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The Best Budget Hotels in Central America

Finding great budget hotels is like winning the travel lottery because they allow you to make your travel budget go even further. Over the years we’ve become expert at choosing the best budget hotels and for the first time we’re sharing what we think are the best budget hotels in Central America, gleaned from more than three years of travel through Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama. We’ve personally vetted all of these budget hotel options so you don’t have to. Consider them Trans-Americas Journey approved.

Best budget hotels in Central America

San Jose, Costa Rica: Hotel Aranjuez offers a range of spotlessly clean rooms in three adjoining houses in a safe, quiet neighborhood of Costa Rica’s capital convenient to most attractions at extremely reasonable rates which include the best hotel breakfast buffet we’ve ever had in any price point. We stayed here repeatedly and they even have (limited) parking.

Hotel Aranjez - San Jose, Costa Rica

El Tunco Beach, El Salvador: There are two places called Papaya Guesthouse in this beach hangout. You want the one directly across the street from a hotel called La Guitara. Look for the enormous wooden gate. This place is spotless, has a nice little pool and sitting areas with hammocks and offers rooms with A/C and large, stylish rooms with fans and private baths for US$25 plus perfectly acceptable smaller rooms at smaller price points (US$14) with shared bathrooms (that’s what we went for). Toss in WiFi, parking, a great staff and a decent shared kitchen and you can’t beat it.

Panama City, Panama: Hostal Amador Familiar (dorm beds from US$15 per night and private rooms with a fan from $30 for two people) is beyond spotlessly clean thanks to the tireless efforts of the best hotel housekeeper we’ve ever seen at any hotel in any price point.There’s a large, shared, semi-outdoor kitchen which stocks paper towels and  tin foil for guest use in addition to the usual supplies. Breakfast is included.There’s a large and secure parking lot. It’s located in a quite neighborhood from which you can easily access Casco Viejo, the Amador Causeway, downtown Panama City and other areas.

Hostal Amador Familiar - Panama City

Cahuita, Costa Rica: At Cabinas Palmer US$20 got us a clean private double with bathroom, fan, TV, a furnished porch with a hammock, free coffee and bananas all day, use of a shared kitchen, parking and WiFi. It’s right in the center of town, just ask for it when you arrive.

Gracias de Dios, Honduras: We called Hotel & Restaurant Guancascos home while we were in Gracias and you should too. Located just below the Castillo San Cristobal fort, the 17 rooms (US$10 dorm and rooms from US$26) 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 more than 20 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.

Guancasos hotel - Gracias del Dios, Honduras

San Ignacio, Belize: Nefry’s Retreat has four peaceful, clean rooms with WiFi and A/C for around US$20 located about a five minute walk from the bustle of the town’s main drag. We really liked the homey feel. It’s not a rock bottom price, but it’s value for money especially in Belize.

Bocas del Toro, Panama: Hostal Hansi, located just off Main Street in the town of Bocas, has a wide range of different room types from singles with shared bath (from US$11) to private doubles (from US$25). WiFi and use of a spotless kitchen is included. It’s quiet and clean (there is a resident cat) and it’s extremely popular. Hansi does not take reservations so get there as early as you can to see about available rooms.

Hostal Hansi - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala: Hotel Contemporeneo down by the lakeshore, delivers clean, quiet rooms with a bathroom, a TV, secure parking and a good WiFi signal for 120Q (about US$15). We even scored a lake view (ask for room 4 or 5).

León, NicaraguaHarvest House was created by Jason Greene, a smart, surprisingly young man from North Carolina, and it’s spotlessly clean, brightly painted, comfortably furnished and has a huge shared kitchen. Rooms, which range from singles with shared bath to small private apartments, were irresistible (from US$15 per night or from US$150 per month). We booked a double room with shared bath for a month, spending less and getting more than we would have in any hostal.

Harvest House, Leon Nicaragua

 

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Border Crossing 101: Las Manos, Honduras to Piedras Blancas, Nicaragua

Crossing international borders in Latin American is rarely easy or pleasant (why do they always smell like pee and desperation?). Things are even more complicated when you’re driving across borders in your own vehicle as part of an overland road trip. These border crossing 101 travel tips will help you cross from Las Manos, Honduras to Piedras Blancas, Nicaragua smoothly with or without a vehicle.

From: Las Manos, Honduras

To: Piedras Blancas, Nicaragua

Lay of the land: There were lots of 18 wheelers at this border and the crush of people going back home in both directions as the Christmas holiday approached was beginning as well.  There were also a lot of touts frantically offering to “help.” We refused them all, as we always do, but one wouldn’t take no for an answer. Frank (surely not his real name but that’s what he told us) was not aggressive, spoke great English and we’d arrived on the cusp of the lunch time break and we really, really wanted to get through before border offices shut down for chow time. We made it clear that we don’t pay border touts, but Frank walked us through the process anyway. Smart kid. In the end we gave him a few dollars and got across the border before the lunch break.

Honduras-Nicaragua-border

Welcome to Nicaragua!

Elapsed time: It took us 1.5 hours to get through the Honduran side of this border even with “Frank”‘s help.

Fees: We paid US$4 for mandatory vehicle fumigation, US$12 for 30 days of mandatory auto insurance in Nicaragua, US$12 per person for our Nicaraguan visas (which is pretty pricey in comparison to Nica’s neighbors), US$1 per person for a municipal charge/tax imposed by the local town and a US$5 tax on tourist vehicles that goes to the Nicaraguan tourism department. There was no fee at all for the temporary importation permit for our truck. That’s a grand total of US$47 for the two of us and our truck.

Number of days they gave us: 90 day visas and 30 day temporary importation permit for our truck (see important CA-4 visa information below). The vehicle importation permit can be extended twice for an additional 30 days each time at the DGI (aduana/customs) office in Managua shown on the map below.

Vehicle insurance requirements: Nicaragua requires you to buy in-country insurance which costs US$12 per 30 days.

Where to fill up: Gas is cheaper in Honduras so fill up before you cross.

Need to know: At least some of the border officials here are actually paying attention. At our very last paperwork check point a Nicaraguan border agent noticed that Eric’s license had expired and Karen had to take the wheel instead.

Also, our ATM cards did not work in nearly all of the ATMs in Nicaragua. Exchanging cash can be done safely and easily in Nicaragua at either the banks or with licensed money changers that are usually found outside of banks. The licensed money changers offer a better rate than either the banks or the ATMs so check what the official bank rate is then shop around.

In 2006 El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras joined together to create the so-called CA-4 (Central American 4) group of countries all honoring and enforcing one CA-4 visa governed by rules spelled out in the CA-4 Border Control Agreement. Tourists are allowed to spend up to 90 days in total in any combination of the four participating countries. The clock starts ticking on your CA-4 visa the moment you step foot in any of the CA-4 countries. Costa Rica is in Central America but it does not participate in the CA-4 Border Control Agreement so your time in Costa Rica does not count against the total allowed to you under CA-4 rules.

Duty free finds: There are two duty free shops on the Honduran side of this border with decent prices on booze, electronics, etc. Both take credit cards. We bought US$4 to US$6 bottles of wine. You are allowed five bottles of alcohol per person when entering Nicaragua.

Overall border rating: Easy and pleasant, though the fees on the Nicaragua side add up.

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Border Crossing 101: Ocotopeque, Honduras to El Poy, El Salvador

Crossing international borders in Latin American is rarely easy or pleasant (why do they always smell like pee and desperation?). Things are even more complicated when you’re driving across borders in your own vehicle as part of an overland road trip. These border crossing 101 travel tips will help you cross from Ocotopeque, Honduras to El Poy, El Salvador smoothly with or without a vehicle.

Date: October 4, 2011

From: Ocotopeque, Honduras

To: El Poy, El Salvador

Honduras Immigration Sign

“Bad attitudes prohibited here” – good advice in the immigration office on the Honduran side of the border.

Lay of the land:  This small, dusty crossing is relatively quiet except for occasional waves of 18 wheelers, mostly transporting beer and liquified gas. If your papers are in order (see CA-4 visa warning, below) the agents here keep things moving at a nice clip unless you arrive at lunch time when you can expect to wait at least an hour. Just beware of the scuzzy bathrooms and, apparently, cholera-filled water (check out the creepy warning poster in the ladies room, below).

Colera sign at El Salvador Border

“Water with cholera!!! You can end your life!” – scary advice in the ladies room on the El Salvador side of the border.

Elapsed time: 1 hour (mostly spent dealing with the truck which entailed listening to the chatty customs agent who was bored and curious and thrilled to have someone new to talk to)

Fees: None. Amazingly, personal entry is free, there was no fee for the temporary importation of our truck either and no fumigation to pay for. This was our first totally free border crossing south of the US. We could get used to this…

Number of days they gave us: When entering El Salvador at an overland border crossing you don’t get a visa, permit, or passport stamp. We walked away with no record in our passport of when we’d entered El Salvador or when we were supposed to leave. But that doesn’t mean you can stay as long as you want. El Salvador upholds the CA-4 Border Control Agreement which means you can stay in the region (Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador) for up to 90 days total which is tallied from the day  you first entered any of those countries. Note that if you fly into El Salvador you will be given an entry stamp on arrival as this will be considered your point of entry into the CA-4 region.

Vehicle insurance requirements: There was no place to purchase insurance at the border and we were never asked to provide proof of insurance.

Ruined car El Salvador border

Luckily, we did not have to abandon our truck at the border like the owner of this vehicle, parked right in front of the immigration office, obviously did.

Where to fill up: Fuel is a few cents cheaper on the El Salvador side of the border.

Duty free finds: You’re kidding, right? Shopping at this border is limited to spectacularly greasy pupusas, the national dish of El Salvador, warm beer or minutes for your cell phone.

Need to know: This is not a 24-hour border

El Poy - El Salvador, Honduras border crossing

Approaching the El Poy border into El Salvador.

CA-4 warning: In 2006, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras joined together to create the so-called CA-4 (Central American 4) group of countries all honoring and enforcing one CA-4 visa governed by rules spelled out in the CA-4 Border Control Agreement.

Tourists are allowed to spend up to 90 days in total in any combination of the four participating countries. The clock starts ticking on your CA-4 visa the moment you step foot in any of the CA-4 countries.To complicate things further, in 2009 Honduras stopped honoring CA-4 regulations and started issuing its own 90 day visa. This means you can now spend 90 days in the other three CA-4 countries then enter Honduras and receive a new 90 day visa for that country.

But be warned: Honduras is completely surrounded by other CA-4 countries and, unless you fly, the only way out is overland. This requires entering one of the other CA-4 countries which still abide by the 90 day limit starting when you first entered Central America. If you’ve used the 90 days Honduras give you, you will not be allowed to enter another CA-4 country without paying a hefty fine for a transit visa.

This is exactly why El Salvador wouldn’t let us in the first time we tried to cross this border.

Overall border rating: This crossing is relatively hassle free and easy-going as long as you have time on your CA-4 Visa.

Welcome to El Salvador

Hello El Salvador.

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Rear View Mirror: Honduras Travel Tips After 89 Days Exploring the Country

Honestly, Honduras has not been our favorite country in Central America. It lacks the culture and food of some of its neighbors and some of the roads really do suck. Still, the Copán archaeological site totally lived up to the hype and after 89 days traveling in the country we uncovered other highlights too like an awesome microbrewery and the best national park infrastructure and camping in the region. Here are our Honduras travel tips so you can hit the ground running.

Honduras travel tips

Salva Vida Beer, HondurasThe most commonly found Honduran beer is called Salva Vida which means “saves lives” in Spanish. That’s indisputably an awesome name for a beer. However, the stuff doesn’t hold a candle to the fantastic small-batch beer being made at Sol de Copán, Honduras’ only microbrewery.

If you think all Spanish is created equal, think again. Every Spanish-speaking country we’ve been to has put its own slangy, subtle twist on the language. For example, snacks, called boquitos or antojitos in the other Spanish-speaking countries we’ve traveled in, are called golosinos in Honduras. And tiendas (small stores) are called pulperias.

 

 

A friendly, soft whistle often takes the place of saying hello. It’s charming once you get used to it.

Honduras went through a coup in 2009. It’s a piece of turbulent, recent history that’s worth understanding and we can think of no better crash course than this smart, cool comic strip about the coup by Dan Archer. It will explain everything quickly and easily. Honest.

Before the coup in 2009 (see above) Honduras issued traveler visas governed by the CA-4 Border Control Agreement which restricts travelers to 90 days total in any combination of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, or Nicaragua. After the coup Honduras has suspended CA-4 rules, issuing its own visas without regard for the amount of time you’ve spent in other neighboring countries. This is not a problem if you’re only visiting Honduras. But be advised that El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua still count your time in Honduras against the 90 days allowed under CA-4 regulations. This discrepancy is what lead to our problems at the El Salvador border.

Lempira Day Parade - Gracias, Honduras

The Lempira Day Parade in Gracias, Honduras was a cultural highlight of our time in the country.

Generally speaking, the toilet paper in Honduras is WAY nicer than in Guatemala or Mexico. Even in cheap rooms it’s quilted and everything.

Most purchases incur a 12% sales tax on top of already barely-bargain prices. It’s just not as cheap in Honduras as you think.

Prices are rarely displayed on gas station signs, which only adds to the sticker shock. We paid more than US$4 a gallon for diesel and gasoline is even more expensive.

Honduran license plates say: cuidemos el bosque (protect the forest) even though they don’t really.

Stela A - Copan, Honduras

Stele A at the rightfully famous Copán archaeological site in Honduras.

You can practically drink what passes for “hot sauce” in Honduras.

Don’t be surprised if you ask for directions and the person you’re speaking to purses his lips and juts his chin in a vague direction. It looks like he’s blowing a kiss, but he’s actually trying to tell you where to go.

Cops in Honduras are sticklers about seat belts (we love this) and will also pull you over to make sure you’re carrying reflective triangles and a fire extinguisher in your car. Both items are required by law in Honduras and much of Latin America. Also required by law is a front and back license place and they didn’t like our lack of a front plate but they never hassled us about it.

Highlights: Copán archaeological site, Gracias de Dios, Sol de Copán beer and the infrastructure and camping area at Cerro Azul National Park

Skip it: Roatán  Island

Roatan white sand beaches - West End

The white sand beaches of Roatán Island in Honduras are at risk from all-inclusive resorts and increasing numbers of cruise ship passengers.

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Producing Puros – Plasencia Cigar Factory, Danlí, Honduras

Some of the most famous tobacco in the world is grown in southern Honduras, all of it from tobacco seeds originally brought from Cuba. Here, cigars, called puros in Spanish, are made by hand and there are a number of cigar factories near the town of Danli that you can tour, including the Plasencia Cigar Factory in Danlí.

Tobacco sorting - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

Sorting tobacco at the Plasencia Cigar Factory in Honduras.

Touring the Plasencia Cigar Factory in Honduras

We pulled into the Plasencia Cigar Factory, which was started by Cuban immigrant Nestor Plasencia, and within moments a man named Hector, who appeared to be the head of the entire operations, emerged from his office, popped a cigar into his mouth and lead us to the factory. Hector enthusiastically showed us around the whole facility explaining the process from seed to cigar.

Step 1: sorting and bundling

Picked tobacco leaves arrive at the Plasencia factory and are sorted into various quality categories. Sorted leaves are then tied into small, neat bundles.

Tobacco Plasenca Cigar Factory Honduras

Bundled tobacco at the Plasenca Cigar Factory in Honduras.

Tobacco sorting - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

Women sorting tobacco into different grades.

Green Tobacco - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

Green tobacco being hung to dry.

Step 2: stacking and fermenting

The tied bundles of sorted tobacco leaves are tightly stacked in vast warehouses and allowed to naturally ferment for up to a year. Fermentation enhances and polishes the taste and aroma of the tobacco, but the process produces an overwhelming amount of ammonia inside the warehouses where ventilation and even face masks are important safety measures. At times it really was hard to breathe.

Tobacco fermentation - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

Stacked tobacco begins the fermentation process at Plasencia Cigar Factory in Honduras.

Tobacco grading - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

Tobacco grading at Plasencia Cigar Factory in Honduras.

Step 3: stripping

Once the tobacco leaves have fermented women expertly strip out the central vein so the tobacco burns evenly.

Tobacco stripping - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

After fermenting, the central vein of each leaf of tobacco must be removed by hand.

Step 4: rolling

A finished cigar is made up of three different types of tobacco leaves which are rolled together in three different stages.

Cigar filler & binder leaf - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

Getting ready to roll.

The main part of the cigar is called the filler. This is bundled together and placed inside a tobacco leaf called a binder because it holds all of the filler together. These rough tubes of tobacco are placed into wooden cigar-shaped molds which press them together, forcing the tubes to hold their shape.

Cigar ready for rolling - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

Part of the complicated cigar rolling process.

The pressed and molded tobacco tubes are then neatly rolled into a tobacco leaf called a wrapper.

Cigar rolling - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

The outermost tobacco layer of a cigar is called a wrapper and is rolled last.

Cigar rolling - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

Nearly finished cigars.

Voila! Finished cigars.

Cigar rolling - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

Cigars ready to be boxed and stored.

Step 5: warehousing

The Plasencia factory can produce tens of thousands of cigars per day in all shapes, sizes, strengths, flavors, and brands. We’re still not sure how they keep them all straight.

Cigar - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

Cigars in all shapes and sizes.

Cigar sorting - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

Sorting finished cigars.

Rectangular Cigars - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

These rectangular cigars seemed odd to us.

Step 6: labeling and packaging

The Plasencia factory makes cigars on contract for more than 30 different brands (their only in-house brand is called Flor de Honduras). Each brand has its own label which has to be applied by hand before they’re packaged and shipped.

Rocky Patel Cigars - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

Freshly labeled cigars.

Cigar packaging - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

Every finished cigar must be labeled by hand.

Rocky Patel Cigars - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

Rocky Patel cigars elegantly packaged.

Cigar facts

2 years: length of time it takes for a tobacco seed to be transformed into a cigar

120: number of hands that touch every single cigar from farming to finished product

4,000: number of people employed by Plasencia

30 million: estimated number of cigars produced by Plasencia factories each year, mostly on contract for more than 30 different brands including world-famous names like Rocky Patel cigars

90: percentage of those cigars that are exported to the United States

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City Travel Guide- Tegucigalpa, Honduras

We didn’t have high hopes for Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, but with a little help from a friend we found a great burger, good museums, a nice hotel, and more and it’s all in our city travel guide.

Cathedral - Tegucigalpa, Honduras

The Cathedral in central Tegucigalpa, Honduras was completed in 1782.

Tugucigalpa (just Tegus to some) has been the capital of Honduras since 1880. In 1921 Tegus was also the capital of the Republic of Central America which was created by mashing together Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. You can imagine how well that worked out.

The city started life as a mining town and has never quite shed those down and dirty roots. The city now suffers from Los Angeles-like sprawl, creeping and oozing over a vast area (we got horribly lost coming into town). Buildings decay, cars honk and belch, and people continue to migrate to this city that seems supremely ill-prepared to take them in.

Still, thanks to a local we befriended named Edo, e found some eating, sleeping, and touring highlights in Tegus. Now you can too.

Museums in Tegucigalpa

Despite it’s vaguely disturbing name, the relatively new Museum for National Identity (Museo para la Identidad Nacional in Spanish) provided a comprehensive, if a bit overwhelming, collection of Honduras’ greatest hits. From pre-Columbian times to a virtual theater experience of the country’s world-famous Copán archaeological site to the present day it’s all here under one roof (though don’t be fooled–nothing compares to actually visiting the Copán site). It’s worth the 60L (US$3) admission price.

The National Art Gallery (Galeria Nacional de Atre in Spanish) charged a more reasonable 30L (US$1.50) and delivered ancient art and petroglyphs but we enjoyed the modern art (all by Honduran artists) the most. The building it’s in is beautiful as well.

The National Museum of History and Anthropology Villa Roy (Museo Nacional de Historia y Antrhopologia Villa Roy in Spanish ), in a mansion that was the home of ex Honduran President Julio Lozano, also sounded interesting but it was closed due to water damage when we were in Tegus.

For culture of a different kind, Edo recommends Café Paradiso, a bohemian coffee house in the center of Tegus where you can watch independent films or find poets reading their work.

Iglesia Los Dolores - Tegucigalpa, Honduras

Carvings on the front of Iglesia Los Dolores in Tegucigalpa represent scenes from the Passion of the Christ.

Eating in Tegucigalpa

More than 40 embassies and consulates currently exist in Tegucigalpa which means food from around the world is available, some of it world-class. Edo was dying ot take us to a place called Había Una Vez. The owners are French and Peruvian and so is the food. He loves the bar as well. Sadly, Habia Una Vez was closed every time we stopped by.

Tegus is also full of international fast food chains (not that that’s where you want to eat) and their presence has inspired some very interesting controversy. When we were in town McDonald’s and KFC were the target of angry graffiti accusing the chains of tax evasion.

McDonalds & KFC wanted for tax ivasion - Nicaragua

This spray painted protest on a wall in Tegucigalpa accuses McDonald’s and KFC of tax evasion. Occupy Nicaragua!

We also came across a business called DK’d Donuts complete with pink and brown colors and a distinctly Dunkin’ Donuts script. The story we heard is that the owner of DK’d got screwed out of his Dunkin’ Donuts franchise in Tegus and opened DK’d instead.

DK'D donuts - Tegucigalpa, Honduras

If it looks like Dunkin’ Donuts, smells like Dunkin’ Donuts and tastes like Dunkin’ Donuts…

In-N-Out has nothing to worry about, but the burgers we had with Edo at an outdoor institution called Bigos were more than respectable. We ordered at a window (80L or about US$4 for a big burger and 24L or about US$1.25 for a beer), then ate on plastic picnic tables in the midst of a parking lot. Not classy, but we liked the vaguely ’50s drive-in vibe and the grilled burger was not puny and came on a good bun with a pile of tasty fries.

Edo also told us there’s even a place in Tegus which sells local microbrewery beer. It’s called Joe’s Sports Bar but it’s weirdly and inconveniently located by the airport so we never got there. We did grab a bite at Asados El Gordo, an Argentinian steak house that Edo recommended. We weren’t hungry enough for a steak but we really enjoyed their filling and relatively cheap empanadas.

Sleeping in Tegucigalpa

With all those embassies, consulates and expats around Tegus is full of international business-class hotels (Intercontinental, Marriott, et al). But we wanted to see what an ambitious, locally owned hotel was all about. Portal del Angel, which was just about the first boutique hotel in Tegucigalpa when it opened ten years ago, hosted us while we were in town. While their website may oversell the “boutique hotel” part of this establishment, which is showing signs of wear and tear which the owners are slowly addressing, the hotel is in a quiet neighborhood and was a calm haven.

Day trips around Tegucigalpa

A short trip northeast of Tegus takes you to Santa Lucía and Valle de Angeles, two towns known for offering great Honduran food and well-made handicrafts at reasonable price. Don’t miss the tea house in front of the church in Santa Lucia. Edo also urged us to visit La Tigra National Park (Parque Nacional La Tigra in Spanish), the first national park in Honduras. The park is famous for its cloud forest, but the US$10 per person entry fee kept us away.

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