Affordable Honduras: Mayans, Manatees, and More

Long crossed off travelers' lists, Honduras, with its cloud forests, colonial churches, and Caribbean beaches, is becoming a Central American destination of choice.

Swept along in the crush of passengers gunning for the baggage claim in Tegucigalpa, I almost run right into the sign with my name on it. Just as I'd feared: it's held up high for all to see, branding me immediately as a tourist.

I like to think of myself as an indomitable backpacker, the kind who thrives on endless bus rides and unidentifiable street food. So it was with some reluctance that I booked a nine-day package to Honduras through Capricorn, a New York-based tour operator specializing in Central America. My agent custom-designed a whirlwind trip with a little of everything the country has to offer—the rain forest, the coast, the mountains, and the Mayan ruins. Somehow she also convinced me to use a surprisingly affordable series of guides to ease my many transitions from airport to hotel to sites.

I can't help but immediately like Eli, my first of what will be six guides. He's smart and affable, with a sly sense of humor. We drop my bags at my hotel, a modern, overly sanitized affair (plastic wrap on the lampshades?), and head for Valley of Angels, a crafts village in the mountains an hour outside Tegucigalpa.

Ten years ago, in a move that would have made Adam Smith proud, a group of artisans from around the country decided to band together and sell their work in one relatively central location. Because Valley of Angels is close to the capital, craftspeople from all over Honduras began sending their merchandise there. Government money was procured, 16th-century adobe buildings made over, and terraced restaurants opened.

Eli leads me into the first store we see. The smell of freshly carved mahogany and cedar is intoxicating, and I wander toward a group of gleaming wooden chests. Closer up, I realize that an otherwise lovely piece is marred by huge balloon letters spelling out honduras across the top. In fact, most of the crafts inside have the distinctive whiff of souvenir about them.

Yet the deeper we get into town, the smaller and more specialized the stores become, and the better their wares. I make off with a high-gloss salad bowl and tongs, a carved wooden jewelry box, some leather-bound journals, and what, for lack of a Honduran name, I call my saddle chair: a small, surprisingly comfortable stool, its tripod-like legs slung with a buffed piece of cowhide. Straddling it transforms you instantly into Clint Eastwood.

The drive back to Tegucigalpa down serpentine mountain roads is lovely. Boys on Terminator dirt bikes pedal furiously to pull ahead of our van; girls with long braids call out to us, their arms filled with bunches of lupines. In the capital, I take my first good look around and feel a twinge of disappointment. Like so many cities in the developing world, Tegucigalpa is suspended between modernity and tradition. Old stucco buildings cling to their last layer of muddy beige paint; "new" buildings are a dowdy version of Bauhaus. But every now and then there's a poignant flash of faded elegance: Iglesia San Francisco, the colonial church with an altar on its eroded façade where the slaves who built it were relegated to worship; or the former president's mansion, its ballrooms still heavy with gilded portraits and swagged curtains.

The next day Eli and I drive north into La Tigra National Park. It was silver and gold that lured New York's Rosario mining company to the mountains of La Tigra in the 18th century, and vestiges of that industry's exploits remain. At the base of the park are the limestone shells of buildings erected during the former mining town's boom days—a post office, a jail, a bank. Another sign of fallout from Rosario's presence: the patch of miniature acacia and spruce trees behind the ranger station. Ever since the cloud forest was designated a national park in 1980, rangers have been scrambling to regenerate the plant life that was damaged by mining.

They seem to be succeeding. Vines like huge phone cords dangle everywhere; ferns and plants that grow to Jurassic proportions; bromeliads—a sure sign of health in a tropical tree—erupt from every branch; and there are many more shades of green in the sun-dappled corridors than your 64-pack of Crayolas ever had.

Back home, I'd told the tour operator I wouldn't need a guide for a hike of La Tigra. Then I read a guidebook or two. Turns out there are jaguars. And poorly marked trails. So when Eli offered to accompany me to the park, I wimped out and accepted. It's a good thing, too. Without Eli I would have missed all the action—the red tip of a snake's tail shooting under a rock, a howler monkey peering from the foliage above, birds imitating zippers and traffic whistles. As a New Yorker, I've come to think of noise as a distraction to be tuned out; here in the forest, I have to train myself to listen again.

At least until I fly to Trujillo on the Caribbean coast, where I spend a couple of days on my own. Trujillo's greatest charm is that it requires nothing of its visitors. It's happy to let the sun and the lazy Caribbean waves and the rum-and-Cokes keep them in a perpetual trance. And most of them are only too glad to submit.

Early mornings in Trujillo are for big, drawn-out Honduran breakfasts on the terrace of the Villa Brinkley, a lovely colonial-style hotel as endearing for its imperfections (like the strip of dying plants lining my sunken limestone shower) as for its stunning views. Late mornings I cruise the dusty streets looking for coconut bread vendors, or lie on the ramparts of Fortaleza Santa Barbara with a book. By noon, when the sun's heat is too insistent to ignore, I duck into the kiosco in the town square for a few games of chess with the locals.

Afternoons are for excursions. One day I walk to the Rivera del Pedregal Museum, on the western edge of town. It calls itself an archaeological museum, although the term is interpreted loosely: rusty fans and 20-year-old beer bottles are displayed on the same jumbled shelf as an 800-year-old Paya rolling pin and a Peche incense burner. Another day, I walk for miles down a deserted beach to the Garífuna village in Santa Fe. The Garífuna people, descendants of the Africans and Carib Indians shipped here from Jamaica by the British to perform hard labor, give Honduras's coastal towns a loose, funky vibe. Their music, called punta, is a polyrhythmic percussion-fest that requires dancers to move their hips at the velocity of a blender. There's not much to see in Santa Fe—a banana-yellow town hall, a smattering of thatched-roof houses, a few stray pigs—but there's a very good reason to make the trip: Pete's, one of the town's three restaurants, is to the Honduran coast what the Rainbow Room is to New York. The few tourists who find their way to Santa Fe all wind up at Pete's. "Pete cooked on a cruise ship for years," the locals will tell you with reverence.

His food justifies his reputation. My red snapper is perfectly grilled, not fried like most of the fish at the beachside palapas, and so fresh I can almost taste the ocean salt. But what makes the dish is the sauce, a creamy curry with a subtle but decisive bite. When I ask Pete what's in it, he smiles generously, answers smugly. "That stays in here," he says, tapping his head.

It's positively painful to leave Trujillo for the port city of La Ceiba the next morning. Paul Theroux's description from The Mosquito Coast keeps running through my head: "a dusty city defeated by too much sun." The minute I arrive, I'm whisked away by my guide, Mike, and his assistant, Roberto, to raft through Pico Bonito National Park. En route to the river, I ask Mike about the crude skull-and-crossbones tattoo on his shoulder. He tells me he did it himself at age nine, all pumped up after a Mötley Crüe concert. There must be a proverb out there somewhere about not rafting through labyrinths of jagged rocks led by a guide whose high testosterone level is exceeded only by his pain threshold.

Yet Mike is the one who yanks me from the water by the scruff of my life jacket when I bounce out of the raft and get trapped under the current. We pull over to the bank and he gives me breathing instructions. I have to admit I'm happier when we're paddling in quiet water: it's then that I can appreciate the prehistoric boulders, the oriole nests shaped like baseball bats, the forbiddingly steep emerald mountains around us.

The few hours I spend at the Cuero y Salado Wildlife Preserve the next morning, however, slow even my pulse to a halt. We drift around a lagoon in a motorboat looking for the manatees and monkeys I was promised, but settling for birds and butterflies. The most entertaining part of the excursion turns out to be another tourist, a 70-year-old Houston businessman named Ray. Though I'm slightly worried by his sun hat, which is festooned with TEQUILA MAMA and BORN IN THE U.S.A. buttons, he soon wins me over with a story about his first job. After less than a month, he'd thrown a paper airplane at his boss, inscribed with the words I QUIT.

Other than Ray, the only travelers I've met so far in Honduras have been backpackers. Then at the Mayan ruins of Copán, I see dozens of Americans pouring out of tour buses. For a minute I'm perturbed—until I realize I'm one of them, really. Still, I can't help but think that the enigma of Copán's 1,533-year history would have been more powerful uninterrupted by family photo ops, lime-green water bottles, and fanny packs.

But nothing can spoil Copán entirely. It's set in a lush jungle surrounded by mountains, and the intricate carvings on its dozens of stelae look as if they were done with a straight pin. That they've survived all these years of sun and rain is a near miracle.

In the colonial town of Copán Ruinas, I strike a deal with an adolescent boy on horseback to take me on a sunset ride into the mountains. We exchange a few details about ourselves, but mostly we just ride, gazing at the lavender sky and the banana trees waving their floppy leaves at us. Up on the ridge, you can hear roosters crowing from the town, but the roar of tour buses is absent—proof, I'd like to think, that no matter how many tour guides I've followed around in the past nine days, Honduras is not a package destination.

here's the deal
The price of a 12-day trip from Capricorn (800/426-6544) includes airfare from New York, transfers, private tour guides, lodging, and most activities. (My nine-day tour was customized.)
Tour: $2,055
Food, taxis, entertainment: $340
Shopping: $105
Total: $2,500

to go?
• Cloud forests, mountains, rivers, oceans are unspoiled.
• Few other tourists to taint it.
• Fresh seafood dinners go for as little as $3.

or not to go?
• A "luxury" hotel might well have linoleum floors.
• Prop planes, which are the easiest way to get around, don't quite have the smooth ride of a Lincoln Town Car.
• The wildlife isn't as easy to spot as ecotour operators would have you think.

Kimberley Sevcik is features editor at Swing magazine.

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