Central America #13: Tegucigalpa, Honduras – Finally.

There was some crazy part inside of me that had really been looking forward to Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital famed for its murder rates. I’d even decided to cut out scuba-diving in Belize and extended tourism in Guatemala so as to have the opportunity to see those two oft ignored brothers of Central America, Honduras and El Salvador. Perhaps I’d built it up too much and I couldn’t quite understand why I was excited to go from luscious green landscapes in the tranquillity of Nicaragua to the eyes-needed-in-the-back-of-your-head urban beast that Tegucigalpa was famed to be.

I’d soon find out.

I left Leon at about 7am and embarked on a rather long walk from the hostel to the bus terminal, via a market starting to crowd and a stall worker, who engaged me in conversation. Not for the last time in Nicaragua, I was overcharged for stuff; in this case the lady charged me an amount for a cake and then quickly corrected herself, doubling the price because apparently there were two slices of cake in the packet. I had no other option close by and didn’t want to be petty over a pittance, so just gave her the cash. Same with an apple a bit earlier. Anyway, getting to the Nicaragua-Honduras border involved taking something of a cramped bus to Chinandega, before catching another to La Frontera.

As always, I needed to ask a handful of people where the bus left from, and got various responses. Now, the trip to the border would take over an hour and I’d overdone it with coffee in the morning, so needed to find a bathroom. The terminal, if it could be called that, as it was actually buses parked in the street near the market, didn’t have one. So I asked around and ended up paying a woman a few Cordobas to use the toilet in her shop. On the way back to the bus I changed some dollars into Honduran Lempiras, and saw that they were a little tattier than Nicaraguan notes. Also, Honduras doesn’t really bother with coins, which I’d only get towards the end of my stay there in a supermarket.

The second bus deposited us at the border and into a swarm of bike-taxi drivers(admittedly smaller than that at the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border), who tugged me hither and thither with the aim of getting my custom. I knew perfectly well that the customs point was easily walkable, but such was their keenness on grabbing at me that I eventually relented and got one on of the seats of one of the guy’s pedal bikes. I wasn’t about to be bobo, so arranged the price before he set off, and he said I could give him whatever, and I lied, obviously having learned from the masters themselves, that I only had 30 lempiras, about a dollar. He clearly knew I was fibbing, but so was he when he said customs was really far away, so we mutually agreed not to question the other’s honesty. Having dropped me about 100 metres up the road where I needed to get stamped, he offered to hang about for as long as it took, but for about three or four times the price. No, Señor, I said and he went on his way.

After getting stamped out of Nicaragua, which I’d remember very fondly, my adventure in Honduras began with searing heat and walking through a massive queue of trucks, which must have had to wait for days to pass the border, such was the slowness of inspecting the vehicles. Not very conducive to import and export, methinks. I had made use of a shabby bathroom to switch my shorts for jeans so as not to stand out quite so much in a country rumoured the most dangerous in the world. I passed a couple of pleasant police officers before queuing for a while in the customs office to get my stamp and pay a 3 USD entry fee. A dodgy-looking fellow offered to do my passport stuff for me so I wouldn’t have to wait in line, but I opted not to put my ID in the hands of a man with missing teeth (never trust people with gaps in their mouths).

There were no taxi drivers hawking for business on the Honduran side, probably because the majority of tourists are afraid to set foot there, and one of the local chicken buses (converted old US school buses jazzed up) to Choluteca was sat waiting just up the road. It set off pretty much straight away and the driver certainly put his foot down and turned the reggaeton up to the max, which ensured a lively journey. My first impression of Hondurans was that they were less indigenous than Nicaraguans, and perhaps the younger males looked a little scarier.

Upon arriving in Choluteca after a couple of hours, I consulted with the bus driver and he directed me to where the buses for Tegus (Tegucigalpa) set off from. I sat on the back seat and played it cool, and the vendors who got on the bus didn’t seem to click that I was a foreigner. A young fellow getting on the bus even asked me how much and how far it was to Tegus, so I casually responded from behind my sunglasses, having just asked the driver myself. I encountered bags of water for the first time since Colombia, sold at the modest prices of about 7 US cents each.

During the ride, which lasted about three hours, I got some warm pizza on the bus, and we were entertained by a young gentleman in drag who told jokes and was rewarded with people’s spare 1-Lempira notes. One thing I would notice in Honduras was ordinary people’s willingness to give to those to less well-off than them, even if they themselves were rather poor.

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Tegucigalpa

Thankfully we had made good time and we arrived in Tegus with the sun still up, but I still had to find my way to the hostel. The bus charger recommended I get off at Centenario, whatever that is, and as I did, he gestured for a taxi driver to come over and give me a ride. As much as I generally dislike those in this profession I had no choice but to get into the white rust-bucket which had a handwritten cardboard sign saying ‘taxi’ in the front windscreen to indicate its function. The door only opened from within and the vehicle itself was pretty much gutted on the inside, in that car interior was pure metal, no plastic in sight. As always, I negotiated price at 100 Lempira (about 4 USD) before he could figure out where I was from, and asked him to take me to Palmera Hostel.

The driver, probably in his early twenties, had no idea where he was going and we went around in circles for a while, asking pretty much everyone in the street where it was. Fortunately, I’d researched the surrounding area and knew that the US and French embassies were nearby, though he didn’t really know where they were either.

However, as it happened, we got chatting about the city itself, and I confirmed what I had read on the net; that the following day there would be a semi-final in the national football stadium between the biggest two teams in Honduras. He offered to get me a ticket, but I said I’d sort it myself. I told him to give me his phone number should I require another taxi, but he had no phone, as his had been stolen a few days previous. A good omen. Suddenly, I spotted the hostel and he dropped me there at no additional price despite having taken ages to find it. All in all, the journey from Leon to Tegus had taken about 8 hours, 4 buses and a taxi and come to about 15 USD as opposed to the 55USD that shuttle buses often favoured by backpackers in a hurry cost.

If I recall correctly, the hostel cost 12USD per night. It was the only hostel in downtown Tegus, and when I arrived there were only three people in there, so that shows how touristy the place is. The owner recommended I eat baleadas, similar to tortillas but with thicker dough, and filled with refried beans, eggs, cheese, avocado and whatever meat  you want. Rather filling to be fair, and a decent price at 1.50 USD.

Afterwards, I went to see an Argentine documentary about an Argentine man making a documentary in the local Spanish Cultural Centre, before moving on to a Peruvian restaurant with two Norwegian journalists also staying at the hostel, and had some beers while they ate. A little awkward, but we had a good chat and moved on to a bar with live music, drinking beers called Salvavidas, which translates as lifeguard. They told how the centre of the city closes down at 9pm every day such is the insecurity, and they mentioned that a Lonely Planet columnist had been accosted at gunpoint, but resisted and didn’t hand over his valuables, and was lucky they didn’t shoot him for doing so.

He was probably wearing shorts and flip flops. Jeans only in Tegus!

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Tegucigalpa

In all fairness, Tegus does have an unerring feel of insecurity to it, as if anything can happen in any moment, and in terms of appearance, I’d compare it to several Colombian cities I’ve been to, such as Villavicencio and Cucuta, as the rough and ready appearance of houses and potholes in the road reminded me of these places. That aside, the Honduran capital is built on a series of slopes, so wherever you go involves steep climbs. That night I got a well-deserved rest for the day’s endeavours and slept in later than usual the following morning, until about 9am, before going to the Texaco garage and getting another baleada for breakfast.

I then googled how to get to the football stadium, checked with the hostel owner if that route was safe, which it was, and queued for about an hour to get hold of a ticket in the Sol Oeste section, not quite the ultras stand, but still for the common people, for 60 Lempiras, or about 2.50 USD. Those who acquired tickets at the front of the line proceeded to immediately come back down the queue and tout them for a small profit, for the most part ignored by the police, except a burly policewoman who didn’t take nonsense and told them to move on, as well as stopping others who had already bought tickets from getting anymore, as the maximum allocation per person was four. In order that no one cut the line, the crowd took a group decision to press against the wall to impede the queue-cutters. While waiting, several Central American national basketball teams passed by in their team transport. Strikingly, the Nicaraguan team travelled in a ramshackle chicken bus with a team placard stuck to the front. So much for being ferried around in fancy coaches.

First mission of the day complete, I returned to the hostel and joined the free tour which runs daily. I was the only one on it, which was OK, as I was able to have a good chat with the hostel guy who did it. To be honest, there’s nothing much to see in terms of architecture in Tegus, apart from a few colonial churches and the archetypal Latin American street market, where we indulged in a coffee and cake combo, not as aesthetically-pleasing as something you’d find in Costa, but definitely tastier, and tonnes cheaper.

We went to the Identity Museum, and received a guided tour of the main exhibition hall, before watching a video about the Copan ruins, entry having been about 2 USD. The exhibits were actually really interesting and had much more information that one could read in a day, ranging from political history, to Mayan civilisation, from Honduran geography to local cuisine. The guide from the hostel seemed rather surprised I took so long perusing the information, though in reality I’d read just a fraction. A few minutes after leaving the museum, he realised he’d lost his phone, so we dashed back to find that it had been handed in by someone at reception. An extremely rare occurrence in Honduras, he said.

Back at the hostel I bumped into a couple of Dutch guys and a French girl, who said they’d be interested in accompanying me to the game. Tickets weren’t hard to come by, as near the stadium they were being touted, and they only ended up paying 70 Lempira, just 10 more than me for theirs. Because of their insistence on flip flops and shorts, and one of them being blonde and the other having a Neanderthal beard, we received rather a few shouts of GRINGO from passing vehicles and stares from passers-by.

In and around the stadium the queues to get in were rather long, and the police thought it would be a clever idea to drive their car through the masses, meaning everyone either got really squashed or just displaced in the line. We were given a rigorous patting down and the French girl had her cigarettes confiscated. Once inside, and I’d never seen so much food on sale at a football game. Dozens of people had ovens and grills set up, selling chicken, sausage, tortillas, rice, basically any food you can think of.

Up in the stand, we should have got there earlier, as we ended up having to take seats near one of the aisles, meaning that the vendors incessantly crossing our paths blocked our view every thirty seconds. We bought some watered-down beer, several times, as the stadium filled up. The locals were rather excited to have some foreigners among their ranks and a weird, toothless guy (untrustworthy, remember?) proceeded to talk nonstop to the French girl, constantly tapping her on the shoulder, and she eventually had to take refuge between one of the Dutch guys and I. On the topic of locals, one guy who wanted to appear in our photos at the end of the match pleaded with us to take him to the US, despite us repeatedly telling him we weren’t from there. ‘Take me anywhere,’ he begged, and insisted that I take his phone number, which I did, but didn’t contact him. Shame, as he just appeared extremely desperate to get out of his homeland.

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National Football Stadium, Tegucigalpa

To the match itself, and it wasn’t exactly bursting with quality. The two teams were Olimpia and Motagua, the former being the most historically successful, and the latter the second-most, and as it happened we were housed with the Motagua fans in what was their home leg in a stadium used by both teams. Olimpia had all the ball in the first half and deservedly made a breakthrough on around the half-hour mark, meaning they took a 2-1 aggregate lead into half time.

Meanwhile the crowd was absolutely rocking and the singing section over to our right was bouncing all over the place with flares being set off left, right and centre as their chanting was unbroken for the duration of the game. When the interval came, they pelted the opposition players and officials with whatever they had to hand; food, bags of water, coins and whatever, and I must admit it was rather comical when a bag of water hit what looked like a club director square in the face. Indeed the Olimpia squad had to be escorted on and off the pitch under the shields of riot police, such was the amount of objects raining down from the stands.

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Riot police protecting players

Motagua came out with more intent in the second half and had a lot of possession, if not clear-cut chances. Then out of nowhere the right-back popped up with a towering back post header, which resulted in absolute mayhem in the stands. Such was the eruption in the crowd and the release of flares, it felt like the stadium was about to implode.

A matter of minutes later and the final whistle went, resulting in the Motagua players engaging in triumphant celebrations and a roar coming from the crowd. The Dutch guys and I looked at each other in confusion and wondered if in all the confusion of celebrating, we’d missed the second goal which would have clinched victory. After all, 1-1 and 1-1 makes 2-2 and it goes to extra time, right?

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Flares

Wrong. The Honduras league follows different rules. The top four at the end of a league season go into a play-off series in which 1st plays 4th and 2nd plays 3rd, the higher-placed team having home advantage in the second leg. However, if the aggregate score is tied, the team which accumulated most points in the regular season advances, and thus Motagua advanced to the final.

On the way back to the hostel, we received some attention from the locals in the vicinity of the stadium, and I advised that we keep close to the crowds on the way back so as not to become isolated and run into trouble. Taking such measures as not walking in small groups at night in Tegus is necessary, at least for the cautious types like me, who, fingers crossed, have never suffered from any violence on travels. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t go to certain places, just that some places require more precaution and common sense than others.

We made it back safely and I got another relatively early night, opting not to taste Tegus on a Saturday night. The following day I was going to go to La Tigra national park in the outskirts of the city, and had actually paid for another night at the hostel, but I reversed that decision and opted to get on my way to my next destination, which I had decided would be Copan Ruinas.

In summary, Tegucigalpa hadn’t been the war zone that the media likes to portray it as, though I can definitely understand how it could switch from apparently safe to dangerous in the blink of an eye. There is an atmosphere of tension to an extent, and I’m not sure how much I’d like to roam the streets after dark, but ultimately I’d come with the aim of seeing a big football match, which had undoubtedly been worthwhile. The people I’d met had been kind, if not more direct than in other countries, and the city had such little tourism that there doesn’t yet exist that culture of treating foreigners like outsiders, and seeing them as cash-cows. People from Tegucigalpa make the assumption that people in their country speak Spanish, and don’t bat an eyelid if they don’t speak exactly like them. It’s a spot that the average backpacker avoids, but the least you can do is go, just to get a perspective of how people live outside of the tourism bubble.

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