La Esperanza – Marcala 

After a lovely stop over in La Esperanza, it was time to push on. Marcala beckoned, like a saucy siren, with promises of a large cave on its outskirts. Along with colonial history and an indigenous flavour, this solitary sailor was hooked. I got directions to the bus terminal and walked to catch a minibus to this much touted (in the guidebook) town. 
  
I was warned by the hombre at my hotel in La Esperanza that the road to Marcala was in poor condition, but compared to some roads I’ve driven on in Australia, it wasn’t really that bad. Though to a Landrover driver, what seems ‘not that bad’ could be seen as somewhat questionable to others… It was a beautiful drive through pine clad hills, past gullies where small streams gurgled ever downwards. As everywhere, farmers had carved their little niches into the countryside, with small crops nestled in the surrounding forest. 

  
It was midday by the time I arrived in Marcala and got directions to the town centre. It was a hot, dusty walk, though it was pretty easy to find the main road into the centre – it was the only one paved! I eventually came to a large square sectioned off with shiny bright corrugated iron. No prizes for guessing that this was the town plaza. Closed for renovation. I got directions to the tourist office where I had been assured in my guidebook I would be able to secure good directions to my much lusted after cave. 

  
It appeared that the ‘tourist office’ was more like a ‘tourist officer’ who latched onto me with relish. I couldn’t have had more personalised attention. Even though I struggled with her thick accent, she assisted me as best she could and even escorted me to the hotel I had chosen out of the guidebook. Estheffany assured me that they got lots of tourists to this part of the country, but I had my doubts that they were of the foreign kind. After assisting me to check into the hotel (including coming up with me to check the room!), Estheffany told me to contact her if I needed any further assistance. I thanked her and bid her adios. 

  
A quick bite to eat, then it was off to negotiate a taxi to take me out to the parque I needed to get to as it was several kilometres out of town. We drove past a tiny settlement and I was dropped off at a locked gate just beyond. I organised with my driver to return later in the afternoon and trotted off down the dirt road. It was lovely walking in the Honduran highland countryside without a soul to be seen. Even though my driver had instructed me to keep to the left, I spotted the river to my right and went to investigate. A very pleasant stroll along the river led to a large pool of water under a cliff where water was cascading down from a above. A small crevice was behind the waterfall but nothing of significance.

  
I made my way back out of the gully to the dirt road and continued my journey. The stream above the waterfall had been dammed and there was irrigation pipe going in every direction. Clearly this was a major irrigation point for the area. It was truly a tranquil area with a couple of horses quietly grazing on grassy banks leading to pine forests. There were a few small wooden structures suggesting stalls of some description, however, I saw no other person the entire time. 

  Looking for an obvious path to what I thought was a major tourist attraction, I followed a path along the stream for a further few hundred metres. Realising I had probably passed the cave, I backtracked and made my way up a precarious pathway up the side of the hill. When I reached the top, I met with the track I should have taken. From there, it was only a short stint to the cave. 

  La Cueva Gigante was a total misnomer in my eyes. From what I could gather, it was more a recess than an actual cave, but as I couldn’t access it, I couldn’t be sure. It was a major archeological site and the crumbling remains of a concrete bridge was a tantalising former means of entering the site. As it was getting time for me to return to meet my taxi driver, I cut my losses and made my way back to the tiny settlement where I had been dropped off. Even though, I didn’t get to go in a cave, it was still a magical meander through the local countryside.   

  
 My driver returned and we made our way back into Marcala. Hot and sticky, the cold shower didn’t seem like such a terrible option now. Freshened up, I found a restaurant overlooking Parque Central in the guidebook that had wifi and local cuisine. A well presented woman came over to me after I had eaten and introduced herself. She was the owner of the lovely restaurant and I found out that the Parque Central had been closed for four months and would be closed for another three. Even though the Parque was completely boarded up, one could see the trees which dominated it. I can only imagine it would be a beautiful little place for the locals to chill and enjoy. 

La Esperanza

I was glad for the extra blanket I had sequestered as it got decidedly chilly during the night. This was a pleasant change at least from the sweltering heat of the lowlands. I found a pretty little restaurant nearby to have breakfast and sample some of the region’s superb coffee.   
There was mention in the guidebook of a small cave converted into a grotto. It wasn’t hard to find; high up in the side of a hill, La Gruta overlooked the valley of La Esperanza. If there ever was a cave there, it is now indistinguishable as the little grotto completely takes its place as a concrete edifice of worship. Still, it is a pretty little colonial era chapel with an impressive view over the town. 

  
I found a small path meandering down the back of the hill to the main road into La Esperanza. My initial plan was to just walk back into town, but was surprised to find a public bath at the bottom of the hill. Several small streams cascaded into a series of pools and made their way further down the tiny valley. Water was siphoned up to some large troughs where several señoras were doing their laundry. There were also enclosed separate bathing pavilions for señors and señoras; water cascading out of a pipe in the centre. All set in tranquil gardens. 

  
Walking back into town, I wandered around the cobbled streets. Many colonial era buildings line the streets and the Parque Central was one of the prettiest I have seen. When I passed the main church which faced onto the Parque, I noticed the local fire brigade hosing down the front of the building. Several people were also engaged in sweeping the area in front of the church. On further investigation, I found there were dozens of people inside and outside the church cleaning and repairing. It must have been Busy Bee time at the local parish. Pews were all set on their sides with local women polishing the worn surfaces. 

  
Further on, I reached the commercial part of town where the streets were lined with shops of all nature, including the ubiquitous second hand clothing stores. If you ever wondered what happens to the clothes you donate to charity bins, a lot of it ends up in the Central American (as well as other parts of the world) clothing market. It is sold to cheaply to the locals and it is a good form of recycling, but there is little transparency about who makes money out of your clothing donations. They also have stores here selling white goods and furniture, along with motorcycles! It seems odd to have a line of motorbikes parked up alongside a plush lounge suite. Perfectly normal here though. 

  
Dinner in a local Lenca restaurant, then hunkered down for another chilly night. I’m relishing these cool temperatures at the moment, though, as I know when I move on, I’m back into Sweatville. The oppressive heat and humidity can be quite tiring day after day so it’s nice to have a short break from it. 

Copan Ruinas – La Esperanza

A restless sleep brought about by my festering legs, came to an abrupt end with my alarm going off. Despite the monumental midge attack of the previous day, I returned to my favourite place in Copan Ruinas to chill over a tasty breakfast. This time, heavily marinated in bug spray. 

  
Back on the road, I walked to the bus terminal in the drizzling rain. Thankfully, I had found a route through town the previous day which was fairly flat and a final descent that was a little less steep than most. Cobblestone roads, though appealing on the eye, quickly lose their appeal in the wet. Safely down on the flat again without upending, I jumped in a minibus heading to my next destination. 

  
At La Entrada, I changed buses for one to Gracias. Or so I was told. It turned out that that particular bus only went as far as Santa Rosa de Copan, about half the distance. But I had paid an amount commensurate with the whole journey. I kicked up but was assured by the bus staff that it was ok, that I had paid for the whole way. My pack was handed to the offsider of the new bus I had to catch but I saw no money being exchanged. 

  
On board my new bus, I asked the señora in front of me what the price to Santa Rosa de Copan should have been and she confirmed what I thought. I explained what had happened, but also added that I wasn’t sure whether the driver of the other bus had passed on the fare for this leg of the trip. I soon found out. The ticket collector passed me by as he went through the bus collecting fares. I normally check price of fares with another passenger, but hadn’t on this occasion. 

  
The weather hadn’t improved and actually worsened when we got to Gracias. My plans of stopping off here and exploring this colonial town were reconsidered and I ended up continuing my journey onwards to La Esperanza. The bus didn’t actually go through town so I didn’t get to see anything but the outskirts of Gracias. The countryside on the way through to La Esperanza was magnificent though. La Esperanza is the highest town in Honduras and some of the best coffee in the world comes from this region. Pine trees clung to the sides of the hills we traversed through. 

  
It certainly started to get chilly as we climbed in altitude and I was glad I had pulled a jacket out of my pack. The journey to La Esperanza took forever as every time someone got on or off the minibus, the driver had to get out and open the side door. Eventually, we turned onto a dirt road and made our way down into the valley in which La Esperanza nestles. By this stage it was dark and the lights of the town lit the hollow like a spangly bolt of cloth. 

  
At the bus terminal, I caught a taxi to a hotel I picked out of the guide book. Unfortunately, the name in the book was incorrect, but my driver managed to work out where I wanted to go. My pack dumped, I changed into warmer clothes and headed out for something to eat. A little restaurant just down the road was still open and served wonderful local Lenca cuisine. By the time I returned to my hotel, the mist had settled in and swirled around the now deserted streets. I grabbed another blanket for my bed and settled in for a chilly night. 

Copan Ruinas

I had allocated the day to explore the famous Mayan ruins of Copan, after which this town was named. The view from the cafe next door bewitched me the previous evening, so I headed back there for a delicious breakfast topped off with a side of sumptuous scenery. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one dining as I discovered dozens of tiny dried dots of blood on both ankles and on the backs of both legs. I soon discovered the source of this mystery was tiny little midgies I had given little credence to at the time. By the time I left, the the dots had swollen into large, angry lumps which I knew would plague me for days to come. 

  
The weather had turned and it was drizzling when I left. Water on steep cobbled road is never a preferable option but I found a route through the town that only had one steep downhill section and gingerly made my way down that. After that, it was a very pleasant kilometre stroll out past the town to the archeological site. 

  
Copan Archaeological Site is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Though not the biggest nor most spectacular of the Mayan sites, Copan is exceptional due to the high relief sculptures and hieroglyphics found within its boundaries. I engaged the services of Gladiz, the gregarious guide, to interpret the site for me. Not only did Gladiz really know her stuff, she was lots of fun as well and I really enjoyed the tour. Even though I had visited many Mayan archeological sites previously, I found myself learning even more about this intriguing culture. 

  
I already knew that the winning captain of the ball game played in the day was occasionally sacrificed for the gods and that was OK in the victim’s eyes. What I didn’t know, was that the unfortunate was heavily plied with hallucinogens before being submitted to the event. By this stage, he was probably one accident away from checking out of the mortal world anyway so a sacrifice to the gods wouldn’t have seemed such a bad option. The other thing I learned was that the Mayan of the day didn’t have names like Bruce or Jesus, but 18 Rabbit and Smoke Monkey. I’m thinking the hallucinogens probably had a hand in that too. 

  
After an incredibly informative two hour guided tour, including some archeological tunnels exposing the Rosalila Temple which was built over the top of many Mayan moons ago, I bid Gladiz adios and continued wandering around the site taking photos and further exploring. The sacred Mayan bird, the scarlet macaw, has decided to take up residence again on the site and was a colourful addition. I also wandered down a couple of walking trails which lead through the jungle to some other sites, as well as visited the on-site Museum of Sculptures. 

  
Finally, all Mayan-ed out, I wandered back into town to explore its hilly streets. The walk up to a local lookout point was particularly brutal in one section, but I was astounded to see a couple of locals pop up from a track I would have thought impossible to climb. I’m sure they must have been crossed with mountain goat in some stage of the evolution process. Still, it was lovely wandering around the town, trying to stay on top of the hill where possible. What goes down must go up! At some stage. 

  
Back at the hostel, I had a by now much needed freshen up and went out to grab some street food in the form of burritos with a lovely Canadian family I had met at the hostel. Interestingly enough, our burritos were prepared by an expat Belizian Garifuna man who was now living in Copan. Not what I would have expected in a sleepy little Honduran highland town such as Copan Ruinas. 

San Pedro Sula – Copan Ruinas

Despite San Pedro Sula being listed as the No. 1 most dangerous city in the world, the Travel God of Security decided to take things a little too far this morning. The only way to keep the dorm room shut last night was to engage the lock. Seems a simple enough thing. Not, however, when said lock decides to jam up completely and refuse to budge. After several unsuccessful attempts, I started calling out through the bars of the window. Nothing. I googled the phone no of the hostel and rang it. Continuously. For about ten minutes. Accompanied by loud banging on the offending wooden door. 

  
Finally, the young Salvadorian guy who checked me in last night groggily came to my aid. I explained my predicament and he shuffled off to get the key. Alas, the key wouldn’t work either which meant I was trapped. A locksmith was called but my bladder wasn’t going to wait the length of time it may or may not take a Honduran locksmith to arrive. I pulled out my little multi tool set and took apart the lock casing so as to get to the main locking mechanism. The Salvadorian guy tried disengaging it with a utensil knife but to no avail. I didn’t have anything suitable my side to use so left him to try find something more hardy for the job. He eventually returned with a large screwdriver which he managed to wedge into the locking mechanism and finally disengage it. After nearly an hour, I was finally free! For that, my bladder was extremely grateful. 

  
Packed and ready to leave, I waited for the taxi I organised last night to return to pick me up. After more than half an hour, I decided to get the hostel staff to call for another one as I wanted to get a move on. The bus terminal in San Pedro Sula has a large shopping mall attached, with a great food hall right where I had to wait for my bus. As I chowed down on local cuisine, a young boy came over with a plastic cup and a bottle of soft drink. His mother, sitting nearby, smiled and nodded. I politely declined, but the three young children soon became my waiting room companions. 

  
To exit the waiting room, I had to go through security screening, though it wasn’t as stringent as others I had been through in this country. Then I was sandwiched in a minibus with my pack atop in the roof rack. The drive up to Copan Ruinas allowed me to see another part of the country quite different to where I had just come from. The road in the main followed the Río Ulua and wove through the valley passing spectacular scenery. As we left the tropical jungle behind us, pine topped hills took its place. We passed small coffee plantations carved out of the surrounding bush, though there is always room for maize and other Honduran staples. 

  
The bus stopped just outside the entranceto Copan Ruinas. The pastel pink archway on the edge of a bridge crossing a little river made a pleasant welcome to the town. Cobblestone and paved sections of road crisscrossed the hilly terrain Copan Ruinas is situated on. Traipsing up and down some of these roads fully laden in order to find the hostel I had picked out of the guidebook, was losing its appeal in the sticky heat. Especially when it wasn’t where it was indicated on the guidebook map! Directions sought, and I gladly dumped my pack on a dorm bed.

  
Hostel Iguana Azul ended up being an absolute gem of a hostel. Dirt cheap (AUD11) and spankingly clean, the US expat who built it 20 years ago did an amazing job. A more upmarket bed and breakfast next door served light meals and was available for hostel guests to use as well. This part of the property overlooked the Copan Valley with stunning views. A couple of cervezas watching the sun sink behind the mountains was the perfect end to another interesting day in Honduras. 

Olanchito – San Pedro Sula

Checked out of my little windowless dungeon and walked straight into a passing funeral procession. I was expecting Olanchito to be a little more bustling than the previous day, but wasn’t expecting this. Scores of locals, sheltered from the already blistering sun with umbrellas, slowly walked behind a vehicle carrying the dearly departed. I respectfully waited for the cortège to pass before continuing on to the bus terminal.   
Touts accost you as soon as you approach the buses as they get paid to get backsides on seats. There’s a sense of urgency that feels as if the bus will leave without you if you don’t jump on. Now! But then you end up waiting ages for the bus to fill and the driver to get his act together. One of the touts starting chatting to me on the bus, asking me where I was from. When he found out I was travelling solo and that I wasn’t married, he decided to try his luck and asked for my phone number. I explained that my phone didn’t work in Honduras, but he was persistent. Just before we were about to drive off, he came back over again and tried to charm a phone number out of me. He was really cute and funny, but I was leaving the area so not much point. I bid him adios as the bus roared off. 

  
I was hoping to do a loop to travel a different route, but it turned out the only way back was the way I had come. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful journey and well worth a second visit. As it was, I had travelled between Tela and San Pedro Sula in the dark, so was surprised to discover several aquatic parks located along this stretch of the road. We drove past the ubiquitous plantations of banana, palm oil and sugar cane. As I always try to take the local buses, we are forever stopping to drop off or pick up passengers along the side of the road. This slow pace allows one to experience the finer details of everyday Honduran life; vultures feeding on a carcass, wooden carts pulled by oxen, a panicky foal running along the road in search of its mother. 

  
Mid route, we stopped for one of the numerous police/military checkpoints and were directed to pull over on the side of the road. The two bus assistants got off and started talking to the police while the driver handed over the necessary paperwork. Then, a heavily armed police officer with hard hat and bullet proof vest climbed on board and addressed the passengers. Basically, he said they were going to conduct a routine search and that all the male passengers were to exit the bus. As the hombres exited the vehicle, I saw them lining up alongside the bus and being patted down by waiting policemen. Then, several armed police officers climbed on board and began a fairly thorough search of the luggage. For some reason, they didn’t ask to look in my day pack, for which I was grateful as I carry all my valuables in it. Probably would have been fine, but easier not to go there. Their search completed, the policía exited the bus and the waiting passengers got back on.

  
We were stopped a few other times and it looked like we were going to be searched again, but our driver managed to talk his way out of it with a little greasing of the palms. After a brief rest stop a couple of hours out of San Pedro Sula, one of the assistants took over the driving and the driver sat next to me. It was really interesting talking to him. His story was not that dissimilar to others I had heard from locals. His family had emigrated to the US where he worked ridiculous hours on minimum wages for several years. Returning to Honduras, he bought a bus and started his little business. He now owns four buses and seems to be doing quite well for himself. But he continues to work long hours driving the bus. Our trip was over seven hours and he still needed to drive back to Olanchito. Nevertheless, I guess he is back in his homelands. 

  
We eventually arrived at the main bus terminal in San Pedro Sula and it was nice to stretch out after such a long bus trip. I caught a taxi to a hostel I found in the guidebook and organised myself a bed and a beer. Saturday night appeared to be party night at La Hamaca and the little courtyard outside my dorm room filled with locals and marijuana smoke. San Pedro Sula, according to homicide rates, has been the most dangerous city in the world since 2012. That said, if you keep your wits about you and don’t go looking for trouble, it probably won’t come looking for you. I certainly didn’t loose any sleep worrying about meeting my maker in the midnight hours. 

Olanchito

 New Year’s Day and this tranquil little town reached new levels of sleepiness. I decided to trawl the streets for something to eat, but could only find a couple of pharmacies open. Maybe they were cashing in on post apocalyptic New Years celebrations, but I was looking for something more than a plate of pills. Further up the road I found a couple of señoras preparing baleados from a makeshift stall. I joined the small throng of locals sitting on the side of the road and feasted on the freshly made fare. 

  
A bellyful of baleados later, I headed back to the hotel for my free coffee and chilled in reception watching the Rose Bowl Parade with Spanish commentary. If this was a mandatory rest stop, I intended to rest. Well, for a little while anyway. That is until the Travel God of Exploration gave me a kick up the rear and sent me wandering around town. Unfortunately, that had to wait as this also needed to be a mandatory laundry stop as there was little passing the sniff test by now. The Travel God of Personal Hygiene won out in the end and my wanderings around town were pushed back a while. 

  
Olanchito is a pretty little town nestled alongside Rio Uchapa and backdropped by rolling hills. At one end of the Main Street lay a picturesque Parque Central with manicured gardens surrounding a central rotunda. A children’s playground in one quarter proved popular with the locals on a day where very little was open. At the opposite end of the Parque was a colonial church where a service was taking place. On the backroads, families gathered in painted adobe cottages to quietly celebrate the New Year. 

  
On my return to the hotel, I discovered a little comedor was now open. Marinated meat was being grilled on a barbecue out on the pavement and served with rice, beans, salad and tortillas. Washed down with a chilled cerveza, my New Year’s Day was now complete. As tranquil as the little town which hosted me.