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Blowing Smoke – Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras

The road from the town of Gracias down to Santa Rosa de Copán travels through gorgeous pine forests and sloping, green hills. But we weren’t able to enjoy it. There were so many potholes in the “pavement” that it was best to think of the journey as a video game–something along the lines of Angry Potholes–in which gaping holes appear out of nowhere and it’s your job to avoid them. At one point a particularly huge pothole had a blow-up Santa Claus stuffed into it as a grim warning to steer clear or join the jolly man in the abyss. Good luck.

Santa Rosa de Copan Street - Honduras

A cobble stone street in Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras.

Santa Rosa de Copan Cathedral - Honduras

The Santa Rosa de Copán Cathedral.

 

We finally reached Santa Rosa de Copán more or less in one piece. The highlight of our two days in this town, which had more intact Colonial charm than we’d anticipated, was our first trip inside a Central American cigar factory.

Unfortunately, the Flor de Copán cigar factory in town is now owned by the multi-national Altadis company and that means regulations, including a rule against taking any photos inside the facility. So, you’ll have to trust us when we tell you that the factory was gorgeous, the tobacco leaves looked rich enough to eat and the workers (mostly women) were focused and precise. The amonia-heavy smell of drying and curing tobacco and the sound of the worker’s rudimentary, almost antique tools enhanced the atmospheric 40 minute tour. Well worth 40L (US$2).

 Flor de Copan - Santa Rosa de Copan, Honduras

The only photos we could get of Flor de Copán cigars was in their store since photos are, sadly, banned during the factory tour.

We heard rumors of a smaller, locally owned cigar factory in town that allows photos but we could never get anyone to tell us exactly where it was.

A lesser-known factory in Santa Rosa de Copán is the plant where a local soda brand called Copán Dry is made. The neon-colored stuff comes in flavors like banana, cream soda, grape, pineapple and “punch” which they make by mixing all the flavors together.

Copán Dry

We love the peppy, retro look of the Copán Dry soda bottles and we wish the Coke distributor would stop smashing them so the company doesn’t have to switch to plastic bottles.

Copán Dry staff were delighted (and a bit surprised) to see us and they even gave us each a cold one. They also told us that the local Coca Cola distributor has been known to buy huge volumes of Copán Dry then smash the bottles. The tactic is costing Copán Dry so much that they may be forced to move to plastic bottles.

Santa Rosa de Copan Street - Honduras

Another cobble stone street in Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras.

In Santa Rosa de Copán we were hosted at two very different hotels. Hotel Elvir is the established brand in town with a pool, big restaurant and rooms that are well-appointed and comfortable, if a bit too much like a Best Western. The building and courtyard at the Elvir have a wonderful old-world look and feel which eases you into and out of your explorations of the town.

We spent our second night in Santa Rosa de Copán at Hotel Antiguo Roble. There’s no pool or fancy restaurant or tour agency at the front desk but this place, in a converted colonial home, is full of character and simply achieved style including locally carved wood furniture.

While in Santa Rosa de Copán, don’t miss Kaldi’s Koffee, a chic cafe down the street along the side of the cathedral, or the small shops around downtown selling handmade saddles for next to nothing.

Santa Rosa de Copan colonial Street - Honduras

A very colonial looking corner in Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras.

 

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Photo Essay: Lempira Day Parade – Gracias de Dios, Honduras

Gracias de Dios is the center of the land of the Lenca, the largest indigenous group in Honduras. Their most revered leader was Chief Lempira who, in the 1500s, managed to hold off invading Spanish forces. Though Lempira was ultimately killed by the conquistadors, he is celebrated every July 20 on what’s known as Lempira Day. The normally sleepy town of Gracias hosts the biggest celebration of them all with a three-hour Lempira Day Parade, air force fly over and a fireworks display.

Here’s a photo essay of highlights from the 2011 Lempira Day Parade in Gracias including kids dressed up as modern villagers, ancient Lencans and Spanish conquistadors, beauty queens decked out in handmade dresses decorated with beans, seeds and corn kernels depicting Chief Lempira’s face, farm life and jungle scenes and, of course, proud members of the military.

Lempira Day Parade - Gracias, Honduras

Lempira Day Parade - Gracias, Honduras

Lempira Day Parade - Gracias, Honduras

Lempira Day Parade - Gracias, Honduras

Lempira Day Parade - Gracias, Honduras

Lempira Day Parade - Gracias, Honduras

Lempira Day Parade - Gracias, Honduras

Lempira Day Parade - Gracias, Honduras

Lempira Day Parade - Gracias, Honduras

Lempira Day Parade - Gracias, Honduras

dancers Lempira Day Parade - Gracias, Honduras

conquistador Lempira Day Parade - Gracias, Honduras

chief Lempira Day Parade - Gracias, Honduras

Lempira Day Parade - Gracias, Honduras

Lempira Day Parade - Gracias, Honduras

Lempira Day Parade - Gracias, Honduras

Lempira Day Parade - Gracias, Honduras

chief Lempira Day Parade - Gracias, Honduras

Lempira Day Parade - Gracias, Honduras

Lempira Day Parade - Gracias, Honduras

Lempira Day Parade - Gracias, Honduras

ice cream Lempira Day Parade - Gracias, Honduras

army Lempira Day Parade - Gracias, Honduras

For more about Lempira Day and other reasons to visit, check out our newspaper feature about Gracias for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

 

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Land of the Lenca – Gracias de Dios, Honduras

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)

Chief Lempira - Gracias, Honduras

Legendary Lencan leader Chief Lempira is immortalized in this statue and in an annual day-long festival  in Gracias, Honduras.

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.

Money - Honduran Lempira

The official currency of Honduras is the lempira, named after Lencan leader Chief Lempira (that’s him on the 1 lempira note).

 

Fireworks and fly overs

Conqistador - Lempira Day Parade - Gracias, Honduras

The most adorable conquistador in the world taking part in the annual Chief Lempira Day parade in Gracias, Honduras.

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.

View of Celaque from fort above Gracias, Honduras

The high peaks of Celaque Mountain National Park seen from the Castillo San Cristobal Fort above the town of Gracias in Honduras.

 

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.

Castillo San Cristobal fort - Gracias, honduras

Castillo San Cristobal Fort above the town of Gracias in Honduras. 

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.

Iglesia San Marcos - Gracias, Honduras

Iglesia San Marcos on the main square in sleep Gracias, Honduras, is painted in lemon meringue colors. 

 

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).

Waterfall in Calaque National Park - Gracias, Honduras

One of the many waterfalls in Celaque Mountain National Park near Gracias, Honduras.

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.

River in Calaque National Park - Gracias, Honduras

Celaque Mountain National Park near Gracias, 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.

Lencan pottery - La Campa, Honduras

Traditional Lencan pottery is sold directly from family workshops in La Campa near the town of Gracias in Honduras.

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.

La Campa, Honduras

The church in La Campa near the town of Gracias, Honduras.

 

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.

San Manuel de Colohete, Honduras

Nuestra Señora de Concepción church in the town of San Manuel de Colohete has been called the “Sistine Chapel of Latin America.”

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.

Restaurant Rinconcito Graciano, Lizeth Perdomo - Gracias, Honduras

Lizeth Perdomo whips up dishes using traditional Lencan recipes and organic ingredients at her  Rinconcito Graciano restaurant in Gracias, 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 Museonear 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.

Preserves - Lorendiana - Gracias, Honduras

The canned foods at Lorendiana shop in Gracias, Honduras are almost too gorgeous to 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).

Cafe Kandil - Gracias, Honduras

Kafe Kandil delivers unexpected chic in Gracias, Honduras.

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.

TIP

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.

Iglesia de Mercedes - Gracias, Honduras

Iglesia de Mercedes in Gracias, Honduras.

 

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Brews and Views – Lake Yojoa & Cerro Azul National Park, Honduras

Travel just south of San Pedro Sula and you’ll find the biggest lake in Honduras. Lake Yojoa (Lago de Yojoa in Spanish) was formed in a volcanic crater and is shaped vaguely like the state of Florida. On the lakeshore there’s a small archaeological site where you can walk around the remains of a Lencan city which dates back to 700 BC and hundreds of types of birds (and vacationing Hondurans) love the place. But those aren’t the only reasons we went to Lake Yojoa. We also heard there was beer.

Lake Yojoa from Cerro Azul National Park, Honduras

Lake Yojoa as seen from Cerro Azul National Park in Honduras.

Lake Yojoa, Honduras

Lake Yojoa in Honduras.

 

The brews

D&D Brewery Lodge & Restaurant was opened by Robert Dale, a guy from the US who wanted someplace to get a burger and a beer so he created one. When we visited D&D a new owner named Bobby had just taken over but the burgers and the brews on tap (made by a Honduran who was trained by Dale) were still going strong. Okay, D&D’s beer isn’t as good or as affordable as the stuff Thomas is making at his Sol de Copán brewery in Copán Ruinas, but it still beats Honduran Salva Vida any day.

D&D Brewery - Lake Yojoa, Honduras

Welcome to one of only two microbreweries we found in Honduras, the D&D Brewery Lodge & Restaurant on Lake Yojoa.

D&D also has a pool, a place for your tent and a range of rooms which were getting a much-needed renovation (new paint, new mattresses, etc) when we were there.

D&D Brewery - Lake Yojoa, Honduras

Happy taps at D&D Brewery Lodge & Restaurant on Lake Yojoa in Honduras.

Plhapanzak Waterfall, Honduras

Pulhapanzak Waterfall is a 140 foot (43 meter) rager near Lake Yojoa in Honduras. Guides will take you over rocks and through swimming holes to reach a small rocky space behind the crashing water.

 

The views

Less than an hour from Lake Yojoa is Cerro Azul Meámbar National Park (Parque Nacional Cerro Azul Meámbar in Spanish). Established in 1987, the park covers 115 square miles (300 square kilometers) ranging in elevation from 1,600 to 6,500 feet (500 to 2,000 meters) providing habitat for more than 50 species of mammals.

trails Cerro Azul national Park, Honduras

Karen exploring some of the 10 miles of trails through Cerro Azul Meámbar National Park in Honduras.

 Cerro Azul National Park, Honduras

A rare glimpse of the often-cloud-covered high peaks of Cerro Azul Meámbar National Park in Honduras.

 waterfall Cerro Azul National Park, Honduras

One of the many waterfalls in Cerro Azul Meámbar National Park in Honduras which is one of the country’s largest watersheds.

Cerro Azul has benefited from the know how, funding and management of a Canadian NGO called PANACAM. Unlike most parks in Central America, Cerro Azul has knowledgeable staff members on site, dorm rooms and gorgeous private cabins for rent (800L, about US$42, for a cabin but bargain a bit) and nearly 10 miles (15 kilometers) of marked and maintained trails through different vegetative zones and past waterfalls. There’s even Wi-Fi in the park’s beautiful restaurant.

sunrise over Lake Yojoa & Santa Barbra National Park, Honduras

Sunrise  from the campground in Cerro Azul Meámbar National Park with Lake Yojoa and Santa Barbra National Park in the background.

cool mushroom - Cerro Azul National Park, Honduras

A cool mushroom in Cerro Azul Meámbar National Park in Honduras.

Cerro Azul also has what just might be the best campsite in all of Honduras. For 100L per person (US$5.25) we set up our tent on a flat surface under a metal roof near clean bathrooms with flush toilets, cold water showers and functioning sinks. We even had electricity and a pair of aracaris (basically small toucans) perched in a tree near our tent. The only thing missing was an ice cold beer.

 

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Escaping San Pedro Sula – Cusuco National Park, Honduras

San Pedro Sula is not a pretty town. Nor is it cheap or attraction filled or, frankly, particularly safe. A Peace Corps worker was accidentally shot in the leg during a gun fight on a public bus in San Pedro Sula recently, precipitating a complete withdrawal of Peace Corps workers from Honduras (here’s more on the Peace Corps pullout).

San Pedro Sula is, however, where the country’s biggest international airport is located and it’s possible that you will find yourself in SPS (as everyone calls it) at least for a night. We actually spent time in SPS on two separate occasions and here’s what we learned.

Where to sleep (and not sleep) in San Pedro Sula

If you want a hotel near the airport it does not get any better than Banana Inn. Locally owned, this 16 room hotel is built in what was an administration building for the United Fruit Company (aka Chiquita Banana) from 1930 to 2003, hence the name. Rooms have A/C and there’s a pool (did we mention that it’s usually sizzling in SPS?). It’s also less than five minutes from the airport in a quiet town outside of the fray of SPS.

If you need or want to stay in town, do yourself a favor and skip Hostal Tamarindo. Everyone talks about Tamarindo as the cheap place in town but we spent a night there on a crappy mattress in a noisy, dirty, hot room with a small, dirty shared bathroom and even dirtier shared kitchen and paid $30 for the privilege. 

Since then, a much better option has emerged. Check out La Hamaca Hostal which was recently opened by our friend Juan Carlos Paz. It looks awesome with good mattresses, spotless facilities, a pool table, movie room, WiFi, an outdoor BBQ, stylish private rooms and dorms and, yes, hammocks. 

Juan Carlos Paz, Jungle Xpeditions - San Pedro Sula, Honduras

Juan Carlos Paz, the brains and brawn behind Jungle Xpedition tour company and La Hamaca Hostal in Honduras. He swears he is not Amish.

 

Better yet, sleep in Cusuco National Park

And speaking of Juan Carlos, we highly recommend his SPS-based tour company too. He created Jungle Xpedition a few years ago, fueled by his remarkable energy and his passion for the natural areas in Honduras.

Jungle Xpedition runs trips and tours all over Honduras but we were interested in escaping SPS. Believe it or not, there’s a national park just outside SPS so we jumped into a vintage Land Rover with Juan Carlos and his friend Eduardo, who’s a biologist, and headed for the hills.

Heading to Cusuco national Park - San Pedro Sula, Honduras

Heading to Cusuco National Park outside San Pedro Sula, Honduras in a vintage Land Rover driven by Juan Carlos Paz of Jungle Xpedition.

Heading to Cusuco national Park - San Pedro Sula, Honduras

Just one of the views we were treated to as we drove up, up, up into Cusuco National Park above San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

Within a few minutes we’d left SPS far behind and began climbing slowly and steadily up an increasingly rough dirt road until we were engulfed in clouds and blessedly cooler temperatures. We stopped in a tiny village to pay a visit to Vilma who brewed us up some delicious locally grown coffee which she grinds with cinnamon and black pepper–perfect with her homemade corn cakes which were even more delicious than they sound.

Further up we reached the slightly larger village of Buenos Aires where a woman named Martina served us yet more coffee on an outdoor bench. Her dirt floor home was small and simple but her bench had a million dollar view of the hills and the clouds that call them home.

Lunch near Cusuco National Park - San Pedro Sula, Honduras

Now that’s what we call lunch, served by a lovely woman in a village near Cusuco National Park above San Pedro Sula in Honduras.

View Cusuco National Park

This is why they call it a cloud forest.

All caffeined up, we hit the trial to Toucan Waterfall. After about an hour of walking over an undulating trail through hills planted with coffee (more caffeine!) we reached the four-tiered cascade and its inviting swimming hole. Back in Buenos Aires we feasted on fried chicken, red beans, scrambled eggs, homemade tortillas and vegetables at another woman’s house/restaurant before coaxing the Land Rover further uphill and through the actual entrance to Cusuco National Park.

Coffee field around Buenos Aires - Cusuco National Park, Honduras

Coffee planted around the village of Buenos Aires in the hills above San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

Toucan Waterfall - Cusuco National Park, Honduras

Toucan Waterfall in Cusuco National Park in Honduras.

Cusuco National Park sign, Honduras

Cusuco National Park in Honduras gets virtually no visitors.

There’s a large covered area full of picnic tables, a flat expanse perfect for tents and a very basic dorm with a small rudimentary kitchen and an outdoor cooking stove. We had the place to ourselves.

Visiting research teams studying the flora and fauna in the park (there’s a small lab/office for the students and scientists) are just about the only people who ever visit Cusuco  National Park which was established in 1959 and covers 90.5 square miles (234.4 square kilometers) of cloudforest, semi-arid pine forest and deciduous forest making it notable in both size and diversity.

Campground  - Cusuco National Park, Honduras

We had the whole place to ourselves when we visited Cusuco National Park above San Pedro Sula in Honduras.

Trail Cusuco National Park, Honduras

Exploring a trail through Cucuso National Park in Honduras.

Giant mushroom - Cusuco National Park, Honduras

This giant mushroom in Cusuco National Park also had a groovy shiny purple top.

Before dinner we all took a short night walk, then scarfed down the delicious homemade chilli that Juan Carlos brought up with him before hitting the hay. In the morning we warmed up some baleadas and enjoyed the national food of Honduras (a big flour tortilla filled with scrambled eggs and other goodies then folded in half and covered in butter) for breakfast before doing another short walk in the park over a trail that took us deep into lush rainforest that looked ripped from the pages of Lord of the Rings.

Cusuco means armadillo and we did, indeed, see one scurrying through the underbrush away from us during the night walk. Quetzal birds have been spotted in Cusuco National Park too, but not by us. 

Spider - Cusuco National Park, Honduras

The leg-span of this spindly spider in Cusuco National Park was at least six inches.

Spider - Cusuco National Park, Honduras

Another spider spotted in Cusuco National Park.

Stick Bug - Cusuco National Park, Honduras

A stick bug doesn’t blend in so when it’s not among sticks.

Juan Carlos, whose incongruous red hair and red beard make him look like an Amish man even though he’s 100% Honduran, isn’t satisfied with simply bringing people to this woefully under visited park. He also wants to improve the lives of the people living near the park and to do that he takes matters into his own hands, distributing clothing, bringing in doctors, even inspiring a tourist he’d brought up to Cusuco to provide the small sum that was needed to extend electrical lines to the upper reaches of Buenos Aires village.

Buenos Aires, Honduras

Karen and Martina who brewed up some tasty coffee for us in the village of Buenos Aires. No, Karen is not standing on a box.

This has made Juan Carlos something of a minor celebrity in the area and he’s greeted with smiles from everyone. After spending a couple of days with Juan Carlos its clear to us that he would make the perfect Tourism Minister for Honduras, only he’s probably too smart to take the job.

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On the Rocks – Utila Island & Rocks Cay, Honduras

A sad little ferry (more like a floating coffin) takes you from La Ceiba out to Utila town on Utila Island, in the Bay Islands of Honduras. But the dilapidated craft turned out to be a blessing because, unlike the sleek monster which travels from La Ceiba to neighboring Roatán Island, the Utila ferry is slow.

In the midst of a downpour with seas churning we piled into the craft, then every single one of the windows and doors were sealed (not for the claustrophobic). We set off at a  leisurely pace which meant that the ferry captain was able to negotiate through the chop, swell and white caps rather than blasting through them as the Roatán ferry does with puke-inducing effect. After about an hour we reached Utila town with just one barfer.

Cooling off on Utila, Honduras

A typical fisherman’s home on Lower Cay, aka Pigeon Cay, about 20 minutes away from Utila town.

 

Bargain no more

Let’s get one thing straight. If you’ve got a notion in your head that Utila town is a great place to chill on a beach for cheap you’re wrong on two counts. There is no accessible beach (save for two sorry man-made bits of sand) and food and lodging on Utila is no longer cheap.

Breakfast can easily set you back US$4 and while there are some nice places to stay on the island bargains are hard to find. For example, we were hosted at Mango Inn which has rooms of varying sorts arranged around a lush garden and somewhat murky pool. But with rates starting at $55 it’s not exactly backpacker friendly.

Fish Burgers Restaurant, Pigeon Cay -  Utila, Honduras

Fish Burgers Restaurant on Lower Cay, aka Pigeon Cay, in Honduras.

Lodging does get more affordable if you sign up for SCUBA lessons. The island is littered with dive shops (several owned by the same company) and dive instruction is often bundled with free or subsidized basic accommodation while you’re studying.

Which leads us to another misconception about Utilia. The island used to be one of the cheapest places in the world to learn to dive. Some claim Utila once held the dubious honor of certifying more PADI divers than any other place on the planet. But the island is no longer a PADI bargain with open water courses averaging nearly $300 and most of the dive shops working together to maintain a minimum price and discourage undercutting.

Water Cays Utila, Honduras

Small, mostly uninhabited cays dot the waters around Utila in Honduras.

 

Whale sharks for free

One totally worth it bargain is the free nightly whale shark talk at the Whale Shark and Oceanic Research Center in Utila town. This not-for-profit group recently resumed activity, including hosting this laid back lecture which is meant to provide basic information about whale sharks and the work the group is doing to study and protect them.

The night we attended the talk it was lead by John, a marine biologist from the UK who was on the island working with the org. He was smart, funny, informative, interactive and the beer and rum and cokes flowed for just 25L (US$1.30).

Whale sharks are fairly commonly sighted around Utila and the underfunded org is trying to establish research and protection efforts. When we were there organizers were trying to scrape together the resources needed to build a fake whale shark which researchers could use to practice their tagging techniques before attempting them on real whale sharks. If you have some spare change this is a good group to donate it to.

Life on the rocks

Approaching Long (Pigeon) Cay - Utila, Honduras

Approaching Lower Cay, aka Pigeon Cay, about 20 minutes from Utila town. 

Nonplussed by Utila, we got on a water taxi and headed to more tranquil and affordable digs. When we read about tiny Rocks Cay, a private island about 20 minutes from Utila town, we knew we had to stay there and owners Henry and Victoria Karpinski, kindly agreed to host us in the house they rent on the island.

Rocks Cay is a private island, but it’s not the deserted kind. It’s s half acre of rocky coral separated  from Lower (or Pigeon) Cay and Upper (or Jewel, or Suc Suc) Cay by a narrow channel with a foot bridge over it.

Rocks Cay - Utila, Honduras

Our home on Rocks Cay, a private island about 20 minutes from Utila in Honduras.

The four bedroom, two bathroom house on Rocks Cay has a full kitchen and is spread over two buildings which take up most of the hunk of land. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s peaceful and comfortable and a great place to hang out with family and friends.

And at US$120 a night for up to 10 people it’s the biggest accommodation bargain in the area. Just be sure to arrive with all of the supplies you need. There are a few small shops on Lower and Upper Cay that stock the basics (ketchup, beer) and you can sometimes buy fresh fish but if you need something else you’ll be faced with a $25 boat taxi trip back to Utila town to get it.

Market Pigeon Cay - Utila, Honduras

What passes for a “super”market on Lower Cay, aka Pigeon Cay, one of the many small islands near Utila.

Lower and Upper Cay are home to fishing villages full of tightly packed houses. The locals are more Caribbean than Honduran. Their Spanish sounds almost creole and there are references to Louisiana are everywhere. The boat docked at Rocks Cay is called the Who-Dat (a common greeting that originated in New Orleans). Men walk around town wearing Saints t-shirts. Fleur de Lis are everywhere. You can buy Zatrain Cajun spices in the shops. Apparently, many residents of Upper and Lower Cay have spent time working in Louisiana and they’ve slowly brought back bits of the south.

Who Sat - Utila, Honduras

The boat behind our house on Rocks Cay was called “Who-Dat,” just one of many Louisiana references in this part of the world.

Fun sign at Purple Pelican Grill on Utila, Honduras

Playful sign at the fresh water shower at the Purple Pelican Grill.

Henry and Victoria have lived out here for years and are a wealth of local information. They also run Harbor House on Lower Cay which offers two rooms for rent, a small cafe plus internet access if you must have it. They’re also building gorgeous custom homes at Mariners Landing and they run tours.

One afternoon we got into Henry’s boat and sped along the gorgeous coastline nosing up to other small cays (including Water Cay where the Sun Jam music festival is held every year) before arriving at the Purple Pelican Grill, a bar and restaurant on a postcard perfect bit of beach which is only accessible by boat.

Otherwise, we spent five blissful days on Rocks Cay doing nothing much besides cooking and eating, doing yoga on the dock, snorkeling right off our own back pier and lounging in hammocks.

 

Mermaid alert

Utopia Dive Village - Utila, Honduras

Utopia Dive Village in a remote section of Utila Island.

Beach - Utila, Honduras

Utopia Dive Village , which is only reachable by boat, is on one of the only true beaches on the island of Utila.

SCUBA diving Utopia Dive Village - Utila, Honduras

Karen and Eric’s brother, Jeff coming up after a dive with Utopia Dive Village. 

We left Rocks Cay before we got too deep into the do-nothing island life, however, and headed to a remote section of Utila for some SCUBA diving with Utopia Dive Village.

Created by a group of mostly female friends from the US, the 16 room Utopia Dive Village is not exclusively for women but the place does benefit from a woman’s touch with full-length mirrors, flattering skylights and SCUBA gear designed to fit women–features not always found in the usual dive resort.

Utila is home to world-renowned dive sites which delivered a fairly rich underwater world of colorful coral, schooling fish, feeding turtles and nighttime creatures like octopus. Whale sharks are even regularly seen here too but not, sadly, during any of the dives we got in before it was time to say goodbye to Utila.

Cooling off on Utila, Honduras

Karen and Eric’s brother Jeff cooling off in the ocean with Angelika Lukacsy (right), one of the creators of Utopia Dive Village. Angelika likes to wear nail polish in a color called Mermaid.

 

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