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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Drink Responsibly (or, why we love our SteriPEN)

We’re just going to come right out and say it (again): Every responsible traveler should carry a water purification system if they want to be healthy, thrifty and environmentally responsible. That’s why we love our SteriPEN.

The shocking reality is that more than 8% of the earth’s population still doesn’t have access to safe drinking water. However, in much of the developed world (ie where most travelers come from) bottled water is no better than tap water which is treated and safe to drink to begin with. Yet bottled water costs up to 2,000 times more than tap water.

The environmental cost is even higher with millions of pounds of plastic bottles dumped into the trash annually. Furthermore, the production of all those plastic bottles and the act of transporting them consumes tens of millions of barrels of oil a year in the US alone.

According to the Beverage Marketing Corporation, global sales of bottled water increased 4.1% from 2010 to 2011. Many of you have probably ditched bottled water when you’re at home. However, when we travel to places with unsafe tap water (which includes some of the most compelling places on earth), our needs and behaviors change.

Take us, for example

We recently completed day 1,900 of our Trans-Americas Journey road trip. Well more than half of that time has been spent in areas where it’s not safe for us to drink the tap water. Conservatively speaking, let’s say we purchased four liters of bottled water per day for 1,000 of our days on the road. In this scenario we would have spent around $4,000 on water and thrown away at least 4,000 plastic bottles. Lined up end to end, that’s a trash trail nearly a mile long.

Luckily, we have a SteriPEN which uses UV light to purify a liter of water in 60 seconds with no additives, after taste or bottles to throw away.

 

 

Good for your travel budget and the environment

SteriPEN was one of our very first product partners and we’ve been using their Adventurer water purifier since day one of our Journey. If we hadn’t been using our SteriPEN we estimate that we would have spent at least $4,000 on bottled water. Subtract the price of our SteriPEN ($90) and the cost of the batteries (about $0.10/liter) and, so far, we’ve saved more than $3,500 by using our SteriPEN instead of buying bottled water as we travel.

Even better, we have not added our 4,000 empty plastic water bottles to the billions that are discarded every year. And if you think those bottles are all being turned into lovely new Patagonia fleeces, think again.

The International Bottled Water Association admits that just 31% of the 85 million bottles of water which are consumed in the United States every day are recycled (itself an energy inefficient, polluting process). That recycling percentage number dips into the single digits or disappears altogether in developing countries where so many of us spend time traveling.

 

 

And what happens to unrecycled plastic bottles in Calcutta or Cartagena? We’ve all seen (and smelled) them burning on trash heaps, slowly releasing toxins into the air.

Though we love our SteriPEN, it’s not perfect. It failed on us once when we were camping near Half Dome in Yosemite National Park (it was below freezing and we believe that conditions were too cold for the batteries). And though the company says fresh batteries will purify 50 liters, we don’t usually get through that much water before we have to change the batteries.

And speaking of batteries, we’re aware that throwing out our spent batteries is an environmental hazard. If you can’t reconcile yourself to that check out the SteriPEN Sidewinder that’s powered by a hand crank, the new Freedom which can be charged via USB or add on a solar charger for your SteriPEN batteries.

Be part of the bottled water solution

Another reason travelers need to commit to a sustainable and money-saving  alternatives to the financially and environmentally unsustainable cycle of buying and tossing plastic bottles water bottles? The places you want to travel to are starting to make it harder to get your hands on bottled water. For example, Grand Canyon National Park, where our SteriPEN easily purified enough water to fuel our hikes to the canyon floor from both rims, banned the sale of plastic water bottles in early 2012.


Be A Responsible Traveler, Buy a SteriPEN:

       
                   

SteriPEN supplied an Adventurer water purification wand to us to use and review.

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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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