Honduras’ North Coast – Laid Back


Now that it is officially winter season here I have a little more time to do some in-country traveling finally. Recently, a friend and I got the roadtrip itch so we went to the North Coast of Honduras, somewhere I hadn’t been yet. It is truly an amazing part of this country and is vastly different from the farmtown where I live.

The North Coast has a very laid-back atmosphere. Hondurans there are accustomed to seeing tourists, so I at least felt a bit more comfortable and got stared at significantly less than normal. The north is also much more tropical than where I live. The regions such as Atlantida and Yoro are dotted with banana plantations. Hundreds and hundreds of acres of banana palm trees belonging to Dole and Chiquita. They are pretty impressive to drive by because all you can see for miles are rows and rows of these trees with giant blue bags enclosing some of the branches.

Nueva Armenia

The Garifuna town of Nueva Armenia

We visited two other volunteers who live near the coast: Emily, a fellow health volunteer in the Garifuna community of Tournabe, and then Jesse, a municipal development volunteer farther east in Jutiapa.

Emily’s site is a small community right on the coast. Like, we could see the ocean from her front door. Tournabe is a Garifuna community which is the African Caribbean population that speaks both Spanish and their own native language. Wikipedia tells me there are about 150,000 Garifuna living in Honduras and they are mostly scattered along the northern department and throughout the Bay Islands. We were only in Tournabe for a quick stop before we had to catch another bus. But it was enough time to check out Emily’s house and take a walk on the beach and eat lunch.

Jesses site is further east in Jutiapa (not to be confused with Juticalpa which is the largest city in Olancho). Jesse should be envied for his cool second story apartment which is located just above his landlord’s ice cream shop. He is currently working on rebuilding a giant soccer pitch which is nothing but a mud-soaked field right now. He showed us the blueprints for what it will look like after a bit of construction, and it was highly impressive to us non-engineer types.

So from Jesse’s town we took a bus (4:30 am required three cups of coffee) to another Garifuna site near La Ceiba called Nueva Armenia. I’m not positive but I think it’s a port town for many of the fisherman who catch giant tilapia and tuna and mackerel.

The place is beautiful. It’s unlike any beach town I’ve ever seen, a blend of Jimmy Buffet Island culture with Reggae African influences. It’s a tiny town with a few hundred people and a citizen-to-fishing-boat ratio near 2:1. Besides small homes, all I saw was one restaurant, a church and a small store.

We got hooked up with this wonderful woman named Betty – she was a friend of our friend’s host mom. She cooked all our meals for us in her tiny little cabin with a sand floor. We had fried fish and tajiditas and homemade tortillas and it was amazing.

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the Garifuna are known for their unique and delicious cooking. Our fried fish and rice did not disappoint! An entire fish, each around 10 inches long, deep fried and served along with a mystery sauce resembling ketchup with sautéed onions. It was good. I now feel that I need to re-learn how to like tortillas, because hers were so perfect that all others just cannot compare. They were thick and fluffy and slightly chewy on the outside and a little burned but still perfectly shaped for scooping up mouthfuls of beans and eggs.

Anyway. Betty told us our dinner had been caught that very afternoon. Which is really the only way to enjoy fish there since there is no refrigeration to speak of. Just a lot of those old-school red Igloo coolers that soccer moms use to bring juice boxes to practice. Every family had one or more of those and they rely on them just like a fridge. I even saw a mom in one of the cabins scold a little kid for leaving the lid open too long. Her reprimand sounded oddly similar to what my mom used to tell me… “you’re letting all the cold air out!”

We attempted a bit of snorkeling because the waters there are beautiful, an amazing turquoise that gets clearer and clearer as you get closer to land. Actually Brent went snorkeling while I opted to hunt for shells and work on my still non-existent tan. Plus it was a little chilly for serious beach action (it is December after all). So we mostly admired the beautiful waters and wildlife from our towel in the sand. However Brent did report that there are hundreds of exotic fish and colorful coral lining the beach. Que bonita!

The Cabin

Our accommodations were pretty unique. We were offered a room in Betty’s house, but we wanted a little more privacy. So Brent bargained for us to stay in a small cabin on a very isolated side of the beach father off from the cluster of houses. For 200 lempiras a night ($10.50) we had our own small cabin right on the water’s edge. The cabin had neither electricity nor running water. But neither did anywhere else within eyesight I guess. We did have access to a large water storage tank outside the cabin for showering and whatnot. And the dueña was kind enough to haul in a car battery hooked to a tiny light bulb for us to use to see at night. We also bought a handful of candles at the store.

The locals there are beyond friendly. It might be because they rely very heavily on tourism to survive. But I think they are just a very good-natured and laid-back people. I meandered through the small village of palm-branch cabins, simply watching people go about their business. Women cleaning crabs for dinner, little girls drawing hopscotch in the sand, men fishing from a small pier using carved out plastic bottles to hold their catch. And they just let me hang out and take pictures. No one flinched, or hid from the lens or tried to pose for the picture. It’s almost like I was invisible and only reappeared when I initiated a conversation. At which point many were happy to oblige.

They also seem to really enjoy hearing praises for their beach and the beautiful water on which they live. (Although I had to keep myself from telling someone that if they adore it so much then they should watch where they throw their garbage… hopefully during high tourism season there is less trash on the beaches).

Unfortunately we were only in the Garifuna community for a few days. But we really enjoyed our time there. It’s one of the coolest places I’ve ever been in my life. However it was also very eye-opening on other levels. Personally I am always surprised to see such joy and beauty in such poverty. I know that line sounds like something from Oprah’s Christmas Charity Special but I’m sticking to it. Most of these families live in small cabins made of wood planks and roofs of nothing but layers of palm branches. And almost every house had no manufactured floor, just sand. Very few houses had electricity, and if they did it was just one bulb to illuminate the kitchen – which also served as living room, dining room, storage and probably someone’s bedroom as well.

I didn’t see many old people in that community but the one elderly woman I saw had serious osteoporosis undoubtedly from a life-long calcium deficiency. And several of the children definitely suffered from kwashiorkor malnutrition which comes from a lack of nutrients in the food and causes skinny kids with big distended bellies. (Aside: It’s different from malnutrition in parts of Africa where they’re lacking in food altogether, aka starvation. Here they are eating plenty of food – mostly fried starches and carbs because those don’t spoil without refrigeration. They’re still lacking serious nutrients from fresh veggies and fruit).

The whole time I was there, I wasn’t really considering the poverty in which some members of the community live. I was on *vacation* after all. All I was concerned with was the aforementioned tan and what I would be eating next. It didn’t occur to me that when Brent and I leave and go back to our cushy lives elsewhere, these kids and these families will still live here. Year round, come rain or shine or feast or famine, Betty and her nine children will still be there in that same cabin relying on the days catch and the whims of tourists to make a living.

However by no means do I pity Betty.

She told us that she has the opportunity to live elsewhere. But she chooses the beach as her home. “Because life is more tranquillo here” she told us. And she’s right. Everything is pretty damn tranquillo as far as I can tell. And I think that’s what makes it the paradise that it is.

The water is beautiful, the sand is soft and full of treasures, the people are so welcoming and sharing. I like to think that if I had the chance, I would give up a lot of the modern stuff to live near the ocean like Betty does.

When I asked Brent why this place is not totally overrun with tour groups and commercialized establishments, he reminded me how long it took us to get there. It is not easy to find and one must be very dedicated to reach it. Several hours on various buses leaving at the crack of dawn was our only option since we don’t have a car. We vowed to go back to Paradise when the weather is warmer and we can really enjoy the beach. And we will bring our snorkel gear and a few more flashlights next time.

It was a great trip and I’m jealous grateful for Emily and Jesse who shared their sites with us. Now that I am back in my apartment in El Real pecking all this out on my laptop, I’m imagining that the semi’s and cars whooshing down the road nearby is actually the beach. And the soft crashing of the waves right outside my window will lull me to sleep yet again tonight…

Perhaps not.

Written by Sarah Smith

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