Honduras Feature

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Snapshot of Honduras

The Hondureños

Honduras lacks the overwhelmingly visible indigenous cultures that populate neighboring Guatemala. Around 90% of the country's 7.5 million people are of mixed Spanish and indigenous descent and referred to as mestizo. Yet visits to several of Honduras's tourism hubs put you in contact with some of the ethnic groups that fall outside the stereotypical Latino orbit.

The largest purely indigenous group is the Lenca, some 300,000 strong who live in the southwest highlands in the territory centering around Gracias. The Lenca descended from peoples who migrated here thousands of years ago from what is now Colombia. They figure large in Honduras's history, having put up strong resistance to Spanish colonists—the country's currency takes its name from the martyred Lenca leader Lempira.

The few thousand Maya-descended Chortí who live in Honduras are in the region hugging the Guatemalan border, especially the area around Copán Ruinas. Most Chortí live across the border in Guatemala, where their language thrives, mostly due to that country's language revitalization efforts. Honduran Chortí are more likely to speak Spanish.

Arguably Honduras's most distinctive ethnic group is the Garífuna, a mixed African-indigenous people descended from exiles brought from the British Caribbean islands in the late 18th century. Today the Garífuna live on the Caribbean coast and Bay Islands, as well as in Belize, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. (Migration from Central America, mainly in the 1980s, means that, today, the United States contains the world's largest Garífuna population.) Music and dance traditions and the Garífuna language, called Garinagu, thrive, even if old-timers lament the creeping influence of Spanish, rap, and reggae.

A Crumpled Piece of Paper

The story is likely apocryphal: One of Honduras's myriad presidents—nobody ever specifies which one—scrunched up a piece of paper for a visitor, undid it, and threw it on the desk, proclaiming, "There! That's what our country looks like." Picture Honduras as an inverted triangle: south to north, you'll see narrow Pacific plains at the lower apex, then mountains, followed by narrow Caribbean plains, and, of course, islands.

The defining element of Honduras's geography has always been its highlands—the term mountains is probably a stretch—technically several ranges rather than just one, covering 80% of its territory, but a historical barrier to transportation and development. Yet visit this part of Honduras and you'll never feel that you're in the sweltering tropics, part of the reason it provides a hospitable springlike climate where the majority of the country's population is content to live.

The northern Caribbean lowlands were once thought of as a malarial backwater. Then came the banana in the late 19th century. Combine a climate and terrain suitable for growing the new crop (and several others through the years) and easy port access to North America and Europe, and the region has been the engine that drives Honduras's economy ever since. (With no prominent port and mountains blocking the route north, the corresponding Pacific lowlands could never parlay its similar setting into the same prosperity.)

The narrow Caribbean lowlands do broaden extensively as they approach the Nicaraguan border. This is the famed Mosquitía, swampy, forested, largely roadless, and not suited to agriculture, so tourism is the economic focus.

Copán, Columbus, Coups, and Crops

Although Christopher Columbus gets credit for "discovering" Honduras during his fourth and final voyage to the New World in 1502, his landing at what is today Trujillo more accurately made him the country's first tourist. By that time, the region already had thriving indigenous communities—Chortí, Lenca, Miskito—who conducted commerce with other indigenous peoples throughout Mesoamerica. And, of course, the flourishing Mayan city of Copán had reached the peak of its civilization some 700 years before the arrival of Columbus. Subjugation and slavery followed, both sadly typical of Spain's reign in the Americas.

Spanish control was never strong on the Caribbean coast, and English settlers and pirates happily filled the void, especially in the Bay Islands. Today, the Caribbean coast still goes its own way as a result, often echoing the sounds of far-off Jamaica rather than the mestizo-dominated highlands. Honduras's history since independence has, at times, been a revolving door of presidents, several ousted in overthrows. (The most recent of these occurred, shockingly, in 2009, although the troubles are over as far as most of the population is concerned, and as far as any visitor need be concerned.)

The late 19th century saw the dominance of fruit, most notably bananas, in Honduras's economy. The near-absolute control exerted by the Standard Fruit Company on the country's economy and decision-making apparatus for the next half century gave rise to the term banana republic to describe Honduras. The rise of new crops shifted development from the highlands and its traditional reliance on mining and sustenance farming to large-scale agriculture in the Caribbean lowlands. Tegucigalpa remained the political center of the country—the capital had moved there from Comayagua in 1880—but the true growth would begin to occur in San Pedro Sula, La Ceiba, Puerto Cortés, and Trujillo, and that boom continues today.

Care for the Environment (with Some Caveats)

There's good news and bad news, as they say, about the environment in Honduras. In spite of the country's reputation for being largely deforested, some 41% of the country's territory is still covered with forest, a figure comparable to that of environmental-darling Costa Rica. And one-third of the tree cover here is primary forest. While Honduras does receive accolades over that fact, much of the conservation has been passive rather than the result of anybody's active steps. Huge sections of the country, especially the east, are sparsely populated, meaning that no one troubles the forest there.

That said, the pressure is on, and is expected to increase in coming years. Illegal logging has been the biggest contributor to deforestation, and at an annual 2% growth rate, Honduras's population is increasing demand for space and agricultural use. All these factors chip away at the integrity of the borders of Honduras's two biosphere reserves and 20 national parks. Happily, the protected areas that show the greatest promise for tourism—La Tigra, Cusuco, Celaque, and Pico Bonito, for example—are the targets of the strongest efforts to keep reserves intact.

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