Valleys and Rivers
Crisscrossing this mountainous countryside are several major river systems and countless smaller ones. Honduras shares the largest river in Central America, the Río Coco, with Nicaragua, but contains the second largest, the Río Patuca, completely within its borders. Because the continental divide is quite far south in Honduras, most big rivers drain to the north, into the Caribbean Sea, though four sizable rivers do flow south to the Pacific.
In the western part of Honduras, long a center of human settlement and economic activity, is the broad Valle de Sula, through which flow the 200-kilometer Río Chamelecón (born in the hills by the Guatemalan border near the ruins of Copán) and the much bigger Río Ulúa, draining a huge area of western Honduras in its 400-kilometer course to the north coast. The flat, flood-prone lower part of the Valle de Sula, particularly around El Progreso and La Lima, is one of the principal banana regions of the country.
East of the Río Ulúa, several short but furiously intense rivers pour off the steep flanks of the coastal Sierra Nombre de Dios, notably the Río Cangrejal, near La Ceiba, a favorite among rafters and kayakers. Gathering the waters from the south side of the Sierra Nombre de Dios as well as the mountains of Yoro and western Olancho, the 200-kilometer Río Aguán cuts its path in a northeasterly direction to the Caribbean. The banana companies maintain extensive plantations in the wide, rich Valle del Aguán.
The wild Mosquitia region, in the far northeast corner of Honduras, is home to several large rivers, born in the mountains far to the south. The 215-kilometer Río Tinto and its largest tributary, the Paulaya, both begin in the Sierra de Agalta of central Olancho, and pass through what was once rainforest but is now mostly pastures and small farms. Just east is the smaller Río Plátano, still blanketed by virgin jungle and protected as a biosphere reserve. The mighty Río Patuca, still farther east, courses over 500 kilometers from as far south as the departments of El Paraíso and Francisco Morazán, not far from Tegucigalpa, through Olancho and down to the Mosquitia. Several of the Patuca’s tributaries, including the Guayape, Guayambre, and Wampú, are known for producing gold. The Río Coco, even longer than the Patuca, forms a large part of the land border between Honduras and Nicaragua on its 550-kilometer route to Cabo Gracias a Dios.
On the south side of the country, the largest river system is that of the Río Choluteca, which takes a convoluted horseshoe route starting off in a northerly direction through Tegucigalpa, then coming around in a sweeping 180-degree turn to empty into the Golfo de Fonseca on the Pacific. West of the Choluteca are the smaller Río Nacaome and the Río Goascorán, the latter forming part of Honduras’s border with El Salvador.
The so-called Honduran Depression cuts a lowland gap through the country, following the Río Ulúa, up the Río Humaya into the Valle de Comayagua, over a low pass and down to the Pacific along the Río Goascorán. For many years, successive Honduran governments hoped to build a transcontinental railway along this route, which at its highest point, on the continental divide, is only 870 meters. Another major tributary to the Ulúa, the Río Otoro, also almost meets the Pacific-flowing Río Lempa, separated by a pass of 1,050 meters.
Numerous intermontane basins of varying sizes, usually between 300 and 900 meters above sea level, are located throughout Honduras. The larger ones, like the Valle de Comayagua (Comayagua), Valle de Catacamas (Olancho), Valle de Jamastrán (El Paraíso), and Valle de Sensetí (Ocotepeque), are intensively worked for crops or cattle, or both.
© Chris Humphrey and Amy E. Robertson from Moon Honduras, 5th Edition