While I was out and about in Africa, my colleague Rachel was over in Honduras. Below she shares her experiences. Next week I’m off to the Seychelles for work – watch out for my blog from there! Mark
Sandwiched between the behemoths of North America and South America, the Central American states of El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Belize and Guatemala evoke certain images: drugs, guns and gang crime. Known as the route by which narcotics travel from cultivation in South America to consumption in North America, this part of the world is better-known for its dangerous reputation than its tourism. My destination was the shopping malls, restaurants and expatriate haunts of the capital of Honduras: Tegucigalpa (go on, try pronouncing it!)*
First, I had to survive getting there. Tegucigalpa’s Toncontin International airport regularly features high on the lists of the most dangerous airport landings. At 7096 feet it has one of the shortest runways in the world and is considered one of the most challenging landings. It’s not as dangerous as it used to be (they’ve lengthened the runway by about 900 feet since an Airbus A320 overshot it in 2008) but landing is made more complicated as the city of Tegucigalpa is built in a basin encircled by mountains. It’s certainly an interesting landing; just when it seems you’re going to fly into the mountain range looming up ahead with no runway in sight, the plane performs a sharp 180 degree turn and lands on the magically appearing runway. I’m not a nervous flier but as I watched our descent over the closely clustered buildings, I wondered, for the first time in my life, what would happen if we snagged one of the many power lines below?
Having landed safely at one of the most dangerous airports in the world I headed out into the sunshine to meet my hotel pick-up. Arriving into the unknown is one of the most exciting (and terrifying) aspects of the job. I knew that Honduras has the highest intentional homicide rate in the world but it’s hard to picture how that translates into everyday life. Expecting a hotbed of gangs, guns and crime, I found myself passing through sleepy suburban backstreets with flowerbeds and plant pots. I did notice a perfectly circular (bullet-shaped?) hole through the windscreen of my taxi but that was the only thing to show that this was “Honduras”.
Planning a visit anywhere requires careful consideration of personal safety and security, and people often ask me and my international data researching colleagues if we’re ever scared? The answer is that in most of the “dangerous” places where we go (remember we only ever go to places where companies will send expats, so not generally to active war zones) taking sensible precautions is the best you can do. As Mark has mentioned many times (see his blog on Nigeria, for example) the most important thing is to be aware of the risks, have a plan for the worst case scenario and then just take it as it comes; everyday life in a “dangerous place” has a remarkable similarity to everyday life anywhere.
I was staying in the Hotel Real Intercontinental in Tegucigalpa, a plush, shiny hotel which was clearly the place for business meetings, dinners and visiting business travellers. Opposite was the Megaplaza Mall, full of familiar chains like Dunkin’ Donuts, Benetton, Zara, Mango, Tommy Hilfiger and even a few department-style stores. The city itself is dusty and somewhat haphazard, without much infrastructure, but it has many amenities for expatriates and the locals I met were friendly and helpful. Honduras remains a very poor country (3rd poorest in the Americas, behind Haiti and Nicaragua) and mostly depends on agriculture, plus coffee, sugar and banana exports and, more recently, clothing exports.
I took the opportunity to spend the weekend in Copan Ruinas, a UNESCO World Heritage site of ancient Mayan ruins. Here I discovered the Honduras of tourist brochures: spa-retreats, coffee-growing fincas, ancient ruins, leafy forests and tourism. Sitting in a plush Hedman Alas bus, watching the industrial grimness of the city fade to tiny villages amid lush green hills, I pondered that, as many expats could attest, it’s a common feature for our more “exotic” locations that the physical reality of the gritty and functional capital cities where most business takes place is a great contrast to the images in the tourist brochures.
Copan Ruinas truly was straight out of a brochure and I now saw the country from a tourist’s perspective. Unlike Tegucigalpa, most of the people around Copan Ruinas were English speakers and a tourist trade has developed. Restaurants abounded, stalls sold local jewellery and my B&B had hammocks in the tropical garden, free coffee on tap and even offered massages! (And the Mayan ruins were amazing).
By contrast, Honduras’ second city San Pedro Sula has the dubious honour of being the “murder capital of the world”. With 159 murders per 100,000 in 2011, the homicide rate is staggering. Drugs (some reckon as much as 80% of the cocaine destined for North America is transited through Honduras) account for most of it but police corruption is also a major problem. Although, talking about this in Copan, it was suggested that the data is skewed; apparently all murders in a very large surrounding area are brought to the morgue in San Pedro Sula and recorded there. Since the murder rate is calculated by comparing the population of the city with the number of murders, those which happened a long way from SPS are included there, giving an artificially inflated homicide rate. I was rather interested in this analysis (especially as analysing the quality of data and discovering reasons for unusual results is, after all, a large part of producing accurate Cost of Living indices). However, since the whole of Honduras, not just SPS, has an elevated intentional homicide rate (82.1 per 100,000 in 2010), no amount of statistics manipulation can hide the fact it’s a dangerous place.
Luckily, my destination in the “murder capital of the world” was actually only the airport and I left Honduras safely. Having expected a hotbed of crime I’d found a country rich in natural resources and history with a burgeoning tourist trade, where the majority of citizens live and work normal lives, albeit sadly amid rather more danger than is preferable. With considerable foreign debt and a high crime rate, Honduras faces many challenges but with the recent boom in Latin America, who knows what the future will hold?
* For those taking me up on the challenge it’s Teg – oo – see – GAL – pa
Rachel is part of ECA International’s International Data Research team. She travels the world regularly, capturing price data for goods and services to assist with cost of living comparisons around the world.