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Tourists Discovering the Mysteries of Honduras : Central American Country Offers an Appealing Pace and a Friendly Face


COPAN, Honduras — The bumpy road to the ancient Mayan city of Copan winds through a narrow valley high in the mountains of Honduras, and each mile of the way seemed to carry me deeper into the past. When I set out from the coast, there were tractors working fields of green corn, plump pineapples and waist-high tobacco plants. But in almost no time, I had journeyed into the unhurried land of an earlier day, where herdsmen still tend cattle on horseback, farmers haul produce to market by donkey or ox-drawn cart, and the women gather by the stream to wash the family clothing.

An impoverished nation, lightly populated and with a heritage of political turmoil, Honduras is also breathtakingly beautiful, enormously fascinating, appealingly friendly and inexpensive. Right now, almost nobody except the 5 million Hondurenos themselves knows this, but adventurous travelers are beginning to uncover the secret. Ever so slowly, the country is opening its doors to tourism, pursuing the economic benefits much as its Central American neighbors, Costa Rica and Guatemala, have done. Now, however, you pretty much have it to yourself.

On a visit last month, I spent a couple of days strolling the steep, cobblestone streets of Tegucigalpa, the political and cultural capital, simply to take in the colorful sights. A big, sleepy village squeezed into a green mountain valley in the central highlands, Tegucigalpa has been left mostly unscarred by earthquakes that have toppled other capitals of the old Spanish Empire, and it retains a strong flavor of the Spanish Colonial era. Seemingly every home is roofed with arched red tiles, and women go from door to door carrying big baskets atop their heads full of bananas, melons and fresh vegetables for sale.

From the capital, I signed up for an overnight excursion to the ruins of Copan, near the country's remote western border with Guatemala. Majestic in scope, Copan is considered one of the most artistically advanced of the Mayan cities that flourished in Central America and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula from the 4th to the 10th Century. In the quiet of a cool early morning, my companions and I had the tree-shaded grounds of the national archeological park entirely to ourselves--expect maybe for the ghosts of the ancient Mayans who, it is easy to imagine, still haunt their soaring stone temples, great plazas and ceremonial ball court.

And one morning, my wife and I splurged on beautiful Honduran crafts in the two barnlike pavilions of the National Assn. of Artisans, a cooperative store in the pretty mountain village of Valle de Angeles, about 25 miles northeast of Tegucigalpa. The cooperative displays the brightly painted pottery, fine leatherwork, boldly colored baskets, intricate wood carvings, ornate wooden chests and other crafts of 200 artisans from throughout the country. We left with an armload, but prices were so modest--$6 for a large red-and-gold basket suitable as a wall hanging--we barely made a dent in our budget.

Traveling in a Third World nation is not always comfortable, but it often can be very interesting, and I was simultaneously appalled and delighted by glimpses of everyday Honduran life in the city and the countryside. Honduras ranks with Haiti and Bolivia as one of the poorest nations of this hemisphere, and on the road to Copan I saw many people living in the humblest of mud wattle huts, topped with thatch and sometimes having only a curtain for a door. My sadness at the sight was partly ameliorated, however, by an amusing and apparently common practice: To wash their pickup trucks, the more prosperous villagers simply drive them into the middle of the nearest fast-flowing stream.

The Honduran island of Roatan, just off the country's northern coast in the Caribbean Sea, is becoming popular as an inexpensive beach and diving destination, and when I first consulted a travel agent about my trip, he assumed that's where I was headed. "No," I told him, "I want to fly to Tegucigalpa and go into the Honduran countryside."

"Why?" he asked. "There's nothing there." In a way, he was right, but he was also very, very wrong.

The second-largest of the Central American countries, Honduras has had a turbulent history, being subjected over the years to frequent military coups, sometimes repressive governments and major foreign interference in its internal affairs. American investors in the early years of this century cultivated vast banana plantations in the northern coastal lowlands, transforming Honduras into the proverbial banana republic where the big companies often wielded more influence than the nation's leaders. And in the turmoil of war that plagued much of Central America in the 1980s, Honduras was the base for the U.S.-sponsored Contra War against the rev olutionary Sandinista government of Nicaragua.

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