Between Gratitude and Hope on the Lenca Trail: travels into the mountainous west of Honduras

When thinking about indigenous people in Central America, the Maya are usually the ones that come to mind. We had our fair share/overdose of Maya culture in Belize and in Guatemala. Honduras has Maya too – exemplified by the ruins of Copán which we’d visit later in our trip. The most numerous indigenous group in this country, however, are the Lenca. They’re famous for their tenacity and their fluorescent headdresses. A sharp tourism marketing genius dubbed their homeland the Ruta Lenca or Lenca Trail. We were keen to explore those rugged and inhospitable mountains of southwestern Honduras and the string of traditional villages that lies within them.

But first:

Why the **** Honduras?

During our trip, I regularly checked Facebook groups about backpacking in Central America. The vast majority of backpackers never make it to Honduras. Even the ones crossing the whole isthmus often skip El Salvador, Honduras and, due to the recent political turmoil, Nicaragua. They take a flight from Costa Rica to Guatemala or vice versa. Or, if they can’t afford flying, they rush through as quickly as possible.

Especially Honduras seems to be the pariah of Central America. True, Honduras has its problems, just like most countries in the region. In 2009, a political crisis made every western country reconsider its travel advice for Honduras. It got too hot even for the Peace Corps. But that was ten years ago. Now, considerate travellers don’t run bigger risks in Honduras than in any of the neighbouring countries.

Honduras has everything the backpacker’s heart desires. I already mentioned Copán, the Paris of the Maya. The Bay Islands are another gringo favourite, diver’s paradises where the locals speak English. But did you know that Honduras also contains the biggest Latin American rainforest except for the Amazon? A Caribbean coast dotted with small Garifuna villages? Coastal lands so fertile and suitable for plantations that they transformed Honduras into the first ‘banana republic’? A birdwatcher’s dream of a lake that rivals Atitlán in Guatemala? And, as we’d soon find out, dazzling mountains along the Lenca Trail?

Drama queens

We entered Honduras from El Salvador. Just before crossing the border, we climbed the highest mountain of El Salvador, a hike which rewarded us with gorgeous vistas of dramatic pine-clad hills. The scenery didn’t change on the other side of the border. After rounding up customs, an old man with a ramshackle car drove us to the bus stop for a pittance, stopping to pick up more passengers along the way. By the end of the ride, I could no longer say with certainty how many bodies I was touching.

Paris Hilton and Donald Trump, eat your hearts out – the mountains of western Honduras are true drama queens. We winded through the highlands. With every turn our luxurious Chinese bus took, the setting got more and more beautiful. After every corner, a more exquisite panorama awaited, a view of steep rocky cliffs with greenery cascading into lush ravines, or one of sharp hills covered with pine trees.

The mountains of Honduras as seen from the Fort San Cristobal in Gracias, on the Lenca Trail.

Jaguars and pumas hid in the dark interiors of these cloud forests, as well as ocelots, spider monkeys and quetzals. We were in seventh heaven. Our books remained untouched during the journey and we wished we could jump off the bus for an impromptu hike. Alas, we could not. Whilst staying in the Ruta de las Flores in El Salvador, we had booked our flight home. For the first time in months, we had a deadline. And thus, our time in Honduras would be limited to a month.

Thank god for flat land

Not everyone appreciated the Honduran highlands as we did. When Spanish explorers arrived on flat land after having traversed the wilderness for weeks, they breathed a sigh of relief. “Gracias a Dios hemos llegado a tierra plana”, spoke one of them, undoubtedly after first shoving some chorizo down his throat, “Thank god we have arrived on flat land.” The weary Spaniard probably couldn’t have fathomed that his cry would name the city that he was sent to found, Gracias a Dios or, in short, Gracias. Let’s be happy he didn’t start his sentence with ‘Puta Madre’.

Gracias sign in front of Fort San Cristobal

We had discovered Gracias on the map weeks earlier and wanted to visit even before we read the description of the place, “a small, tranquil cobblestone town that’s one of the prettiest and most historic settlements in Honduras.” Its fort on the hill, its four colonial churches, its houses of famous Honduran people from history – once, a long time ago, Gracias was an important place. It was even the capital of Spanish-colonial Central America. Nowadays, Gracias is a dusty backwater, an own-brand Antigua. The old grandeur is long gone, the cobblestones cemented over to accommodate the tuk-tuks. Faded glory. Maybe our expectations were too high, after all those appealing villages in El Salvador, but we were slightly disappointed about Gracias.

Iglesia La Merced in Gracias.

Baleadas

What Gracias lacked in charm, it made up in authenticity. You’ll have to look hard to find a gringo coffee place. The pace is slow. Yes, Gracias is far, far away from San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, murder capitals of the world where middle-class children can’t go for a walk outside without running the risk of being kidnapped.

On the corner of our street, vendors grilled chicken and potatoes. A tempting smell, but we headed resolutely to the central park. We had our mind set on baleadas, Honduras’ national food. A baleada is a large flour tortilla, filled with refried beans, butter and crumbled cheese and folded in two. Just like Salvadorans are addicted to pupusas, Hondurans eat baleadas all the time. According to Wikipedia, Gordon Ramsey called baleadas the best Latin American dish. He probably didn’t have to eat it three times a day. As it’s one of the cheapest meals to be found, it nevertheless quickly became a staple in our diet.

Lord of the mountains

On the plaza stood a statue of Lempira, the Lenca chief who gave his name to Honduras’ currency and to the department in which Gracias lies. In the 1530s, he unified 200 Lenca tribes and led 30.000 soldiers in resistance to Spanish colonisation. Lempira was the ‘lord of the mountains’ and the Spaniards – well, we’ve already discovered how much they hated these highlands.

Lempira retreated onto a hill and held out for months against the Spaniards, who kept rejecting his pleas for peace. In the end, the colonising army needed a trap to capture him. They invited him for peace talks and then shot him with an arquebus. According to one legend, the Spaniards chopped off his head; another says they even ate his body. Whatever the truth is, the Lenca army subsequently surrendered.

We spent a couple of days in Gracias. We wandered aimlessly around the town, checked out the churches, drank coffee in bakeries, slouched through the dilapidated botanical gardens and watched the surroundings from the San Cristobal Fortress. Built strategically on a hill, this fort never had to repel an enemy attack but it still offers the best views over the city and the nearby emerald mountains. The biggest of them all, Cerro de las Minas, is the highest peak of Honduras. Another day, we took a tuk-tuk to the Aguas Termales Presidente, ‘presidential’ hot springs in a natural setting.

Anete in the Fort San Cristobal in Gracias.

A TV in a cave

A word about hotels in Central America. We slept in some truly hideous hovels. At best, they were damp concrete blocks with no natural light; at worst they were downright filthy and full of rowdy locals. The curtains in our shelter in La Esperanza collapsed as soon as we tried to open them, the light was turned off automatically when we switched on the ceiling fan, and we spotted some empty condom packs on an adjacent rooftop. But, without exception, even the grottiest room had a state-of-the-art flat screen television. Priorities, priorities.

We hoped La Esperanza (the hope) would be nicer than Gracias. It was. In many ways, La Esperanza is the stronghold of the Lenca world, the metropolis where the mostly rural Lenca from the surrounding countryside come to sell their produce. La Esperanza is basically one giant marketplace. There’s noise and chaos. Traditionally, Lenca women wear fluorescent headdresses which to me looked a little bit like funky kitchen towels.

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We wanted to learn more about the Lenca and had read about a small museum in the culture house. Alas, nobody there seemed to know anything about it. The people in the office recommended us to visit some villages instead. We would’ve liked to, but lacked the time.

SOS Lenca lands

A lot of mystery surrounds the Lenca and their beliefs. What we do know: they admire the sun and trust in the holiness of nature. Great ideas if you want to be admitted into a self-sustained eco-village with mud houses in New Zealand, not so much if you want to make sustenance living in Honduras. The government of Honduras regularly commissions mines and energy projects in rural areas of the country, often on the ancient Lenca lands that have sustained communities for hundreds of years. The United Nations grants indigenous people a say in the fate of their lands, but the Honduran government isn’t interested in consulting indigenous people, nor in environmental impact studies. They care more about the money the projects bring.

The Agua Zarca Dam is the most famous example of such a project. Berta Isabel Cáceres, a Lenca activist from La Esperanza feared that the four planned hydroelectric dams on the Rio Gualcarque, sponsored by the Chinese, would deny her people access to water and food and traditional forest medicine. That the dam would literally raise a barrier between them and their traditional way of life. Much in the same way as the protests against the oil pipeline through Indian lands in Dakota, Cáceres and her acolytes blocked access to the construction site. The government wasn’t happy about it and sent in the army. In 2013, soldiers shot a protester.

Hope for the Lenca

Honduras is one of the most dangerous countries to be a land defender. At least 130 activists died since 2009. A truth poor old Berta had to find out the hard way. In 2016, armed men entered her house in La Esperanza and shot her in the head. The public outcry that followed Cáceres’ death forced the government to look into the case. Even though they did try to divert the blame to one of Cáceres’ staff members. Some of the suspects were linked to the Honduran army, others to the companies building the bridge. In Honduras, a pizza is harder to order than a murder.

I pondered over that ugly truth as I climbed up the higgledy-piggledy stairs towards the grotto of the Virgin of Lourdes. Honduras might be full of crime and corruption, its people are more pious than the Pope during Easter. Admiring the landscape, I thought about the fates of Lempira and Berta Cáceres, both fighting for the lands unjustly taken away from their people. The same struggle but half a millennium apart. Let’s hope that La Esperanza isn’t just a name, not just an ironic laugh in the face of the indigenous people of these beautiful mountains. Let’s hope that Lempira and Cáceres and hundreds of anonymous but brave Lenca activists didn’t die for no reason.

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