Kayaking around the Caribbean shore of Punta Sal Marine National Park in Honduras a few years ago remains one of my most memorable travel experiences. Not because the north coast is so ruggedly beautiful, but because of the stampeding pigs, a fetid swamp, fire ants and bare-breasted Dutch women basking on a remote jungle beach.
My wife, Suzanne, and I were travelling with a small group, using inflatable sea kayaks to explore the coastal region of Honduras. We travelled overland from the town of Tela to a Garifuna village called Miami, a cluster of thatched shacks on a sandbar.
It was from Miami that we were to be driven in a pickup truck to a pontoon boat that would take us to a place where we could safely launch the kayaks. In what may have been an omen of events to come, the truck's carburetor jammed in an open position. There was no time for repairs and no spare parts. So, while the driver stood on the brakes and the engine roared and smoked at close to 3,000 revolutions a minute, we jumped into the back, the brakes were released and the truck leapt ahead on a two-metre-wide sand road that slalomed through a grove of coconut palms.
Then we saw the pigs.
We rounded a sharp bend and there, foraging in the middle of the road, was a herd of long-legged swine. Panicked by our wild and noisy approach, they stampeded in a squealing pack down the track in front of us for a hundred metres, barely managing to leap into the undergrowth before we ran them down.
We made it to the jungle pier, inflated the kayaks and lashed them to the roof of the boat. Once past the surf line, we launched the kayaks and began a day of paddling. The plan was to beach-camp overnight and then rendezvous with the two young Garifuna lads operating the pontoon boat the following day at an isolated spot on the Punta Sal coast. The paddling went well, the scenery was gorgeous and our overnight camp was as comfortable as you could get if you didn't mind the voracious sand flies.
The following day, we made the paddle to our rendezvous point ahead of time and while two of our guides began deflating the kayaks and packing up our gear, René Hernandez, a restaurant owner from Copan who was acting as our informal third guide (it's a long story), offered to lead three of us into the jungle to look for howler monkeys and maybe even a jaguar. René, we quickly discovered, was probably more at home in his restaurant's kitchen than in the Punta Sal jungle. A trail he said was short and would lead us to another beach turned into a tea-coloured swamp with a slimy bottom that sucked at our sandals. There were also overhanging branches that formed a tunnel - a perfect habitat for the deadly fer-de-lance snake and any number of nasty crawling fauna. We finally made it to the beach and threw ourselves into the ocean to wash off the slime.
When we asked René if there was another way to go back, he shrugged and said he didn't know of one. We would have to wade back through the swamp. On the return trek, I stepped into a hole and sank armpit deep, submerging an expensive camera lens and cooking its electronics. Reaching up to pull myself free, I grasped a branch that turned out to be a highway for an army of fire ants. Some colourful language ensued.
We arrived back at our rendezvous beach, once again covered in sweat and slime, to be greeted by a Fellini-esque scene. Our pontoon boat was offshore and had been joined by another small passenger craft. And just down the beach were a dozen pale-skinned women, several bare-breasted, sunning themselves on towels.
"They are Dutch," one of our guides said. "They say they are eco-volunteers, here on a day trip from Tela."
The Garifuna lads tried not to ogle, but our gear took longer than necessary to load.
Oh, and the howler monkeys? While three of us were wading through the swamp in search of them, they showed up at the rendezvous beach. They were gone when we got back, but Suzanne, who had wisely stayed behind, said they put on quite a show.
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