The Honduras of today is a place bursting with energy and excitement. Luxury eco-lodges near La Ceiba can now compete with anyplace else in Central America, and beach resorts are set to turn Tela Bay into a major getaway. Cruise landings on the Bay Islands are expected to explode in the next decade as the ports are now expanded. The Mayan ruins of Copán are luring more and more visitors from countries to the north. Even La Mosquitia, traditionally one of the least accessible and most unorganized places in the Americas, is turning to community-based tours and excelling at them.

While the major metropolitan areas are becoming more modern, some creative small rural towns and indigenous villages are finding ways to earn an income through tourism while not sacrificing their ways of life. Honduras is one of the most ethnically diverse places in Latin America, and any brief journey through the country will make you well aware of this. The cultural makeup of every region is a little different. The vast majority (an estimated 85% to 90%) of Honduras's 7.8 million or so people are mestizos or Ladinos, which means they are of mixed American Indian and Spanish descent. The mestizo population therefore dominates the country's cities and the economic and political landscape of the country.

There are also eight other major ethnic groups that are concentrated in various regions around the country, the largest being the Lenca, who reside in the southwest, particularly the mountains and valleys near Gracias, and number around 100,000 in Honduras. The Lencas are descended from Chibcha-speaking Indians who came to Honduras from Colombia and Venezuela several thousand years ago. Nearby in the Copán Valley and along the border with Guatemala the Chortí-Maya are another indigenous group numbering between 4,000 and 5,000. They are the descendents of the ancient Mayas.

The second-largest ethnic group in the country is the Garífuna, descendents of Carib and Arawak Indians who mixed with escaped African slaves and now populate the entire North Coast and the Bay Islands and number around 95,000. The British forcibly transplanted the Garífuna from the Cayman Islands to the island of Roatán in 1787, and from there, they moved to other islands and to the mainland. The Garífuna still populate the Bay Islands, though they share the land with the Bay Islanders -- another ethnic group descended from pirates and blacks from elsewhere in the Caribbean -- and an increasing number of North Americans who are buying property and calling the islands home.

In the department of Yoro in the central highlands, the Tolupan inhabit scattered communities isolated among the mountains. Three other indigenous groups can be found in the La Mosquitia (Mosquito Coast) region of the country. The lack of roads and transportation in this region has allowed the small pockets of Miskitos, Pech, and Tawahkas to maintain their cultural identities far better than most other indigenous groups in Central America, who have sometimes been engulfed by mainstream society. While the Miskitos are not a straight indigenous group -- rather a cultural mishmash of an unknown tribe, English pirates, and escaped African slaves -- the Pech and Tawahkas have remained practically unchanged since pre-conquest days, though the always-encroaching forces of development are rapidly marching their way.

It happens so much in Latin America that it has become cliché: Punctuality is not one of the qualities that most Hondurans are better known for. Things move a bit slower here. If you agree to meet someone, don't expect them to be exactly on time. In general, tour companies are fairly prompt, but I would allow some leeway. The same goes for buses. While larger bus companies will stick to their departure times, smaller and more rural buses may wait until the bus is full before leaving.

Roman Catholicism is -- and has been since the arrival of the Spanish -- the major religion here and covers as much as 95% of the population. While there is separation of church and state, Catholic teachings are part of the national school curriculum. In the 1960s and '70s, priests became quite vocal against abuses by the Honduran military and general exploitation of the public by the government, and some were deported or had their churches shut down. In 1975, right-wing attacks against the priests reached a boiling point when a group of Olancho landowners killed 14 people, including two priests.

Protestant churches, especially evangelical, have undergone a tremendous growth in Honduras since the 1980s. Denominations such as Methodist, Church of God, Seventh Day Adventist, and Assemblies of God are among the most popular and can be found in all parts of the country. In La Mosquitia, the Moravian church has one of the strongest followings. The Christian sect, which was formed in the 1400s in what is today the Czech Republic, arrived on the scene in 1928 when the national government paid little or no attention to the region. They opened health clinics -- including the one in Ahuas that is still the best in the region -- and schools. There are now more than 100 congregations spread throughout the region, though in 1999 there was a split in the church between reformers and traditionalists, so some communities have two Moravian churches.

Since the turn of the millennium, one significant development has been a push to increase the number of tourists entering the country. While diving has always attracted visitors, tourism marketing strategies have begun to branch out and focus on ecotourism, cultural tourism, beaches, bird-watching, cigar factory tours, coffee tastings, and a range of interesting little diversions that the country has kept locked away for so long.

Honduras is becoming known as a safe, fashionable, and still undiscovered alternative to what some might say are an overdeveloped Costa Rica and Yucatán. Before the world economic collapse and the country's constitutional crisis, more than 1.5 million people were coming to Honduras annually, a rate that was increasing at 15% to 20% annually. While those numbers dropped off considerably during the past two years, considerable investment in projects, such as the one at Los Micos Lagoon (that hopes to turn Tela Bay into the next great Central American beach destination), and the expansion of cruise facilities on Roatán should help see those numbers come back to where they were and continue to increase considerably over the next few decades.

Still, much of the development remains concentrated on a few small pockets, and it will be some time before it spills over onto the rest of the country. Some travelers fear the Honduras they once knew will disappear -- and to some extent, that is true -- but there are plenty of positives to help ease the transition.

The Legacy of Hurricane Mitch -- In October 1998, the most powerful Atlantic hurricane ever recorded at the time, Hurricane Mitch, decimated the country. Wind speeds as high as 288kmph (179 mph) caused billions of dollars in damage throughout the country. In the end, more than 6,000 people were killed and more than 1.5 million people were displaced, 70% of roads and bridges were destroyed, 70% of all crops were lost, and entire towns were destroyed by this storm. Relief poured in from the world community, although funds quickly dried up or never materialized (such as $640 million from various European organizations). Though the country has by now mostly recovered from the hurricane and is more or less back to normal, to this day, many economic woes are still blamed on Mitch, and long-term effects will continue to linger for many years.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.