(Week 28) Los Naranjos, Honduras
The start of our time in Honduras was stressful. Very stressful. Ready to hear the story of how we came very close to being denied entry into Honduras? Well, sit back, grab a drink and keep reading. It’s storytime!
Getting into Honduras
The journey to Honduras began on the Belize island of Caye Caulker. Before arriving at our destination of Los Naranjos on Lake Yojoa, we would take a ferry, a shuttle to the Belize-Guatemala border, a shuttle from the border to Flores, a bus from Flores to near the border, another bus to San Pedro Sula and then another bus for good measure to Los Naranjos.
What we didn’t realise at the time we booked the bus from Flores to San Pedro Sula is that it involved a 3-hour wait at a petrol station restaurant between midnight and 3am. We took turns sleeping whilst the other person watched our stuff and kept an eye out for the bus. The departure time of 3am was actually an estimate and we’d read multiple reviews implying that it turns up when it turns up, i.e. not on time.
At 3.15am we heard shouts of ‘San Pedro Sula’ and made our way to the bus. As it had set off from Guatemala City several hours earlier, Adam and I were now sitting half the bus apart.
It was a Thursday morning and as we drove towards the Guatemala-Honduras border in the dead of night I couldn’t help but think of my former working life. The 6-hour time difference meant it was just after 9am in the UK. Everyone would be starting their day. I could’ve been making snazzy PowerPoint presentations or answering queries on error bars in Excel. Jeez, I could’ve even been wrestling with EndNote. But, no, I was going to Honduras.
We arrived at the border just after 4am, though it didn’t open until 5am. Once off the bus, we had to first head to a shipping container turned public health office where you had to show either proof of vaccination or a test. This was followed by the health officer then asking a lot of questions and recording the answers in Excel. I wouldn’t have minded but we’d already provided all of this information in the online form you have to complete beforehand! I went with ‘Writer’ as my occupation, it’s more border-appropriate than unemployed.
Next, we had to get stamped out of Guatemala. A simple process. Another passport stamp.
Then, we had to join a very slow-moving queue for Honduras Immigration. Eventually, we reached the front and this is where the real fun began. Firstly, I should state that the main method of communication for this conversation was Google Translate. While we have picked up basic Spanish, full sentences and conversations – let alone important ones – are still beyond us.
After lots of questions about where we were going, why we were going there, how long we wanted to stay for, where we were staying, where we were going next etc. The officer said we had a date wrong on our pre-submitted form and we had to do a new one. Online only. Yet, we had no mobile data having just come from Belize. We needed to find WiFi and fast. A few small printing shops were located near the border entrance, we headed there and asked about WiFi. But, they didn’t have any. Instead, we took to asking strangers to hotspot their own mobile data and found a volunteer surprisingly quick. Form filled in again, we headed back to the Immigration office.
The queue was still moving painfully slow. There were only two windows open and the officer we’d spoken to earlier was definitely the slower of the two. We ended up in the queue for the other window and thought we’d have everything now, we’d answered the questions and now had the form correct.
LOL NO. Instead, when we got to the front of this queue (again), the officer was even more unhelpful and wouldn’t communicate with us through Google Translate. Broken Spanish it was. We repeated the questions and answers over again. But he didn’t look happy and kept going away to speak to his colleagues.
At this point, the bus we had arrived on wanted to leave. We were the only people left who hadn’t cleared immigration. Our bags were offloaded and we were told we could continue our journey on the bus parked next to us if we were ready when they wanted to leave. Otherwise, we’d be getting a taxi for the two-hour journey to San Pedro Sula. Brilliant. Just what we need.
Back at the immigration window, we were still being questioned. It’d been over 2 hours since we arrived at the border and we were now holding up the entire queue of people trying to enter the country. The immigration officer is increasingly not happy with us. Apparently, the source of trouble is that we have stated we want to stay for 10 days but only have accommodation booked for 3 nights. This is nothing out of the ordinary, we had 3 nights booked when we arrived in Mexico. Four nights booked when we arrived in Guatemala and 3 nights booked when we arrived in Belize.
But no, this is apparently unacceptable. I say we can book more nights right now but apparently, it is too late for that. At this point I’m pretty sure he is saying unless we have 10 nights booked, we can’t come in. I’m not taking no for an answer. If we don’t get into Honduras we are stuck at the border with no transport and we’re miles from any time in Guatemala. I am going to Honduras today and no one can stop me.
The back and forth about nights booked and length of stay continues. The officer keeps going to speak to his colleagues and even makes a phone call at some point. Eventually, he comes back and says ‘no ingresa’ (no entry in Spanish), there’s more in the sentence but those are the words I pick up. There’s something about an election and that’s why we can’t come in. But, no ingresa is not an option for me, so at this point, I resolve to literal begging to get into Honduras. At least if we get in, we can spend a day seeing things and then go to El Salvador. Given how much I’ve paid to get to San Pedro Sula, I am not paying to go to Guatemala City and then into El Salvador!
‘Tres dias, por favor!’ (Three days, please), I repeat over and over. He seems to be saying that he can’t do that. But given that his refusal to use Google Translate means he can’t communicate with us as much as we can’t communicate with him, I just keep repeating ‘ Tres dias, por favor’. We are holding up the queue and aren’t going anywhere. Eventually, he starts to act as if he could make it happen. Praise be.
After another phone call, he asks where we will be going (again). He asks what our jobs are (again). He asks whether we are travelling with cash or credit cards and then wants to see how much money is in our bank account (LOL). We have no mobile data so can only show offline versions of Monzo (and of course, we don’t keep all our money in one account). But apparently, the cash in our pots is sufficient and he disappears again. My hopefulness is growing!
When he returns, we have stamps in our passports! Three days only, he explains. We nod, agree and say gracias a million times. I’m not thankful to him though. I’m thankful the situation is over, not that he’s going against international treaties and visa agreements.
Except, it’s not the end. We have to pay the 3 USD Honduran entry fee each. We knew this in advance so had kept a fairly crisp $10 note from Belize. But, no. Apparently, it’s the exact amount only in USD or we need to pay in Honduran currency. Our offer of keeping the change is not met well. At this point, I just want to leave ASAP. Adam finds a bus driver who exchanges our dollars for Lempira, probably at a terrible exchange rate, but I couldn’t have cared less at that moment.
Finally, we have our entry stamps and our entry fee receipts. We can enter Honduras. It’s been 3 hours at the border and I haven’t slept in 24. I am dead on the inside and look like death on the outside. Only the 2-hour drive to San Pedro Sula, finding a bus to Lake Yojoa and another 2-hour drive on a chicken bus to get there. Brilliant. Can I just go back to worrying about whether footnotes in PowerPoint should be font size 8 or 10?
Extending our Honduras Visa
We finally arrive at our accommodation in Los Naranjos on aLake Yojoa around 2pm. It’s been 28 hours since we left Caye Caulker and 30 hours since I slept for more than 30 minutes. We look like zombies. I do not care about anything anymore.
Luckily, the ho(s)tel owner is American and we explain to him what has happened. He’s never heard of anyone getting a 3-day visa before in all his 10 years in the country. British passport holders are meant to get 30 days, there’s no requirement to have accommodation or onward travel booked. And, I subsequently found out people who crossed the same border just a day later got in with no questions asked and a 30-day stamp in their passport.
We then realise that the election excuse for no entry is bullshit because our 3-day visa expires on election day. And, election day in Honduras means that transport is shut down and there are often roadblocks. We discover we have two options. One, go to San Pedro Sula Immigration office the next morning and request a 30-day extension – if we get it, we can stay, if we don’t we have to get straight on a bus to El Salvador before the shutdown starts. Or, two, just get on a bus to El Salvador the next day.
Exhausted, the last thing I want to do is go back to San Pedro Sula and try to get a visa extension. But, we have no other option. It’s the only way we’re going to be able to see Honduras. The hostel staff give us free cake to make up for our terrible day. It’s bad when chocolate cake doesn’t even cheer me up. Though, that ended disastrously too because I put the cake in my bag the next day to eat in San Pedro Sula and then it leaked all through my bag and attracted enough ants to recreate Bugs Life.
The hostel owner has also kindly arranged for us to get a lift to San Pedro Sula with the village plantain seller. Adam rides in the back of the pick-up truck and I sit in the cabin. I am very much over everything at this point in time but at least Adam is making the mornings of many Hondurans who enjoy the novelty of seeing a white guy ride in a pick-up truck in morning rush-hour.
We arrive at the immigration office only to see masses of people outside. There seems to be a queue on one side and a mob of people on the other trying to get past the woman on the door. Naturally, as Brits, we join the queue and reside ourselves to the fact that we will be here all day. But, we’re in luck, someone who speaks English says this is the queue for people with appointments, instead we need to try and get inside. We join the mob and as the only non-Hondurans around, we are ushered inside to the office specifically for foreigners.
There are about 10 people in there already, so we join the queue. A queue that is formed almost entirely of Mormon missionaries, a group of people who are professional chatters. So, we talk about missionary life, Honduras, learning Spanish and our travel plans. We get called husband and wife more than once but let it slide on the basis that we aren’t having membership of the Church of the Latter Day Saints upsold to us.
However, it seems we’ve jumped the gun in joining a queue again. This is for people who already have forms completed and just need them checked. So, off to the desk we go to try and extend our stay in Honduras.
The immigration officer, much less miserable-looking than those on the border, takes one look at our 3-day stamp and pulls a face of confusion and dismay. Again, we run through the usual border questions (this time fully through Google Translate) and with a great deal more patience. She asks if we have a ticket out of the country. I explain we want to travel overland to El Salvador but if we don’t get the extension we will go today and if we do get the extension we will book one soon. She asks me if I have more accommodation booked. I explain that if we don’t get the extension we will go to El Salvador today and if we do get the extension we will book more nights. She sees our problem.
After much back and forth to the desk while she confers with colleagues and fills out forms, she says we can have the extension. THANK YOU JESUS CHRIST AND THE LATTER-DAY SAINTS. There are two conditions. First, we have to show an accommodation booking for more nights, 3 to 5 will do. Second, we have to pay the extension fee. But, we can’t pay it at the immigration office. No, we have to walk down the main road with our big backpacks and daypacks to a shopping centre and pay it at a bank. Then, walk back, show the receipt and we’ll get the extension. Sweet baby Jesus, why is nothing ever simple?
Looking like pack mules, we make it to the shopping centre. I’m desperate for food at this point but we can’t delay. We find the bank and the confusion continues. Upon entering, you need to get a ticket by entering your customer number and what service you need on an ATM-style check-in desk. My Spanish doesn’t stretch this far, I press enough buttons that it gives me a ticket and hope that someone will help me eventually. A confused tourist face works wonders normally.
When my number is called the lady at the kiosk looks less than impressed as I hand her the invoice for our extensions and the money. After saying something – probably – about it not being what’s on my ticket, I just look confused and she processes it anyway. We head back to the immigration office, through the growing crowd outside and into our special foreigners’ room.
We hand in our receipts and within minutes we have a 30-day stamp in our passports! I am happy this ordeal is over but not happy we have had to spend almost 32 hours sorting it out and paying for an extension when we should have got 30 days for free.
Off to McDonald’s we go to celebrate. Country number 15 I’ve had it in. No regrets.
Honduras Election Weekend
36 hours after arriving at the Honduras border we finally get back to the hotel. It’s Friday afternoon and we’ve decided we aren’t going anywhere for the next couple of days. Get me to bed.
Election weekend ends up being a fairly low-key event. Voting takes place on Sunday and the polls close in the early evening. It’s not without drama. But name an election in the Americas that isn’t.
In the last election in Honduras, there was widespread fraud, a nationwide blackout and lockdown, the army on the streets, protests across the country and the incumbent government re-electing themselves. This time, many more procedures were in place to stop this. Every vote is counted live on TV and the numbers are tallied on whiteboards. Each polling station is issued with only enough voting cards for each person registered there and when voting closes, any unused cards are destroyed.
It’s been two months since this happened and even today I’m not sure if the final result was ever called. By lunchtime the day after the vote, around 50% of the vote had been counted and the opposition party was winning. But then, for three days, no more results were released. Hondurans joked that it was because everyone was too busy celebrating. News sites started calling the results and there was even a concession from the incumbent government. But still, only 50% of the votes had been counted in the official tallies. Bizarre.
Seeing the best natural attractions around Lake Yojoa
Since the elections passed with no political unrest, we were finally free (and willing) to see the best of Lake Yojoa!
Our first outing was to a nearby eco-park where we wandered the many trails through the jungle. Honestly, the park was so poorly signposted we have no idea if we missed a huge chunk or not. But, nevertheless, it was a fun few hours seeing all kinds of exotic flowers, giant bamboo trees, huge ant colonies and much more. We even climbed 400 metres uphill to get to a viewpoint only to see clouds!
The next day, we headed off to visit Pulhapanzak Waterfalls. The perk of visiting Honduras at this time is that there are few international visitors – most people skip it or only visit the Caribbean Islands because ‘iT’s tOo dANgERouS’ *yawn*. Plus, being a weekday two days after the elections means there are basically no domestic tourists either. We saw three people the entire time we were at the waterfalls. Perfect, just how I like it!
The waterfalls were cool but you couldn’t really get up close to them unless you want to zip line over them or go on a fairly dangerous (and wet) adventure underneath them and into the caves behind. We skipped both and opted instead for photos and shade-bathing.
Our final activity was to hire a double kayak and get out onto Lake Yojoa. Kayaking is always an activity that looks idyllic. Yet, in reality, it’s bloody hard work. And when we emerged from the river onto the lake, it was actually pretty choppy and windy. At one point we spent at least 15 minutes paddling but still going backwards! Lake Yojoa is huge, so we only covered a tiny corner of it. But still, we had incredibly scenic views and a fun few hours!
After a week in Honduras, and with the visa debacle behind us, it was finally time to head to El Salvador! The only bus from San Pedro Sula to San Salvador left each day at 6am, so we opted to spend the night there.
This was still not without drama! When we arrived at the bus station, we needed 1000 Lempira for the tickets to El Salvador. We counted all our money including every coin, but only had 997! I kid you not. Now we needed to find a cash machine and the last one had charged us 5 US dollars to get cash out! By some way of a miracle, we found one that didn’t charge us (BAC, if you’re ever in Honduras [and subsequently, El Salvador and Nicaragua can be added to this list]). This is only mention-worthy because 3 weeks later, Adam pulls 500 Lempira out of his backpack pocket that he’d forgotten he had!
The next morning, we were up bright and early for our 6am bus! El Salvador, here we come!
As we exited Honduras, I couldn’t grab my passport back quick enough as soon as it had that entry stamp! Adam, on the other hand, was getting questioned (yet again). We just want to leave! The immigration officer then took his passport to the next building before returning and eventually gave him an exit stamp too!
We had survived Honduras.