Rural Heat, Spanish Speaking Parrots & Fiona.
Entering Honduras was officially the easiest border crossing I have ever done. Not a rifle-carrying officer in sight and officials enthusiastically smiled and waved as we drove past. Ironically petrol stations and local stores are more heavily protected with guards and rifles. The exchange rate was 20 ‘Lempira’ to 1 USD, equating at the time to about R0.50 a Lempira. Their population of 8 million people has no traditional dress (like Mexico and Guatemala) and the people are largely living in a typically 3rd world reality. However, in larger cities we saw the odd mall with American brands like Walmart, McDonalds, KFC, Wendy’s (amazing chocolate milkshakes) and Burger King.
The bus trip from Antigua, Guatemala to Copan was ghastly. 16 people and luggage piled into a minivan with no aircon and 40 degree heat was almost unbearable. Not only did you stick to the seat but to the person tightly packed next to you too. The driver thought it was more than appropriate to drive into oncoming traffic, constantly. This seemed like the norm, as everyone else was doing it too. I spent more time with my eyes closed cringing and praying to arrive alive than I did enjoying the scenery. The day of travel couldn’t go fast enough so you can only imagine the facial expressions, comments and happiness levels of 16 girls. Retrospectively, this probably explains why for many there was not a lot of love for Copan. Arriving in Copan we were accosted by a humidity that we could not escape. Even the effects of a cold shower didn’t last long.
The town is small but precious. The people are friendly and all asked where I came from which none of the previous Central American countries had really done. It felt like less tourists passed through these parts and the locals were thrilled to have our financial support.
Copan was one of the great centers of Maya Civilisations over 1000 years ago. The main attraction is the Copan Ruins, which have some of the most impressive pre-Columbian art found anywhere. Copan has a different energy and charm about it. We wondered the grassy plazas under massive trees. Carved faces in ancient walls gazed out at us as we strolled around. The site was quiet, which made a nice change from the more crowded Mexican ruins. No hawkers bothered us and silence was only interrupted by the loud squawking Macaw parrots that flew overhead. These precious birds mate for life and are a treat to see flying freely in the wild. I saw and heard more birds in an hour than I did after a week in the Amazon Jungle.
From the ruins I went to the Macaw Mountain Bird Park and Nature Reserve. Such a treat so see so many exotic birds and wonder around under a canopy of trees. My tuk-tuk driver Edgar I’d adopted for the day waited for me all day long without a fuss. I was able to finally escape the heat by randomly jumping into a river before chicken quesadillas for lunch and a rest under the trees. I had 3 macaws use me as their perch, which was fun, until one thought my ear was a nibble toy. I sent it flying as I debated coming home with a new, colourful feather duster. My favourite part was that the parrots spoke Spanish and kept saying ‘Ola’. On route back to the hotel my 21 year old driver who had a 16 year old wife picked up 3 locals in the tiny vehicle, which I am sure was only legally allowed to carry one passenger. We dropped them off on the other side of town. It appeared that everyone knew everyone, and Edgar knew where they all lived. It cost only R50 for his full day service, which included a hefty tip for him. ‘Via Via’ was our dinner restaurant in town and had the best vibe and a mix of food.
Not everyone on our tour fell in love with Copan as much as I did. The heat, litter, poor water supply, useless aircons and power cuts played a major role as Western travellers still expect their basics to be met. I loved Copan. I enjoyed its quiet, rustic charm. I expect this still sleepy town will grow into a booming tourist destination in years to come.
Roatan Caribbean Island:
An early morning start and another full day bus trip took us to what was promised to be paradise. The 2-hour boat journey was quite an unexpected adventure. We arrived at port to the wind howling so the ocean was wild and rough. The boat swayed like a palm in the wind. The stomach tingling feeling you get from a roller coaster went on for 2 hours as we rose up on a wave’s edge and crashed down only to be picked up by the next tidal wave. We knew we were in for trouble when the locals even took the vomit bags being generously handed out by the boat crew. Sure enough they were used abundantly throughout the trip. Siting out on the deck I selected being drenched rather than nauseous. I sat next to a young boy who was enthralled by the waves crashing around us. Each time a wave broke and drenched us he would laugh and pointlessly wipe his face with a wet towel. We shared many unspoken words as we giggled at all the ill people scattered all over the boat. We staggered off the boat looking green, feeling like death but thrilled to be alive. A memorable adventure which added to the wild Central American exploration as no locals seemed to think this mode of transport was anything other than normal.
Roatan Island is 8km wide by 60km long. It has about 17 000 inhabitant and is situated along the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the largest reef in the Caribbean and 2nd largest in the world. It is an American Caribbean Cruise Ship stop and the steep prices on the island reflected this. As we’d found on the Caye Caulker Island in Belize, the people were English speaking and usually quite forward. In general they had a ‘take what you can from tourists’ attitude as the cruise ships sailed in and out of town. Service throughout the island was rude. Many foreigners have settled on the islands and are far friendlier. Over-fishing and trash remains a problem, more so in local spots. There are areas attempting to conserve but they still have a long way to go to rectify the damage they have already done.
Any island with a still sea, white beaches, palm trees, relaxing beach restaurants, hammocks, snorkeling, water sports and fun cocktail bars will be beautiful. It is impossible not to feel privileged and relaxed in such a setting. So for these reasons it was exquisite and the most relaxing 3 days of my 7-week tour.
My accommodation was spacious and had a coffee machine and mini kitchen, which was wonderfully adequate. I managed to burn milk twice but at least I could take my roomie and the ladies next door all coffee in bed. Even if it was only the ever popular Nescafe, which seemed a sin when in the coffee capital of the word. The hotel’s balcony had a hammock for afternoon reading after a morning on the beach and a pier to jump off to cool down. I practiced hard and became remarkably good at the art of doing nothing. Pure, unadulterated, pleasure.
The highlight was a visit to the Roatan Institute for Marine Science where we spent some time with Fiona the dolphin. Dolphins are the dog of the sea. They are playful, warm, naughty, intuitive animals that are so easy to become bonded with. Waist deep in seawater we watched her do tricks, touched her rubbery skin and learned about how clever she is. She loved praise and us clapping for her only spurred her on to do more tricks – I decided I was obviously a dolphin in a previous life. Bored of performing for the group she snuck away and swam between my legs to hide. She nuzzled my leg as I rubbed her nose. I think I will skip trying to sustain pot plants or a cat and just get a dolphin.
Another highlight was the great seafood. We ate Barracuda and Grouper with coconut sauce. Both meals were delicious and worth the house-mortgage price tags. I loved the relaxing, paradise of an island and could see how locals chose to live off the land and just milk tourists to survive. The notion seemed appealing as we sailed back to the mainland.
On route to Nicaragua we spent a night in some random dump called Comayagua. A local town in the middle of nowhere. With a population of 60 000 it was the least tourist oriented town we visited in Central America. The authenticity made us all feel uneasy, dirty and in a rush to leave. This city was testament to how much work goes into making an environment tourist friendly. No focus had been given to coffee stores, clean streets, colonial buildings to admire, safety precautions or creating sites of interest to visit. I couldn’t help but feel that the harsh realness of this city was how people actually lived outside of all the prettiness we’d seen in other, more tourist friendly cities. Nonetheless after a sleepless night of music blaring from the street and bugs in my bed I was the first to climb on the bus in the morning, overly ready to escape.
Although our time in Honduras was fairly brief there were a few things that struck me. The tourism options are highly under-developed compared to neighboring countries. Although a traveller should lust for authenticity and therefore be drawn to such a raw environment, in reality it just means comfortable traveling is more of a challenge. Guides are harder to find. Information online is limited. Trash is more prevalent and literally flows down mountains and clutters the sidewalks. There are often no dumpsites or rubbish collection points so trash piles up. My recycling of the odd wine bottle at home seemed pointless now as rivers flow filled with bottles and chip packets. Our planet has bigger problems than I realized, but luckily the tropical climate recovers fast. Skinny, street dogs and cats roam insistently. Poverty is rife, yet the people are well adjusted and continue to smile.
As the 2nd largest Central American country, Honduras is lush, green and mountainous. Its bird and animal life is abundant and it is bursting with possibility. Remittance remains key to the economic growth. It is also the reason for the almost out of place large homes which are scattered along the countryside. Coffee is the largest export and they have grown from 15th to 7th largest coffee exporter in the world by 2013. There are no old aged homes so the elderly live with their families. It is cultural for parents to take care of their kids and then for the favour to be returned as a standard practice. I’d die and so would my parents. So thank God for retirement policies.
Mainland Honduras is still relatively new to mass tourism. So once they do a better job of figuring out what makes themselves unique, package and market it better the country will be an easier place to explore. For now it is more suited to a rural, authentic experience requiring much patience. It is great for a raw encounter of Central America with hidden gems abound.