Almost on tiptoe, my family alighted the airplane in Honduras, hesitant to disturb the peace of the lush tropical forest that surrounded us. Growing up, Honduras was one of the exotic countries I first learned about while watching the Miss World pageant on TV. Along with Aruba, Jamaica, St. Kitts and other Caribbean nations, it was a mystery to me. How exciting it was to be in La Ceiba, in northern Honduras, and wonder what was in store for my husband, my five-year-old daughter and I.
Goloson International Airport looked more like a humble cottage. Adding to the homely feel, were the locals who chatted up our little one and offered her candy as we waited in line to clear immigration. Immigration officials greeted everyone with a smile that was genuinely welcoming and without suspicion or fear.
We were met by John Dupois, the owner of La Villa de Soledad boutique homestay at the pick-up zone. En route, we noticed construction on either side—brightly coloured, half-finished houses, with advertisements hand-painted on their walls, which looked a lot like rural India. Even the roads seemed Indian.
As John started to tell us about Honduras and the coastal city of La Ceiba, however, we began to see the landscape with new eyes. Soon we were making our way up the mountains and driving parallel to the Rio Cangrejal (Cangrejal river). It was Labour Day, and locals were gathered on the banks, splashing, bathing and picnicking. Just as in India, there were lots of people, and none of them in swimsuits. Same-same, but different, I thought, smiling.
As we drove higher, the landscape became denser. Magnificent trees loomed over us, and gushing Rio Cangrejal, running over rocks, boomed from below. We arrived at Villa de Soledad, located in a beautiful spot just across the river, and facing the Nombre de Dios Mountains. We were greeted by Soledad, John’s wife (after whom the villa is named) and as we were soon to discover, a fabulous cook.
Reposed at the entrance of the villa is a small well over which hangs a bucket, dripping water musically. Around the central courtyard a fountain gushes with predictable yet welcome spontaneity. Echoing the Rio Cangrejal, these water features provide cooling and a sense of movement during the afternoons when the humidity and heat are at their highest.
We were led to our simple, tasteful room, brightened by azure loom-woven bedspreads. In the bathroom was a voluptuous flower arrangement, picked from the garden outside. There was a hammock in the patio, overlooking the garden and the mountains around. No matter where we stood, we always heard the sound of the Cangrejal. It was a restful balance of the elements.
As we sat down to the first of many meals beautifully prepared by Soledad, my husband suddenly spotted a toucan, about 15 metres from us on a tree. We watched transfixed, eyes glistening with wonder. It was amazing, these gorgeous birds, just hanging out near our breakfast table like it was the most common thing in the world…because here in La Ceiba it was! Silent waves of gratitude, felt spontaneously, I have come to discover is among the most exquisite of emotions. This was one of those moments, suffused with awe at the humble grandeur of creation.
The best part of breakfast each day, was the large platter of fresh local fruit, mangoes, papayas and pineapples, freshly cut, succulent and sensuous. At lunch, frijoles (beans), salsa, guacamole and freshly made corn tortillas were a treat. In the kitchen, Soledad showed us how to make the tortillas, and even let Sivaanaa, my daughter, try her hand at it. The heat and humidity were harsh, calling for siestas that our happy bellies and bodies were happy to honour.
As night fell, we found ourselves gate-crashing large insect parties, where many shook their legs, and flew about with an air of peculiar pageantry that only insects have. Amused, inconvenienced, yet high spirited, we invited fellow travellers to join us for endless rounds of UNO (the card game) and conversation. Each dawn, we awoke to the symphony of birds singing unto the mist-covered mountains. To meet nature at its own pace was something special.
Lazing around, however, was not on our agenda. Sivaanaa zip lines at her gymnastics class, so naturally wanted to have a go across Rio Cangrejal. Kaui and Nina, Villa de Soledad’s resident dogs, led us to the zip line place. The crew there took extra special care of our little one, which reminded me of the nurturing way we at home look after children and the elderly.
After a quick practice on a trial line, we zipped across the Cangrejal. I’m more of a paddleboard and kayak girl, not really a jet ski, zip line person. However, there was something wonderful about whizzing across the river to wait for Sivaanaa to rush towards us, with a smile beaming through her helmet-covered face. Having grown up around lots of fearful adults, I thought, not for the first time, of how fulfilling it is to raise a child whose natural curiosity guides her actions.
Walking between zip line platforms in the forest, our guides showed us termite nests, and all kinds of wild foods and herbs. Their experiential faith in the miracles of these plants was refreshing; their proof lay simply in use. The guides talked about tourism, their homes, their village, and their dreams. At the end of eight zip lines, they felt like our extended family.
On our second day, we hiked in the Pico Bonito National Park, accessible via a 400-foot long hanging bridge over the Cangrejal. Though guides are available in the village of Las Mangas, we decided to head into the forest ourselves. A sleepy, grandfatherly park ranger showed us a rudimentary map encased in plastic—we took a picture of it, and went on our way.
It was a treat to walk across the hanging bridge and on the way back. Sivaanaa and I even danced as the bridge swayed and heaved. The trail was mostly unmarked, with an occasional, random arrow painted on a boulder or tree. We knew the hike was circular, that it included three waterfalls, and that it should take us three hours to complete. We walked on as the forest grew denser, with less light penetrating through.
Suddenly, we heard a disconcerting and loud rasping noise. Our little trooper was frightened, and my mind immediately leapt to prehistoric flying creatures I had seen in movies. It was only the false bravado of being a parent and the sound of my child asking for reassurance that gave me the courage to move on. We found courage in vulnerability as our hearts pounded with both curiosity and fear, realising eventually that the reverberating buzz came from the local cicada population.
A highlight of the trail was bathing in the waterfalls. The experience was new for Sivaanaa, who swims well, but had never traversed moss-covered rocks or surrendered her head to the thrashing of falling water. On our way back to La Villa de Soledad, we hitched a ride in one of the trucks. Sivaanaa and I stood at the back, with the wind blowing into our smiling faces. Travelling with a child can make the simplest experience a new adventure.
Rio Cangrejal is a popular river rafting spot, but it turned out the rapids were not safe for little kids. To make it up to her, we spent the day horse riding with Omega Tours, an enterprise run by a German river rafter who came to Honduras on an advertisement shoot, and ended up making it home with his wife Sylvia. They provided us with well-bred horses and safety gear, and guides, who were two boys from the neighbouring village of Las Mangas.
The trail took us through both villages and the forests of Nombre de Dios. We rode for a long time, under a brutal morning sun, until we reached the blessed shade of the jungle. We crossed streams on horseback, and rode past occasional cacao and cashew trees and lots of monkey ladders. Monkey ladders are a sturdy creeper that look like steps and can be seen all across the forests here like tinsel on a Christmas tree.
We stopped at a cool, secluded creek, so clear that you could see the fish within it. While we took a dip, the boys set up a picnic on a large boulder. Our meal: vegetable sandwiches with freshly baked bread, and a bag of spicy local plantain chips.
By the time we returned to Omega, it was almost evening. Sylvia suggested we sample the local chocolate they retail. She explained that while cacao trees aren’t part of the natural landscape of La Ceiba, they are supplied to nearby chocolate factory, which produces organic fair trade chocolate and cocoa powder. We would have loved to take a tour with Sivaanaa, but unfortunately visitors aren’t allowed. Instead, we bought about 30 bars of chocolate, ranging from 80 per cent to 60 per cent cacao.
I had heard the stories of how chocolate, known as Xocolatl locally, was considered the drink of the gods. This dark Honduran chocolate was a revelation why. The best brands don’t remotely compare. When we left Villa de Soledad, we bid affectionate farewells to John, Soledad, the dogs, toucans and other less famous but equally magnificent birds, to the orchids, the mountains and the river. We took our chocolate bars back home with us. Whenever I want to recall our trip to Honduras I sanctimoniously slide a piece of that dark nectar of the gods onto my tongue, close my eyes, breathe slowly, and allow that heady magic to transport me back to a Honduran high.
Mirabelle D'Cunha is a performance storyteller, yoga teacher and chief conspirator behind Halla Gulla Kids, a YouTube channel with original dance-along songs for Indian kids around the world. She savours travel journeys with her husband and almost 6 year old daughter.