Photo of the day – Carpets of Copan, Honduras

Photo of the day
If the street above looks a little more colorful than the average road, it’s because the carpet has been rolled out for Semana Santa, or holy week leading up to Easter. The “carpets” are made from colored sawdust and flowers and illustrate the Stations of the Cross. There are many reasons to visit Copan in the western region of Honduras, but the procession that will march down this street on Good Friday morning (April 6 in 2012, if you want to start planning) is a big draw; arrive early to admire the “carpets”. Thanks to Flickr user

Adalberto H Vega for capturing them before they got trampled!

Seen any cool street art on your travels? Add your photos to the Gadling Flickr pool and we may use one as another Photo of the Day.

In the Heart of Central America: Planning a wedding or honeymoon in Honduras

Imagine walking down a lush green aisle to a small open-air wooden structure where billowy white curtains frame a view of a valley spread below and blueish mountains in the distance. An intimate group of family and friends has gathered to watch you say your vows on this hilltop and after the ceremony, they’ll join you to celebrate as the sun sets and the lights of the village beneath you and the stars above begin to twinkle in the dark.

That fantasy, and several others, can come true in Honduras. Honduras is overlooked as a destination wedding or honeymoon spot, but the country offers just as many opportunities for romance as its Caribbean and Central American counterparts.

Whether you fancy yourself as a barefoot bride or want to go eco-chic, Honduras has a wedding locale for you. And because all-inclusive “wedding factory” resorts don’t exist here, brides can take comfort in knowing that their special day will indeed be special and private.

Those looking for an adventurous honeymoon in Honduras will find plenty of activities, like zip-lining, diving, horseback riding and white-water rafting here as well. Here are three location options to get you started planning a wedding or honeymoon in Honduras.

Copan
Hacienda San Lucas is situated on a hill just outside of the town of Copan Ruin as. From the hotel’s deck chairs, you can see the ruins of Copan and the town below. It’s a long walk from the Hacienda into town, but owner Flavia will arrange for pick up and drop off for guests. You can also hop into a moto-taxi for the $1 ride home.

The Hacienda was a labor of love, and it shows. Flavia was born in Honduras, but moved to Kentucky and lived there for three decades. She eventually returned home and took over the property that had been in her family’s name for a hundred years. It was in a sad state of disrepair, so Flavia set about restoring it piece by piece. As she says, she would sell one cow and have enough money to restore one wall. Another cow sold equaled another wall.

It was a long process, and by the time the renovation was complete, nearly ten years had passed, over 4000 native trees, including cacao and fruit trees, had been planted on the property, solar lighting had been installed in the rooms, and 50% of the employees were local Maya Chorti people, descendants of the indigenous Maya people.

When the resort first opened, it was just two rooms. Now it’s grown to eight rooms spread amongst three buildings. Rates for rooms that are basic but comfortable start at $125 for low season. Rooms don’t have A/C, TV, radios or telephones, but they do have hammocks and there is wi-fi at the main house. There’s also a restaurant where Flavia serves a four-course dinner ($30 per person) made of grown-onsite or locally purchased ingredients. Because she only buys as much as she needs each day, reservations are required.

On the night I dined by candlelight at Hacienda San Lucas, were were served a salad of cantaloupe and fresh cheese, a velvety cream of corn soup with chipilin flower and macadamia nut powder, and a rich creamy dish of chicken in lorocco (a native flower) sauce, baked in a corn husk and served with avocado and rice. For dessert: Kentucky rum cake. After tasting her delicious food, I could see why Flavia’s cooking retreats at the Hacienda were popular.

Hacienda San Lucas also has one feature that makes it perfect for a destination wedding. Gaia, the Hacienda’s yoga center (where Flavia also runs yoga retreats) is one of the most picture-perfect wedding locales I have ever seen. Perched at the top of a hill overlooking the whole valley of Copan, it feels incredibly intimate, romantic, and natural. As soon as I saw it, I told my husband that I’d found the spot where I’d someday like to renew our vows.

For couples who get married here, the planning couldn’t be easier – Flavia does it all. She’ll decorate Gaia and bring in chairs for guests (unless you want them to sit on pillows on the floor), arrange for flowers, a band, an officiant and a photographer.

Dinner will, of course, be served at the Hacienda restaurant. Afterward, guests can dance under the stars, relax with a view of Copan Ruins, or sit by the fire at the Hacienda’s firepit.

Rent out the whole place for your wedding, or just book a room for the bride and groom and then encourage guests to stay down in town. Flavia will arrange for round trip transportation for your party.

Pre- or post-wedding, spend a few days exploring Copan, venture off to visit an eco-lodge in La Ceiba or relax on the beaches of Roatan.

Roatan
If getting married barefoot in the sand is more your style, head to Roatan, where resorts like eco-friendly Palmetto Bay Plantation allow you to get married on an empty beach on the shores of the Caribbean.

Divers looking for an intimate ceremony can say “I do” to their scuba sweetheart at Anthony’s Key. The resort will handle all details and offers several ceremony locations to choose from. The honeymoon package includes 7 nights accommodations, all meals, 3 dives per day, 2 night dives, all equipment, dolphin snorkel and open water dolphin dive, wine and flowers on arrival, horseback riding, kayaking, canoeing and other excursions for $1789 per person.

La Ceiba
If you prefer a more traditional wedding reception but want a natural setting, try the Lodge at Pico Bonito, named for the mountain that rises over it. Rooms start at around $200 and there are 22 rooms onsite. Set on 400 acres of tropical rain forest, the resort is home to hundreds of species of birds, which you can see on guided hikes around the property. There are two nearby waterfalls for swimming and the resort features a restaurant, pool, butterfly house and serpentarium.

Rooms are wooden huts built on stilts. Clean, with soft beds and ceiling fans, each cabin has its own hammock for lazy afternoons.

The reception space is air conditioned, seats up to 200 guests, and serves dishes like coffee crusted beef medallions from the restaurant.

Spend your honeymoon days zip-lining through the jungle, white-water rafting, and wildlife viewing, or explore the rest of Honduras.

Requirements for getting married in Honduras
Most resorts will help you with the paperwork and provide an officiant for the ceremony. Generally the paperwork is due 14 days before the wedding will take place. You’ll need to provide a certified copy of your birth certificate, a certified copy of your police record and an affidavit of single status, as well as a valid passport.

If you’ve been married before, you’ll need a certified copy of either the divorce decree or your previous spouse’s death certificate. You’ll also need two non-related witnesses, who must have valid passports.

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

You can read other posts from my series on Honduras here.

In the Heart of Central America: Cowboys and coffee in Copan, Honduras

Located in the northwest of Honduras, just a few miles from the Guatemalan border, the area known as Copan has a landscape of lush green rolling hills, coffee plantations and cattle ranches. This is pure cowboy country. In Copan Ruins, horses clip-clop softy over the stone streets and the jangle of spurs can be heard as men in boots, jeans and cowboy hats wander through town. A few miles away, cowboy Carlos Castejon warmly welcomes guests to his family’s coffee, cardamom, and cattle ranch to learn about the farm’s production.

Finca el Cisne has been owned Carlos’ family since 1885. What started as a simple farm growing Arabica coffee, corn, and beans, has grown to encompass 800 hectares (40% of which is primary forest). Visitors to the Finca will drive for nearly twenty minutes from the start of the family’s land to the main house, passing by the dwellings of Carlos’ employees who live on the land. In 2002 Carlos decided to expand the farm’s operations to include agritourism. With a subtle, quick wit, a penchant for teasing his guests (in a good-natured way) while providing an interesting and informative experience, and a clear passion for his home country, Carlos is the perfect host.

While in Honduras, I was able to spend a day at the Finca, which starts with a stop at Carlos’ rustic guesthouse. Equipped with five rooms, running water and electricity, the guesthouse is very basic but inviting. Guests who chose to come just for the day will arrive at 8am and depart at 6pm. With transportation from town the outing costs $64 per person. Once you arrive at the Finca, you’ll get to sample some of Carlos’ coffee and a light breakfast prepared from ingredients grown on the farm, such as mashed banana stuffed with beans and served with cheese, an unusual combination that was actually delicious.

From there Carlos took my group on a tour, stopping to point out the many fruits grown on the property, including passion-fruit, mango, mandarin, avocado, banana, plantain, breadfruit, starfruit, lime and grapefruit. Along the way, he’d reach for a fruit, sliver off a piece with his knife, and pass out samples.

Then we were off to the coffee mill to learn about how coffee is produced from start to finish. First Carlos showed us the fruit, which blooms in stages from January to April and begins ripening in December. When the fruit turns red, it is handpicked and the beans are extracted from the fruit (which is used for compost) by machine. The beans are fermented, washed, and then cycled through a series of troughs that allow the low-quality beans to run off and the higher quality (heavier) beans to remain until they are pushed through.

The beans are then spread on the ground to sun dry (and then often moved to a drum to machine dry) and the finished green beans are extracted from their shells. The majority of the beans will be exported while they are still green and then roasted to the taste of their destination country.

While all of this was fascinating for me (and the smell of the coffee was making me rethink my aversion to caffeine), I was anxious to get to the next part….the horseback riding. So Carlos led us over to a small pasture where several horses were saddled and waiting. As the most experienced in the group, I was given the horse Carlos normally rides, while he rode a younger horse that he was training.

With Carlos and another guide we set out to explore the property. Again Carlos would stop, point out the many fruits and edible flowers growing around us, and offer up tasty samples. We walked and trotted our way along a dirt road and then entered a field where Carlos gave us the go-ahead to pick up a little speed. I leaned forward, gave my horse some free rein, and we were off, galloping through the brush and up a hill. After an exhilarating ride to the top, my horse simply stopped and waited for the rest of the group to catch up.

For another hour we explored the property, taking in the views of the rolling green valley below, passing cows and horses grazing in the fields, and again and again taking off at a breathtaking but controlled gallop through the countryside. I can honestly say it was the single best horseback riding experience I have ever had while traveling. All too soon it was time to head back to the house for lunch.

We wandered around the main house gawking at photos of Carlo’s ancestors with jaguars they shot on the property to keep them from eating the cattle. We sat down to a lunch of traditional Honduran food (the menu for which changes based on seasonal availability). We started with coffee (of course), fresh orange juice, and a bean soup with fresh-made corn tortillas and cheese. Then heaping plates of food were served family-style, including potatoes, watercress salad, braised beef, and more beans, tortillas, and fresh cheese. A sweet plantain in a syrup of cardamom from the farm was served for dessert. To complete the day, and to help soothe any sore muscles from the ride, Carlos takes guests to the local hot springs for a relaxing soak.

There are other coffee tours in Copan, and I had the opportunity to do another one during my time in the region. But this one was the best. The tour was informative and, thanks to Carlos’ humor and passion, very entertaining. Lunch was delicious, the property was beautiful, and I think there is no better way to see this area of cowboys and coffee plantations than on the back of a horse.

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

You can read other posts from my series on Honduras here.

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.

3 unexpected destinations for riding like a wild west cowboy

The wild west cowboy is an American icon. Buffalo Bill. John Wayne. The Marlboro Man. These guys were as tough, rugged and wild as the west itself. They represented everything exciting and romantic about the undiscovered western half of the country. But this area of the US isn’t the only place where cowboys roam the range. Here are are few more places where you can rope and ride alongside real cowboys.

South America – The Pampas of Argentina
Someone has to wrangle the cows that make that famously tender Argentine beef, and that’s the job of Argentina’s gauchos, the South American cowboys who run the country’s estancias (or ranches). Many, like Estancia los dos Hermanos, are now open to tourism. Just an hour or so outside of Buenos Aires, you can gallop alongside the gauchos for hours, and then return to the ranch for a filling meal of juicy local beef.

Other cowboy outposts in the region include Uruguay, Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru.

Central America – The Hills of Honduras
The hilly region of northwest Honduras, close to the border with Guatemala, is pure cowboy country. Outside of the small town of Copan, near the Mayan ruins, coffee plantations and cattle farms cover the land. Most of these are purely working operations, but a select few, like Finca el Cisne, have caught on to the agri-tourism trend and offer horseback tours of their properties. Here you can learn all about how coffee is produced and then enjoy an exhilarating ride through the misty green hills.

You can also find cowboy culture alive and well in parts of Guatemala and Costa Rica.North America – The Islands of Hawaii
In Hawaii, paniolos (Hawaiian cowboys), herd cattle and sheep over the rolling hills of the islands. Kahua Ranch, on the Big Island, is one of the oldest working ranches in Hawaii. It’s been around since 1850, and in fact is located just above the harbor where the very first cattle arrived on the island. The ranch welcomes guests for 2.5 hour rides over some of the property’s 12,000 acres.

Western Canada, Mexico and of course, many parts of the Western US still rely heavily on cowboys to manage large cattle farms.

Cowboy culture extends far beyond the Americas. They’re just as tough in Australia, where they herd cattle over never-ending expanses of the hot, dusty, Outback, or in New Zealand, where they guide sheep over the country’s rugged landscape. There are even cowboys in South Africa. So pack your boots and ten-gallon hat for your next international journey, and you can have a cowboy adventure almost anywhere you go.