Only a handful of Brits make it to Honduras each year – which leaves its mixed-up culture, profuse forests and Maya ruins all the emptier for those that do...
A strange sound came from the jungle. Among the ambient croaks and whistles that filled the trees, I had managed – with the help of my local guide, Saul – to pick out the sounds of toucans and parrots, and to spot a scarlet macaw, Honduras’s national bird. But this odd trilling sound, like an alien sound effect, was new to me. Saul smiled; it was the unique call of the Montezuma oropendola, a bird often heard in Honduras but not so easily seen.
I wasn’t here to bird-watch (or bird-hear) though, but to visit the Maya complex of Copán, set within this lush jungle. We blinked into sunlight and the grey, stone pyramid complex was in front of us.
Built by the Chortí Maya, Copán was a major centre for artistic, intellectual and economic achievements from AD300 to 900. “Copán is the most important archaeological site in Honduras, but not the only one. There are around 4,000,” Saul explained.
The ancient buildings are decorated with statues of gods and kings, serpents and jaguars. One pyramid features a giant Hieroglyphic Stairway; the stonework is still in good condition – not that that makes the symbols easy to understand. “It’s very difficult to interpret Maya art,” Saul said.
“Little is known. The Spanish burnt whole encyclopedias of Mayan. Most of it’s filed under GOK – God Only Knows.
Honduras is already the second most-visited country in Central America, after Costa Rica. But most of those visitors are from the US, and focused around the Bay Islands where cruise ships stop at resort-heavy Roatán. There were only 10,200 British visitors in 2011 (0.58% of the total) and Honduras remains one of the lesser known countries in Central America.
In a way, that might be a good thing: El Salvador, Nicaragua and Panama all stick out in collective memory partly because of the violence – civil wars, revolutions – in their recent histories. Honduras had dictators and torturing tyrants in the 20th century too, but has managed to avoid the same international stigma.
The turbulent politics haven’t disappeared. In 2009, the coup d’etat and expulsion of President Zelaya saw Honduras being excluded from the Organisation of American States (OAS) until 2011. Problems with human rights before the coup are reported to have got worse. The instability doesn’t help the country; it’s cheap to travel here partly because it’s so poor.
But there’s a more simple problem: many people wouldn’t be able to find Honduras on a map, far less say what there is to see and do here. And there is plenty: the cloudforests and peaks of Celaque National Park; the Bay Islands, with their cheap scuba diving and whale sharks; the beach resorts and party towns of the north coast; the remote rainforests and river systems of La Moskitia.
The inhabitants are equally diverse. The influx of Spanish and other cultures – French, English, African, Mexican – alongside indigenous groups, has created a country that is ‘tutti frutti’, Saul told me. “Don’t be surprised to see a million different faces in this country.”
As well as Maya heritage, Honduras is the home of the Lenca, the ‘first people’ of Honduras and the country’s largest indigenous group who dominated before the arrival of the Maya. The Garífuna, descendants of Caribs, Arawaks and West Africans, live in the northern beach communities. That diversity brings occasional disagreements, usually over economics or land rights. But when it comes to living together, Hondurans are proud of their diversity.
They’re welcoming, too. I was surprised to read Honduras’s murder and crime rates are among the highest in the world; the country felt very safe to me. It’s prudent not to walk around the two main cities, San Pedro Sula and capital Tegucigalpa. But my experience was of people strikingly open, friendly and, in remote parts with few tourists, curious.
After a night in Copán Ruínas, a cobbled tourist town close to the archeological sites, I set out to explore the main Lenca region, accompanied by Max, one of the originators of La Ruta Lenca (the Lenca Trail). When the Mayan influence started to decline, Lenca became the predominant culture, spreading out through south-west Honduras and parts of El Salvador. Their numbers dropped with the arrival of the Spanish; of eight million Hondurans, Max estimates around 300,000 are Lenca, including mestizos – those with mixed blood.
But there’s been a resurgence of interest in Lenca traditions with the development of the Lenca Trail – which Max and I began to follow from the town of Santa Rosa on a crowded chicken bus. It was a squash, many passengers sitting three to a seat, carrying children, dogs, poultry and shopping. A few local entrepreneurs boarded, giving rambling sales pitches and doing a roaring trade in ‘fix all’ medicines that promised to cure everything from aches to alcoholism.
It was evening when we arrived in the mountain village of Belén Gualcho, where men in Panama hats congregated on the plaza next to the Spanish colonial church.
Woken by roosters at 4am, I walked around the Sunday market, which was already full. Lines of women displayed fresh bread. Stalls sold fruit and veg, jeans, AC Milan shirts, rope, dried fish. Hat-wearing men bartered and exchanged notes. Max and I fuelled up for a day’s hiking on doughy wheatbread and smooth high-altitude coffee. “By the mouth, you will learn about our culture,” he said, proudly.
We left town, hiking through green hills and villages where dogs, chickens and pigs ran free. Locals on foot and horseback wished us buenos dias as they passed.
We stopped at a wooden shop in a small village. Maria and Maria, two generations of Lenca women, invited us into their house for lunch. The Lenca like space and quiet, Maria junior told me as we ate beans and tortillas.
“We’re very proud to be Lenca,” she said. “We have everything we need here.”
I felt re-energised, but the distance we tried to cover, carrying heavy packs in the afternoon heat, was too ambitious. When locals stopped to give us a bumpy ride on the back of their truck to the town of San Sebastián, it was very welcome.
At night, the town was quiet save the tinny vibration of crickets and an occasional dog barking. We strolled around the plaza, a fat full moon shining behind the church. “This is the place to come for peace,” said Max.
Another crowded early morning bus took us on to Gracias, the town that was very briefly (1544-1548) the capital of Central America. The plaza has a statue of Lenca chieftain and national hero, Lempira, who fought against the Spanish forces and became a symbol of independence.
Gracias is the gateway to Celaque National Park, which contains Cerro de las Minas, the highest mountain in Honduras (2,849m). I started up it at dawn with my guide, Candido. Moss on the rocks and tree trunks announced we were entering cloudforest. Parts of the muddy path were quite steep, but in the shade of the forest, the physical activity was actually quite refreshing.
At the upper level, we walked over fallen logs and a soft springy carpet of leaves, moss and ferns. “This is the most beautiful part of the whole park,” Candido said, catching his breath. With hairy green trunks, hanging vines and bright bamboo, it was a great tangle of nature left to its own devices.
It was lucky the journey up was enjoyable: at the summit, a thick white haze obscured everything. On a clear day, Candido said, you can see right across the Lempira region.
There were several small but memorable experiences of Lenca culture as Max and I completed our tour by car the next day. We visited La Campa, where I watched Desideria Perez and her family produce traditional reddish-brown Lenca pottery. Driving on, we stopped at a restaurant where a simple meal was livened up by a jar of vegetables stewed in fiery chillies that Max referred to as ‘the Devil’. When you’re in a region known for spicy fare and a food is singled out as hellish, it’s good to be cautious. I spooned a little onto my tortillas, giving them a good kick; my face glowed.
But more than the food or the pottery, it’s the religious customs that define the Lenca. Their faith combines Catholicism with ancient indigenous traditions, but it’s under threat from more conservative Christian authorities who, I’m told, would like to eradicate the non-Christian elements. Many Lenca conduct their religious affairs secretly now, Max explained. So when we stumbled on a crowd of people in the countryside outside La Esperanza, it was a rare and lucky sight.
The colourful procession moved through the Azacualpa Valley. We watched as more people came from the surrounding hills to join the prayers. “This is a compostura, an ancient agrarian ritual,” Max explained as the crowd moved from one plot to the next, singing the same hypnotic refrain. “They’re praying for good crops and fertile land.”
I left the Lenca and headed north. Along the coast are the villages of the Garífuna, who have their own distinct customs, language and food. At a restaurant in the isolated beachfront village of Miami, I met Gabriela. She was cooking iguana and ground coconut with a side of iguana eggs. “We don’t serve this to tourists,” she laughed.
The heart of Garífuna culture is music (specifically drums) and dancing, together known as punta. I drove along the coast to Triunfo de la Cruz, and tracked down Ceferino Norales, a Garífuna musician who showed me the colourful drums in his workshop. “It took a week to carve the inside of this big one,” he said, picking up a bass and rapping his fingers against its skin.
“Drums are the most important part of our culture,” Ceferino continued. “It’s the crying and laughing of the Garífuna people.”
He carried the drum outside; his grandsons followed, each carrying a smaller drum. They pounded out a lively rhythm, bringing children running from houses.
I spent a last few days relaxing in Pico Bonito National Park. Early morning I took a guided walk along easy trails, past giant trunks, sprawling roots and termite nests. A blue morpho butterfly fluttered past.
We lucked out at an observation post; the branches bent, bounced and shook as a troupe of spider monkeys moved through. “It’s quite rare to see them in this area, so low, so close,” admitted Joel, my guide. “They’re usually in thicker primary forest.”
On the return loop we heard a descending whistle, which Joel identified as an ivorybilled woodcreeper. An expert spotter, he pointed out brown jays and black-headed trogons. Then, the now familiar idiosyncratic song I’d first heard in Copán...
A bird flew overhead, just a blur. We followed the musical notes and found it sitting high up in the greenery, dark brown with a bright yellow tail and beak. Here, finally, was the Montezuma oropendola, one of the little guys who, along with the songs of the Lenca and the drums of the Garífuna, had given my trip across Honduras such an intriguing soundtrack.
La Ceiba The country’s party city, it’s also close to tranquil, wildlife-filled Pico Bonito National Park, and exciting rafting.
Bay Islands Beach heaven. Roatán is the biggest and most developed island; Utila is more of a backpacker affair (and one of the world’s cheapest places to learn to dive); less-visited Guanaja is car-free.
Tela Busy beach resort – a good base for exploring Garífuna villages, including Miami and Triunfo de la Cruz.
La Mosquitia There are no roads to this north-east coast wilderness – it’s only accessible by plane or boat. It’s home to indigenous groups, the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve and unspoilt swamps, rivers and tropical rainforests.
Fonseca Gulf This mass of mangroves and waterways is a haven for seabirds.
Amapala Quiet port on Isla del Tigre, favoured by Honduran artists.
The author travelled with Journey Latin America. A 12-day tailormade trip to Tela, Pico Bonito, La Esperanza, Gracias and Copán costs from £2,191pp including accommodation, transfers and excursions (with English-speaking guides), but excludes international flights