Honduras South-West

GRACIAS

Global Mark : 15.61    Top Five : No2

Ratings by criteria : 

Charm Scenery Culture Tradition Market Relax Fiesta 

Cost

AVER.
 5 5 2 5 3 5 1 5 15.50

Ratings by backpackers :

Surveyed Liked  Comeback  Recommend  Range AVER.
11 100% 82%(9) 100% 10 to 20 15.73


Description :
A charming colonial town by one of the best National Park of Honduras

Comments : This is one of the backpacker's favorite, at least for those who discover the secret...

What to do ? Wander around the cobbled streets & covered market  / Spot three colonial churches, incl. Iglesia La Merced w. colored decorations and a nice painting of the area's attraction / Enjoy a superb panorama from the Fort of San Cristobal, on a small hill (free, 7 to 12 & 13 to 17) / Walk an hour toward a relaxing and very pleasantly hot (36-39C) thermal springs (L20, 6.5km South of town after crossing the bridge, Comedor & facilities there) / Spot coffee plantations / Talk with some US army guys (big base there, half for training and half for helping the area) / In the neighborhood, buy ceramics from the Lencas, one group of native Indians. / Charge your batteries with a good filling dinner and a good night sleep / And then walk ! You will climb the highest peak in Honduras at 2,880m ! / Walk a virgin cloud forest / If lucky, spot a quetzal or other mammals

What you may not like ? Having actually little to do in town : it is all about the atmosphere ! / The dirtiness / The busy hot springs during WE and the hot & dusty road toward them / The US guys giving dollars to the kids (and the kids then greeting you with a "give me money !") / Not having the time nor equipment (tent rental possible) to spend a night on Celaque and relax more on the way up / Not finding the way up ! (see below story) / Finding a puma in your tent ? / More likely (especially if not camping), seeing few animals except mosquitoes

How long ? Half a day for the town & springs, one (if very fit) or two days for the Celaque National Park, one day to recover from your walk ? A few extra days would be necessary to explore the area...

Where to stay ? Quite a few good places at reasonably prices. All the TV are cable TV :

- North of the Parque central :

  • Hotel Colonial (6561258), by the Parque / 60 p.p. w. shower, 75 w. HW / Free water, soap & towel / Go there for the big and correct rooms w. fan / What you may not like : there are no outside windows so it is a bit humid (and cockroaches love humidity) and the setting is unattractive.
  • Hotel Erik (6561066), one block north / 47(1) or 71(2) w. shower, 60 or 71 w. big bed, 140 (1 or 2) w. HW & fan / Free water / Go there for the correct clean rooms and cheap prices / What you may not like : it is smaller than the above and the cheapest rooms have no plugs (and therefore no fan)
  • Hospedaje San Jose, near the above / 40 p.p. / Very basic rooms without shower nor fan nor charm.

- South of the Parque Central :

  • Hospedaje Corazon de Jesus / 30 p.p. / The cheapest prices but the most basic and dirty rooms spotted.
  • Patricia Apart Hotel (6561281), by Bancafe / 180 p.p. w. AC, TV, HW & fridge / Go there for the nice huge rooms w. living room and terrace
  • Hotel Los Angeles, pink building / 80 p.p. w. old TV but no shower nor fan, 150 (1 or 2) w. HW, fan & new TV, 200 if two beds / Go there for the cheap big rooms w. terrace and the great view from the top empty terrace / What you may not like : the most expensive rooms are rather small.
  • Hotelito San Marcos (6561474) / 100 (1 or 2) w. shower & TV / Rather basic rooms but rather big and cheap. 
  • Hotel Iris (6561086), opp. Iglesia San Sabastian / 50(1) or 90(2) w. shower but no fan / Go there for correct rooms, correct setting w. some greenery and correct prices.
  • Hotel Guancascos (6561219), east of the Fort / Dbl w. HW & fan 150, more expensive w. TV / Free water / Internet / Go there for the nice rooms & setting, the great view from the terrace & restaurant and the quietness. 


Where to eat ? There are a few good restaurants in town, usually offering excellent deals. Reposteria y Pizzeria La Esquisita, by Hotel Colonial, is where most people seem to go. It is indeed quite good and well served w. the meat meal for L30 and pizza for 35(small) or 50(big). Some of their pastries are good as well. The restaurant of Hotel Guancascos is slightly more expensive (L40-60) but the view & atmosphere is unbeatable !

Internet ? The only place spotted, at Hotel Guancascos, is expensive at L4 per mn.

Change ? Correct rate for cash & TC at Banco de Occidente, West of Parque. 

Festival ? July 12-20 is very busy as the City celebrates Lempira, the first of Hondurean heroes, with dances, parades and a fair.

 << Discover a charming village


An adventure at Parque Nacional Celaque ? I had planned to go up to the peak and down in one day. A total trip of about 12 hours (on the paper, I was hoping less in practice) so I woke up early. It took me 1 hour to reach the "welcome" gate (about 7km away on a lovely road that you reach by walking just South of the Fort). Just before the gate was the "Ticket Center" (7am to 3pm) where you are supposed to pay the L30 entrance fee (plus another L20 per night, subject to change). There was nobody when I passed and that was fine with me (this also happened to other people at a later time). 
From the gate, it is another 30mn walk to the "Visitor Center" (1400m). There, I found a colored map of the trail and still nobody (later on, you may have to pay there, if not discreet enough). My guidebook was giving the following description : "Behind the visitor centre, the trail follows the river for about five minutes, then crosses over and heads steeply uphill (...)" This was indeed what it looked like on the map : you go over the river then walk up the trail.
After crossing the river, I looked for the trail and found it easily : there was some yellow signals attached on tree. Following them, I however found myself back at the river. I remembered that the map showed two ways to reach the same trail. I went back to the center for confirmation : you cross the river and you could indeed make a loop if not careful. Back on the yellow path, I discovered a trail behind a small cabana. There was no more yellow signs but this was clearly a path (and the only one) going up.
It was a tiny path and I had to fight a bit with the vegetation. About 20mn later, an intersection. It was clear on the map : you needed to take left as the right path was leading to the waterfall (in rainy season) mirador. I was still not too sure that this was the correct way until I spotted some yellow signs again. And then they evaporated once more! I however kept going up toward South. An hour after leaving the Center, I reached the summit, with a nice view on the other sign of the mountain and a few more yellow signs... which disappeared soon after, as usual. The only way was heading flat toward East, again on a tiny-not-too-clear trail, and then it started going down toward N-E. I had been told that it was not up all the time so I kept going. It was sleepy ! About one hour later, I reached a field with an house : the camping site at least ! In fact no, this was only an empty farm. I started to realize that this was not the way : I thought I had missed a trail (quite easy to do) when at the top. This was too late to go up again so I followed the field, left of the house, and found a clear path going down N-E. And 45mn later, I was back at the river !
I was still wondering about what happened (but also a bit relieved that I was not lost for good). I discussed with some locals about this marked trail that was not the trail. They agreed that this was indeed confusing and explained me that the river needed to be crossed twice. Yes indeed ! There was a very clear path on the other side of the river, 5mn after the first crossing. I went back to the center to investigate...
I checked the map again : only one crossing of the river and then up ! The ticket girl was there. I related my adventure and complained about the map. - "Yes, the map is wrong. Here is a new version". And of course the new versions had two rivers crossing (it remains however a very theoretical map, with wrong orientations of the paths) - "If you had paid the ticket, I would have given you the map !" Indeed, crime does not pay ! But a New Zealand guy who had paid the fee was not given the map (ask for one !) and followed the same wrong path... Anyway, it is now the new map that is displayed on the wall.
I had walked where few foreigners had walked before, it had been an adventure, I had found some blueberries along the way and I was back not too exhausted. Still, I was a bit pissed off. Especially with the guidebook's wrong indications. They had never walked the place but were giving directions anyway ! 

I did not walk the trail either, but at least I am honest about it ! For what I have heard, it should be as follows :
- From the visitor center (small Finca de Cafe nearby), you need to cross the bridge two times within 10mn ! There are red (and sometimes blue) signs. The path is clear and you do not need to fight your way. You follow the rivers and will pass some canalizations. If with those info you still managed to get loss, you did it on purpose !
- You should reach the "area de descando" (1800m) within 1 hour. Soon after, the trail will separate : right for the waterfall view point (another hour away, only worth going in the rainy season) and left for the trail.
- Another 1.5 hours will bring you to the first camp at 2050m : "Don Tomas". There should be a shack to sleep in (if you plan to stay there, check if ok at the visitor center) and a stream (not drinkable). 
- Another 1.5 hours and you will reach "Campamento Naranjo" at 2560, where the cloud forest really start (interesting and quick transition between two completely different biosystems). This would be the best place to camp as there is a stream (potable water) you will be near the top and you will get a better the chance of spotting a quetzal ! There are other animals as well (incl. pumas, coyotes, deers and monkeys) but they are very elusive.
- The summit "Cerro Las Minas" at 2849m is two hours away, a relatively easy climb except for the last 30mn. It can freeze up there ! If lucky (often cloudy), you will be rewarded with an amzing view

The above times are off course an estimate. They are from the local map and could probably be cut a bit if you are fit and with a light bag. I am sorry I could not try to beat the clock ! Something is sure : you would need to be in top physical conditions (and a bit crazy !) to go up & down in one day. Going down kills the legs but should be slightly faster. Climbing with heavy bags won't be fun so get rid of your books ! There are plenty of mosquitoes up there so a tent remains a good idea. 

Other villages ? There are quite a few other charming villages in the area, inhabitated by native Indians. La Campa, 16km from Gracias, boost a colonial church and a ceramic production. San Manuel Colohete, another 16km from La Campa, is said to have one of the nicest church in the country. There should be at least one bus a day from Gracias. Some other villages are even more isolated : if you have got time and like to walk, explore (and contribute !)


Leaving ?
To Santa Rosa, regular buses from 5:30 to 15:30 (ask latest schedules at station, L20, 1.5 hours) / To Tegucigalpa (L80, 6 hours) via La Esperanza (L40, 2.5 hours), the only bus leave at around 5am from one block South of the Parque.

The trip to La Esperanza : SSS / Left / L40 / 3 hrs
This relatively long journey started at 5am. Before leaving town, we toured a bit the village, blowing the horn to wake up the villagers. 
The road was announced bad and indeed was not good : rocky and dusty most of the way, with a few deviations and a crossing of a river (the bridge had burned). It wasn't flat as well and I pitied the New Zealand guy I had met who would be going the same way on a bike !
The bus had very little rooms for the legs but was comfortable enough. There were few passengers so it was a fairly relaxed trip on the whole.
The scenery had been announced great but really did not look that special, maybe because it was a bit foggy. There were little villages along the way. Anyway, it was nice enough and the best views were on the left. We arrived at 8:15.

Backpacker's Tips :  Edward Campbell, New Zealand (March 06)
 On the road between Gracias and Copan Ruinas there are ruins named El Puente, that are not visited much by tourists. El Puente or "the bridge" was a stop over place for the Mayans between the opal mines and the main city/town of copan. The ruins at Copan and El Puente are facinating. However the fact that the Hondurans just allow you to walk all over the ruins in El Puente is disturbing.

See also the trip from Santa Rosa