01/29/2014 09:41 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Honduras: When Conservation Goes Too Far

Honduras is like the monkey who locked up the zookeeper. This little tropical realm has put away the constrained thinking that keeps others stuck in unproductive routines, and allowed its wildness to escape the margins.

Because it's faithful to our childlike imaginations of wilderness, our youthful notions of life authentic and unadulterated, Honduras remains a true, original adventure. Far from the strictures of gentlemanly routines, here we can remember what makes life rip-roaring and breathtaking. We can test our mettle, hear our hearts race, and even encounter a bit of danger. This is a world painted in bold, unrepentant strokes: where monkeys howl, parrots and macaws swoop over waterfalls, and the white water of life can splash you in the face.

So it is I head down to stay at one of the most delicious eco-lodges in the Americas, the Lodge at Pico Bonito.

The owners designed it as an eco-destination that demonstrates that a forest left standing is a much more valuable, more sustainable, source of income to the community than one cut down. The lodge employs only local residents, uses community suppliers, and is committed to environmentally sound practices. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't keep your eyes open.

The cabin to which I am assigned is on the edge of the jungle, with louvered and screened windows, two ceiling fans, and a private veranda with a hammock. Delightful. But the first night I can't sleep because the sounds from the rainforest are so loud and continuous.

So, the next day I ask if I might move to a cabin closer to the lodge, hoping it might be a bit quieter. I tuck my passport and wallet at the bottom of my pack, leave my key with a bellboy, and take off for a day rafting down the nearby Rio Cangreja.

Photo courtesy of the Lodge at Pico Bonito

Flowing from deep within the rainforest of the Pico Bonito National Park down to the Caribbean, the 20-mile river is sliced with moments of agreeable horror (called rapids,) between pools of calm. In the quiet sections the waters are so still they image the clouds. I paddle at the pace of the clouds, a cadence that seems to reach back to the first blush of life on the planet; purer than the rhythms of childhood.

The sandy banks are rippled with three-toed sloths and iguanas. Jaguars keep furtive watch from behind broad leaves. Wild plants and fruit grow in abandon, nourishing legions of insects and the self-propelled flowers they call butterflies, of which there are some 40 species here, including the stunning blue morpho.

Photo courtesy of the Lodge at Pico Bonito

There is a magical realism about this river, a complex system of layering. It seems a place to grasp the mystery that breathes behind things.

That evening I return to the lodge, and retire to my new, quieter cabin. My luggage has been moved, and set up near the bed. Everything is wonderful.

Photo courtesy of the Lodge at Pico Bonito

I spend several more satisfying days exploring the environs. The park unwinds with a well-maintained network of trails, and exploring them is like hiking through a grand green cathedral, at once hallowed, sublime, and a bit eerie. Life is exuberant and pure here. I can almost inhale the incense of life surrounded by massive ropes of vines, hanging moss, and fairy chains of orchids. It is like a hall of double helixes, creating life as the woodland umbilicals swung.

At one time Honduras, like all of Central America, was part of the ocean floor and the earliest volcanoes swelled beneath the sea. As layer after upon layer of cooled volcanic material piled up, peaks finally poked from the watery depths. This rapturously terrible geological activity is key to the country's lush landscape and astonishing biodiversity.

Honduras is the arm that reaches two continents; it is, in many ways, the ark of Latin America. It holds a mind-bending amount of ecological variety. Pico Bonito's profusion of wildlife thrives on an equally staggering range of vegetation, including at least four different kinds of forest, encompassing some 500 species of trees. It's like every color of the rainbow, with a few new ones thrown in for good measure.

There are so many birds in Pico Bonito the tropic breeze seems like fire, brilliant with color. Orchids grow like kudzu. Tiny frogs, hop like raindrops. Here is a supple universe. Here water conquers stone.

Photo courtesy of the Lodge at Pico Bonito

At the end of my stay, I go to tip the staff and pull out my wallet to distribute some cash. As I dig in the leather folds I find less cash than I remember carrying down, but still enough to show ample gratitude. I puzzle for a minute about my miscalculation, but then think nothing more about it.

A few weeks later, back in the States, I get a call from Visa. The representative asks if I just purchased a convertible Mustang in Honduras. "What? I returned over a month ago." The rep then goes through my buying history, showing an ever-increasing trail and price-tag of purchases on my card, beginning with gas, moving to meals, then clothes, and ending up with my car acquisition.

After some investigation, it turns out the bellboy, while moving my luggage, had rifled through my walled and taken some cash, and a little-used credit card in the back. I didn't even notice it was gone until the call.

As the ultimate conservationist, the bellboy wanted to keep as much as possible in-country... including my credit card.

Now I own a convertible mustang in La Ceiba, so if in the neighborhood, let me know. Would love to have your enjoy a ride.