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Affordable Honduras: Mayans, Manatees, and More

His food justifies his reputation. My red snapper is perfectly grilled, not fried like most of the fish at the beachside palapas, and so fresh I can almost taste the ocean salt. But what makes the dish is the sauce, a creamy curry with a subtle but decisive bite. When I ask Pete what's in it, he smiles generously, answers smugly. "That stays in here," he says, tapping his head.

It's positively painful to leave Trujillo for the port city of La Ceiba the next morning. Paul Theroux's description from The Mosquito Coast keeps running through my head: "a dusty city defeated by too much sun." The minute I arrive, I'm whisked away by my guide, Mike, and his assistant, Roberto, to raft through Pico Bonito National Park. En route to the river, I ask Mike about the crude skull-and-crossbones tattoo on his shoulder. He tells me he did it himself at age nine, all pumped up after a Mötley Crüe concert. There must be a proverb out there somewhere about not rafting through labyrinths of jagged rocks led by a guide whose high testosterone level is exceeded only by his pain threshold.

Yet Mike is the one who yanks me from the water by the scruff of my life jacket when I bounce out of the raft and get trapped under the current. We pull over to the bank and he gives me breathing instructions. I have to admit I'm happier when we're paddling in quiet water: it's then that I can appreciate the prehistoric boulders, the oriole nests shaped like baseball bats, the forbiddingly steep emerald mountains around us.

The few hours I spend at the Cuero y Salado Wildlife Preserve the next morning, however, slow even my pulse to a halt. We drift around a lagoon in a motorboat looking for the manatees and monkeys I was promised, but settling for birds and butterflies. The most entertaining part of the excursion turns out to be another tourist, a 70-year-old Houston businessman named Ray. Though I'm slightly worried by his sun hat, which is festooned with TEQUILA MAMA and BORN IN THE U.S.A. buttons, he soon wins me over with a story about his first job. After less than a month, he'd thrown a paper airplane at his boss, inscribed with the words I QUIT.

Other than Ray, the only travelers I've met so far in Honduras have been backpackers. Then at the Mayan ruins of Copán, I see dozens of Americans pouring out of tour buses. For a minute I'm perturbed—until I realize I'm one of them, really. Still, I can't help but think that the enigma of Copán's 1,533-year history would have been more powerful uninterrupted by family photo ops, lime-green water bottles, and fanny packs.

But nothing can spoil Copán entirely. It's set in a lush jungle surrounded by mountains, and the intricate carvings on its dozens of stelae look as if they were done with a straight pin. That they've survived all these years of sun and rain is a near miracle.

In the colonial town of Copán Ruinas, I strike a deal with an adolescent boy on horseback to take me on a sunset ride into the mountains. We exchange a few details about ourselves, but mostly we just ride, gazing at the lavender sky and the banana trees waving their floppy leaves at us. Up on the ridge, you can hear roosters crowing from the town, but the roar of tour buses is absent—proof, I'd like to think, that no matter how many tour guides I've followed around in the past nine days, Honduras is not a package destination.

here's the deal
The price of a 12-day trip from Capricorn (800/426-6544) includes airfare from New York, transfers, private tour guides, lodging, and most activities. (My nine-day tour was customized.)
Tour: $2,055
Food, taxis, entertainment: $340
Shopping: $105
Total: $2,500

to go?
• Cloud forests, mountains, rivers, oceans are unspoiled.
• Few other tourists to taint it.
• Fresh seafood dinners go for as little as $3.

or not to go?
• A "luxury" hotel might well have linoleum floors.
• Prop planes, which are the easiest way to get around, don't quite have the smooth ride of a Lincoln Town Car.
• The wildlife isn't as easy to spot as ecotour operators would have you think.

Kimberley Sevcik is features editor at Swing magazine.

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