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.

Inside Curtain Bluff: a tale of two beaches

There are two beaches at Curtain Bluff, and it’s pretty clear that one’s for looking and the other’s for playing. The former is what you see from the guestrooms, with sometimes large waves brutalizing the shore before receding and feeding those that follow. The latter is nothing short of serene, with gentle ripples quietly lapping the sand.

The “swimming” beach begins next to the tennis courts and is bookended by the restaurant and bar. Lounge chairs and hammocks are spread across this stretch of sand, along with wooden umbrellas (technically cabanas? not sure …) providing shade from the sun and more than ample cover from the rain (I can vouch for both, having experienced both elements during my stay. Feel free to bring your chair to the waters edge, and let the Caribbean Sea lick your toes for a while. The current will not yank you to its depths.

To explore the bottom, grab some snorkeling gear and take the plunge. Poke around on the sea’s floor and see if you can find anything interesting. Certified SCUBA divers can opt to be taken out on deeper excursions, and other water sports are accommodated, from sailing to waterskiing. If you want to stay busy out on the water, Curtain Bluff is more than ready to help.


On the other hand, you may be among the many who see the beach as a place to chill. Each lounge chair is accompanied by a little chair that you can use to knock sand off your feet before settling into its larger counterpart. Use the nearby table to hold your drink, your book or (in my case) your cigar. Take an occasional nap, or just feel the breeze.

The sense of placidity at the swimming beach is not replicated at the other beach. There are a few lounge chairs on hand, so you can sit back and enjoy the elements without having to walk far from your room. It’s convenient. But, treat the ocean itself with caution. The waves can get quite large (exacerbated, during my stay, by a storm forming at sea), and the current is very strong.

Disregarding what little common sense I have – and the boatloads of it offered by my wife – I decided to experience the “looking” beach first hand. Well, at one point, a wave crashed me in the back while the current yanked my ankles out from under me. I spun several times before crashing to the bottom of the sea. I wasn’t in a deep spot, but if you don’t spend much time in the water, this sort of turn can leave you incredibly disoriented (and with a mouth … and stomach … full of saltwater).

But, it can be a lot of fun.

I played around in the waves until I was battered and exhausted, some of them starting to crash over my head (yeah, they can get pretty big). For very strong swimmers, this is an ideal chance to screw around in the conditions your parents would never let you experience – despite your protests – as a child. There is no lifeguard or other staff on duty at this beach, so you really are venturing out at your own risk.

However you do it, definitely get into the water at Curtain Bluff. It’s warm, even when the rain is falling. Splash around, and have a great time. If you sail, waterski or dive, scratch your itch. I hadn’t been to a beach in at least a decade and had forgotten how much I enjoy it.

The guestroom is only one part of the Curtain Bluff experience. Come back to Gadling throughout the week for other peeks inside this exclusive Antiguan resort.

Disclosure: Curtain Bluff did pick up the tab for this trip. Honestly, a prolie blogger like me wouldn’t be able to cover this destination without support from the resort. That said, my opinions are my own. Worried that my experience was positive? Blame the resort staff for doing a kickass job. I could lie and say it all sucked, but that would come at the expense of my editorial integrity.

Giant squid invade waters off San Diego

It sounds like the plot of campy 1970’s horror flick: aggressive giant squid sporting razor-sharp beaks and tentacles with teeth start showing up in the waters off the coast, attacking divers and grabbing their masks and hoses. But this is a real-life version of “It Came from the Deep”, and it’s happening in the waters near San Diego.

The creatures are called Humboldt squid, (though they’re also referred to as “red devils” for their color and hostile behavior) and can grow up to 5 feet long and weigh 100 pounds. They’re carnivorous and known for being particularly aggressive, especially when feeding. Scientists say they’ll even cannibalize other squid during a feeding frenzy. Though they’re native to Mexico, the squid have shown up in smaller numbers all along the west coast of the US. The last time such a large invasion occurred was in 2002, when 12 tons of dead squid eventually washed ashore near San Diego.

The squid generally stay a few hundred feet below the surface, but divers have reported seeing them at depths of 60-80 feet. Some divers have come across them without incident, but others have been bumped, pushed and pulled by antagonistic squid. Many divers are just choosing to steer clear of the squid, staying out of the water until the “carnivorous calamari” move on. Swimmers most likely won’t run into any of the squid, except for the few that wash up on the beach.

[via ABC News]

World’s Greatest Dive Spots

Stephen Regenold is better know by his pseudonym, The Gear Junkie, which he uses when he writes his nationally syndicated column on outdoor adventure and equipment. Recently he penned a story for Travel+Leisure Magazine listing the ten best spots to go SCUBA diving in the world.

In order to come up with his definitive list, Regenold asked ten veteran divers, each of whom have extensive dive experience around the globe, to name their favorite dive spots. The results were a great mix of classic dives and hidden gems. He then compiled them into a slideshow that highlights each location, with an amazing photo, a description of where the dive spot is located, and an explanation of what makes it unique and special.

Some of the locations that make the list include Cenote Taj Maja and Santa Rosalia, both in Mexico. The former is an impressive spot for cave diving, while the latter is famous for allowing divers to get up close and personal with large Humboldt squid. The famous Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands makes the list for it’s abundance of wrecks, with literally dozens of sunken ships in the area, while Utila Island, off the coast of Honduras, is lauded for the twice yearly migration of the whale shark that passes through the surrounding waters.

The list has a little something for everyone, no matter what style of diving you prefer. Each of spots mentioned here offer specatacular waters, amazing sunken sights, and plenty of adventure.

Pay like it’s 2008 in Antigua this year

Need a deal to make it to Antigua? Curtain Bluff is ready to help you out. The upscale resort has only 72 guestrooms and is only feet from the beach. To entice you down to the island this spring, the hotel is offering an unprecedented deal. Book six nights, and the seventh is on the house … but only from March 1 to March 14 and March 21 to April 4. Reserve an additional room for the kids (under 18), and you’ll save another 25 percent.

To make Antigua even more attractive, Curtain Bluff is freezing rates. This year, you can reserve rooms at 2008 rates. So, do a bit of SCUBA diving or snorkeling and eat like a king – everything is included in the hotel’s daily rate.

Luxury is tough to imagine in this market. Curtain Bluff is making it a little easier this year.