Archive for the 'Honduras' Category

Border Crossing

We ended up spending about five days on the island of Utila before the sweltering heat and hungry swarms of mosquitoes finally became too much to tolerate and we decided to move on.  Twelve hours of bus travel from La Ceiba to Danli near the Nicaraguan border, including a transfer in Tegucigalpa, went smoothly and without incident. 

Arriving in Danli, a small town about an hour’s drive from the border we stopped to spend the night.  The driver of our bus, a nice, older man, finished with work for the day and heading home walked with us the 2km into the center of town, directed us to a hotel and then asked if we would take him back to the United States with us, sadly I have a feeling he was only half-joking.  Our conversation with him was one of the highlights of our time in Honduras.  I wish I had more nice things to report, but unfortunately Copán and Utila were about the only two places that didn’t have us obsessively reaching for the hand sanitizer and even they do not make it anywhere near the top of our list of favorite places.  And so we headed for Nicaragua. 

We’ve come to find that there are generally two ways to go about crossing the borders in Central America.  You can either pay a travel agent or international bus line to shuttle you across or you can put in a bit of extra effort, use local transportation and walk from one country into the next for about half the cost.  Early on in our travels we used the shuttle services, which seem to be what the majority of travelers prefer.  This time around we were feeling slightly more confident and a little adventurous and decided to give it a go on our own, which also meant we had to brave the chicken buses again. 

Fortunately, it all ended up working to our advantage.  Traffic waiting to cross into Nicaragua was completely backed up as a result of the swine flu outbreak and we were able to bypass all of it on foot.  Having been pretty isolated on our little Caribbean Island for nearly the past week we hadn’t realized just how serious this swine flu thing had become.  And so we joke, which will get us first, malaria or the pig flu?   

Hiking up the hill toward the immigration offices, the border between Honduras and Nicaragua is a lot like what you might imagine a typical Central American border crossing would look like.  A dusty, dirty and chaotic stretch of road lined with trucks belching out thick clouds of exhaust, people standing around and the occasional cow wandering through. 

Upon reaching the border we were stopped by the Nicaraguan health officials screening for potential carriers of swine flu.  Apparently there is yet to be any confirmed cases in Nicaragua and they’d prefer to keep it that way.  But after reviewing our passports and the dates of our arrivals and departures they passed us through.  Quite a relief since the possibility of being stuck in Honduras was almost more than I could bear to think about.  As we departed the medical station we realized it was during that whole ordeal that our helper had latched on to us.

I like to call them our border crossing helpers, usually boys no more than 13 or 14 years old, they show up at your side and provide any assistance or information you may need during the crossing, whether or not you actually need or want their help.  And even if you don’t it’s virtually impossible to get rid of them, they will simply follow you around in complete silence if you try to ignore them.  We would have no problem navigating the border crossing on our own but we usually try to be friendly and let them help us out.  I like the idea that they’re at least attempting to provide a service.  They offer their assistance with the expectation of receiving a dollar or  a few coins in the local currency for their services.  In some cases we’ve actually found them to be helpful, generally more patient than the immigration officials and fun to chat with while we’re standing around or waiting in line. 

After parting ways with our little assistant we took a bus about an hour into Nicaragua to the first major town with a transportation hub where we could transfer for Managua.  Arriving about 30 minutes ahead of schedule we had time for a quick breakfast of Ritz crackers, which kids here commonly refer to as cookies.  It didn’t take long before we were joined by two little boys who shared our breakfast and chatted with us about school and how they spend their mornings in the bus station helping their mother sell mangos. 

The older of the two, just eight years old commented that he liked my watch and that, “he needed one just like it so he could practice reading the time.”  Clever, and a nice try, but keeping track of the time is also pretty important to us these days and so the watch stayed with me.  Before we knew it, it was time for us to board our bus so we sent the boys running off with the rest of the crackers and set off for Managua delighted with our progress and feeling fortunate that we weren’t trapped on the tourist bus that was most likely still sitting in traffic at the border.  Ironically, it was just about this time last week that we had been wishing we were on the tourist bus.

Utila, Bay Islands

utila beach

The ferry from La Ceiba to the island of Utila takes about an hour and is a rough, bumpy ride.  It took me nearly another hour on dry land just to recover.  The smallest of the Bay Islands, Utila is a beautiful little island off the coast of Honduras in the Caribbean Sea and feels worlds away from the Honduras we came to know over the past 24 hours.  Best known for excellent and inexpensive diving, Utila has a lot to offer us non-divers as well.  Beautiful beaches, crystal-clear waters and excellent swimming, snorkeling and boating opportunities make it a beach-lover’s paradise. 

The Caribbean vibe is not nearly as strong as in Caye Caulker, Belize, and the island not quite as small and friendly, but the travelers scene is thriving and food and accommodation costs, while higher than on the mainland, are still very affordable.  Utila is hot, when we wake up in the morning the thermometer reading on my alarm clock is already approaching 90F and it just continues to climb throughout the day.  Even Carlos and I who tend to favor warmer climates couldn’t imagine living here and dealing with the heat year round, but it’s been great fun these past few days. 

We’ve extended our stay on Utila for a few extra days while we soak up the rays on near private beaches, indulge in some Port Royals and tour the cluster of small cays on the island’s north end.  After which we’re making a quick break for the Nicaraguan border.

no gracias

iglesia gracias

Travelers to Honduras typically visit two key attractions, the Maya ruins at Copán and the Bay Islands.  After departing Copán we decided to detour a few hours south to the small town of Gracias before heading north to the Caribbean coast and Bay Islands.  The trip required a few transfers between local buses and proved to be an interesting experience.  Our bus mates included a guy with blood all over his shirt, tobacco chewing and spitting on the floor guy, several very stinky guys, and one very wild looking man carrying a machete (we’re still not sure if he had any relation to the bloody shirt guy).  Needless to say we were relieved when the bus finally arrived in the empty dirt parking lot that was the Gracias bus terminal.

We quickly discovered that Gracias is nothing more than a dusty little town with a few churches and even fewer tourists, and we quickly ran out of things to see and do.  There are also no ATM machines in the town, which left us in a bit of a predicament given that, beyond bus fare back out of Gracias, we were just about out of cash.  Not to worry, we ate fried chicken and pork skewers on the street corner with the rest of Gracias’ residents and retired back to our room at one of the town’s reliable budget establishments, or so we thought.  After arranging the bed like an island in the middle of the room and spending the next several hours flipping the lights on and off chasing cockroaches we were wishing we were on a real island out in the middle of the Caribbean. 

And so we departed Gracias on the first 5 a.m. bus, likely never to return.  I should also mention that apparently, in Honduras, bus windows double as trash cans and the piles of trash lining the streets is evidence of this fact.  Soda bottles, food wrappers, even used and recollected bus tickets are thrown from the bus as it speeds along.  But the kicker came when one woman got out of her seat, walked to the back of the bus and, in plain view of Carlos and I, proceeded to pee all over herself and the floor before returning to her seat as if nothing had happened.  As it turns out, people pretty much pee just about everywhere here, though not usually on buses.  And we’ve seen a few ‘please do not urinate here’ signs along the highway.     

Finally we arrived in San Pedro Sula, transferred to first class, and had a pleasant, incident free ride the remainder of the way to La Ceiba.  And once we were able to relax and enjoy it, we found that the countryside and farmlands of northern Honduras are actually quite beautiful.  As a result of the hot, tropical climate everything is a rich, vibrant shade of green and fruit trees including palms, bananas, and avocados are plentiful.  Arriving in La Ceiba, too late in the day to catch the ferry to Utila, and with very little energy or patience remaining we splurged for a decent hotel room, ordered a pizza and spent the night watching re-runs of The Office and 30 Rock on cable.

Copán Ruinas

copán

Located just 1 km outside a small town of the same name, Copán Ruinas, a Unesco World Heritage site and once home to one of the most important of all Maya civilizations, was our last and final stop on la ruta Maya.  Known for its remarkable sculptures, for which it is unique in the Maya world, and hieroglyphics, many of which are on display, Copán had a culture so developed it is often labeled the ‘Paris of the Maya world.’ 

It is believed that people lived in Copán since 1200 B.C., possibly earlier, and excavated artifacts show influences from as far away as Mexico.  The vast number of structures discovered indicates that at the peak of Maya civilization the Copán valley had over 20,000 inhabitants (a population not reached again until the 1980s).  As recently as 2005 the ruins have been the site of political demonstrations.  In September of that year, 1500 indigenous Maya – descendents of the original builders of Copán – occupied the ruins and barred visitors for five days in protest of stalled government land reforms.