We were bad tourists today: After four weeks of insisting on only local dishes, we had Wendy's for lunch. Then we skipped Tegucigalpa's Museo para la Identidad Nacional and watched a movie we had downloaded on iTunes while the rain -- the whiplash of the tropical storm that was wrecking havoc on the Pacific beaches of Honduras' neighbors -- pounded against the metal roof above us.
Every trip has that point, when you've had your fill of cultural experiences and the familiar, even Wendy's, sounds appealing. In a place like Honduras, that point might arrive a little sooner than in other places. Over the past month, we had quadrupled our life consumption from birth to present of fried chicken.
"No more," I said. "I'll eat anything, as long as it's not chicken." We didn't want to be those kinds of tourists, but today we were.
People had been telling us to skip Honduras. "There's nothing there. The only nice part is the Bay Islands," one friend told us before we set out on our month-long trip. Then the storm placed a hold on my boyfriend's El Salvadoran surfing dreams and instead we headed for the Honduran hills. What we found was a pleasant surprise: a beautiful country of tall mountains and deep, fertile valleys filled with the friendliest people we'd met in Central America.
Honduras has a bit of an image problem, and understandably so. Widespread poverty and unemployment, along with northbound drug trafficking, have resulted in high crime rates. According to the 2011 Global Study on Homicide, published on October 10, 2011 by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Honduras had the highest per capita homicide rate in the world in 2010: 82.1 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. By comparison, the US has a rate of five homicides per 100,000 inhabitants and northern Europe an average of one homicide per 100,000.
There are uniformed security guards everywhere, armed with machine guns, guarding stores and fast food restaurants. Downtown Tegucigalpa lunch restaurants have you pass through metal detectors upon entering, while the security in more upscale neighborhoods is more discrete. Even the Coca Cola delivery truck is accompanied by an armed guard. In the countryside, the guard uniform seems to be a manila cowboy hat, snakeskin boots and a revolver tucked in to the front of the pants, scarily close to vital parts, which in turn makes you think being a security guard is perhaps not a profession passed down from father to son.
As often is the case in countries with a similar level of economic development (Honduras is the third poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, after Haiti and Nicaragua, with the average person earning just $4,200 annually, according to a 2010 State Department estimate), foreign tourists are often the targets of opportunistic crimes: robberies and occasional kidnappings. Since the drugs my boyfriend and I bring across international borders can be bought at a pharmacy, we hope to avoid the attention of drug traffickers. The opportunists, on the other hand, are harder to avoid, and we took what precautions we could: not walking around with our whole travel budget, tucking away our cameras, taking taxis home at night, and so on. After contracting malaria during a trip to Sudan, I fear mosquitoes just as much as I do drug traffickers and I was probably the only tourist in the country to heed the health advisory, diligently taking my malaria meds. In other words, we took the precautions.
Perhaps we were lucky, but the country we found didn't match the statistics. None of the foreign tourists we talked to -- a fairly small number, since we were traveling during low season -- had been the targets of any crimes, and would instead point out examples of locals being incredibly friendly and helpful. The tourist destinations, such as the Mayan ruins at Copán and the scuba paradise framing the Bay Islands, have a lower crime rate than other parts of the country, but the travelers we met had crisscrossed the country by bus.
We experienced that friendliness starting on our first day in country, when a one-man welcoming committee stopped us on the street: "Welcome to Honduras. Thank you for visiting my country."
The man, in his sixties with a scraggly beard, smiled so widely we couldn't help but smile equally wide. A couple of days later, as we made our way to the bus station with our bags, people on the street kept pointing and saying, "That way." "Either they're showing us the way to the bus station, or they're leading us into an alley where we'll get mugged," my boyfriend said. Oh, ye of little faith. We arrived safely at the bus station. Six feet tall and blonde, there's no concealing that my ethnic origins are not Honduran, but I sometimes feel that it helps as much as it hurts. After each rest stop, the bus driver would scan the bus, stopping at us with a nod that said, "They made it back onto the bus. Ok, let's go." Along highways and dirt roads, in villages and larger towns, locals would offer their help.
The rain had literally derailed our plans, closing the roads to El Salvador, and we needed an alternate plan. We had heard of the D&D Brewery, a small guesthouse with six rooms and three stand-alone cabins on Lago de Yojoa, Honduras' largest natural lake. The first microbrewery in Honduras, the Brewery has half-a-dozen homebrewed beers on tap, which in itself was enough to convince my boyfriend that it was a place worth visiting.
Tucked into a deep jungle on the outskirts of the tiny village of Los Naranjos, the Brewery has a comfortable and low-key feel. "It feels like a Peace Corps hangout," my boyfriend, himself a former Peace Corps volunteer, said as we walked the tiny driveway down to the reception area.
Sure enough, the first guest we talked to had indeed been in the Peace Corps in Honduras, which, he told us, for a while had the largest number of volunteers of any country in the world. In most places where we stayed during our trip we were the only guests, but even in low-season the Brewery was fully booked. At dinner, long-term travelers from virtually every country would sit down together in the covered area overlooking the small swimming pool and swap travel stories and tips, like which roads were closed due to landslides.
Lago de Yojoa sits at an altitude of 2,300 feet in a depression formed by volcanoes. Its eastern side touches the highway that connects Honduras' two largest cities, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, and it is framed by the steep mountains of Santa Bárbara National Park to the west and Cerro Azul Meambar National Park to the east. The communities around the lake live mainly on fishing and growing fruits, vegetables and grains, and the lake is a popular spot for fishing. A microcosm with over 400 bird species--along with 800 plant species -- it is also a prime bird-watching spot. Weather permitting, a British-born ornithologist called Malcolm Glasgow runs a daily early-morning bird-watching tour on the lake. For around four hours Malcolm guides a maximum of four people per rowboat from the canal that connects Los Naranjos to the lake, through the protected woodlands of Los Naranjos Eco-Archaeological Park, to the lake's marsh area, where, on a foggy October morning, we spotted egrets, herons, Snail Kites, Amazon Kingfishers and, far in the distance, the most iconic Neotropical bird of them all -- the Toucan.
A small river flows behind the Brewery. Three weeks prior to our arrival, the Brewery's new manager, Anthony Palmer, had bought rubber inner tubes in San Pedro Sula and, not quite sure of where he would end up, he had floated down the river on an inner tube, to the amusement of the local children. The river, it turns out, flows through the village of Los Naranjos and spills into the lake. Anthony took a group of us tubing one day, through the cold waters of the narrow, shallow, and sometimes very rapid river. We bounced off the densely vegetated river banks, trying not to puncture our inner tubes, ducking our heads down to avoid power lines and footbridges. Then, all of a sudden we spilled into the strangely warm waters of the lake.
Honduras was never much of a tourist destination, and Americans are more likely to name the country as the place from where the US-funded Contras waged their war against the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, than as a prime bird watching spot. Then, two years ago, the Honduran tourism sector got another punch in the stomach when a coup displaced then-president Manuel Zelaya. The new president, Porfirio Lobo, has some work to do to reverse the declining tourism numbers. "The travelers that come through here are long-term travelers. They're out for a few months, traveling through the whole region. The Brewery hasn't been hit as badly as the rest of the tourism sector," Malcolm the ornithologist said as we walked back to the Brewery after our wonderful early-morning bird watching tour on the lake. Judging from the occupancy rates in the other places where we stayed, other hotels haven't been so lucky.
After a week in the countryside we returned to Tegucigalpa, where we had first arrived in Honduras. That's where we were now, in a guesthouse that resembled a fortress, tucked away in the relative safety of the Colonia Palmira neighborhood. Again, we were the only guests in the echoing hallways. During our earlier stay, the guest house manager had forgotten that we were there and had locked us in at 8 pm, leaving us to split a bag of Knorr soup for dinner. This time, unable to turn off the magnetic locks that sealed the heavy iron gates, she had simply propped the gates open until we returned. Every security system has its glitches.
Not completely gripped by our iTunes movie, I started recounting our stay. The key to successful travel is rock-bottom expectations. I'm sorry Honduras, but our expectations were low. What we found was a country that somehow defies the statistics. A country where, despite the air of chaos, the buses run on time (even if they consider the yellow lines in the middle of the road a mere suggestion) and where it's surprisingly easy to travel around. We found a country with a reputation that doesn't do its friendly people and beautiful countryside any justice. "It gets under your skin somehow," the former Peace Corps volunteer whom we met at the Brewery said. That it does.
Karin Palmquist is a writer, designer and photographer. She is a contributing editor to several travel guidebooks.