Situated 1000m above sea level, deep in a mountain valley, the Honduran capital of TEGUCIGALPA is not, at least on first impression, the most welcoming city. The winding, narrow streets are thick with motorized traffic, and the sidewalks full to the gills with shoppers and loafers. That said, unlike other capital cities in the region, Tegucigalpa isn’t totally without charm, and its colonial feel and cool climate actually make it an ideal starting point, allowing you to get to grips with the Honduran pace of life.
Tegucigalpa’s first mention in records is in the 1560s, when silver deposits (“tegucigalpa” means “silver mountain” in the Nahuatl language) were found in the hills to the east. It was given town status in 1768, and named a city in 1807. With wealth from the country’s mines pouring in, the city’s location at the centre of key trade routes became highly advantageous, and Tegucigalpa soon rivalled the then capital, Comayagua. In 1880, the Liberal President Soto officially shifted power to Tegucigalpa, and in 1932 Comayagüela became a part of the capital. Since then, the nation’s economic focus has shifted to San Pedro Sula, but Tegucigalpa continues to function as the nation’s political and governmental centre.
Surrounded by reminders of its past – crumbling colonial buildings and decaying nineteenth-century mansions – the city today is a vibrant, noisy place. A handful of churches and a fantastic history museum will easily keep you entertained for a day or two. That said, street crime is a serious problem, so take common-sense precautions.
The heart of Tegucigalpa’s old city is the pleasant Parque Central, Plaza Morazán; a number of interesting churches and museums, plus many hotels, lie within easy walking distance of the square. East from the centre, two major roads, Avenida Jeréz (which becomes Avenida Juan Gutemberg and then Avenida La Paz) and Avenida Miguel Cervantes (which becomes Avenida República de Chile), skirt the edges of upmarket Colonia Palmira.
Running west from Plaza Morazán, the pedestrian-only Calle Peatonal is lined with shops, cafés and the fabulous Museo para la Identidad Nacional. Further west of the old centre, the character of the city rapidly becomes more menacing as you approach the banks of the Río Choluteca.
Top image © dessothompson/Shutterstock
As the capital, Tegucigalpa’s accommodation is generally pricier than elsewhere in Honduras.
There are several places a short bus ride away from Tegucigalpa where you can while away an afternoon, or even a day or two. The famous Basílica de Suyapa takes only twenty minutes to reach, or for a really adventurous couple of days you could take yourself off to Valle de Ángeles for a morning before going on to the Parque Nacional La Tigra to hike.
Some 6km east of Tegucigalpa’s centre, the monolithic white bulk of the Basílica de Suyapa rises from the flat plains. Built in the 1950s, it is home to the Virgen de Suyapa, patron saint of Honduras. The statue of the Virgin was discovered by two campesinos in 1743. The story goes that after bedding down for the night, one of them noticed he was lying on something, but without looking to see what the offending object was, threw it to one side. Within a few minutes, however, the object had returned. The next day, the two carried the little statue down to Suyapa where, placed on a simple table adorned with flowers, the Virgin began to attract worshippers.
Today you can see the tiny statue (just 6cm tall) behind the wooden altar in La Pequeña Iglesia, the original eighteenth-century chapel behind the Basílica. According to legend, each time she is placed in the larger Basílica, the Virgin mysteriously returns to the simple chapel, built by Captain José de Zelaya y Midence in thanks for the recovery of his health.
The oldest reserve in Honduras, Parque Nacional La Tigra was designated a national park in 1980. Just 22km from Tegucigalpa, its accessibility and good system of trails make it a popular destination; however, much of the original cloudforest has been destroyed through heavy logging, so what you see is generally secondary growth. Parts of the park still shelter oak trees, bromeliads, ferns, orchids and other typical cloudforest flora, along with wildlife such as deer, white-faced monkeys and ocelots – though they tend to stick to parts of the park that are out of bounds to visitors. The trails are well laid out, and provide some easy hiking, either on a circular route from the visitors’ centre or across the park between the two entrances. Guides are also available, though they only speak Spanish. You can visit the park as a day-trip but it’s worth staying a couple of nights.
The park has two entrances. The western side is reached via the village of Jutiapa, 17km east of Tegucigalpa. Though slightly easier to reach from the capital, this entrance has few facilities. The second entrance is best reached via the village of San Juancito from where you can walk or get a pick-up the 5km to the park.
Continuing east from the Basílica de Suyapa, the road rises gently amid magnificent scenery, winding through forests of slender pine trees. Some 22km from the capital is VALLE DE ÁNGELES, a former mining town now reincarnated as a handicraft centre and scenic getaway for capitalanos. Surrounded by forested mountains, the small town slumbers during the week, then explodes with activity at weekends. The town is chiefly noted for its quality carved wooden goods, and it’s a nice place to while away a couple of hours.
To the north of Plaza Morazán, older suburbs – previously home to the wealthy middle classes and rich immigrants, now long gone – edge up the lower slopes of Cerro El Picacho. Grab a picnic and escape to the Parque Naciones Unidas El Picacho for fantastic views over the city. At the top stands the open-armed Cristo del Picacho, illuminated at night in a dazzle of coloured lights. Take a bus from in front of Hotel Granada 2 or a taxi; it’s a twenty-minute journey.
The upscale Colonia Palmira neighbourhood is home to most of the capital’s foreign embassies, luxury hotels, top restaurants and swanky residences. A particular landmark, the modern Hotel Honduras Maya, is on the Avenida República de Chile, in Colonia Palmira, fifteen minutes’ walk east from the centre. A kilometre beyond the hotel, an overpass gives access to eastward-bound Boulevard Morazán, Tegucigalpa’s major commercial and entertainment artery. No city buses run along here, so you’ll have to walk or take a taxi. On Calle 1, the Centro Cultural de España Tegucigalpa (CCET), housed in an attractive modern building, puts on a stimulating programme of music, art exhibitions and talks.
The brown waters of the polluted Río Choluteca form the border of Tegucigalpa’s twin, Comayagüela, which sprawls away through down-at-heel business districts into industrial areas and poor barrios. Such is its dangerous reputation that tourists are not advised to spend any more time here than it takes to change buses.
Use taxis when going out at night. Most bars in the centre are fiercely local, so you’re best off heading to Colonia Palmira and Blvd Morazán. Head also to Paseo Los Próceres (closed Sun), a peculiar strip of bars at the large Los Próceres site, housed in units that were intended for clothing boutiques. Café Paradiso is also worth stopping by for an early evening drink.
The centre has all the usual fast-food chains and cheap and cheerful cafés, as well as a few good-value restaurants with meals for less than L100; smarter restaurants are to be found in Colonia Palmira and along Blvd Morazán.
The website agendartehonduras.com is a helpful up-to-the-minute resource for cultural events listings.
Just south of the Parque Morazán and next to the Iglesia La Merced on Calle Bolívar, the Galería Nacional de Arte is home to an extensive and interesting collection of Central American art. Displays on the ground floor range from prehistoric petroglyphs and Maya stone carvings to religious art, while rooms upstairs house an ambitious selection of modern and contemporary Honduran art, including some works by Pablo Zelaya Sierra, one of the country’s leading twentieth-century artists. Originally serving as a convent during the seventeenth century, and later as the national university, the building has a Neoclassical facade that sits rather uncomfortably alongside the stained concrete bulk of the Congreso Nacional, the country’s seat of government next door.
A few blocks northwest from the central plaza, the pleasant, white, domed Iglesia Los Dolores, completed in 1732, sits next to the small Plaza Los Dolores. Its Baroque facade is decorated with a representation of the Passion of Christ, featuring a crowing cock and the rising sun; inside, the elaborate gold altar dates from 1742. A choir usually sings at 6pm on Saturdays and Sundays. The plaza itself is crowded with cheap, shabby stalls.
Three blocks east of Plaza Morazán, on Avenida Paz Barahona, the Iglesia San Francisco is the oldest church in the city, first built by the Franciscans in 1592, although much of the present building dates from 1740. No longer a functioning church, these days it houses a museum dedicated to the Honduran armed forces. The signage is all in Spanish.
The permanent exhibition at the excellent Museo para la Identidad Nacional, Calle Peatonal, focuses on the history of Honduras. Starting with the geographical formation of Central America, the displays move chronologically through the Maya civilization and colonial era to the various post-colonial presidents and their influence on the country. The museum’s highlight is a 3D tour of Copán that re-creates how the Maya kingdom would have looked at the height of its power.
Plaza Morazán is the centre of life for most people who live and work in the capital. Shaded by a canopy of trees, and populated with shoe-shiners and other vendors, it’s an atmospheric, if not particularly peaceful, place. A statue at the centre of the square commemorates national hero Francisco Morazán, a soldier, Liberal and reformer who was elected president of the Central American Republic in 1830. On the eastern edge of the plaza, the recently refurbished facade of the Catedral San Miguel (daily 8am–6pm; free), completed in 1782, is one of the best preserved in Central America. Inside, look out for the magnificent Baroque-style gilded altar and the baptismal font, carved in 1643 from a single block of stone by indigenous artisans.