Impressions of Honduras

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen the Canadian Executive Service Organization (CESO) asked me to go to Honduras for three weeks to assist looking at trail development and for eco-tourism opportunities in the San Pedro de Sula valley I was very skeptical. Every government travel website I checked (Canadian, US, British, Dutch) warned against travel in Honduras. As a matter of fact one of the sites stated that the city of San Pedro de Sula was the murder capital of the world. Who would want to go there? After checking with people who had been on a CESO assignment in Honduras and had had no problems at all, I decided to take the chance and go.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs soon as I landed in San Pedro Sula (SPS) after an 8-hour flight via Mexico City from Vancouver (only a 1 hr. time difference with PST) and was driven to my hotel I noticed how similar the city of one million looks like cities in SE Asia (Vientiane) and Africa (Lusaka). Lots of garbage everywhere, lots of old buildings, but also several brand new hotels and businesses.  After arriving at the hotel I was warned not to go outside after dark, too dangerous. During the day it was OK to be walking around in this neighbourhood, but beware. So on several occasions I walked to a large shopping center 15 minutes from the hotel. By the time you had walked those 15 minutes you were sweating pretty good. The temperature is well into the 30’s during the day and air conditioning is a must to be comfortable. Many days in the late afternoon or evening tremendous thunderstorms would occur with heavy thunder and lighting strikes. In no time the streets are inundated with water and cars drive through 2” to 6” of water. But soon after the rain stops the elaborate drainage system takes care of the water and within a few hours the streets are dry again.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs part of the work I was asked to do here I have been driven to some 10 of the outlying communities around SPS in the valley, including one of the national parks. Several of the other outlying communities are too dangerous to go to, just like one particular road up to the National Park had to be avoided. I found the surrounding area quite beautiful, lots of green forests, banana plantations and coffee plantations. The roads are mostly in good shape, however some road sections to smaller villages are atrocious and it  takes hours to drive around potholes at 10 km per hour. There is a lot of poverty in the country, some websites identify it as one of the most impoverished countries in Central America. Unemployment is roughly at 27-28% and several of the outlying communities appeared to be half empty. When I asked about that I was told that many people try to move to North America and end up as illegals, much of the time being deported back again. When I had lunch in a restaurant (Pizza Hut, but there is also McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Subway among others)  one of the servers spoke reasonably good English. When I asked him where he had learned that he said ”New York”, he had spent 6 years there before he got deported. Unfortunately many Central American gangs are made up of deported LA gang members. Especially El Salvador is notorious for having drug gangs. The Honduras government has worked hard the last few years to change that and is making progress. The last few years the GDP also has gone up (7% growth) and a lot of new construction on roads and buildings is evident.

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The security is still a major problem. At night a security guard is stationed in front of the hotel. In the shopping Center dozens of armed guards walk around. Every bank has an armed guard at the door. I was warned against using public transportation since it is not safe for foreigners.

The people are very friendly and helpful, few people speak English. At times my work was quite challenging because I don’t speak much Spanish and as a result missed much of the discussion that took place around me (without me). One thing that I noticed was that very few people smoke. In the few weeks I have been here I have seen exactly 2 people smoke a cigarette. However I also noticed that many people are overweight. That may be not difficult to explain because going for a jog or even an extended walk is close to impossible in this humid / hot environment. And not many people can afford the membership of the few indoor fitness centers.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe primary purpose of my assignment was to look for opportunities for trail development. So after seeing some of the poor trails I developed a manual for trail planning and development. The secondary purpose of my trip was to look for eco-tourism opportunities. I found quite a few. I think it would be interesting for a north American tourist to be able to visit a banana plantation and packing facility, or a coffee plantation or have you ever seen a cacao plantation? I never knew how cacao grew, interesting to discover how it grows and is turned into chocolate bars.

In summary: I would not (yet) go to this country as a tourist because of the security situation. However as far as its natural beauty is concerned, I am impressed. If the government manages to get the drug trade and subsequent murder rate under control, improves the road system this country can become a major tourist attraction.

 

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Tales of the South Pacific – 1. Santiago, Chile

img_3429Normally we are very individual travellers and book all of our own arrangements, including flights and accommodations. However, just like in Africa, we felt that this short trip to South America merited the knowledge and advise of a specialized travel agency. We found South American Vacations in Florida.

We often travel for an extended period of time, combining personal travel with work in international schools. This time, however, I did not have school bookings and we could only go away for a short time, around 2 weeks. The top destination on our long time bucket list only required two weeks, in fact we couldn’t afford any longer to this expensive destination. We took a deep breath and bit the bullet: we would visit Easter Island and the Galapagos Islands while we are still healthy enough for the amount of hiking involved.

img_3432Easter Island and Galapagos are often visited together with Machu Pichu. But we weren’t interested in hiking at such a high altitude nor in seeing more ruins after visiting many Mayan and Aztec sites in Mexico. Later we met people who visited both destinations and also include in their trip Rio, Patagonia and Antarctica. This seemed way too overwhelming to me..

South American Vacations was able to taylor make us an itinerary. But it did involve a lot of flying. Booking a prearranged trip has advantages as well as disadvantages: I felt that we wasted a lot of time waiting for drivers to pick us up. But it was also nice not to have to figure out taxis, haggling over fares or finding  addresses. We travel with cabin luggage only which allows us to be the first ones through customs and off with our waiting ride.

The travel gods were with us. We seldom have snow on Salt Spring Island but a foot of thick snow fell just before we left. We made it out OK even though flights all around us were canceled due to snow. From Houston, TX we flew 9 hours to Santiago, Chile where it was a balmy 25º. The arrival hall in Santiago beat anything we’d ever seen in airports around the world: hundreds and hundreds of arriving passengers in one gigantic line up, snaked around and around. We shuffled along for over an hour until they finally opened up some extra windows and we cleared immigration.

img_3416Thanks to booking with the travel agency, all little details were arranged including pick up by taxi to get to our hotel – a small but very convenient hotel in downtown Santiago. We walked around the neighbourhood and ate a sandwich on a patio. I was surprised at how un-Latin-American the city felt. It resembled a modern, European city and in fact I think I read somewhere that Santiago is called “the Paris of South America” – stylish business people rushing to offices, expensive cars, underground parking garages, and of course several Starbucks…

We didn’t spot any Chilean food – just French, Thai and American – and ended up having a great meal in an Irish Pub of all places. After having spent a night on the airplane we slept like a log. img_3426The following morning we were picked up for a city tour. The downtown in which our hotel was located, was the cosmopolitan, business part of the city. But there is also a historic downtown. Dating back to the mid 1500’s, the streets are narrower here and lined with historic houses, palaces and churches rather than with glass and glistening steel skyscrapers. Our guide, Cristobál, was extremely knowledgeable, not just in dates and numbers but with his grasp on politics and development of his country. We learned so much from him about revolutions and dictators, about settlement and government.

Starting in an ancient cathedral with gleaming wooden floors and hand painted wooden ceilings, we walked all over the city for several hours, stopping in front of old palaces where generals lived, the palace of justice, the mint and many other Spanish style buildings and monuments. One monument still had the bullet holes from the 1973 revolution in which Salvador Allende gave up his power.

We ate fresh empanadas and walked around the hill of Santa Lucia where we had a view of this city of over five million people. Green belts and parks are the lungs of the city and many people walked and jogged here.

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Santiago, Chile

Our travel agency: www.savacations.com

For a walking tour of Santiago check out: http://www.swoop-patagonia.com/blog/things-santiago/