With gritty San Pedro Sula to the north and the sprawl of Tegucigalpa to the south, the appeal of Honduras’s central highlands lies in their relative serenity. Whether it’s an early-morning birding trip on Lago de Yojoa or a twilight stroll around former capital Comayagua, this is a region for relaxation. The one exception is the Catarata de Pulhapanzak, a 43m waterfall that you can clamber behind and explore, or simply admire the crashing white water from the comfort of a picnic spot.
Top image: Pulhapanzak Waterfall in Honduras © chrisontour84/Shutterstock
Once the capital of Honduras, faded COMAYAGUA lies just 85km north of Tegucigalpa. Santa María de Comayagua, as it was first known, was built in 1539, and quickly gained prominence thanks to the discovery of silver nearby, becoming the administrative centre for the whole of Honduras. Following independence, however, the city’s fortunes began to decline, particularly after Tegucigalpa was designated alternative capital of the new republic in 1824, and especially when President Soto permanently transferred the capital to Tegucigalpa in 1880. Although Comayagua is today a relatively rich and important provincial centre, its rivalry with Tegucigalpa has hardly waned over the centuries. The main reason to visit is the architectural legacy of the colonial period, in particular the dramatic cathedral overlooking the Parque Central.
Most sights of interest are within a few blocks of the large, tree-lined Parque Central, which is graced by a fountain and a pretty bandstand. It’s a great place to watch city life, especially in the evenings, when music plays out of speakers. The centre is relatively compact and orientation straightforward.
The Casa de Cultura, on the south side of the Parque Central, hosts changing exhibitions, usually related to the city’s history. Its location makes it a nice place to hide from the sun for a while.
On the southeast corner of the Parque Central is the recently renovated cathedral, whose intricate facade consists of tiers of niches containing statues of the saints. More properly known as Iglesia de la Inmaculada Concepción, it was the largest church of its kind in the country during the colonial period, housing sixteen altars, though only four of these survive today. The cathedral’s bell tower, built between 1580 and 1708, is considered one of the outstanding examples of colonial Baroque architecture in Central America, and is home to the twelfth-century Reloj Arabe, one of the oldest clocks in the world. Originally made for the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, the timepiece was presented to the city in 1582 by King Philip II.
Three blocks south of the Parque Central is another colonial church, the Iglesia de la Merced. Built between 1550 and 1558 (though its facade dates only to the early eighteenth century), this was the city’s original cathedral, holding the Reloj Arabe until 1715, when the new cathedral was consecrated. In front of the church is the very pretty Plaza La Merced.
One block north of the Parque Central, on Plaza San Francisco, the Museo Arqueológico occupies a single-storey building that used to be the government palace. The small but interesting range of permanent exhibits includes a pre-Columbian Lenca stele, some terrific jade jewellery and a colourful Semana Santa display.
The small Museo Colonial de Arte Religioso, a block southeast of the Parque Central, was closed at the time of research, though hopefully should reopen in the not too distant future.
Beyond Comayagua, the highway descends from the mountains and the air becomes appreciably warmer. Some 67km north of Comayagua sits the spectacular, sparkling blue LAGO DE YOJOA, a natural lake approximately 17km long and 9km wide. Its reed-fringed waters, sloping away to a gentle patchwork of woods, pastures and coffee plantations, are overlooked by the mountains of Cerro Azul Meámbar to the east and Santa Bárbara to the north and west. Both of these contain small but pristine stretches of cloudforest and are protected as national parks. The bowl of the lake is a microclimate and attracts more than four hundred species of bird, one of the highest concentrations in the country.
During the week, the waters – and surrounding hotels – are virtually empty, making this a supremely relaxing place for a couple of days of rowing, birdwatching and general outdoor exploring. However, at weekends the lake is a favourite with middle-class hondureños, and the peace can be shattered by the crowds and the buzz of jet skis.
The area around Lago de Yojoa offers some of the most adventurous activities of the region: you can hike through the cloudforests of the national parks, get wet crawling behind a 43m waterfall, explore some dark and mysterious caves or get up close to the local wildlife (see Nature tours of Lago de Yojoa).
The absolute highlight of this region is the privately owned Catarata de Pulhapanzak, a stunning, 43m-high cascade of churning white waters on the Río Lindo. Probably the prettiest waterfall in the country, the cascade is at its most dazzling in the early mornings, when rainbows form in the rising sun. It’s easy enough to explore on your own, but to really get the most out of your visit take advantage of the fantastic guided tours run by the staff (L200; wear sturdy shoes), which are not for the faint-hearted. They’ll take you jumping or diving in and out of pools, ducking behind the falls and climbing in and out of the caves behind the curtain of water. The canopy tour (L500) is also recommended: a network of five ziplines works its way down the river until you are flying through rainbows above the waterfall. Do not be tempted to swim in the area of water immediately above the falls as there have been fatalities.
The falls are an easy, partly uphill, fifteen-minute walk from the village of San Buenaventura, 8km north of Peña Blanca; buses between El Mochito and San Pedro Sula run hourly, passing through both Peña Blanca and San Buenaventura en route. A football field inside the waterfall site entrance fills with locals at the weekend and a restaurant offers cheap fish or fried chicken.
The Taulabé caves make an easy and interesting stop off the CA-5 at km 140. More than 12km of tunnels and caverns have so far been explored, but only 400m have paths and lighting. You can walk through the caves on your own, but local guides also hang around. The caves can be slippery, so make sure you wear suitable shoes. All local buses running along the CA-5 will drop you off here; it’s also easy to catch a bus on to La Guama for the lake or back to the junction at Siguatepeque for connections to the west.
If it’s nature you’re after, contact the very knowledgeable Malcolm (firstname.lastname@example.org), the resident bird expert at D&D Brewery, who runs fantastic early-morning tours on the lake. With so many species of bird – including herons, kingfishers and hawks – as well as bats, iguanas and otters, this is a great introduction to the lake. He also offers two-day guided walks up Santa Bárbara mountain, exploring the dense cloudforest at 1400–2000m, with the possibility of spotting quetzals.
Continuing north beyond the Taulabé caves, the highway divides at the small town of La Guama, from where a dirt road runs east for another 7km to the entrance to Parque Nacional Cerro Azul Meámbar. Named after its highest peak, the blue-hued Cerro Azul Meámbar (2047m), this is one of the smaller and most accessible national parks, with a core of untouched cloudforest. The visitors’ centre at the park’s entrance has information on a number of short walking trails. Anyone planning to hike should be prepared for precipitously steep gradients in the upper reaches of the reserve, with dense vegetation and tumbling waterfalls. The excellent marked trails – you don’t really need a guide – are suitable for day-trips, though it is worth staying overnight so that you can see the forest in the early morning.
The village of PEÑA BLANCA, north of the lake, is the commercial focus for the area. Approaching from the south on CA-5, ask for the desvío (turn-off) to Peña Blanca, just after La Guama; from here you can catch one of the frequent rapiditos or local buses to Peña Blanca itself. The El Mochito bus from San Pedro Sula also passes through Peña Blanca.
There are various useful services here: Internet Exploradores is on a small dirt road that runs down the side of Minisuper Surticasa; Banco Occidente changes dollars and travellers’ cheques, though there is currently no ATM; and if you’re hungry, you could do worse than try the pizza served above Mercado El Mexicano.