Published: August 21st 2008August 7th 2008
Toucan close up
Seeing this toucan made me think of Guinness. Strange how advertising works!
Next stop Honduras
As we travel from the Nicaragua/Honduras border to Tegucigalpa a small girl, aged about 9 or 10, boards the bus alone. It's the middle of the day so why she is not at school I don't know. She carries a box down to the back of the bus, takes out bags of banana chips and starts trying to sell them to people on the bus for 5 Lempiras (about $0.25) a bag.
Seeing people selling food on buses is a common sight in Central America, but I've never before seen so young a person. It's difficult to imagine a 10 year old boarding a bus alone like this in Ireland or in any European country. And even more hard to imagine what it must be for this girl to have to go out and do this work every day, board a bus to a city notorious for crime, and attempt to sell food for a pittance.
But in Honduras, Central America's second least developed country, even children are not spared harsh economic realities. We buy a bag from the girl, and attempt to smile at her but her eyes barely flicker and she gazes
back at us with a resigned look.
Honduras's capital, Tegucigalpa
, is a difficult word to say or spell, and, like many Central American capital cities, a difficult place to avoid, no matter how hard you try. We had hoped to arrive and move on from the city on the same day, but it was 6pm by the time we reached the capital. There isn't one central bus terminal, but almost a different terminal for each different place in the country, meaning we faced a 6km taxi journey just to reach the second terminal.
So Plan A became Plan B, and we instead took a taxi into the centre and stayed in one of Lonely Planet's recommended Shoestring hotels. From the outside it looked a bit like the hotel in The Shining, while things didn't get much better inside when a spooky looking woman, not too dissimilar to the Kathy Bates
character in Misery, answered the door. We were almost afraid not to take the room!
But for 300 Lempiras ($16) a night it was good value, we were right in the heart of the city, near to restaurants, cafes, shops and Tegucigalpa's main sights.
This is 18 Rabbit, best known of the Copan rulers.
Tegucigalpa is too much of a mouthful so I'll call it Tegus from now on, as everyone in Honduras does. Those making the road signs are even lazier, using "Teg" as a short form.
I quite liked Tegus in spite of (or perhaps because of) all the negative things we'd read about it in guidebooks and elsewhere. It's huge and sprawling, and the traffic is a nightmare, but in the centre there are some attractive sights. We had dinner that night in a Mexican restaurant, a place that doubles as a Karaoke bar on Friday nights. The food was great, as was the aptly named local beer Salva Vida (Life Saver), but the karaoke was awful. No future Pop Stars of Pop Idols here.
We thought we were in the only gringos in town, but next morning we met Arild & Tove, a Norwegian couple whom we've previously met in Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. I'm not sure who is following whom at this stage! After a catch up over breakfast in a local cafe, we went our separate ways again, and said we'd see them again soon in Guatemala or El Salvador!
Birdwatching and homemade beer on the lake
Anyone who has travelled in Central America will be familiar with Chicken Buses, which are old American school buses, usually repainted in bright colours, and which go to every little village along any old type of road. Fares are very cheap, and hence these buses are very popular with locals. The seats are designed with school kids in mind, so there is little legroom and comfort. And the one rule of chicken bus travel: no matter how full you think a chicken bus is, there's always room for one more! What looks like a three seater can easily accommodate a father, mother, kids and livestock. They are called chicken buses as you often see live animals - usually chickens - on board. In fact, on our bus to Tegus, I was sitting beside a box which had 4 live chickens.
Getting to Lago Yajoa
involved a half day of travel on three of these chicken buses, but it was worth it when we arrived at D & D Brewery
, a popular hotel, run by a friendly American from Oregon. It's in the middle of nowhere really, near the village of Peña Blanca, and close
Mayan ruins at Copán
This building made up one side of the ball court in Copán.
to the stunning Lake Yajoa. As it's name suggests, D&D Brewery produces excellent beer, which we lost no time in sampling. They offer six types of home brew: pale, amber, dark, raspberry, mango and apricot, and having tried each of them at least twice I can recommend the pale and amber, but warn you off the raspberry beer. A nice idea but...
If beer isn't your thing, D & D also had a pool, quiet rooms in scenic gardens, and plenty of activities nearby.
We woke at 5am next morning for a birdwatching tour on the lake. Initially it was just me and Ruth, but we were joined by Chris from England, Heather from New York, and another American, who happened to be out walking, together with a local guide, Rafael. Lake Yajoa, which we had all to ourselves other than a few local fishermen, is beautiful in the early morning light. Rafael rowed along the canal and out on to the lake and pointed out many bird species along the way. It was difficult to get very close to the birds but we saw enough other sights to make it a worthwhile trip.
On the way
Two nice birds
Ruth with Miski, a blue and yellow macaw from Macaw Mountain Nature Reserve.
back we witnessed an accident on the lake. Two boats of tourists were speeding up and down the canal into the lake (our guide was getting annoyed with them as they caused high ripples which nearly knocked our rowing boat over). As they sped past us for the second time, the driver behind was trying to catch up on the driver ahead, but his boat got caught in the others wake and next thing we knew it had capsized and overturned. People were screaming, not everyone had life jackets on and it was only through sheer luck that no one was seriously injured. Our guide dropped us off and rushed over to help, but by then everyone had made it to the shore.
Macaws & Mayans
Once again it was decision time for us: would we go to Copán Ruinas or the Bay Islands? Copán Ruinas
was less of a diversion from our itinerary, so we opted for that. Not the best way to decide, especially given how often we change plans, but it worked out well as we enjoyed our days there immensely.
Rather confusingly, Copán Ruinas
is the name of the town, while Copán
the name given to the ruins. In typical Central American style, Copán Ruinas is a town that grew in popularity for its proximity to one attraction (in this case the Mayan ruins), and which now offers all sorts of extra activities to keep visitors in town longer. Such as butterfly farms, macaw mountains, tubing, and so on....there are probably even more on offer now since we left.
As we had seen so few birds up close on our bird watching tour, we decided to visit Macaw Mountain
, a nature reserve which provides a home to a wide range of species of birds. Many of these have been donated by owners who became tired of them, while others have been rescued from illegal sales. We took a mototaxi
(basically a 3 wheeled golf buggy) from town, a scary journey, especially on the potholed downhill section when we almost upturned. Going uphill is almost as bad: you could cycle a punctured tricycle quicker and still beat a mototaxi to the top.
While Macaw Mountain is a private reserve, it seems more interested in providing a safe home for these birds than in making money. We took a tour with Alex,
The cheapest but certainly not the safest form of public transport in Copán Ruinas.
who is accompanied everywhere by his cute dog Clovis (see picture), around the reserve and saw some beautiful birds. After spending so long trying to see Macaws and Toucans in cloud forests, it was just all too easy here - they even sit on your arms, shoulders or head!
The Mayan ruins of Copán were equally stunning. We overheard people who'd been to Tikal (in Guatemala) express their disappointment with Copán, but we, visiting our first Mayan ruins, were very impressed. The afternoon before we had visited the archaeological museum in the town, an excellent preparation for the ruins, as it helps you understand the hieroglyphics of Mayan script.
The ruins receive many visitors so it's best to go early in the day when its quieter and you can appreciate it better. Copán is often called the Paris of the Maya world as the decorations of the altars, temples and stelae (stone statues) are rich and ornate. We were even able to read some of the date hieroglyphics on the stelae after our crash course in the museum yesterday.
It was also interesting to see the ball court, used for a sport called pelota
, which Mayan historians
think may have been similar to volleyball. The Mayans clearly took this one seriously as the losing team would often end being killed in sacrifice - how about that for motivation to win! It gives a new meaning to elimination from a sporting competition.
At the entrance to the ruins you can visit a museum which contains the originals of many of the stelae and altars in the field. You enter the museum via a long tunnel and when you emerge at the end you're greeted by a full size replica (18 x 12 metres) of the Rosalila Temple
, painted a striking red colour. Until I saw this I had no idea that all the ruins in Copán were originally coloured red. It creates a completely different effect, making the Mayan Art (and hence the Mayans) seem so much more powerful, violent and dramatic.
There should be more towns like Copán Ruinas! It was a lovely base and a good place to end our travels in Honduras. While our time in Honduras was all too brief, we saw some memorable sites, and I'd put it as my second favourite Central American country, just behind Nicaragua.
There are more photos below