Despite political unrest, a relaxing vacation in beautiful Honduras is possible

By Ryan J. Foley, AP
Monday, November 16, 2009

Rest _ and unrest _ on vacation in Honduras

ROATAN, Honduras — “The president’s been arrested already this morning,” hotel owner Jeff Kuken told my wife and me one Sunday morning in late June.

We had spent months planning a vacation across Honduras, but now Latin America’s first military coup in decades was unfolding on the third day of our trip. Not exactly part of our plans, and definitely not included in guidebooks that painted Honduras as the Next Big Destination for affordable eco-tourism.

“The military flew him out of the country at gunpoint,” said Kuken, a Boston native who owns Casa Calico on this beautiful island known for its scuba diving and snorkeling.

We wondered whether it would be possible to have fun and relax in a beautiful country going through political chaos. The answer turned out to be a resounding yes — with some changes in plans and a bit of luck.

We spent the day of the coup at Gumbalimba Park, where we took a zipline from tree to tree down the side of a mountain and onto a picturesque beach. We spotted iguanas that looked like small alligators and learned about cashew trees. We visited the park’s bird and monkey sanctuary, carrying both on our shoulders and feeding them with the help of their trainers.

Back at our room that afternoon, we watched on state television as Congress defended the ouster of President Manuel Zelaya and swore in the new president, Roberto Micheletti. Micheletti wasted no time imposing a 9 p.m. curfew that would last for the rest of our trip.

On Roatan, an island reachable by a 75-minute ferry ride from the mainland, there were few signs of unrest. We had the white sand beaches largely to ourselves, sipped pina coladas at beachside bars, and treated ourselves to delicious local foods like shrimp coconut soup and fried plantains. We enjoyed fresh Honduran coffee.

We snorkeled in one of the world’s largest barrier reefs, seeing all kinds of exotic fish. No need for a guided tour: the best snorkeling is very close to shore. One tip for travelers: it might be worth bringing your own mask and fins because the quality of rentals can be suspect. We did not scuba dive, but Roatan is a popular place for Americans and Europeans to do so.

With the U.S. Department of State advising against nonessential travel, we decided to cancel trips we had planned across the mainland.

(That advisory has since been softened; State now advises travelers to “exercise caution” but avoid the capital, Tegucigalpa. While the country’s political crisis continues, with the presidential election set for Nov. 29, bus and airline services and daily life are largely back to normal.)

We had planned to visit the Mayan ruins and coffee plantations in Copan Ruinas in the western part of the country and beautiful Lago Yojoa in central Honduras, where we had expected to stay at a bed-and-breakfast that is also the country’s one and only microbrewery.

For now, we were stuck in paradise.

We explored more of Roatan, water taxiing to shop from vendors on the beach at West Bay across the island. We did more snorkeling, ate more fresh seafood, drank more of the country’s Salvavida beer. And we constantly visited an Internet cafe to get the latest updates on the situation.

After about six days, we wanted off Roatan and started grumbling about our plight.

We booked a room at a bed and breakfast in the mountains near La Ceiba, a port city a short ferry ride away. With buses not running through the country and large protests in many places, it was one of the few cities we knew we could get safely.

That B&B, Casa Cangrejal, was the change of scenery we needed. Nestled in the mountains that overlook the Crab River, we relaxed in the natural swimming holes outside of our room and woke up to the soothing sounds of cooing birds. We walked a mile down the road to Pico Bonito National Park, where we hiked to the top of a picturesque waterfall. The hike was exhausting: more than 4 hours up and down the side of a steep mountain (not to mention across a rickety bridge over the river). Take lots of drinking water with you and enjoy the scenery, which includes stunning vegetation and bright blue butterflies.

On our last full day, we took a guided kayaking tour through Cacao Lagoon, near an old coffee plantation town. The lagoon includes a “monkey channel,” where howler monkeys can startle visitors (and each other) with roars that sound like tigers.

We paddled to a deserted island in the Caribbean Sea, where we snacked on fresh mango before kayaking back through the lagoon with a nice wind at our backs.

Our trip out of the country was equally as smooth, somehow. The major bus company, Hedman Alas, which had suspended service for days because of the unrest, started running again the day before we left.

We took an uneventful three-hour bus ride to San Pedro Sula’s airport and flew back to normalcy — two days before all flights were suspended when Zelaya tried to fly back home against the military’s wishes. Emily and I have promised to finish our original itinerary some day, hopefully when things calm down a bit more.

If You Go…

HONDURAS: A good source for details on trip-planning is Lonely Planet’s “Honduras & the Bay Islands” or

GETTING THERE: The price for our round-trip plane tickets from Chicago to San Pedro Sula was $550 each. Some airlines offer service directly to Roatan.

GETTING AROUND: Hedman Alas offers bus service to most major cities. A ticket costs $17 from San Pedro Sula to La Ceiba one-way.

ACCOMMODATIONS: Casa Calico,, was about $55 per night and that includes the best breakfast and freshest coffee on the island. Casa Congrejal,, cost $90 a night and was well worth it.

DIVERSIONS: Pico Bonito National Park cost $7 per person to hike the waterfall. Guided tours through Omega Jungle Lodge, Guided eco-tours through Omega Jungle Lodge,, ranges from $50-$100 or more per person, depending on the tour. A day at Gumbalimba Park, including the zipline and monkey and bird sanctuary, cost about $40 apiece,

will not be displayed