Honduras is heating up. After years in Costa Rica's shadow, the country is positioning itself as a serious contender to its southern neighbor's behemoth eco-tourism market, and with good reason: it boasts the same sorts of attractions, but is far less crowded. (Costa Rica receives about 2 million visitors every year, but Honduras receives just over a million tourists -- this despite being almost twice Costa Rica's size and closer to the United States.)
As one of Central America's largest countries, but no bigger than the state of Tennessee, Honduras manages to be both small enough to see in 1 week, and diverse enough to comprise three different worlds: the Caribbean, the Mayan, and Tropical Nature. During a 1-week trip I took there this June, I was able to soak in the sun off the Bay Islands in the Caribbean, home to the world's second-largest coral reef; tour the famous artistic Mayan ruins at Copán, located in the interior of the country; and journey through the rich wetlands lining the north and south coasts, including a stop at the sprawling Lancetilla Botanical Gardens in Tela.
One of my fellow travelers told me that she last visited Honduras back in the 1970s and found the country to be quite different now: as our car whizzed down 4-lane highways outside the city of San Pedro Sula, she recalled how those streets were once dirt lane roads. The country has indeed grown in leaps and bounds in the last few decades, especially around big tourist attractions like Copán. Back in the '70s, the town of Copán had merely two hotels, but now it has over 70. The government is even planning on building the country's fifth major airport outside Copán by 2009.
These developments notwithstanding, however, Honduras is still charmingly rough around the edges. This is the sort of place best reserved for those who appreciate long, leisurely activities, and who don't insist on fast service. Take it from someone who didn't get the wake up calls I requested at four different hotels -- though the country is primed to welcome eco and adventure travelers, it still operates at a refreshingly slow pace. I was literally so tired from all the whitewater rafting, zip-line canopying, and hiking I was doing, that I'm grateful that I got to sleep in. In fact, I'd like to think that some hotel clerks chose not to wake me up, sensing that I needed to sleep. "Rest," they were telling me. "You're on vacation."
I suggest that you move quickly to visit the country, though. Now that the chill of fall is upon the United States and the end of hurricane season is approaching, it's the perfect time to plan a trip to Honduras. Here are some tips on what to do once you've arrived:
The Caribbean: The Bay Islands
On my flight from the states to Roátan, the largest of Honduras' Bay Islands, my seatmates announced that they were visiting Honduras for one reason only: the diving. "It's got great beaches for relaxing, and it's a short flight from home," said one of my neighbors. "But diving is why I've come back three times." Another passenger chimed in to say that he'd never even ventured outside the islands. The diving here is so excellent and so cheap, he said, and the waters so much less crowded than in places like Cozumel, Mexico, that he simply had no incentive to see other parts of Honduras.
Apparently, other tourists agree. Roátan, the most popular Bay Island, also happens to be the most visited spot in the country. At about 40 miles long and 49 square miles, Roátan lays claim to most of the islands' all-inclusive resorts, restaurants and bars, and shops. But its real attraction is diving courses that are both excellent and cheap -- most dives work out to be only $15 or less, and certification courses run only about $160 to $175. One such good operator, with courses open in English and Spanish, is Pura Vida (tel. 504/994-0150; www.puravidaresort.com).
If you'd rather not dive, The Coral Reef Explorer (tel. 504/336-5597; www.roatancoralreefexplorer.com) regularly runs glass-bottom boat tours, which allow for long, languorous looks at some of the 400-plus types of fish and 380 types of coral here. Mario, my guide on the 50-minute, 3-mile-long tour, was even more fascinating than the sea turtles, yellowtail snapper, and starfish I spotted. He explained that Roátan is volcanic, having emerged from eruption activity; according to Mario, this may have contributed to the islands' crazy wealth of marine life.
In West Bay, on the western edge of the island, I discovered that volcanic land can also be lush, as I zipped over hundreds of trees on a canopy tour at Gumbalimba Park (tel. 504/946-5559; www.gumbalimbapark.com). This fun, fast ride -- 35 meters at its longest, 137 meters at its highest -- is a practically risk-free way to get a bird's eye view of the forest; according to Marco Galindo, one of the owners, "Everyone from 3-year old-kids to 86-year-old ladies has done it." For visitors who prefer to keep their feet on solid ground, the park has a number of trails running through a garden with 100-plus species of orchids and 25 species of heliconia, as well as a Macaw and Monkey Park, where you can interact with some usually high-up creatures like capuchin monkeys and macaws.
Where to Stay & Eat
I stayed at Henry Morgan Resort (tel. 504/445-5009), one of the all-inclusive resorts in the West End, which is located at the very western tip of the island. Henry Morgan has 116 colorful, clean and comfortable units, is along a pretty stretch of beach, and offers a number of diving and snorkeling tours. For meals, however, I recommend venturing outside the resort. The West End dining scene has some unique offerings, from Thai and Italian spots, to countless Honduran restaurants serving traditional local foods like sopa de gallina (chicken broth seasoned with basil and spearmint) and platos tipico (tortillas with beef and rice and beans).
The Tropical Rainforest: Mainland Honduras
Visitors who stick only to the Bay Islands are missing out, as I learned on my 30-minute drive from the western coastal city of La Ceiba to the national park Pico Bonito. This journey took me through jungle so verdant, I immediately felt like I was in an entirely different country. Over the next few days, I rafted down class III rapids on the Cangregal River (you can too, by calling Omega Tours at tel. 504/440-0334; or visiting www.omegatours.info), toured the Lancetilla Botanical Gardens (tel. 504/408-7806), the second-largest tropical botanical gardens in the world, and hiked through the Santa Isabel Coffee Plantation outside Copán (tel. 504/651-4200; www.cafehonduras.com).
During each of these experiences, I saw and heard countless birds and other wildlife, and probably spotted more types of trees than I'd ever seen anywhere else. With 1,680 hectares of land in its possession, Lancetilla alone has the largest collection of fruit trees, hardwoods, palm trees, bamboo, and other assorted medicinal and poisonous plants in Latin America. In addition, I learned that most of mainland Honduras is decidedly adventurous; not only does it offer outdoorsy options like hiking and rafting, but the very act of getting around the country is in itself an adventure. (Outside the major towns, you'll encounter countless streets that are perfect for off-roading.)
Over my days' worth of adventures, I can safely say that I only nipped the surface of this part of Honduras. With its mountainous central highlands, north and south coast wetlands, tropical cloud forests, and vast La Mosquitia (Mosquito Coast) in the northeast, Honduras' mainland is truly like a little Amazon.
Where to Stay & Eat
I can't recommend enough staying or eating at Pico Bonita Lodge (tel. 888/428-0221; www.picobonito.com) in Pico Bonita Park. Tucked away in a remote forest at the base of Pico Bonito Mountain, this eco-lodge has 22 luxurious decked cabins, all of which are outfitted with environmentally-kind cooling fans. The stellar staff, almost all of whom are locals, offer excellent birding and hiking tours around the 200-acre property, and the restaurant serves up fresh and tasty Meso-American food like pan-seared snapper and jasmine rice, along with bottles of first-rate wine.
The Maya: Copán
Although the archaeological park Copán (no phone; admission 40 lempira; daily 8am-noon and 1-4pm) is the best known attraction in Honduras, having been designated as a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1980, it nonetheless gets fewer visitors than the Bay Islands. That's mainly due to the site's inaccessibility -- it's a good 4-hour drive from the nearest airport. (Chances are that the number of visitors will increase once that planned airport I mentioned earlier is completed. The government is also in negotiations to make it easier to cross at the Guatemalan border, just 30 minutes away.)
I visited Copán during an archaeological conference called the Copán Congress, and was able to attend a number of lectures on Maya history and culture. What really made the past come alive for me, though, was my tour of the ruins. My guide Jorge managed to tell the site's convoluted history as a simple, engaging story, and to convey how important Copán is to scholars. Though it's not the largest Maya site (that honor belongs to Tikal in Guatemala), it's widely regarded as the most artistically important -- mainly because there are lots more hieroglyphics and sculptures here than any other Maya site.
Jorge also taught me how rich avian life is in the area: of the 800 or so types of birds in the country, about 400 make their home around Copán. Fortunately, the government seems to understand that it's important to be mindful of the area's creatures before building up Copán too much. They are making a concerted effort to build the new airport far enough away from the ruins, and have announced a proposal to extend the archaeological park from 24 hectares to 200 hectares, in order to keep the area sustainable. In addition, the park is soon to institute a system of ticket sales to limit the number of visitors allowed to visit the park at any given time.
Where to Stay & Eat
The small town of Copán Ruinas, about 1km from the ruins, and its environs have over 70 hotels. But the real standout place to stay in this area is Hacienda San Lucas (tel. 504/651-4495; www.haciendasanlucas.com), an eco-resort high up in the hills outside town that features a yoga retreat center and a restaurant serving award-worthy cuisine. The restaurant menu changes daily according to what's available locally, but whatever you have will surely be amazing. I sat down to a 5 course meal that included squash soup, chicken tamales, flautas (steamed cabbage rolls with seasoned ground beef), and buñelos (fried yucca dumplings drizzled in honey), along with tortillas, rice and beans, and fried plantains.
Getting There: There are daily flights from Miami, Atlanta, Houston, and New York to San Pedro Sula (the country's 2nd-largest city), Tegucigalpa (the country's capital) and/or Roátan. The main airlines that serve these cities are TACA, Copa Air, Delta Airlines, Continental Airlines, and American Airlines. Carnival, Princess, Norwegian, and Caribbean cruise ships offer tours that include a stop at the Roátan port.
Language & Culture: Spanish is the main language in Honduras, but most people on the Bay Islands speak English as well. The Native languages of Lenca, Miskitu, and Garifuna are also spoken in some regions. The country is home to just over 7 million people, and most are of mixed American Indian and Spanish descent.
Currency: Honduras' currency is the lempira, and the current exchange rate is about 19 lempira to the U.S. dollar.
Weather: Honduras is completely within the tropics -- temperatures range from hot and humid on the Caribbean coast to mild and even cool in highland areas, to hot and dry along southern Pacific coast. In October, average daily temperatures range from 75°F to 86° F.
Tourist Information: The Honduras Tourism Board is in Tegucigalpa and can be contacted at tel. 504/222-6621. Or visit www.letsgohonduras.com for info.
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