Paul Theroux was a bit weak on Honduran geography in his popular novel The Mosquito Coast—the Río Aguán, which his fictional American family followed up into the jungle, actually leads into one of the most heavily cultivated valleys in Honduras . But his description of tropical rainforest certainly rings true. These forests, which once blanketed the entire north coast of Honduras, tend to move observers to religious metaphor, so awe-inspiring is their majestic beauty. Walking in a primary rainforest, one is indeed surprised with how little undergrowth exists between the immensely tall trees, sometimes more than 60 meters high, with huge buttresses looking for the world like flanking supports on a medieval cathedral.
The annual average temperature in the forest hovers around 25°C (77°F), while rainfall averages between 200 and 400 centimeters a year, making it a natural hothouse, a perfect environment for plants to develop to their most efficient level. The evolutionary triumph of the rainforest is that almost all its nutrients are concentrated above ground—the forest has only a few centimeters of dirt. Under the dirt lies a mass of white threads, the rootlets of trees living in conjunction with a certain type of fungus. These act as a sort of garbage collector of the forest, quickly decomposing any organic material and providing nutrients to the trees, which in turn supply the products of photosynthesis to the fungus. This is what plant biologists call a “mature system.” As little as one-tenth of 1 percent of nutrients penetrate below the first five centimeters of the forest floor, meaning soil is one of the least important elements to the cycle.
The wealth of the rainforest is hidden from human observers, far above in the upper stories of these great trees, where an entire world of plants and animals exist without ever coming down to the ground. Roaming around in this elevated ecosystem of vines and ferns are snakes, monkeys, lizards, sloths, macaws, toucans, and literally thousands of species of insects, each living in their own particular niche. On the top is the canopy itself, an unbroken field of green leaves soaking up the generous sun and photosynthesizing for all they’re worth. So complete is the canopy that practically no sun at all penetrates down to the jungle floor, unless a fallen tree opens a temporary gap. But the open space is invariably colonized in short order, with vines and new tree shoots moving in so fast you can practically watch it happen. The jungle is so vibrant it seems at times to be a single living creature rather than a collection of individual plants.
The rainforest is composed of a dizzying variety of trees and plants, although to the untrained observer, many trees in the rainforest look strikingly similar. It is thought that at least 2,000 vascular plants, probably more, live in the rainforest, making it by far the most diverse ecosystem in Central America. Tree types include mahogany, cedar, laurel, rosewood, strangler fig, tamarind, oak, ceiba, almond, cacao, nance, and San Juan, to name just a few. Rarely are several trees of the same species grouped together, which makes identification all the more difficult. As naturalists Adrian Forsyth and Ken Miyata put it in their book, Tropical Nature, “A naturalist in New England can easily learn all the species of native trees in the region in a single summer, but there are few people who, even after a lifetime of study, can confidently identify most of the trees in a patch of tropical American rainforest.”
Because the rainforest offers so many lovely hiding places, trying to spot the abundant wildlife in it can be frustrating, especially on hikes. The jungles of the Mosquitia may support 80 percent of the mammal species in the country, but good luck finding all but a few of them. You won’t have too much trouble running across the occasional troop of noisy monkeys, but most other creatures have excellent camouflage and stay well hidden. Many are nocturnal. Rainforest birds in particular are difficult to find, as their nests are extremely well hidden to avoid predators. One good way to look for birds and mammals in the jungle is along a river, where you can look into the upper stories of trees.
Until the beginning of the banana industry at the start of the 20th century, most of the north coast of Honduras  was covered by rainforest. Most of the forest west of Trujillo  has long since fallen victim to the machete, although healthy stretches still exist in Parque Nacional Pico Bonito , near La Ceiba , and smaller ones in Parque Nacional Capiro y Calentura , near Trujillo. But farther east in the remote, isolated Mosquitia region is the largest chunk of remaining rainforest in Central America, protected by the biosphere reserves of the Río Plátano and Tawahka Asagni. For anyone who wants to experience a true rainforest in all its expansive, wild splendor, a trip out to the Mosquitia is mandatory.