Intricately carved Mayan ruins, tiny Lencan villages, impressive cloud forest, and the country’s highest mountain are all within this region of Honduras, but it draws only a fraction of the tourists that flock to similar attractions in neighboring countries.
Just a few miles from the Guatemalan border, the ruins of Copán are a must-see for visitors to Honduras. Built by a society of scientists and architects, artists and warriors, the ruins boast stelae (carved statues) and layers of temples, a ball court, and the famed Hieroglyphic Stairway, the longest hieroglyphic inscription found anywhere in the Americas. More than a millennium old, the ruins have been well-preserved, in part thanks to their isolation. In the hills around Copán are villages of Chortí Maya, a people related to their highland cousins to the northwest in Guatemala.
An hour away is Santa Rosa de Copán, with its cobblestone streets, colonial buildings, and renowned cigar factory. Those whose visit coincides with Semana Santa will have the chance to observe the centuries-old traditions of colorful sawdust carpets over which solemn processions march, while visitors in the month of August will be treated to special festivities in honor of the town’s patron saint.
Travels farther south are well worth the effort, taking visitors farther off the beaten path. This is Lenca territory, the land of Lempira, a famed Indian chief who battled the conquistadors to a standstill before being tricked and killed, and for whom the national currency is named. This is one of the most naturally beautiful and least-explored areas in all of Central America. Here, the adventurous can lose themselves for weeks, traveling the mountain roads and footpaths between the colonial town of Gracias and remote villages like Erandique, La Campa, and Belén Gualcho, or climbing to the cloud forests of Sierra de Celaque, which boasts Honduras’s highest peak, Cerro de las Minas, which reaches 2,849 meters (9,347 feet).
While tourist services exist in a number of spots—Copán Ruinas, Gracias, Santa Rosa de Copán, San Juan, La Esperanza—there are many untouched areas where the lack of creature comforts is more than compensated for by the thrill of visiting lovely villages seemingly lost in the mists of history, where locals may not know quite what to think of a passing foreigner but will invariably invite him or her in for a cup of strong black coffee and a chat.
Much of the mountainous region is still covered with ocote pine forest, mixed in with oak and liquidambar (sweet gum) at higher elevations and cloud forest on the peaks, although deforestation is a serious problem in many areas, as campesinos cut wood for fuel or to clear more farm or grazing land.
The rainiest months in western Honduras are June, August, and September, but wet weather can hit at any time in the mountains. If you’re planning on camping, come prepared to get wet. The temperature is normally quite comfortable—warm in the daytime and pleasantly cool at night—although it can get downright cold in La Esperanza and surrounding hills.
© Chris Humphrey and Amy E. Robertson from Moon Honduras, 5th Edition