White beaches fringed by the world's second-largest barrier reef, jungle-covered mountains cut by raftable white-water rivers and home to an astounding number of bird species, exquisite Maya ruins, colonial, cobblestone villages, fresh seafood grilled on the beach…Yes, all this is found in Honduras, a country often hurried through or avoided entirely due to its dangerous image.
After a decade in which the country spiraled into a whirlwind of terrible violence, Honduras has very definitely begun – with a few hiccups – the journey back from the abyss. While the challenges ahead are still significant and travel here still means bumpy roads with no seatbelts, things haven't looked this positive for years. It's important to take care in the cities and the country is certainly not for the fainthearted, but other than that, Honduras is back open for business and just waiting to be discovered.
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One of the most important of all Maya civilizations lived, prospered, then mysteriously crumbled around the Copán archaeological ruins, a Unesco World Heritage Site. During the Classic period (AD 250–900), the city at Copán Ruinas culturally dominated the region. The architecture is not as grand as that across the border in Tikal, but the city produced remarkable sculptures and hieroglyphics, and these days you'll often be virtually alone at the site, which makes it all the more haunting. The ruins are a pleasant 1km stroll outside of Copán. A visitors center, an excellent sculpture museum and a cafe and gift shop are close to the main entrance. The guides at the Asociación de Guías Copán really know their stuff and hiring one is a worthwhile investment.
If you hit only one sight in Tegus, head here. The museum is housed in the gorgeously renovated 19th-century former Palace of Ministries. It's a superb overview of the nation's history and identity through modern exhibits. Displays are in Spanish, but there are free tours in English by excellent guides four times a day (also ask for French or German tours). Other great features include a virtual video tour of Copan four times daily and free 2pm movies on various themes every Saturday (hint: June is all about gay pride).
High above the waves, gazing over the Caribbean toward the European motherland, this 17th-century Spanish fortress could not have a more evocative position. Though its ruined remains are not that impressive visually, it's still an inspirational spot to reflect on the forces and characters that shaped the history of the North American continent. Fifteen cannons face the sea, and a plaque marks the place where North American wannabe conqueror William Walker was executed. The onsite museum has colonial and Garifuna artifacts.
Copán is unique in the Maya world for its sculptures and some of the finest examples are on display at this impressive museum, which is fully signed in English. Entering the museum is an experience in itself: you go through the mouth of a serpent and through its entrails before suddenly emerging into the bright main hall. The highlight of the display is a full-scale replica of the Rosalila Temple , which was discovered in nearly perfect condition by archaeologists in 1989. Rosalila, dedicated in AD 571 by Copán’s 10th ruler, Moon Jaguar, was apparently so sacred that when Structure 16 was built over it, Rosalila was not destroyed but was left completely intact. The original Rosalila temple remains inside the core of Structure 16.
Originally set up in 2005 with the aim of protecting the reef system around the West End and Sandy Bay, the Roatán Marine Park now covers the whole island. This nonprofit organization campaigns strongly to conserve the marine environment – Roatán's reefs are under enormous pressure, both from construction and the sheer amount of visitors. Four boats patrol the shoreline; people fishing illegally (using nets, harpoons or traps) have been jailed. The park office rents out snorkeling equipment (L120 per day).
Parque Nacional Celaque is one of Honduras’ most impressive national parks and boasts El Cerro de las Minas, the country’s highest peak (2849m), which is covered in lush forest. The park contains the headwaters of several rivers, a majestic waterfall visible from the entire valley, and very steep slopes, including some vertical cliffs. The park is rich in plant and animal life: pumas, ocelots and quetzals live here, but they are rarely seen. More commonly sighted are butterflies, monkeys and reptiles.
This magnificent 43m waterfall on the Río Lindo is 17km north of Lago de Yojoa (and also an easy day trip from San Pedro Sula). Surrounded by lush forest, it's a privately run beauty spot where guides will lead you along a fun, challenging path behind the waterfall (L300). There's good swimming and zip-lining (L550) right over the falls. Take dry clothes if you do the waterfall walk, and be aware that it can get very crowded here on weekends.
The park’s first trail is still a favorite, with a moderately difficult three-hour hike to Cascada Zacate. You’ll hear the falls before you see them; they're actually also known as Cascada Ruidoso, or ‘noisy falls.’ When the water is high, it thunders through a narrow chasm, throwing up a thick cloud of vapor. The pool at the base is enticing, but a community downstream uses the water for drinking so swimming is not allowed.
This charming place is a research center that doubles as a tea and gift shop every afternoon to support the important reforestation work carried out by its environmental charity. Enjoying a cup of tea (try the cacao and spice) on the wonderful veranda is something of a rite of passage in Copán Ruinas. Take a mototaxi to get here or walk the kilometer uphill from town.