Lonely Planet describes Gracias as a ‘jewel’ and for once I agree. Although potentially I’m the only one that does, as I didn’t see any other Westerners during my three days in and around the hilltop town.
It’s right in the heart of a coffee region and being harvest season, it was wonderful to see coffee beans laid out everywhere to dry. Anywhere there was a concrete surface there were beans. When I Googled coffee production in Honduras I found out that it’s now Central America’s largest coffee producer and amazingly 70% of coffee farmers have less than 2 hectares of land.
It was a easy bus ride up to Gracias from Copan Ruinas – a minibus to La Entrada where the highway splits to carry on to San Pedro de Sula, infamous for being the world’s most dangerous city in 2012. The bus driver’s helper did his usual thing of shouting across the road to tell the next minibus I was joining them and off I went again, crammed in the first row with a trio of old ladies. They got properly irate when I was charged 10 lempira ($1) too much and after getting me a refund, spent the rest of the journey telling the Ayudante off for his shady tricks.
Two hours, a thick coating of dust and a gazillion hairpin bends later, we were finally in Gracias at an elevation of 2,600 ft. I immediately hiked another 6km out of town to the public hot springs. Where I’m not ashamed to confess I enjoyed a can of beer (Honduran Salva Vida of course) and a bag of sticky caramel popcorn balls while sitting in a 40 degree pool.
The next day I took a bus 16km along a dirt road to La Campa, a tiny town even further up the mountain. The road got dustier, the hairpin bends got tighter and the rocks in the road grew to the size of mini boulders, but still the bus trundled on. There’s not much to see in the village, unless you’re a fan of zip lining (which seems to be all the rage in Honduras), so after an hour or so I began my hike back to Gracias, the main purpose of getting the bus out there. With the countrys highest mountain El Cerro de las Minas nestled in a national park off to my left, a steep drop into the canyon on my right and negotiating the rocky dirt track, it was a pretty fun hike.
I got asked 6 times if I wanted a lift – once by a motorbike, once by a man in a tuktuk delivering crates of oranges (we also had a nice chat about the pleasures of hiking) and once by two guys leaning out the window of a massive lorry about 3 metres above me.
Back in town, I finally had the chance to explore the cobbled streets of Gracias itself, following a historical trail with information points thoughtfully provided in English and Spanish. It was briefly the Central America capital in the 16th century, and before that was home to Lenca chief Lempira, who helped band together local tribes to fight against the Spanish and after who the national currency is named.
The next day I was halfway back down the mountains to Santa Rosa de Copan for a brief overnight stop and my first taste of Riguas de Elote, or fried corn fritters – the first was delicious, the second made me queasy and I couldn’t finish the third one.
And then finally, after only eight days in Honduras, it was time to cross into Guatemala. Again, a really quiet border crossing awaited me at Agua Caliente, three hours from Santa Rosa. The Honduran official scanned my fingerprints, then I moved to the next window where the Guatemalan official inked an entry stamp into my passport, then I took a beat up minivan 2km to the unmanned Guatemalan customs and walked into the country. A 20 minute shared taxi ride down the hill and I was in the pilgrim town of Esquipulas where a queue of a few hundred people snaked around the gleaming white basilica, waiting patiently to see the revered Black Christ.
Next stop, Guatemala City.