Having just spent 7 weeks in Honduras, working and travelling, I thought it might be useful to document some of the things I’ve learned about the country.
In my experience, Honduras has three distinct areas: the north (Caribbean) side where English is spoken moderately commonly, and many people go to learn to dive (especially on the Bay Islands); the three major cities (Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula and La Ceiba) where tourism infrastructure is practically non-existent, pollution is high and crime is high; and the rest of the countryside, which is pleasant, safe (for the most part) and has little tourism infrastructure.
I spent 5 weeks in the capital (Tegucigalpa) and saw the bad side of Honduras. It is not a safe city to walk around, even in the richer areas, so you have to drive everywhere. I hadn’t previously realised how much I value being able to walk the streets and go where I please without probability of being robbed at gunpoint. Despite its security problems, Tegus was a reasonable-ish place to be. It has all the amenities of a big city — clubbing, for example, there is just as grim as in England, except with more Latin music. There is nothing for tourists to see, and they should only use it as a transport hub (since it has one of the country’s two major airports, and is a major bus terminal) or as a base to explore the much-nicer Valle de Ángeles, La Tigra national park, and Comayagua nearby.
Tegucigalpa demonstrates the two major problems which Honduras suffers from: a huge imbalance in the distribution of wealth, and endemic corruption in government and the police force. These have knock-on effects on everything else. The rich live in enclosed neighbourhoods with high walls, barbed wire, electric fences, and armed private security. They drive luxury 4×4s and have lives which would be considered privileged in Europe. The poor live in shacks which line the roads and are stacked up the hillsides. There is a huge amount of gang crime: it seems that most of the drugs passing from South America to the USA come through Honduras. This gang crime contributes hugely to Honduras’ murder rate, making it officially one of the most dangerous countries in the world — although if you’re not involved in a gang, you’re as safe as in other Central American countries. A lot of this crime goes unpunished, both because the police are unable to tackle the gangs, and also because they’re corrupt. It is the army which enforces the law here.
The Bay Islands are completely different. I spent a week on Utila, and it was a safe, friendly place, quite different from Tegucigalpa. Its summer climate is hot (30?) and humid (up to 80% relative humidity, with very little wind), which I found unbearable at times. Still, it is easy to get to, has excellent diving opportunities, and caters well for someone who wants to party every night. It’s quite drug-friendly.
The rest of the country is mostly small villages and farmland. There isn’t much tourism infrastructure, but travel is easy and cheap on ‘collectivo’ and chicken buses (old, reappropriated US school buses; less gaudily decorated than in Guatemala). Most villages don’t have much to offer other than colonial architecture and old churches (and a lot of auto repair shops). A few are more popular: Gracias, Lempira; and Copán Ruinas.
Gracias has more quaint architecture than most places, and is next to Celaque national park, home of Honduras’ tallest mountain (Cerro Las Minas). Worth a visit if you like cloud forests, bird watching or hiking in general. Summitting Cerro Las Minas normally takes two days, but an experienced (and fit — it’s a steep mountain) hiker can do it in 7 hours.
Copán Ruinas is the gateway to the country’s Mayan ruins, which are definitely worth a visit. Very well preserved hieroglyphics, and lots of wildlife (including a Macaw breeding programme). If you visit Copán Ruinas, seeing the ruins will take half a day, and there is little else to do in the town unless you plan in advance with a local tour company to do a trek or horse ride. I didn’t, so I don’t know what they’re like.
Infrastructure is what Honduras lacks. Its roads are full of potholes (leading to its infamous crazy driving), there are frequent (roughly once a week) power outages and internet outages. None of the tap water is potable and drainage often runs straight onto the street (which in turn expedites damage to the roads). Building and maintaining infrastructure in such a mountainous country is tricky, but it’s necessary.
With the benefit of hindsight, there are a few things I would do differently if I came to Honduras again. Quite a few of them are the standard recommendations for travelling in Central/South America anyway:
- If you can afford it, hire a car or motorbike (the latter are incredibly popular here). Having your own transport gives you a lot of freedom and safety. Get a vehicle suited to off-road driving: even if you don’t end up on a dirt track (which is quite possible if one of the few major roads is closed due to landslides), there are nasty speed bumps throughout the country which chew up cars with low ground clearance.
- If you can’t, use collectivo buses, which are safe and, while the routes aren’t listed anywhere online or on paper, generally follow major roads. Any local will know about them. They run very frequently.
- Find out which areas of a city are considered safe, and which aren’t. If you stick to the safe areas and use common sense, everything will be fine. If you go to an unsafe area, you’re likely to be robbed or kidnapped. For example, even the locals in Tegus don’t venture to Comayaguela. The hotels aren’t always in the safe areas, especially in Tegucigalpa — definitely avoid anything in the Comayaguela area.
- Don’t plan to do much hiking. It’s not a particularly popular pastime here, so while there are many ‘national parks’, they mostly exist to protect the cloud forests. There are some nice trails in some (for example, La Tigra and Celaque), but don’t expect too much. If you’re interested in birds, however, Honduras is supposed to be pretty good; there are hotels dedicated to bird watching around La Ceiba.
- If you go to the Bay Islands to dive, have a contingency plan in case of illness (which would prevent you from diving). When I was there, several people I knew got colds and ended up doing absolutely nothing for a week until they got better.
- Don’t try and plan a tight itinerary in advance, as unexpected transport problems might throw it off. Internet access is easy to come by in Honduras (especially 3G), so make things up as you go along. Factor in plenty of time for making travel connections, as few of the bus times are synchronised.
- Aside from touristy places (like Copán Ruinas), Honduras doesn’t do European-style hostels. You’re going to have to look at hotels, but there are cheap ones.
- Similarly, don’t expect to send any postcards. In my experience, they’re hard to find, and harder to send. Post offices are like gold dust.
- Don’t trust the websites describing most bus routes in Honduras (apart from the huge companies like Hedman Alas). Even medium-sized Honduran companies don’t do websites well, or keep them updated. Phone the bus company up instead, or ask a local.