On second thought, I wish I had spent longer than eight days in Honduras. Looking back, there were several destinations that I wanted to check out that were off the well-trodden Honduran path. However, I’m still not quite sure that “getting off the beaten path” in Honduras is a safe idea for a single, female traveler. I’ll admit I
was am paranoid concerned about my personal well-being…or maybe just extremely, extremely cautious about delving into the Honduran countryside and villages.
Safety in Honduras: The risk in Honduras is that travelers are either scared away from the whole country, or they are not scared enough in places where they should be scared. If backpackers do venture into this Central American country that has the highest murder rate in the world, usually they just visit the Islas de la Bahia and Copan ruins before hightailing it out of the country. Actually, the majority of backpackers I encounter have written Honduras and the neighboring country of El Salvador completely off of their itineraries. And for good reason too.
There are definitely two sides to Honduras. The Islands, Copan Ruinas, Santa Rosa de Copan and many of the smaller communities are safe for travelers who take proper precautions and travel smartly. The bigger cities are dangerous. I wanted to give Honduras the benefit of the doubt and truly experience the culture and countryside, but, alas, I too followed the typical backpacker through Utila, Copan, and out.
Though I only strayed slightly off of the tourist path, I never once felt unsafe, frightened, or out of my element. I actually found that the locals were warm, friendly, and immensely helpful, and I had a wonderful, event-packed eight days in Honduras.
After spending an epic week in Guatemala’s Rio Dulce, I caught a few buses that took me from Puerto Barrios, across the Guatemalan/Honduran border, through San Salvador, and up to La Ceiba, the jumping off point for the popular Islas de la Bahia. Here, I waited for three hours in sultry heat for the afternoon boat to Utila, the country’s prime diving destination, and my reason for visiting the iconic Honduran islands.
Heading to the islands: The Islas de la Bahia are made up of three main islands and over sixty smaller cayes. Roatan and Utila are the two most popular islands; Roatan as the swanky and more developed island and Utila as the main backpacker hub for those with shallow pockets (i.e. me). Both islands are known for their water based activities such as snorkeling, fishing, and rock bottom priced diving.
Utila was lovely. Most hot spot diving destinations around the world are similar, developed for tourist’s comforts in mind with plenty of coffee shops, Internet cafes, and tiendas catering to westerners. True Honduran culture? I think not. Utila was originally populated by the Garifuna people and Creole English, instead of Spanish, is the more common language. There is also an enormous expat population living on the island so one can easily get by with speaking English.
I can’t help but compare Utila to the island of Caye Caulker in Belize. Caye Caulker doesn’t have cars and the quiet island flaunted long stretches of undeveloped beach. Utila, on the other hand, is drastically more developed, and the island’s one main road is built up on both sides with houses, tiendas, dive centers, apartments, and ramshackle what-nots. Though busy, the road was great for early morning runs and had plenty of street stalls selling yummy baleadas, white flour tortillas filled with beans, cheese, vegetables, and meat for the carnivores out there.
Utila underwater: My main purpose for visiting Utila was to get my Advanced Diving certification. I have been an Open Water Diver for nearly fourteen years so it was beyond time to advance my skills for deeper diving and night diving. Many of Utila’s diving centers offer extremely cheap certification opportunities, often with free accommodation and use of the diving school’s facilities during the course. After much research and recommendations, I chose Alton’s Diving Center and paid $269 for my Advanced Diving Certification, including five dives, two fun dives, four nights accommodation, and full use of their facilities, kayaks, and diving equipment.The course started off a bit rocky. Dave, my diving partner, and I were both disappointed with Reba’s attention to detail and her curious dismissal for explaining some necessary diving techniques. So…our first two dives were somewhat uncomfortable. However, fate intervened, Reba came down with a cold on day two, and she transferred us to Shawn, who was a fantastic and attentive diving instructor. We completed our dive course in three days and finished off with our checkout dives on day four.
The waters around the Islas de la Bahia are known worldwide for whale sharks. Though it wasn’t the high season for spying the spotted beauties, our captain worked extra hard with searching for boils, a sure sign that sharks are nearby. Whale sharks are always accompanied by a swarm of other plankton feeders, larger predator fish, and birds swooping down to take part in the action. All of this movement near the surface makes the water look like it is literally boiling. We were in luck one morning when, after surfacing from a dive, our captain located a distant boil. We approached and slid in the water near an enormous thirty-foot whale shark – a fantastic, mind bending experience. There is a lot of controversy about chasing Utila’s whale sharks and concern that boats over-crowding them at the surface will disrupt their feeding patterns or possibly even injure them if the boats get too close. Though I thoroughly enjoyed seeing a whale shark, if I had the choice of doing it again, I would prefer to enjoy the turtles, fish, and nurse sharks that localize around the reefs instead.
In and out of Honduras: With my diving certification finished, thus began the most epic border crossing I’ve encountered in my ten years of traveling. It took me two days and 14 different modes of transportation to cross the El Salvadorian border, and I found the local transportation to be easy and fun. The locals were quick to offer advice, point me in the right direction, or flag down a bus for the next leg of my journey. There was never a dull moment when traveling on public transportation. Outside of San Pedro Sula, two policemen cruised by on a motorcycle and flagged our bus to the side of the road. They boarded (with huge guns) and proceeded to search and pat down all of the male passengers. None of the passengers left with them, and we were soon back on the road. Just another day on a Honduras chicken bus.
With day one behind me, I spent the night in a rather dodgy, dank hotel in Santa Rosa de Copan and started day two with three coffees and a big breakfast. The adventure continued, and once again, I was shuttled from bus to bus with the help of locals and concerned bus touts. At one point, my bus stopped and all passengers had to get out and walk across what appeared to be a landslide to another bus on the other side. I later learned that this entire portion of road had been wiped out in the 7.3 earthquake that shook El Salvador earlier that week.
Crossing into El Salvador was straightforward. I boarded the first bus away from the border and by early evening I arrived in Suchitoto, a sweet village nestled high in the hills. After two days and a combined twenty-four hours of travel from Utila clear across Honduras and into El Salvador, I wasn’t going anywhere for a few days. I unpacked my bag, spread out my yoga mat for some much needed stretching and exercise, and bought a bottle of wine to accompany my dinner of delicious Salvadoran pupusas. That evening, I slept with a blanket for the first time in nearly two months due to the high altitude’s fresh weather – a welcome treat!