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Travelling the Lenca Trail

Speak to anyone who has visited Honduras and they will undoubtedly talk of the idyllic Bay Islands lifestyle, or the famous ruins near Copán. I agree that, in terms of tourism, they are indeed the undisputed heavyweight champions, yet there is much more to this diverse Central American nation than sun, sea, and statues.

After a month of exploration in El Salvador, we began to hanker for the relative creature comforts afforded by the Central American Gringo Trail. From the Salvadoran border town of Perquín, we planned to cross into Honduras and head directly to Copán – a distance totaling 160 miles. We would pass through Marcala, Gracias, Santa Rosa de Copán, and La Entrada en route, and arrive at the final destination the following morning – in time for a generous portion of yoghurt and granola, a breakfast option solely available in tourist hotspots.

Our prediction of a one day journey proved to be considerably optimistic. We had chosen the most direct route, but certainly not the quickest. Distracted by Bahia beer and a plate of pupusas (corn tortillas stuffed with beans and cheese), our research was substandard. Sometimes a dog-eared map fails to tell the traveller all they need to know, regardless of how many greasy fingerprints and bean deposits it has on it. This we found out to our cost. Roads were bad and, initially, transport ranged from infrequent to ‘You want to go where?’

Perquín to Marcala. The single artery connecting these two outposts was particularly unforgiving. The ascent into the mountains proved relentless. With a path only just wider than the bus, the numerous switchbacks and sheer drop-offs were a constant concern. The winding, unsealed trail became a showcase for the driver’s proficiency. On occasion we encountered stretches of road partially buried by previous landslides, thus forcing our vehicle to lurch perilously close the outer edge of the trail. Other times the bus would do the opposite, and hug the hillside, where the periphery of the track had simply disintegrated and been consumed effortlessly by the valley below.

Despite their potential gravity, the moments that engendered such disquiet quickly passed, becoming insignificant as we traversed further along the rugged highlands of Southern Honduras. The following morning we would take to the Lenca Trail.

Marcala to San Juan. Unofficially named after the indigenous Mayan group that populates the area, the ‘Ruta Lenca’ runs from Marcala to SantaRosa De Copán. With its accessibility and remote feel, this 90 mile journey provides a rewarding experience for visitors short on time, and an inexpensive – yet first class – adventure for energetic shoestringers.
The trail onward from Marcala continued in much the same vein as its inroad. The winding tracks remained a harsh mix of loose gravel and potholes but, through sporadic breaks in the pine forest, we still had the vistas across the verdant hills, mountains and deep valleys.

Throughout the journey we passed several small clusters of dwellings. Houses within each community were virtually identical. Windows were frameless, rectangular openings in the mud block work, and the sagging, clay tiled roofs threatened collapse as our bus rumbled by. Despite the individual structures being makeshift and almost temporary in appearance, their location and well established surroundings betrayed their true age. Each dwelling possessed a plot of land home to banana palms and small vegetable plots and, between the houses, pigs and chickens roamed free.
Along the way the bus would brake and pick up more passengers, some from the small hillside settlements, and others from the roadside – folk would emerge at the last moment, seemingly from nowhere. As each person boarded, I wondered why they were undertaking their journey that day, perhaps to visit friends of family, or to collect the few necessary supplies that their virtually self sufficient lifestyle couldn’t foster. As the new passengers made their way along the bus they exchanged handshakes and friendly nods with those already seated. This practice reoccurred with each new pick up.

A combination of previous recommend and rough morning’s ride determined the next stop. We decided to grab a bed for the night in San Juan, a small pueblo located approximately one third of the way along the Lenca Trail. The driver hit the brakes and hollered “Sawaaaan!Sawa-Sawa-Sawa-Sawan-Sawaaaan!” like a burst from some crazy, comedy machine gun. It sounded vaguely like San Juan so we hastily grabbed our packs and hopped clear of the bus. Chicken bus passengers have to be swift creatures; the drivers are not well known for dawdling at stops. For the average Centro Americano bus driver, bringing his machine to a complete halt would be like checking the road before overtaking – unheard of. Alighting from such buses can be an art. A top tip for potential Central American Shoestringers: Don’t spend time polishing your Spanish, instead learn how to roll like a Royal Marine Commando. You will go far. Literally.
Standing on the roadside, with face screwed up and back turned away from the accelerating bus, we waited for the mass of thick, black exhaust fumes and swirling dust to subside. We then, as has almost become a ritual, bought fizzy drinks and found a shaded curb on which to perch and take stock.

Sitting outside one of the nearby comedors (small Central American eateries), I studied the dusty, litter strewn interchange. Along the roadside groups would huddle in the limited shade afforded by a string of dilapidated shacks. Some folk watched the black, scavenging vultures probing discarded Styrofoam cartons for ersatz carrion, others simply studied the pair of long haired, Pepsi slurping gringos.

There seemed little more here than dust, dirt and despair. Was this really San Juan? We felt we should board the next bus and journey further while the sun was still reasonably high.  But we didn’t. I considered the previous recommendation and heeded the large notice that greeted the visitor upon arrival: “Don’t just pass through San Juan. Visit the Tourism Center! – We have enchanted waterfalls, caves, coffee plantations, hiking, pony trekking, swimming, and much more”. Surely they were signs. The second one definitely was a sign.

Despite the elevation, high temperature still prevailed – albeit void of the usual oppressive humidity. The packs felt heavy in the fierce afternoon sun but the plod into town was mercifully brief. In such a small town, and with such friendly people to aid us, we located the Tourist Center effortlessly. Definitely on a roll here, I thought – not only did the office exist, it was also open. Result.

With no hostels, guesthouses, or hotels as such, we were fixed up with a home stay. Gladys, the lady who ran the tourism cooperative, encouraged us lodge with her mother and father. Provided with this uncommon opportunity to stay with a family, we didn’t need much encouragement to accept the kind offer. We were made to feel thoroughly welcome, as if we were extended family.

That evening, her mother proudly demonstrated how she roasted her own coffee; just one of many necessary skills to have when living deep in coffee country. In the markets, the consumer is faced with 3 fundamental options when purchasing these wonderful beans. They can plump for roasted, ground coffee, or roasted, ground coffee mixed with finely ground maize, or the raw, dried, olive coloured beans. Our host would obtain the latter, roasting them to her taste upon a steel sheet above an open fire. After several coffees we thanked her and wished her goodnight, for we had an early start the following morning.

The next day our guide, arranged the previous afternoon, led us to a set of waterfalls in the hills, about 2 hours from town. The pony trek up to them was tremendous; nevertheless, being the first time I had ever ridden a horse, it wasn’t without its moments. My stumpy steed, Fernando, appeared less enthusiastic about visiting the waterfalls than I. Despite his antics, we soon reached a mutual understanding – I would hang on for dear life and Fernando would stop as and when he pleased to chomp on the clusters of green bananas that littered the trail. With that one thrashed out, the remainder of the trip passed without dispute. From within the dense pine forest I could hear the distant thunder of the falls. We were almost there. Having tethered our mounts, we continued on foot to the base of the falls. I recall the walk being one of the most enjoyable I have ever undertaken, not because of the scenery, but because it gave my once peachy, now tenderized butt some respite. In true testament to the Tourism Sign at the San Juan interchange, the falls were indeed enchanting, although we did not catch sight of the pixies that were said to live there. I refrained from asking for a refund upon our return, not because it would have been small-minded or petty to display such remonstrance, but simply because my poor Spanish didn’t allow for it.

We decided that we would leave the following morning. This small, friendly town deserved more of our time but the purse strings now dictated our rate of travel. Our modest cache of money was beginning to dwindle. With no clear or simple means of obtaining funds between Perquín and Santa Rosa de Copán, we had to move while we could still afford to. I must clarify that the cost of accommodation, food, transport, and activities along this route were by no means expensive, quite the opposite in fact, but we had just grossly underestimated the time it would take to reach Copán. Our initial combined funds at Perquín came to the grand total of $120 US. A sum more than adequate to cover one day’s traveling and living expenses for two people, but arguably insufficient for a 6 day escapade. We had no choice but to leave San Juan.

San Juan to Santa Rosa.  We packed up and headed further west. Having to omit the planned stop in Gracias, we would now pass straight through and head to Santa Rosa. It was with genuine sadness that we said our goodbyes, hugged our host, and boarded the bus. In addition to the premature, reluctant departure, we also knew that this was our final bus trip; it spelt out the end of an unexpected yet magical week along the trail.

From the outskirts of San Juan we began the slow, gradual descent from the temperate highlands toward Gracias. The road connecting the 2 towns was undergoing considerable change. Vast mounds of excavated earth now dominated nearby open spaces, and the crater-like potholes were now but a distant memory. The switchbacks became less frequent, the road leveled, and before long we were racing along a smooth, dark, paved highway. For the past few days I had longed for such comfort, fantasized almost, but now, as we traversed this road, I would have done anything to trade this new found comfort for the raw, rugged beauty that had previously graced the route. A part of me, the part than runs deeper than the nerve endings upon my peachy (although still rather tender) butt, hoped that this ‘progress’ would either slow or, with good fortune, stop. Why change something so perfect? I thought. The clearing, the paving, and the large scale excavations – this devouring entity – continued its slow creep toward the highlands.

We soon arrived in Gracias. Perched once more on the curb, clutching another bottle of fizzy pop, I gave thought to the most recent week of my life, and the kindness displayed by everyone we met. I thought of Gladys, her mother, the audacious bus drivers whom delivered us here, our waterfall guide, the roasted coffee and, of course, Fernando and his green bananas. I thought of the other passengers on our bus rides, the tentative moments, the small settlements, and the changes on the horizon. I wondered how long the highway project would take to complete, and what differences it would make to the villages and people of the Ruta Lenca.
To our knowledge, we were the only visitors to the trail that week. And, although I am slightly ashamed to admit it, the feeling of exclusivity nurtured a sense of smug satisfaction. We were intrepid explorers, pushing the boundaries and discovering new frontiers. Of course, this was complete balderdash. Information about this area can be found in every tourist pamphlet that litters every Honduran guesthouse coffee table – although they only appear as relative footnotes beside the real heavyweight attractions. Yes, we had chanced on something very special, albeit unwittingly. An experience purely occasioned by our lack of forward planning and desire to cut corners.

Nevertheless, I felt privileged to have made this journey, to have traveled the Lenca Trail.

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