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La Ruta Lenca, or the Lenca Route, is a grassroots tourism initiative to help bring tourism revenue to the small villages south of Gracias and give tourists insight into a little known indigenous group, the Lencas. The cultural group was derived from Chibcha-speaking Indians who came from Colombia and Venezuela more than 3,000 years ago. They number around 100,000 in Honduras and 40,000 or so in El Salvador and are known throughout the country for their earthenware pottery; several towns also have small craft cooperatives. The best times to visit any Lenca villages are during Sunday markets and guancascos, annual gatherings between two villages to celebrate peace. La Ruta Lenca, the circuit, passes through the mountain villages of La Campa, Belén Gualcho, San Manuel de Colohete, San Sebastián, Corquín, and Mohaga, among others that surround Gracias. This string of rural towns that dots this part of the country features adobe houses, corn and bean fields, the occasional museum and colonial church, and beautiful mountain views. During the rainy season (Apr-Nov), the hills and trees are a vibrant green, and the scent of flowering plants wafts though the air.

The association of guides Colosuca-Celaque Tours (tel. 504/2656-0627 or 504/2222-2124 ext. 502; www.colosuca.com), based in Gracias and Santa Rosa, give tours for L200 to L300 per group of one to five to Lenca villages and provides the opportunity to combine trips with activities such as studying colonial architecture, mountain biking, hiking, bird-watching, and horseback-riding tours. The guides are all locally trained, and many are actively involved in cultural preservation.

La Campa

La Campa is the first town you reach when leaving Gracias, just 16km (10 miles) away on a well-paved road. The village is quite small, just a few hundred residents who live in a cluster of adobe houses with tile roofs scattered on a few hills. The centerpiece of town is Iglesia de San Matías, built in 1690 and restored in 1938, which sits at the lowest point in the village with the houses sort of hovering around it. The sheer white facade backed by the rocky cliffs is a sight to behold. The church is only officially opened for Mass, though you can usually find someone to open it for a small tip. The interior is quite plain, apart from one faded oil painting and a beautiful carved wood altar. The price for photos inside the church is L30 each -- yikes!

Ceramics are a big part of life in Lenca villages. La Campa is best known for massive handmade urns -- perfectly cylindrical -- called cántaros. You can see a few examples in front of the municipal building. Several artisan workshops in town, such as Alfarería Lenca and the home of Doña Desideria Pérez, are open to visitors and have small shops where you can buy the signature Lenca bowls, plates, wind chimes, and vases. The workshops love visitors and are eager to explain their work process. High on the hill near the road in is the Centro de Interpretación de Alfarería Lenca or La Escuelona (L30 adults; daily 8am-4:30pm), set in a colonial building with many examples of Lenca pottery with explanations and details on historical significance.

As far as any sort of facilities go on La Ruta Lenca, La Campa is the most advanced, with a municipal building across from the church that contains a small tourist office and several small hotels such as Hostal J.B. (tel. 504/551-3772; hostal_jb@yahoo.com; L200 double) and the new Hotel Bellavista (tel. 504/625-4770; similar prices). You can inquire at either Hostal J.B. or the tourist office regarding guided hikes and rides on horseback in the area that visit caves, canyons, a coffee plantation, and nearby villages such as Cruz Alta, famous for its tejado de pino, a type of basketry made with pine needles. Also try hiking guide Carlos David Perez (www.visitlacampa.blogspot.com), who leads walks in the area, including to Cueva Taistado, a cave in a nearby village.

If you don't have time to push farther into the hills, a stop here can be done rather quickly from Gracias. To get to La Campa, there's one daily bus from Gracias (L20) at noon that continues to San Marcos de Caiquín and San Manuel de Colohete; the return stops in La Campa between 6:15 and 6:45am.

San Marcos de Caiquín

Continuing from La Campa, the road gets a little less smooth, and it winds up about 6km (3 3/4 miles) over the hills to a fork. If you stick to the right, you will reach San Manuel de Colohete[LS19], a small adobe village amidst the pines. There are just a few simple comedores and pulperias in the quiet village, as well as a small church, built in 1750, that was renovated in recent years. Several family homes will rent out rooms to visitors for a small price.

San Manuel de Colohete

A bumpy 14km (8 3/4 miles) from La Campa, 1 1/2 hours from Gracias, sits San Manuel de Colohete, one of the favorite stops on any tour of La Ruta Lenca. The town itself is the largest in the area, though that isn't saying much. There are just a few narrow, twisting streets on a flat piece of land with a small grassy square on the far end. The locals don't see many visitors and are still surprised when one shows up, though they are quite friendly, and if you need any help, they will point you in the right direction.

Of all the colonial churches along La Ruta Lenca, San Manuel de Colohete's is the one you should not miss. The intricately carved white facade that dates back to 1721 was recently renovated, and at last check, they were still working on the roof and back end of the church on the outside. To get inside, though, you must be here on Sunday -- otherwise no one can open up the doors. Inside are several frescos that date back 400 years and an ornate wooden altar.

The southern end of Parque Nacional Celaque butts right up against the town and provides a misty cloud cover that sometimes engulfs it. A little-used trail to the summit can be attempted from the town of El Naranjo, a 30-minute walk away. Numerous other hikes can be had into the park or to various unspoiled Lenca villages, like the 6-hour walk to Belén Gualcho.

The best time to visit is on the 1st and 15th of every month, when San Manuel hosts a lively outdoor market (6am-noon), where people from the surrounding villages come to sell their produce and general knick-knacks.

San Sebastián

The road gets even worse past San Manuel de Colohete and ends in San Sebastián, except for an almost impenetrable road to Belén Gualcho. There is talk of paving the road in the near future, which would complete a full circuit around Parque Nacional Celaque. For now, though, the few who make it here will find another charming colonial village, much like the others, with an impressive church and small square, but with far fewer visitors. In town, you can rent rooms from a few basic comedores and simple hospedajes.

Belén Gualcho

Better reached from Santa Rosa de Copán than Gracias, Belén Gualcho is best known for its Sunday-morning market. Get here early, as the market tends to dissipate by 11am. This one is set high -- 1,600m (5,249 ft.) -- on the mountain and features one of the most ornate cathedrals of anywhere along La Ruta Lenca. Some argue that the three domes and mountain setting rank it above the church in San Manuel de Colohete.

There are a couple of basic hotels and comedores that fill up on weekends with market goers, as well as a Hondutel and cybercafe. There is access into Celaque just outside of town, and the route to the summit is quite common. You can even return via the Gracias Trail. The route tends to be confusing, so you will need a guide (contact Colosuca-Celaque Tours, see above; or ask around in town), but the full hike up can be done in about a half day. Other hikes can lead you to San Sebastian (5-8 hr. one way) or to the Santa Maria de Gualcho waterfall (5-6 hr. round-trip), past the village of El Paraiso.

There are two daily buses (L50) here from Santa Rosa de Copán at around 3am and 8am for the 2- to 3-hour ride, with service doubling on Sundays.

San Juan

In between Gracias and La Esperanza awaits this quickly developing coffee town with an expanding list of tourist services. A visitor's center (tel. 504/2754-7150), aka La Casa de Gladis Nolasco, on the principal road near the Hondutel office, can arrange a number of activities, such as hikes through the cloud forest and to visit waterfalls, coffee tastings, tours of small-time coffee roasting and processing operations, 4X4 trips, horseback rides, and visits to hot springs and a petrified forest. There are a few simple guesthouses here, but it is advisable to continue on to Gracias or La Esperanza unless you have a good reason to stay the night. There are four morning buses (L40; 6-9:30am) to La Esperanza daily and less frequently to Gracias (L40; usually once per morning).

Erandique

The colonial village of Erandique, 24km (15 miles) south of San Juan and the highway, is quite difficult to reach without your own transportation and still difficult with it due to the poor road. If you can complete the trip, you'll find an attractive cobblestone town with three small colonial churches. Erandique is quite remote where it stands so isolated from the rest of the world. It isn't lonely, though; cloud forests, opal mines, waterfalls, and historical sites dot the area. The mines -- or rather, the effects of the mines -- are one of the first things you will encounter here. Any outsider who sets foot here will surely be approached by visitors selling opals, such as black, white, and rainbow.

Lenca warrior Lempira, who led a guerilla assault on the Spanish and became a national hero, led his attacks from a small fort in the mountains near Erandique. The Peñol de Perquín, as well as the Piedra Parada -- the rock where Lempira was assassinated -- can be visited on a 1- or 2-day hike from Erandique. You will have to first walk to the village of San Antonio Montaña and continue on the light trail. Ask locals for directions. Buses (L80) to either La Esperanza (2 1/2 hr.) or Gracias (2 hr.) leave at 5am from the Parque Central, with return service at noon from either town.

La Esperanza

The capital of the department of Intibucá, La Esperanza is large enough that it has a few modern shopping centers and fast food restaurants, yet still small and rural enough that Lencas still come down from the surrounding hills in traditional dress and feature prominently in the landscape of the city. The Intibucá department is one of the poorest in all of Honduras, which has led numerous NGOs, Peace Corps workers, and missionary groups to base themselves here. The town itself is somewhat noisy, chaotic, and ramshackle. The colonial past is apparent on only a few streets. At 1,600m (5,249 ft.), La Esperanza is one of the highest cities in Honduras -- and the cool climate here is a point of pride.

The Road from Gracias to La Esperanza -- The road from Gracias winds over coffee plantations and through lush green valleys. This is the heart of Honduras's coffee country, with shops in every town buying coffee direct from farmers for export. While the road is slowly being improved, at present, it is still mostly unpaved and bumpy. Four-wheel drive is a must in the rainy season.