A thick leathery body floated over the glassy green water surface as we glided by the edge of the swamp in our motorized wooden boat. Our local guide Elmer signaled for the boatman to move closer. Once we were within an arm’s length from the body, we found a pair of big marble eyes staring back at us. An enormous crocodile, lay just inches away from us.
It was early in the morning and the air was wet and hot. We were gliding across the water of the Salado River, one of the many water channels that flow through the Pico Bonito National Park, just 45 minutes away from the coastal town of La Ceiba in Northern Honduras. The river is part of the Cuero y Salado Wildlife Refuge, home to a vast collection of endemic wildlife ranging from the shy and elusive manatee, to howler monkeys and crocodiles. But because of its isolated location, it receives only a trickle of curious travelers and wildlife seekers.
Wildlife Safari on the River
Earlier that morning, we had left our comfortable base, the Lodge at Pico Bonito, to explore the area around the national park. At the village of La Union, we’d found our ride: a rickety tourist train dating back to 1912, previously built to transport coconuts and now used as a form of transportation for visitors. Along with a big group of young students from Tegucigalpa, we boarded the locomotive, swaying to the slow but hypnotic motion of the train while traversing the 9.5km-long trail.
On our left, we watched the early morning sun rise above the Pico Bonito Mountain Range; and on our right, clusters of villages and patchworks of farm lands whizzed by. Locals waved at us, children shouting ‘hola!’ as we trotted past.
Once on the river bank, our next ride was awaiting: a small six-passenger boat equipped with a motor, that would take us deep into the swamps surrounding the Salado River. On the surface, the river looked just like any — with emerald green mangroves fringing its banks and murky water lurking its shores. But on closer look, it’s in fact a sanctuary, inhabited by thousands of plants, fish, birds, reptiles as well as local villages.
Covering an area of 13,500 hectares, the refuge sprawls across two major rivers – Cuero and Salado – stretching all the way to the Caribbean Sea.
Covering an area of 13,500 hectares, the refuge sprawls across two major rivers – Cuero and Salado – stretching all the way to the Caribbean Sea. The refuge is home to hundreds of local fishermen who depend on the river for livelihood. Our young boatman is one of them, having grown up in the nearby village of Salado Barra which houses over 40 families. He now works for the Cuero y Salado foundation, shuttling tourists around the river. Having spent decades of his life here, he knows the river inside out.
Within five minutes on the boat, he already spotted our first animal. A beautiful black bird with yellow feet was walking lightly on the water lily leaves, picking on insects hiding within the plants. A northern Jacana, said our naturalist Elmer. These birds have big webbed toes that help them tread on floating plants. Besides the yellow feet, they usually have big yellow patches on their foreheads and their underarms are painted in yellow too. We soon saw it for ourselves when the northern jacana spread its wings and took off, displaying its gorgeous golden-yellow wings in the sky.
Further along, we spotted three northern jacana babies, all eagerly chirping away under their father’s protection. For these birds, their father – instead of mother – takes care of the infants, staying with them for three months before they are mature enough to hunt and survive on their own. Nearby, we found a juvenile Great Blue Heron staring out into the water, looking for the catch of the day. Despite being a juvenile, the heron was already rather large in size, spotting a dark green beak, yellow eyes and dark magenta feathers.
Crabs, Reptiles, and Bats
Continuing on our journey, we glided closer to the mangroves, skirting the edge of the muddy banks. Elmer explained that mangroves play a vital role in this eco-system, holding the roots and protecting land in the area. The Salado River itself has three species of mangroves, each of them easily distinguished from the other based on its color: white, red and black. These mangroves also provide food and shelter for many of these animals, including the toads and mangrove crabs that we saw sputtering across the roots and muddy riverbed.
Sprouting from these mangroves were sapotone flowers, their white lily-like petals and red thin needles creating quite a contrast to the greenery of the setting. And on these sapotone trees were brown patches that seemingly moved with the wind. As our boat inched close to a sapotone tree, Elmer whipped out his binoculars and urged us to take a look. Through the magnifying lenses, I stared for a few minutes before finally realizing what I was looking at: with sharp eyes, small rabbit-like nose, pointy ears, and big wings by their sides, these were long nose bats hanging from the tree trunk, immaculately camouflaging into the backdrop. By this time, our boat was almost touching the tree and just at that precise moment, the bats flapped their wings and fled in all directions. They were gone in just seconds.
Soon enough, we were slowly weaving through a narrow channel flanked by thick fig trees and coiling vines. Three turkey vultures circled overhead, while a large montezuma oropendula stood on a branch staring at us from a distance. A huge lizard was lounging out on the shore under the sun when we were sailing close to shore. According to Elmer, this species of lizard is known as Jesus Christ Lizard, because of its ability to walk on water. While we didn’t quite see the lizard work its magic, we could sense its unspoken power.
Various types of birds, lizards, bats and even crocodiles had made their appearance — only the legendary howler monkey was missing. When we went backpacking in Guatemala a few years ago, we had heard the loud roar of these howler monkeys. The howl they made was so loud and disturbing that we’d found them hard to forget. But in actual fact, we had heard them but never seen them.
Various types of birds, lizards, bats and even crocodiles had made their appearance — only the legendary howler monkey was missing.
“Its so quiet. Usually we can hear howler monkeys in the refuge, even if they’re 5km away.” Elmer shared, “they are probably out hunting since after the rain last night.” I was beginning to lose hope. Perhaps it was our fate.
But then our boatmen suddenly killed the engine, shushed us, and pointed to the trees overhead. There was a crew of six monkeys right above us — some were lazing on the fig tree branches chewing on fruit, others were swinging from tree to tree with babies on their backs, and one was staring at us cheekily, as if it were up to no good. A few minutes later, the cheeky one spread its legs and started pissing above us, in a bid to protect its territory. Thank goodness it missed.
We spent several minutes quietly watching the monkeys in action. Surprisingly, there was no howling. They didn’t even make a sound. Perhaps they knew we came in peace. Indeed, it’s hard not to be at peace in such a glorious setting, surrounded by the wilderness of the Cuero y Salado.
This visit to the Cuero y Salado Refuge can be booked at the Lodge at Pico Bonito. It’s priced at US$70 per person including lunch. The tour includes entrance fee, the train ride, boat trip and local wildlife guide.
Disclaimer: This trip was made possible by the Lodge at Pico Bonito, but all opinions expressed above are our own.