We had now left the coast and the central highlands of Honduras on our way south towards the Nicaraguan border. Once again, Honduras continued to provide us with unique and memorable experiences along the way.
Tegucigalpa & Olancho Regions
Doing our best to not push our luck, we planned to avoid any of the major cities within Honduras, the places responsible for giving Honduras the title of most dangerous country in the world from 2013-2015. Unfortunately, due to the length of the drive and our general rule to never drive at night, we were forced to spend a night in the capitol city. I will be honest though, besides being a nightmare to drive through, and being a generally dirty, bustling, fast paced madhouse, it wasn’t such a bad place. We found a nice hostel that allowed us to park in front of it and use their facilities, which included a cool rooftop chill zone. We even ventured out at night, on foot, and enjoyed some fantastic sushi, along with a stop at the modern and hip Honduras Brewing Company. All-in-all, a good overnight stay.
Valle de Angeles & La Tigra NP
The real gem of the region is found just outside of the city; a small colonial village called Valle de Angeles, along with the best of the three national parks we visited, La Tigra. Valle de Angeles was a modest, but extremely colorful and energetic village. The narrow cobblestone streets were coated with small souvenir shops and a variety of cafes and restaurants. It was here that we stumbled upon the best of the Honduran street food we had ever tasted, in the form of a Pupusas. Pupusas are thick corn tortillas stuffed with meats or cheeses. We had tried a few in Honduras already, but none of them were all that impressive. The lady we found making them on the street in Valle de Angeles on the other hand, amazing! She had them stuffed with a cheesy mix of marinated shredded chicken and onions, topped with shredded lettuce and magic sauce, unreal.
The next morning, all I could think about was those heavenly Pupusas as we made our way up into the mountains to the entrance of La Tigra NP. This was by far the strangest NP entrance we had ever seen. One narrow dirt road winded up the mountain through random villages and eventually ended at the “Welcome Center”, which was a super old, two story concrete building that was skirting the line between a structure and a pile of rubble. There, you pay the entrance fee to the sweet old woman who lives in the building and enter the hiking trail that loops through the park.
Putting the strangeness aside, I commenced the hike into the woods and was even more impressed than I had been with the other parks. When I say pristine, I mean it appeared as though maybe 20 people had walked on the trail in the last six months. The high altitude of the park created a cloud forest that the trail led you through. Years of living in the clouds gave all the trees, branches, and drooping vines a healthy coat of dripping moss on all sides, not just the north. That, coupled with foggy setting and the prehistoric nature of these massive trees and their gigantic roots spidering out away from the trunks, created a surreal scene straight out of Jurassic Park.
The hike was short, I only spent a little under three hours looping through the jungle. The second half was in the rain, but instead of being a damper, it actually made the experience that much cooler. Since the jungle was so thick, I barely got wet, even under decently heavy rain. Instead I got to enjoy the silence of the mossy jungle being over taken by the orchestra of sound that was created by the wind and rain. Honduras was just getting better and better, and as I made my way out of the park, I began getting really excited for the next stop; Cigar Country!
Danli & El Paraiso
I don’t think I am at the level of cigar buff, but I certainly enjoy a fine cigar from time to time. What I do know is that the world’s best cigars today are not necessarily made in Cuba. Aside from Cuba, the world’s top-rated cigars actually come from Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and you guessed it, Honduras! Knowing this, I had been looking forward to visiting cigar factories in Honduras for months. As we inched closer to the cigar region, I spent most of my Wi-Fi time trying to figure out where we needed to go, and how we go about doing cigar factory tours. As it turned out, figuring it out was no easy feat. I couldn’t find any direct information online for any sort of tour, and couldn’t find any addresses or any information regarding factories themselves, nothing. All I found was a hodge-podge of travel blogs talking about their experience doing exactly what I wanted to do, so I knew there was a way, and I definitely had the will.
The only fact I knew is that the factories were in the region around the city of Danli. With that, I drove to the town and started asking questions. We went to the center of the city and walked around looking for anything that resembled a cigar factory, or even an information booth. Again, nothing. In fact, the people I asked looked at me like I had two heads, telling me that there aren’t any factories in Danli anymore. Eventually, I found some information online that lead me to believe that I could find one of these factories in the town south of Danli called El Paraiso. So, we hopped in the truck and continued the search. This time, jackpot.
The road that connects Danli to its counterpart to the south is where these factories were hiding. Next step was to find one that would let us in for a tour. As we approached the edge of the town of El Paraiso, we found the entrance to the Rocky Patel Cigar Factory. This was the one I was looking for. I told the guy at the gate that I wanted to do a tour, and again, he looked at me like I had two heads. Mind you, we were in the land of zero English, so the language barrier definitely played a role in our challenges.
Apparently, it is not a common thing for people to do these tours in Honduras. I guess tourists just don’t come here. I explained to him that I was interested to learn about how cigars are made and wondered if someone could show us the factory. He let us through the gates and we were greeted by a kind woman who was ready to take us in. I guess she had actually done this before, but she explained that it’s rare that anyone comes asking to do a tour, and she was excited to have us.
The tour was all in Spanish, so we absorbed maybe 40% of what she said, but it was awesome none the less. That Rocky Patel factory is no joke. She walked us through the process as it happens from start to finish. Each room we entered was filled with workers handling there very specific part in the cigar rolling process. From sorting the leaves, to drying and fermenting them, rolling them, quality control, and then onto aging. I was blown away by what it takes. The rolling room looked like that scene in Willy Wonka where Mr. Salt had hundreds of workers ripping open chocolate bars to find that golden ticket for Verruca. We were told that the factory employees ~800 people, and that every single cigar goes through 40 different hands from tobacco plant to final packaged product out for shipment. It really gave me a new appreciation for cigars, and I can understand why they are so expensive in the states (even though the labor costs in Honduras are peanuts).
The best part was our stop in the quality control room. The factory produces ~15,000 cigars every day, and every single cigar goes through that quality control room, which had four stations of inspection. We were introduced to the head inspector, who was extremely generous and had me try every type of cigar he could find. He would hand me one to light up, I would give it a few puffs and give my reaction, and he would hand me the next one to try. Even Lindsey got in on the fun (although she may have struggled to light them…)! This process repeated seven or eight times as we sampled the lot. Meanwhile, Rocky Patel cigars are top of the line, selling for $15-$30 per cigar back in the states, some eclipsing $50-$80, and I just lite and tossed 7 of them! I decided on my favorite and got to continue the tour while smoking my freshly rolled cigar, so cool!
After we completed the Rocky Patel tour, we continued on and visited another two factories. I was interested to learn that most of the factories roll cigars for many different brands you see back in the states. For example, Alec Bradley is a very popular brand, but there is no Alec Bradley factory. Instead, Alec Bradley may get one of their cigar types from one factory and purchases different cigars from different factories to be labeled as one of their other types. Even the Rocky Patel factory wasn’t strictly Rocky Patel cigars. Some of the cigar varieties coming out of that factory would be sold to different companies. In fact, at each spot, I was able to purchase cigars at the end of the “tour”, but I couldn’t purchase any cigars that were labeled as Rocky Patel or Alec Bradley or any company for that matter. The only ones they sold were boxes of cigars they kept for themselves, labeled as the factory itself.
All said and done I pulled out of Danli with seven fresh boxes of hand rolled Honduran cigars. You would think that smell would be unpleasant in the car, but actually, that fresh cigar tobacco smell is fantastic. It was one of our favorite parts of the tours, the smell of the places. It’s different than the smell of burning cigar that turns most people off, more natural and aromatic. I don’t know why there isn’t a fresh cigar tobacco Yankee Candle, I mean, get on it!
Turn Around Point
It was now that bitter sweet point of the journey where Poppins had gone as far south as she would go. I am not sure how well we have explained our plans in previous blogs, but if you recall mid 2018, Nicaragua had been going through some political turmoil, and on our travels, we had been getting reports of protests turning violent, road blocks, and even border closures. So instead of continuing south in the truck, we turned around in Honduras and drove the truck back to the states to put it into storage. After that, we planned to fly down to South America for the next leg of the adventure. So now it was back towards the good ol’ U.S. of A., but not before a few more stops in Honduras.
The Western Highlands
The journey back towards the Guatemalan border took us through the western highland’s region of Honduras. This region consists of many natural reserves, complete with volcanoes and the wonderful hot springs that they create, as well as a handful of mountain villages and small cities. The first of which that we encountered was a little town called Gracias.
Gracias is a popular spot for many Honduran tourists, as they enjoy visiting the colorful colonial town and its surrounding nature. We began our visit with an overnight stay at one of the hot spring’s located just outside of town.
Thermas del Rio is a little gem tucked away in a valley about four miles outside of Gracias. Using the natural springs located on the property, Thermas del Rio fills a few different man-made pools of varying size with hot mineral water. Based on the size of the pool and the distance from the source of the hot water, each pool varies in temperature by a few degrees, giving you the option of finding the soak that’s just right for you. The largest of the pools is a full on in-ground swimming pool that’s about 4-5 ft. deep, and the smallest is a stone tub that could hold about six, and more resembles your traditional hot spring bath. We spent a beautiful Honduran evening testing out the waters and cooking ourselves a nice homemade camping meal on the lush grass campsite provided. Yet another Honduran treasure that far exceeded any expectations.
The following day we explored the town of Gracias, wondering the cobblestone streets and admiring the colonial buildings. We enjoyed a fantastic cup of Honduran coffee at the small café in the center of the plaza, which I have yet to mention, but I must say, Honduran coffee might even be my favorite in Central America. After a bit more walking we stumbled upon a quaint little botanical garden with a super cool café at the edge, whipping up refreshing iced teas made from local herbs and spices.
The most outstanding place of them all had to be Envasados y Dulces Lorendiana where they made a massive variety of pickled fruits and vegetables, along with outstanding salsas, and some of the best natural homemade ice pops I have ever tasted. We spent about an hour in this place sampling the goods and when we finally pulled ourselves away, we found ourselves with about five jars of pickled goodness and salsas.
With a fresh stock of enough pickled goods to pickle ourselves, we loaded up and headed out of town to spend the night at the other nearby hot spring, Agua Terminales Presidente. Like the previous spot, Agua Terminales Presidente built out a series of concrete pools of different sizes and depth, varying in temperature slightly. While the water was clean and a soak in the pools was quite satisfying, it was an underwhelming hot spring since it was so heavily man made. Everything was just concrete and stone, you couldn’t even tell where the spring was coming from. On top of that, our sleeping situation was just a spot in the dirt parking lot out front, mixed in with the local tourists and buses, so not ideal. We just spent the overnight here and prepared for a bit longer of a drive to what we thought would be our final stop in Honduras.
Copan Ruinas is a small village about seven miles from the Honduran/Guatemalan border. Named after the famous archaeological site it sits beside, the town is full of life and color. The main square is buzzing with vendors and tourists, and the streets are filled with shops, restaurants, cafes, and cool little bars. Unfortunately, we were a little low on energy upon arriving since the previous few days had been filled with quick visits and lots of driving, so we didn’t explore the town all that much beyond a little walk through. Of course, we did indulge in our last cup of fresh Honduran coffee before heading out in the morning at Café Welchez, which most certainly did not disappoint.
While it would have been nice to have a bit more time to relax in the town and enjoy the cafes and whatnot, we were mostly looking forward to spending our time in the area at another hot spring close by. Luna Jaguar Resort turned out to be one of the most impressive hot springs we have ever encountered. About an hour up the windy dirt road from Copan Ruinas, tucked in the woods, deep in the valley you come across a small compound with a restaurant, some rooms for rent, a couple large pools filled with hot mineral spring water, along with a small grassy area reserved for camping. From 7am until 6pm, you have access to a bridge spanning over the nearby river that leads you into this wonderland of thermal baths.
This place was unlike anything we’ve seen. There were six different stations you had access to, all built from stone and blended into the woods in a very natural looking way. Much more impressive than the concrete slab hot baths we had encountered thus far. First, the walking path takes you to the mud spa, where you can rub yourself down with the natural mineral rich mud while soaking in one of two small baths. From there you proceed to the natural neck message, where you sit under a hot waterfall that had been directed perfectly to just where you need it to massage your upper back and neck.
The next stop as you venture up the path is the foot massage bath, where you walk in circles around a pillar in shin deep water, half freezing cold, and the other half steaming hot. On the bottom of the circular path sat piles of smooth rounded rocks that deeply massage all angles of your feet as you pass over them. As you continue through the path to the next station you pass by a few simple tubs, varying in temperature and size where you can just relax for a soak.
At the top of the path you come across the source of the spring, spouting out some of the hottest water I have come across. Directly at the source, we were told the water temperatures reach upwards of 90 degrees Celsius, that’s an outrageous 190 degrees Fahrenheit! Enough to scorch you skin for sure!! This unique situation, being as hot as it is at the source combined with the amount of water flowing, allows them to create this enormous compound of hot springs and keep them so hot at such a distance from the spring itself.
Directly above the main source since its so insanely hot, another station sits where you are engulfed in a nature outdoor steam bath, obviously one of my favorite stations. Looping around the pathway, your next stop is a series of cascading baths, starting with the hottest at the top and flowing down through six tubs, cooling slightly as it goes down, giving you the opportunity to find the bath that’s just right for you. The final stop on the jungle hot spring route is the temezcal steam, where you wade into the stone cave and lounge inside the steamy enclosed bath, illuminated by color changing LED’s.
Most people come up to Luna Jaguar from the town for a day trip, making it somewhat crowded during the day. Lucky for us we were overlanding, so all we had to do is wait for all the tourists to leave and then cross the bridge in the evening to have the place mostly to ourselves. On top of that, at night, an assortment of colorful LED lights illuminated the surrounding jungle as you wander through each station. We also got the benefit of being the first ones in during the morning, again, having this unbelievable place all to ourselves.
It’s sad to think about how far off the beaten path this place is, and how difficult it would be for us to ever get to enjoy this spot again. All the more the reason to make sure we have all our energy focused on enjoying the now, because the now only happens once!
Crossing the Border
From Luna Jaguar, the Guatemala border was just under 2 hours, so we got an early start to make sure we could make it through and all the way to Antigua that evening. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite go as planned…
When we arrived, our first stop was the Honduran immigration office to get our exiting stamps and make sure the vehicle permit was closed out. From there, you are supposed to bring that paperwork to the Guatemalan immigration office where they stamp you in and provide you with the necessary paperwork for entering the vehicle. Since we had already entered Guatemala with Poppins, she had the proper documents she needed, or so I thought. Apparently, the way it works with Guatemala is if you leave with your vehicle and plan to re-enter the country within 90 days, you do not cancel your permit. If you do, they do not allow you to get another one for the same vehicle until 90 days has passed.
When we crossed into Honduras a month prior, no one mentioned this to us, and therefore I did not ensure we had the proper paperwork for re-entry. So, when I got to the window, they told me I can not bring my truck back into Guatemala for another 3 months! Of course, I argued, but I got nowhere.
When we left Guatemala the first time, I may have not gotten the paperwork I needed, but my permit sticker was never removed, meaning they never actually processed my truck out, and I should have been ok. None the less, they wouldn’t budge. They told me my only chance was to drive up to the northern border where we entered and tell them what happened, and maybe they would still have my paperwork on file to clear it up. If that didn’t work, we were screwed because there is no way to get from Honduras to Mexico with out going through Guatemala. Our only option would have been finding a port and shipping the truck around to Mexico…forget that!!
So, after we decided our arguing was getting us nowhere, we had Guatemala stamp us back out, and headed back to the Honduras side to get stamped back in, and then get the car situated so we could head north, only, it wasn’t so easy. When I got to the vehicle window for Honduras, they told me it was too late and the exit documents had already been processed. My only option was to wait three days until I could get the vehicle permit again!
So now, I was being told my truck couldn’t enter Guatemala for three months, and it also couldn’t enter Honduras for three days. I would have to leave my truck parked there and return in three days to get it so we could move on…yeah right!! I would have come back to Poppins completely stripped down and up on bricks. This argument I was not intending to lose. After about 45 minutes of badgering multiple different employees, I finally broke them down and they gave me a temporary entrance approval so I could drive up to the northern border. It goes without saying, our nerves were on edge at this point, but we were finally on our way, with our fingers crossed!
The drive to that other border was too long to make it in the same day, so our only option was to do an overnight in the infamously dangerous city of San Pedro Sula. We found a spot online that seemed good for the night and headed that way. As they say, when it rains it pours, because not soon after we left the border, we got our 3rd flat tire of the trip. Just perfect.
To be honest, I think the flat actually gave us a reason to laugh considering how awry things had went. Sometimes when things are just totally f***’d, you just have to laugh. What can you do but just roll with the punches, right?! After that, things seemed to gradually improve for us. Our spot in San Pedro Sula for the night felt safe, we had no trouble getting a new tire for the truck, and our general moods were greatly improved.
The next morning, we were up early and heading to the border, this time with manufactured confidence that everything was going to work out fine. As we pulled up to the immigration office, I was ready to go with a full-on Spanish speech and all points prepared for whatever argument they threw at me. I got to the window and provided the paperwork I had, briefly explained what happened the day before, and before I could even begin to unleash my monologue, the nice man behind the desk stamped my passport, gave me the paper work I needed for the truck, and wished us a safe journey back to the states!
Any given day, any given person, and given situation, you just never know what to expect I guess. That guy must have had an unbelievable morning with his lady or something, but whatever it was, we were finally out of Honduras, into Guatemala, and one step closer to getting Poppins back to the states!