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Travel Story

Honduras to Nicaragua by bus: a slice of life and history in a ‘Banana Republic’

Travels in Central America, Part 5

The sleek, comfortably appointed, Galaxy II seems strangely out of character with the ramshackle town of Coxen Hole, where we boarded her for our voyage from Roatan Island back to the mainland of Honduras. The two hour sailing to La Ceiba was the first leg of our 600 km trip from the Caribbean coast of Honduras, across the Interior Highlands, and down to the ancient city of Granada on the Pacific Lowlands of Nicaragua.

Travelling on local busses, stopping at local markets, talking to the friendly people who shared portions of our trip, it gave us a glimpse of the physical and cultural landscape. But more importantly it put a human face on the turbulent history of these two tragically poor countries. From the injustices of Spanish Colonialism to the insanity of the Contra/Sandinista conflict, both countries have been victims of foreign intervention and the corruption of their own leaders, and both continue to struggle with poverty and injustice that still afflict so many of their people.

At La Ceiba we boarded an express bus destined for Tegucigalpa, the capital city of Honduras. At the beginning of our trip the Coastal lowlands resemble one vast banana plantation. In fact bananas, along with coffee, form the basis of Honduras’ fragile economy and whenever world prices on these two exports drop the loss in revenue filters down to farm workers who, even in the best of times, are among the lowest paid in the Western Hemisphere.

From the fertile plains of the Caribbean lowlands our bus wound its way into the interior highlands where the forest-covered mountains rise to more than 2,500 metres. Occasional small fields have been hacked out of the steep slopes to form subsistence, slash and burn, farms. Scattered towns, and villages, as well as larger farms and cattle ranches, occupy flat-bottomed valleys surrounded by steep, densely forested mountains.

The capital city of Tegucigalpa (known affectionately as Tegus) is nestled in a valley of the central highlands. At an elevation of about 1,000 metres it has a pleasant, moderate climate – a welcome relief from the heat and humidity of the lowlands.

As soon as we arrived at the bus depot a crowd of hyperactive taxi drivers started competing for our business. The successful bidder gave Betty and me one of the wildest white-knuckle rides I have ever experienced – through red lights, a screeching U-turn on a narrow street blocked by vegetable carts, short cuts the wrong way down one-way streets, playing chicken with other horn-blaring cabs, and finally, as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened, pulling up in front of our hotel, where we drew a stuffy, windowless room.

Tegus and its sister city Comayaguela have merged into a single metropolis of 1.5 million people, many of them without adequate housing, water, or other services. With only a few hours to stroll through the market and nearby streets we saw very little of Tegucipalpa – just enough to get hopelessly lost in its narrow, winding streets. Although the city has a long colonial history the steep topography precluded any attempt at the traditional Spanish layout. Instead of rectangular streets around a central square the houses are tucked into hillsides and accessed through a labyrinth of lanes and walkways.

But several parks, scattered through the metropolitan area, provide green space where locals can escape the urban bustle. One of these, the Parque de Las Nacionas Unidas, is located on top of El Picacho, a 1,270 metre hill on the north side of the city. In 1997 a massive statue of Christ was built on its very top. With arms outstretched in a symbolic gesture of benediction the Christo del Picacho shares its lofty vantage point with a huge masonry rendering of Coca Cola.

It doesn't take long for travellers in Latin America to discount the myth of a laid-back, do-it-manana culture. Things get going early and its first come first served. We were up at 4:30, queued up for the seven o'clock bus by five, and barely awake by the time we got to Las Manos at the Nicaraguan border and joined the queue waiting to clear immigration. The wait was tedious but the formalities were friendly and efficient – only a stamp on the passport and an invitation to enjoy our visit to Nicaragua.

How different it must have been less than 20 years ago when this very border was a front in the Cold War – a "line in the sand" between the conflicting ideologies of socialism and the paranoia of anti-communism.

In July 1979, after 45 years of corruption and brutality, the Samoza dictatorship of Nicaragua was finally overthrown and replaced by a revolutionary Sandinista government. The new regime set about making social changes in education, health care, and land tenure. But disenchanted members of Somoza’s notorious National Guard slipped across the border into Honduras and re-grouped to form the Contra counterrevolutionary army.

Following his inauguration in 1981 Ronald Reagan labelled the Sandinista government "a communist reign of terror" and provided massive military support to the Contra "freedom fighters". On the pretext that "all of Central America may fall to communism" if the Sandinistas are not stopped the Reagan administration continued to secretly fund the Contras without the approval of Congress. At one point an estimated 12,000 Contras were operating, with American aid, from bases in Honduras. Fuelled by this Cold War, anti-communist, crusade the fighting dragged on until 1987 when a peace plan proposed by the Costa Rican president succeeded, bringing the conflict to an end and earning Oscar Arias Sanchez the Nobel Peace Prize.

After leaving the border we changed busses five times before rolling into Granada and checking in at the Hospidaje Cocibolca. Our comfortable room, facing a cool inner courtyard was a welcome change from the box-like accommodation of the previous night and after a short rest we set out to explore the town.

Founded in 1524 by the Spanish conquistador Hernandez de Cordoba, Granada is the oldest colonized city in Central America. Its charming colonial buildings are well preserved and set among beautifully landscaped plazas. Its location, on the shores of Lake Nicaragua in the shadow of towering Vulcan Mombacho, is truly dramatic. Before returning to our hotel we stopped at the Parque Colon in front of the Cathedral, paused to watch a group of buskers juggling flaming torches, and then joined the hundreds of Sunday strollers who, like us, were there to enjoy the cool evening.

Don Carlos, the thoroughly charming owner of Hospidaje Cocibolca, is a friend of Martin’s and a man who enjoys getting away from the office. He offers to take us on a tour of the sights in his private mini-van and we jump at the chance. First to Masaya Volcano National Park and the rim of Santiago Crater. The view across Granada and Lake Nicaragua to Concepcion Volcano is spectacular. Santiago is still active and the vertical walls of the crater are shrouded in wisps of sulphurous vapour that sting the eyes and throat. No wonder the early Spanish clergy thought this was the entry to Hell.

After touring the markets we made a sobering stop at the Fort of Coyotepe. Originally built to protect Granada from raiding pirates, the fort was converted to a prison by Somoza who used it to hold political prisoners until the Sandinistas stormed it in 1979. While the battle raged Somoza ordered all 1,300 prisoners killed. We followed the flashlight of our guide down into the cell blocks – no electricity, no running water and only a wisp of light through barred slots high up on one wall. Prisoners were allowed out briefly once a month. Some spent 10 years here – many others died of malnutrition, disease, or torture.

Today the Boy Scouts of Nicaragua manage and maintain the fort as a monument to one of the darkest chapters in the history of Central America – a memorial to the uncounted Nicaraguans who "disappeared" during the Somoza reign of terror. It was a relief to emerge from the dark catacombs of this grisly place, but as we walked back out into the sunlight I couldn't help thinking of the hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of ordinary people who entered it and were never allowed to walk out. No one really knows how many there were.

As we pile back into the van Don Carlos assures us the next stop will be more up-beat. He drives down a narrow winding road to the Apoyo crater lake, a perfectly circular body of clear blue water surrounded by steep cliffs covered with tropical forest. The water is surprisingly warm and after a long swim we sit on the beach and let the sun dry our bodies. Don Carlos buys me a beer and we drink a toast to Nicaragua. He is optimistic – things are getting better he says – salud!