Shortly after I arrived in Gracias, Honduras last week and enthusiastically began posting photos of this beautiful colonial town brimming with red-tiled roofs and pristine, cafe-filled parks, someone on Instagram messaged me to ask a simple question:
Why was everything in Gracias so clean and well-kept and, well, so very different than where I had previously stayed, in Puerto Cortes?
My instinct was to say that like most places in this world, Honduras possesses range and dimension.
“Why are places in the US different from each other?” I countered. “Every place has variance.”
I think, like many Americans visiting this country, I’m eager to defend Honduras because of perceptions I know aren’t completely correct and because of the guilt that comes with understanding the role the U.S. has played in contributing to the country’s decline.
Honduras’ reputation in the international news is primarily as a place of violence, poverty, government corruption and drug trafficking, leading to a wave of migration. Because of that portrayal, I think many tend to assume it is universally dangerous; a place where some even in the bordering countries are scared to go and some travel publications are hesitant to highlight.
Those are understandable perspectives to some extent. Currently, the U.S. State Department ranks Honduras at a Level 3, “reconsider travel,” and has issued several travel advisories warning of “one of the highest homicide rates in the world.” More than 66 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to 2016 data, and in rural areas, 1 in 5 lives on less than $1.90 USD a day.
But knowing that isn’t the full story, that Honduras also boasts quiet, tranquil communities — and amidst the immense hardships, great wealth, too (making Honduras Latin America’s most unequal country, according to this 2017 article) — I was giddy to see Gracias as evidence of that dimension.
My first week in the country, in port city Puerto Cortes, had been somewhat tumultuous— a place where I witnessed great beauty and grew to love my host family but also felt the volatility of being a woman alone.
There, it was hard to mentally merge the assertions of relative safety with the urges to return home as soon as it was dark and the handful of frightening personal experiences, I had.
On my last night there, while out for beers with my host family, my host dad Jose mused, over his Salva Vida, that two girls running by the ocean were putting themselves in danger of “getting shot.” A murder had occurred around that same spot just a couple weeks prior.
“Oh, don’t be scared,” his daughter, Monserrat quickly said to me. “Just don’t run or walk at night.”
The next day, I left for Gracias, a town about six hours away by bus, amidst the mountainous highlands of central Honduras.
The trek there from San Pedro Sula was dotted with shanty towns, the houses barely more than a series of sticks in the ground with tin slats thrown over the top and leaned against the sides. Tarp residences perched on cliffs, their meager structures juxtaposed with the richness of the land and coffee farms beyond. A haze of smoke hung over everything, the air pouring through the bus windows tinged with soot from burning sugar cane fields across the rural region.
Pulling into Gracias, a community of about 50,000 — and the home town of Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández — the view changed, dramatically.
Colorful potters full of plants and helados kiosks, looking freshly constructed, appeared. The architecture transformed to colorful colonial-style buildings lining immaculate cobblestone streets.
Walking around those first couple days, I saw elegant cafes utilizing Chemex-style pourover coffee makers and touting Instagram-worthy courtyards. Boutiques displayed chic dresses and sunglasses. Most impressive were the parks, regularly cleaned and swept and adorned with towering Guanacaste trees, wooden benches, bistro tables and cafe stands. Everything seemed to have a fresh coat of paint. In the evenings, seemingly half the town convened there, sipping lattes and chatting.
Even the street food stands were immaculate — with carefully constructed tents and diner-like metal seating that appeared, as if by magic, around dusk.
A friend who traveled through Honduras’ tourist highlights (Roátan, Utila, Copan Ruinas) recently exclaimed that I was off the beaten path when I told her where I was.
“So Honduras is safe outside the tourist areas?” she questioned.
It was weird. I was slightly off the tourist track, but it certainly didn’t feel like it — other than the fact that I didn’t see any white people apart from a group of missionaries and another group of doctors those first several days.
I couldn’t speak to the whole, but I was already sure that Gracias was one of the prettiest, safest and cleanest places I’d visited in all my Central American travels. I walked, late at night, without much worry or issue; I felt ease in whipping out my laptop in any place. And mostly that was because although food, alcohol, coffee and tuk tuk rides were cheap, most in the town seemed to be fairly comfortable.
It was a little confusing.
According to the little research I had done, the main industries in Gracias include coffee production and other farming; a town whose streets were speckled with cowboy hats. Yet despite international coffee prices dropping as low as they’ve been in a decade, it seemed to be doing much better off than other agricultural towns in the region. Why was that?
The answer, after talking with a journalist who covers the country, likely involves the support of the president, who has promoted the tourism of his birthplace, once considered a poor town. Hernandez’ notoriously corrupt family, which includes brother Juan Antonio, recently arrested in Miami on drug trafficking charges, owns hotel Posada Don Juan in the town center, and maintains a significant presence here. How much that support contributes to the model appearance of Gracias hasn’t fully been covered, and I won’t be presumptuous enough to try to understand it after just a week here.
Still, it’s been eye opening.
While its true that the bleak stereotypes of danger and destitution don’t play out in every locale, with each day here I am also realizing that Honduras is probably more complicated than my well-intentioned optimism could assume.
After only a couple weeks, I couldn’t pretend to understand that complexity, so I won’t.
I sit, now, with a rum and my computer, overlooking the magnificent vista of Gracias, the Cerro Las Minas mountains rising beyond that labyrinth of red-tiled roofs and cafe-laden parks, and the whole of Honduras beyond, certain to leave me even more confused about what I do and do not know.
Traveling abroad, as an American, is to embrace the ignorance you never knew you had.
That’s a good thing. I await more.