Olanchito is quite close to home. I live on the old dirt road between La Ceiba and Olanchito. On this road I am only 50 km from Olanchito. However, the road, that locals call “La Culebra” is no longer open. This dirt road was the connection between the two largest production centers of the Standard Fruit Company in Honduras: La Ceiba, on the Caribbean Coast, and Olanchito in the Aguan Valley. The first is the city where the headquarters are. It was also the export port for all the company´s fruit produce in the area. Olanchito is the hub for the agricultural plantations where bananas are grown. Together, they effectively represent an important part of Honduras’ Banana Republic legacy.
Unfortunately, this old highway is no longer open. The switchbacks down the steep mountains were infamous and feared by all. The road was narrow, turns were sharp, and mountain slides were common, wiping out the road. The road was so narrow, that it many stretches, it was a one-way route. Before using the road, people would consult if it was a going or a coming day. This way, they avoid the terror of encountering a line of vehicles traveling in the opposite direction to you. In the old days, there was one alternative: a 200 km long railroad track that would take the better part of a day to traverse. Today an asphalt road connects both cities.
Although there are many similarities between both cities, they are also many differences. Olanchito is an old colonial town. Two contradicting stories pertaining its founding dates place it somewhere between the second half of the XVIth Century and the beginning of the XVIIth Century. As you stroll through Central Park in Olanchito, this Colonial heritage is obvious. A lovely colonial church, buildings with tile roofs and a city grid that is surrounded by a square park. However, if you walk around the town, you will also find a strong architectural influence that dates to the banana company heyday. This includes wooden buildings with zinc roofs and a porch in the front of the homes.
Strong “Banana Republic” influence can still be seen here!
The Standard Fruit company continues to have a strong influence in the city. I heard the same siren that sounds in La Ceiba to summon workers to their work, or the inform them that lunch break time is here. The large banana plantations are west of the city, higher up in the valley. Coyoles Central and El Cayo are two of the largest banana plantations in Honduras that are still owned and operated by the Standard Fruit Company, that is a subsidiary of Dole. Access to these of course is restricted. Today, all of the produce from the Aguan Valley is exported via Puerto Castilla, in the lovely Bay of Trujillo.
Olanchito is not a tourist destination, yet it does have several interesting sites to visit. Honduras calls it the Civic City of Honduras. This is because many poets, writers and theater actors have been born here. Many of the most influential political commentators and thinkers that live in Tegucigalpa were born in Olanchito. People refer to those citizens of Olanchito as “Comejamos”. This is because one of the traditional foods in the area are a local iguana that is locals call “jamo”. Sadly, “jamos” are an endangered species because they are a local delicacy.
The Honduran Emerald Hummingbird Thrives here!
Perhaps the biggest claim to fame that brings tourists to Olanchito is the endemic Honduran Emerald Hummingbird. This is a beautiful and tiny hummingbird that lives in the Aguan Valley. Although it can see it in a few other areas in Honduras, this is were it is most common. This bird species thrives on cactus flowers. The upper Aguan Valley has a very dry tropical dry forest habitat. You will find a variety of cactus plants that are native to the valley. As a matter of fact, a couple of them can only found in this valley. Serious birders visiting Honduras must travel here to see the only endemic bird species in Central America!
I find it amazing that the back side to the Nombre de Dios Mountains, where you will find a dense tropical rain-forest will have a desert like habitat on the backside. The transition includes a tropical cloud forest on the upper elevations that face the Caribbean, and a pine and oak forest on the backside. Pico Bonito National Park is indeed a natural wonder that is unique to Central America!
Although there are few visitors to Olanchito, this does not mean there is a lack of services there. The city has a variety of hotels, restaurants, shopping centers and banks. This means that finding a hotel is not a problem. However, because it is the largest city in the area, there are many business people visiting it regularly. This means that hotels do fill up. It is always a good idea to book your hotel in advance to make sure that you are not scrambling around town to find a hotel room. Accommodations are not fancy, but they are clean and very affordable. Walking around Olanchito after dark is generally safe, and you can do so as along as you use common sense.
If you are planning a visit to Olanchito, you should start your trip in the city of La Ceiba. There are regular buses running between both cities. Juda, Transportes Cristina and Mirna are three of the most reliable transportation companies to use. There are about 140 km between the two cities, and the bus ride will take you under three hours. If you are driving, take the CA13 highway in direction of Trujillo, which is East of La Ceiba. When you get to the town of Saba you will encounter a junction. To the right the road leads to Olanchito, to the left it goes on to Puerto Castilla and Trujillo.
Finally, I must state that Olanchito, is not in the department of Olancho, but Yoro! It appears that the original settlers came here after a severe landslide destroyed their original settlement that was indeed in Olancho. Thus, Olanchito is the second largest and most important city in the department of Yoro after the City of El Progreso. Interesting to note that neither of these two cities is the capital of the department! Perhaps Yoro´s most important call to fame is the “fish rain” that happens every year in the central part of the department. Unfortunately, this is a mysterious event that can not be predicted. The yearly fish rain in Yoro is well documented, but only locals or lucky visitors can experience this.