Heaven and Hell in Honduras

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No one seems to have anything nice to say about San Pedro Sula. The prevailing advice in blogs and guidebooks seems to be “leave as soon as you can” but we’re staying two nights at the fancy Hilton Princess to ease into our trip and give me a chance to wrap up some work. Maybe we’ll find its hidden charms.

We don’t. It sucks.

We land at the quaint and drowsy international airport, sleep walk our way through immigration, and then get caught at the luggage claim behind a woman with –no exaggeration here– fourteen massive pieces of luggage that all have to be checked against her ticket. To make up for this twenty minute delay, the man operating the luggage X-ray kindly stares at his cellphone as I run my bags through the machine and lets me pass unnoticed.

Now, the Hilton is normally above my pay grade, but my friend Rich has some hotel points that he wants to spend and the idea of starting off our three-week adventure in style appeals to us. I’ve been frantically trying to finish a freelance project right before we left and thought it’d be a good idea to stay near reliable wifi before heading into the mountains.

San Pedro Sula is home to over half a million people and is described in the guidebook as having “a pleasant downtown area, some excellent restaurants, and a hopping bar and club scene”. We find none of that. What we do find is a city that is seemingly hunkered down in the midst of a gang war, isn’t terribly friendly to outsiders and has a bizarre taste for American fast food.

We spend the first day trying to find a place to eat and drink. Walking to the nearby Zona Viva which is described as being a bit of a tourist/party scene, we only manage to find a couple of casinos and three or four restaurants. Two of those serve Chinese food. The food at Linda Mar is good but over-priced — we’ve come to Honduras with dreams of $5 lobster, so spending $9 for a pork chop is disappointing. But, hey, it is a big city…

We find very few smiles as we walk the quiet streets — we’ve been warned repeatedly not to go out after dark and to be aware of our surroundings. Even Alfonso, a greeter at the hotel, admits that he only goes out on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. As we amble about, some people ignore us, others gape openly but more than a few glare or frown with more than a slight hostile vibe. Glares, stares and ‘who cares’…

Which wouldn’t bother me so much if not for all of the guns. Every business has a guard or two standing outside the front door, armed with riot shotguns and semi-automatics. I’m not really worried about these guys, to be honest. I’m more concerned about who they’re protecting us from.

To buy a Wendy’s burger you have to pass a guy with an AK. And there are plenty of Wendy’s burgers to be had — I’ve counted no less than five shops in my limited stay here. There are more fast-food chains here than in any American city I’ve ever seen.

Pizza Hut, Subway, Denny’s, McDonald’s, Burger King, Dairy Queen, Applebee’s, Little Caesar’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Arby’s, KFC, Popeye’s and more line the streets. Power Chicken is the local favorite — I can’t walk 100 feet without running into another Power Chicken shop. In the downtown area, you can stand on one corner and count over ten fast-food signs. But ironically, we can’t find a convenience store to save our lives — they have everything but a 7-11.

All we really want is a place to stop and enjoy a beer (we’re very simple men) but a methodical search of the Zona Viva yields nothing. Our out-of-date Lonely Planet guide mentions the Beer Bar which is hidden in the nearby City Mall. We never manage to find it (I think it’s out of business) but we do stumble into the lovely Fogoncito Restaurante y Bar where we are treated to $1.50 shots of 7-year old rum (the 5-year was only $1.25 per shot but we’ve got class, ya know..). Dude… We’re getting hammered… In a mall…

The bartender, Elsie, keeps us supplied with chips, hot sauce and rum while patiently helping us with our Spanish. Mine is especially bad — I keep slipping into Italian, which is kind of weird since I can’t speak Italian either.

After two nights, we’re on an non-AC bus to Copan Ruinas, home of one of the Big Four of Mayan sites. The ride takes only three and a half hours, slowly climbing higher into the cooler, shaggy mountains. We debate whether we’re traveling through jungle or just forest. Rich finally puts the argument to rest: “I know when I’m traveling through jungle because it just looks so much more jungly“.

An hour after arriving, we’re happily lodged at La Posada de Belssy, sipping rum on the rooftop terrace as the sun sets and a massive rainstorm rolls in. The moon is already up, fat and full as we swing lazily in hammocks, counting the seconds after each lightning flash and savoring the ozone-charged breeze that’s picked up.

I hear laughter from the downstairs kitchen table, where the hotel owner Telma is helping her children with their homework. The rain starts as someone begins playing piano at the Catholic school across the street. The wind picks up, the thunder rolls across the hilly landscape, the choir begins to sing and I experience one of those rare travel moments when the hassles, pains and headaches fall away and you know in that moment that you are where you are truly meant to be.

I’m in the right place at the right time and I never want to leave.

 

One place that I’ve always wanted to visit is Australia and when I do, searching for Sydney accommodation will be at the top of my list. Traveling slow and setting up a base for exploring the local surrounds is a wonderful way to get to know a foreign culture.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Jaime October 11, 2011 at 3:30 pm

jaja love it… welcome to Central America… land of a million fast food restaurants and a million guards holding some of the biggest guns you will ever see in your life! That’s how it is pretty much anywhere you go… after a while it wont even phase you. It will be normal… scary how something like that could become normal. As for Honduras I’ll be honest I never gave it a chance… I was to scared to actually visit anywhere other then Copan Ruinas. I had heard many horror stories and well I was at the start of trip so was not ready to venture on my own in big dangerous cities.

I am assuming Copan Ruinas will be your 1st visit of Mayan Ruins… it was my 1st too. It is very impressive and you will enjoy it a lot. I would recommend three things. 1) Don’t spend the extra $15 to visit the tunnel… I mean really it is nothing amazing just a small tunnel. 2) Don’t pay for a cab to take you to the other sight it is only about 1mile down the road and it has a paved side walk. 3) when you are done hitch hike back into town. Anyone going in that direction is going to the town no other thing out there. So save some money and meet a local!!!

Hope you enjoy it… will be interesting to see your view on the ruins & photos of course!

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Abhijit October 11, 2011 at 8:49 pm

I like your style of telling the story – it’s almost like I’d be writing in my diary, and bringing it straight to the blog. Feels very honest and nice!

p.s. Haha @ the out-of-context mention of Sydney accommodation, with the sponsor’s link.

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wes October 11, 2011 at 9:50 pm

hey, I gotta pay the bills ;)

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Susan Robinson October 11, 2011 at 10:10 pm

Yeah, when we visited Puerto Rico almost 20 years ago and were driving around I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw soldiers(?)/security guards with AKs. We had a delightful dinner at a little restaurant (Las Brisas?) outside of Fajardo, but the owner locked the chain link fence around the parking lot after dark and escorted us to our car when we left.

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Stephanie - The Travel Chica October 11, 2011 at 10:12 pm

I arrived in San Pedro Sula at midnight (due to the bus company lying to me about it being a direct bus from El Salvador). I slept in the bus station because that was my safest option and then got the hell out on a 5am bus.

At least you found something in the city that all travelers seem to despise.

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Maria October 12, 2011 at 4:00 am

Great twist! Glad to hear you’re making Vagabond lemonade

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Henry Williams October 13, 2011 at 2:42 am

good story man

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Lavanya October 13, 2011 at 3:26 am

Love the part about the travel moment when all the hassles fall away and you know you’re exactly where you want to be. This is especially true while travelling in particular difficult countries.. I had several such moments in Egypt.. a country fairly easy to travel in if you’re on a tour, not so much independently.
Glad to see your posts after a break.

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Elizabeth October 13, 2011 at 3:36 am

I can totally relate to that moment when your trip finally clicks and you realize why you came. I always try to ignore the first day out of airport… I try to imagine what people would think if they came to visit Washington DC and landed in beautiful Herndon (home of Dulles International).

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Alex October 13, 2011 at 9:57 pm

So excited to start this journey with you! I love love love Central America!

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Eliane October 22, 2011 at 3:45 am

Me too….I felt in love with Honduras when I came to Honduras the first time 7 years ago.

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Erica October 16, 2011 at 11:10 am

Not a fan of SPS. We pretty much made our way through there as quickly as possible. I was a bit weirded out by the amount of American fast food chains there. It is just as common here in Costa Rica as well.

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Amy October 17, 2011 at 1:02 pm

Definately sounds bad … often those places you’ve got so little expectations of turn out to be pretty good … but this one sounds terrible.

I found Europe had a lot more men with guns than Australia, where I’ve never noticed any before.

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Dalene October 19, 2011 at 2:52 am

We spent six months in Honduras without going to SPS, have to say that I am glad to have missed it. Never mind that it is on the top 10 list of the most dangerous cities in the world (I think it’s #2?)

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Eliane October 22, 2011 at 3:43 am

Hi
I really loved your story. I spent 6 months in San Pedro Sula while volunteering in a microfinance project. I agree…San Pedro Sula is not nice at all to visit as a tourist. However, the people living in San Pedro Sula (called sanpedranos) are very nice and friendly. I spent a very nice time in Honduras with my host family.

Honduras is one of the poorest country in latin america. Volunteers are needed urgently in many social projects. That is why I decided to move to Honduras to support the local people. We started our non-profit organization SWHO.org which organizes volunteer opportunities in Honduras.

I do really recommend to come to Honduras as a volunteer and to spend time with the Honduran people. Honduras is well known for its hospitality. You will find out that Honduras has a lot of nice places where it is worth to spend your vacation. San Pedro Sula is an industrial city and not at all a tourist place.

I am sure that you will like it here in Honduras!!!

Eliane

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The Travel Fool October 30, 2011 at 8:25 pm

My how things have changed. Last time I was in San Pedro Sula was 1985 and I was in the Military. I traded 2 packs of Camel Cigarettes for a case of Bananas.

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D Murphy November 5, 2011 at 2:18 am

Great post but I won’t be wanting to visit there in a hurry;)

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ayngelina November 15, 2011 at 1:21 am

Machine guns don’t bother me but hand guns do and I saw a lot of them in Honduras. I started to read into a bit about the problems in Honduras, how there is a generation of youth living off remittance their parents were sending from working in the States. But with a downturn in the economy a lot of those people lost jobs and had to move back to Honduras and the issues with violence are escalating.

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Michele Peterson December 5, 2011 at 7:54 pm

I hope you’ll have time to stop by La Campa — you can get a bus from Copan Ruinas. It’s a very peaceful Lenca community and is the largest pilgrimage site in Central America with traditional guanacascos dances, exchanges of saints and more at a church built in 1690. The saint’s day is February 22nd but there are lots of reasons to visit in the month leading up and following. It’s also very inexpensive. I helped the community create a blog with some info: http://www.visitlacampa.blogspot.com/

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wes December 10, 2011 at 4:02 am

Ooh, thanks for the tip, Michele! I’ll be fairly close so maybe I can double back.

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