Echoes of Intrigue in Trujillo: Shaped by the Whims of Fortune Seekers and Foreign Powers, This Colonial City on Honduras' Caribbean Coast Is Resisting Plans for a Controversial Refinery

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In the early morning on the slopes of Calentura, the air is heavy with the smell of red earth and tree bark and rotting leaves. Streams chuckle and whisper beneath thickets of ferns and brush. From the hillsides above drift the rasping calls of a howler monkey and the chirping of a coatimundi, climbing through the sprawling crown of a fig tree. Clouds weave damp cocoons around the gravel road and billow like cold steam across razorback ridges, before plunging down treacherous ravines to reveal, in a fleeting glimpse, what lies below: the glistening blue of the Caribbean Sea, a narrow strip of sandy beach, and nestled in the mouth of a wide and shimmering bay, the city of Trujillo, Honduras.

Site of Columbus's first continental landfall, first capital of Honduras, notorious smuggling port and burial ground of Central America's most hated soldier of fortune, Trujillo is as ephemeral as it is beautiful. Throughout its almost five-centuries-old history, the city has had its share of ups and downs. It was the launching pad for Spanish colonization of Central America, then abandoned as a pirate haunt by the Spanish crown. It was the heart of Central American banana production, then deserted and left destitute by the United Fruit Company. Each time, the city reemerged, strong as ever, from the swirling clouds of destiny and intrigue.

"Some times were good for Trujillo, others were not," muses Rolando Sambula, director of the historic Spanish fort whose mossy remnants still overlook Trujillo Bay. "Trujillo was the center of early Honduras. Every ship landed at Trujillo. All settlers and all trade would pass through Trujillo on the way to Tegucigalpa and Comayagua." He looks at the echoing stone walls surrounding his cluttered office. "Now, Trujillo is not the center of anything."

However, Trujillo's scenic isolation on the Caribbean shores has its benefits. Today, the city is poised on the verge of a new era as an international tourist destination, singularly befitting its multicultural heritage. Already, hotels and restaurants are sprouting like so much sweet manioc along the beach strip. A local organization, Foundation for the Conservation of Capiro-Guaimoreto (FUCAGUA), promotes ecotours into the two nearby national parks, the Capiro-Calentura Cloud Forest and the Guaimoreto Lagoon Wildlife Refuge.

But, this is Trujillo, and the story wouldn't be complete without tales of back-room machinations and conspiracies. A giant oil refinery is planned for a nearby mangrove-studded sand spit, within shouting distance of the protected lagoon. The potential environmental impact could be disastrous, according to local environmentalists. And the consequences for the local culture could be equally detrimental.

"Local people are generally supportive of the tourism industry," says Taylor Mack, historical geographer at Central Missouri State University and the leading expert on Trujillo's history. "But there's been a lot of protest against the refinery. The refinery will be the largest in Latin America, and it has the potential of changing the nature of the city."

But what is the nature of Trujillo? Its foibles and its idiosyncrasies are rooted in its checkered past, a roller-coaster timeline punctuated by the comings and goings of conquistadors, gold miners, pirates, soldiers of fortune, and fugitives from justice. So prevalent is the memory of outside intervention in Trujillo's affairs that even today, local people sometimes refer to foreigners as bucaneros, or pirates.

The first in the mottled series of foreigners to alight in Trujillo was Christopher Columbus, who on his fourth voyage made landfall in a great, sweeping bay in current-day Honduras. Columbus named the sandy point hugging the eastern edge of the bay Punta Caxinas, having spotted a fruit the natives on Hispaniola called caxinas. On Sunday, August 14, 1502, Columbus's brother, Bartolome, and some of the crew rowed ashore, somewhere west of Punta Caxinas, and celebrated the first mass on the American mainland. …