EL ROSARIO, Honduras – If ghosts are real, they must live here.
Wandering among the abandoned buildings in El Rosario, it’s not hard to imagine the timeworn spirits of Honduran miners walking alongside, wondering what became of their 19th century boomtown.
El Rosario is perched high in the San Juancito mountains, about a two-hour drive northeast of the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. In its heyday in the early 1900s, the town was home to the richest mine in the Western Hemisphere. Today, the gold and silver is long gone, but the region’s rich history lives on.
It’s here in the partially collapsed blue wooden structure that used to be home to the mine manager and his family. And in the deserted concrete building next door, which once housed a U.S. Consulate.
“We live in a very historic town and it’s not really taken advantage of,” remarked Regina Aguilar, a longtime resident of the area.
While the region’s mining heritage remains unexploited, the same can’t be said for its natural resources. The mineral wealth of the San Juancito mountains was first discovered by indigenous inhabitants as early as the 15th century.
It would later be exploited by Spanish conquistadors. But it wasn’t until 1880, and the arrival of the New York-based Rosario Mining Company, that the area was transformed.
Over the next few decades, the towns of El Rosario and San Juancito would swell in population from a few hundred to more than 40,000. Trees were chopped down to provide lumber for houses and offices and to reinforce mine shafts. Streams were diverted for what would become the first hydroelectric plant in Central America. Workers built a hospital, schools and social clubs.
During its 74 years of operation, the New York and Honduras Rosario Mining Company extracted $100 million worth of gold, silver, copper and zinc from the San Juancito mountains. But by 1954, the boom times were over. The mining company closed and thousands of people left the area in search of work.
Today, the town of El Rosario is a small gem within the boundaries of La Tigra National Park. What used to be the hospital is now a visitor’s center and hostel. Local people have renovated and live in some of the old wooden houses. Most of the other buildings, though, are in varying states of deterioration and lend the air of a ghost town.
That feeling is only heightened by the wispy tendrils of cloud that creep down the mountainside and penetrate deep into the broad-leaved forests of La Tigra.
“It’s called a cloud forest because most of the time – about six months of the year – it’s almost completely covered by mist and cloud,” said Jorge Anariba of Amitigra, the private nonprofit foundation that has been protecting and maintaining the park since 1993. “It provides a lot of water for the city.”
In fact, La Tigra supplies almost a third of Tegucigalpa’s drinking water, and is the source of freshwater for 33 surrounding communities.
That water is everywhere – dripping from the ceilings of caverns, squelching underfoot in the muddier sections of the hiking trails and cascading from the park’s premier natural attraction, a 40-meter waterfall. Water is also collected in the old mine tunnel at Peña Blanca, which now serves as a reservoir.
Evidence of the area’s mining heritage is scattered throughout La Tigra. The park’s main hiking trail is in fact the old road once used to transport gold and silver bars by mule to Tegucigalpa for export to the United States.
Another trail, Sendero La Mina, is dotted with abandoned mines and the ruins of mining buildings. An iron door built into the side of the mountain creaks open on a concrete bunker, where the mining company once stored dynamite.
But the real treasure is La Tigra itself. It’s been protected by various government agencies since the beginning of the 20th century because of its importance as a water source.
In 1980, La Tigra was given the status of national park – the first in Honduras.
The 240-square-kilometer parcel of land is a nature lover’s paradise. It’s home to more than 400 species of plants, including orchids, bromeliads, large ferns and vines.
This rich habitat supports more than 200 species of birds, the most exotic of which is the resplendent quetzal, which was revered by the ancient Mayas for its long, iridescent green tail feathers. The park also shelters 31 different kinds of mammals, including pumas, peccaries and armadillos.
Amid this natural beauty, however, are lingering signs of the damage inflicted by Hurricane Mitch in October 1998. Earthen scars mark the spot where a landslide ripped down the mountainside, right into the town of San Juancito.
“One of the mines actually collapsed, and all the debris from the mining time just washed down,” recalled Monika Mahler, who had moved to the area from Germany just four months earlier. “The village was flooded. Rocks just rolled into houses and crushed the walls.”
Five years later, La Tigra got a financial boost from the Canadian government. Over the course of 30 months, Canada contributed about $435,000 to help upgrade trails, build a visitors center and outfit park rangers with uniforms and tools for firefighting.
“It was really good for us, but then the project ended,” Anariba lamented.
Amitigra is now working with the European community on a major ecotourism initiative aimed at remodeling the park’s trails and visitor centers. Their goal is to build on the 20,000 or so people who visit La Tigra every year.
And who knows – maybe another ghost or two will show up for good measure.n
Getting There, Info
From Tegucigalpa, take the paved road to Valle de Angeles and keep going until you reach San Juancito. From there, it’s a rough dirt road up the mountain to El Rosario.
La TigraNational Park is open Tuesday to Sunday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (no entry after 2 p.m.). Admission costs $10. Basic accommodation is available at Eco- Albergue El Rosario for $15 per person.
The weather in La Tigra can change quickly, and the temperature drops as you climb to higher elevations, so bring rain gear and extra warm clothing.
Water, high-energy snacks, toilet paper and a first aid kit are also a good idea.
For more information, contact Amitigra at www.amitigra.org or (504) 238-6269.