Thoughts on Safety in Honduras

A number of potential volunteers have very intelligently asked us about safety while visiting Honduras.  We certainly wish we could say there are no crime concerns in Honduras, but there certainly are!  In rural areas and small towns as well as the larger cities one needs to maintain vigilance.  Most crime encountered is of the petty theft variety but we are well aware of reports of assault-type crimes. 

Note that since our initial time in Honduras in 2004 the society has been deteriorating so that at the time I am writing this (Dec. 2012) Honduras can claim the terrible distinction of having the highest per capita murder rate in the world.  In the past year or two the US Peace Corps suspended their operations in Honduras, and even in our rural area it is not uncommon to hear gunfire and learn of nearby murders.

With one significant exception none of our volunteers has experienced anything more serious than petty theft (such as clothes stolen off a clothesline from the volunteer house, small amounts of money stolen from a backpack at the project site).  The exception for our volunteers occurred in July 2010 when three young women traveled to the beach town of Tela for the weekend, about three hours from the project.  As they were walking together on the beach two young punk muchachos stepped out from behind a bush, and pointed a pistol at them.  Our volunteers correctly handed over their money and valuables without hesitation.  The entire incident lasted less than a minute and very fortunately no one was hurt, but it was understandably upsetting, especially for the parents of the volunteers when we called them that evening; the three young women were quite brave even though one had been in Honduras for less than 24 hours!  Examples of serious events have occurred with volunteers from another organization within our area, which can be instructive about ways to prevent these incidents from happening:

-Two volunteers went off for the weekend and left the volunteer house backdoor wide open.  As evening approached another volunteer walked by the house and happened to see someone enter.  This person thankfully fled upon being discovered but the lesson is obvious- keep doors closed and locked! 

-While one volunteer remained home sick and was in her bedroom, she heard some activity in the house.  When she went to investigate she found 2 or 3 men who said they were plumbers and she returned to bed unaware they went about robbing the place.  Fortunately they were only interested in theft because this could have been very serious.  These men had keys to the house and it was possibly an “inside job,” but this is another obvious lesson- keep control of your keys and use inside deadbolts.

-Volunteers left the house for the day with windows open and lots of little hi-tech gadgets by the windows just waiting for someone to come along and grab.  They had to say adios to a variety of MP3 players and digital cameras. 

Las Sonrisas de los Niños is positioned near a rural village off a main highway.  The volunteer house is located in a little private neighborhood (colonia) about a mile from the village and a 5-minute walk from the project site.  The colonia is pretty well maintained and well lit at night, and the volunteer house is about 100 meters from our (Reid and Patricia) house.  Several of the 10 or so houses are rented by an orphanage so there is usually someone around in addition to us.  We have endeavored to make the volunteer house secure, including metal bars on the windows, strong locks, strong doors, and a metal gate at the backdoor.  It sounds creepy, but one needs to act as if there is always someone thinking about a way to claim ownership of your property- most of the crimes in our area are simply ones of opportunity.  Needless to say if the doors aren’t closed and locked they do little to deter!  Note that with rare exception and only if preferred by the volunteer will we allow someone to live alone in the volunteer house. 

Crime against property is one thing, but avoiding crime against persons is of the greatest importance requires one to act intelligently, especially in a city area such as La Ceiba (about 25 km from Las Sonrisas de los Niños).   The rules are universal: 

DO NOT GO ABOUT ALONE, ESPECIALLY AT NIGHT.  This applies anywhere but is of special concern to us because many volunteers are young and like to go out at night.  If you feel compelled to go the clubs in La Ceiba, always go as a group and never stray from well-lit areas. 

ONLY GO TO WELL ESTABLISHED AREAS. 

DO NOT TRUST STRANGERS.  Like anywhere, there are criminals in Honduras that can appear very nice and even helpful.  When a stranger offers a ride or to carry something for you, say No Gracias. 

DO NOT PUT YOUR GADGETS ON DISPLAY.  If you walk about talking on a cell phone with your IPod earplugs stuck in your head and your digital camera swinging off your belt, assume someone is going to do a snatch and run.  You are assumed to be wealthy by virtue of being a foreigner with enough money to travel! 

IF YOU ARE ROBBED IN PERSON DO NOT RESIST, JUST GIVE UP YOUR MONEY and/or GADGETS.  Don’t carry more money than you can afford to loose, and don’t become too attached to your material possessions, which is not a bad lesson in life in general!  Leave expensive jewelry back home.

IF YOU ARE GOING OUT FOR THE NIGHT, THE WEEKEND, OR WHATEVER LET SOMEONE KNOW OF YOUR PLANS.  It has not happened to us but on at least one occasion volunteers from another organization took off for the week without notice, leaving the organization worried and minus two volunteers! 

When we talk about safety we usually are thinking in terms of crime, but as far as we know highway accidents are the greatest cause of injuries among tourists and travelers.  Of course when one is a passenger they have less say in the matter, but there are a few things to consider.  First, understand that pedestrians DO NOT have the right of way in Honduras.  Look both ways then look both ways again before crossing a street and give wide clearance to any vehicle approaching you.  DO NOT ride in the back of pick-up trucks on the highway- if it stops suddenly you might well have your final life experience as you go flying.  Similarly DO NOT hitchhike- chances are you will be in the back of a pick-up AND you have no idea who is offering you the ride.  If you are riding in a taxi on the highway and they are going too fast, you can ask them to slow down. 

We don’t want to scare away potential volunteers from what can be a meaningful and even life-altering experience (in a good way!), but we don’t want to imply that traveling in Honduras is free of risk.  The safety of the kids of the project and our volunteers (and ourselves) is extremely important and we have put quite a bit of effort to this goal.  We cannot and do not offer any guarantee of safety but believe if you maintain awareness and act intelligently you can avoid problems in this area.  If anyone would like to offer additional suggestions please feel free to e-mail us.

Getting to Honduras and Other Tips- *Note that US citizens need a PASSPORT to travel to Honduras and that everyone departing Honduras via airplane must pay an exit visa fee of somewhere around $35 (a 90 day entry visa is free, but have cash on hand upon departure!)

Honduras is barely a 2 hour flight from Miami, Florida, with the two major cities being Tegucigalpa, which is the capitol, and San Pedro Sula, largely a commercial city.  San Pedro Sula is the usual first stop on your way to La Ceiba and is accessible by four US based airlines, American (www.aa.com), Delta (www.delta.com), Continental (www.continental.com), and Spirit (www.spiritair.com).  The primary Central American based carrier is TACA (www.taca.com), which flies from several cities in the US.  Over the past few years we have flown TACA, Continental, and Delta, pretty much basing the decision first on price and second on schedule.  In terms of getting to La Ceiba itself, it is easiest to fly to San Pedro Sula, with direct flights from Miami, Atlanta, Houston, and the New York City airports, depending on the airline, then on to La Ceiba via one of the regional airlines (about a 25-30 minute flight): Isleña (which is partnered with TACA and can be booked through TACA) and SOSA (typically you buy the ticket at the SOSA counter in San Pedro).  Note the airport identifiers for San Pedro Sula and La Ceiba are SAP and LCE, respectively.  There is also some option of flying to the island of Roatan and then travel to La Ceiba via regional airline or ferry, though we have no experience in doing this.

If flying from San Pedro to La Ceiba is either not practical or too costly (these flights seems to change in price for no logical reason, at times they are incredibly cheap, at other times prohibitively expensive), there are intercity luxury buses, especially the Viana (www.vianatransportes.com/2/) and Hedman-Alas lines (www.hedmanalas.com), with routes from San Pedro to La Ceiba. These take about about 3 hours and cost from $18 to $25, and Hedman-Alas is most commonly used because it has a stop at the San Pedro airport. The website of the Central American Spanish School  (www.ca-spanish.com) also offers tips on traveling to La Ceiba and www.hondurastips.honduras.com is the on-line version of the ubiquitous (once you are down there) and extremely useful free magazine HondurasTips.  Note if you need to go from the airport in San Pedro Sula to downtown San Pedro (e.g. to pick up to a bus or perhaps to spend a night in a hotel), a taxi will cost at least $11-12, however unless you have a specific reason to go to downtown San Pedro Sula, DO NOT go there: it is dirty and dangerous!  Note also that taxis taken within La Ceiba cost about $1 per person.

For New Volunteers: We do not, unfortunately, normally have the ability to meet you in La Ceiba upon your arrival.  Hence the safest and most predictable way to first get to the project is by cab, an approximately 15 mile (25km) trip.  This costs around $25 (500 Lempiras), though the taxis will often quote you a higher price to start (negotiating prices is common in Central America, and can be interesting, charming, and/or annoying!).  Most taxi drivers know where Cacao is located, but here are more specific directions: get on the highway toward Jutiapa (la caretera a Jutiapa), continue past the following village turn-offs- Sambo Creek, Roma, Salitran, Agua Dulce- then turn left at the turn-off (desvio) to El Cacao.  If you end up in the little city of Jutiapa you've gone about 3 miles too far.  The neighborhood (colonia) where the volunteer house is located and where we live is about 200 meters from the main highway on the left, and the project is about a half mile down the dirt road on the right.  Once you are safely with us in Cacao you will quickly learn how to navigate your way around via the inexpensive local bus system.  

The unit of currency in Honduras is the Lempira, and generally exchanges at a Lempira-Dollar rate of 18-19:1, hence it takes about 19 Lempiras to equal a Dollar (i.e. one Lempira is worth a little more than a nickel).  Honduras cash (efectivo is the Spanish word for cash) comes in 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, & 500 Lempira denominations, and there are pretty but somewhat annoying coins valued less than a Lempira (centavos in Spanish, similar to cents in English) which you frequently will receive as change.  There are ATM machines present in La Ceiba that seem to accept most US cards (dispensing cash in Lempiras) and credit cards are widely accepted, but we recommend everyone carry some back-up in the form of Traveler's Checks.

People at times appropriately ask us about vaccinations and malaria prevention associated with travel to Honduras.  We cannot make specific recommendations, but the CDC website discusses this and other travel health concerns at the following link: http://www.cdc.gov/travel/camerica.htm#vaccines

In case you are not familiar with the concept, there is something called Travel Insurance.  This is frequently available as inclusive packages which typically offer coverage for trip cancellation, baggage, medical, dental, emergency evacuation, 24 hour traveler assistance, baggage delay, travel delay, and accidental death. Some policies also have options for collision/damage coverage for rented cars, flight insurance, and added emergency evacuation insurance.  The cost is generally determined by your age, trip duration, and amount of coverage desired.  I'm looking at a brochure from 2002 and the cost, for example, was $48 a month for a person 30-39 years of age with a limit of $100,000.  We neither recommend nor don't recommend travel insurance, but simply want people to be aware it exists.  If interested, check out a website called www.insuremytrip.com (a website that just came up in a search for travel insurance- don't know anything about it otherwise).

Below is a description of a trip by Melissa, a friend of my son since Middle School, who traveled to Honduras during Christmas/New Years 2006-2007 and has subsequently volunteered with us twice and is now a full-fledged RN:

My name is Melissa and I am a 19-year-old sophomore nursing student at Russell Sage College.  I have known Reid and Patricia for many years from whom I learned about the wonderful opportunities Honduras has to offer. Recently I went to Honduras for a month during my Christmas break (2006-2007), My little sister joined me for two weeks of the trip also.   I wanted to go for a number of reasons, such as learning more about the project, learning Spanish in the real world, and learning about health care in a 3rd world country.  I have taken Spanish in high school and college but learned more in a month there than I learned in 3 years of traditional classes.  I attended the Central American Spanish School, where I got to know it's wonderful and helpful director Rafael and had a great teacher.  I met many fellow travelers, especially from the US, Canada, and Europe, and there was never a lack of social interaction.  Our first homestay situation was not what I expected but once Rafael heard about our problems we were moved to another family (which was a typical friendly Honduran family). 

I did a few tourist type things, including river rafting through the Jungle River Lodge, spent several days on Utila Island during the New Year holiday, went hiking in the national park of Pico Bonito, and went to the wonderful ocean town of Tela.  I was able to observe and even assist a little at a clinic up in the mountains, but I regret that I never really worked in a volunteer position as I was initially planning instead focusing on learning the language and culture.  Reid and Patricia’s project, Las Sonrisas de los Niños, is not actually in operation yet, though I did go out to Cacao and meet some people there, saw the project site where I left some things in the building (things Reid asked me to take down there, such as well points and baseball equipment).  Pretty much everyone we talked with in El Cacao had heard of the project and were looking forward to its opening.  The village seemed very receptive to the project and to me appeared to need all of the help it could get. I know Reid and Patricia are returning to Honduras on March 19th (2007) with the goal of having Las Sonrisas de los Niños functioning around the end of April. 

Overall I had a great experience and I hope to return there again. Feel free to email me if you would like to know more about my trip at melissasageman@gmail.com  Below: Melissa a few of years ago standing by the Cessna 172 once owned by Reid and Board Member Jules Comeau; a view from the sea of La Ceiba overshadowed by the mountains.  Melissa did return as a volunteer in Jan. 2008 & 2009.