Updated: July 21, 2013 at 12:15 pm
A trip to Honduras and Guatemala could be compared to the ultimate energy drink: You receive sudden rushes by what you take in, but there's danger in excessive use.
When traveling to Honduras, particularly San Pedro Sula, those familiar with the area ask the same question: Do you realize it's the murder capital of the world?
Yes, San Pedro Sula has been rated as the most violent city for the second straight year by the Mexican Citizen Council for Public Security, Justice and Peace. Nearly three murders are committed each day in the city, which has a rating of 169 homicides per 100,000 people. The top American city on the list is New Orleans at 17th, or 56 homicides per 100,000 people.
I've been to New Orleans, New York, Los Angeles and many other major U.S. and international cities, so could Honduras or Guatemala be any worse? Yes, they reply.
It's easy to be apprehensive as you board the flight from Houston to San Pedro Sula on an older United Airlines jet. Most of the people boarding speak Spanish, except for a few adventurous Americans, businessmen and missionaries, one of whom was standing in front of me in line.
Steve Rose is lead pastor of the Springwater Community Church in Phoenix. He's been to Honduras four times and led a recent summer trip for Sparrow Missions. He understands the danger that any American could encounter; he's seen the cold stares from a Honduran; and he knows of the injustices that the natives have endured because of Westerners and the Honduran government. But he sees his efforts as being worthwhile.
"There is danger, of course," he said. "It's a notorious city. But the reality is I kind of compare it to living in a major U.S. city or in Phoenix. You don't go to certain areas after dark or by yourself. You have to be cautious most of the time and stay in groups. I take the same approach in San Pedro Sula.
"Although it has a potential to be a dangerous city, if you are smart and have common sense, it's not a dangerous place at all."
After arriving late in the evening, my first stop was Cofradia, a 20-minute taxi ride from San Pedro Sula. It is like many Central American cities, with a town square where people gather to talk, beg, stare or be seen. Small stores and vendors line the streets, selling anything from clothes, vegetables and fruit to shoes and baleadas, the national food made of tortillas with eggs, cheese and beans.
Like many cities in Honduras and Guatemala, Cofradia is noisy. Dogs bark and growl loudly. Horns from taxis sound constantly. People yell at all hours. From a dirty red pickup, a man speaks loudly into a megaphone, trying to evangelize anyone who will listen. Nearby, someone turns up a car stereo as if to drown out the evangelist's words. The man speaks even louder until the sounds blend together into a symphony of an unkempt city. Even roosters crow at odd hours, as early as 3 a.m. most mornings. It's hard to escape, but you're told that you get used to it.
Dirt and dust are everywhere. You constantly feel dirty, even after taking a cold shower. Most places don't have hot water, so cold showers are the norm where water is available. In areas such as Cofradia, cold showers are a welcome relief.
The heat and humidity can be stifling, especially on public buses that often are overcrowded with people boarding at each stop to sell food or beg for money. As I rode on one, I couldn't help but think this was one of the worst experiences of my life. People packed in, hanging onto anything they could, as a driver pushed the bus to 50-60 mph, weaving it back and forth while dodging potholes and anything else on the road.
The pleasures of Antigua
Antigua and Copan could be considered the oasis spots in the desert of poverty and despair faced by Honduras and Guatemala. Antigua is considered the top tourist spot in Central America, according to a TravelAdvisor list featuring many locales in Costa Rica.
"Antigua . is known as the best-preserved Spanish colonial city in Central America," the website says. "Stroll the cobblestone streets, lounge with the locals in Central Park on sunny afternoons or hike up one of the volcanoes overlooking the city for amazing views."
It is a 10-hour bus ride from San Pedro Sula, with a stop in Guatemala City. Once you're there, life is relatively cheap and safe, and there's plenty to see. From museums and cathedrals to markets and restaurants, you easily can spend several days in the city. The only distractions are the villagers who constantly try to sell tours, dolls, clothes, purses and jewelry. They're at the town square and at the entrances of stores and restaurants. They're persistent, too, and will follow you, scream at you and even promise that they'll remember you later. One yelled that I was "mean and rude" after I told her that I wouldn't look at her items for the fourth or fifth time. Although distracting, they are harmless.
Once you enter a business, you'll find workers who are pleasant and who will provide exceptional service. If you can speak a little Spanish, they'll tell you about their life in Guatemala and anything you want to know about the culture. The restaurants usually offer excellent food at reasonable prices and even feature bands in the evening.
From almost any point in the city, it's easy to see the effects from earthquakes that have rocked the region. Founded in the 16th century, Antigua apparently was abandoned after a devastating earthquake in 1773. Churches have been built right next to the ruins or on top of ones previously damaged. Gardens have been formed in the middle of destruction, creating an unusual beauty.
The scenery, with the volcanoes as a backdrop, creates a setting that can make anyone forget the poverty and chaos outside the city's borders.
The same is true of Copan, a five-hour bus ride from Antigua. Smaller and less picturesque than Antigua, Copan offers a laid-back lifestyle that separates it from the rest of Honduras. Created as a tourism hub because of the nearby Mayan ruins, Copan has restaurants, stores and sites that any tourist would enjoy. Unlike the rest of the country, it's also relatively safe to stroll the streets at night.
The highlights are the Mayan ruins and archaeological park, as well as Macaw Mountain. On a warm, late afternoon, my daughter Elena and I walked through the ruins virtually by ourselves. The ruins, a short walk from Copan, show a city that dates to 200 AD and that reached its height as one of the more important in the Mayan culture by 500 AD. There are many statues and structures still intact, including the Hieroglyphic Stairway, which has 63 steps containing the longest known text of the Mayan history.
Macaw Mountain Bird Park and Nature Reserve is also a short distance from Copan. It's worth taking a three-wheeled motor taxi to see the rescued and donated macaws, toucans, parrots and other birds that are in this tropical garden. Macaws will yell "hola" as you walk by a central area of the reserve. You even can hold macaws on your arms, and a shaking of your head causes one to flap its wings in excitement.
During the day, a stroll through the outdoor market reveals residents selling jewelry, artwork, handmade clothes and even Mayan relics. The vendors are persistent but not as pesky as those in Antigua.
Return to reality
While Antigua and Copan provide the rush, it takes only a few minutes on a bus for the scenes to jolt you back to reality.
In Guatemala, you see the magnificent scenery in the distance punctuated by a double rainbow after a downpour. Then you look at the thatched and tin roofs of makeshift homes built alongside walled villas with barbed wire lining the walls.
As you pass each settlement, you notice the large number of people taking refuge under open shelters, homes made of salvaged tin and little children stretching their necks to see who might be in the bus. Some extend their arms to send a welcoming wave, as if the bus were a traveling side show in their daily lives.
San Pedro Sula and Guatemala City are not as foreboding as their reputations imply. However, you don't have to look far to see the poverty or danger lurking in front of you or in the shadows of the dense vegetation that lies beyond the small homes.
Trash is littered alongside the highways. It seems what finally is deemed unusable is thrown by the road. Near San Pedro Sula, a dog rummaging through a large pile of garbage searches for one last morsel. Nearby, two men relieve themselves on a public highway as if they were in a public restroom.
Police are everywhere, directing traffic, checking for drugs or just standing at attention. In the background, you often see military personnel with semiautomatic weapons. It is said that the military is dispatched because the government suspects the police are corrupt.
Guns and weapons are everywhere, too. It's not unusual to see a weapon being brandished every 100 yards or so. Some provide a sense of security. Others, not so much.
But in the midst of the trash, shacks and stares, it's not unusual to find beauty. A river winding through a valley is idyllic with lush mountains towering above. You gaze at the beauty and start to think this is paradise until the bus hits a pothole, and you again notice the tin shacks and homes made of old signs that might be worth something in this country. There, they don't adorn; they provide shelter.
As you travel through the cities, you can't help but think of the many faces of Central Americans depicted through organizations raising money to help; those sad, lonely, hungry children stare at you hauntingly through the TV screen and in your memories. Those children do exist, but there are also those with sparkling, curious eyes who run up to a foreigner and sometimes throw their arms around you.
The people who I met were friendly and open, many telling me of their ancestry. At a church, the "Americanas" were called up to the front as the pastor told the congregation that they must welcome outsiders. In town, a machinist invites you to his modest home attached to his shop where he works on trucks and tractors while his wife sells frozen treats from her small enclosure attached to the machine shop. He'll show you his tools and tell you about the 100- to 200-year-old hand tools that he sometimes has to use when the electricity goes out. In broken English mixed with Spanish, the man, his skin leathered by years of work and his clothes dirty from another hard day, tells about how he works seven days a week so he can send his son and daughter to a bilingual school. He's proud that they can have an education that he didn't have. He then tells you after dinner that you're now a part of his family and that you must come to see him and his family when you return to his country.
So, as that old jet shakes and spurts through a tropical depression as you leave San Pedro Sula, you remember the rush of the adventure while realizing the danger that just surrounded you. What you can't forget is the beauty of the people you left behind and who ultimately make it worth the trip.
If you travel to Honduras and or Guatemala, here are some tips to consider before you go:
• Check with your doctor to see what shots you might need. I received three for hepatitis A, tetanus and diphtheria. However, you might need only one.
• Ask your doctor to prescribe you medication for traveler’s diarrhea, just in case.
• Take sunscreen and mosquito repellent. Spray the repellent on yourself every day before going out.
• Know who is transporting you and try to arrange transportation beforehand. If you’re unsure, ask the hotel or the trustworthy transportation you’ve just taken. Avoid public transportation if possible.
• Take a battery-powered light in case the electricity goes out during a storm. And take an umbrella and rain-resistant clothing for those storms.
• Pack wet wipes. Trust me on this one.
• Do not pack fancy clothes, jewelry or other adornments. I noticed one foreigner wearing name-brand sunglasses and clothes. My first thought was “target.”
• Take cash and be prepared to understand the currency rates and what you’re spending. If you run out, most places have ATMs with armed guards. Be prepared to pay cash at border crossings or as you leave countries such as Honduras.
• If you don’t know Spanish, try to travel with someone who does. Or be prepared to speak some basic words. You’ll be asked whether you can speak Spanish. Know how to respond. And travel in groups you know about whenever possible.
• Use bottled water, especially when brushing your teeth. Wash any fruit or vegetable you buy with the water.
- Joe Hight, The Gazette