Our timing was again impeccable.
Honduras, a country we had just visited, experiences a military coup and begins to melt down just days after we leave its borders. Nicaraguan newspapers go so as far as to headline “Blood Bath.” Nothing from our visit indicated how events would turn so suddenly. With the exception of a taxi driver in La Ceiba ranting about corruption across the political spectrum (a common taxi driver tirade the world over), politics didn't figure much in our other conversations.
You've probably seen the images on TV, websites and newspapers of riot police, protesters and barricades in Tegucigalpa, Honduras' capital city. But if you're curious as to what Honduras looks like without a coup, we share photos from our recent visit to the Ruta Lenca, the Mayan ruins at Copan and the bay island of Utila.
Ruta Lenca – Gracias, La Esperanza, Marcala
Our sojourn into the hills of Southwestern Honduras brought us in search of markets and indigenous culture. The Ruta Lenca (Route of the Lenca People) is apparently one of the country's few remaining pockets of indigenous culture. Although its landscape, and agriculture appear lush and appealing, the region is also one of Honduras' poorest.
When you consider the slow-going town of Gracias, you may find it difficult to believe that it was once the capital of all Spanish-controlled Central America. One woman active in the town's reconstruction and development explained: “We don't want Gracias to be another Antigua (Guatemala). We have a local culture and spirit that we want expressed. We don't want to be seen just as a city of old, pretty buildings.”
We, however, will always associate Gracias with the Honduras-USA football World Cup qualifier match of June 2009.
Our arrival in La Esperanza was timed for its Sunday market, the largest of the regional markets where locals descend from neighboring villages with their produce and goods. One part windblown, another part oasis and a whole lotta' cowtown, La Esperanza appears a concatenation of dusty street corners. From the town's edge, the weekly market sprawls from the hills to the main square as makeshift stalls unfold onto the town's unpaved streets. Women walk with buckets of goods balanced on their heads (how do they do that??), local farmers sell onions and avocados from sacks and plastic crates, people shade themselves from the sun with towels and cowboy hats, and vendors spread plastics and kitchen goods on the ground.
The Market-goers stream in from neighboring villages not only to buy and sell goods, but to exchange the latest news and information. The Lenca, one of Honduras' few remaining indigenous groups, actually call this area their home. They are a rather tiny ethnic minority, their facial structures and smaller physiques distinguishing them from the majority (90%) mestizo (those of mixed Spanish and indigenous heritage) population. Their appearance serves as a physical reminder of how the people living in this region centuries ago must have looked. Like any group of people with longstanding traditions, their lives and many of their livelihoods are attached to the market and the audible buzz of their activity fills every nook and cranny — inside, outside, covered and open.
During our visit to La Esperanza, we were the only gringos in town, and from the looks of things, we'd likely be some of the few if only travelers the town would see for weeks. If you happen to be crossing the land border from Honduras to El Salvador at Perquin, consider stopping off at La Esperanza for a day or two to take in the market to enjoy a low key Honduran hill town and some good, strong coffee in the covered market.
Marcala, an even smaller town tucked amidst coffee plantations and farmland, served as our final stop in Honduras before we crossed the border into El Salvador. A curious characteristic of this place: the visible presence of Chinese interests. The town featured a large gaudy Chinese restaurant whose grandeur was distinctly un-Central American and a bit misfit for the size of the town. Additionally, there were several large hotels built in the blue glass and concrete aesthetic we recognized from our time in China. Perhaps most interesting, the local cable service in our hotel room featured two CCTV (Chinese government-run television) channels, one in Chinese and the other in Spanish.
We are still puzzled as to what business interests attracted the Chinese businessmen to this town.
Mayan Ruins of Copan
Although the Mayan ruins in Copan cannot compete for size with those in Tikal, Guatemala, they easily surpass them in the detail of their engravings and reliefs. Intricately carved stellae (holy statues) portray Mayan leaders from 800 years ago while history is told by the massive hieroglyph staircase.
A bonus of Copan ruins: you are welcomed into the park by a group of rambunctious scarlet macaws. We know the park feeds these birds to keep them around, but they are still really, really cool.
The small town of Copan Ruinas just a few minutes away has a strong tourism infrastructure due to its proximity to the ruins, but it still maintains a sleepy Honduran town feel.
The Copan Ruinas market is no different. From the reactions we received, it seems like not many gringos make it the extra few yards to the rear. Venture back for a plato tipico (local fare consisting of some sort of meat, beans, rice and tortilla) from a comedor (eatery) or fresh baleada (flour tortilla stuffed with beans, cheese and eggs) from the stand at the far right corner.
Bay Island of Utila
Scuba diving is what Utila is all about for most visitors. Although our visit was mostly about work, we took some time out for a few dives and to enjoy the beach. Utila is not a place you go to experience Honduran cultural immersion, but its clear, Caribbean waters and laid-back pace can become addictive.
Some readers have suggested that we will run out of places to see when we complete our journey. We have no fear of this. We tend to depart each country with some familiarity and an even longer list of places we'd like to explore upon our return. For Honduras, this includes its northern coastline and Moskitia (Mosquito Coast), home to the Garifuna among others.