La Ceiba, Honduras
Sometime, shortly after the sports whistling weirdo had decided it was game over, my Casio FW-91 wristwatch alarm rang and we got up to catch the 6:00am bus to Tegucigalpa. Our journey to one of the worlds most murderous cities didn’t start well; the bus company issue this ‘package’ of sorts which includes random stuff like a cab voucher and breakfast, which had been delivered to the hostel prior to my Casio waking us up.
The problem was, when we tried to redeem the voucher, both the cab driver and the hostel owner said it couldn’t be used, or had to redeemed through some other process or something.. it was 5am and for some reason all Spanish I’d learned over the past few months had vanished. We paid for the taxi and it dropped us off by the side of the road, at some abandoned building full of mosquitoes. We had plenty of time and he told us to wait here for the bus that would blast through around 6am. Just after 6 we saw the bus approach along the highway and pull over some 500m down the road. It was collecting passengers. A passing taxi driver screeched up beside us and said in Spanish ‘thats your bus, quick, lets go now, I’ll take you..’. We declined. He screeched off. Rebecca got the tickets out, showed a bit of leg and starting waving both furiously as the bus approached. At the last minute it veered into our abandoned restaurant and we were ushered inside hurriedly and passed the scowling face of the driver. ‘Not our fault mate’ I thought..
So anyway, that was fine. We were seated, comfortable and filling out immigration forms. The Honduran border was just a short hour away. We all had concerns about the place of course. You should too.. stop reading this for a sec and Google ‘most dangerous cities in the world’. San Pedro Sula is likely to be atop most of the lists. Tegucigalpa or Central District is likely in there too. How this is generally measured is by homicide rates per 100,000 people. Victoria’s homicide rate is at about 1.4 per 100,000 people per year. Honduras is up around 82.1. San Pedro Sula the city, is way up there at something ridiculous like 159.
Now homicide is as bad as it gets right? But it’s generally not something that includes a high number of tourists. The reason for this is that most if not just about all of violence is gang-centric. The high level of police corruption means that there’s little to no law enforcement and often some degree of collusion in gang related activities, which primarily involve the drug trade from Colombia. Where tourists get caught up in this, is when they purchase drugs and spend boozy nights out in dangerous places at ridiculous hours. Since we weren’t planning any of this sort of frivolity, we only had the high degree of opportunistic tourist crime to concern ourselves with.. i.e the bad snatching, pickpocketing, mugging sort of stuff.
Our plan for Tegucigalpa was to blast in, get off the bus and into the arms of an awaiting cab driver for the short stint across town to a connecting bus station. Though it was difficult to be concerned at all about the security issue when the view outside the window is just so beautiful. Honduran mountains are a rich, fertile green reminiscent of the landscapes we’d seen in places like Salento, Colombia. The roads were good, uncrowded and even the surrounding hillsides as we approached Tegucigalpa were stunning. We twisted in past the airport, evidently one of the worlds most dangerous to land into, due to it’s limited approaching space due to mountains. Tegucigalpa from the bus window isn’t much to write home about but it doesn’t look that bad. Most of the inner streets are crowded, busy and neglected and as we disembark into the arms of a cab driver, there’s some political graffiti translating as ‘Death to Arabs’. We manage to get to the bus station on the other side of town, enter their secure compound, pay the driver, are shown directions by a pump-action shotgun wielding guard and are security screened as we enter. It’s just 12:30 and there’s a bus to La Ceiba just itching to leave. We run to the ticket office, grab some last minute tickets, blast the toilet and literally hop on as the bus rolls out. This was great, we had a 7 hour trip which would roll us into La Ceiba sometime near 8. Much better than 11pm, which was our original plan, given the next bus was at 3.
The bus was pretty cramped, but mostly due to the short spaces allocated between seats. people sat quietly and unsuspectingly. Landscape rolled passed. We stopped once or twice for bathroom and snacks. People smiled at us, wished us good day, were surprised to see we spoke a bit of Spanish. We were delighted.
La Ceiba unsurprisingly has a reputation as well. It’s homicide rate in 2010 was up around 159; the highest in the country at the time. This is due to it’s proximity to the Bay Islands on the Caribbean side of the country. Drug traffickers carting their boats from Colombia could once spend a bit of time at the Bay Islands to do some more work, sell some gear or take some R&R. But given the islands reputation as a tourist destination, the Honduran government stepped up police presence both on the grounds and in the water. This diverted passing drug boats closer to the mainland and in particular through the estuaries of La Ceiba. Problem is, and the reason we were there, is that it’s a jumping point to the Bay Islands. You take the ferry here. And granted we couldn’t possibly have made the last ferry at 4:30pm, we’d be staying the night at ‘El Estadio’ hotel.
We got in just after 8pm and jumped in the first cab we saw. It carted us through the quiet streets, vacant if not for a few palm trees, until we pulled up outside our hotel, just beyond the towns soccer stadium. Which at night, appears rather gloomy. As did our hotel actually. Kind of that budget, Norman Bates type of place. And as we entered through the grills of the wrought iron doors, the smell of old ashtrays entered our nostrils. Some kid browsing Facebook and a large African man ignored us for a bit until he handed a phone to Rebecca. The owner was on the other end and would be with us in 10 minutes or so. In the meantime we’re shown to our rooms. Which were fine actually. Just budget stuff.
Now you might be wondering why on earth is Murray quoting all these statistics and scare-mongering stuff (it gets worse). Well here’s why. We met a lovely Canadian couple, who had booked a vacation to Honduras, mostly Utilia in the Bay Islands as a vacation. They would also be staying two nights in San Pedro Sula on the way out. ‘It’s a pretty dangerous place you know..’ I said..
Anyway so the hotel owner is this really cool cat. Dressed in all this rap gear and using all this awesome lingo and hand-jives and stuff. He suggests we walk half a block to ‘Victorias’ restaurant, order, and then go back later to get the food. Not a good idea to dine there apparently. Plus it’s 8:30pm and there’s gangsters out.
It’s weird, you get kind of nervous as they’re unchaining the door to let you out. I wear my roughest looking camo shorts and a Slayer t-shirt and I throw a bounce into my step, but also a rough limp as well, like I’d been shot a few times.
‘Don’t worry’ I say to the girls ‘No-ones gonna mess with us’.
But then we’re outside and walking and there’s cars going past with neon lights and booming sound systems. There’s teenagers on bikes looking at us. I throw a few ‘sup’s their way and get nothing back. We order and hurry back. There’s gunshots heard overnight.
The hotel owner explains the situation as he drives us to the ferry the next morning.
‘Usually, every morning, you get 5 or 6 dudes show up dead&#
8217;. We were lucky. This morning was different. This morning they’d found 4 dismembered bodies. ‘Cuerpos dismembrados’.
‘Yeah but what about tourist crime?’ I say.. and he explains it very rarely affects tourists. The most recent case was of a Canadian man, ironically a police officer, who after leaving a local club at 2am to answer a phone call, was shot in the head, and the corpse relieved of it’s phone.
‘But you just don’t go out at night’ the owner explains.
So we make the ferry and run on-board, it was a stomach-emptying journey for a good 40% of passengers but it was a sure thing to be moving quickly away from La Ceiba.