Thursday, April 28, 2011

Honduras – From the highest to lowest... Altitude, that is!

Our fondest memory of this
part in our trip... food!
When we left Copán, we had one primary goal: visit the Highlands to see the "real" Honduras and escape the upcoming Semana Santa (Easter week) madness – This week is (besides Christmas) the biggest holiday in Central America. During this time, everybody travels either to their hometown or to the popular tourist resorts, especially it seems: the beach. We were warned that whole towns shut down or become mega crowded (e.g. Antigua in Guatemala).

Our first stop on Monday was the town of Santa Rosa de Copán. According to our guidebook this is also a popular place to visit on Good Friday, but we should be fine as long as we leave before Thursday. Santa Rosa is a big junction town on the way from San Pedro Sula (the 2nd largest City) to the Capital Tegucigalpa and also the road that leads to both the Guatemala and El Salvador border crossings. The town has a strong colonial influence with a legacy of buildings from the time it was a major center for the colonists, who established it for the cultivation of coffee and tobacco which it still continues to produce.

Santa Rosa, main park and Catholic church
Lonely Planet says it's worth a visit. So why not stop there for a night or two. Well, we found a cute town center on top of the hill (below the hill is a modern unattractive mess) but it wasn't quite what we expected. The center has some colorful colonial style buildings.
Teenager's chorus at night
Compared to Copán however (or most places in Guatemala) it somewhat lacked charm. We were lucky to see in the evening an Easter chorus in front of the church. It was mainly teenagers singing with a few guitars in front of the church with a few dressed in roman costumes (that's why we suspected the Easter tie-in).

Other than that, there wasn't really anything memorable about this town.
Well perhaps the only memorable moment was the lunch that we had at a little comedor (eathery) called La Casona we also met for the first time a female Mormon Missionary: "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" sends missionaries all over the world to acquire new devotees and establish new churches. We have seen many nice temples built by them in very remote areas in Guatemala and it seems that Honduras is another favored conversion location.
"Footsteps of Jesus"
Missionary's artwork or at work?
Typically the missionaries are young man dressed in sparkling clean white shits and with a dark tie and a black name tag. They are easily recognized as they don't dress like the locals or like young men normally dress in 2011, actually they look more like a rerun of a 1950's Leave it to Beaver TV series, forget about oversized, baggy basketball shorts in the closets of these youths! It's like a time warp and their black and white attire is especially noticeable against the colorful traditional dresses of the Mayan or even the classic macho cowboy outfits of the Ladino. Yes, it is easy to spot a Mormon missionary from miles away. So to see a woman missionary was quite unusual, she was dressed in ordinary western clothes and actually looked more like a well dressed casual backpacker. She was very friendly probably not seeing many Westerners in this town and even invited us to attend church and gave us a booklet to read apologizing that it was only in Spanish. She did wear her name tag though and was together with a local Morman girl also wearing a badge.

The main church in Gracias...
On Tuesday we left for Gracias along the Ruta Lenca. The Lenca are the native people in this region. The town is called "Gracias" for real. It is said that the Spanish yelled in joy "Thank God we finally found flat land" when they discovered this little flat patch of land near the tallest mountain in Honduras and named it "Gracias a Dios" (Thanks to God). It was established as the "Sede de la Audiencia de los Confines" (the governing council for all Central America) in 1544 until Antigua Guatemala claimed that title a few years later.

What time is it now?
(Hint, both are wrong)
We decided to settle here until at least Easter Sunday. We found a good little guesthouse called Guancascos. It's run by a Dutch expat lady that is married to a local. At first we planned to hike in the Parque Nacional Montaña de Celaque (around Cerro Las Minas, Honduras's tallest mountain) but the weather was misty, often lined with drizzle and/or rain. Combine this with chilly air and no view, well I think you get the picture. We overheard a man say he could barely see more than 30 feet/10 meters ahead of him. Plus we had great internet and TV Time to stop being a tourist and just relax.

With the relax concept in mind, we decided to walk to the nearby natural outdoor hot springs on Good Friday. We packed a picnic and wove our way along a dirt road asking directions at every twist and turn. An hour plus later, we arrive at the river but we heard it long before we arrived. No not the rush of mountain water but instead blaring music. Yes, there was a major party going on. It was a déjà vu to our Chinese new year quest for tranquility in Cambodia.
Picnic Spot. Not quite the hot springs,
but at least it's nice and quiet
We had the choice to mingle with the locals and enjoy the super loud latino techno music or turn around and walk back without a swim in the hot springs. We chose to walk back right away. There was no way that we could enjoy a romp in the hot water with tons of kids running around the pools and trying to out-scream the loudspeakers. And trust us, if there is one thing not in shortage here in Honduras: it would be loud kids.

The town of Gracias is one that gets quiet for Easter – that's why we chose this place to "wait out" Semana Santa, what we did not expect was that the shutdown would be on Thursday and Friday and everything back to normal on Saturday and Easter Sunday (we anticipated Fri - Sun shutdown). Gracias has really not that much to offer, so we gladly left on Saturday morning for La Esperanza (The Hope).

On the move again
Bye bye Gracias, Thanks – but we are leaving in search of hope-fully finding some place interesting to explore: La Esperanza. Hoping we were indeed. La Esperanza is according to the guide book THE place in Honduras to see traditional lifestyle and clothes of the indigenous Lenca people. We were really looking forward to see some traditional clothing. Maybe we were having a bit of withdrawal symptoms after leaving Guatemala?

Our trip to La Esperanza included a stop over in San Juan, as the direct bus was sold out (a bit of Easter after-pain). Initially we thought to spend a night in San Juan, but when we heard that La Esperanza has a 'must see' Sunday market we skipped that overnight stopover. When we stopped to change buses we were glad that we did so: San Juan is really nothing to write home about.

La Esperanza also greeted us with cold drizzly weather. This place is actually the highest city in the country (1720m). The temperatures are therefore on the cool side – add damp weather into the equation and you get a rather unpleasant, wet, cold climate.

Despite the unwelcoming weather gods, we were in good spirits. The town looked like it had some charm and may be worth a few days of exploration. We checked into a hotel and ventured out to explore in the later part of the afternoon. The town got more and more quiet as dusk approached. Even more so than Gracias, this place was totally deserted as soon as the sun hit the horizon (not that we could see the sun with all that drizzle). Had we landed in a ghost town? Are vampires roaming here at night?

Fondue time...
but where's the cheese?
We managed to find a restaurant in the afternoon that confirmed that they were open that evening until 9pm. If you ever heard that Latinos go out late and stay up all night, then you are totally wrong; at least in this part of Latin America. We observed this 'desert the streets at night' phenomenon before in the other Honduran towns, so it can't be because of Semana Santa.
The good news is that at dinner we had the full attention of the waiters and the chef. We had the entire dining room for ourselves. There were two small groups in the other rooms though.
We got treated royally at the restaurant "Hacienda" to the best meal in Honduras…so far (and by far!). Patrick's steak with a garlic cream sauce was superb. Julane's 'Tipico' with grilled beef and chorizo was also super tasty. And all that good food was started off with a complimentary Anafres – a Honduran red bean fondue, served with nachos.

Overlooking La Esperanza (The Hope)
The Sunday market was blessed with more cold and damp weather, actually mostly light rain. We could not really find anything special about this market. It was a local market and there were loads of mangoes and berries too as the climate allow them to thrive here. There were locals with a single basket filled with one produce to sell or some selling from the back of a small pickup truck filled with fruit. But, we didn’t see any traditionally dressed Lenca people (unless 2nd hand western clothes count as traditional). But the market was big, spiraling across a quarter of the city, despite the fact that it was Easter Sunday!

OK, maybe the bad weather could have affected our perception a little, but certainly not to a point where we didn't even bother to take out our camera to take pics as we snaked our way through the muddy streets.

One of the few moments with a break
in the clouds.
We had to spend most of the day indoors (rain) and were desperately trying to find the only cafe in town that had somewhat of a setting that allowed to sit and read for a while. Unfortunately our guidebook teased with an option called "Cafe Jardin Colonial" but we couldn't find it and everyone that we asked gave us a confused look. And from bad to worse, the Hacienda was also closed on Sunday, so here goes our repeat dinner treat.

There was a heavy energy about La Esperanza, not just because of the bad weather. People seemed reserved, low in energy and we've seen more drunks than anywhere else in many years of travel. The drunks were so drunk that they couldn't even sit upright anymore. We've seen the first "Schnappsleiche" before noon and the number progressively increased during the day. By 5pm most men who were still in town were beyond drunk; they were in a near coma… A very sad picture. La Esperanza truly needs some hope!!! But frankly speaking, if the climate is this cold and damp all year round, we see why it is easy for people to "tip up the bottle" here. For us, it was definitely time to leave after two nights. And similar to Santa Rosa: food would be our fondest memory of the town called "The Hope".

The long wait for buses on
Easter Sunday
We were off to the lowlands again, our primary goal to escape Semana Santa was accomplished, but the secondary (seeing the indigenous Honduras) was not accomplished; what we've seen did not impress us much – to say it mildly.

On Sunday when we went to the bus terminal to check out the transport options, we've seen the after Easter travel crunch. The cues were long, probably several hours of waiting.

On Monday, we still had to wait for nearly an hour to get on a bus. The wait was well worth it. We had the most luxurious bus so far in our Central American travels. It was only missing air conditioning to be on par with Thailand's long distance buses. Our next stop was Lake Yojoa, Honduras's biggest lake and a birdwatchers paradise. The first place that we looked at by the lakeside was pretty horrible and at a price beyond what we normally paid for very nice places.... Where have we landed?
Lonely Planet, take El Cortijo del Lago out of your book, please!

We ended up staying in the nearby town of Peña Blanca, which also was not very impressive. Anyway we had a place for the night and took off late in the afternoon to walk to the D+D Brewery and Guesthouse to check it out. They are the only Microbrewery in Honduras. Their reviews on TripAdvisor have everything from 'excellent' to 'terrible' the ratings had a typical Bell-curve distribution. But instead of most ratings being between 'average' and 'good' it was either really bad or really good... An upside down Bell-curve :-(

One of the many food sellers
during the endless bus trips
Since the first (horrible) place was quite a bit out of the way, we lost nearly an hour getting to Peña Blanca. D+D is even further out of the way, so we only went to try their beer. We found a place in town to sleep as we were tired of moving about and it was late afternoon now. When we got there we found that D+D is actually quite nice, though not near the lake. They have bungalows and a lodge in a jungle setting with lots of greenery. Even equipped with a (clean) swimming pool and a Jacuzzi tub cabin, this would have been a nice place to stay.

John, the manager, was very nice and even offered us to take us on a "flight"... A shot glass size sampler of all their 6 beer choices. We ended up ordering a Porter and Amber. The beer was different from what we expected. Kind of sweet with a tangy citrus and yeast taste. Unfortunately all their beers were dominated by this sweet and sour taste, leaving only little room for the typical flavors of a classic Amber, Pale Ale or Porter. John explained that the hops and malt are imported from Europe and the high temperatures here are the main challenge in the brewing process... It's just too hot and refrigeration only goes to a certain point (at least on a micro brewer's budget).
D+D was better than TripAdvisor reviews suggested, it seemed that Victoria, the horrible female manager, that was so often cited as the reason for the negative feedback had been replaced. Although now it is up for sale if anybody likes to buy a well established place that needs a better beer recipe?

In Gracias, we roughed out a itinerary for the rest of our travels in Central America. We booked a flight from Nicaragua to Peru on June 2nd, thus giving our time in Central America a definite countdown. So now we need to allocate our time judicially. So since D+D is not near the lake and the beer was not calling for seconds, we decided to move on to Tela on the Caribbean coast the next morning.

San Pedro Sula bus terminal:
it's air conditioned... what a luxury!
The easiest way to Tela was to take a chicken bus to San Pedro Sula and change over to a long distance bus. San Perdo Sula (SPS) is the country's commercial hub and the second largest city. SPS has an impressive new bus terminal that even sports a/c departure lounges. Our connecting bus was supposed to leave from SPS at 12 noon, which turned into 12:30 and then 12:45... But we didn't mind as we could stay cool in the a/c waiting room.

The bus, though, was not air conditioned and 45 minutes into our journey towards Tela we pulled to the side of the road at what looked like a dump-site for old tires. It was a roadside repair shop, of course. We had a flat tire!
Houston, we have a problem!!!

The repair work took a good 45 minutes while our bus was heating up more and more...a breezeless sauna both inside and outside. Déjà Vu from trip to Rio Hondo all over again. By the time our flat tire was exchanged with an old but (hopefully) airtight tire secured around the rim using wet newspapers as the joining "glue", we were robbed of a good chunk of time. But we were rolling now and didn't have far to go.

Look at the quality control here,
with all the men watching!
Tela is being promoted by the Honduran tourism agency as the next big tourist destination in the country, much money has been invested into the tourism infrastructure and they highly recommend in our guide to visit Tela before it's too popular.
Having read this pep talk, our expectations were accordingly high... Either the author of the "Honduras Tips" was on crack when he wrote that, or his family owns much of the property there. Either way, Tela looks like a tourism town from the hippie 70's that has seen better days Maintenance is a word removed from their vocabulary. Most of the hotels and other buildings looked very much run down. The beach was small and dirty, and unless you have a fetish for big ocean liners, the view straight to the big cargo vessel 100 meters from the beach is not idyllic either.

When Julane was looking for a hotel she was often turned off by the poor upkeep or the unfriendliness of the hotel staff. Next big tourism destination? Right... We are out of here at daybreak. Initially, we thought of staying for 2-3 nights but could not find a single reason to do so.
At least, we had a very nice seafood dinner in Tela, but one can't eat all day. The restaurant is called Luces del Norte. Julane chose a dish called Queen's Seafood Soup. It was chocked full of delicious morsels: conch (caracol), shrimp, fish and potatoes all "swimming" in a lovely coconut broth.

Pictures sometimes say a
thousand words.
This is Tela!
Our bus luck must have turned the next morning when we left Tela. We didn't even have to walk all the way to the terminal when we were spotted by a chicken bus Ayudante yelling: "Ceiba!" Less than a minute after leaving the hotel we were moving towards La Ceiba – our next destination and final stopover before our sea passage to the Island of Utila. There we want to go down under (the ocean's surface) and hopefully see some nice coral and marine life.

La Ceiba is the country's 3rd largest city and known as the party place, especially on weekends people flock here to enjoy the beach and… party! There are two distinct areas interesting for visitors, the area near Parque Central, which is the commercial district and Barrio La Isla, the party zone or Zona Viva as it is know in Spanish. We arrived (again) at mid day, the hottest part of the day. The heat was simply numbing. We are used to hot climates from Singapore where the temperatures are often 30°C (86°F) with humidity hovering around 90%, but what we experienced here was just off the charts. Probably 38°+ humidity near 100% and all that with ZERO breeze.

But anyway, we settled into our guesthouse "Banana Republic" and took off to explore.
The tourist information was very helpful and had a guy that spoke English well. We stocked up with information and maps and set off to explore the rest of town. He even suggested an incredible local restaurant called Cafeteria Cobel. The staff wears some quaint 1960's style uniforms and the portions are huge and tasty. It quickly became our meal spot.

We decided to head over to the Zona Viva in the later part of the afternoon. When we got there, there was no activity at all. We've seen many restaurants and bars that were empty and in need of some serious upkeep (although never as bad as the places in Tela). It didn't say "party" to us, more like Help, we need people! The beach was also deserted and not inviting. Instead, we felt the need for a cold shower and headed back to the city center and our hotel.

To our surprise the center of La Ceiba had changed dramatically. The hustle and bustle dynamism converted into a near ghost town. Shops, restaurants, offices…. All were closed before 6pm. Even the supermarket shut the doors at 7pm. Another ghost town in this country of ghost towns? And this place is the party capital of Honduras? Maybe everybody was exhausted from Semana Santa?

We assumed that everybody must have made their way to Zona Viva while we walked from there to the city center, but what road did they take? Definitely not the one we walked on.
But we didn't mind to get back to the hotel early and catch up on emails and the Blog, it's been a while since we last had our hotel internet access in Gracias.

Although in this heat (without and air conditioning option in our hotel), we were having a hard time to do anything other than just sit still and sweat. Never mind actually falling asleep.

The next day, which was hot from early morning on, we stocked up with some supplies at the supermarket, had lunch at our favorite restaurant, and then headed for the Port. We are ready for change: time to go to Utila, one of the Bay Islands in the Caribbean… 
Scuba Diving time, baby!!!