During the eight-month leg of our trip through Central America, we crossed paths with countless travelers coming up north as we headed down south, and listened to their tips and advice for places we had yet to visit. The only place that nobody could tell us much about was Honduras. Not on many itineraries, there are two popular Honduras destinations: enthusiastic divers evangelically promote the Bay Islands, where they go to get their diving certificates, and the travelers interested in Maya culture will head to Copan Ruinas, a mere 12 kilometers from the Guatemalan border.
But what about the rest of Honduras? We had read about a lake just as great as Lake Atitlan, sleepy fishing villages on the Caribbean coast, colonial towns and the Ruta Lenca, a series of indigenous villages in the mountains – so much more than just Copan!
Even though travel in other Central American countries has also been called unsafe on occasion, like Guatemala or Nicaragua, travelers continue to visit these countries without question. It is the culture of Guatemala and the sand, surf, volcanoes and colonial cities that attract people to Nicaragua. When it comes to Honduras, the hesitation travelers feel to visit Honduras often keeps them from visiting.
One recent reason for this current feeling of insecurity may have been a political uprising in 2009 that hit international news. Then-president Manuel Zelaya attempted an illegal political maneuver which resulted in his subsequent arrest and exile. As a result, Honduras found itself in a severe constitutional crisis and many embassies issued temporary travel warnings to Honduras.
When considering the time of our visit (end of 2010 into 2011), this could have been what was causing the distinct lack of international visitors to the country. However, neighboring Guatemala receives on average nearly 1 million visitors annually, while Honduras welcomes only one third of that at, 370,000 visitors per year.
Travel in Honduras can certainly seem unsafe. The first thing that stood out to us was the amount of machine guns displayed publicly. Even in supposedly safe and heavily visited Copan, with visitors ranging from backpackers to retirees, the sheer amount of armed policemen and private security guards on the main square and parked in front of banks was unnerving. If there is this much police presence, we thought, why exactly do they need it? Is it only precautionary? Or should we have taken out a life insurance policy in addition to our travel insurance?
During a forest hike with a local guide in Copan, we inadvertently learned more about the narco-trafficking happening in Honduras than we did about the Mayan sites on the tour. We learned the levels of involvement, from ‘mules’ who transport it up the pyramid to who runs things at a mid-management level. A pimped out pick up truck even passed and stopped for a chat with our guide, who later told us that although they seemed like friendly happy guys, they were definitely involved in the drug trade. They posed no threat to us, and they never even got out of the car or talked to us. We would have remained ignorant completely had we not been with a guide, but it was unsettling to say the least that it was that close to us – and in the middle of a forest no less.
On the Caribbean coast we felt safe, and even in the center of San Pedro Sula, a city it is said has suffered from an increase in crime, during the day didn’t feel any different from other big cities. In fact the main bus terminal was a giant shopping mall and felt more developed and travel-friendly than most central city bus terminals.
Tegucigulpa, on the other hand, felt unsafe and shady from the start. We never planned on visiting the capital, as there were no sights we felt we wanted to see, and several areas are considered overly dangerous. Unfortunately, however, after we realized that our New Year’s Day travel plans meant buses were not running directly to the Nicaraguan border, we stood at a bus station studying the guidebook to figure out a hostel for the night. While we frantically flipped the pages of our Footprint, one of the locals came up to us immediately and warned us not to stand with our backpacks there or we would get robbed. We hopped right into a taxi after that.
However, after finding an overpriced but very safe hotel (front door locked at all times, same as all other hotels in the area) we have to admit that we calmed down after a first stroll through the historic center, despite (or because of?) the heavy police presence in the area.
We made it home before dark, and wouldn’t have wanted to venture out once the sun went down. We heard several gun shots in the evening, always followed by police sirens rushing through the city. The next morning in the light of day, we went out to explore before catching the bus. The parque central was bustling with people, vendors, newspaper stands, and interesting urban art. The Cathedral is impressive, and well-dressed church-goers made the Sunday morning in the city center feel festive. After that, Tegucigulpa felt safer, though the amount of police men with machine guns left us with a strong feeling of unease and unable to fully enjoy our walk.
While we were in Honduras we did not encounter one single safety issue, however due to the constant police presence (or in spite of it?) we never felt safe. Just two days after we had left the country, we read about an attack on a mini bus, just like the ones that we traveled in, in which all passengers were shot and killed. (See why it made us nervous: a picture of the van in this Spanish news article or read the article in English)
We have always been huge supporters of travelling off the beaten path, and Honduras can certainly offer that to its international visitors. In all the towns we visited in Honduras outside of Copan Ruinas, we were almost the only tourists – in towns like Santa Rosa, Gracias or Lake Yojoa.
In our opinion, traveling in Honduras is not much more dangerous as in its neighboring countries (a similar attack on a mini bus took place around the same time in Guatemala City, a capital which experiences several such attacks each year). However, visitors flocking to other Central American countries also take that risk to discover once-in-a-lifetime places, experiences and cultures. The question with Honduras is, is there enough to visit and see as visitors to warrant safety risks. The ever present machine guns and gun culture made it feel much more unsafe.
We would say yes, Honduras is without a doubt worth visiting, and as long as you stay vigilant and avoid San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa at night, a trip to or through Honduras should be safe. Although we did not visit the Bay Islands ourselves, we have never heard any negative safety stories from people who did go, and when considering the number of tourists who visit the Roatan or Utila, the popular diving island of Honduras are probably the safest and most tourist friendly spots in the country.
After 11 weeks in Mexico, we also examined safety of travel in Mexico which you can read here.
Have you been to Honduras? If so, did you feel safe traveling through? If you decided to skip a visit there, did safety play a role? We would love to hear your thoughts on whether or not Honduras is safe to visit in the comments below.