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45km (28 miles) to Santa Rosa de Copán; 155km (96 miles) to Copán

You wouldn't know it just by looking at it, but this sleepy town was once the Spanish capital of Central America. After its founding in 1536, it was named Gracias a Dios, after founder Captain Juan de Chavez, a Spanish conquistador, spent many long days combing the mountains for a decent stretch of earth: "Gracias a Dios que hemos hallado tierra llana" ("Thank God that we found flat land") were reportedly the first words out of his mouth when he found the town. In 1544, Gracias became home to the Spanish Royal courthouse and was given jurisdiction over a territory that covered the vast area between Mexico and Panama, but that didn't last long. Four years later, the court moved to Antigua, Guatemala, and little else was heard about Gracias for many years.

Having been overshadowed by nearby Copán (and Antigua) for far too long, Gracias is now preparing to make a statement. Hotels are expanding, tours to nearby Lenca villages are drawing press, its hot springs are becoming more developed, and the number of visitors to the national park here, Parque Nacional Celaque, is growing every year. Major renovations have either recently finished or are ongoing in several colonial churches, the small fort above the city, several historical buildings, the Parque Central, and throughout the entire Ruta Lenca. When everything has been carefully restored, the town of Gracias will be nothing less than a major Central American attraction. For now, though, cowboy hats are still the favorite accessory, the dusty old square is the town hangout, and for many places in the region, the word "Gracias" still means "thank you."