Our travel timing was accidentally perfect and we pulled into the town of Gracias de Dios in southeastern Honduras (about four hours from the famous Copán archaeological site) just as the annual Chief Lempira Day Festival was gearing up. Held every July 20, this is the most important festival among the Lenca people–the largest indigenous group in Honduras–and Gracias (no one says the “de Dios” part) is ground zero.
How to stop the Spanish (almost)
The festival celebrates the Lencan leader Chief Lempira who managed to unite historically warring tribes as Spanish conquistadors descended in the 1500s. Chief Lempira ultimately cobbled together an anti-Spaniard force 30,000 strong which caused the Spaniards considerable trouble. The Lencan leader was eventually killed by the Spanish, however, and in his absence the popular uprising fizzled.
But Chief Lempira’s legend lives on. The currency of Honduras is called the Lempira and he is still a hero to the Lencans. His annual festival day transforms Gracias, normally a sleepy town of 25,000, with a parade, fireworks, rock concerts, an air force fly over, even the President of Honduras helicopters in for the event.
Fireworks and fly overs
The day started with a three-hour parade featuring homemade floats topped with waving children, groups of costumed paraders representing either the Spanish or the Lencans, marching bands and beauty queens of all ages, each wearing a heavy handmade dress decorated with beans, corn kernels and plants in designs representing Chief Lempira’s face, farm life and jungle scenes.
Three Air Force jets provided a dramatic finale to the parade but the emotional culmination was a solemn costumed re-enactment of Chief Lempira’s final moments at the hands of the Spanish, re-enacted by children wearing conquistador helmets made of silver paper and riding papiermâché horses. Check out our photo essay of parade highlights.
As dusk fell, spirits were lifted by a truly impressive fireworks display followed by live bands on a stage set up in the central park.
The other 364 days of the year…
Even when there’s not a parade or a President in town, Gracias has a lot to offer. How do we know? Because we ended up spending about a month in Gracias after El Salvador wouldn’t let us in the first time we tried to cross the border.
A short stroll up a rise over Gracias took us to the Castillo San Cristobal fort. This beautifully restored aerie is also the final resting place of Honduran Juan Nepomuceno Fernandez Lido, better known as Juan Lindo, who managed to become President of both Honduras and El Salvador (not at the same time). Best known and loved for establishing the University of Honduras and writing a new constitution for the country, Juan Lindo retired in Gracias where he died in 1857.
The Casa Galeano Museum, with displays in the breezy rooms of a former home, is a great place to sample traditional Lencan masks, pottery, history and lore, including the legend of La Sucia, a mythical hag believed to present herself as a gorgeous temptress.
Hikes and hot springs
Gracias is only five miles (eight kilometers) from the entrance to Celaque Mountain National Park (Parque Nacional Montana de Celaque in Spanish) which is home of El Cerro de las Minas, the highest peak in the country at 9,347 feet (2,848 meters).
Though the park is close, the drive takes 45 minutes due to the generally abysmal condition of rough dirt roads. It’s worth every bump, however. Though not heavily visited, the park has great facilities including comfortable, covered camping areas for pitching tents (50L, about US$2.60, per night), shared flush toilets and showers and a separate covered cooking and dining area. A network of well-marked and well-maintained trails and foot bridges wind through pines then steeply up into the highest cloud forest in Honduras.
More than 200 species of plants, nearly 300 species of birds and a wide range of mammals and reptiles live here including jaguars, pumas, a unique salamander and the coveted quetzal bird. And that’s just the living stuff. The steep terrain of the park is also the final resting place of mastodons and giant sloths, which we could almost picture roaming and roaring through the Jurassic Park terrain.
To call these animals (living and dead) elusive is an understatement, but even the super slim chance of catching a glimpse of spotted fur or an irridescent tail feather in the distance was enough to keep us climbing up the short (1.5 miles each way) but steep Sendero Mirador de la Casacada (waterfall view point trail).
Hardy hikers can also take in the view from the top of El Cerro de las Minas, a 10 mile round trip that’s normally done in 2-3 days along the appropriately-named Sendero al Cielo (trail to the sky) since you end up at the highest point in the land.
Whether you tackle the peak or not, a visit to Celaque is best topped off with a soak in one of the natural hot springs that surround Gracias.
The potters of La Campa
The tiny village of La Campa, less than 10 miles (16 kilometers) from Gracias, is the epicenter of traditional Lencan pottery production. Using techniques that date to the 1500s, Lencan women create pots of clay, water and natural dyes. The dishes, cooking vessels and enormous urns are decorated with geometric patterns inspired by natural elements such as the moon. Displays at the Centro de Interpretación de Alfarería Lenca pottery museum give a good overview of the process and the art that’s being kept alive in La Campa.
You won’t find a pottery shop in La Campa, but many of the potters’ homes and workshops are open to the public. Doña Desideria Peres is one of the best known local potters (anyone in town can direct you to her workshop). Examples of her reddish-brown glazed pots adorn the lobby of the Hotel Real Camino Lenca in Gracias.
If you’re inspired to spend the night in La Campa, head for Hostal JB two blocks from the church. The JB has five rooms in what used to be a private home. You can use the common living room, kitchen and dining room and there’s a a lovely garden, too.
The “Sistine Chapel of Latin America”
It’s worth continuing another 10 miles past La Campa to the Lencan town of San
Manuel de Colohete. Settled by some of Chief Lempira’s warriors, the big attraction
here (besides the verdant, hilly scenery) is the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Concepción,
one of the loveliest and oldest churches in Honduras.
Built by the Spanish in 1721, the interior still shows traces of nearly 400-year-old frescoes and a wonderful wooden ceiling which was constructed without nails. Although some renovation has taken place, the church retains an ambience of elegant decay. If the doors are locked, ask in town for the key and locals will proudly show you their “Sistine Chapel of Latin America.”
Sleeping and eating in Gracias
We called Hotel Guancascos home while we were in Gracias and you should too. Located just below the Castillo San Cristobal fort, the 17 rooms are spotless and well-appointed, the staff is charming, free Wi-Fi works in the common area and in the three rooms under the restaurant, which is excellent. Owner Fronicas “Frony” Miedema, a Dutch woman who’s lived in Honduras for 24 years, will be happy to give you information about the area and arrange tours and transportation. When we were there the hotel was also in the final stages of gaining green certification, making it one of only a few eco-certified hotels in Honduras.
Do not miss the chance to eat at Rinconcito Graciano on San Sebastian Avenida. Owner, chef, guide and organic food pioneer Lizeth Perdomo cooks meals using Lencan recipes passed down from her grandmother like beef in a stroganoff-like gravy and a salad made with local large-leaf oregano and a watercress-like green straight from Lizeth’s garden. Meals are served on traditional Lencan pottery. If the restaurant is closed, ask for Lizeth at the shop across the street and she’ll come open for you. Lizeth also bakes a mean loaf of grainy whole-wheat bread, something about as rare as the gold they used to mine from the hills around Gracias.
Meng You, on San Cristobal Street is the place to go if you’re really hungry. Run by a Chinese family, the place has zero atmosphere and it’s strictly service with a sneer but the affordable (around 100L, around US$5) plates of fried rice or noodles are enormous–more than enough for both of us.
La Fonda, four doors down from the church, serves platos tipicos a notch or two above the ordinary (90L, about US$4.75) in a setting that is more Borscht-belt brothel (sweeping lamps with flower petals made of glass, flouncy lace curtains) than Central American comedor.
Bar Museo, near the unremarkable town market, is a local dive bar where women and tourists are welcome to join the crowd enjoying cold beer (20L, about US$1) and enormous Flor de Cana rum and cokes (40L, about US$2) amidst framed pictures of Marilyn Monroe and old cowboy knick knacks. Just don’t plan on using the grotty bathroom.
Lorendiana, on Principal Dr.Juan Lindo Avenida three blocks west of the central park, sells delicious, homemade all-natural popsicles (called paletas) in a wide range of flavors including passionfruit, pineapple, strawberry and green mango. Owner Diana Lorena’s
home-canned vegetables, fruits and sauces are almost too gorgeous to open and eat.
Kafe Kandil bar (where you used to be able to mingle with locals and Peace Corps volunteers until the Peace Corps recalled all volunteers from Honduras), is shockingly chic. Owned by a local artist, there’s great art (of course) good music, nifty decor and good drinks and international snacks (like mini pizzas).
They only do it once a week, but the bean and pork soup at Tipicos La Frontera, opposite the church, is delicious, filling, cheap and worth the wait. Look for the hand written sign on the door and be prepared for non-stop children’s TV shows while you eat. Directly across the street is El Jarron, where the most charming waitress in town serves up tasty and cheap platos tipicos (60L, about US$3) and excellent beef-filled fried tacos.
Rumors of an ATM were in the air, but when we were in Gracias it still hadn’t materialized. In the meantime, you can get cash advances on your credit card from the supermarket near the church with the big metal gates and coffee shop out front. Or just come with enough cash to get you through.