Gladys Nolasco is the closest thing to a tourism minister in tiny rural San Juan, Honduras (pop. 1,000). Sitting at a cluttered desk in her stationery store downtown (if you can even call it a downtown), next to a display case containing batteries and other sundries, she greets visitors and directs them to the main sights. These include her mother’s house, where you can catch a coffee-roasting demonstration, and a park with a statue of a Mayan woman who has the face of Sacagawea and the body of J.Lo.
San Juan is probably the sleepiest town in one of the sleepiest parts of this small Central American country. But I found it more exciting than San Pedro Sula, the second-largest city in Honduras and our entry point into the country. San Juan’s dirt roads evoke America’s Wild West — sans saloons and plus comedores, or small eateries that double as people’s living rooms and back patios. As my friends and I strolled past clothing stores, bodegas and concrete houses, we never knew who might invite us in for a chat — or a nap.
Stuff like that happens along the 80-mile Ruta Lenca, or Lenca Trail, in the western highlands of Honduras. The trail — named for the native people of the region, the largest indigenous group in Honduras — takes you through a series of small colonial villages, from Santa Rosa de Copan near the country’s Mayan ruins to La Esperanza, not far from the border with El Salvador. Along the way, you stumble upon beautiful colonial homes, churches, historic forts, museums, art workshops and even a cloud forest surrounding the highest point in the country.
“San Juan is a beautiful place,” Gladys said as we stood on a street corner with the afternoon sun beating down upon us. “We have unspoiled mountains, charming people, no crime. You go to the big city, and no one says hi. Here we hug you, we offer you coffee.”
Whereupon she gave me a hug before sending us off to explore. And half a block down, just as she’d predicted, we got our first invitation for a cup of coffee.
For a time in the early 2000s, Honduras was emerging as Central America’s more affordable alternative to trendy Belize and Costa Rica. Then in 2009, a coup overthrew the president, the U.S. State Department slapped a travel alert on the country, and tourism screeched to a halt. The political crisis is over now (the former president made a peaceful return last week), and the United States has deemed Honduras safer. I wanted to see it before it becomes overrun.
The second-largest country in Central America has a lot to offer: beaches, mountains, jungles, diverse plant and animal species, Mayan ruins and islands.
We started with the last, specifically Utila, one of three largish islands off the Honduran coast. (The best known is Roatan, where all the cruise ships dock.) I’d expected to exercise my Spanish all over Honduras, but hardly anybody spoke the language on Utila, a former British colony. We encountered Israelis, Australians, Brits and Garifunas, the descendants of slaves, but it was rare for anyone to describe themselves as Honduran.
We didn’t stay in Utila long, though, because we’d reserved a couple of days on our own private island. I know. Sounds luxurious, doesn’t it? Like something out of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”
Well, not exactly. There was really nothing luxurious about Little Cay, a family-owned island of about two acres that was a 20-minute boat ride from Utila and rented for just $115 a night. It came with a three-bedroom house big enough to sleep 10 plus a one-bedroom guest cottage. We, however, were just three, so we only had to share a room with the occasional fly or salamander.
The bedrooms were sparsely furnished, and the overall decor was very Miami, but more the Golden Girls’ Miami than the Kardashian sisters’. A generator controlled the electricity, but we could never figure out how to work it. Luckily, there was also solar power, so we were able to turn on some lights. There was no telephone or television set. Our only means of communication was a two-way radio. We’d stocked up on groceries in Utila and cooked our own meals.
But what Little Cay lacked in luxury it made up for in natural beauty. Our house was surrounded by coconut trees. (We tried to crack open a coconut, but you see if you can do it without a machete.) My friend Rebecca and I walked around the island in less than 10 minutes, counting five beaches, enough for each of us to sunbathe on alone. For two days, we lay in the sun, swam and watched pelicans dip into the clear water for fish. Our only appointments were watching the sun rise and set.
When we needed more supplies, we called the island manager, Barry Jackson, who showed up with his boat and chauffered us to Pigeon Cay, a small island about five minutes away with restaurants and shops. But why dillydally on Pigeon Cay when we had our own island? We returned to Little Cay as soon as we could.
Two days later, we headed back to San Pedro Sula, where we hired a car and driver for our journey along the Lenca Trail, which began in the town of Gracias, the capital of the department (or state) of Lempira, named after a Lenca chief who resisted the Spanish conquistadors in the early 1500s. Legend has it that Gracias got its name when the Spaniards, exhausted from hiking through the mountainous terrain, exclaimed “Gracias a Dios!” (“Thanks be to God”) upon finally reaching flat land. Which is exactly what I said at the end of our stomach-churning three-hour drive through the mountains from San Pedro Sula.
Now a town of 25,000, Gracias was once the capital of the Spanish empire in Central America and an important administrative center for Honduras. In recent years, it has reinvented itself as a tourist destination, emphasizing its rich history and beautiful natural environment, which includes the cloud forest and several hot springs in junglelike surroundings.
From our hotel, La Posada de Don Juan, we walked to La Merced, an ornate historic church from the 1600s that’s a well-preserved example of colonial architecture. A few short steps away, towering over the central park, is La Iglesia de San Marcos, homelier and newer than La Merced.
After lunch, we hoofed it up a steep hill to the mid-19th-century San Cristobal fort, which boasts two impressive cannons but never came under attack. It now houses the tomb of Juan Lindo, who twice served as president of both Honduras and El Salvador in the mid-1800s. For that, I thought, he surely deserved to be buried at the site with the best views of the city.
Across the street from La Iglesia de San Sebastian is the Casa Galeano, the former residence of a prominent family that’s now a museum of the town’s history and the Lencan pottery that’s so famous across Honduras. This pottery comes in two types: black and white smoked pots and reddish-brown glazed ones. Only in recent years has Honduras established museums to showcase this art. After seeing the one in Gracias, I wanted to visit the one in La Campa, an even smaller town of 4,000 in the mountains. Unfortunately, after a 45-minute drive along a mostly dirt road, we arrived in La Campa to find the Centro de Interpretacion de la Alfareria Lenca closed. Its posted closing time was 4:30 p.m. We’d arrived just before 4. Oh, well. This wasn’t the only time this sort of thing happened.
Our driver, a San Pedro Sula resident who has done the Lenca Trail many times, suggested that we visit the workshop of Dona Desideria Peres, a tiny gray-haired woman who’s been making red-glazed pots by hand since she was 12.
As we talked, she added a layer of clay to a pot. Each day she adds another, until the piece is done. She mixed some water with red dirt and rubbed it on a plate, careful not to drop any of it on her pretty yellow dress. I asked her whether her hands ever got tired. “No,” she said without looking up. “My hands are used to working.”
In Santa Rosa de Copan, the largest city in the western highlandswith a population of 43,000, we toured La Flor de Copan cigar factory, which employs about 750 people. Danilo Rodriguez, who’s in charge of factory maintenance, handed us face masks before we entered to minimize our exposure to the tobacco fumes. I scoffed at the idea of wearing one, but 10 minutes into our tour, I started feeling lightheaded and put it on.
Danilo described the tobacco-curing process: first the tobacco leaves are sprayed with water, then dried, then allowed to age like a fine Bordeaux. After several months of aging, the stems are carefully removed. He led us through a plastic curtain into a hot, cavernous room. At least 150 women in blue aprons stood over long tables de-stemming leaves. Most of their face masks dangled around their necks or sat on top of their heads.
“Why aren’t you wearing your mask?” I asked one of them.
“It’s too hot,” she replied. And besides, she said, she didn’t smell the tobacco anymore.
In another room, dozens of men and women were rolling cigars as supervisors inspected each one, rejecting those whose smell or look didn’t meet their standards.
Our tour ended — thankfully — in an air-conditioned room where women were carefully packing the cigars in boxes that looked like works of art. Even the placement of each cigar is carefully calculated; the best ones go on top.
“When you go to a party, you put on your best dress,” Danilo said. “Same thing with cigars. We put only the best ones out there.”
Back in San Juan, Gladys’s mother, Dona Soledad, a pint-size but fierce-looking woman in her late 80s with hair as white as sugar, was flipping corn tortillas over a wood-burning stove for her husband’s lunch and delivering an unsolicited synopsis of her life. She was born in the nearby town of Belen, moved to San Juan when she got married, spent 25 years as a teacher and has lived in the same house for 45 years.
Twice she’d had the opportunity to leave San Juan for America, but she’d stayed, first because she didn’t want to leave her aging parents and then because she didn’t want to leave her fiance.
“I always had a ‘but’ ” she said. “But it all worked out. I got to be with my parents until I buried them. And I got to marry the best husband in the world.”
My friends and I promised to return after lunch for her coffee demonstration. She suggested that we seek out a Peace Corps volunteer named Carlos to show us around. “He usually takes his lunch at Comedor Paty’s” across the street, she said.
“You mean Carlos Gringo?” Paty asked when I inquired about the fellow. A thunderstorm was brewing, and Paty invited us to sit on her covered back patio to wait for him. I plopped down into a rocking chair as the rain began to pour, admiring the lush bushes in the garden. I must have looked tired, because Paty’s grandmother, Dona Feliciana, suggested that I take a nap in one of the rooms that Paty rents to travelers. I politely declined, which Dona Feliciana apparently took as an invitation to tell me her life story.
When the rain stopped, we went back to Dona Soledad’s. She poured us coffee and had us sit at a small table covered with a plastic tablecloth. After one sip, I vowed to cut down on my Starbucks intake. “I hear you pay $4 a cup for coffee over there,” Dona Soledad said. Hers is less than $3 a pound.
Dona Soledad showed us a pot of beans, which she picks at her farm a mile away. Each bean, she said, has two “vestidos” — literally dresses, but figuratively layers. When the beans turn red, it’s time to undress them. She had four pounds of “naked” beans, which she poured onto a metal sheet atop her stove and stirred with a tiny shovel. For the next half-hour, my friends and I took turns helping her stir, our arms growing tired after just a few minutes.
”How do you know when the coffee’s done?” I asked.
“When there’s lots of smoke,” she said.
Finally, Carlos Gringo showed up, having heard that we were looking for him. A tall blond 28-year-old from Alabama, he wore a straw hat and sandals and spoke good if accented Spanish. Over the past year, he’s been helping the region’s coffee producers market their product.
Carlos — real name Karl Uhlig — took us to one of the two local coffee cooperatives a short drive away. It was certainly a more sophisticated operation than Dona Soledad’s. In one building, a machine stripped the layers off the beans. In another were giant roasting tumblers.
I had no doubt that the machines spewed delicious coffee, and plenty of it. But I’d been seduced by the homemade brew, and I’d take Dona Soledad’s over theirs any day.