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Swimming with the spiders in Honduras Add to ...

When I told a friend I was planning to take a walk in the Honduran rain forest this winter, she looked at me and supportively remarked: "Are you crazy?"

I had just booked a week-long trip to Pico Bonito Lodge, an eco-resort that promised beautiful hikes in the tropical foliage and swims in natural pools formed by the rivers tumbling down mountain ranges. My friend loves nature walks as much as I do. "But," she said, "what about the spiders?"

I could feel the tension swimming upstream through my veins. I've had a lifelong phobia about spiders, especially those dock spiders that jump out at you just when you're zoning into the beauty of a Canadian lake. Once I refused to step into a friend's apartment until he got rid of a dead tarantula stored in a shoebox in the hall closet. I even asked my sister, an occupational therapist, for help.

"It's about the fear of what you can't control," she said. That's one of the things she learned in spider therapy.

I know the fear is entirely irrational, but it had always prevented me from travelling to the rain forest. Increasingly nervous, I e-mailed the lodge to inquire about the spider situation. The manager was polite but firm: You'll see spiders on the trails and possibly even in your cabin, he said.

"However, in over three years of operations, we have never had a serious spider bite (for that matter no bites at all to our knowledge) and therefore it is not a rational concern."

I bought long, black socks to wear with running shoes on the trails before boarding the plane for the two-hour flight from Miami to San Pedro Sula in Honduras. We took another short flight to La Ceiba, where a driver picked us up in a jeep to take us to Pico Bonito.

Surrounded by flowers and lush tropical foliage, the lodge opens onto a dazzling grouping of hibiscus, tropical trees and orchids, a bright green swath of grass, and a backdrop of 2,300-metre mountains, bathed in shifting grey-blue clouds the colour of my nine-year-old daughter Zoe's eyes.

The lodge is set between two mountain rivers, and wherever you go, you can hear the sound of water pouring over stones, punctuated by the calls of tropical birds. I walked up a little path to a simple cabin with a porch and hammock overlooking the greenery. The design was simple -- white cotton on the beds and rattan furniture, nice, clean wood surfaces with no hiding holes.

I pulled on my newly purchased socks and walked to a three-storey wooden viewing platform, which offered a wonderful view of the green valley and the mist swirling around the cloud forest on the top half of the mountain range. "It looks like Lord of the Rings," Zoe said.

After a 30-minute walk through lush greenery, we arrived at one of the natural swimming holes formed by the falling water. Peeling off our clothes, we jumped into the clear water. It was as cool as a summer lake.

Situated on an 80-hectare property beside Pico Bonito National Park -- more than 100,000 hectares of virgin rain forest and cloud forest -- the lodge offers a selection of beautiful trails, ranging from easy, self-guided 20-minute walks to three-hour guided treks.

Zoe and I took a shorter walk to Mermaid Falls, where you could swim in the pool toward the silvery falls. The current keeps you in your place, or sweeps you backward if you feel like it. One of the guests later said he saw a spider the size of his hand crawl out of a tree and jump onto the water at that pool. "Oh, those are fisher spiders," a lodge guide said. "They eat fish. They won't bother you."

I didn't see any, and by then, I wasn't worried. In fact, during my week-long stay, I didn't see any spiders that were bigger or creepier than what you can spot at a cottage in Canada. Mind you, I wasn't planning to sign up for the night walk with flashlight, either. There are limits.

We rose early one morning to watch some of the 275 species of birds in the area. From the viewing platform, we spotted the electric-blue lovely cotingua (yes, the "lovely" is part of its name) about 90 metres away, as well as parrots, parakeets and the keel-billed toucan (the one with the huge green red-orange and yellow bill), among many others.

January is a great time to see birds, our guide, James, explained. Some even come down from the cloud forest because of stormy weather up there. Although this was still the rainy season, most of our mornings there were clear, until late morning when prevailing winds, loaded with moisture from the Caribbean, rolled into the wall of mountains and formed clouds. Sometimes heavy rain fell in the afternoon or evening. We'd enjoy the sound while we reclined on the comfy white couches under the lodge's wide veranda.

March to June is the dry season, while the hot summer delivers afternoon rains. In fall, especially November, you should expect serious rain. By late December, the rain usually tapers off to afternoon or evening showers.

One morning, we rose before dawn to visit a wildlife refuge near the beach on the Caribbean coast eight kilometres away. The driver took us to the train station where we boarded two cars hitched together behind a noisy engine. We sat on bare benches as the train took us along grass-covered tracks past the vast pineapple farms and villages with thatched huts and outdoor ovens, and skinny dogs and chickens running underfoot.

We took a boat through the lagoons to see screeching green parrots, green iguanas, a baby crocodile and howler monkeys in the trees. Our guide would sing to the monkeys or play his round shaped flute. Sometimes they would even howl back, woofing like dogs.

On the way back, the conductor suddenly stopped our rickety little cart when he spotted a barefooted fisherman striding down the path, silvery fish in hand. Cash changed hands; our guide was pleased with his purchase.

While a heavy rain fell one morning, I drank a cup of local coffee on the veranda with Pico Bonito's manager, Kent Forte, a marine biologist, Peace Corps veteran and passionate kayaker. The lodge, only three years old, was financed partly by a low-income housing magnate from Chicago who wanted to do good. It wasn't easy.

Just as construction began, Hurricane Mitch poured more than 180 centimetres of rain on the mountains, toppling trees and causing rivers to overflow, which destroyed bridges in the town and stranded La Ceiba from the outside world. Forte made the best of it. Some of the uprooted mountain trees provided wood for doors at the lodge.

Feeling sheepish by this point, I admitted I was the one who had inquired by e-mail about the spiders. Oh, he laughed, he was bitten in his bed by a wolf spider the previous night. But it's rare, he assured me.

On Thursday, I left Zoe at the lodge with a friendly guide, who led her to the butterfly conservatory and the nearby serpentarium while I hiked to Unbelievable Falls with a guide and a few lodge guests. We climbed uphill, through remnants of a hillside cocoa plantation.

High above us, spider monkeys dropped six metres from branch to branch. Huge vines, orchids and bromeliads covered the trees. We climbed up to the falls, where we swam in the pool and played in the frothy water.

On the way back, our guide pointed to a very poisonous striped coral snake and a hole on the path, big enough for a chipmunk. A tarantula lives there, he noted. It emerges at night to hunt. I was okay about that. Really.

On the morning we left, Zoe and I stood on the deck overlooking the Rio Corinto and watched the water play over smooth rocks. We looked at the medley of giant green leaves. And we just listened.

If you go

GETTING THERE

Pico Bonito Lodge is a 30-minute drive from Le Ceiba International Airport.

THINGS TO DO

The lodge offers plenty of hiking and swimming, both in mountain pools and the lodge's own pool, as well as birdwatching and general appreciation of nature.

Off-site, there's horseback riding, white-water rafting, sea kayaking, diving and snorkelling.

You can also visit the Mayan Ruins of Copan, about two hours' drive from San Pedro Sula, but you'll need to spend the night in the town of Copan.

MORE INFORMATION

Each of the 22 cabins at the lodge, which can accommodate two adults and a child, costs $240 a night, plus tax and service. The meal plan is about $53 a day for adults and $33 for kids.

For more information, phone 1-888-428-0221, e-mail

picobonito@caribe.hnv or visit http://www.picobonito.com.

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