In the Heart of Central America: Why now is the time to go to Honduras

After a week in Honduras, ziplining through the canopy, drinking $1.50 beers on a deserted white sand beach, slaughtering my Spanish pronunciation as I bought a grilled pork skewer from a street vendor, horseback riding through coffee fields, and eating a few too many corn tortillas, I couldn’t help feeling like I could just as easily be in Belize, Guatemala, or Costa Rica…..but with fewer crowds and lower prices. Suddenly, the country’s new slogan “The Central America you know, the country you’ll love” made perfect sense.

Just last year Honduras was on the fast track to becoming the next Costa Rica, the next hot destination for eco-tourism in Central America. While it was still mostly undiscovered by mass tourism (in a poll done by the Institute of Tourism, only 4% of Americans said they consider Central America for a vacation and only 1% said they even knew of Honduras), adventurous travelers, backpackers, dive-enthusiasts and lovers of Central America were coming in numbers close to half a million people per year.

From 2006 to 2007 arrivals from North America increased by 25%. The next year they grew by 19%. The tourism industry became the largest employer in the nation and brought in $630 million of revenue in 2008.

Then President Zelaya was ousted. There were protests in the capital and curfews were instated. When Zelaya tried to return, the Tegucigalpa airport was closed for a few days. Eventually the situation calmed and life returned to normal. Normal, except that the tourists who supported a large section of the country’s economy were gone. Some hotels saw nearly their entire year’s worth of bookings cancel within a week of June 28th. 35 Habitat for Humanity groups scheduled to come to Honduras decided to go elsewhere. Tour companies looking forward to a full schedule began to wonder how many employees they’d have to let go.

While all of this is bad news for Honduras, it’s one reason why now is the perfect time to visit. With fewer crowds the country truly feels undiscovered, and with all the discounts being offered to lure in tourists, the already low cost of visiting is even lower. Flights from Chicago on Spirit Airlines are just $250 through April. Taca, Delta, American and Continental also operate regular flights to the country and the trip from Miami or Fort Lauderdale to San Pedro Sula is just over two hours.

Where to go and what to see
I’ll be covering a few of these destinations more in depth in coming posts, but the three main areas that most tourists will explore (as Grant mentioned in a previous post about his own trip to the country) are the Northern Coast around La Ceiba, the Bay Islands including Roatan, and Copan Ruinas, near the border with Guatemala.

The most popular spot for tourists on the Northern Coast is La Ceiba, home to dozens of luxurious eco-lodges. For a little more action you’ll want to stay in the city though. There’s a saying in Honduras that “Tegucigalpa thinks, San Pedro works, La Ceiba parties” so if you’re looking for some nightlife, this is the place to be. If you want to get further off the beaten path or explore the culture of the Garifuna people (descendants of black slaves who shipwrecked in the area), head up the coast to Tela or take a short boat ride to the archipelago of Cayos Cochinos

From La Ceiba, the Bay Islands are just a 20 minute flight or a cheap ferry ride away. On the islands of Guanaja, Utila, and Roatan, you’ll hardly feel like you’re in Central America at all. With miles of sandy white beaches, crystal clear water, and some of the cheapest scuba diving around, these islands rival any in the Caribbean, but at a much lower price. While the large Infinity Bay Beach Resort wasn’t quite my style (I prefer small B&Bs and hostels), it was beautiful and I could find no fault with it except for spotty wi-fi service. Situated on the deserted end of a long white beach, it featured a gorgeous infinity pool, beachfront bar and restaurant, and spacious rooms with full kitchens, with rates starting at $200 per night. In West End, more moderate beachfront accommodations can easily be found for $40-$80 per night.

Other than lounging on the beach, snorkeling, scuba diving, sailing, jet skiing, or just relaxing with a few beers at a beachfront bar in West End, you can also go horseback riding or spend a day at Gumbalimba Park, an adventure park with Roatan’s best zipline – ten lines that crisscross through the canopy, offering views all the way to the sea, and depositing you along the water’s edge on the beach. After the ziplining you can meet free-roaming monkeys who will descend from the trees to perch on your shoulder.

To get to Copan Ruinas, a small village of cobble-stone streets, you’ll need to take a 3-hour bus (about $10) from San Pedro. Take Dramamine as the road is quite twisty. The town is less than a mile away from the area’s main attraction, the beautifully-restored Mayan ruins at Copan. You can join an organized tour, make the 20-minute walk down a paved path from town, or pay 20 lempiras ($1) to catch a ride to the ruins on a mototaxi, a tiny motorized rickshaw.

The area around the town is known for its coffee production and several plantations welcome visitors for tours and tastings. There is also a nearby hot spring called Luna Jaguar where for $10, you can soak in the healing waters or splurge on a $30 massage in a hut perched above the mouth of the steaming spring.

In town, you can score a hostel dorm bed for $5 or a private room for $8. Rooms at one of the nicest and oldest hotels, the Hotel Marina Copan (where Richard Gere once stayed), start at $90 per night and feature plush beds, free wi-fi, room service, bottled water, mini-fridges and microwaves. The hotel has an on-site restaurant, a large pool in the courtyard, colonial architecture, tile floors and marble bathrooms, and some of the friendliest staff I encountered in the country.

To be honest, before this trip I’d never considered a visit to Honduras and didn’t think I cared much for Central America. All that changed when I saw Copan Ruinas. As I wandered the narrow, cobbled streets, shopped for handmade crafts, ordered up a steaming plate of grilled pork served with beans and corn tortillas (for just $1) from a street vendor, browsed the eclectic farmer’s market, and sat in the town’s central square, watching children play and the occaisional horse clip-clop through town, I fell in love with Copan Ruins and with the people of Honduras.

Everywhere I went in Honduras, I was struck by how beautiful it was, and how empty of other tourists. While the main square in Copan was full of activity, I saw only two other tourists during my time in the town. At a beach bar in Roatan, it seemed we were the only people who didn’t know everyone else there. And at the ruins in Copan, it felt like we had a centuries-old playground all to ourselves.

Costs and cuisine
The cuisine in Honduras is typically Central American. Beans and corn tortillas (which you can buy at 10 for $1 at most markets) figure prominently, especially in the signature baleada – a meal of beans and fresh cheese (and sometimes egg or other ingredients) in a corn tortilla, which sells for about $1. Fried plantains, fresh juice and fruit, avocado, and, along the coast and on the islands, incredibly fresh seafood ,are also inexpensive staples of the cuisine.

The most expensive meal I had, a huge pile of creamy, tender Lobster thermidor, cost about $30. Lobster pasta and fresh shrimp dishes were $10 each, and chicken fajitas or a heaping plate of beans, cheese, avocado and chorizo were $5 and large enough to feed two. Mixed drinks and fruity frozen concoctions ranged from $2.50 to $5, and cold bottles of the local, light Salva Vida beer were $1.50.

While those looking for luxury in Honduras can certainly find it, budget travelers could do very well here on $20-$30 per person per day for food, drinks and accommodations. More middle-of-the-road travelers, those who like to save money but enjoy a certain level of comfort, could easily spend less than $150 for hotel, food and drinks for two people.

Safety and the current situation
While in Honduras, I visited La Ceiba, Roatan and Copan. During that time, I took every opportunity to talk with tourism operators and with people on the street. When asked they all replied the same way. Not only was there currently no danger from the political situation, but in that area, there never had been. In Roatan, one man corrected me: “This isn’t Honduras,” he said, “this is the Bay Islands.” There were no curfews here, no protests, just the same beautiful beaches and pristine diving conditions as always. In Copan I walked around for an afternoon alone and felt as safe or safer than I have in any other country.

When the political situation became unstable nearly all of the unrest happened near the capital of Tegucigalpa, hours inland from the more touristy areas. Even though the US State Department Travel Alert acknowledged that the protests were mainly peaceful and that they were concentrated in the capital, it still warned Americans to steer clear of the entire country, which is kind of like telling someone not to visit Chicago because of the high crime rate in certain areas of the city’s South Side. During my visit in early November, I saw no signs of trouble, save for some political graffiti around San Pedro, but again if graffiti made a place unsafe I’d never venture outside my apartment. Walking around the city and shopping at the large market, I saw no other evidence of unrest and never felt as though I were in danger.

Just a few days ago the Supreme Court of Honduras voted overwhelmingly against allowing Zelaya to return to finish out the final two months of his term (which was cut short when he was escorted out of the country after attempting to interfere with a vote that would allow him to change the constitution and remain President indefinitely). I’m betting the people I met couldn’t be happier with the outcome. In fact every single person I spoke with supported the removal of Zelaya, who they said was “Chavez’s puppet” and had acted illegally. Not only were they disappointed that the US State Department had issued a blanket warning against travel to Honduras, they were also eager were to dispel the myths they felt the media had been spreading about the country’s situation.

A source I spoke with in the country now said since the vote there have been no issues and that, as with any election, while Zelaya’s supporters are no doubt disappointed, the elections were peaceful and protests and disruptions are not expected. That’s good news for the people of Honduras, especially those in the tourist industry who are waiting with bated breath to see how long it will take for the tourists to come back.

In the mean time, they’re doing their best to encourage visitors. Many resorts are posting 2010 rates that are lower than 2009′s. Others are offering two-for-one deals or extending their low season rates throughout high season. The country is safe, beautiful and diverse, the people are warm and welcoming, the prices are low and the tourists are few. So if you are thinking about a trip to Central America, I suggest you consider Honduras – now is the perfect time to go.

This trip was paid for by the Honduras Institute of Tourism, but the views expressed are entirely my own.