SAN PEDRO SULA, HONDURAS — Of all the comments attributed to Yogi Berra over the years, my favorite is the one about the restaurant that was so crowded nobody went there any more. Most of us can relate because we long to be a somebody at that happening place -a place in whose discovery we share before it gets too popular and the crowds drive us away.
That's the way I have felt about Honduras since I discovered it during my travels for the National Audubon Society a number of years ago. I was searching for the next Costa Rica, which, by then, had already evolved from a backpacker's special secret into a destination that had begun to attract mainstream tourists, closely followed by hotels.
I wasn't expecting much from Honduras, given Central America's reputation as a hostile place, racked by decades of civil war - Costa Rica being the lone exception. To my surprise, Honduras is the full package. Its rain forests and coastal wetlands hold a fabulous array of birdlife: toucans, tanagers, orioles and wading birds of every size and stripe; along with the blue-crowned motmot, violaceous trogon, and resplendent quetzal - species that birders would venture far and wide to add to their life lists.
Its offshore islands are among the most beautiful I've ever seen. Its Mayan history is magnificently displayed in easily accessible ruins. Its painters and woodcarvers create works that would energize interior decorators, for prices anyone can afford.
While Honduras has not achieved the level of social enlightenment of Costa Rica, neither has it been ravaged by warring factions like most of its neighbors. From the outset, I've found one of the most attractive aspects of the country is the hospitality I've felt as I've traveled among its people.
The first person I met in Honduras was the wife of the tour operator who had arranged my trip. She had come out to the airport in the middle of the night to meet my flight, which had been delayed by snow at New York's Kennedy Airport for 11 hours. Her mother-in-law and infant son were in the car; her husband, shepherding a tour group in the interior.
After two more return trips, I wondered why people weren't rushing here. Fine, I thought, I'll just keep it to myself. The same way my in-laws, residents of Seattle, had been shushing me for years every time I exclaimed, "Hey, it doesn't rain here all the time," I found myself quietly whispering "Honduras" when people asked me to recommend a vacation destination. If they showed any hesitation at all I'd quickly add, "Well, perhaps someplace else."
Aftermath of hurricane Mitch
Last fall after hurricane Mitch, I wondered if anyone, including me, would ever see Honduras the same way again. Watching the hurricane coverage was like witnessing a rogue army sacking a city whose people had embraced me, whose landscapes and seascapes had enthralled me.
Several months later I returned to retrace itineraries from my earlier visits in the desperate hope that somehow, something had been salvaged. What I found was a landscape so rejuvenated that I marveled at how this industrious people, with the help of nature's restorative powers, along with the wonderful engineering and construction expertise of the United States military, could fashion such a rehabilitation in so short a period.
The Copn ruins, Honduras's most famous attraction, are a 2-1/2 hour drive along a modern highway from the international airport in San Pedro Sula. Copn, virtually unscathed by the storm, has been likened to Athens as a cultural center of its civilization. That description is reinforced by the breadth of what's there and the artistic detail devoted to the great pyramids and lesser temples, which are scattered about the grounds.
The "hieroglyphic staircase" mounts the entire height of one pyramid and is a marvel of intricate masks, glyphs, and other sculpture. A subterranean pyramid, viewable via tunnels, is almost perfectly preserved, including its collection of masks and hieroglyphics dating to the 6th century.
As much as I was impressed with the ancient, man-made marvels, however, I was even more moved by Copn's natural beauty, the drama of its location high above a river valley, and the light, blissful breeze. As I stood late one afternoon, in the eternal spring-like weather in this high country, I imagined the early Mayan explorers, who had first come upon this location, raising their hands up to the heavens and thanking their gods for leading them here.
Where the dolphins are
Honduras's Bay Islands are spotted along the reef that stretches the full length of the country's Caribbean coast and provides some of the world's most beautiful underwater habitat. At Anthony's Key Resort on Roatn, the resident pod of dolphins - most rescued from shows where they had outlived their usefulness as performers - are studied, monitored, and tended by members of the Institute of Marine Sciences at the resort. Among the visitors each year are marine biologists and student groups.
When I asked Elton Bolton, director of IMS, how the dolphin program here differed from those of the amusement parks that exploited these magnificent creatures, he said it was a matter of choice - the dolphins'.
They accompanied the resort's dive boats from their lagoon on the daily journey to the reef, but always chose to return to Anthony's Key. At any point they could take off, but Anthony's Key provided sustenance and TLC. "Dolphins," Bolton said with a wry smile, "have never been accused of being stupid." The return of the dolphins to Anthony's Key struck me as an appropriate metaphor for my attraction to Honduras itself.
As my taxi driver headed from downtown San Pedro Sula to the airport for my trip home, I remarked that the Burger King restaurant on one corner of a busy intersection was the sign of a changing landscape.
He answered they would soon have a TGI Friday's, as well. I better hurry back, I thought, before this place becomes so popular no one comes here anymore.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society