When I announced my plans to go to Honduras, the response was inevitable: "Honduras? But there's a war there." Most people in the United States still associate Honduras with border clashes between the Honduran and Nicaraguan armies, or the politics of the anti-Sandinista rebels. Now, however, after several years here as a reporter, I can assure anyone that the occasional border incident and contra gossip unfairly represent Honduras to the rest of the world.
Except for small sections along the borders with Nicaragua and El Salvador, which are all but impossible to reach anyway, Honduras is at peace. And while it is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, it has a number of attractions to draw both visitors looking for traditional tropical vacations and those in search of more adventurous ways of seeing Central America, whether by exploring Mayan ruins or panning for gold.
The variety in the Tennessee-sized nation of 4.5 million people is startling, from the coral reefs and deserted sands of the Bay Islands to the banana plantations of the Mosquito Coast to the colonial city in the central highlands that is the capital, Tegucigalpa -- with its winding streets and Spanish architecture.
On his final voyage to the new world in 1502, Christopher Columbus landed on what is now known as Guanaja, one of a string of islands about 30 miles north of the Honduran mainland. Known as the Bay Islands, they are populated by descendants of English buccaneers who settled there in the 16th and 17th centuries. The islanders make their livings from the sea, fishing and working as crew members for the merchant ships that visit Honduras to take away the country's prime export, bananas. Their first language is a Caribbean English dialect, and they generally do not consider themselves part of Spanish-speaking Honduras.
The islands belonged to Britain until 1859, and many of the residents would like nothing better than to secede from Honduras. During the 1982 Falkland Islands war between Great Britain and Argentina, a delegation of islanders traveled to Tegucigalpa, where they asked the British Embassy why they could not be liberated by English troops as were their cousins in the South Atlantic.
On the two largest islands, Roata'n and Guanaja, there are a number of diving and beach resorts. Guests can frolic in the sun or dive on coral reefs off fully equipped boats. For my taste, though, the best diving is to be found off Utila, the smallest of the three main islands.
But while Utila has spectacular coral formations and 1,000-foot vertical walls, the facilities are austere. There are no dive boats with coolers full of soft drinks and beer. There are no dive shops where you can have a faulty regulator tuned up or buy that piece of equipment left behind at home. There are no first-class hotels. In fact, you have to search the town for equipment and for someone to take you out in their dory -- a cigar-shaped boat usually about 30 feet long, powered by a small inboard motor. Yet it never takes long to find someone. I once went with a former mayor of Utila, who showed me parts of the island not normally seen by outsiders -- all the while giving a running narrative on island history and lore.
At the western end of Utila there are three small, privately owned cays that can be rented. Sandy Cay, run by islander George Jackson, is a tropical paradise where parties of up to six can be marooned on a deserted island with all the amenities. The football-field-sized island is covered with coconut palm trees and surrounded by a coral reef that is home to virtually every type of reef fish found in the Caribbean. The snorkeling is spectacular and is matched only by the facilities. The island boasts a small house with running water (rainwater caught from the roof), a fully equipped kitchen complete with gas stove and refrigerator, and a carpeted living room that doesn't belong on a tiny island. Electricity is stored in batteries and charged by solar panels on the roof.
Completely isolated, visitors communicate with Jackson, who lives about a 20-minute boat ride away, via CB radio, which he monitors 24 hours a day. Everything is provided except food, which visitors must take with them.
The biggest drawback to Sandy Cay, and two other islands run by Jackson and his brother, is getting there. It is a laborious journey from the mainland: One usually flies to Utila from La Ceiba in a one-engine plane that lands on a dirt airstrip at the east end of the island. The wreckage of two small planes and a DC3 greets visitors. But locals are proud to point out that no one is ever seriously hurt in crashes there.
Then it is a 30-minute ride in a dory to the cays. When the wind is up passengers have to huddle under sheets of plastic to avoid getting soaked. But when the end result is your own deserted island, who can complain?
On the mainland, south of the Bay Islands, the Caribbean coast boasts about 400 miles of largely untouched white sand beaches. There is a small population of Caribes, descendants of escaped slaves, called Garifunas, who speak their own language and are famous in Honduras for their distinct culture. Visiting a Garifuna village is like stepping out of Latin America and into an African village. Garifuna dance troupes, known for their traditional dances, frequently represent their country outside of Honduras.
The north coast is where Honduras' export bananas are grown. To this day the fruit is produced by American-owned companies -- resulting in the cliche' that Honduras is the original banana republic. And although the days are gone when the fruit companies could make or break Honduran governments, they have left a permanent imprint on the country.
Company houses, built on stilts to catch the wind and keep out snakes, are much in evidence, and many Americans still live and work there. Large turn-of-the-century buildings that housed company offices still dominate some of the coastal towns. A few have been converted into resorts. In Tela -- home of the Tela Railroad Co., which still is in operation -- the former banana company compound is now the Hotel Villas Telamar, and the stilted houses have been converted into a luxury beach resort. Up the beach is the Hotel Paradise, where guests stay in buildings that look pretty much as they did when run by the company.
Banana plantations dominate the landscape from Puerto Corte's, in western Honduras, to Trujillo, about 120 miles to the east. The railroad that crisscrosses the area was built by the fruit companies, and it still hauls bananas from the fields to the docks in Tela and La Ceiba.
In Honduras' large cities, architecture is the primary attraction. Tegucigalpa, a city of 750,000 in the central highlands, is old, founded about 1579. The capital is partly laid out on the side of a mountain and extends into the valley, and its narrow streets and bizarre traffic patterns show that Tegucigalpa was not made for 20th-century man. Unlike some of the other capitals of Central America, it is far from geological faults and has therefore been spared the earthquakes that have periodically ravaged Guatemala City, San Salvador and Managua. Thus much of the city's traditional charm has been retained, from the 200-year-old cathedral off the city square to the narrow, winding streets.
In many ways Tegucigalpa reflects its Spanish past. Adobe houses with red-tiled roofs climb the hillsides, and a number of small parks are scattered throughout the city. Probably the most scenic is Parque la Leona, about a 10-minute uphill walk from the Central Park. It is beautifully landscaped and offers a comfortable place to gaze over the city. From the east end of the park one can wander back downtown through the narrow streets that typify the older sections of the city.
Unfortunately, a series of small rivers in Tegucigalpa that could be scenic act as the city's sewer system.
For a good afternoon's entertainment, one can climb El Picacho, the mountain at the northern end of the city, where there is a spectacular view of Tegucigalpa, particularly at sunset. Or one can visit the national archeology museum in Barrio Abajo, where there are artifacts of Honduras' Mayan past.
The islands, the coast and the capital are always popular, and for good reason -- but Honduras offers an even greater variety of attractions for those who take the time to seek them out.
For archeology fans, the Mayan ruins in the department of Copa'n are the southernmost examples of the pre-Columbian civilization. Home to some of the most impressive Mayan sculptures in existence, the city at Copa'n -- in western Honduras near the Guatemalan border -- appears to have been buried under the hills; archeologists are only beginning to peel back time and expose it once again to the world. The remnants of the Mayan city have been dug out of the jungle; the ordered lawns and well-kept ruins are in sharp contrast to the surrounding area.
Copa'n is still being investigated by archeologists, who have established a line of 16 Mayan kings who ruled the city. They are still trying to learn more about the social structure of Copa'n, which -- according to dates found on monuments there -- reached its peak between A.D. 465 and 800.
The carvings on the myriad monuments at Copa'n have proven the key to the city's past. Dates on a 30-foot-wide hieroglyphic staircase indicate that it was dedicated in 756. A ball field and amphitheater uncovered during excavation have been fully restored.
In the Honduran community near the ruins, called Copa'n Ruins, is the Copa'n Museum, with an extensive display of Mayan artifacts. There one can see intricately painted ceramics, jade and bone sculptures, a re-created burial chamber and Mayan calendar.
For someone with a thirst for adventure and who is willing to travel without a fixed itinerary, making deals with the locals, the wilds of Honduras are full of interesting places to visit. Central and Eastern Honduras are basically safe places to travel, although whenever a foreigner travels extensively in rural Honduras, it is a good idea to check in with the local army commander.
In eastern Honduras, life centers on the rivers. The area along the Patuca River is just being opened to farmers, and settlements are reached entirely by river canoe.
Extreme eastern Honduras, the area known as La Mosquitia or the Mosquito Coast, is virtually unpopulated. The landscape alternates between thick jungle and pine-studded savannah. The small Honduran population in the region lives along the Caribbean coast (in the interior there are about 20,000 Nicaraguan Indian refugees). Other than flying, the only way to get there is on coastal freighters that sail from La Ceiba.
In central Honduras, notably around the gold-panning areas near Olancho, one is transported back 100 years to the American Southwest. Tiny mountain towns of adobe are populated by Hondurans who travel primarily by horseback, and never leave home without pistols on their hips.
Honduras is full of gold, silver and base metals, and in San Juancito, a small town tucked into the folds of rugged mountains about an hour east from Tegucigalpa, an abandoned mine sits as witness to the difficulties in extracting the metals. It was closed in 1953, but residents still look back on the time when they lived from the holes in the mountain. And two-thirds of the way up the side of the mountain, there is a small museum with a limited amount of mining memorabilia, accessible to anyone with a rugged car. At various points on the mountain visitors can walk to the mine openings.
While the major mines are closed, many Hondurans still make at least part of their livings from gold. In the dry season -- from December through May, when the rivers are low -- thousands of poor Hondurans pan for gold in central Honduran rivers. Using centuries-old techniques, some make the equivalent of $20 a week. And although there are no gold-panning tours per se, anyone who wants to try his luck can hire local Hondurans to take him down to the river. The best locations are in the central Honduran department of Olancho along the Guayape River.
In Olancho, not long after I arrived in Honduras, I was amazed to see dozens of Hondurans -- from children to elderly women -- patiently "washing gold," as it is called here. After one toothless grandmother explained the vagaries of the metal -- "gold is like a woman, fickle," she told me -- her nephew, panning a half-mile away, discovered about $50 worth of gold in one pan, a fortune for many poor Hondurans. And while it didn't prompt me to take to the mountains as a prospector, it made me realize that the riches of Honduras are there for those who seek them.
Wilson Ring is a free-lance reporter living in Tegucigalpa.