When planning our trip to the Bay Islands of Honduras, it was with a little trepidation! Although there is not a nationwide travel advisory, Foreign Affairs Canada states that Canadians should exercise a high degree of caution when travelling in Honduras. They also advise against all travel in several parts of the country due to exceedingly high levels of violence and crime. These areas are Valle, Choluteca, and Olancho, luckily areas we did not have to travel through.
Honduras is a place where you can be mugged or even shot without even trying; Honduras has the highest per capita murder rate of any nation on the planet.
The combination of poverty, drug trafficking, and gang activity has resulted in several incidences of armed robberies targeting tourists, as well as the normal mayhem in this troubled country.
With this in the back of our minds, we opted for the safer and more comfortable option of a small tourist bus from Puerto Barrios, Guatemala to La Ceiba, Honduras. The plan being to catch the 4:30 PM ferry to Utila from La Ceiba.
You can do the same route by local transport – this adds a lot more time to the journey, our small bus did the journey in 6 hours, the local bus takes much longer, which means an overnight stay in La Ceiba. Riding local busses for long journeys can also test your endurance for pain and suffering. The private transfer can be arranged in Guatemala at the Rio Tropicales, the ferry and the bus cost US $47 by booking through them. Fellow travellers who joined our tourist bus in Puerto Barios paid US $50 for the bus only! It does pay to book in advance.
Our day started at 6:30 AM in Livingston Guatemala with a 45 minute boat ride to Puerto Barrios. The ride was smooth and the scenery in the morning light was spectacular! This truly is a beautiful part of the world.
Our driver Samuel met us in Puertos Barrios as arranged. After packing the minivan to the gills with an assortment of travellers, the majority of the luggage was piled on top and lashed down. Our small van with its burden of travellers and mountain of luggage, resembled a snail with wheels.
One of the occupants was a very hung over backpacker, who had apparently not washed within the past couple of weeks. I had the blessing of sitting next to the emitter of moans, grunts, and body odour. I had to constantly push him off me during as he fell asleep, losing all control of his limbs and head.
The silver lining regarding my position in the van was the view it afforded me. I was able to see Honduran life flash by as we embarked on our 6 hour journey along the North Coast of Guatemala into Honduras.
Guatemalan immigration was a breeze, we wandered into a small hut where a friendly official stamped our passports with our exit stamp, no money required for a change. It was also here that we had the opportunity to switch out Guatemalan Quetzals for Honduran Lempura, the money changers clutching great wads of notes as their fingers flashed over their calculators. Judging by the size of those wads it is a lucrative business.
The first impression of Honduras was Honduran Immigration; this had no resemblance to anything I have ever seen before. Our bus pulled up to a large cement building, where we were directed to the front to see a tangle of people elbowing for the privilege of throwing money at one of 2 immigration officers who sat behind tiny windows, looking for all the world as if they were selling bus tickets.
Believe me nothing moves as slow as Honduran bureaucracy. In Honduras Franz Kafka is considered a pathetic little whiner. The immigration officers were obviously getting paid by the hour and there was no apparent sense of urgency as the lineup built. It took almost an hour for the 10 passengers in our bus to get through immigration.
The second impression of Honduras was that life here is harsh.
A dead horse on the side of the road, rotting in the tropical heat was the first sign of how tough it is. I could almost smell the rotting carcass as we whizzed by, or was that my seat mate? There were other horses in the process of dying, tied up feeding at the side of the highway, while another equine had shed its bonds and ran up in front our our van from the ditch, luckily Samuel was watching the road and managed to steer clear at 60 miles an hour.
Horses were not the only creatures along the side of the road, there were dogs. Dead dogs and dogs who wished they were dead. Of the human variety there were moms with kids, families on motorcycles complete with wobbly back tires racing along the non-existent shoulder of the highway, and there were men with machetes cutting grass, and trees.
The countryside was full of pineapple fields, acres of bananas, and vast groves of palm oil plantations. Trucks and tractors with loads of palm oil berries or people were everywhere. Sometimes vehicles were broken down on the side of the road, completely abandoned or with people lying underneath them, either mechanics or those seeking shelter from the blistering heat. Vehicles which had not yet died were often falling to pieces while in motion, belching amazing quantities of putrid smoke.
The country side was amazingly beautiful, several kilometres from the coast rose a range of shaggy green mountains shrouded in lush jungles and clouds.
The real blight on the landscape was the piles of garbage or Honduran snow as it is affectionately referred to. There were drifts of it along the side of the road and blizzards of it flying out of the air conditioned coach buses in front of us. Private garbage disposal has far exceeded private garbage collection capacity here in Honduras. The garbage just seems to swirl into ever growing piles.
The San Pedro Sula-Santa Rosa de Copán Highway was ulcerated with massive pot holes marked by make shift flags or spare tires standing upright stuffed into the holes. Some of these holes were large enough to qualify as underground parking.
All along the roadside there were people selling fruit and vegetables on the side of the road, some standing, some sitting, all of them holding their wares above their heads in plastic bags.
We skirted the outskirts of San Pedro Sula complete with its shanty towns, depressing huddles of shacks built of ticky tacky complete with rusty metal roofs. There were people in wheel chairs occupying left hand turn lanes. Sometimes the wheel chairs were operated by boys pushing grandparents, mothers pushing daughters, and many times the occupants of the wheel chairs were on their own. Their mission apparently was to impose a sense of guilt whilst beseeching for alms. Jockeying for position with the wheel chairs were the street vendors, selling water and snacks to travellers as they waited for the traffic lights to give the go ahead.
In contrast to the horses along the highway the city horses were to be seen cantering through town pulling carts often burdened with impossible loads.
The private sector gunslingers, which apparently was a much better gig, were stationed at every gas bar and bank. These armed guards were usually very friendly and jovial. That’s were the friendliness appeared to end. Most of the citizens I observed at 60 miles an hour did not appear to be very friendly at all. The people appeared hard, bitter and pissed off…….
Political slogans abounded, painted on walls, rocks etc. these vied with Billboards plastered with politicians complete with the obligatory shit eating grins.
We arrived at the ferry terminal in La Ceiba with time to spare, collected our bags and promptly traded them for luggage tickets with the very friendly ferry staff. The contrast between what we had seen on the journey down and what we saw here were worlds apart, this became much more apparent when we arrived in Utila.
Utila is a world to itself; the locals will smile (if prompted) and return an Ola!, as they drive by at break neck speed along the narrow main drag. The majority of people in Utila speak English, often with a very heavily accented patois accent. There also appears to be more of a mix of races and skin tones here, no doubt some of it due to the British Pirates who made The Bay Islands there base for many generations (including Captain Morgan).
There does appear to be an underlying tension in here in Utila. It could be due to the huge influx of backpackers who descend on the island to dive by day and party by night, or the possibly the recent influx of mainland Hondurans, it is hard to say.
Watching the dominoes being slammed on to the table during the permanent game in town, you would expect guns to be drawn at any moment…… but no! they are all good friends just engrossed in the spirit of competition.
Having been here for a while, I feel that if you want to find trouble on this island it will find you. Personally Utila feels a lot safer and comfortable than mainland Honduras.
Honduras may have a bad reputation, but like all countries you have to choose your spots wisely. Utila was the perfect choice for us.