a small archaeological site where you can walk around the remains of a Lencan city which dates back to 700 BC and hundreds of types of birds (and vacationing Hondurans) love the place. But those aren’t the only reasons we went to Lake Yojoa. We also heard there was beer.

Lake Yojoa from Cerro Azul National Park, Honduras

Lake Yojoa as seen from Cerro Azul National Park in Honduras.

Lake Yojoa, Honduras

Lake Yojoa in Honduras.

 

The brews

D&D Brewery Lodge & Restaurant was opened by Robert Dale, a guy from the US who wanted someplace to get a burger and a beer so he created one. When we visited D&D a new owner named Bobby had just taken over but the burgers and the brews on tap (made by a Honduran who was trained by Dale) were still going strong. Okay, D&D’s beer isn’t as good or as affordable as the stuff Thomas is making at his Sol de Copán brewery in Copán Ruinas, but it still beats Honduran Salva Vida any day.

D&D Brewery - Lake Yojoa, Honduras

Welcome to one of only two microbreweries we found in Honduras, the D&D Brewery Lodge & Restaurant on Lake Yojoa.

D&D also has a pool, a place for your tent and a range of rooms which were getting a much-needed renovation (new paint, new mattresses, etc) when we were there.

D&D Brewery - Lake Yojoa, Honduras

Happy taps at D&D Brewery Lodge & Restaurant on Lake Yojoa in Honduras.

Plhapanzak Waterfall, Honduras

Pulhapanzak Waterfall is a 140 foot (43 meter) rager near Lake Yojoa in Honduras. Guides will take you over rocks and through swimming holes to reach a small rocky space behind the crashing water.

 

The views

Less than an hour from Lake Yojoa is Cerro Azul Meámbar National Park (Parque Nacional Cerro Azul Meámbar in Spanish). Established in 1987, the park covers 115 square miles (300 square kilometers) ranging in elevation from 1,600 to 6,500 feet (500 to 2,000 meters) providing habitat for more than 50 species of mammals.

trails Cerro Azul national Park, Honduras

Karen exploring some of the 10 miles of trails through Cerro Azul Meámbar National Park in Honduras.

 Cerro Azul National Park, Honduras

A rare glimpse of the often-cloud-covered high peaks of Cerro Azul Meámbar National Park in Honduras.

 waterfall Cerro Azul National Park, Honduras

One of the many waterfalls in Cerro Azul Meámbar National Park in Honduras which is one of the country’s largest watersheds.

Cerro Azul has benefited from the know how, funding and management of a Canadian NGO called PANACAM. Unlike most parks in Central America, Cerro Azul has knowledgeable staff members on site, dorm rooms and gorgeous private cabins for rent (800L, about US$42, for a cabin but bargain a bit) and nearly 10 miles (15 kilometers) of marked and maintained trails through different vegetative zones and past waterfalls. There’s even Wi-Fi in the park’s beautiful restaurant.

sunrise over Lake Yojoa & Santa Barbra National Park, Honduras

Sunrise  from the campground in Cerro Azul Meámbar National Park with Lake Yojoa and Santa Barbra National Park in the background.

cool mushroom - Cerro Azul National Park, Honduras

A cool mushroom in Cerro Azul Meámbar National Park in Honduras.

Cerro Azul also has what just might be the best campsite in all of Honduras. For 100L per person (US$5.25) we set up our tent on a flat surface under a metal roof near clean bathrooms with flush toilets, cold water showers and functioning sinks. We even had electricity and a pair of aracaris (basically small toucans) perched in a tree near our tent. The only thing missing was an ice cold beer.

 

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Escaping San Pedro Sula – Cusuco National Park, Honduras

San Pedro Sula is not a pretty town. Nor is it cheap or attraction filled or, frankly, particularly safe. A Peace Corps worker was accidentally shot in the leg during a gun fight on a public bus in San Pedro Sula recently, precipitating a complete withdrawal of Peace Corps workers from Honduras (here’s more on the Peace Corps pullout).

San Pedro Sula is, however, where the country’s biggest international airport is located and it’s possible that you will find yourself in SPS (as everyone calls it) at least for a night. We actually spent time in SPS on two separate occasions and here’s what we learned.

Where to sleep (and not sleep) in San Pedro Sula

If you want a hotel near the airport it does not get any better than Banana Inn. Locally owned, this 16 room hotel is built in what was an administration building for the United Fruit Company (aka Chiquita Banana) from 1930 to 2003, hence the name. Rooms have A/C and there’s a pool (did we mention that it’s usually sizzling in SPS?). It’s also less than five minutes from the airport in a quiet town outside of the fray of SPS.

If you need or want to stay in town, do yourself a favor and skip Hostal Tamarindo. Everyone talks about Tamarindo as the cheap place in town but we spent a night there on a crappy mattress in a noisy, dirty, hot room with a small, dirty shared bathroom and even dirtier shared kitchen and paid $30 for the privilege. 

Since then, a much better option has emerged. Check out La Hamaca Hostal which was recently opened by our friend Juan Carlos Paz. It looks awesome with good mattresses, spotless facilities, a pool table, movie room, WiFi, an outdoor BBQ, stylish private rooms and dorms and, yes, hammocks. 

Juan Carlos Paz, Jungle Xpeditions - San Pedro Sula, Honduras

Juan Carlos Paz, the brains and brawn behind Jungle Xpedition tour company and La Hamaca Hostal in Honduras. He swears he is not Amish.

 

Better yet, sleep in Cusuco National Park

And speaking of Juan Carlos, we highly recommend his SPS-based tour company too. He created Jungle Xpedition a few years ago, fueled by his remarkable energy and his passion for the natural areas in Honduras.

Jungle Xpedition runs trips and tours all over Honduras but we were interested in escaping SPS. Believe it or not, there’s a national park just outside SPS so we jumped into a vintage Land Rover with Juan Carlos and his friend Eduardo, who’s a biologist, and headed for the hills.

Heading to Cusuco national Park - San Pedro Sula, Honduras

Heading to Cusuco National Park outside San Pedro Sula, Honduras in a vintage Land Rover driven by Juan Carlos Paz of Jungle Xpedition.

Heading to Cusuco national Park - San Pedro Sula, Honduras

Just one of the views we were treated to as we drove up, up, up into Cusuco National Park above San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

Within a few minutes we’d left SPS far behind and began climbing slowly and steadily up an increasingly rough dirt road until we were engulfed in clouds and blessedly cooler temperatures. We stopped in a tiny village to pay a visit to Vilma who brewed us up some delicious locally grown coffee which she grinds with cinnamon and black pepper–perfect with her homemade corn cakes which were even more delicious than they sound.

Further up we reached the slightly larger village of Buenos Aires where a woman named Martina served us yet more coffee on an outdoor bench. Her dirt floor home was small and simple but her bench had a million dollar view of the hills and the clouds that call them home.

Lunch near Cusuco National Park - San Pedro Sula, Honduras

Now that’s what we call lunch, served by a lovely woman in a village near Cusuco National Park above San Pedro Sula in Honduras.

View Cusuco National Park

This is why they call it a cloud forest.

All caffeined up, we hit the trial to Toucan Waterfall. After about an hour of walking over an undulating trail through hills planted with coffee (more caffeine!) we reached the four-tiered cascade and its inviting swimming hole. Back in Buenos Aires we feasted on fried chicken, red beans, scrambled eggs, homemade tortillas and vegetables at another woman’s house/restaurant before coaxing the Land Rover further uphill and through the actual entrance to Cusuco National Park.

Coffee field around Buenos Aires - Cusuco National Park, Honduras

Coffee planted around the village of Buenos Aires in the hills above San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

Toucan Waterfall - Cusuco National Park, Honduras

Toucan Waterfall in Cusuco National Park in Honduras.

Cusuco National Park sign, Honduras

Cusuco National Park in Honduras gets virtually no visitors.

There’s a large covered area full of picnic tables, a flat expanse perfect for tents and a very basic dorm with a small rudimentary kitchen and an outdoor cooking stove. We had the place to ourselves.

Visiting research teams studying the flora and fauna in the park (there’s a small lab/office for the students and scientists) are just about the only people who ever visit Cusuco  National Park which was established in 1959 and covers 90.5 square miles (234.4 square kilometers) of cloudforest, semi-arid pine forest and deciduous forest making it notable in both size and diversity.

Campground  - Cusuco National Park, Honduras

We had the whole place to ourselves when we visited Cusuco National Park above San Pedro Sula in Honduras.

Trail Cusuco National Park, Honduras

Exploring a trail through Cucuso National Park in Honduras.

Giant mushroom - Cusuco National Park, Honduras

This giant mushroom in Cusuco National Park also had a groovy shiny purple top.

Before dinner we all took a short night walk, then scarfed down the delicious homemade chilli that Juan Carlos brought up with him before hitting the hay. In the morning we warmed up some baleadas and enjoyed the national food of Honduras (a big flour tortilla filled with scrambled eggs and other goodies then folded in half and covered in butter) for breakfast before doing another short walk in the park over a trail that took us deep into lush rainforest that looked ripped from the pages of Lord of the Rings.

Cusuco means armadillo and we did, indeed, see one scurrying through the underbrush away from us during the night walk. Quetzal birds have been spotted in Cusuco National Park too, but not by us. 

Spider - Cusuco National Park, Honduras

The leg-span of this spindly spider in Cusuco National Park was at least six inches.

Spider - Cusuco National Park, Honduras

Another spider spotted in Cusuco National Park.

Stick Bug - Cusuco National Park, Honduras

A stick bug doesn’t blend in so when it’s not among sticks.

Juan Carlos, whose incongruous red hair and red beard make him look like an Amish man even though he’s 100% Honduran, isn’t satisfied with simply bringing people to this woefully under visited park. He also wants to improve the lives of the people living near the park and to do that he takes matters into his own hands, distributing clothing, bringing in doctors, even inspiring a tourist he’d brought up to Cusuco to provide the small sum that was needed to extend electrical lines to the upper reaches of Buenos Aires village.

Buenos Aires, Honduras

Karen and Martina who brewed up some tasty coffee for us in the village of Buenos Aires. No, Karen is not standing on a box.

This has made Juan Carlos something of a minor celebrity in the area and he’s greeted with smiles from everyone. After spending a couple of days with Juan Carlos its clear to us that he would make the perfect Tourism Minister for Honduras, only he’s probably too smart to take the job.

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On the Rocks – Utila Island & Rocks Cay, Honduras

A sad little ferry (more like a floating coffin) takes you from La Ceiba out to Utila town on Utila Island, in the Bay Islands of Honduras. But the dilapidated craft turned out to be a blessing because, unlike the sleek monster which travels from La Ceiba to neighboring Roatán Island, the Utila ferry is slow.

In the midst of a downpour with seas churning we piled into the craft, then every single one of the windows and doors were sealed (not for the claustrophobic). We set off at a  leisurely pace which meant that the ferry captain was able to negotiate through the chop, swell and white caps rather than blasting through them as the Roatán ferry does with puke-inducing effect. After about an hour we reached Utila town with just one barfer.

Cooling off on Utila, Honduras

A typical fisherman’s home on Lower Cay, aka Pigeon Cay, about 20 minutes away from Utila town.

 

Bargain no more

Let’s get one thing straight. If you’ve got a notion in your head that Utila town is a great place to chill on a beach for cheap you’re wrong on two counts. There is no accessible beach (save for two sorry man-made bits of sand) and food and lodging on Utila is no longer cheap.

Breakfast can easily set you back US$4 and while there are some nice places to stay on the island bargains are hard to find. For example, we were hosted at Mango Inn which has rooms of varying sorts arranged around a lush garden and somewhat murky pool. But with rates starting at $55 it’s not exactly backpacker friendly.

Fish Burgers Restaurant, Pigeon Cay -  Utila, Honduras

Fish Burgers Restaurant on Lower Cay, aka Pigeon Cay, in Honduras.

Lodging does get more affordable if you sign up for SCUBA lessons. The island is littered with dive shops (several owned by the same company) and dive instruction is often bundled with free or subsidized basic accommodation while you’re studying.

Which leads us to another misconception about Utilia. The island used to be one of the cheapest places in the world to learn to dive. Some claim Utila once held the dubious honor of certifying more PADI divers than any other place on the planet. But the island is no longer a PADI bargain with open water courses averaging nearly $300 and most of the dive shops working together to maintain a minimum price and discourage undercutting.

Water Cays Utila, Honduras

Small, mostly uninhabited cays dot the waters around Utila in Honduras.

 

Whale sharks for free

One totally worth it bargain is the free nightly whale shark talk at the Whale Shark and Oceanic Research Center in Utila town. This not-for-profit group recently resumed activity, including hosting this laid back lecture which is meant to provide basic information about whale sharks and the work the group is doing to study and protect them.

The night we attended the talk it was lead by John, a marine biologist from the UK who was on the island working with the org. He was smart, funny, informative, interactive and the beer and rum and cokes flowed for just 25L (US$1.30).

Whale sharks are fairly commonly sighted around Utila and the underfunded org is trying to establish research and protection efforts. When we were there organizers were trying to scrape together the resources needed to build a fake whale shark which researchers could use to practice their tagging techniques before attempting them on real whale sharks. If you have some spare change this is a good group to donate it to.

Life on the rocks

Approaching Long (Pigeon) Cay - Utila, Honduras

Approaching Lower Cay, aka Pigeon Cay, about 20 minutes from Utila town. 

Nonplussed by Utila, we got on a water taxi and headed to more tranquil and affordable digs. When we read about tiny Rocks Cay, a private island about 20 minutes from Utila town, we knew we had to stay there and owners Henry and Victoria Karpinski, kindly agreed to host us in the house they rent on the island.

Rocks Cay is a private island, but it’s not the deserted kind. It’s s half acre of rocky coral separated  from Lower (or Pigeon) Cay and Upper (or Jewel, or Suc Suc) Cay by a narrow channel with a foot bridge over it.

Rocks Cay - Utila, Honduras

Our home on Rocks Cay, a private island about 20 minutes from Utila in Honduras.

The four bedroom, two bathroom house on Rocks Cay has a full kitchen and is spread over two buildings which take up most of the hunk of land. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s peaceful and comfortable and a great place to hang out with family and friends.

And at US$120 a night for up to 10 people it’s the biggest accommodation bargain in the area. Just be sure to arrive with all of the supplies you need. There are a few small shops on Lower and Upper Cay that stock the basics (ketchup, beer) and you can sometimes buy fresh fish but if you need something else you’ll be faced with a $25 boat taxi trip back to Utila town to get it.

Market Pigeon Cay - Utila, Honduras

What passes for a “super”market on Lower Cay, aka Pigeon Cay, one of the many small islands near Utila.

Lower and Upper Cay are home to fishing villages full of tightly packed houses. The locals are more Caribbean than Honduran. Their Spanish sounds almost creole and there are references to Louisiana are everywhere. The boat docked at Rocks Cay is called the Who-Dat (a common greeting that originated in New Orleans). Men walk around town wearing Saints t-shirts. Fleur de Lis are everywhere. You can buy Zatrain Cajun spices in the shops. Apparently, many residents of Upper and Lower Cay have spent time working in Louisiana and they’ve slowly brought back bits of the south.

Who Sat - Utila, Honduras

The boat behind our house on Rocks Cay was called “Who-Dat,” just one of many Louisiana references in this part of the world.

Fun sign at Purple Pelican Grill on Utila, Honduras

Playful sign at the fresh water shower at the Purple Pelican Grill.

Henry and Victoria have lived out here for years and are a wealth of local information. They also run Harbor House on Lower Cay which offers two rooms for rent, a small cafe plus internet access if you must have it. They’re also building gorgeous custom homes at Mariners Landing and they run tours.

One afternoon we got into Henry’s boat and sped along the gorgeous coastline nosing up to other small cays (including Water Cay where the Sun Jam music festival is held every year) before arriving at the Purple Pelican Grill, a bar and restaurant on a postcard perfect bit of beach which is only accessible by boat.

Otherwise, we spent five blissful days on Rocks Cay doing nothing much besides cooking and eating, doing yoga on the dock, snorkeling right off our own back pier and lounging in hammocks.

 

Mermaid alert

Utopia Dive Village - Utila, Honduras

Utopia Dive Village in a remote section of Utila Island.

Beach - Utila, Honduras

Utopia Dive Village , which is only reachable by boat, is on one of the only true beaches on the island of Utila.

SCUBA diving Utopia Dive Village - Utila, Honduras

Karen and Eric’s brother, Jeff coming up after a dive with Utopia Dive Village. 

We left Rocks Cay before we got too deep into the do-nothing island life, however, and headed to a remote section of Utila for some SCUBA diving with Utopia Dive Village.

Created by a group of mostly female friends from the US, the 16 room Utopia Dive Village is not exclusively for women but the place does benefit from a woman’s touch with full-length mirrors, flattering skylights and SCUBA gear designed to fit women–features not always found in the usual dive resort.

Utila is home to world-renowned dive sites which delivered a fairly rich underwater world of colorful coral, schooling fish, feeding turtles and nighttime creatures like octopus. Whale sharks are even regularly seen here too but not, sadly, during any of the dives we got in before it was time to say goodbye to Utila.

Cooling off on Utila, Honduras

Karen and Eric’s brother Jeff cooling off in the ocean with Angelika Lukacsy (right), one of the creators of Utopia Dive Village. Angelika likes to wear nail polish in a color called Mermaid.

 

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Sailing Stones – The Racetrack, Death Valley National Park, California

No one knows for sure why boulders move around a gorgeously vacant area of California’s Death Valley National Park called The Racetrack, but they do. Big rocks, small rocks–they all creep around the incredibly flat expanse leaving a clearly visible trail behind to mark their mysterious path.

One theory is that the rocks sail across the land when the right amount of water slicks up the clay and the right amount of wind propels them across it, hence their nickname: sailing stones. We don’t really care what the explanation is we just wanted to see them for ourselves but that turned out to be easier said than done.

To reach The Racetrack you have to drive 27 miles down Racetrack Road, a vehicle busting dirt track. We blew out a shock absorber on our way to The Racetrack but we still fared better than the poor sod we saw on the side of Racetrack Road who had not one but two flat tires.

Worth it? You bet. And if you hurry you can check it out for free. National Park Week 2012 is in effect until April 29 with free admission to all national parks, national monuments and national historic sites.

Race Track Road - Death Valley National Park

The reach The Racetrack (aka Racetrack Playa) and its amazing moving rocks you have to drive 27 miles down Racetrack Road past the Ubehebe Crater and over enough bumps to bust a shocks absorber (we did).

 Teakettle Junction on Racetrack Road - Death Valley National Park

Teakettle Junction on Racetrack Road is marked by one of the more free-form national park signs you’ll ever see.

Panorama of Racetrack Playa - Death Valley National Park

Panorama of The Racetrack, a dry lake bed in Death Valley National Park, where scientists are at a loss to explain how or why rocks appear to move around by themselves.

Racetrack Playa from the Grandstand

The Racetrack from atop a rock formation called the “Grandstand” in California’s Death Valley National Park.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones - Death Valley National Park

One of the so-called sailing stones which mysteriously move around a dry lake bed called The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones - Death Valley National Park

One of the so-called sailing stones which mysteriously move around a dry lake bed called The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park leaving trails behind them.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stone - Death Valley National Park

One of the so-called sailing stones which mysteriously move around The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park leaving weird, smooth trails behind them.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones - Death Valley National Park

More of the so-called sailing stones which mysteriously move around The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones - Death Valley National Park

One of the so-called sailing stones which mysteriously move around The Racetrack  in Death Valley National Park in California.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones - Death Valley National Park

A group of so-called sailing stones which mysteriously move around The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park leaving trails behind them which sometimes create intricate designs in the dry lake bed.

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stones - Death Valley National Park

A group of so-called sailing stones which mysteriously move around The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park leaving trails behind them creating intricate designs in the dry lake bed.

Ubehebe Crater - Death Valley National Park

Your journey to The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park begins here at Ubehebe Crater.

 

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