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"Where" : A snapshot of travel in rural Honduras

HONDURAS | Monday, 17 January 2011 | Views [3294] | Comments [1]

I always have problems answering people when they ask "where" I went last summer. Generally people just want to know what country I was in, but the community of Rio Cuyamel in the Department of Olancho is so different from the tourist attractions in other parts of the country that for me, saying "Honduras" just doesn't cover it.  Generally (when people know of Honduras) they think of hotspots like Las Ruinas de Copan, or the island Roatan, or even La Ceiba. However the amenities and resorts in these places might as well be in a separate country from the Department of Olancho. 

(above) It seems that everyone in Honduras owns chickens, at least sometimes.  They make great food sources as egg-layers and otherwise, as well as garbage disposals.  Seen here taking care of a spoiled watermelon. 

Honduras is divided into departments much in the way that the U.S.A is divided into states, and the Department of Olancho is like the wild west.  Some people there are literally "cowboys," cattle ranching is a very evident and proliferate industry.  Cattle can commonly be seen being driven down the dirt roads by men on horseback (making regular "hup-ho!" calls to the cattle as they go).  Many families in the mountains own a horse, mule, or burro for getting around; trucks are few and far between due to the expense or models that can navigate the rough terrain.  The small mountain communities are for the most part without luxuries like electricity and indoor water and plumbing.  Bigger cities in the department do manage these conveniences, but water and power outages are frequent and met with little surprise from residents. Economically these cities are still a far cry from the tourist traps on the northern coast, a full meal can obtained from $1.50-$5.00, $6+ if you go to a really nice place with "western" style food.  Hammocks and other souvenirs as well as necessities can be found for fractions of what they would be sold for in more tourist frequented areas.  

(above) Catacamas, Honduras, as seen from the steps of the cultural center. 

I stayed in the city of Catacamas (est. population 40-45,000)and went weekly to a kind of base camp in village of Las Delicias the community of Rio Cuyamel. There is a reason that conventional tourists don't generally make it as far as Catacamas. I visited 2 hotels in Catacamas (The first I stayed in the day I arrived before meeting my host family, the second I visited frequently to meet incoming groups of volunteers).  While the hotels are very nice by local standards of accommodations (they both had air conditioning, for instance, something that most people don't have) they did not have things like hot water, one didn't have a shower head, both were shower only, one did not have television, neither had internet.  The road from the capital to Catacamas has improved greatly in the last few years due to a paving project, however many of the roads inside the city are dirt and most are riddled with potholes so that the ride resembles the drive on a cheese grater.   In addition there is little to no English spoken this far from the more popular tourist areas, conversational Spanish and/or a translator are a must.  Even Spanish speakers may have some trouble, natives (especially in the mountains) sometimes speak a "marble-mouth" dialect that can make understanding difficult. 

(above) Many dogs in Honduras are wary of people.  Petting strange dogs, even at someone's house, is not advised as they can snap when startled.

Things that may make tourists from the United States uncomfortable  are seeing the amount of wild dogs running around, most of which are in various stages of severe malnutrition and some of which are obviously sick.  This is certainly sad and would be upsetting for some people, however I was always grateful that it was dogs and not people that I could see walking around with their ribs showing.  While there are a good deal of beggars in Catacamas there is not (due probably to the large amount of charities and volunteer groups in the area) evidence of human starvation.   Another thing that might concern tourists that is common to the whole of Honduras is the insane lack of driving laws and street signals, causing some hair raising moments while driving around town.  Local drivers get the system, confused (sometimes panicky) foreign passengers do not.  The right of way as far as I could tell is determined by honking the car horn back and forth in some sort of morse code. This doesn't exactly lead to more accidents as much as it scares people used to calmly regulated American streets.  My advice: find a good driver and don't watch. 

(above) Rolling grassy hills like this are a common sight when venturing into the mountains, however they are not the natural state of the region.  This land was once covered with thick rainforest, which was burned in order to graze cattle like the one seen here. 

Something else I found unnerving is the amount of guns visible.  While in town the only people who (generally) openly carry arms are police, military, and security guards, in the mountains everyone has a gun, for hunting and personal safety.  Even in town where people with guns are in uniform, it is a little nerve-wracking the first time you go to a supermarket and see a man standing beside the door with a serious expression and an automatic weapon. The rule of thumb seems to be that is anywhere with money needs a man with a gun to protect it, and banks need at least two.  Apart from the increased security, amenities are available but limited.  Water and electricity, depending on the establishment in which you are staying, can be frequently interrupted or unavailable.  The city of Catacamas has blackouts and water shortages on a regular basis, although some hotels will have generators and cisterns to prevent the interruption of these services. Some hotels will have access to an internet connection (generally on an office machine) but for longer stays the best option by far is to get a USB modem in a phone store.  This should come with a prepaid bandwidth allotment and will allow you to access from anywhere with a cellphone signal if you simply plug it into your machine. Phones with similar prepaid plans can be purchased as well, which provide a relatively inexpensive way to call home.  "Saldo," or the money available for minutes on your phone, can be recharged at any gas station or store that caters to your company (as designated by signs in windows and over doors). 

(above) A young scarlet macaw. Colorful tropical birds commonly festoon the porches and trees of local houses as pets, or ornaments.  

That being said, dealing with these conditions is well worth it.  Catacamas is very affordable, and from there you can visit the Talgua Caves, a gorgeous half submerged and not fully explored cave system that contains pre-mayan remains (which were not, at the time I visited, available for public viewing). The area (especially farther in the mountains) has all the wonder and beauty of a rain forest, native amazing species of flowers, about a million (my conservative estimate) different types of butterflies, as well as birds and other weird critters. The people are friendly and very hospitable, and make great food.  The area will appeal to people who like hiking and nature, river fishing, copious amounts of rain and warm weather. This is also a great place for coffee aficionados, Honduran coffee is very very strong with an amazing flavor and local varieties can be purchased for about $1.50 a pound pre-ground. Make sure what you're buying was made locally, as this is usually the best quality and the proceeds will support the local economy.  You can even after asking around find several brands dried and prepared by local women as extra household income.  Meals locally run from about 30 lmps ( about $1.60) to 160 lmps depending on what food you get, local fare will be less expensive than American style food like hamburgers or pizza.  

One of the spectacular stalactite formations in the Talgua Caves, described by the tour guide as a "winter forest."  Tours and admittance to the park total under $10 US, however this is Spanish only, bring your own translator. 

As far as safety and medical services the mountains have very little to speak of, and the city of Catacamas has a clinic started by a foreign mission which is now run by Hondurans. This clinic keeps normal business hours (and so is not available on an emergency basis, it is more of a primary care center) and provides services mainly in the form of visiting medical brigades with nurse given care available between brigades.  They do however have things like anti-venom for serious snake bites (as do the mountain clinics) as well as various pills, "bug busters" and antibiotics for the parasites and stomach upsets and diseases that can plague a visitor who drinks the water or gets on the bad side of a mosquito.  More serious conditions or injuries may require traveling to another city or the capital Tegucigalpa, a four hour drive from Catacamas.

(above) A burro with a beautiful handmade bridle, or gamarra.  These solid animals are a common means of transportation in the mountains where roads can be difficult for cars.

In summary I found that lack of fame or pinpoint-able location does not make for a lousy trip, in fact quite the opposite.  Especially for the low budget adventurer that doesn't mind being a little rough around the edges a little known destination can make for a refreshing change from the polished resort tourist traps that we generally find our travels allocated to.  In addition to having a chance to experience local culture in day to day life, you're sure to bring back some amazing stories. Honduras is a wonderful, beautiful country that doesn't get nearly enough appreciation, and I most certainly recommend travel to the Department of Olancho. 

The traveler and photographer (me :) by a tree in the park in the center of Catacamas. This is only the right half of the trunk, and I am 6'2".  Trees here are huge. 

Tags: honduras, horses, mules, olancho, rainforest

 

Comments

1

I am from Ireland, Europe. I have Visited Catacamas. It is trully beautifull there !!
People are so friendly !! Loved swimming in the mountain Streams, Great Fun !! Great Food there, Especially the Cheese and Beans which have great flavor. ! I am going back there in 2 months again.

  Owen Connolly Jan 10, 2014 4:04 PM

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About jaz

I traveled to Catacamas, Honduras in the summer of 2010.  The trees are huge.

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