A bus can carry almost anything in Central America! Photo by Madelyn Given.

Honduras: Tegucigalpa and Chicken Buses

View from Picacho Hill, looking down over Tegucigalpa, capital of Honduras. Photo by Madelyn Given.

View from Picacho Hill, looking down over Tegucigalpa, capital of Honduras. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Tegucigalpa is the capital of Honduras and the third largest city in Central America, with 1.5 million in population. My guide Patricio and I took time to drive to the Basilica of Sayapa that sits high on a hill, with a great stone balcony overlooking the city. Inside, the windows are beautifully designed and colorful, and the entire edifice is quite simple in design. Patricio explained that two weeks prior to our visit was a great annual celebration, the birthday of Sayapa, The Virgin Saint of Tegucigalpa. The festivities go on for a week, with a holiday from school and work. The remains of colorful decorations were being torn down by residents along the streets in the area; not even Christmas compares to this local celebration.

Statue of Christ on Picacho Hill. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Statue of Christ on Picacho Hill. Photo by Madelyn Given.

We drove to Picacho Hill, which is part of a National Park, and saw the giant statue of Christ at the peak. Here was a great lookout over the capital below us. Patricio pointed out the National Soccer Stadium, the old colonial section of the city, the business districts, and the airport.  The airport is considered one of the most dangerous in the world because of the short runway and the hills and mountains next to it. There is an ongoing political debate about relocating it.

We departed the city for Santa Lucia, a colonial mining town in the hills when the conquistadors came hunting for gold. This town is set on steep hills and very picturesque. We spent part of the day walking around the historic buildings, old homes, and churches. I found obsidian, which was not mined here, in the cobblestone of the street. We drove to Valle de Angeles, a restored artisan town for the wares of Honduras craftsmen, mainly leather and wood. We drove back to Tegucigalpa that evening, as Patricio was staying with his sister-in-law and family. The next morning, he told me the family had held a birthday party for him. His mother-in-law, wife, daughter, and two-year-old son drove many miles to surprise him. Family gatherings are very important in Central America.

The transportation system in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua uses recycled US school buses. It is very universal and the thinking here is that the buses were only used a little in the U.S., to take the students to and from school just 5 days a week for part of the year, so they are still in good condition. Here they are used 7 days a week, many hours a day, year round. They are privately owned and gaily colored, with racks added to the roof of the buses. Everything is carried on the buses, including chickens, and many people are squeezed into the buses.

There are some city buses in the major cities, but the long lines were waiting for the chicken buses. It offers a cheaper transportation option, and it is more widely used to go from the city to the neighboring towns and villages.

School children walk to school. There are two sessions of school each day. After the morning session, they go home at 12:30 to work, play, or study for the later part of the day. The second session starts at 1 pm and goes until 4:30 or 5pm. We would see many school children coming to school or going home, walking on the side of the road; there were no sidewalks, but the students, clustered in small groups, were cheerful and happy. The children were in neat, clean uniforms, and all of the students carried backpacks.

There is much to learn from travel, from the natural hiking environment in the forests to the types of mass transportation for the people. Being with the local people is a great education. Each trip is an adventure, worth all the effort, with lasting memories.

(posted October 3, 2017)

Madelyn Given on a zipline in Honduras. What fun!

Fun in Honduras

One day while traveling in Honduras, Patricio, my guide, asked me if I would like to go to a bird sanctuary for relocating birds back into the wild. We were staying in Copan and it was a short distance so we took a tut-tut. The way was up a steep hill on a narrow bumpy road. That little three-wheel mini transport hardly made it.

A toucan at a bird sanctuary in Honduras. Photo by Madelyn Given.

A toucan at a bird sanctuary in Honduras. Photo by Madelyn Given.

We were the only visitors and the director stopped his work and took us around, explaining that this was not a zoo and the sole purpose of the sanctuary is to relocate native birds and to educate locals about not keeping native birds as pets, especially the endangered macaws. The sanctuary began the long process of reintroducing a single pair into the wild a few years ago. Now there are 52 pairs in the area. The macaws that have been domesticated as pets unfortunately will not survive in the wilds as they have spent a lifetime depending on humans. Also to get a pair is very difficult because a male and female are alike in coloration and size and only though DNA can a pair be matched. There were owls, ducks, toucans, parakeets, and other native birds.

On the way to the bird sanctuary was a public zip line. I asked Patricio if he was up for some fun. We stopped and made arrangements. Once we were harnessed up with a pair of heavy gloves, we took off in a truck high up on a small mountain. There were 16 long lines going though the passes and down to the valley and over the trees. It was great fun, quiet, peaceful and magnificent scenery. At the end we caught a ride into town with the zip line crew as it was the end of their work day.

We went to a cocoa museum as this is the heart of where it is grown. Chocolate was the drink of Mayan nobles and royalty.  Their chocolate (ate at the end of the word means hot) was made with honey, chili, chocolate, and water. Ekchua was the Mayan god of chocolate.

I had chocolate, good coffee, and good food while traveling. I enjoyed typical dishes of beleada made with fried beans, chicken or beef, fried egg, avocado, cheese, and sour cream inside a folded tortilla. Casado was another typical dish made with fried beans rice and fried bananas with a fresh salad.

Early one morning, Patricio and I hiked on a trail through a rain forest part of a national park. Patricio brought his binoculars and we saw a number of birds. Three red-crested macaws, the national bird of Honduras, heard us coming and warned the forest animals with a loud continuous cry. Other birds were moving about including the blue crowned mommot, the national bird of El Salvador, woodpeckers, black birds, and small songbirds. Butterflies and frogs are colorful attractions when hiking. Monkeys are noisy and sound an alarm before you usually see them. Where ever we walked came across Mayan ruins protruding from the vegetation. The weather was hot and quite dry and there was no one around to disturb the natural setting but nature itself.

After our walk in the rainforest we met up with an archeologist near Les Sepulture, a cemetery for nobility and craftsmen. The site is closed to the public but he offered to show us what was happening there if we took no pictures. Part of the area will be a new museum to be completed in the next five years. It is a major project to find and match pieces for entire buildings, sculptures, benches and carvings. We spent a long time there, even though we had a long drive planned for that day.

After only a few more miles, we made a stop at Welches coffee plantation. The owner, a barrister, made me a cappuccino frio. After a walk in the tropical rain forest, it was a grand treat. I went with the young owner, of many generations, here into the sorting rooms of a big building for processing the coffee beans. Coffee has such humble beginnings: hand picked up in the mountains, carried down in heavy sacks on the back of workers and dried on cement parking lots. The beans are picked red when just right, 15 days later more are picked from the same trees, and this goes on from September through March. Trees produce up to 15 years and then are destroyed and new trees are planted. It takes 15 beans for a cup of coffee. The traditional coffee is dried over three days: each day the beans are laid out of doors on the cement, bagged up each night, and brought in, and the process is repeated for three days. Then the beans are pealed and roasted in big roasting machines. Honey roasted beans are not washed of the little juice or peeled. Much of Welches coffee beans are sold to Starbucks.

Pulhapanzak Waterfall, Honduras. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Pulhapanzak Waterfall, Honduras. Photo by Madelyn Given.

We drove many miles for a short hike to Pulhapanzak, the largest waterfall in Honduras. There were locals here enjoying a natural swimming pool of the stream above the falls and people were enjoying a picnic on the grass beside the falls. It was very hot in this tropical area and walking up the steep path was a bit of an effort. In the town of Taculpan we passed a large fish processing plant. Tilapia is raised on fish farms near the falls.

View at Yojo Largo, Honduras. Photo by Madelyn Given.

View at Yojo Largo, Honduras. Photo by Madelyn Given.

We drove around part of Yojo Largo, the largest lake in Honduras.  Here we decided not to go to a place for native fried fish as we had several stops to make and our long visits at special places and many miles on the road made a late arrival at our sleeping destination.

We drove on dirt roads, country highways, and toll roads. We made a special stop at Comayagua, in the 1500s a Spanish colonial capital, now restored for tourism. For several days Patricio had told me he could hardly wait to take me here to show me the oldest functioning clock in the Western Hemisphere. It was getting dark when we arrived at the central plaza and sat on the steps of a grand old church and listened to the chimes go off at the hour and half hour. It was worth driving the last few hours to this historic site. We walked around several of the old streets. The area was beautifully restored, clean, and safe. The mayor had done a good job with this small city.

(posted Sept 13, 2017)







Copan Maya Ruins, Honduras

Copan is a great Maya archaeological site in western Honduras. Today, the setting is just a small village, now in a jungle valley of hills and nearby mountains, quite different than it was in 1,400 BC, when it was a capital city of many thousand people. The Copan Maya site is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site with only 25 % unearthed of the 47,000 structures of this ancient capital. It is an experience to walk through this setting, with its tall trees, spider monkeys, and macaws, and to imagine what life was like in this ancient empire.

It is best known for the excavated hieroglyphic temple staircase, a well preserved ball court, and beautiful stelae (free-standing statues or monuments carved in the image of a ruler, with information about his life). In 1895, a group from Harvard and the Peabody Museum began excavating the site. Since then, it has been taken over by other funded groups. Also on the site is the Copan sculpture Museum and inside is an exact replica of the original temple that existed on this spot. It is elaborately decorated with carved macaws, animals, and symbols, and painted in bright oca red with gold and green. Many of the artifacts, including beautifully carved stone benches, are in rooms of the museum.

Maya Ruins in Copan, Honduras. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Maya Ruins in Copan, Honduras. Photo by Madelyn Given.

The Copan ruins are on the banks of the Copan River. The valley was divided into two zones, one rural and the other urban. The urban zone was very populated and the ceremonial center was connected by two raised causeways. There was the royal residential compound and another for noble families. The remains exist because they were made of stone and grand in stature. In the metropolis were masons, carpenters, weavers, jewelers, and tradesmen. There was plumbing and potable water in the acropolis and royal dwellings. There were mosaic and detailed carvings representing their world of sacred mountains and paths to the supernatural realms to communicate with ancestors and to influence forces of nature. There were funerary temples and temples where astronomers studied the moon, Venus, sun, and earth.

The ball court was part of the central plaza, well decorated with macaws, which were designed for the playing ball to go through to score. The game was called poktok and was partly a ritual that reenacted the Maya myth creation revolving around the maize crop and fertilitia. Poktok was played with two teams on a playing field. The players used a hard rubber ball, but they could not touch it with their hands; each side had to get the ball into rings on the stone macaw heads sculpted into a sloped wall on each side of the court. There were three of these goals on each side of the two walls for scoring. The ball player who caused the loss of the game would be offered as a sacrifice to the gods.

The macaw, with its bright plumage, was a messenger to the sun and a link to the vital maize crop and agricultural cycle. This ball court had four renovations over time, and each time, new macaw markers were carved and inserted into the wall. The old, broken markers were found in an ancient construction site.

The temples were grand, and the hieroglyphic staircase tells of warfare with carved shields, lances, ropes, and sacrificial implements. It took years to unscramble just the pieces of this one temple staircase and now it is all reproduced inside the Copan Sculpture Museum. Patricio (my travel guide), a local Copan guide, and I went though several tunnels built several thousand years ago. These connected temples and central royal buildings.

After walking all day along the paths of the ancient ruins, Patricio and I spent time walking around the small village of Copan. There were stelae in different places in the village, even amongst the stores, since the stelae must be preserved and not moved. The food is native dishes and fresh. The coffee is from the nearby mountains and the cacao is from the trees in the village.

(posted August 29, 2017)