La Mosquitía has become synonymous with the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, and it's not hard to see why. The massive preserve houses more than 525,000 hectares (1.3 million acres) of tropical forests, wetlands, mangrove swamps, pine savannas, and beaches, accounting for the vast majority of this underdeveloped region. Río Paulaya lies to the west and Río Patuca to the east, with the mighty, winding Río Plátano smack in the middle of the protected area. Laguna de Ibans and Brus Laguna also fall within the otherwise mountainous territory.
The biosphere reserve became the first of its kind in Central America in 1980, the same year it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Nearly 400 species of birds have been identified here, including the harpy eagle, king vulture, jabirus, and macaws of the green, scarlet, and military varieties. Close to 40 mammal species like brown-throated sloths, pumas, jaguars, kinkajous, and spider and mantled howler monkeys inhabit the lush tropical landscape, while more than 120 species of reptiles and amphibians live in the distinctive ecosystems.
Guided tours are the easiest way to take advantage of all the reserve has to offer. Rugged camping excursions take hikers up steep mountain trails with sweeping views of the ecosystems below. Rafting trips in the dry season paddle through Class III and IV rapids in Río Sico, along the reserve's western border, or down the Río Plátano. Cultural tours include trips to centuries-old petroglyphs and exchanges with the native Pech and Miskito people, who total around just 2,000 residents. While logging, cattle ranching, and destructive agriculture techniques like slash-and-burn threaten the integrity of the Río Plátano reserve, ecotourism efforts focused on conserving this pristine biosphere offer a promising alternative for economic growth in the underdeveloped region.