A small miracle of botanical science and one of the finest bird-watching sites in Central America, Lancetilla was first set up in 1925 by plant biologist William Popenoe of the United Fruit Company, who is also responsible for starting the Escuela de Sciencias Agrícolas in the Valle de Zamorano , near Tegucigalpa .
Initially Lancetilla was designed as a research station for testing different varieties of bananas, but Popenoe’s endless inquisitiveness soon led to experiments with fruits and plants from all over the world.
One of Honduras ’s most profitable agricultural products, the African palm, Elaeis guineensis, was first introduced by Popenoe in Lancetilla, and he did further work with coffee, cinchona (the source of quinine, for years the only treatment for malaria), cacao, rubber, mango, and a myriad of other plants.
Although Popenoe left Lancetilla in 1941 to go to Zamorano, United Fruit continued the work he began until 1974, when Lancetilla was turned over to the Honduran government. The garden has since become part of the Escuela de Sciencias Forestales and is still a fully functioning research station.
Lancetilla boasts one of the most preeminent collections of fruit trees, flowering trees, hardwoods, palm trees, bamboo, and other assorted medicinal and poisonous plants in Latin America. Named after the indigenous lancetilla palm, Astrocaryum standleyanum, the garden contains 764 varieties of plants in 636 species, 392 genera, and 105 families on a mere 78 hectares in the William Popenoe Arboretum, and another 60 species of fruit and hardwood trees in the experimental research station.
Attracted by this profusion of fruits and plants, all manner of tropical birds throng the trees of Lancetilla, making it a premier bird-watching destination. Honduran birding expert Mark Bonta reports that more than 300 species can be spotted at Lancetilla. First-time tropical birders will be delighted by close views of toucans, trogons, motmots, tanagers, orioles, and parrots. More seasoned birders should investigate the brush and rainforest understory and canopy to find the great antshrike, cinnamon becard, rufous piha, lovely cotinga, keel-billed motmot, purple-crowned fairy, tawny-throated leaftosser, and many others.
The Lancetilla Biological Reserve, in the surrounding hillsides, contains both primary and secondary tropical humid and subtropical humid forest. At least one trail crosses the range of hills to the far side—ask the staff for directions.
Many plants are labeled to help identification. Labels are color-coded as follows: Green indicates hardwood; red indicates fruit; yellow indicates ornamental; and most important, black indicates poisonous. Feel free to sample fallen fruit, but be sure not to try anything from a black-labeled tree! Keep an eye out for the mangosteen trees, Garcinia mangostana, a Malaysian native considered by some connoisseurs to produce the finest fruit on the planet. Guided tours are also available for US$5.25 per group, and are a great way to spot trees like the mangosteen and quinine, learn interesting factoids about the plants, and get to try lots of tropical fruits.
Just under two kilometers from the visitors center, past groves of palms and bamboo, are two swimming holes along the Río Lancetilla. Though unspectacular, they’re a good way to cool off after a hot walk.
Lancetilla sells tickets (US$6) 7 a.m.–4 p.m. daily, but visitors can stay until 5 p.m. You can arrange guides (US$5.25) and purchase maps of the arboretum for a self-guided tour of one of the trails at the large, wooden visitors center a couple of kilometers from the park entrance. Mosquitoes are often fierce in the arboretum, so come prepared. There are cabins (three twin beds, US$20) and guest rooms (two twin beds, US$13 s, US$15 d) on-site, ideal for those interested in early-morning bird-watching, although they are sometimes full with the many research and student groups who visit the gardens. Check with the visitors center (tel. 504/448-1740) to make reservations.
Buses to Lancetilla (all the way in to the visitors center) leave from Tela  at 6 Avenida and 11 Calle. The highway turnoff to Lancetilla is just south of the power station outside of Tela, five kilometers from town (look for several stands selling lychee fruit near the entrance).
You could take an El Progreso  bus, get off at the junction, and walk the 45 minutes into the gardens, or take a taxi from town for US$4. Another option is to rent a bike at Garífuna Tours and pedal out at your own pace. The entrance fee is collected at a caseta (toll building) at the highway junction.