The Cuero y Salado Wildlife Refuge is located just outside of La Ceiba, in the municipalities of El Porvenir, San Francisco, La Masica and Esparta. The area, were you will find lagoons, canals, rivers, mangrove forests and some large expanses of tropical rain forest was at one point, about 100 years ago, a thriving fruit farm run by the Vacaro Brothers Railroad Company, which later became the Standard Fruit Company. Thus the area has lots of history, and you can still see some buildings that have the typical “Banana Era Architecture” within the communities. In the 1980s, the area, which is known as Cuero y Salado because of the two main rivers that flow into the network of lagoons and estuaries, the Cuero and the Salado rivers, was returned to the state of Honduras, after the 100 year lease on the property had expired, and the Honduran State decided to create a wildlife refuge here to protect the environment where the endangered Caribbean Manatee still lives. As such, the Cuero y Salado Wildlife Refuge is actually one of the older protected areas within Honduras, and has been co managed since then by the Fundacion Cuero y Salado, also known FUCSA, who has worked hard not only at preserving the refuge, but also develop tourism to the area. The entrance to the area is located at the community of La Union, in the municipality of El Porvenir, and here you take a short train ride in an old banana train on the very same tracks that the Vacaro Brothers Company used as transportation into their plantations.
The 30 minute train ride will take you through cattle farm lands and a coconut plantation en route to your final destination: the community of Salado Barra, where the fruit company had its operations prior to closing the farm. There is a complete visitor’s center, where you will register, pay your entrance fee and arrange for your tour. The visitor’s center also has good clean toilets and general information regarding the refuge. The train is a funky old banana train, which is open on the sides, but has a roof to protect you from the sun, although it does not do much in case of is rain, bringing a windbreaker will help you stay dry! The rail tracks are the old narrow gauge tracks, and don’t expect a fast train, you could easily run beside it if you are in good shape! Because of the train being the primary access to the refuge, it is wise to coordinate the entrance time into the protected area. Normally the first train departs at 7:00 am, and this is without doubt the best time to start your tour, because it is not as hot yet and you will have a better chance to see the diverse wildlife that is native to the refuge. From La Ceiba, you can hire a tour operator to take you to Cuero y Salado. Check with your hotel’s front desk about options to get to La Union in time for the first train. If you are staying at La Villa de Soledad, John will be happy to arrange getting you to La Union in time to catch the train and arrange for the tour guides to be waiting for you at Salado Barra. The last trip out of the refuge departs at 3:30, although you can arrange for a special departure as late as 4:30 pm.
There are several different tour options, the most complete of which is a boat ride in the canals to see the mangroves and the wildlife that lives within them. This is the habitat for white tail deer, howler and white face monkeys, a huge variety of birds and the Caribbean Manatee. Personally, I prefer taking the canoe trip, which allows me to sneak into the mangrove canals and get close ups of the monkeys, birds and alligators, and when really lucky, to the manatee, the crown jewel at the Cuero y Salado Wildlife refuge.
There are a couple of different comedores, basic community owned eateries, where you can get a bite from the locals, usually fried fish and plantains, maybe some “pan de coco” or coconut bread. Here you can enjoy a good meal, and see how the local community lives and eats. An alternative is to get a box lunch from your hotel to take with you.
The Cuero y Salado Wildlife Refuge can be one of the highlights to your trip to La Ceiba and surroundings if you are interested in nature and wildlife. It combines nature with some interesting history of the region and an opportunity to enjoy some community based tourism. Come and discover this unique spot in mainland Honduras!