Quetzals And The Firefighters Of Honduras

Mohan, with the Hondurian fire fighters on a rescue mission to look for this Indian traveler
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“Don’t come to Honduras, you will get killed within an hour of entering the country”

The former Ambassador of Honduras to Switzerland had said to me one evening while having snacks with common friends in KFC at Connaught Place, Delhi.

This piece of advice kept coming back to me as I traveled through the adjacent Costa Rica, Panama, Cuba, Southern Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. I hadn’t come across any other tourist who had been to Honduras. In the hostels that I stayed in Guatemala, it was a standard routine for tourists to take the midnight shuttle bus to Leon in Nicaragua, which are optimally scheduled to pass only in the daylight through El Salvador and Honduras.

“Honduras is dangerous, I am skipping it”, was the common word in the air.

But, being resolute enough, I entered Honduras at Copan ruins.

“Be careful in Honduras”, the immigration officer cautioned me with a concerned look. “Don’t worry, you are only the 46th dangerous country in the world. I am from the 19th most dangerous country, Thank you anyway”. Felt nice for showing off my 15-minute research from the internet. Thus, I walked into Honduras, to be greeted by the early spring cherry blossoms in purple and pink on both sides of the road.

My proclivity to walk in the mountains and forests gave me the impetus to take the way to Gracias Lempira, the town at the base of the Celaque mountains which has the highest peak of Honduras (Cerro Las Minas, 2850m). The higher elevations of these mountains are covered with cloud forests, which are home to the elusive resplendent Quetzals, one of the most beautiful and colorful of birds.

Walking Alone

Mr. Angel, the hotel owner, made some arrangements and dropped me to the start of the trail. About an hour of walking in the cloud forest, I reached an open campground, Camp Don Thomas. The burned firewood confirmed that somebody camped not so long ago.

After walking beside a couple of scary limestone precipices, I observed fresh carves and cut marks on the pine stunts, probably cut by earlier campers for the pine wood that quickly burns. It meant that I was near the camp. Within 5 minutes, at 1600 hours, I reached the camp Naranjo.  For a while, I sat on the bench and waited for other hikers to turn up as I munched on the cold bread and snacks breathing the mellow air. Lack of sleep the last night, early morning start and the long walk had exhausted me.

The sounds of birds surrounded me. Very soon I recognized the sound of the quetzal. Looked around, but it was hard to find any bird in the tall trees. Made my tent inside the wooden hut and slipped into sleep before the nightfall. Throughout the night there were sounds of some rodents beneath the wooden floor of the hut and around the campsite. The fact that there were no predators in those jungles helped me maintain my confidence.

The alarm woke me at 0300 hours in the morning, the right time to start walking to reach the peak by sunrise. But the cold and fatigue made me lazy. Why should I walk in this cold? I will do in sunlight, I said to myself and nestled into the sleeping bag. As I woke up at 0700 hours, the camp was in clouds with visibility of only few meters. As the weather in the mountains can change rapidly, I waited for my luck with sunlight. The birds were chirping all around but I couldn’t see them through the clouds.

Mohan, at the camp

I felt comfortable in the warmth of the tent and sleeping bag, and spent the rest of the day slumbering and sluggishly reading the travel guide of Honduras. The food left over by previous hikers- raw rice, pasta, chocolate powder, some fresh corn tortillas, salt, and sugar, ensured that I could stay there another night.

Around 1600 hours, while waiting to receive the hikers of the day, I gathered some wood to kindle. I walked up about 100m to find flowing water. Here, I cleaned the steel bowl that was burnt to pitch black due to repeated use and improper cleaning. I washed myself in the cold water, returned to the camp and attempted to light fire. But the seemingly dry wood of the cloud forest was partially wet. After some unsuccessful cooking experiments, I decided to call it a day.

As the night ominously set in, the rodents and other land burrowers made their presence felt. The boisterous birds were still loud. By now, the gloominess in the forest slowly took over my mind reminding me the blood sucking characters from the horror movies. What if some crazy human is lurking in the hills in hungry anticipation of my blood? What if such a group of people were about to ambush me? The cold, and the sleeping bag consoled me.I laughed at such thoughts and slipped into sleep.

Trail to Cerro Las Minas, the highest point in Honduras

Darkness And Leeches:

I woke up before the alarm went off at 0300 hours and set out for the mountain peak. The cold disappeared into oblivion as I walked a couple of hundred meters. I dismounted from the trail a couple of times. As the headlight focused on the ground, it was not easy to lift my head and look for the ribbon markers.

Further, the nocturnal leeches- obsidian black, semivitreous, 6inches long, 0.5 to 1cm wide and ugly were all over the trail. I did not want to give them opportunity to make acquaintance with my feet.

The initial one and half hour, the trail was either gentle or downhill leading to the junction of the trial to Los Manos (the peak) and the trail to Camp El Quetzal. The 45 minute trek to the peak was quite steep. By 05:30 hours, I reached the peak. Contrary to my thought that it would be greensward with alpine grass, skyward towering trees casted eternal shadow on the peak. A ground sheet of a tent for camping, the national flag of Honduras, and a sign mentioning the supreme position of this peak appeared as the permanent inhabitants.

The time of year being the mating season, quetzals’ mellifluous calls filled the mellow air, offering the best chance to spot them. But aiding to their elusiveness was the dark cloud forest in which, practically one cannot see and photograph any bird. Even if a bird is spotted, its colors cannot be deciphered to fullest as they were all dark in the shadow of tree crowns.

I walked an hour more to camp El Quetzal. I hid beside the wall of the mud house and mimicked out loud the sound of the quetzal, which I practiced the previous day. Within two minutes, leaving me startled, a male quetzal appeared on a branch. I could recognize the resplendent colors. My heart stopped for a moment with fulfillment. “I spent several hours hiking in search of quetzals, here as well as in Costa Rica. Now, here is the bird in all its beauty”. As I lifted my camera, it flew swiftly in front of me to a pine branch much higher. After 10 minutes, it appeared near the same branch, high on the pine tree, disappearing again in few seconds. I felt contended for seeing it, but dissatisfied at the same time for not being able to photograph it.

More sounds of quetzals followed me as I walked back to the junction, and further towards my camp. I picked up two more big pieces of dry pine wood and used them as my walking sticks. “With this much wood, I will have a sumptuous lunch and dinner” I said to myself. About 45 minutes short of the camp, I heard the sound of quetzals very near to me. I loudly mimicked the sound. This time, four quetzals appeared up in the trees near me. There wasn’t much light to photograph them. Tried few shots for the record. With great contentment, I walked towards the camp. It was 13:30 hours.

There was no sign of a human being.

For a moment, I considered if I should walk back to the visitor center. But by then, I walked about 10 hours that day. Another 6 hours would be ridiculous.

So, conveniently, decided to make fire to cook. With the thick dry pine wood, the fire was effortless. Cooked some rice, boiled some water with chocolate and had a filling meal. The evening seemed longer. With the day spent in the forest, I felt more confident to spend the evening and night in the forest, as if I belonged there. No hikers showed up. I slipped into my tent.

Snoozed the alarm set at 0600hrs. “What is the hurry? I can start at my convenience”. The alarm snoozed again and again. By 9am, had breakfast from the remaining food, cleaned the dishes and the camp, packed the tent and I was set to walk down. The wood of the hut was marked by previous visitors. I marked my name with India and the date. Among these marks, one quotation caught my attention.

“To move, to breathe, to fly, to float

To gain all while you give,

To roam the roads of lands remote

To travel is to live”.

With the renewed inspiration, to continue my travel, I started walking downhill. My objective of seeing the resplendent quetzal was fulfilled. As I walked quickly, aided by gravity, the forest looked more friendly and homely.

 “Are you Mohan from India?”

 

“Yes”.

Immediately, the first man I saw in days made few calls from his VHF and his mobile.

“We are looking for you”. “There are more search and rescue teams in different trails”.

A discussion in incomprehensible Spanish followed on the wireless set.

Soon, two members of the team appeared on the trail. I felt ashamed and sorry. I thanked them for their attention and concern. The feeling just increased as more members of the team started to appear from different trails.

We walked quickly to the visitor center. An ambulance and TV crew waited for us. The rescue team members, about 15 of them, all looked happy as I was in front of them, also possibly due to the fact that what looked like a long day to them was cut short. One team member, Vincent, could speak English. He said, “a year ago, a Dutch guy disappeared. We could not trace him”.

As I paid the park fee and camping charges, the TV crew member asked me, “Are you tired?”

This mountain with 2800m is the highest they can think. “No, he has been to 6000m. He is fine” the forest official said. I was surprised at his knowledge about me. The owner of my hotel had told him about me.

As I did not show up at the hotel on the second night, the owner waited for another day and informed the forest official. On the fourth day morning, the forest official informed the “Bomberos (fire fighters) who are in charge of search and rescue in the area.

The TV crew started interviewing me, with Vincent acting as the translator.

“Why did you spend 3 days in the mountain? How did you survive? How much food did you carry? Did you pre-plan to stay so many days? Anything happened to you? What did you do all these days? Did you fall somewhere? Did you see any strange thing? Did you see quetzals?

I told them briefly about what had happened, how and why I continued to stay. Once their curiosity was quenched, some more questions followed.

“What did you feel when you saw the rescue team? How is the mountain and the trail maintained?” etc.

The funniest among all those questions was when he asked on hearing that I am a petroleum geologist by profession, “were you looking for oil in these mountains?”

Once everything was calm, I told Vincent that I would like to contribute some money to their office as a token of gratitude for their sincerity. “It is not necessary” he replied.

“So, you want to consider this as an exercise?”,I smiled at him.

I asked the Bomberos to gather for a picture. They also felt the same as they needed one for their office record.

“Let us go”, Vincent said.

“Oh, I can go with you to the town?” I gladly confirmed with him. The four km walk in the burning sun might have been tough. The team dropped me at the hotel.

In the evening, I found myself at the Bomberos’ office, not very far from my hotel. It was 6pm and Sofia, the pretty & young PR officer announced that I would be on the news.

And it was true. The newsreader spoke in Spanish with bits of my interview with the title ‘World Explorer Geologist’. It felt funny.

That is what travel does when you take your own trips. Sometimes it helps you sight reclusive quetzals and other times it puts you on Honduran national TV. It is truly funny.

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