Friday, 15 April 2016

Honduras, Te Amo

"How do I love thee? Let me count the ways."
(Sonnet 43 - Elizabeth Barrett Browning)

Not so long ago a friend wrote me an email in which he stated that he had totally and unexpectedly fallen head-over-heels in love with New Zealand in a way he could never have predicted. I feel the same way about Honduras.

Crossing back into Honduras I was prepared to be unimpressed. After all, this was the place that people who are driving or riding pass through in two hours between Guatemala and Nicaragua, a mere inconvenience of a country. No-one we'd met had implored us to take our time there, to tell us what we were missing. At best it was a dull, uneventful place with little to offer, at worst we'd be murdered in cold blood if we so much as stopped for a few minutes by the roadside. Either way, my expectations were reasonably low.

The border crossing into the country was probably the first sign that things were about to get good. Contrary to the hassle we'd had at the border the last time we'd crossed into Honduras, this time it couldn't have been simpler. No multiple copies, just a friendly lady at the aduana who completed all our paperwork for us, collected our fees and welcomed us to Honduras. The sun was shining and it was early enough in the day to have plenty of options as to where we could reach by nightfall. Being Sunday, we decided to take advantage of the lack of traffic and made it our goal to get to the other side of Tegucigalpa before we found a place to stop.

Immediately we were struck by how green and lush Honduras is. Not just a few little sections of jungle at intervals along the highway, but shades of green we didn’t even know existed for miles and miles. As we rode we passed through small villages and people waved or turned to look at the bikes, as if surprised to see us. We made it through the city easily and before we knew it we were into the last hour of daylight.

The highway we were on was a major dual carriageway so we decided to continue. In our minds we were half planning to make it to D&D Brewery on Lake Yojoa, a place we had been told to visit several times, but it soon became clear we’d set our sights too high for day one and we started to look for a place to stay. Darkness fell and then the rain came. We rode on for many more miles in the dark until eventually we came to an Auto Hotel and with a certain amount of relief, we pulled in. The price was fair and there was a good buffet place nearby for dinner so we took a room.

Now, we’ve stayed in Auto Hotels many times, but this was one of the better ones. Every item of linen in the room was heavily stencilled with the hotel's name and there were mirrors EVERYWHERE. There was also a handy paper towel dispenser by the bed and scrawled on the wall by the television in large figures was the number of the best porn channel. There was even a switch on the wall that would turn on ‘music’. We decided to buck trend of their usual clientele and watched the US presidential debate.

The following day we continued north and decided that it would be a waste of a good riding day to stop at the brewery as we were now very close to it, so we continued towards the coast. Every mile we rode we found something else to like about this country. Firstly, people were friendly. Not just hawkers and salespeople who have a vested interest in being nice to tourists, but every single person we met. People would come to talk to us, ask about the bikes, ask about our plans and most importantly, rarely did we part ways after these encounters without our new friend sincerely adding ‘Welcome to my country, thank you for coming here.’ Hondurans are hands down the friendliest people we’ve met in Central America. When they smile their smiles are genuine and their whole faces light up. You can't walk past a person in the street without a hello and a smile. Or more commonly a smile and an ‘Adiós!’ Makes sense I guess.

Mile after mile we continued to be impressed. Gas is much cheaper than it has been anywhere else. Toll roads have no fees for motorcycles, we were simply waved through with a smile. Main roads are fast and we barely saw any police patrols.

Our next stop was Tela on the Caribbean coast. Tela is a former tourist beach town that has clearly fallen on hard times. We were curious about why this was and later on our question was answered, but for the few days we ended up staying there it intrigued us. There are many hotels in the town, but we could count the number of non-Honduran tourists we saw on one hand. The infrastructure seems to be there but the people aren’t.

After checking out the beach and a guy trying to hustle us into his friends cabina for far more money than we were willing to pay, we found ourselves at a cross section outside several large, but run down hotels. A woman came out of one of the more upmarket hotels and welcomed us to the town in perfect English. We explained we were looking for somewhere to stay but had a tight budget so she suggested we should stay in a cabin that the hotel had at the back of their parking lot. There was parking for the bikes and a nice little room for a fraction of the cost of the hotel. Perfect.

We hadn’t been in town very long before the sun began to set, so we wandered across the road to the beach to watch. Here we were approached by a local guide who welcomed us and after talking for a while he announced it was his birthday and invited us to join him for birthday drinks at a local bar. He wanted to show us a local liquor and so I accepted with a smile, noting that Evan couldn’t have looked less enthusiastic if he tried. It was at this point that I had a sudden realisation about comfort zones.

A few days earlier we’d been having a conversation about what it took to push the limits of our comfort zones and mine was to tackle riding on road surfaces I didn’t feel in control of the bike on. Evan reassured me that he would never lead me into a situation that if I wasn’t capable of handling and that if he did then he would equally get me out of it, that I had no reason to worry. It was as we walked to the bar with Jose, conscious that Evan was heavily dragging his heels, that I realised this statement worked both ways.

As I later explained when he voiced his concern at the possibility that we were walking into a scam that would prove to be costly or at the very least a hard-sell from the guy on tours (both of which proved to be unfounded in this case), I too promised that I would not to lead him into situations that I wasn’t prepared to get us out of. So many of the best experiences I’ve had while travelling have come about through accepting offers such as this so I’m willing to take that chance, but for me this was a moment where I realised we were both equally capable of challenging each other. And so we drank Gifi shots with tamarindo chasers which cost surprisingly little and then when dinner was offered we decided to part company and headed off on our own to explore the town.

Upon leaving Tela we chose to head along the coast as far as the road would take us in the direction of La Moskitia. The largest section of the Mosquito Coast lies, of course, in Nicaragua, but we decided we’d like to see more of Honduras’ northern coastal region. Along the way we stopped to get the oil changed in both bikes at a local shop. We bought the oil from a stand at the side of the road and then picked a shop that looked like they’d be able to do the change. After the usual conversation with the bike shop guys (where are we from, where are we going and how much did the bikes cost) we paid the labour charge of a little more than $2 and both bikes were back on the road with fresh oil.

I should probably add here that the next sections of our route consisted of the worst paved roads we’ve ridden on during the entire trip. With a combination of speed bumps and potholes there really wasn’t much pavement left. Some sections were almost entirely pothole, it was rare to find any smooth road in between. And when I say pothole, I mean foot deep, bike-swallowing sized potholes.

Riding along these sections was slow and laborious. Passing was difficult because every other user of the road would be concentrating on avoiding the potholes too, creating one big free for all as regards road positioning. The bus in front of us would suddenly veer violently to the left, entirely into the oncoming lane whilst we crossed our fingers and hoped that there would still be a gap left amidst the craziness for our bikes to squeeze through without being squashed by an oncoming truck.

What we’ve learnt is that when road conditions are like this, we stop often. Fatigue sets in far more quickly when we’re having to concentrate at such a high level. In the early afternoon we started to look for a place to eat. The road was devoid of the usual cheap buffets so we picked a Chinese instead. While I went to the bathroom I told Evan to order. He picked a chow mein and a fried rice that we could share, something we do often for some variety.

When the plates came out we’d never seen anything like it. Each dish was brought out on a serving plate placed on a lap tray to catch the overflow. Each plate held enough food to feed about eight hungry people. The waitress looked at us apologetically as she set the plates down. We had no idea where to start. We ate our fill and still we hadn’t even made a dent. The three guys at the adjacent table looked at us, bemused as they shared one plate of rice between them. We asked for boxes to take the rest with us and moved nervously to the counter to pay, sure that there had been some misunderstanding and that Evan had somehow ordered the far more expensive family sized portions.

No, those were indeed the small orders and cost us just a few dollars for each plate. Looking at the prices, they’d have had to serve the family sized portions in a wheelbarrow. Some particularly needy street dogs later benefitted from our leftovers.

We continued on, arriving in Trujillo, and the end of the road, just before nightfall. It was a port town and to be honest, one of the few disappointments in Honduras. It was interesting to see, but neither of us felt any connection with the place and we didn’t stay long. We decided to pitch our tent at Casa Alemania, a hotel and apartment complex on the beach owned by a German guy and his Honduran wife. The first thing that struck me about the place was the larger-than-life concrete statue of Gunter that stood at the entrance gate. More than a little creepy and somewhat off-putting I’m sure to the local population, it made me jump several times when I walked past it.

Gunter was an affable kind of a guy, full of advice on how to buy and not buy land in Honduras. Whilst some of his advice was legitimate, I didn’t care for his negative opinions of the local people as lazy and not good at business, so I left Evan talking with him about how much money his 50 room property was worth and went to set up the tent. There are few things I can’t stomach and one of them is people who move to third world countries believing they have superior ways of doing things with their first world experience and then berate the hard working local people who have been getting on just fine for generations. We seem to meet rather a lot of these people and I find the best way to deal with it is to walk away and leave them to their opinions. Arguing or trying to make them see things any differently rarely works. In particular, he warned us to never, ever take our bikes to a Honduran mechanic, claiming they were useless and would do more damage than good.

We stayed only one night in Trujillo before setting off back the way we’d come. Our plan was to finally get to D&D Brewery and it meant retracing our tracks back along the coast. Usually we try and take a different return route but several people had said the only alternative road was in very bad condition and that we’d struggle with our bikes.

The first section of the journey meant a course of fifteen tope jumps, followed by couple of hours of pothole slalom before we reached better pavement again. Ironically, for the first time on the whole trip I told Evan that morning not to wait for me if he left me behind because I wanted to stop and take some photos, that I’d catch him up at the next town.

For the first hour we stayed mostly within sight of each other, but when Evan overtook a line of slow, smokey trucks he soon headed off into the distance. It was at exactly this point that I made my move to overtake the slow bus in front of me, choking me with its bellowing black smoke. As I pulled out to overtake, I sped up to around 100kph and was just moving alongside the bus when it swerved sharply towards me to avoid a pothole.
Luckily I reacted quickly, realised I wouldn’t be able to pass him on this attempt because an oncoming truck was fast approaching and dropped back in behind him. Unfortunately, right into the large pothole he’d been trying to avoid. I hit it at about 90kph and there was a loud bang as my back wheel blew out its air.

A hundred yards further along the road I wobbled to a stop and got off to inspect the damage. My biggest concern was that I’d burst the tire, but it was still intact. What I had done though was to badly bend the rim on both sides and break the bead so it could no longer hold air. I was on a hill and on a narrow shoulder and as the last of the air escaped I found myself wondering what on earth I could do in such a situation. I was several kilometres from the last town and I had no means of communication.

For the first hour, I didn’t really have a plan, just a hope that Evan would realise that something was wrong and would turn around and come back. The sun was hot and there was no shade, but I was simply glad that I hadn't come off and I wasn't really concerned.

First to stop and ask if they could help were two teenagers on push bikes. In a mixture of my broken Spanish and their broken English one of the boys offered to stay with my bike while I went to stand in the shade of the bushes as the sun was intense at this point. He suggested that the other boy could ride to town and find someone who could help. The more confident of the two told me about his own accident on a motorcycle in which he cut his arm, adding that he had his helmet on and a jacket so the damage wasn’t worse. They stayed a while, but I soon thanked them for their offer of help and said that it was much too far for them to cycle to town and that I was sure help would come soon. Reluctantly they continued on their way.

Next to stop was a guy in a truck that didn’t have a working parking brake. He jumped out and quickly threw a block of wood behind his front wheel to stop his vehicle rolling backwards into the ditch. He offered to try and inflate my tire, but then saw that this was futile and apologetically went on his way. Then a small truck stopped and a local guy who spoke reasonable English told me that he had a friend in town who could help and said he would go and ask him to come out to me before leaving. Last to stop was a pickup truck full of police officers, nine in total, who pulled up alongside me. They made cooing noises and pulled faces, but didn’t get out of the truck. I told them help was on its way, at which they immediately looked relieved to not have to deal with the situation and went merrily on their way with waves and smiles.

Shortly after, Hector arrived with two of his workers from San Juan Puebla in a small Mazda pickup. He jumped out, looked at the wheel and immediately said ‘No problem, I can fix it’. Or rather something to that effect in Spanish as he spoke no English. The three of them then helped strip the luggage off my bike before picking it up and putting it in the back of the truck. My offer of ratchet straps was turned down and so we drove back towards the town with his two guys holding my bike upright in the back of the truck as he negotiated the speed bumps and potholes.

In no time at all Hector had the wheel and tire off and was inspecting the damage. He quickly explained to me that he wouldn't be able to do what was required himself because he needed to heat up the rim before he could hammer it back into shape, but he knew a place that could. After using their wifi to send Evan a message, I left my bike and all my gear behind at his shop without a second thought and we drove across town to a metalwork shop where a dozen guys were welding up horse buggies and bits of old cars that had seen better days. Three guys immediately stopped what they were doing and started working on my wheel. Heating and hammering alternately, they worked on the rim until one side was straight.

Unfortunately the other side didn't go so well and a big piece of the rim snapped off. Hector wrote me a message on Google translate - ‘Oops, it broke. Don't worry, they'll fix it’. In my mind all I could think about was what Evan would say if he could see them cutting chunks out of my wheel! For an hour and a half they worked on my wheel, first welding a new piece of aluminium into place and then grinding it down until it resembled a wheel again. Finally a coat of black paint and they were done. We headed back to Hector's shop.

Luckily Evan had received my message after going back to the place that previously changed our oil and using their wifi and had found the place and my wheel-less bike there and me missing. He had earlier spent some time searching ditches for signs that I might have ended up off the road when he realised I wasn't catching him up. Hector's guys quickly put my bike back together and exactly four hours from when I hit the pothole, I was back on the road again. Concerns we had that the wheel might not be true were soon quashed. The wheel felt as good as new, they couldn't have done any better. The most remarkable part of the story? The entire ordeal - pickup, labour, driving around and welding - cost me a grand total of $40! Needless to say I tipped the guys well.

Just the previous day I had been told not to trust my bike to any local mechanic, but honestly, the service I received went above and beyond anything I'd have received at home. The skills and ‘can do’ attitude of Honduran workers is incredible. I couldn't have hoped to have met better people on this occasion. The only people who passed me but didn't stop? Three foreign plated R1200GS’s. Despite my clear attempt to flag them down they waved and carried straight on by.

This left us with nowhere near enough hours left in the day to get to the brewery so again, we headed to Tela. During a brief stop at the gas station while Evan retraced his steps to feed a particularly skinny dog the remains of our Chinese, an old man on a scooter came over to me, clasped my hands in his and said “Welcome, please enjoy my country!” We then returned to the same hotel and at reception the girl behind the desk’s face lit up. “Evan! Caroline! You came back! Let me get you your key!” Even the security guard was pleased to see us and he was over the moon when we showed him the Honduras stickers we'd found since our last visit, something he had reprimanded us for not having previously.

On our third attempt we made it to D&D Brewery the following day. Owned and run by Bobby from the US for the past five years, we could immediately see why people kept recommending it to us. Set in the jungle on the edge of a small village to the north of Lake Yojoa, he's really thought out the workings of the place extremely well. Accommodation ranges from tent camping for $3.50 per person per night up through dorms to private cabins, still very reasonably priced.

Their main business is brewing beer and selling food though, again, at far lower prices than you'd expect. It works though - we stayed four nights rather than the one we'd planned. What was particularly nice was that a huge number of Hondurans patronise the place, not just travellers. We met many great people there - other bikers on trips, backpackers, Luis, a biker from Tegucigalpa and Mary, a social worker turned teacher from St Louis, Missouri. We also caught up with David and Marlene whom we'd met at Christmas in Hopkins. We hiked across the local wetlands, visited a watefall, drank chocolate porter and ate burritos.

On our last night there we had a chance to sit down with Bobby and ask him about all the things that had been puzzling us about the country, most notably the absence of foreign tourists where clearly they had been. He filled in the gaps. Apparently, in 2012 there had been an unfortunate incident that occurred in San Pedro Sula. A 27 year old girl volunteering with the Peace Corps was on a bus to the city to meet a local guy she had become involved with. This was despite being told not to travel on public buses in this area. That particular night a gunfight broke out between a local gang and the police and the girl was caught in the crossfire, receiving a non life threatening gunshot wound to her leg. Shortly after the Peace Corps announced its withdrawal from Honduras on safety grounds. It was at this point that travel advisories were upgraded and the tourists stopped coming. To this day the US travel advisory for the country might just as well be simplified to say ‘Just don't.’

This is something that made me increasingly angry as we spent more and more time in Honduras. When we spoke to local people they'd usually just laugh when we asked them what they thought of the ‘dangers’. They'd wave their hand and say ‘Oh, that's just in the city, like anywhere else in the world’. One person said to us “Well we've never had a school shooting as far as I know?” And they're so right. Like any city in the world. How many US cities have US travel advisories written about them, warning people not to visit? It's blatant scaremongering and it makes me mad, because it's preventing hardworking, honest people from putting food on their tables.

Tela was one of the places that intrigued us the most. Over the following couple of weeks we debated quite seriously returning to the town for a third time, but we could never quite work out why we felt so compelled to do so. I started to research a little about the place and this is when I came across Lonely Planet’s write up for Tela.
“Tela is a run-down urban resort whose beaches are, sadly, full of trash and in many places simply unsafe even during daytime. Its town center is fairly unattractive and definitely not safe after dark, while its hotels and restaurants are mediocre and overpriced.”

I've known for a long time that Lonely Planet is full of shit, a bible for people with no imagination, sheep who follow the same well-worn path, but write-ups like that are downright irresponsible and extremely unfair. Ok, maybe the town was like that once, but it clearly isn't that way now and hasn't been like that for some time. Take a look at the following photo. What the hell do these people have to do to catch a break?! I really don't know the answer to that question.

Instead of returning to Tela, we opted to head out west to Copan Ruinas. Expecting a tourist-filled honey pot, we were surprised to find a nice little town with very reasonable prices and very few foreign tourists. As we arrived in town we stopped just inside the entrance archway to decide which direction to head in on our search for a bed for the night. We were immediately approached by a friendly and not overly pushy tout who told us he had just the place for us at 250L a night ($11USD). He then proceeded to run two blocks ahead of our bikes to show us where the hotel was. I should probably point out here that the town of Copan Ruinas is hilly. Not just little sloping streets, but pretty much every street slopes very steeply up or down from each corner. This guy ran UP two extremely steep hills and still managed to reach the top without losing his breath or us overtaking him!

He was right though, Hotel Marbella was indeed a very nice little hotel for such a low price. A fan (we prefer a fan to aircon), private bathroom and parking and the lovely couple who own it also have a tiny café attached where they sell good home-cooked meals. Oh, and coffee for 5L!

As seemed to end up being the case everywhere we went in Honduras, one night in a place was never enough and following a pattern we ended up staying in Copan Ruinas for several. A week in fact, if I remember rightly. We visited the Mayan ruins of course and at last got to see the beautiful Scarlet Macaws or ‘Guacamayos’ as they are known here that proved so elusive in Costa Rica. We also saw several Montezuma oropendolas and Yellow tailed orioles flitting between the feeding stations while agoutis picked up the scraps beneath. The ruins themselves were quite different to others we have seen in that the carvings are so well preserved.  The hieroglyphic staircase was incredible and again we lost several hours as we tried to imagine what life would have been like back in the times that Mayans inhabited the ancient city.

During our walk from town to the Las Sepulturas ruins a couple of kilometres away, it was interesting to see a group of youngsters picking up litter along a freshly mown verge. Litter, and even more so fly-tipping, is a huge problem in Central America. We have witnessed it in every country on a greater or lesser scale. In some places, Guatemala for example, litter is everywhere. People stop their cars, throw out all their rubbish, close the door and drive off. It's mind boggling how it is seen as acceptable to do that, but you see it happen time and time again. In some areas huge mountains of bin bags edge the highway or we'll ride through the stinking smoke of burning garbage in fields alongside the road. It was therefore very encouraging to see clean up operations in effect, and most importantly to see that young people were being educated to hopefully break the cycle.

Seeing the macaws and reading about the reintroduction programme that resulted in the macaws being at the ruins piqued our curiosity and the following day we visited ‘Macaw Mountain’ a few kilometres out of town. Whilst the name makes it sound a little like a tacky theme park, it is in fact a stunning jungle reserve where hundreds of rescued parrots and toucans reside. It is also home to many breeding pairs of Scarlet Macaws, the offspring of which are slowly being released back into the wild, the aim being to repopulate the adjacent valley. I'm not usually a fan of these kind of places, so many zoos claim conservation status, but in this case it appears that some wonderful work is taking place.

It was particularly interesting to see the toucans. We stopped at one point for a cold drink and some lunch and our food hadn't been on the table for more than a few minutes when a small toucan landed on the back of the couch opposite us and eyed up our plantain chip nachos and salsa. It then hopped down on to the table and didn't leave until it had secured a chip, which it carried off to a safe distance to eat. Encounters like that are priceless.

By this time I was really struggling to understand the common negative attitude towards this amazing country, so I spent some time searching for blogs that might contains other people's experiences. Surprisingly there is very little out there. What I did find though was that a Belgian guy called Gerrado ran the ViaVia Cafe in Copan and that he was a regular contributor on Advrider. That definitely warranted a visit. That evening we tracked him down and over several complimentary rum and cokes (thanks Gerrado!) we talked bikes, Honduras and everything else in between.

Between flitting off to deal with business (one of his wait staff accurately described him as a ‘colibri’) he explained to us that he had long since grown weary of trying to extol the virtues of Honduras upon bikers who didn't listen, but was always very happy to see the people who looked past the scare stories and discovered, as we had, what a beautiful place Honduras is. While we were there we also randomly bumped into Brits, Fiona and Andrew, whom we'd last seen in Hopkins at Christmas. Such a small world.

From Copan we started a slow trek towards Comayagua. There really isn't too much between Copan and Comayagua to take up a week, but that's what we had in the lead up to Easter so we moved slowly. We started by revisiting Gracias, an old colonial town we had previously stopped in only briefly and earmarked as ‘worth a better look’. Looks were a little deceiving though and after riding around town for a couple of hours trying to find a place to stay that wasn't going to cost us four times what we'd been paying in Copan, it'd be fair to say that neither of us were in love with the place.

This was probably exacerbated by the fact that earlier in the day we'd stopped by some natural hot springs just outside the town with a plan to camp there, as iOverlander suggested we should for 240L. That was until we discovered there was an entrance fee of 80L each, plus they wanted 360L for us to pitch our tent. This seemed more than a little steep given the only other overlanders there were being charged the same for their camper van complete with electric hookup. Annoyed, we declined and instead just enjoyed the pools for an hour before continuing into town. Or more accurately, Evan enjoyed the pools while I merely endured. It's something we've long disagreed on. I can appreciate hot springs when it's cold outside, but I totally fail to see the appeal of sitting in 40 degree water when the air temperature is also 40 degrees. It was interesting to see Honduran tourists at play though. Lots of families with young children and the women dressed so conservatively. So much so that I kept my vest top on over my bikini so as not to feel out of place.

On our way between the hot springs and the town we were finally stopped by the police for the first time! Over 35,000km and not one stop (not counting speeding in New Mexico!). We'd started to wonder why we were so special. It was a combined military and police checkpoint and the officer asked where we were going. He then asked where we were from. All the time he had a huge grin on his face. He continued to look at the bikes as he patted Evan on the back, gave him a double thumbs up and said “Welcome to my country!” What a fantastic example of the corrupt and unfriendly police you're likely to encounter. Not ten minutes later as we rode into Gracias a group of women walking down the street broke into smiles as we rode past to cries of “Bienvenidos!”

Gracias is more than a little rough around the edges and the place we eventually found to stay fitted that bill too. The owner was rarely seen without a beer in his hand which he replaced at intervals from a heavily locked and guarded fridge in the parking lot. The other occupants seemed to be long term residents and every evening they'd sit down in the yard to drink and play poker. I have no idea what they did for work but nothing would have surprised me. That said, they were friendly and never did we feel any unease. Like I've said before, in Honduras everyone says hello to you. In the rougher places people just say hello more gruffly, but still with the same sincerity. For 250L a night it was a big step down from Hotel Marbella at the same price, but cheap nonetheless.

Gracias was great for people watching. As we sat on a curb enjoying a cold drink two young boys engaged us in conversation. Their English was pretty good and they knew the patter even though the eldest wasn't more than perhaps 8 years old. Their names were Oscar and Dennis and they were about as cheeky and streetwise as kids used to be at that age before kids started to be wrapped in cotton wool and given technology to quash their imaginations. We chatted for a bit and they never did get to the asking for money bit. I think they enjoyed the interaction and eventually they parted with only the remains of my bottle of ice tea.

Some kids we met were a little too streetwise though. Many times we'd see very young children hawking cheap Chinese-import toys, firecrackers and all sorts of kitchen utensils on the street. On one occasion we witnessed a child of about five sat next to a huge crate full of prescription drugs, freely available for a few pence a tablet in many places in Central America. Amoxicillin, oxycodone - you name it, they have it and not a doctor in sight.

Something that did strike us in Honduras though was the percentage of children who appear to go to school. Every day we'd ride through towns with ‘Zona Escolar’ signs and see hundreds of children, both girls and boys, walking home in their school uniforms. In other Latin American countries we'd not seen this on quite such a scale, so this was encouraging.

Gracias grew on us. Walking around we discovered a wonderfully photogenic town, despite its rough edges. A hike up to Fuerte San Cristobal was perhaps the highlight of our time there. Built in  it has never seen action, but now houses artifacts and photographs from the forts history, as well as the tomb of Juan Lindo who was President of both Honduras and El Salvador in his lifetime and developed a system of education that was secular, mandatory and free. The plaque on his grave reads 'To be remembered you must first educate future generations'.

While we were in Gracias violent storms were ravaging the coast to the north and subsequently the weather where we were was much cooler, the skies steely grey. It was a nice respite from the tropical, humid climate we'd been sweltering in for the previous few weeks.

Another notable aspect of Honduras was the food. Much was similar to other Central American countries, but in Honduras we found ourselves commenting often that these were the best tacos/burritos/fried chicken we've had in a while. They seem to understand flavour rather than everything being fairly bland but with varying degrees of ‘picante’. Also, portions were generally large. In Gracias we ordered fried chicken with plantain chips expecting a leg or thigh and a few chips. What we received was half a chicken each on a mountain of plantains and salad, covered in every sauce you could imagine. That's one area where Evan has been in his element. As someone who likes a few fries with his ketchup, the local fast food speciality ‘salchipapa’ was right up his street. I'm more of a fan of pupusas and baleandas, something I ate double orders of more than once when Evan discovered they contained frijoles.

Upon leaving Gracias we still had a few days to spare so we stopped in La Esperanza. The city is about as non-touristy as you get in Honduras and is the central market town for all the villages for miles around, creating a high-energy buzz about the place during daylight hours. It's also the folklore capital of Honduras and the country's highest altitude city.

We rode into town, stopped outside the first likely looking hotel and Evan went to ask the price. It was nearly three times what we were prepared to pay so we decided to move on, but before we did so, a friendly, elderly local man engaged us in conversation. He admired our stickers, asked about our trip and again, we realised that although our Spanish is still very definitely in its infancy, we do know enough to get by in most of these interactions.

While we were talking, another man and what appeared to be his son started filming us using a handheld camcorder from across the street. They smiled and waved, asking us to wave back. Next a guy from the mechanic shop next door came out to chat, along with his son. The boy asked if we would take a photo of him on his cell phone sitting on our bikes and of course we obliged. We really had drawn quite the crowd.

The guy filming us then came over, obviously very excited to meet us and pulled a microphone out of his bag and proceeded to ask us various things in Spanish. We got the gist of his questioning and whilst Evan gave his answers a good shot in Spanish, we quickly realised that English would be easier and they could translate what we said easily enough. Later on we looked up the logo on the microphone and discovered we had been interviewed by a well known Honduran TV channel, TN5.

There is one big thing that the whole of Latin America has is common - Semana Santa or ‘Holy Week’. Forget Christmas, this is the holiday to beat all holidays. For the entire week leading up to the Easter weekend everything stops. Shops close, services gradually cease and everyone it seems heads either for the beach or for one of the towns known for its colourful parade. Not being a big beach fan, least of all when they're packed full of people and the sun is strong enough to burn you to a crisp in 3.5 seconds, we opted for the latter. 

Having previously experienced Semana Santa in this part of the world, albeit in a small, empty village, I was concerned that our lack-of-planning approach to travel might not be compatible with the one week of the year where accommodation fills up months in advance and prices are hiked three-fold. Originally, despite our lack of love for the place, we'd considered going back to Antigua for the week to see the famous sawdust carpets. It quickly became clear though that we'd missed the boat on accommodation there and besides, we weren't quite ready to leave Honduras yet.

It was then that I discovered that Comayagua also puts on the same kind of display. After talking to a friend who had been there before and with some help from friends of his who are from Comayagua, we were lucky enough to find a room for just $16 a night and with off road parking. We booked two nights, the only advance booking we've made on this trip, for Thursday and Good Friday.
Arriving in Comayagua on Thursday lunchtime, we discovered a ghost town. Nothing was open, the streets were empty. For a few moments we wondered if we'd made a mistake and there would be no parades. Our fears were unfounded though.

That afternoon we walked the few blocks into town and found, in the main town square, a sense of anticipation growing. Street food stands had started to come to life so we followed our noses to one that stood out and ordered ‘yucca con carne’. You know that question that comes up periodically while you're sitting chatting with a group of people - ‘If you could only eat one thing for every meal from now on, what would it be?’ I honestly think I'd pick the yucca and stewed pork served at that food stand in Comayagua. In fact we did eat it both days we were there, agreeing we wouldn't be able to beat it. So simple, but so unbelievably delicious. I seriously hope I can find yucca when I'm not in this part of the world. Along with jamaica and tamarindo too. I'm not sure that without those three things my life can be complete.

Lining the edge of the main street alongside the cathedral were dozens of bags of dyed sawdust and piles of templates, painstakingly cut out by hand. Around 9pm teams of volunteers started work on pieces of art that would take around twelve hours to complete. First a layer of plain sawdust was laid and sprayed with water go keep it from moving. Then layer by layer designs were built up, each part carefully applied by hand from a plastic cup full of sawdust. There were in excess of forty carpets in total, some designs were incredibly intricate, others bolder. Some used additional materials such as painted pasta shells and pine needles. Thousands of people worked through the night to create the carpets in a display of unity unlike anything I've ever seen.

Our original plan was to stay up all night, moving around to witness the work in progress, but just after 1am we decided that it would be better to grab a few hours sleep and instead get up early, around 6am, to see the finished articles before the promised crowds arrived.

At first light on Good Friday we returned to the square with more than a little anticipation. What we found was shop doorways full of sleeping artists, half filled cups of sawdust still in hand. In other places work was still ongoing. These people had incredible dedication. The carpets themselves are almost indescribable. Even standing a few feet away and inspecting them up close it's hard to accept they're made purely of wood shavings. You feel like you could reach out, roll the carpet up and take it away, such is the plush texture. I'd never seen anything like it.

Gradually the streets filled with people and around 10am the first procession started. I'd read that these processions, whilst fascinating, could also be a little creepy and they weren't wrong. The procession was led by alter boys with swinging incense burners blessing the carpets and following them was a priest conducting a service. Behind them things got a little weird. First off there was a child dressed as Jesus. In fact there were two children dressed as Jesus. We weren't really sure why, but visions of there having been some parental spat about whose child was going to be Jesus this year filled out heads. Behind the first child-Jesus was a double line of eerie characters dressed all in dark red with pointy klan-like hats carrying a very heavy looking float with an effigy of Jesus on top. They swayed back and forth but said nothing.

This procession moved slowly through the streets, through each of the carpets, destroying all those hours of painstaking work in less than an hour. When the procession arrived at the cathedral a second procession arrived from the opposite direction and quite unexpectedly the floats began to charge at each. People in the crowd who had a few minutes earlier been warned to move back got clouted on the head as the floats pushed past each other in a kind of battle dance, but no-one seemed to mind.

The procession moved away and all that was left were swirly, abstract paintings on the ground where earlier the carpets had been. Elderly people and children rushed to fill bags with the sawdust, we presume because it had been blessed and therefore was a sacred keepsake of the spectacle. Very sunburnt and tired, we returned to the hotel to rest. When we resurfaced mid afternoon we were amazed to discover that not a sign of the festivities remained. It was a normal Friday afternoon in Comayagua. Every scrap of sawdust was gone, the streets were spotless as if none of it had happened. Maybe it never did.

The following day, Easter Saturday, we left Honduras. We rode north, through San Pedro Sula now devoid of life, it's residents most likely at the beach. We left through the northernmost border crossing near Puerto Cortes back into Guatemala with more than a little sadness to be leaving Honduras behind.

Every country we've visited has had its stand out points, things we've loved, but also things that have irritated, be it noise, lack of food choice, expense or the attitudes of locals. As we sat the following night in our tent in Rio Dulce, we tried to pin point any negative feelings we had about Honduras, but could not come up with even one. The warmth of the Honduran people, the stunning landscapes and good food, this misunderstood country has it all. Hopefully one day people will learn to ignore the scaremongering of travel advisories and the ignorance of the advice given to them by those who have no experience and tourists will again return.

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