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Tourist Profile: Honduras

Honduras was the original "Banana Republic", a byword for corruption and poverty and is still one of the least developed and industrialised countries in Central America. It is bounded on the north and east by the Caribbean Sea, on the south by Nicaragua, on the south-west by the Pacific Ocean and El Salvador, and on the west by Guatemala. Honduras is the second-largest country in Central America after Nicaragua. The capital and largest city is Tegucigalpa. After Nicaragua, this is Latin America's poorest nation: some 80% of Hondurans live in poverty and 40% are unable to read or write. Much of the rapidly growing population (now approaching 7 million) is absorbed by the ever-increasing shantytowns ringing the main cities. In the cities the pressures are most evident: life is fast and harsh, but if you go into the rural areas, the open generosity and genuine friendliness, displayed by those who have little else, are what leave an enduring impression. On the north coast, where the population is more ethnically diverse, the heat and sunshine combine to create a way of life that's more Caribbean than Latin.

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  • Where to go
  • When to go
  • Money & Costs
  • History
  • Culture

Honduras is all too often overlooked by foreign tourists. The slow pace of life, natural beauty and low-profile tourism make it particularly appealing to travellers (well-armed with insect repellent!) who enjoy getting off the beaten track. While eco-tourism is a relatively new concept in western society more and more Hondurans are becoming aware of the role the country's extensive network of national parks and reserves plays in protecting irreplaceable natural resources. Almost a quarter of Honduran territory is protected, but a lack of funding and growing pressure on the land mean this status often exists more on paper than in reality. Nonetheless, the remoter reaches of the parks still host an astonishing array of flora and fauna, amid some of the finest stretches of virgin cloudforest and tropical forest in Central America. Visit the capital Tegucigalpa, where a short stay is brightened up by the generally relaxed ambience and the presence of facilities and services you won't find elsewhere. Though small, the city has a reasonable range of places to eat, drink and have fun.

A couple of hours on the bus from Tegucigalpa brings you to the peaceful mountain towns of Santa Lucía and Valle de Ángeles, with hiking close by in the cloudforest of La Tigra. Further away is the little-visited getaway of Isla El Tigre, becalmed in the warm waters of the Golfo de Fonseca and perfect for a few days spent doing nothing much at all. Some even miss that and head straight for the western highlands and the Maya ruins of Copán. Though it's a long trip from the capital, there are some worthwhile places to break the journey, e.g. Comayagua, a couple of hours from Tegucigalpa, the former colonial capital, which has a wealth of historic churches and a couple of good museums. The equally charming colonial city of Santa Rosa de Copán also makes a logical destination on the way to or from Copán. Beyond the prime tourist sites, however, is a land of inspiring, often untouched natural beauty. In the east of the country, in the thinly populated region Olancho you can find the rarely visited national parks of La Muralla and Sierra de Agalta. Sierra de Agalta contains the most extensive stretch of virgin cloudforest remaining in Central America.

Heading towards the Caribbean you're almost certain to pass through Honduras's energetic second city, San Pedro Sula, the commercial centre of the country and a useful transport hub. Just an hour or so south of town is one of Central America's premier spots, the placid, blue, fresh waters of Lago de Yojoa. Buses go from San Pedro to the north coast, with its beautiful white beaches, clear warm waters and endless sun. Tela, La Ceiba and Trujillo are all lively towns with a thriving nightlife, while the fishing village of Omoa moves at a quieter pace. For a glimpse of a different way of life, pay a visit to the friendly Garífuna villages along the coast. Also easy reachable is the coastal wetland reserve of Punta Sal, near Tela, with a multiplicity of bird and marine life amid mangrove swamps and marshes. To get into the heart of Pico Bonito, a mountainous reserve near La Ceiba, is more difficult but the effort is spectacularly rewarded. One of Honduras's most beautiful natural resources is the biosphere reserve of the Río Plátano in Mosquitia.

The largely uninhabited region surrounds one of the finest remainings of the virgin tropical rainforest in Central America, but a trip here really does get you off the beaten track. Finally, most tourists rush to the palm-fringed beaches and clear Caribbean waters of the Bay Islands which are the ultimate base for a beach holiday, with world-class snorkelling and diving, and an extravagantly rich cultural mix. The country was devastated by one of the strongest hurricanes of the 20th century - Hurricane Mitch in October 1998. Thanks to international relief efforts, much of the infrastructure has now been repaired and tourism has returned to pre-Mitch levels. Violent crime escalated in 1999 and 2000 in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, particularly in the cities of San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa. Throughout Honduras, street crime is the principal concern.

As in much of Central America, the climate in Honduras is dictated more by altitude than by season. The climate is tropical but is tempered by the higher elevations of the interior. The mean annual temperature in Honduras is a nice 25°C (70°F).The dry season prevails from November to May. Honduras's rainy season, known as "winter" (invierno), runs from May to November, though how much it will affect your trip depends on where you're travelling. October and November are perhaps the only months you might want to avoid these parts: this is hurricane season, when heavy rains can cause serious flooding, washing away roads and cutting off all transport. (Hurricane Mitch).

Currency: Lempira

  • Budget: US$2-5
  • Mid-range: US$5-10
  • Top-end: US$10 and upwards
  • Budget: US$5-15
  • Mid-range: US$15-30
  • Top-end: US$30+

Honduras is an extremely inexpensive destination. For US$15 a day or less, budget travelers will be able to eat three meals and sleep in a relatively clean room. High rollers in the big city can still squeak by on US$50 a day, and that includes a several-course meal or two. Most businesses deal exclusively in lempiras, and the US dollar is the only currency that's easily exchanged; away from the borders it's even difficult to change Guatemalan, Salvadoran or Nicaraguan notes. Lloyd's Bank in Tegucigalpa will change Canadian, British and German currency. Black-market exchange rates are usually comparable to bank rates. Most Hondurans do not tip. In places where tourism has left its mark, tipping is more common, usually anything from a little loose change up to 10% of the bill. Bargaining is not as common in Honduras as in other Latin American countries, but at outdoor markets you might be able to save a lempira or two.

There is evidence of Maya settlement since at least 1000 BC at Copán in western Honduras, but like other Maya city-states this was abandoned mysteriously around 900 AD. Columbus set foot on the American mainland for the first time at Trujillo in northern Honduras in 1502 and named the country after the deep water off the Caribbean coast ('Honduras' means depths). The Spanish settled in Trujillo in 1525, but soon became interested in colonizing the cooler highlands. They established a capital at Comayagua in central Honduras in 1537, and this remained the political and religious center of the country for 350 years, until Tegucigalpa became the capital in 1880. The Indians resisted Spanish colonialism, and, by some accounts, almost managed to drive the colonizers from the mainland. The chief of the Lenca tribe, Lempira, led 30,000 Indians against the Spanish, but was treacherously murdered at peace talks in 1538, and by the following year resistance was crushed. Gold and silver were discovered near Tegucigalpa in 1570, attracting British and Dutch pirates to the Trujillo area.

Around 1600, the Spanish estimated that Roatán was home to 5000 British buccaneers. Trujillo was sacked in 1643 by Dutch pirates and was not resettled by the Spanish until 1787. While Spain concentrated its energies on the interior, the British were attracted to the Caribbean coast by stands of mahogany and brought black settlers from Jamaica and other West Indian islands to harvest the timber. Following an appeal by chiefs of the Miskito Indians, a British protectorate was declared over the entire coastal region extending from Honduras into Nicaragua. This lasted until 1859, when the area was relinquished to Honduras. Independence from Spain was granted in 1821. Honduras briefly became part of independent Mexico, but then joined the Central American Federation. Conflicts between conservatives and liberals led to a break from the union, and Honduras declared independence as a separate nation in 1838. Since then, power has alternated between two political factions and a succession of military regimes. There have been hundreds of coups, rebellions, electoral 'irregularities' and Machiavellian manipulations since independence. The most infamous was the incursion by North American filibuster William Walker in 1860, whose ill-fated attempt to take over Central America ended with defeat in Trujillo.

Where William Walker failed to gain control of Honduras for the USA, US fruit companies succeeded. Around the end of the 19th century, land on Honduras' fertile north coast was purchased by US companies on generous terms, in order to ship bananas to the southern USA. Three US companies (Standard Fruit, Cuyamel Fruit and United Fruit) eventually owned 75% of all Honduran banana groves. Bananas accounted for 66% of all Honduran exports in 1913, making the companies extremely powerful players in Honduran politics. Each company allied themselves with domestic political factions, and the rivalries between the three US fruit companies shaped Honduran politics in the first half of the 20th century. In 1969, Honduras and El Salvador had a brief war known as the Soccer War, which resulted in El Salvadoran troops invading Honduran territory and bombing Honduran airports. The war, which took place during a World Cup qualifying soccer match between the two countries, was sparked by the alleged mistreatment of El Salvadoran immigrants in Honduras. It lasted only 100 hours but soured relations between the two neighbours for over a decade.

During the 1980s, Honduras was surrounded by the turmoil in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala and became a haven for Somoza's National Guardsmen (known as Contras) when Sandinistas overthrew the Nicaraguan dictator. Strong US influence, aid and military assistance maintained stability in Honduras throughout this period, as the country became the focus of US policy and strategic operations in the region. Huge sums of money and thousands of US troops were funnelled into the country as the US conducted provocative operations to destabilize Nicaragua, using Nicaraguan refugee camps in Honduras as bases for their covert war. The US was also training the Salvadoran military at Salvadoran refugee camps inside Honduras. Public outcry, political instability, the exposé of the Iran-Contra scandal and the knowledge that 12,000 Contras were operating from Honduras, resulted in anti-American demonstrations that drew crowds of 60,000 people in Tegucigalpa.

The government finally reexamined its role as a US military base, refused to sign a new military agreement with the US and told the Contras to leave Honduras. With the election of Chamorra as president of Nicaragua in 1990, the Contra War ended and the Contras left Honduras. Since then, Honduras' problems have been largely economic, with falling exports, a growing foreign debt and a shrinking GNP per capita. Aid from the US has shrunk since Honduras is no longer the linchpin of US Central American policy. Trade with Europe is now twice that of trade with the US, but Honduras is still vulnerable to volatile price fluctuations of banana and coffee prices. The center-right Liberal Party is headed by President Carlos Flores Facussé who was elected in November 1997. Flores has strong ties to the US and is co-owner of the newspaper La Tribuna. In November 1998, international aid and relief workers poured into Central America to help with the recovery from the devastation left by Hurricane Mitch. Honduras was the hardest hit by Mitch's rampage. The three days of rain that followed Mitch caused landslides and floods that buried towns and destroyed over 100 bridges throughout the country. When the Río Choluteca flooded, it devastated Tegucigalpa, the capital, sweeping things downriver and leaving behind an ocean of mud. By 2000, much of Mitch's mess was cleaned up, but the environmental practices that exacerbated the flooding, such as clear cutting, monoculture farming and rapid urban expansion, continue.

Spanish is the principal language and is spoken throughout the country, although English (spoken with a broad Caribbean accent) is the language of choice in the Bay Islands. The remaining Indian tribes have their own distinct languages. Roman Catholicism is the predominant religion, but there are also many other Christian sects and denominations, including Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Baptists, Pentecostals, Assemblies of God, Evangelicals and so on. The indigenous tribes have their own religions, often existing alongside Christianity and incorporating elements of African and Indian animism and ancestor worship.

Honduran crafts include wood carving (notably wooden instruments), basketry, embroidery and textile arts, leathercraft and ceramics. The country's cuisine is based around beans, rice, tortillas, fried bananas, meat, potatoes, cream and cheese.