Have the Beach to Yourself in Honduras

Here's how to make the most of this Central American country's natural beauty.
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When wintry weather hits, it's natural to yearn for a sunny getaway nearthe water -- but everyone else is doing the same. When you arrive at that sunny patch of heaven, you're often battling the crowds for a spot on a white sand beach, going great distances to find a patch of water where you can snorkel without bumping into another person'sfins or waiting on long lines to get a turn at the white water on a river.

This is not a problem in

Honduras, a country that offers visitors every kind of water experience imaginable: From the black sand beaches on its Pacific coast to the white sand beaches on its Caribbean coast to the rain forests in between, crisscrossed with rivers that drop into numerous waterfalls,swimming, diving, white-water rafting, kayaking and spa treatments abound.Even during its high season, under way now, Honduras is not crowded because thecountry is largely undiscovered by travelers. Fewer than 800,000 stayed overnightin Honduras last year, and just 260,000 of those were from North America. And this, even though it's such a quick hop down there: The flight takes less than three hours from either Miami or Houston.

Here are the three destinations for crowd-free vacations onHonduran waters:

The River: La Ceiba

La Ceiba is Honduras' water-central, as it's on the Caribbean coast neartwo major national parks:

Cuero y Salado Wildlife Reserve and the

Pico Bonito CloudForest. Cuero y Salado is best for wildlife lovers -- check out the boat trips through rivers, wetlands and mangrove swamps to watch everything from bats to manatees. The Pico Bonito Cloud Forest is best for adventure seekers and offers kayaking and white-water rafting, with rapids up to class IV, on the Cangrejal River,waterfalls to swim in at the Zacate river and several nature hikes that endat secluded rainforest swimming holes on the Rio Coloradito.

The Sea: Cayos Cachinos

Cayos Cochinos is a network of islands and small keys some 19 miles off the coast from La Ceiba. The keys look exactly like the type of island guys are always getting stranded on in beercommercials -- teensy plots of land with a few palm trees, white sand beachesand turquoise water.

The islands and the waters surrounding it are a marine preserve, which meansthere's no commercial fishing allowed. This means that you're likely to spotspecies that are heavily fished commercially, like tuna. And since the onlyway to reach the preserve is by a 40-minute boat ride, you can snorkel inthe 200 square miles of the marine preserve's waters without banging intoany human's plastic flippers. All boats from the mainland stop at CayosMenor; access to the marine reserve costs $10 a person.

The Hot Springs: Luna Jaguar Spa Resort, Copán

Copán, an area in the western part of Honduras not far from theGuatemalan border, is one of the most visited areas in the country. Themain reason to come here is to check out one of the most researched

Mayanruin sites in the world, the remains of a city that was once home to tens of thousands. Today, the ruins of 3,500 buildings are guarded by a flock of bright red and noisy macaws and a great many statutes depicting kings and other important Mayan personages.

Work in a water component to your cultural and historical edification at the

Luna Jaguar Hot Springs, set in a lush rainforest where the waters run 188 degrees Fahrenheit. Everything here is meant to emulate the hot-water treatments the Mayans weresaid to enjoy. Luna Jaguar Hot Springs admission costs $25, including transportation from Copán.

Plan Your vacation

When you think Honduras, you may imagine hostels instead of hotels, beerinstead of bottles of fine wine. But while lower-budget options certainlyabound, Honduras has just arrived at a particularly sweet moment in its history for tourists: There's luxury available so you don't have to rough it here if you don't want to, but it's not yet a theme park.

The best time to visit Honduras is November through April, after the rainyseason and the risk of hurricanes has passed. April and May are the warmestmonths, with highs in the mid-80s and evening lows in the mid-60s in thecapital city of Tegucigalpa.

One big caveat: Honduras has a reputation for being dangerous, and

crime is a problem in the cities, but the most beautiful parts of the country are a great deal safer. Travelers who are comfortable visiting the developing world will be equally comfortable here.

Recommended guidebooks for Honduras include the Lonely Planet's

guide to

Honduras and The Bay Islands

, published in 2007.Moon's

Honduras

guide is also worth a look, although it is slightly older.

Honduras has four international airports, in Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula, LaCeiba and Roatan.

Continental Airlines

(CAL) - Get Report

flies directfrom Houston,

TACA direct from New Orleans,

Delta

(DAL) - Get Report

direct from Atlanta and

American Airlines

(AMR)

direct from Miami.

The most luxurious accommodations can be found at eco-lodges: in La Ceiba,

The Lodge at Pico Bonito from $180, or

LasCascadas from $155 and in Copán,

Hacienda San Lucas from $85, or

Hotel MarinaCopán from $85. (All prices for doubles.)

Most water-based activities, from whitewater rafting, to snorkeling todiving, are best accomplished here with a guide. In La Ceiba, try

LaMoskitia Ecoaventuras,

Omega Tours or

Garifuna Tours.