Saturday, April 07, 2012

Tough to be a tourist town in Honduras

Good Friday procession
We've made it through our first Semana Santa in a Latin American country, an experience that we’ve been hearing out (and studiously avoiding) for years now. Indeed, things were the busiest we’ve seen them in Copan yesterday since we arrived here, but the hordes of travellers we’d been bracing for never did really materialize.
A few people told us when we got placed here by Cuso International that Copan was a “tourist town” where there was so much English spoken that we might have a hard time learning Spanish. I suspect it must have been quite some time ago when such people last visited Copan, because the reality these days is a very quiet town that I’m sure would love more tourists but in fact doesn't see that many. Copan certainly has a gentler feel, more gringos and nicer restaurants than other Honduran towns of its size, but the tourist business still seems very tough these days. 
There are a couple backpackers’ inns that are very popular with young travellers from Europe, the U.S. and Canada, but they pass through in a couple of days and for the most part don’t wander much farther than the bars closest to the inns. There are a couple of restaurants frequented by the gringos - a term in common use here - but the little street market where the locals try to flog made-in-China jewellery rarely has browsers, let alone buyers. There’s a ridiculously overpriced souvenir shop or two selling made-in-Honduras crafts at prices that I’m sure the artisans would be quite stunned by, but buyers appear scarce in those stores as well.
Horseback rides to La Pintada are popular with tourists
The horseback riding guides seem to do pretty well here. And I imagine everybody pays a visit to the ruins. A couple of the hotels benefit from the two-day excursions to Copan from Guatemala and San Pedro Sula, but for the most part the town looks like it’s in waiting. I’m told that June, July and August are the peak tourist months because Americans take their summer holidays then, smack-dab in the middle of the Honduras rainy season. But you have to hope it’s a real cracker-jack of a tourist season if businesses need to sustain themselves for a year on three months’ worth of tourist dollars.
The travellers here for Semana Santa are almost exclusively other Hondurans, looking much more monied and middle-class than the typical Copan resident. I’m guessing they’re on a break from the big cities, enjoying a small-town weekend and drawn by the Good Friday festivities, which include the creation of a beautiful alfombra – carpet – that volunteers create in the streets using coloured sawdust to depict biblical scenes.  The Catholic church also organizes a big procession that starts at the main church in the city centre and moves through 14 stages of the cross on its way to another church on the hill, returning in the night to walk on (and destroy) the alfombra.
The beautiful alfombra
The local restaurants were busy for the first time ever last night, at least the ones lucky enough to be situated in the two-block zone that tourists visit. A recurrent theme during the Catholic procession yesterday was that Hondurans need to remember that Semana Santa isn’t a “summer holiday,” it’s a time for religious observance. But I’m quite sure Copan merchants are very, very happy this weekend that Hondurans don’t appear to be paying a lot of attention to such admonitions.
Did this place ever bustle with tourists? Maybe, but a coup in 2009 and a constant diet of scary-Honduras stories in the world press have doubtlessly taken their toll. Copan also feels like a town that needs to wake itself up a little and figure out more options for keeping travellers in place for longer than a day or two. A town can only cruise on ancient Mayan ruins for so long.
But the stalled-out work on a city museum is underway again and a few new sculptures have appeared in the town park, which is otherwise just a stretch of concrete with a few food vendors and one of those pan-pipe guys selling CDs. The president was here late last year vowing that Honduras was going capitalize on all the 2012 end-of-the-world hype.
For the sake of all the Copan restaurants that will be sitting largely empty come Monday, I hope he meant it.

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