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Honduras - Maya city Copán, Garífuna villages, and Nature

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Travel pictures from Honduras

by Dr. Günther Eichhorn

Itinerary

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In February/March 2008 I visited Honduras for two weeks. I flew into San Pedro Sula. I had arranged a trip for me alone with Coco Tours Honduras. Coco Tours is run by a French Canadian named Miguel, who moved to Honduras about 12 years ago. It is a small operation, they have a few old cars and an old Canadian school bus. All the people working for him are local Garífuna from the surrounding villages.

The tour was very inexpensive, and I soon found out why: They used the cheapest hotels available, all but one without hot water. Meals were in local eateries, which was fine with me. It is basic food, but I have no problem with that. Most of the time you did get a fork, hardly ever a knife. Most of the time it was half a fried chicken, a few times fried fish. Don't get the beef, it is a close cousin to shoe soles.

All that would have been fine with me if I would have seen what I came there for: The Maya ruins at Copán and wildlife in the rain forest. I did see Copán, and it was fantastic, but I didn't see much wildlife. Only one excursion was really worth it. This was not all the fault of the organizer, the weather was a major problem, it rained a lot and several excursions were rained out. I spent one day in the lodge at Pico Bonito, but there is nothing to see there. You can't go into the reserve from there. If I would have had the two excursions on the last day in the Refugio de Vida Silvestre Cuero y Salado Nature Reserve, I would have been satisfied, but they were rained out. If you go on such a tour to see wildlife in the rain forest, make sure that you have good excursions for that on your itinerary.

My biggest beef with the tour operator was that they were NEVER on time. Only once my guide was only 5 minutes late, that was the best that they could do. Usually they were ½ hour late, several times an hour, and once about four hours late. This was extremely annoying

Honduras History

The oldest evidence of human occupation in Honduras is 6000 to 8000 years old. They were probably Paleo-Indians from the north. The Maya came from Guatemala and Mexico and became the dominant rulers. Copán was the major Maya center in Honduras, and became one of the major Maya city-states of the Classic Period (300 CE - 900 CE). The Classic Period ended with a rapid and mysterious collapse of most of the Maya centers, including Copán. The last dated hieroglyphs in Copán are from around 800 CE.

The Maya developed a very accurate calendar. However, they did not predict the end of the word in December 2012. This is just roll-over of their calendar, just as the year 2000 was in our calendar.

The descendants of the Maya were one of the indigenous groups that the Spanish encountered when they began to invade Mesoamerica.

Today, the largest part (85% - 90%) of the population in Honduras are ladinos, a mixture of Spanish and indigenous people. The rest are several different ethnic minorities, some indigenous, some immigrant, some a mixture.

The Tolupanes live in small villages in Yaro and Francisco Marazán. They are the oldest indigenous communities in Honduras. They are either descendants from immigrants that came 3000 years ago from South America (like the Pech, the Lenca, and the Tawahka. Some researches however believe that they originated from immigrants from the north about 5000 years ago.

The Maya-Chortí are indigenous people that live in the department of Copán. They are the second largest indigenous group, they are the descendants of the Maya.

The Lenca live in southwestern Honduras. They have retained traditional clothing more than any of the other groups. Like the Pech and the Tawahka, they are descendants of Chibcha-speaking Amerindians from Colombia and Venezuela who migrated about 3000 years ago. Their language has been lost during the Spanish conquest.

The Miskito live in the department of La Miskitia, on the northeastern coast and along the border with Nicaragua. They are very involved with tourism. They are not truly indigenous, they are the result of interracial mixing between an unknown indigenous group and African slaves. They also have some English blood from English pirates that used La Miskitia as hide-outs.

The Pech live in the interior of the La Miskitia region. They are also somewhat involved in tourism. Like the Lenca and Tawahka, they are descendants of Chibcha-speaking Amerindians from South America who migrated about 3000 years ago.

The Tawahka live in the interior of the La Miskitia region. Like the Lenca and Pech, they are descendants of Chibcha-speaking Amerindians from South America who migrated about 3000 years ago. They are the smallest indigenous group, with less than 1000 members.

The Garífuna live on most of the north coast of Honduras, in the area that I visited. They are a mixture of African slaves and Caribe and Arawak people who came from Caribbean islands.

Other ethnic groups are white islanders, descendants from British pirates, and non-Garífuna Black islanders, descendants from slaves or free Blacks from British controlled Cayman Islands.

Honduras Today

The hotels that I was staying in were the cheap ones. I always say that for me, roughing it means a black and white TV in my hotel room. Well this time I was really roughing it, not only was there no TV, there also was no hot water. Only the hotel in Copán had warm water. Even the hotel in San Pedro Sula had only cold water. The first night in Triunfo de la Cruz I was in a hotel outside the village. The door lock was broken we had to use a cork screw to get it open. The roof leaked, and the electricity didn't work. And there was now window that you could close, so during the night with pouring rain, my bed next to the window got soaked. The remaining nights in Triunfo I stayed in the best hotel in the village, the Cabañas Colon. It was a VERY basic place, cold water of course. During my stay in Triunfo, the whole town had no electricity for about one day. The power line was cut somewhere, and it took them a day to fix it.

The food is basic, fortunately that doesn't bother me. I am fine with basic food, I don't need gourmet food. In most places, that were on my itinerary, I didn't have much of a choice. It reminded me of Henry Ford and his Model A. You could get it in any color you want ... as long as it is black. In many restaurants you could have anything you wanted ... as long as it was fried chicken. In several places they had fried fish as well. Once I had beef, at least that's what I was told. It felt more like a shoe sole. Another noteworthy fact was that usually I didn't get a knife, just a small plastic fork, and sometimes not even that. You usually eat with your fingers, which means that you should bring a hand sanitizer, since often there is no restroom either.

However, in the towns you have the choice of US food. All the fast food chains from the US are represented. But I'd rather eat fried chicken in a local restaurant than at KFC.

They have four local brands of beer, all are just my taste. The beer is very inexpensive, less than $1.00 for a bottle of beer, sometimes as little as $0.70.

The billiard bar in Triunfo de la Cruz was my local watering hole. One thing that surprised me was that the bartender had a brisk business selling single cigarettes for 2 Lempira each (about $0.10).

And everybody does cell phones, everywhere, all the time. My tour guide was a cell phone addict. He not only talked a lot, he also used it to download movies (including hard core porno!), play games, and music. He always was busy with his cell phone.

Many more women in Honduras wear skirts than in the USA and Europe. What was very noticeable was that there are lots of chubby women in Honduras.

Traffic was generally very civilized. Not much honking at all. There was a mix of new and old cars on the roads. The buses are always very crowded. In the bus to Copán, they had a set of plastic seats that they used in the isle, once all the seats were full. After everybody was on-board, the bus drove to the gas station and filled up, with the motor running!!!!

The roads are of varying quality. In the villages there are generally no paved roads. The main routes are pretty good. Looking outside showed mixed areas. In some areas the roadside was very clean, in others there was quite a bit of garbage on the side.

The weather unfortunately was not very good. It rained a lot. The rainy season was supposed to be over, but the weather god had other plans. And when it starts raining, it usually rains for a few days.

I visited three towns, San Pedro Sula, Tela, and La Ceiba. Tela and La Ceiba are fine to visit, you don't have to worry about walking around. That is different in San Pedro Sula. The area around the hotel that we stayed in is a bad neighborhood. When we arrived and got out of the bus, a prostitute approached us and started offering her services to Miguel. When he didn't act, she started grabbing his privates. Needless to say, I didn't walk around as I normally do in a new place. You could also see it in the banks. We went to a bank, because some of the people needed money. The bank guards are heavily armed with shotguns and revolvers. The first bank that we went to didn't have a working ATM, so we continued. We finally found an ATM with line of 30 people waiting to get to the ATM. Not only the banks are heavily guarded, the hotels are as well. We had an armed guard in the hotel lobby. We went to dinner together to a safer part of town and had good Mexican food, and then visited a disco. Even in the disco, the beer was only $1.50 for a bottle.

In Copán, I had a bit of a problem in my hotel. On Saturday, the locals have their disco night. The disco is outside next to the hotel I stayed in. The music was extremely loud, there was no way I could sleep with that ruckus outside my window. Unfortunately all the other bars closed at 11:00, so I couldn't have a beer somewhere else. The music went on till 1:30. That was one rough night!

Itinerary

When I arrived in San Pedro Sula, somebody from Coco Tours was supposed to wait for me, but nobody was there. That was to be a constant nuisance during the whole trip, having to wait for the tour guide. Miguel eventually showed up. Because of the rains on the first couple of days we changed the itinerary to do things that were not so affected by the rain. This was one of the advantages of the tour operator, he was very flexible in that respect. I stayed the first couple of days in Triunfo de la Cruz, a small Garífuna village east of Tela on the north shore of Honduras. This is the home base of Coco Tours. The first two days were basically rained out. On the first day we went into Tela and walked around town in the rain. In the afternoon we drove around in the rain and saw a couple of the Garífuna villages. On the second day the rains let up a bit and I visited the Lancetilla Nature Reserve at the Jardín Botánico Lancetilla. We walked through nice rain forest area, but didn't see any wildlife.

That afternoon we drove back to San Pedro Sula, stayed there overnight, and took an early morning bus to Copán. Copán was everything I had hoped for. I got a guide who showed me the site. I then had some time on my own to walk around some more and take more pictures. Copán is one of the major Maya centers (besides Tikal in Guatemala and Chich'én Itzá in Mexico).

One interesting thing about the guides at Copán are their pointers. They use bamboo sticks with a large feather at the end. They can point at hieroglyphs and touch them without causing damage. I found that a very smart solution.

After the visit to the main site, I went into Copán Ruínas, the town next to the archaeological site, and visited the Museo Regional de Arqueología. It has some fantastic pieces with Maya hieroglyphs.

The next morning we walked around the area and visited a local village. We were supposed to walk up the mountain to another Maya site, but somebody had bought property there and you couldn't go through there anymore. My guide from Coco Tours was not that familiar with everything it seemed, so we didn't get to see that site. We did find one site, a Maya birthing place. It seems that Maya women would go to that place to give birth.

When we got back to the town, I went back to the main site, since I wanted to take some more pictures of one particular altar, Altar Q (see Maya ruler genealogy). My guide managed to convince the guards to let me in there again on the previous day's pass. After that we went to the Sculpture Museum. This museum has some of the best stelae and carved friezes. There are some fantastic pieces in this museum, including the original of Altar Q and Stela A.

After the museum we went to Las Sepulturas, a site with Maya houses. It has some houses of higher class people, as well as simpler houses. There were some temple with sacrificial altars, both for animal and for human sacrifices. One was the house of a Maya shaman. Many Maya seem to have been buried in their houses, according to the local guide, there were a lot of tombs either in the houses or next to them.

After Las Sepulturas we went to the bird park. They have quite a few birds, mainly parrots, macaws, parakeets, etc. There were also a lot of nice flowers in that park.

The next morning we took the bus back to San Pedro Sula, then another bus to Tela, and from there a taxi to the base in Triunfo de la Cruz. Nothing else happened on that day, it was basically a wasted day. But the weather had finally cleared up, and I watched the stars from the beach after nightfall. I have an image stabilized Canon pair of binoculars that was ideal for that. Among others I saw Saturn with its rings, the Orion Nebula in all its splendor, the double star cluster h & χ Persei, the Pleiades, and the Andromeda Galaxy. That made up for the waste of the main part of the day.

The next day I took an excursion to the Garífuna village Miami (sic), and a boat tour of the Laguna de los Micos. This was the only really good nature watching that I had on the whole trip.

Nothing was going on that afternoon. The problem with staying in such a small village is that there is nothing whatsoever for you to do on your own.

The next morning we went on another boat excursion to Punta Sal. That trip was very disappointing, there was nothing to see. First I had to walk for one hour to get there. Then I was put in the most dilapidated row boat that you can imagine. He rowed the boat backwards, I assume because the back of the boat was leaking severely and he wanted to keep it out of the water. Fortunately the guy with the motor boat came back, and we switched boats. They seemed to have planned to take the boat to another part of the nature reserve, but in order to get there, they had to go out on the ocean, and the waves were still too strong from the storms of the previous days. It is possible that Punta Sal is more interesting if you get to the other parts. I didn't understand all they were talking about, since neither my guide nor the boat owner spoke English. That was one of the most disappointing days of the trip.

The next day we drove to La Ceiba. The name of the town is from the tree La Ceiba, the sacred tree of the Mayas. I saw a few really big Ceibas in the Lancetilla Nature Reserve. Outside of La Ceiba we drove to a lodge near Pico Bonitos Nature Reserve and stayed there overnight.

Unfortunately you can't get into the nature reserve from the lodge, just walk around the edges of the reserve. I walked around for about an hour, but there was not much to see. In the evening I saw some birds around the lodge, but it was not very impressive.

The main attraction there is the canopy tour. They have some cables spanned between trees. You get hooked up to a cable and drag yourself along the cable. I passed on that, it didn't sound too interesting, no wildlife to see along the cables. At that lodge Coco Tours had another group of French Canadians. They went into La Ceiba, so I joined them, since there was nothing else to do. Our trucks were not here, so we had to take the local bus to La Ceiba. It was your typical local bus, pretty crowded, stopping at every other corner.

I planned to visit the Refugio de Vida Silvestre Cuero y Salado Nature Reserve next. Miguel said he would bring me there, but he had to bring the other group to their next stop first. He was supposed to meet me again in La Ceiba at 12:30. If he had been on time, I would have had time to go on an evening excursion in the Nature Reserve. Unfortunately he was 3 (three) hours late, so I got to the reserve too late for an excursion. To get into the Nature Reserve, you drive to a small village about 10 km (6 miles) west of La Ceiba, and take an old plantation railroad to the reserve. The train ride takes almost an hour and is kind of fun. The weather was still really nice that afternoon.

In the evening after dinner I had a few beer. Around 20:00 the bar closed! When I got back to the cabin, it was locked!! There was nobody around, except some soldiers who guard the reserve. Nobody could open the door. I walked around trying to find somebody that could open the cabin. One person told me I had to take the train back to the village    :-\( Finally I found somebody who seemed to know where the person with the keys was, she was on a boat excursion to look for crocodiles. He was going to take a canoe and look for them. I asked him whether there was room in the canoe for me as well, and he took another canoe with three seats, and packed me and one of the kids that were hanging around there in the canoe. It was completely dark, only star light. We paddled into the reserve in complete darkness, it was a great experience. We finally found the excursion, they were in a motor boat, and we went back with the motor boat, the canoe in tow. This was really nice, but that was when I got an inkling of what was to come. There was lightning in the distance    :-\( Sure enough, during the night the wind picked up, and at 6:00 in the morning when I was supposed to go on the canoe excursion into the reserve, it was quite a storm, much too windy to go in a canoe. Not long after that it started to rain heavily, so the afternoon excursion was also canceled. These excursions could have really nice for nature watching, even though they were not in rain forest.

The lodge in Cuero y Salado was very basic, with shared bath and no towels. In La Ceiba, while I was waiting for Miguel, I had a premonition and bought a towel. That was really lucky, otherwise it would have been a bit awkward in that lodge. The food was the same basic food, with no choice, just fried chicken.

The next morning I took the train back. The train was supposed to leave around 7:30 and be back in the village by 8:00. Miguel was supposed to pick me up at 8:00. The train ended up not coming till 9:40, and arrived in the village at 10:20, almost 2 ½ hours late. But not to worry, Miguel was even later than that. I had to wait another hour before they picked me up. Waiting for the tour guides was a constant nuisance. They were always ½ to 1 hour late.

The next day again nothing was scheduled, I had to hang around the village. This was a bit different, since it was Sunday. On Sunday it seems as if all of Honduras descends on the beaches. The whole village was full with buses, and the beach was packed with people.

This was the last full day in Honduras. The next morning they were supposed to pick me up at 9:00, but of course nobody showed up. Fortunately I had a cell phone with me, so I called Miguel. He said he was held up with the other group, he would be there at 10:00. At 10:00, nobody was there. I called again, and he said he would arrange for somebody else to drive me to San Pedro Sula. By that time it was getting kind of late. Finally it was almost 11:00 before somebody showed up and drove me to San Pedro Sula. I had enough cushion, and still made the flight back to the USA.

Summary

I had bad luck with the weather, so I didn't see as much as I had hoped. My itinerary was not ideal, which contributed to that. But Copán was absolutely worth a visit.

All pictures are © Dr. Günther Eichhorn

Honduras People
The People
Honduras Nature
Nature
Honduras Copan
Copán


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© Dr. Günther Eichhorn
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