Monday, February 21, 2011

Honeymoon Redux II: Honduras

When I think of the Honduras, I can't help but think of this photo or one like it (from the Sydney Morning Herald years ago, who got it from Reuters). Look at that picture now and ask yourself:

"Which one of those two had a worse 2009?"


Traveling in the Honduras is a bit of a paradox: it's one of the most dangerous (if not the most dangerous) country in Central America, with a reputation for armed robberies even on luxury buses, a long tradition of carrying concealed and not-so-concealed weapons, a Caribbean coast overrun with drug runners and a capital city that every travel guide advises you to take taxis in rather than walk (some say it's OK to walk around in daylight, but none advise this at night).

And yet, for us, it was one of the easier countries to get through. We didn't stop much, though, considering the reputation of the place - we're not big fans of being robbed at gunpoint on our honeymoon.

To be fair, Honduras wasn't that unsafe. We went straight from Granada to Tegucigalpa in one day (that is one long bus ride, let me tell you) with a stopover in Jicaro Galan. We spent the rainy night in Tegucigalpa at Hotel Linda Vista - so chosen because it is in the more upscale neighborhood of Colonia Palmira - we didn't feel personally at risk there. Do book ahead if you want to stay there - you can call once you arrive in Central America.

We took the first overpriced taxi that appeared at the bus stop in Tegucigalpa - rainy, dark, and in one of the worst neighborhoods in the city (which is one of the most crime-ridden cities in the region). It cost $10 USD, but it was worth it for piece of mind.

The taxi was so ancient and rickety that it shook in odd places whenever we hit a pothole - both Brendan and I were convinced that it was going to start slowly falling apart, random pieces falling off down the road, and at the end the last wheel would give out and we'd be left standing in the street with the driver, confused but unhurt as a long trail of taxi parts littered the road behind us.

The next day we had breakfast and immediately boarded a Hedman Alas bus to Copan Ruinas near the Guatemalan border. The security check to board the bus was stricter than at most airports I've visited (and I've visited quite a few) - they checked two forms of ID, took our pictures and matched them to our name and ticket, inspected and x-rayed our bags, handled our bags (we were not allowed to touch them until we reached Copan Ruinas, even when we stopped in San Pedro Sula) and patted us down with hands and metal detectors.

Hedman Alas had probably had some problems with gangs and armed robberies and instituted the new measures to improve the safety of their passengers. Which was...comforting.

Central Honduras is a gorgeous place, with hilltop vistas, pine trees and soaring views through the mountainous, vertiginous countryside. I did feel that if we stopped in some of the small towns we passed that we'd be fairly safe, and would like to return someday to explore those areas, even though I'd take pains to avoid Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula.

By the way, don't take a rickshaw from the bus station when you arrive, or if you do, bargain them down to about $1 US. It's not $3, 4 or 5 as they try to tell you. The usual in-town price for a ride is a buck...but honestly, if your luggage is light you can walk into town and find a hotel fairly easily. We did, as a rickshaw followed us insisting on "$3! Normal price I tell you!" (It reminded me a bit of India in that way).

For all those worried about safety in Copan Ruinas - don't be. People will overcharge you for souvenirs and rickshaw rides (especially right off the bus), but that's about it. ATMs and even the local coffee shop are guarded by semiautomatic-wielding security guards, and you are basically safe: Copan Ruinas and Roatan (an island off the Caribbean coast) are the two main tourist draws, so the tourist police have a strong presence there, which tends to keep funny business at bay.

We had planned to spend a day in Copan Ruinas but after our two-day long bus trip (for which it rained the entirety of one day - so much so that across Nicaragua villagers were coming out to look at the swollen waters under the bridges we crossed) we decided to budget two days, and take the second day to (mostly) relax.

One thing I definitely noticed was the greater influence of Mexican culture: in Panama, it felt very South American - wetter, a bit more humid perhaps, and laid-back. Here, the cowboy hats were out in force, as were the mustaches. Brendan asked me if he should try to blend in by wearing jeans with a pistol slung in a holster, a giant cowboy hat and a bushy, no thanks. It was also true that carrying guns was much more "done" here - we didn't see many people openly slinging firearms in Panama or Costa Rica, but by the time we hit Honduras, everyone was packin' heat!

On the first day, we visited the Ruinas themselves - Mayan ruins of the ancient capital of Copan. The ruins are famous for their intricate, detailed carvings and inscriptions. Though there are some flat pyramid-style structures and a few high walls and a staircase or two, you won't find the towering, massive temples of Tikal here: the emphasis is on smaller pieces, but with much more design and flair. To be honest, as someone who creates art inspired by mehndi designs, I preferred the aesthetics of Copan to those of Tikal.

As you can see in many of the carvings, the remnants of paint still cling to the stone: it is believed that many of these were brightly painted in their day.

You can also see that the people of Copan were fascinated by death and death rituals - frightening old, demonic faces and skulls are found in all sorts of places across the ruins (which span two fields) and the Copan Ruinas museum (which is definitely worth the price of admission). The Mayan use of skulls and other death symbols is stronger here than at any other known site of ruins - if I'm wrong on that, please do leave a comment!

Copan Ruinas is perhaps best known for its Petroglyph Staircase (also called the "Hieroglyph Stairway")- a tall set of stairs covered in inscriptions, many of them worn down from generations of people being allowed to climb the stairs. The stairs are now off limits to further preserve the petroglyphs, and covered by a protective tarp that is somewhat mood-smothering, but they're still awe-inspiring.

Simple called "The Old Man Face", this is one of my favorite carvings at Copan Ruinas.

The backs of god statues are covered in inscriptions/petroglyphs: I'm not sure what they say because I am not familiar with Ancient Mayan - fancy that - but they're cool nonetheless. The front of the statues look remarkably like Hindu god sculptures in India (I'm no conspiracy theorist, though).

Another thing I noted is how much the decorations often resemble Shang dynasty Chinese art with their angular, almost keyhole-like designs. Again, not so into conspiracy theories and the eras were totally off - I think it's more that angular keyhold designs with details and squared-off swirls is an aesthetically pleasing configuration that two cultures happened to think of at different times. It happens!

A petroglyph. In Copan Ruinas town you can buy silver-pewter reproductions of these petroglyphs strung into necklaces. They're gorgeous but expensive (a little overpriced if you ask me, for something that is not sterling)

On the second day we visited Macaw Mountain - a natural rehabilitation center for injured or mistreated birds. The $10 entrance fee goes to fund the rehabilitation, so it's well worth it. Included is a free tour (it's nice to tip) and it's a lovely place to wander around by yourself or have a coffee, too.

It was a great place to relax on our second day without stressing too much - a necessary bit of unwinding considering our long bus and van ride to Tikal the next day.

The highlight was when some birds were allowed out of their cages and placed on us:

1 comment:

JZ said...


My husband and I are getting ready to travel to Honduras. I was wonderin if you could say anything more about your experience with the safety of the Hedman Alas buses? It would be much appreciated,