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.

Five things to do in Orlando (except … that)

This is the only time you’ll see the expression “theme park” in this post. Orlando has a lot to offer outside that. So, if you’re headed down there for a convention or a family trip, keep these other attractions in mind, and explore the depth this city has to offer. Plan ahead, and you can avoid the “Mouse” trap!

  1. Make a glass, buy some art: Go to Keila Glassworks, and look for the guy with the dredlocks down to his ass. Check out his art: it’s stunning. Charley Keila, the genius behind the place, offers glassblowing classes, so ou can get a taste of the act of creation.
  2. Stay in an “art” hotel: Pass on the major chains, and stay at the EO Inn. Don’t sweat the fact that it doesn’t have a restaurant; that’ll force you to get out and find a place.
  3. Drink at a bookstore: Urban Think! has a bar in the bookstore. Grab a book (I suggest Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood, the latest by Michael Lewis), and chill for a bit at the bar.
  4. Try to fly: Strap on a harness, climb a ladder and let the wind whip through your hair. Grand Lakes Orlando has zip lines that stretch for tk meters.
  5. Leave: Get out to Winter Park, and see the upscale side of the Orlando area. Cruise the lakes on the Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour, and then wander along tk-street. Stop for a glass of wine at one of the wine bars that dot the sidewalk.



Zip through Orlando at Grand Lakes

Climb, zip and traverse: Grand Lakes Orlando‘s newest attraction can be summarized succinctly, but what really happens is far more interesting. Based at the headwaters of the Florida Everglades, this destination has created a unique experience that leaves guests hanging – and flying and swinging. Put on a harness, and you can experience 25 climbing and traversing structures that are suspended 15 feet to 55 feet from the ground. The 40-foot swing and 600-foot zip lines are among the standouts on the course.

Grand Lakes Orlando offers several packages designed to scratch your particular itch while appealing to both individuals and families. The Open Session Adventure gives you 2 ½ hours on the course (at a bargain price of $60 for adults and $45 for children). If you prefer a bit of exclusivity, schedule a private event. Up to eight people can be accommodated for a two-hour experience, where you can enjoy the suspension apparatus in a high-touch service environment. Climbing and rappelling classes are also offered.

This is a side of Orlando that many miss. Skip the Mouse for an afternoon, and put your body to work in a setting that blends the natural and synthetic seamlessly.

There may be a zipline tour near you

With fall foliage reaching its peak, I was reminded of a zipline tour canopy tour I took through the trees in Ohio this past June.

There are several zipline tour options. Pennsylvania, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina also have zipline adventure offerings, although not all are canopy tours.

In an Escapes article in the New York Times, Roger Mummert gives a humorous account of his own experience at Ski Mountain Ski Area in Pennsylvania where he went with his teenage daughter for a bonding outing.

At the end of the article, he summarizes the highlights of each of the following places:

After visiting each Web site, I noticed that several have Halloween activities. Remember, zipline tours are truly for a multiage crowd. I was happy to see that the Hocking Hills Canopy Tours made it to Mummert’s list. I had can still recall the whirring sound the cable made each time I zipped across.

Zipline canopy tour: A fall foliage adventure option

Back in June, when I zipped from sycamore to oak trees along the highwire cable lines of the Hocking Hills Canopy Tours in the Hocking Hills region of Ohio, I thought, I bet this is gorgeous in the fall.

Now that yellows and reds are just beginning to show their colors, I’d say trees will be in their autumn glory in a week or two. Cold has arrived at night to hasten the palate switch. Meg’s posts about fall foliage tour options, reminded me of this one.

I blogged about this tour before I took it, and am not surprised that it has remained so popular that the season has been extended through November–although the hours will change.

As a person with first-hand experience, I can vouch for the thrill of heading off on a wire from one tree to another. My favorite parts were the sections where I was zipping through the air, far from the platform I had left, high above the ground, and the platform where I was heading had yet to come into view. There is a moment where you can’t see where you are exactly because of the leaves. Then, the next platform comes into view like a surprise of “oh, there you are.”

For anyone who is afraid of heights, a zipline canopy tour might be your cure. A friend of mine said she was afraid of heights when she started the tour, but by the end she was not. Because of the process of clipping and unclipping safety lines, and the calm voices of the two guides–one who leads and one who follows, ensuring everyone’s safety, you know you are in capable hands.

Before you go out on the real ziplines, there is practice session (seen in picture) with a short zipline that’s only shoulder height off the ground. This is when you learn to stop yourself by applying pressure with the palm of one of your hands to the top of the zipline cable. It’s enough of a practice to give you the feel for how the cable, harness, clip and pulley system works.

Before the moment when you leave an actual platform to head off to another platform, you’re always clipped to either the line attached to the tree where the platform is or to the zipline. During the transition, you’re clipped to both to make sure there aren’t any mistakes. There are two clips fastened to your harness. One clip is unfastened from the platform cable and then fastened to the zipline cable. Then, the next clip is unfastened and fastened. This means if you did slip, you’re held up.

The picture is of the only part where you start from the sloping ground and run until your feet lift off. Then off you go.

Seriously, you won’t fall and the harnesses are designed to hold you properly–almost like an adult version of one of those things you strap babies into so they can jump and bounce in a doorway. There is a pulley wheel system that enables you to glide along using the weight of your body, the distance of the cables and the angle of the points where the cables are affixed to the trees.

I did slow myself down too soon and stopped about 25 feet from one of the platforms, but I was able to use my hands to pull myself along easily until I reached the point where the lead guide could pull me the rest of the way.

Seriously, zipping was a piece of cake. (In the picture above, you can see the lead guy on the platform. The person heading toward him is slowing down, partly due to the slope upwards of the zipline caused by the angle and the person’s weight.)

One terrific aspect of this trip is that you don’t have to be an athletic type to have fun. There’s not a lot of physical exertion involved. The oldest person to do the canopy tour, so far, I was told, was in her 80s. Not that 80-year-olds aren’t athletes, but the point is, this is a multi-age, multi-ability activity. You do have to be at least 10-years-old though, and weigh at least 70 pounds to be allowed to go. You also can’t be above 250 pounds. The reason for the weight limit is not that the cable won’t hold, but because of the principles of physics that make the system work. Too much weight throws off the system.

When I took the tour, one of the co-owners of the company was one of the guides. Here’s some insider information not found on the website.

Hocking Hills Canopy Tours came about after she and her husband went to Alaska with two other couples–one of the people was her sister. While in Alaska, all six of them took in the Alaska Canopy Adventure zipline tour, loved it, and thought Hocking Hills would be a perfect setting for a canopy tour company. Instead of thinking about all the reasons their dream might not work, once back in Ohio, they went for it. All pieces fell into place including the land for sale. In months, they had a booming adventure travel business.

The moral of the story, follow your dreams, particularly if you have the dream when you’re traveling.