Nestled high up within the lush, carpeted mountains of Western Honduras lies the Cerro Azul Meámbar National Park. Created in 1987 to protect the spectacular, diverse flora and fauna of the park alongside the social and economic needs of the rural communities surrounding it, the relatively unknown Cerro Azul Meámbar National Park is perhaps one of Central America’s best kept secrets. A couple of days stay at the park and the stunning Panacam Lodge is bound to evoke the senses and bring a taste of beauty, adventure and peace into one’s soul.
I had the opportunity to visit the Cerro Azul Meámbar National Park (otherwise known as Panacam) at the tail end of a work trip to Honduras for EOS International, a non-profit that provides safe drinking water and opportunity in Central America. After four days in the field based out of our Marcala office, our staff headed for a two-day retreat at the Panacam Lodge located in the park. I was coming from a day in the field in Gracias, a lovely colonial mountainside town along the famous Ruta Lenca.
The Ruta Lenca is a grassroots initiative by the government to bring tourists into the culturally rich small villages in Western Honduras that are home to the indigenous group, the Lencas. In Honduras, the Lenca are the largest indigenous group, numbering over a half a million, who came from South America over 3,000 years ago settling in the mountainous, coffee-producing towns in the heart of Western Honduras. Today, many of the Lenca live in Western Honduras throughout the very rural communities we work with in La Esperanza, Intibucá, Gracias and Yamaranguila, bringing a warm hospitality and hardworking pride to the region.
I was grateful that I got to visit the Western Corridor of Honduras as it is not typically on tourists’ radar as they simply pass it in route to the famous Maya Copán Ruins. However, this is soon to change and hopefully it will change in a sustainable way that will positively impact the rural communities that live in these fertile lands. The Western Corridor has become more accessible than ever before thanks to the opening last October of the brand new Palmerola International Airport located in the pretty colonial town of Comayagua. It is only an hour and a half drive on the nicely paved highway CA-5 from the airport to the park. The secret of the Western Corridor’s rich beauty and deep cultural heritage is soon to be discovered.
Cerro Azul Meámbar National Park (Panacam)
Panacam sits high above the Yojoa Lake, a popular destination for fishing, boating and birdwatching. The park’s name, Cerro Azul, derives from the deep blue color of its peaks which are often shrouded in clouds. Declared a protected national park in 1987, Panacam covers an area of 297 square miles (312 square kilometers) of pristine cloud forest with peaks reaching 6,824 feet (2,080 m) above sea level. Today the park continues to be managed and protected by the Proyecto Aldea Global.
A large percentage of the drinking water comes from these very mountains and Panacam has helped the communities protect the watershed area against deforestation. There are even guards that live in the park ensuring that no trees are cut down and burned. Over 334 species of birds reside in Panacam as well as plenty of native wildlife including the raccoon-like coatimundi that likes to frequent the property.
Reaching Panacam is not for the faint of heart. In a country where over 80% of its terrain is mountainous, the roads are long and windy and if lucky, paved and lacking potholes. Like most resorts located high up in the mountains, the drive up requires grit, patience and a good 4WD. Of course it can also be done in a van or car but only if the weather is clear and not rainy.
The Panacam Lodge
In 1992, the beautiful Panacam Lodge and its surrounding cabins were built to provide a mountain refuge for its visitors. There are tons of wonderful options for lodging such as Las Oropendolas (two story building with 10 suites), Los Venecejos (6 rooms), Los Colibries (4 rooms), and Las Orquideas (3 rooms), and there is also camping. What I loved best were the outdoor patios and balconies where you could relax and listen to the sounds of the jungle.
The Panacam Lodge itself is gorgeous with a large dining area and restaurant where you can eat delightful, Honduran cuisine. The Lodge also has an enormous outdoor balcony overlooking the jungle below and the lake where you can sip your coffee in the morning and watch the green and brilliant purple hummingbirds feast on nectar-filled bird feeders only feet away.
The front of the lodge hosts a large covered patio with outdoor sitting and an enormous fire pit where guests can sit around and chat as the sun dips below the horizon.
Rising early to the sounds of the jungle is a wonderful experience, especially those who enjoy hiking and bird-watching. As the sun begins to rise over the peak of Cerro Azul, the jungle comes to life. I slip on my boots, leave the room and head to grab a quick cup of delicious Honduran coffee before setting off to the explore this magical place, breaming with life.
I set off on the Sendero El Venado, one of the three hikes within the park, first heading to the bird-watching tower to see who is up. I hear them but can’t see them for they are all high up above greeting the morning from the trees. I stay for awhile before setting off to grab this view before heading back down for breakfast. I will enjoy another hike later in the day after my work is complete.
Panacam has over 9 miles/15 km of well-maintained hiking trails which afford visitors a chance to experience the magic of the jungle almost all to yourself. There are three hiking trails which form intersecting loops so you can easily join another trail if you like. The Sendero El Sinai (8 km, 4 hours) is the hardest of the three and begins at the visitor center climbing all the way up to the highest view at 3,477 feet (1060 m) with impressive views along the way. There is also the Sendero El Venado (1.2 km), and Sendero Los Vensejos that leads to lovely waterfall. I didn’t have time to do the long trail but thoroughly enjoyed the two others with their spectacular views.
The Sendero Los Vensejos trail leads to a spectacular jungle waterfall.
When I arrived at the waterfall, I had the place all to myself! I sat down on a rock and just let the noise put me at peace.
The park also has two birdwatching towers that provide a rare glimpse at some of Panacam’s most beautiful birds. If you are lucky you can see toucans, hawks, flycatchers, woodpeckers, and hummingbirds.
Another lovely place to birdwatch is on the back porch of the lodge where you can marvel at two species of hummingbirds, the vibrant purple-colored Violet Sabrewing and the green-colored White-bellied Emerald enjoy the bird feeders. Toucans are also very common in this location and are quite spectacular to see.
For those who want a taste of the jungle down below, you can sign up for a paddle in the calm waters of the Yure Reservoir, located just at 10 minutes from the Lodge’s visitor center. I did not have the chance to go kayaking but heard it was beautiful from my friends who went over the hot afternoon.
While my stay at Panacam was far too short, I marveled at the beauty of this majestic place. Our group of 12 were the only ones there at the time. Since the onset of the pandemic, not many have come to stay at this special place. It will be interesting to see if the opening of the new airport in Comayagua brings more tourists to this remote part of the world. Only time will tell. Yet I feel so fortunate to have had a taste of such an untouched place.
If you go
Parque Nacional Cerro Azul Meámbar is located 7 kilometers from the Lago de Yojoa in Cortés, in Western Honduras. www.panacamlodge.com
I am a little bit of a map freak so below highlights where I went during my work trip with EOS International. You can see Panacam located up, north of Comayagua where the new international airport is. Tourists used to have to fly into the mountainous airport, Tegucigalpa, which apparently is a bit scary landing into. The government will soon have domestic flight service only given its dangerous topography and move international flights to Comayagua which is located within a flat valley. This will make Western Honduras and Panacam much more accessible.
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Yes it was quite marvelous! A refreshing change of pace since we still have no leaves yet on the trees where I live!
Oh I would love to visit Panacam — it looks so lush and beautiful! Honduras is a country I have little knowledge about, and it was only a few years ago when I experienced something Honduran for the first time: its food. There’s a Honduran restaurant just outside Jakarta which is owned by someone from the country who moved to Indonesia. I really enjoyed everything I had and that glimpse into the culture of this Central American country has definitely whetted my appetite. I hope one day I’ll get the chance to visit this part of the world.
It was beautiful Bama but I wish I had more time. I would truly love to get to your side of the world someday! I know I would fall in love with Indonesia.