Honduras: Why This Most Welcoming of Nations Needs You
For the past twenty years or so, the once hippy haven of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico has had the unenviable reputation of being known as the most dangerous city in the world. Cartel and gang violence wreak havoc in the streets, often catching innocent bystanders in the crossfire. In 2010 alone, over 3,500 people were murdered in Juarez, most in relation to the drug cartels attempting to gain control over the lucrative U.S./Mexico border market. Since then, the murder rate has slowed considerably but the city and surrounding valleys are still highly dangerous to visit. However, no longer does Ciudad Juarez hold the number one spot for most dangerous.
That title now belongs to the Northern Honduran city of San Pedro Sula, close to the Guatemalan border. The low socioeconomically rated city sees an average of just over three homicides per day and multiple accounts of non-fatal gun shot victims. San Pedro Sula is located in a dream location for drug traffickers sailing north from Colombia. The fearful city truly is a victim of its own location and is often used as a stopover or pickup point for drugs and weapons and as a dumping ground for dead bodies of dispensable cartel members. Despite being a desperately poor city, San Pedro Sula was actually relatively peaceful up until the 1980's. What changed? U.S. involvement. What did you expect?
Two major events occurred in the 1980's that affected a seismic shift in the way Honduras was viewed by the rest of the world. Firstly, the C.I.A. They had their own nifty little side-operation going on with the Nicaraguan Contras, whereby weapons would be flown by covert operatives into the Nicaraguan jungle to assist the Contras in their fight against their own government, but mostly to help bring down Panama dictator, General Manuel Noriega, whose enemy, then U.S. president Ronald Reagan, would have liked served on a platter. On the return trip from Nicaragua to the U.S., the operatives would transport large bundles of cocaine. Such a great application to Sun Tzu's efficiency of movement principle. Kudos to them.
The return flight from Nicaragua was rarely altered and was usually as follows: Remote airstrip in the South Nicaraguan jungle where the agents would offload the smuggled weapons to the Contras and load up with a prearranged order of cocaine that had been delivered by the Colombians, then a short flight north to San Pedro Sula to lighten the load (the drug mecca was a perfectly placed distribution point for cocaine to all points of the globe), Veracruz, Mexico was next, where the gear would be dropped off to be cut by the then powerful Veracruz Cartel, who would in turn load the operatives up with a previously cut batch, and finally across the gulf to a small, obscured airport in the tumbleweed town of Mena in Bill Clinton run Arkansas, for efficient nationwide distribution. San Pedro Sula also happened to be a distribution point for C.I.A. smuggled weapons to Guatemala to aid in their war with El Salvador, who the U.S. also needed, if not out of the way, at least quelled. All this just to get Noriega?! It's bloody confusing stuff!
To add a splash of what the fuck dressing to the confusion salad, coincidentally (or not coincidentally at all), at the same time that all of this was going on, California Governor, George Deukmejian, in association with the Reagan administration, blitzed his East L.A. constituency with a gargantuan crackdown on illegal immigrants. Guess where from? Honduras! As many illegals as could be found were detained out of the blue (some 35% of those detained were involved in L.A. gang activity in some form or another) and shipped to where? The same place where all those useful C.I.A. guns and drugs had been shipped too... come on, you know the answer... San Pedro Sula! Can you see what's happening here?
Whether by design or not (it's by design), the Reagan administration has been the major contributing factor as to why San Pedro Sula is now the most violent place on Earth and why Honduras gets such a bad rap. Non-warzone cities in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are also on the most violent list, but San Pedro Sula kicks the shit out of them when it comes to flat-out murder. A stateside created cocktail of ample drugs and weapons, mixed with an already desperately poor city and an influx of ex-L.A. gang members with cartel connections and nowhere to go... well fuck, the situation there is just horrible.
I can feel the daggers you're shooting at me from here. Why would I want to go to Honduras if it's so violent? Here's the thing; San Pedro Sula does not a country make. No one is forcing you to go there. Despite the many, honest and hard working people of that city who so desperately rely on your tourism dollars to drive the economy and survive, if a city so violent gives you the willies, then don't go. You can easily get to all the beautiful, relaxing and inspirational places in Honduras by taking a wide berth of San Pedro. The locals will understand.
The issue is, that Hondurans living in the heavily tourism dependant areas of the country, well away from San Pedro Sula, are suffering from extreme poverty because gringos with disposable incomes just aren't turning up. Mexican, Belizean and Costa Rican beaches are always jam-packed with foreign tourists and even El Salvador and Nicaragua are getting in on the act. All of these countries have one thing in common with Honduras; some of their cities are also ravaged by violence; Nicaragua's Managua and El Salvador's San Salvador to name but two. But many tourists seem to have no problems with going there. It's because of what we see in the mainstream media and on government travel warning sites that influences our opinions of certain countries. Nobody ever seems to mention the good stuff. But there's plenty.
Whether it's relaxing on the beach looking all sexy, sharpening your bogus image to the opposite sex in the surf, or pretending to everyone that you really do love mountain climbing in the jungle with leeches all over your legs, then Honduras is for you. Seriously though, everything you could possibly want is there. Ancient Mayan ruins, stunningly lush tropical jungles with an incredible variety of animals, birdlife and flora, and delicious food all round that's suited to every budget from the cheap, colourful street vendors to those snooty fine-dining, huge-plate-small-meal type places. Now, for a moment, may I please kindly ask the ladies to leave the room? Are they gone? Okay. Men... listen to me. The women are sizzling! Just gorgeous. I guess the men are alright too, if you're into that whole tanned, muscly, sultry Latin thing. Whatever.
Here are some of my own personal recommendations of some of the amazing things to see and do in unforgettable Honduras:
This river flows through the guts of the Pico Bonito National Park which really is one the most impressive sections of jungle in all of Latin America, including the Amazon. There is plenty of hiking to do for all skill levels but the main activity happens on the river. It's mostly for that long-haired, unwashed thrill seeker type that we all think are nuts but secretly envy; whitewater rafting, zip lining, kayaking, canoeing, reenacting scenes from Deliverance; all that stuff goes on there too. A visit there can easily be achieved in a single day trip, depending on your plan, as it is all located very close to the coast of the Bay of Honduras, where no doubt you'll be spending some time.
Copan is an ancient Mayan site located in Western Honduras and in my opinion has the most intricately beautiful surviving sculptures in Latin America. Many of its stone structures date back to the 9th century BC, and in its day was one of the most powerful Mayan cities in the Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras quadrant. A visit to Copan automatically instigates a challenge: I defy anybody to come up with a logical explanation as to how the ancient city was built; the stones used in the structures are found only on the coast and the closest coastal point to Copan is over 350 kilometres away. Hmmm.
Roatan is an island in the Bay of Honduras which is a part of the Caribbean Sea. That's right; Honduras is a Caribbean nation. The island is a popular tourist attraction for those wanting a small taste of Honduras without actually hitting the mainland, which to me is a really bloody annoying and redundant attitude to have. But don't let those fuddy-duddy pantywaists put you off. It's actually pretty cool. There are gorgeous beaches, a Dali-surreal coral reef and shiteloads of sharks and dolphins. It's great for snorkelling and scuba diving and there are a few places on the island that offer scuba licenses for $100 (USD) after a day of training. Resort types love the place too because of the... resorts. You know; floating bars, unattainable women, volleyball... all that crap.
The Honduran capital is a must visit. You can't visit Honduras without checking out some of the country's crazy, labyrinthine markets, and for me, other than San Pedro Sula, Tegucigalpa is the place to be. Any street market in the city is utterly brilliant, but for me, the best one is Mercado San Isidro. The approach to that market alone is well worth the price of admission (which is free). A steep, morning exercise walk through the old city and past some beautiful, old Spanish colonial buildings and up a steep maze of steps will see you reach the market absolutely starvacious. This is the perfect time to feast on one of Honduras' main dishes, Baleadas. For the equivalent of around 75 cents (USD), you will get a large plate loaded with fried tortillas stuffed with refried beans, quesillo (cheese) and sour cream, along side your choice of fresh meat or fried fish with avocado, fried plantains and scrambled eggs. Don't forget the mandatory salsa; don't be a western wimp. Or, you can go to McDonald's; up to you. Tegucigalpa is an excellent place for shopping for trinkety little knick-knacks your Grandma loves and actually has an interestingly quirky bar scene. A free bar guide is available from most tourist offices in the historical centre.
This national park is quite possibly the most picturesque spot in Honduras. Situated just 20 kilometres out of Tegucigalpa, the cloud forest rests at an altitude of 2270 metres high, which is just about at the highest end of the cut-off for safe altitude climbing without the dreaded Soroche kicking in. Best maybe to take some pills with you just in case you are sensitive to altitude sickness and can't locate a decent local remedy. You'll be hiking with Led Zeppelin's Misty Mountain Hop ruminating around your head while attempting to mimic Kate Bush's sex-witch moves in the Wuthering Heights film clip. You won't be able to focus though, because that same nagging question still haunts you: How did Jimmy Page get away with ripping off so many blues artists for so long? But the native birds, rodents and colourful wildlife will snap you right out of that puzzling mess and back into a reality that really doesn't seem like reality at all. This is Wonderland less the Alice, and thank God for that, because isn't she one of the most stupid people on Earth? Who the hell actually drinks out of a bottle that's labelled Drink Me? Please.
For a cheap but priceless holiday, no matter what you are looking for, Honduras is the place to be. Plus, you'll be doing their battered economy a favour in the process. Remember, tip big, they are a beautiful race of people who very much need the cash, and please don't ignore the beggars. They are not a threat to you and are on the streets for a reason. Even one dollar in their cups will put a massive, much needed, smile on their faces and will be able to feed their families for couple of days. You're an absolute saint. The Hondurans thank you in advance.
*If you enjoy the writing of Benjamin Munday, why not subscribe to The Low Road for a free download of his award winning short story, 'The Ashtray'.