Lake Yojoa, Honduras – the hip new birding and ecotourism destination!

If you’re looking for place to explore the outdoors, experience a new country and culture, and are willing to travel to Central America, then a visit to Lake Yojoa in Honduras should be in your future. Situated at 2,300 feet (700m) of elevation and surrounded by thickly forested peaks that stretch several thousand feet higher, Yojoa is a breathtakingly beautiful place, one I was fortunate to experience on a recent trip to Honduras. Birdwatching is probably the strongest motivation to visit, but there are enough other activities that anyone with a general interest in the outdoors will find Yojoa enjoyable. In that respect, Yojoa is similar to Arenal in Costa Rica or Mindo in Ecuador.

Lake Yojoa lakeshore © Dorian AndersonLake Yojoa lakeshore © Dorian Anderson

Any nature-motivated visit to Yojoa should included time at the wonderful Panacam Lodge, a full-service ecolodge located just 7 kilometers beyond the tiny town of La Guama in the Parque Nacional Cerro Azul Meámbar. The road into the lodge is dirt but can be driven in a standard rental car if appropriate caution is exercised. The lodge has a very good restaurant that serves a variety of local and international favorites, an extensive network of well-maintained private trails, and an entertaining array of hummingbird feeders that allow intimate looks at several species, the White-bellied Emerald and the stunning Violet Sabrewing included. Over 300 species have been observed on the property, and my two day visit provided wonderful views of toucans, trogonsmotmots, honeycreepersoropendolas, antthrushes, saltators, and tanagers . With such convenient access to such an amazing array of tropical birds at Panacam, birders can bird and everyone else can relax!

View from Panacam Lodge Deck © Dorian Anderson

View from Panacam Lodge Deck © Dorian Anderson

 

White-bellied Emerald at Panacam Lodge © Dorian Anderson

White-bellied Emerald at Panacam Lodge © Dorian Anderson

 

Coatimundi at Panacam Lodge © Dorian Anderson

Coatimundi at Panacam Lodge © Dorian Anderson

From Panacam, it’s just a 15 minute drive to Yojoa. We initiated a boat ride at Honduyate Marina on the lake’s eastern shore, and I would encourage all visitors to do the same. Beyond stunning views of the lake, that floating vantage gave us beautiful looks at Snail Kite, Purple Gallinule, Northern Jacana, MuscovyBare-throated Tiger-Heron, Pinnated Bittern, and Amazon Kingfisher. Stunning as were those birds, it was the tiny Yellow-Breasted Crake that stole the Yojoa show, the incredibly small and reclusive emerging just at dusk from the boardwalk at Rancho Bella Vista! My advice is to visit the lake in the morning as winds tend to pick up in the afternoon. Food can be found at any number of eateries along that eastern lake edge. It would be completely possible for the non-birder to relax on a restaurant deck with a book while those more bird-inclined scour the lake edge for avian quarry!

White-bellied Emerald at Panacam Lodge © Dorian Anderson

White-bellied Emerald at Panacam Lodge © Dorian Anderson

Another worthwhile excursion from Panacam is to El Rancho Hotel and Restaurante (good food, huge portions!), northeast of Santa Cruz and about an hour from of Panacam. Slightly lower and drier (~1900’), El Rancho is one of the easier places to see the Honduran Emerald, Honduras’s only endemic bird! Alex Matute runs the place. He is a great guy, speaks English well, and knows the local birds. You could make a day trip from Panacam to El Rancho or stay overnight; either way Alex is available for guiding and can put you onto the local specialty birds. With his help we found the Emerald, White-necked Puffbird, Olive-throated Parakeet, Masked Tityra, Yellow-throated Euphonia, the electric Blue Bunting, and the brilliant Yellow-tailed Oriole. Also nearby is the very impressive El Cajón Dam, an engineering marvel that is worth a midday visit when the birding slows. 

Alex Matute at El Rancho © Dorian Anderson

Alex Matute at El Rancho © Dorian Anderson

 

Yellow-tailed Oriole at El Rancho © Dorian Anderson

Yellow-tailed Oriole at El Rancho © Dorian Anderson

Between Panacam and El Rancho is EcoFinca Luna del Puente, a publicly accessible farm. Over 260 species have been recorded on the property, Golden-hooded Tanager, Crimson-collared TanagerWhite-faced Ground-Sparrow, Boat-billed Flycatcher, and Brown Jay being among the most notable on my visit. For the non-birder, the farm offers coffee and chocolate tours, and the chocolate-inclined will find a nice array of treats for sample and sale. The property also has a campground for the more adventurous. Two or three hours should be more than enough time for those not staying overnight, and a visit to Luna del Puente couples well with a visit to El Rancho for those looking to chain together a few activities. Alternatively, the finca is close enough to Panacam that a dedicated trip is easy. Same goes for visiting on an overnight from El Rancho.

The longest day trip that my group undertook from Panacam was to Montaña Santa Barbara on the western side of Lake Yojoa. With access to some old growth cloud forest habitat, Santa Barbara provides a very different birding experience from the lower elevations. Our group explored the Sendero Quetzal (Quetzal Trail) above Peña Blanca and San Luis Planes at around 4500’. With species such as Green-throated Mountain-gem, Plain Xenops, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, and Elegant Euphonia there was no shortage of action. Other areas of the park can yield Resplendant Quetzal and Ornate Hawk-Eagle if one is lucky. It is worth noting that accessing the Quetzal Trail without a four-wheel drive vehicle will be difficult. That problem can be overcome by contacting Esdras Lopez Mejia, an English speaking guide and ardent conservationist with an active hand in the development of the Quetzal Trail (http://www.montanasantsbarbara.com).

View of Santa Barbara from Quetzal Trail © Dorian Anderson

View of Santa Barbara from Quetzal Trail © Dorian Anderson

With more general birding at both the north and south ends of Lake Yojoa, there is no shortage of places to explore. We only spent two days in the area, but it would be easy to spend a full three or four. Importantly, Yojoa can be accessed either from international airports in Tegucigalpa to the south (3 hrs) or San Pedro Sula (2 hrs) to the north. Major paved roads were in very good shape, a result of a large Honduran infrastructure push in the last few years. Included in that development plan is an entirely new international airport in Palmerola, a facility north of Tegucigalpa that will cut travel time to Yojoa to just 90 minutes. Renting a car and driving to Yojoa would be straightforward for those with experience driving in Latin America.

Lake Yojoa really has a lot to offer, particularly for the birder but also for anyone who wants to explore Honduran landscapes, food, and culture. The area is wonderful, and I think travelers who venture to Yojoa will really enjoy themselves. Despite what preconceptions foreign travelers might have, I found Honduras to be a remarkably welcoming and generally safe place. Visitors will see the occasional soldier patrolling, but nothing out of the ordinary compared to the other Latin American countries that I’ve visited in recent years. As usual, what crime does exist is mainly confined to the cities, a phenomenon as true in the Unites States as anywhere else. Nature motivated travelers aren’t likely to spend much time in those urban areas, so don’t let mostly city-specific issues deter your Honduran outdoor getaway. So go, be adventurous, and enjoy yourself! A visit to Yojoa is well worth the time!