Step onto a narrow canoe and glide down the river past the infinite verdant jungle, and you'll slowly feel yourself slip into another era. Civilization fades away as the hoots and howls of wildlife intensify and swampy mangroves thicken. Seductive solitude and the mysterious virgin landscape are exactly what make La Mosquitía in northeast Honduras an eco-adventurer's paradise.
Hikers, campers, and nature fanatics are quietly expanding tourism in Honduras's portion of the Mosquito Coast, an expanse of rain forest peppered with indigenous villages and shared with neighboring Nicaragua. Crocodiles and manatees float below water here while ocelots, jaguars, and howler monkeys roam the land and toucans and falcons peek out from the canopies in the "Little Amazon." A handful of small-scale tour companies have put Central America's greatest stretch of complex ecosystems on the map, and yet the focus remains on protecting the wildlife, not pampering the tourist at the expense of the environment.
The region offers demanding jungle trails and wildlife excursions to travelers looking to turn off the cell phone, close the computer, and indulge in a far more rustic experience than even other parts of Honduras have to offer. Adventurers have the run of five distinct protected areas. The Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve is the most celebrated zone in the region and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Tawahka Anthropological Reserve, the second largest zone, offers cultural immersion trips with the indigenous Tawahka tribe. Patuca National Park is a remote tropical rain-forest zone near the Nicaraguan border with some of Honduras's greatest biodiversity, and Cruta Caratasca Wildlife Refuge and Rus Rus Biological Reserve are known for their stunning vistas.
The Mosquito Coast's ominous-sounding name comes not from the pesky insects (although there are more than a few here), but from the Miskitos, the indigenous people native to the land. The native Pech, Rama, Susa and Tawakha groups still account for a small part of the 60,000 inhabitants in the sparsely populated region, and the Garífuna people, or descendents of African slaves, and mixed race mestizos, or Ladinos, dominate the Caribbean part. While the Ladino population tends to be Roman Catholic, like most of Honduras, the indigenous widely belong to the Protestant faith. More than a third belong to the Moravian Church, an evangelical Christian sect that has played an active role in the region's development since the early 20th century. The Honduran government had largely neglected the coast when the Protestant church first stepped in to build schools, health clinics, and congregations, many of which are active today in the Ahuas municipality, one of six in the department.
La Mosquitía's inhabitants live on the coast or in small jungle villages and subsist mostly on hunting, fishing, and small-scale farming of rice, beans, and yuca. Lobster diving and cattle ranching are profitable industries here, but they're threatening lobster populations and leading to damaging deforestation, respectively. Sustainable tourism efforts, on the other hand, are boosting the region's economy by incorporating local guides and family-run accommodations into most travel itineraries.