Oh, we Travelettes do like to be beside the seaside! So when I booked my flights to Central America, visions of azure skies and lily-white sands sparkled before my eyes and all I could think about was making tracks straight to the Caribbean coast. A little bit of research turned up Tela – the nearest seaside spot to the airport. It looked to be just what the doctor ordered, the perfect spot to bronze ourselves and ease our way into the Honduran way of life.
A major driving factor of this decision was that we were flying into San Pedro Sula, the notoriously crime-ridden city where gangs rule, public bus hold-ups are increasingly common and even locals we met alleged that you could be ‘killed for your mobile phone’. The TV show Ross Kemp on Gangs together with my mum, apprehensive over recent news articles about the war on drugs (primarily confined to the wilds of Honduras’ east coast), conspired to make us a little fearful of the country.
Sadly, it’s a fact that the tourism sector in Honduras has taken a hit due to the publicized problems with crime. The Bay Islands and town of Copan still seem popular but the rest of the country seems to be somewhat neglected. And from our experiences, this seems a shame. Other travelers we met on our trip seemed puzzled when we even mentioned Tela, a holiday destination if ever there was one. A slight frown and a head shake seemed to be the general reaction. Or if the name rang a vague bell, they muttered, “I don’t think much is going on there…” Well, if you’re seeking hordes of back-packers and some hard partying then that’s probably a correct assessment. However, if you’re looking to spend some time in a seaside spot the locals adore, embrace the slow-paced Mexicana vibe combined with Caribbean beach life and enjoy potentially being the only gringos in town; you might just heart Tela too.
What to do?
Rule numero uno: avoid the main town beach at the weekend. Tela has some of the best stretches of beach on Honduras’s north coast and despite the lack of traveller action, it’s a popular holiday destination for locals. As a result, at the weekends, the sand can be bustling and unfortunately, it can get pretty littered. It’s still a fun place for people-watching but preferably from a beachside bar as opposed to getting down and potentially (literally) dirty in the sand.
Instead, take a walk to the east side of town (or a taxi – standard price per person just 25 lempira for anywhere in town), to the posh Villas Telemar hotel. A short path beside it leads straight to a stunning, wide stretch of pure Caribbean beach. A slice of pure, fried gold. The hotel is set far enough back behind the coconut palms to not be invasive and the hotel staff comb the beach for driftwood each day, keeping it pristine. Come on a weekday and this beach is totally deserted save the odd Garifuna lady selling something delicious and coconutty. The swimming is fab with waves not too scary and not too wimpy; there are a few wonky palm shelters erected on the silvery sand and back on the dusty main road, there are numerous cafes and roadside eateries where you can grab a quick drink or some lunch.
More gorgeous beaches are to be discovered by exploring the Garifuna villages that are dotted either side of Tela proper. The Garifuna are a fascinating culture of people, descended from black, African slaves and Caribbean natives. We hopped on one of the local buses (essentially a big, yellow school bus), the driver jacked up the reggae and 30 minutes later we hit the village of Tornabe with its lovely arc of white sand, fantastic swimming and cute, Garifuna children playing on the beach.
A little further afield lies an archipelago of devastatingly picturesque, palm-fringed islets -the marine reserve of Cayos Cochinos. We spent a blissful day boat-tripping around this paradise, snorkelling the marvellous waters which form part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef and stopping for a traditional lunch of fried fish with rice ‘n’ peas and plantain courtesy of the Garifuna fishing village Chachahuate.
This village is so small, fitting so perfectly onto its tiny cay, it’s like a cartoon. When I asked the location of the toilets and was told “the other side of the island”, I realised with surprise this was only a few yards away. Get back to basics and experience island life by arranging a stay with the locals in their homes. At 2pm when the tide begins to turn, the day-trippers pack up and village life continues undisturbed around you as the island is reclaimed by its people.
Now, I have heard tell that at times one can fleetingly tire of lying on beautiful beaches. Should this affliction befall you, never fear! Tela just so happens to be an ideal base to set yourself up on some trips. Punta Izopo curves off to the east where you can kayak through the rainforest, spotting monkeys and other creatures of the canopy while Punta Sal extends to the west, a wildlife reserve with a reputation for dazzling snorkelling.
How about eats?
My first impressions of Central American food gave me the feeling I’d be spending the next few weeks on the kind of diet that would make Dr. Atkins burst out of his grave and come running in horror. On several occasions I was confronted with a plate of food containing tortillas, plantain and rice and I began to fear that it wouldn’t be long before I began to resemble the Pilsbury Doughboy. Thank the lord, Tela is situated on the coast. The result? More fresh and tasty seafood than you could shake a crabstick at.
One of our favourite evening eateries was Luces del Norte, a quirky and popular little restaurant decorated in bright blues and yellows and serving a great range of delights from the deep. Try the ceviche, a Central American delicacy of seasoned, fresh fish; cooked not with heat but by marinating in citrus juices. And if the food isn’t enough to tempt you, the place is frequented by a delightful, mariachi band that can entertain/embarrass you at your table for a small donation but mostly wander around being rebuffed and looking slightly dejected.
Set further to the east along the main town road is another great restaurant called Bungalow. There was much singing and dancing (albeit just from the smiling waiter) at this little establishment, eclectically decorated with records hanging from the ceiling, and the food is amazing value. We particularly loved the pinchos de pollo, generous chicken and vegetable shish kebabs with a variety of constantly changing extras and a free side with every meal.
For those on a tight budget, Tela is ideal for roadside snacks. Fresh, fruit carts appear daily around central park, as if by magic and for a bargain 20 lempira, an exotic selection platter is sliced, diced and cling-filmed for your delectation. Bags of chopped mango and slices of watermelon can easily be purchased (usually off the back of a truck) and make for some thirst-quenching midday munch.
If you want to go local, the national snack of Honduras is the baleada, a flour tortilla heated up and smeared with beans, cheese and cream. Watch the ladies make them fresh at the roadside and if you fancy a little meat with your carbs, then pick up some chicken. Roast or fried, it is everywhere.
And now for a drink?
As previously stated, Tela is a laid-back town and there didn’t seem to be much in the way of nightlife. Beachside bars and lazy afternoon drinks seemed the best way to play it (although best stick to the boardwalk after dark). Maya Vista is definitely worth a sunset visit with delicious Cuba Libras and a view that soaks in a wide expanse of ocean and rooftops. Flor de Cana is the local rum of choice and for those that prefer their drinks soft, Tela has an abundance of places to pick up a luscious licuado (a mixture of fresh fruit, ice and either milk or water).
Where to sleep?
Although there are numerous places to stay in Tela, I cannot speak highly enough of Hotel Lempira at Capitan Beach. We arrived late at night, weary and bleary-eyed and were greeted with a delicious meal and the most welcoming hosts I have ever encountered. Nicole is most definitely the Mother Teresa of travellers and her natural hostess flair was apparent in the beautiful hotel she designed herself from the pretty roof terrace with a Caribbean sea view (a perfect place to enjoy your complimentary hot pot of morning coffee) to the comfortable hammocks in the bar area to the picturesque interior garden filled with exotic plants and flowers.
David is so warm and entertaining, we felt like we were staying with long lost family. This was never more apparent than when we returned to Tela, several weeks later, and turned up on his doorstep after discovering that we’d had some money stolen by a hotel employee at another, cheaper establishment in town. He immediately took us in, presented us with a soothing rum and proceeded to sort everything out. Its these two lovely people that walk the line perfectly between being incredibly open and welcoming whilst giving you plenty of your own space that give Hotel Lempira a soul that others I have encountered have struggled to beat. Plus they have cute, little, rescue monkeys chattering away in the background outside your bedroom – what more could you possibly want?