We pull up on a nondescript, dirt road in our Lodge at Pico Bonito tourist van, leaving the comforts of catered travel and air conditioning for a tren túristico to the Cuero y Salado Wildlife Refuge. There’s a smattering of homes, small but colorful shacks with vibrant blues and reds dominating the splintered wood. The air is thick with the coastal heat and Caribbean humidity. But now several days into this trip (and having traveled Central America before), it was nothing new. I’d be disappointed if I weren’t sweating through my shirt when on the Caribbean coast.
We’re waiting for the train, we’re told by a local Honduran guide, and it should arrive any moment. He says it as if there’s a schedule, but it becomes clear rather quickly that the train shows up when it shows up. Nine kilometers of ragged, abandoned-looking track separate us from the coast. Unlike most national parks and refuges of the world, where high-speed thoroughfares crisscross through the so-called protected land, Cuero Y Salado did not permit cars. The only way to get from the northern coast of La Unión to where we were was by this train. As such, locals used it just as much if not more so than tourists, moving goods from point A to B.
The train pulled up unceremoniously. Though given the scenery, it would’ve been comical if an omniscient voice came over the non-existent loudspeaker to announce the arrival of the regional train to Cuero y Salado at the station’s only platform.
Now arriving, the mid-afternoon train for Cuero y Salado with stops as needed. Thank you for riding and have a pleasant journey.
There are chuckles among our small group of visiting writers as we observe the rusty yellow wagon with silhouette paintings of indigenous birds slow to a stop. This is the aptly-named banana train. A glorified lawnmower appeared to be the source of the locomotive’s power with two Hondurans in flannel tee shirts speaking quickly to one another about the operations.
We board along with some other locals carrying baskets of food and other goods. A couple of men dressed in military gear, who I tell myself are absolutely in the military and not crazy people, station themselves on the steps of one of the wagon entrances — hoisting their rather large automatic weapons over their shoulder. They’re making each other laugh, so I presume the weapons are a preemptive show of force and protection than anything else.
Like an amusement park ride for the toddler crowd, the train gets off to a slow hum and within minutes we’re enveloped by the surrounding jungle. I’m surprised to see a handful of small homes and shops built up against the tracks inside the jungle. We stop at one shop — another shack with a window cut out to serve as a counter — for a Honduran man in a polo to buy something to eat and a drink before continuing on.
After the quick stop, civilization disappears. There are some cows with coats of brown and white out in the fields where the jungle greenery fades. One appears on our tracks, lying lethargically without much urgency to flee from the oncoming vehicle. The train operator isn’t reacting.
“We’re not really about to run into a cow, are we?” I say to a fellow passenger.
Finally, before any serious danger, the cow rouses itself to its feet and hustles out of the way. It’s as if the train operator knew all along that the cow would move. I imagine that the cow and train operator have a long-running game of cat and mouse. Though instead of some kind of interspecies romance, it’s more about how far the cow can push her luck against the train.
Before long — it is only a nine-kilometer ride — the Caribbean waters are visible in the distance. It’s like someone took a sketch of the scenery, uploaded it to Microsoft Paint, and filled the water with an almost unrealistic bright blue.
The breeze picks up with the speed of the train, which if we’re being generous we’ll say is somewhere around 25 miles per hour. But because there are no windows or blocked doorways, the wind moves through the machine freely. Having that jungle air brush our faces makes it feel as if we’re moving with some speed.
The jungle opens to a small coastline, there’s a small hut that looks like a bus stop for train passengers, and people are lined up alongside the tracks. The tourists have suitcases whereas the locals carry large, white, burlap-looking sacks thrown over their shoulders. We disembark, each step sounding like the hollow reverberation of bleachers in a baseball stadium.
Ahead a couple of modest fisherman’s boats wait to take us to the islands of Cayos Cochinos where the native Garifuna live. I look back and the banana train is slowly starting its return inland, inching slowly like an out-of-shape intramural basketball player who’d rather play half-court.
It may have just been nine kilometers over something like a half-hour’s time, but Honduras’ banana train certainly proved more memorable to me than the trains I rode every week in Cleveland or even the bullet trains of Japan.
¡Viva el tren banana!
More photos from Honduras