November 27, 2021: San Pedro Sula
San Pedro Sula is the second-largest city and economic capital of Honduras. It used to be known as the most dangerous city in the world. While many travelers pass through the city to reach the country´s most popular destinations: Copan and the Bay Islands, few stay. For logistical reasons, I decided to spend my final day in Honduras exploring the city.
While I would have loved to spend more time in Honduras, the Presidential election was scheduled to take place tomorrow, and everyone was recommending not being in the country for it. Additionally, the only nonstop flight to New York (aka my flight) was a red eye and I did not feel comfortable taking a red eye directly to work at my new job.
I woke up in Copan, the magical city with Honduras´s best Mayan ruins. To get to San Pedro Sula, I had to catch a bus- just like the trip out. There were three buses. One at 6:00, one at 7:00 and one at 11:00 (and maybe another one at 14:00). I opted for the 7:00 one. The 11:00 one seemed like a waste of the day because you wouldn’t have enough time in either Copan or San Pedro to do anything. Babken, the Armenian man from my hostel who was actually on my flight to New York, took the 6am bus so he could take a COVID test.
I arrived at the bus stop at 6:50 and boarded with about 10 other people. Like the first bus, this one was not crowded at all. We left right on time, but 10 minutes into the ride, we stopped at a gas station and the bus driver and attendant got breakfast. This took 30 minutes- ridiculous but there wasn´t much I could do.
Eventually we kept moving and continued to pick up people. The attendant tried to entice people onto the bus with some seductive hip thrusting, which actually worked! The bus driver also had a fun playlist that was a mix of Latin hits and Western oldies such as the YMCA. The biggest surprise was the song “You´re a Woman” by Bad Boys Blue, a West German song that I seem to hear every time I am in a former Communist country. This ride took 5 hours but was far more enjoyable than the 4.5-hour outbound trip.
I reached San Pedro Sula at noon and was picked up by the driver from 2 days before. He did not speak any English but luckily, he brought his girlfriend who did. We agreed on an hourly price of 150 lempiras or $6 USD per hour.
The first thing I did was visit a mall to withdraw cash. In Latin America, malls are one of the safest places to be. Therefore, banks locate ATMs there. Withdrawing money from a street ATM or a bank branch without an armed guard is a recipe for getting mugged.
Then, I drove over to pick up Babken at the testing center. He said the test was easy.
Next, we drove to get lunch. I asked the driver for a lunch recommendation, and he took me to a fried chicken place called Pollos el Hondureño. The place was packed!! The restaurant reminded me of a large KFC. I ordered the quarter-chicken combo. It was delicious but nothing special in my opinion. I was hoping for traditional food, but it is clear that the locals eat a lot of fried chicken.
Next, we headed to the center. The main park in San Pedro Sula is called…Parque Central. Very original. Like most Spanish and Spanish colonial cities, the main square contains the cathedral and city hall. The city hall was not impressive, but the cathedral was quite nice. Despite the rain, the square was busy and full of life. Additionally, Babken and I noticed a large police presence. Perhaps they were here because of tomorrow´s election. In general, the atmosphere was calm. There were a few cars driving around with political flags but that was it. No rallies. No chanting. One party had red flags and the other had blue flags, but I otherwise knew nothing about the election.
Babken and I wandered the surrounding streets of the “historic” center. The buildings did not look particularly old, but were not maintained and therefore looked decrepit. Thick clumps of powerlines were on every street and corner. That said, all the shops were open or at least occupied. The main action was on the street where vendors set up shops selling a variety of good but mostly clothing. Some of the vendors had huge speakers so music was everywhere!
While I felt safe enough, I was on high alert. To avoid motorcycle thieves, I kept my backpack on my front. Very quickly, I heard calls of “gringo”. We definitely stuck out and were being noticed.
Eventually, we went into a mall and bought some juice. Then we saw a street market where people were getting tattoos.
Then we walked a few blocks north of the main square and found a souvenir market. I bought a mask for $12 which was a great deal considering I was asked $45 for the same exact mask in Copan.
San Pedro has an anthropology museum which probably has some spectacular Mayan artifacts but it was closed in anticipation of the election.
With nothing else to do and no desire to wander beyond the crowds and safety of the Parque Central and surroundings, we summoned the driver and has him take us to the Angeli Gardens. After passing through a security gate, we were greeted by an incredible display of greenery.
Angeli Gardens is one of those secure places where rich people to hang out. They exist in one form or another in all Latin American cities and typically include a garden and a restaurant. This compound has a brewery, restaurant, plant shop, and hiking trail. The hiking trail takes you to the top of a mountain with views of the entire city. For an unknown reason, most likely for safety, we had to take a guide on the hike, which we did not want to do. Instead, we got sour beers at the brewery and walked through the gardens. We hung out for about 90 minutes before the driver came back.
It was now 17:30 and the sun was setting. There was nowhere else to go in the city that would be safe at this hour so we got dropped off at the airport.
At the airport, we checked into our flight and hung out in the waiting area. About 2 hours before the flight, a man approached me. His name was Juan and he remembered me from my original flight from New York to Houston on Thanksgiving Day- 2 days ago. Juan is from Honduras, but now lives in New York. Juan told me I was insane for coming to Honduras.
I often get this type of response when I tell Latinos living in the US that I am visiting their country. Their advice is not incorrect, but the experience of a tourist in their country is completely different from theirs. Expats in the US go home to visit their families who live in un-touristy areas. It is in these non-touristy neighborhoods and villages where a foreigner would really stick out too much and therefore would be an obvious target for kidnapping and crime. On the other hand, tourists tend to stick closely to the Gringo Trail. I am willing to bet that most Hondurans are unaware of the Gringo Trail and that thousands of backpackers visit the country. Backpacking along the Gringo Trail is not 100% safe, but it is without a doubt the safest way to visit the region.
Juan then tried to check in for his flight but was unaware that he needed a COVID test to enter the US. The airline told him that he needed to go into the city to the lab and get a rapid test. However, Juan did not feel safe going into San Pedro Sula and did not know what to do.
Seeing this, I offered him my spare COVID rapid test, which he accepted. Babken and I aided him through the video-administered test. The test came back negative, and Juan was able to check in for the flight.
A little fun to end the trip!
We then went to the lounge and toasted to a new friendship.
As expected, San Pedro Sula is not the best tourist destination. It does not have any blockbuster attractions and what it does have is spread out. While I personally felt fine everywhere I went, crime is undoubtedly on everyone´s mine given the city´s horrible reputation. I would not recommend San Pedro Sula (or for that matter mainland Honduras outside of Copan) for the average traveler. The infrastructure is there but it takes effort (and a bit of Spanish) to feel comfortable.
That said, there is definitely enough in San Pedro Sula to occupy a day if you are passing through the region. The city center is fun and lively. Angeli Gardens is beautiful, and I am sure the hike to the hilltop is spectacular. So, if you are going to Honduras and you need to spend time in San Pedro Sula, don´t stress!
For me, visiting San Pedro Sula made my visit to Honduras more complete. Sure, visiting the pretty Copan where everything seems perfect is fun, but that is not indicative of the reality in Honduras. Most Hondurans live in places more like San Pedro Sula.
To truly be a traveler, one must see both the good and the bad. Cherry picking the prettiest towns and resorts is not seeing the world and gives people a false impression of the world. It is for this reason that I love visiting places like San Pedro Sula where the expectations are low, and I can recalibrate my sense of reality. It is also in these places where I have the chance to be surprised. That didn´t happen this time San Pedro Sula, but I still had a great day and learned a lot.