In the Heart of Central America: Cowboys and coffee in Copan, Honduras

Located in the northwest of Honduras, just a few miles from the Guatemalan border, the area known as Copan has a landscape of lush green rolling hills, coffee plantations and cattle ranches. This is pure cowboy country. In Copan Ruins, horses clip-clop softy over the stone streets and the jangle of spurs can be heard as men in boots, jeans and cowboy hats wander through town. A few miles away, cowboy Carlos Castejon warmly welcomes guests to his family’s coffee, cardamom, and cattle ranch to learn about the farm’s production.

Finca el Cisne has been owned Carlos’ family since 1885. What started as a simple farm growing Arabica coffee, corn, and beans, has grown to encompass 800 hectares (40% of which is primary forest). Visitors to the Finca will drive for nearly twenty minutes from the start of the family’s land to the main house, passing by the dwellings of Carlos’ employees who live on the land. In 2002 Carlos decided to expand the farm’s operations to include agritourism. With a subtle, quick wit, a penchant for teasing his guests (in a good-natured way) while providing an interesting and informative experience, and a clear passion for his home country, Carlos is the perfect host.

While in Honduras, I was able to spend a day at the Finca, which starts with a stop at Carlos’ rustic guesthouse. Equipped with five rooms, running water and electricity, the guesthouse is very basic but inviting. Guests who chose to come just for the day will arrive at 8am and depart at 6pm. With transportation from town the outing costs $64 per person. Once you arrive at the Finca, you’ll get to sample some of Carlos’ coffee and a light breakfast prepared from ingredients grown on the farm, such as mashed banana stuffed with beans and served with cheese, an unusual combination that was actually delicious.

From there Carlos took my group on a tour, stopping to point out the many fruits grown on the property, including passion-fruit, mango, mandarin, avocado, banana, plantain, breadfruit, starfruit, lime and grapefruit. Along the way, he’d reach for a fruit, sliver off a piece with his knife, and pass out samples.

Then we were off to the coffee mill to learn about how coffee is produced from start to finish. First Carlos showed us the fruit, which blooms in stages from January to April and begins ripening in December. When the fruit turns red, it is handpicked and the beans are extracted from the fruit (which is used for compost) by machine. The beans are fermented, washed, and then cycled through a series of troughs that allow the low-quality beans to run off and the higher quality (heavier) beans to remain until they are pushed through.

The beans are then spread on the ground to sun dry (and then often moved to a drum to machine dry) and the finished green beans are extracted from their shells. The majority of the beans will be exported while they are still green and then roasted to the taste of their destination country.

While all of this was fascinating for me (and the smell of the coffee was making me rethink my aversion to caffeine), I was anxious to get to the next part….the horseback riding. So Carlos led us over to a small pasture where several horses were saddled and waiting. As the most experienced in the group, I was given the horse Carlos normally rides, while he rode a younger horse that he was training.

With Carlos and another guide we set out to explore the property. Again Carlos would stop, point out the many fruits and edible flowers growing around us, and offer up tasty samples. We walked and trotted our way along a dirt road and then entered a field where Carlos gave us the go-ahead to pick up a little speed. I leaned forward, gave my horse some free rein, and we were off, galloping through the brush and up a hill. After an exhilarating ride to the top, my horse simply stopped and waited for the rest of the group to catch up.

For another hour we explored the property, taking in the views of the rolling green valley below, passing cows and horses grazing in the fields, and again and again taking off at a breathtaking but controlled gallop through the countryside. I can honestly say it was the single best horseback riding experience I have ever had while traveling. All too soon it was time to head back to the house for lunch.

We wandered around the main house gawking at photos of Carlo’s ancestors with jaguars they shot on the property to keep them from eating the cattle. We sat down to a lunch of traditional Honduran food (the menu for which changes based on seasonal availability). We started with coffee (of course), fresh orange juice, and a bean soup with fresh-made corn tortillas and cheese. Then heaping plates of food were served family-style, including potatoes, watercress salad, braised beef, and more beans, tortillas, and fresh cheese. A sweet plantain in a syrup of cardamom from the farm was served for dessert. To complete the day, and to help soothe any sore muscles from the ride, Carlos takes guests to the local hot springs for a relaxing soak.

There are other coffee tours in Copan, and I had the opportunity to do another one during my time in the region. But this one was the best. The tour was informative and, thanks to Carlos’ humor and passion, very entertaining. Lunch was delicious, the property was beautiful, and I think there is no better way to see this area of cowboys and coffee plantations than on the back of a horse.

This trip was paid for by the Honduras Institute of Tourism, but the views express are entirely my own.

You can read other posts from my series on Honduras here.

Photo of the day 11.16.09

As the sun sets over Gadling and our “Wild West” day, I couldn’t let the day go by without featuring this beautiful shot shared by xphaqtor in our Gadling Flickr pool. Nothing like a sunset, the Colorado scenery and a hardened cowboy to close a day on the range, is there?

If you’ve got some great travel shots you’d love to share, be sure to upload them to the Gadling pool on Flickr. We might just pick one as our Photo of the Day.

3 unexpected destinations for riding like a wild west cowboy

The wild west cowboy is an American icon. Buffalo Bill. John Wayne. The Marlboro Man. These guys were as tough, rugged and wild as the west itself. They represented everything exciting and romantic about the undiscovered western half of the country. But this area of the US isn’t the only place where cowboys roam the range. Here are are few more places where you can rope and ride alongside real cowboys.

South America – The Pampas of Argentina
Someone has to wrangle the cows that make that famously tender Argentine beef, and that’s the job of Argentina’s gauchos, the South American cowboys who run the country’s estancias (or ranches). Many, like Estancia los dos Hermanos, are now open to tourism. Just an hour or so outside of Buenos Aires, you can gallop alongside the gauchos for hours, and then return to the ranch for a filling meal of juicy local beef.

Other cowboy outposts in the region include Uruguay, Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru.

Central America – The Hills of Honduras
The hilly region of northwest Honduras, close to the border with Guatemala, is pure cowboy country. Outside of the small town of Copan, near the Mayan ruins, coffee plantations and cattle farms cover the land. Most of these are purely working operations, but a select few, like Finca el Cisne, have caught on to the agri-tourism trend and offer horseback tours of their properties. Here you can learn all about how coffee is produced and then enjoy an exhilarating ride through the misty green hills.

You can also find cowboy culture alive and well in parts of Guatemala and Costa Rica.North America – The Islands of Hawaii
In Hawaii, paniolos (Hawaiian cowboys), herd cattle and sheep over the rolling hills of the islands. Kahua Ranch, on the Big Island, is one of the oldest working ranches in Hawaii. It’s been around since 1850, and in fact is located just above the harbor where the very first cattle arrived on the island. The ranch welcomes guests for 2.5 hour rides over some of the property’s 12,000 acres.

Western Canada, Mexico and of course, many parts of the Western US still rely heavily on cowboys to manage large cattle farms.

Cowboy culture extends far beyond the Americas. They’re just as tough in Australia, where they herd cattle over never-ending expanses of the hot, dusty, Outback, or in New Zealand, where they guide sheep over the country’s rugged landscape. There are even cowboys in South Africa. So pack your boots and ten-gallon hat for your next international journey, and you can have a cowboy adventure almost anywhere you go.

Adventures on the Geronimo Trail

Way out west, in the Black Range Mountains of New Mexico, there is a quiet little ranch tucked away in the thick pine trees, where cowboys still ride the trails and rustic bunkhouses give guests a place to lay their head at the end of a busy day. That place is the Geronimo Trails Guest Ranch, an adventure resort that lets us live out our wild west dreams on horseback in a pristine setting.

Located four hours from both El Paso and Albuquerque, Geronimo Trails falls well off the grid. The ranch is 85 miles form the nearest stop light, with all power generated through the use of solar panels and water supplied from nearby streams. The area is so remote, that visitors may as well turn off their cell phones when they arrive, as coverage ends 70 miles back down the road.

This eco-conscious approach helps to give the ranch a quiet, serene setting, allowing guests to rest and soak in the rustic atmosphere. And when they’re done relaxing, there are plenty of things to do as well. Situated on one of New Mexico’s designated scenic byways, Geronimo Trail gives access to plenty of outdoor adventure. Whether you’re on horseback or hiking on foot, you’ll be able to follow in the footsteps of Billy the Kid, Butch and Sundance, and even Geronimo himself, while exploring mountain meadows and beautiful, wide open vistas. There are even Native American ruins to discover, with ancient cliff dwellings and caves with wall paintings to give travelers a glimpse into what this part of America was once like, before the settlers came west.

The laid back setting extends to just about every area of the ranch, which has a fully stocked library and plenty of swings and hammocks to curl up with a good book in. Meals are served up in the mess hall, ranch style of course, with guests gathering around picnic tables to share their daily adventures. Nights are spent around the campfire making s’mores and telling stories, while the more energetic amongst the visitors can take part in cowboy sing-alongs or go line dancing well into the wee hours of the night.

For a true cowboy experience in the untamed old west, few experiences compare to a few days stay at Geronimo Trails Guest Ranch. Just be warned, it won’t take long to get settled in, and you might not ever want to go back home.

Australia’s Wild West: Cowboy Life at Home Valley

An hour’s drive down the Gibb River Road from El Questro, in the shadow of the striking Cockburn Range, sits Home Valley Station. The spirits of the Kimberley’s settler history and cowboy culture are alive and well at this Outback resort. Its location is so fantastic and pristine, in fact, that it was used for many scenes in the film Australia. Sure, you’ll find flat screen televisions and wireless internet access here, but you’ll have to get past the cows, horses and flooded roads first. This is no American dude ranch. It’s a slice of Outback life that many Australians still relish to this day. Home Valley preserves that lifestyle, and its natural theater, in a way that allows visitors to experience a holiday that is an more about participation than pampering.


Home Valley embraces the concept of experiential travel. It expects its guests to be active and engaged and provides activities that allow visitors to take on the role of a cowboy while still sleeping comfortably at night. My cabin was beyond comfortable, with a queen-sized bed, satellite television and bucolic view of the neighboring creek. But little time would be spent relaxing, as Home Valley is no place for couch potatoes.

As anticipated, a resort embracing cowboy culture also has guided horseback rides. My relationship with horses is tepid at best. I’ve eaten horse twice and I think they can sense this. Every time I get on a horse, they react first with indifference and then graduate to annoyance. Disdain comes later, as the animal learns how ignorant I am about his movements. Still, Ivan, Home Valley’s aboriginal guide who who grew up not far from the resort, led our group confidently through the property. With the Cockburn Range always lurking in the background and livestock joining us along the way, it was hard to not feel as if I had been transported back to the time when people were first trying to settle the Outback. Outside of the restaurant and reception area, the majority of Home Valley is pristine, untouched wilderness that is ripe for exploration.

The Pentecost River cuts right through Home Valley and is home to a fascinating variety of wildlife thanks to it being tidal. As such, beyond your typical barramundi and catfish, you will also find sharks and stingrays. This diverse ecosystem makes for some interesting fishing. Of course, if you’re in Australia, you’re really only hoping to catch a barramundi that you can grill up for dinner. I spent an afternoon on the Pentecost hoping to impress the locals with a barra worth sharing. Instead, I was left with nothing more than stories of hooking a shark and my inability to understand why a stingray would want to hang out in a river.

Despite my fishing failures, the day was a success, as I turned my t-shirt tan into a tank top tan (lotion up when you’re in the Kimberley) and I enjoyed some of the most timeless surroundings I’ve ever witnessed.

Home Valley has two scenic lookouts that are perfect for watching the sunset. The Cockburn Range becomes a chameleon as its colors morph in response to the ebbing of the sun. Shades of rust and crimson provide a fitting backdrop as another day in the Kimberley comes to an end.

As I departed Home Valley, I felt as if I had visited not only the Kimberley of today, but the Outback of Australia’s settler past. And sometimes the best journey’s take us not just to physical destinations but transcend boundaries of time. Home Valley’s creature comforts may make it a resort, but it’s the environment that makes it a time machine.

Mike Barish rode horses, flew in tiny planes and hiked across Western Australia on a trip sponsored by Tourism Western Australia. There were no restrictions on what he could cover or how many hamburgers he could eat. You can read other entries in his Australia’s Wild West series HERE.