National Park Week Inspiration

If you ask us, it ought to be National Park Year but, for now, we’re happy to be celebrating the annual National Park Week (April 21-29, 2012) put on by the National Park Foundation, the official charity of the National Parks (see the story we did about park funding for National Geographic Traveler to learn more about why our national parks need an official charity).

The locations included in the United States National Park System represent some of the most spectacular and largest (87 million acres) tracts of protected land on the planet. During National Park Week (April 21-29) entry to all 397 national parks, monuments and historic sites across the United States (and Puerto Rico) is totally free. So, there goes that excuse.

The first two years of our Trans-Americas Journey were spent in the United States where we  visited 123 National Parks, National Monuments and National Historic Sites. The photo montage, below, includes shots taken as we entered 68 of them.

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Valley of the Dammed? – Cangrejal Valley, Honduras

We arrived in the Cangrejal Valley at a bad time. A company called Hydro Honduras had their eye on the Cangrejal River which is the heartbeat of this valley outside the grotty town of La Ceiba in Northern Honduras. For more than a decade businessmen had been sniffing around the valley with plans to dam the river in order to produce hydroelectric power. A fresh batch of greased palms had suddenly spurred the project into overdrive and concerned locals were circling the wagons.

Congrejal Valley, Honduras

The Cangrejal River–target of hydroelectric dam builders–in the Cangrejal Valley in Honduras.


Damn the dam

Local children in the Cangrejal Velley, Honduras

Local children in the Cangrejal Valley in Honduras.

We sat in on a meeting of hotel and tour company owners as they shared the latest information and consolidated their position against the dam which would alter the  Cangrejal River and would include diversion pipelines that would cut through adjacent jungle.

The tourism business owners (a mix of locals and long-time expats) worried that the dam would mean the end of rafting trips, a primary source of tourist income in the region. A dam would change the natural dynamics of the Pico Bonito National Park, through which the Cangrejal River currently flows. A dam would affect access to fresh water and fish for the people living in the scrappy little villages in the valley.

Up to this point the dam project in the Cangrejal Valley had progressed pretty much like dam projects everywhere: the dam’s proponents had all the political sway, cash and organization while the dam’s opponents struggled to have their voices heard (mainly alleging that the Cangrejal dam project did not meet environmental sensitivity standards). The meeting we attended seemed like a turning point with valley residents putting their money where their mouths were, pooling funds to retain a lawyer to help level the playing field and keep them in the loop regarding developments in far away board rooms.

We hope a reasonable outcome can be reached, but it might be best to move the Cangrejal Valley up a bit higher on your travel to-do list if you want to enjoy all of its watery fun.

Your own private waterfall

Las Cascadas Lodge - Congrejal Valley, Honduras

The pool at Las Cascadas Lodge in the Cangrejal Valley in Honduras is lovely, but it’s over-shadowed by the waterfalls on the property.

Las Cascadas Lodge - Congrejal Valley, Honduras

Privacy and a lovely natural plunge pool make this waterfall, on the Las Cascadas Lodge property, an ideal skinny-dipping spot (Karen kept her clothes on for this picture, don’t worry).

If you had a rich uncle with a vacation spread in the Cangrejal Valley it would probably be something like Las Cascadas Lodge. This elegant retreat near the head of the valley has a main house (originally built as a residence) with an open kitchen/dining/living area and two rooms. An adjacent thatch-roof bungalow with a screened patio, built-in tub and outdoor shower was built later.

The place is aptly named. There’s a cascada (the Spanish word for waterfall) tumbling and rumbling just a few feet away from the main house. A 20 minute walk up a pleasant trail delivers you to another waterfall with the privacy and natural plunge pool that make it perfect for skinny dipping.



Riverside yoga

Built on the banks of the Cangrejal River, Casa Verde uses the valley’s tumbling water as a backdrop for their yoga and raw food retreats. Through a series of serendipitous, meant-to-be “accidents,” Wendy Green (a successful yoga instructor from New Jersey) purchased Casa Verde, then sold her home to the previous owner.

She now offers yoga classes (200L or about US$10) and full-on yoga/raw food/wellness retreats with her partner Garth. Casa Verde has a supremely peaceful setting, a wonderful outdoor shower constructed like the inner spiral of a conch shell, loads of fruit trees and the best composting toilet we’ve ever seen.

We took an early morning yoga class with Wendy and she managed to give even lapsed beginners like us a glimpse of the benefits she’s offering on the banks of the river. It didn’t hurt that our hour-long class was quietly observed by a toucan in a nearby tree.

Over the river and through the woods

Swinging bridge - Pico Bonito National Park, Honduras

This swinging bridge above the Cangrejal River is a dramatic way to enter Pico Bonito National Park in Honduras.

It’s always fun entering a national park, but the Cangrejal Valley entrance to Pico Bonito National Park, home to 7,988 foot (2,435 meter) Pico Bonito and a mind-boggling list of wildlife (including jaguars), takes the cake.

To enter the second largest protected area in Honduras you have to walk across a 395 foot (120 meter) long swinging bridge suspended across a gorge above the roiling Rio Cangrejal. Before the bridge was built the only way into the park at this entrance was in a bucket pulled across on pulleys.





River rafting pioneers

Twenty years ago a big German rafter named Udo came to the Cangrejal Valley to scout the Cangrejal River to determine if rafting trips could be run on it. The answer was yes and Udo and his wife Silvia decided to stay. They started Omega Tours and pioneered river rafting in the Cangrejal Valley.

Rafting - Cangrejal River, Honduras

Rafting on the Cangrejal River in Honduras with Omega Tours.

Udo and Silvia’s river trips are still the most popular in the region. When we were there water levels were slightly low but guides kept the rafting trip adrenaline level high by incorporating canyoneering, bouldering and dramatic jumps into the river as well as traditional rafting. We also loved the fact that Udo and Silvia are working hard to train valley locals as river guides instead of just hiring guides from overseas.

Canyoneering - Cangrejal River, Honduras

Bouldering and canyoneering up the adrenaline level of river rafting trips with Omega Tours in the Cangrejal Valley in Honduras. That’s Eric leaping into the Cangrejal River.

Boulder jumping - Cangrejal River, Honduras

We climbed up this house-sized boulder then jumped off into the river as part of our rafting trip on the Cangrejal River with Omega Tours.

Over the years Omega has expanded to include a wide range of accommodations (from super-clean dorms to two fancy two-story bungalows), a delicious (if a bit pricey) restaurant, a lively bar and a wonderful river-fed swimming pool (no chlorine!).

If rafting isn’t your thing, Silvia also keeps a small stable of horses and she loves to lead rides through the valley.

Omega Tours Rafting - Cangrejal River, Honduras

Eric and his brother Jeff, ready for the rapids. 

Though the word cangrejal means crab in Spanish, we didn’t see any when we were in the valley. We did see a lot of toucans, however, including one sitting next to the dirt road which runs through the valley–by far the closest sighting we’ve had.

The nearby Lodge at Pico Bonito was undergoing a management shift and general overhaul when we were there but the place was still a bird-watching hot spot. We saw dozens of species and, yes, more toucans including a nesting pair which we were able to observe as they used that massive bills to clean out the mess made by a nest full of toucan chicks.

Toucan Nest - Lodge at Pico Bonito, Honduras

This toucan was busy cleaning house on the bird-filled grounds of the Lodge at Pico Bonito hotel in Honduras.

Northern Potoo - Lodge at Pico Bonito, Honduras

Yes, those two drab lumps are birds. Northern potoos, to be exact. Just one of the fabulous bird species we saw on the grounds of the Lodge at Pico Bonito hotel in Honduras.


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How to Ruin an Island – Roatán, Honduras

We believe there absolutely was a time when Roatán Island, part of a collection of islands in Honduras called the Bay Islands, was a paradise of white sand beaches, laid back locals, pristine waters and affordable prices. Sadly, those days are over thanks to a few buzz kill developments.

Two words: vomit comet

Of course getting to any island is part of the adventure. But when your transport is nicknamed the “vomit comet,” requires a pass through a metal detector and costs US$28 per person each way (plus $6 a day for parking if you leave a vehicle behind like we did) it’s not necessarily a good adventure.

And that nickname? Not for nothing. The waters between the ferry station in the dingy town of La Ceiba and the island of Roatán can get choppy and the ferry is fast and essentially just blasts through the swells. We have strong stomachs for the most part, but other passengers were doing plenty of up-chucking on our one and a half hour ride to the island.

The crew is prepared, however. Air freshener is sprayed like crazy and there’s a constantly circulating gang of workers toting garbage bags, handing out fresh puke bags and urging the sick to go buy a tummy-settling soda at the on board refreshment stand. We dubbed them the Puke Patrol.

Or you could fly.

Develop a mini Cancun complex

The West End of Roatán, where the aforementioned stretches of pristine white beaches used to beckon, is now built up shoulder-to-shoulder with resorts that range from fairly good to something less than mediocre. Many of them have gone the all-inclusive route complete with wrist bands and watered down cocktails.

Though its estimated that 60,000 people live on Roatán you’d be hard-pressed to find many signs of non-resort island life.

Roatan white sand beaches - West End

The white sand beaches of Roatán Island in Honduras are at risk from all-inclusive resorts and increasing numbers of cruise ship passengers.


Sell your soul to the cruise ship companies

The very first thing we saw as our ferry finally reached Roatán wasn’t beaches, or the surprisingly high hills and dense jungle on the geographically diverse island. It wasn’t a charming village or even a charming port. The first thing we saw as we approached Roatán was a Carnival Cruise Ship that dwarfed the 37 mile long and five mile wide island.

The second thing we saw was the mini-city that Carnival finished in 2010. Built right at the port it seems purpose-made to disgorge and sequester cruise ship passengers–and there are hundreds of thousands of them and increasing every year.

In 2006, 250,000 cruise ship passengers arrived on Roatán. In the first six months of 2011 430,000 people arrived on cruise ships. That number is expected to skyrocket to 1 million cruise ship passenger arrivals in 2012.

Many of the passengers pass through Cruise Shiplandia–aka Mahogany Bay, a $63 million complex/staging area. From there they can get  on the so-called “magic flying chair” (a chair lift that costs $35 a pop) and travel to a man-made beach. Passengers can also choose to get on buses or other transport which whisks them to the zip lines, butterfly farms and horseback riding operations they’ve paid to take part in for the day.

An entire section of the West End beach has been taken over by an enormous holding area for hundreds of white plastic beach loungers just waiting for cruise ship passengers who prefer suntan oil to adrenaline.

Carnival cruise Mahogony Bay Roatan, Honduras

The Carnival Dream cruise ship dwarfs Roatán Island in Honduras. More than a million cruise ship passengers are expected on the island this year.


There are still some bright spots underwater

At one point Roatán was well-known for its diving too. After being so disappointed with what was going on on dry land we were prepared to be disappointed underwater too but we still gratefully accepted invitations to go diving with two dive shops on the island

We had some decent dives with a professional and well-stocked dive shop called Mayan Divers around the El Aquila Wreck and Half Moon Bay Wall where we drifted lazily with turtles and barracuda. Their dive masters and very comfortable dive boat made the day even better.

Mayan Divers Roatan, Honduras

Getting ready to go diving with Mayan Divers on Roatán Island in Honduras.

On the East End of the island we also did some diving with Subway Watersports, a PADI 5-Star shop that operates out of the not-fancy but surprisingly charming Turquoise Bay Resort. Though it could use a coat of paint, the food was good and we were charmed by the simple rooms each with its own marine theme.

The standout site on this side of the island was a place called Dolphin’s Den, a shallow-water cave where six dolphins became trapped and died a few years ago. What seemed like millions of fish undulated through sun-dappled water in the confined space.

Roatan transportation

Roatán water taxis still retain their charm. 

And Roatán is the only island we’ve ever been on where you can go down in a homemade submarine. Karl Stanley built a submarine, named it IDABEL and now takes passengers with him into the deep. He’ll take you down to 2,000 feet if you want…

Perhaps the thing we liked best about Roatán is that in 2011 Honduran President Porfirio Lobo Sosa created a permanent shark sanctuary which encompasses 92,665 square miles (240,000 square kilometers) of Honduran waters, including Roatán, and aims to reduce the number of sharks killed each year.

Oh, and something else on the plus side? The town near the ferry terminal on Roatán is called Coxen Hole. Yep.

Palmetto Bay - Roatan, Honduras

Karen’s cool office at Palmetto Bay Resort on the quiet side of Roatán Island.


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Hammerheads Here We Come – Cocos Island, Costa Rica

By the time you read this we will be hundreds of miles off the coast of Costa Rica on board a liveaboard dive boat called the MV Argo (operated by Undersea Hunter) in the Pacific Ocean near Cocos Island National Park where, with any luck, we will soon find ourselves in the water surrounded by hammerhead sharks.

Cocos Island is the largest uninhabited island in the world and one of the most remote national parks in the world. The island is mostly rainforest-covered (the only rainforest in the Pacific) and boasts more than 300 waterfalls, some plunging directly into the ocean. Nice.

Cocos Island, Costa Rica

Cocos Island, an uninhabited island and national park 300 miles off the coast of Costa Rica. © copyright by Undersea Hunter Group

Waterfall at Cocos Island

There are more than 300 waterfalls on Cocos Island, some of them plunging directly into the Pacific.  © copyright by Undersea Hunter Group


Cocos Island is also said to be the site of vast  buried treasure, perhaps as much as a billion dollars worth. Pirates used Cocos as a sort of bank before the Costa Rican government took it over in the late 1800s. A few people have actually managed to get permission to search the island for the treasure—one man spent 19 years and millions of dollars but couldn’t find a penny.

Jurassic Park is said to have been based on a landscape inspired by Cocos Island. Treasure Island may have also been based on Cocos Island. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited Cocos Island three times and Jacques Cousteau called Cocos “the most beautiful island in the world” then he carved some graffiti into a rock on the shore and left.

MV Argo - Undersea Hunter

Our home for 10 days, the MV Argo liveaboard dive boat. © copyright by Undersea Hunter


That’s all well and good but what we’re interested in are what dive geeks call pelagics–large rays and sharks. The waters around Cocos Island have the densest concentration of large marine predators including silky sharks, galapagos sharks, reef sharks and more hammerheads than anywhere else in the world. Enormous manta rays and whale sharks are also seen here.

School of Hammerhead sharks

We hope to be in the midst of a school of hammerheads like this during dives around Cocos Island in Costa Rica.  © copyright by Avi Klapfer


As if that’s not enough adrenaline, we may also get a submarine ride in the Undersea Hunter DeepSee submersible which takes two people at a time down to depths of 300, 700 or even 1,000 feet. It’s darker down there and the marine life gets weirder and weirder the deeper you go.

DeepSee  - Undersea Hunter

In search of even deeper creatures in the DeepSee submersible.  © copyright by Undersea Hunter

So, fins crossed!

We’ll tell you what we think of this UNESCO World Heritage Site after our 10 day diving adventure to Cocos Island on the Argo is completed on April 14. Until then, we will be out of communication and out at sea.

In the meantime here’s a video about Cocos Island from the UNESCO YouTube channel…



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