June 22, 2006

Busing the Path of Pilgrims
Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras

It took about 26 hours for me to bus the width of Guatemala and into the highlands of Honduras (with an overnight stop in Esquipulas, arguably Central America's most religious town).

After disgruntally receiving my package from DHL (and cringing at the thought of an unnecessary night in Xela), I jumped on a noon bus headed for the eastern border. Nearly 10 hours (and two buses) later, I was in the border town of Esquipulas, Guatemala.

This is the first time in recent memory that I've rolled into a town after nightfall. Traditionally I do my best to avoid (arriving in) bus terminals and airports after dark, but I wasn't about to spend the night in the notoriously unfriendly capital of Guatemala, so I bused on.

Black Christ

Esquipulas is a town about one thing: An image of a crucified Christ carved out of black wood in the year 1595. Housed in the 250 year old basilica at the center of town, every visible block around the structure is either a hotel or religious souvenir shop.

Story has it that the Archbishop of Guatemala came here on pilgrimage in the early 1700s, and went away cured of a chronic ailment. The town has been pulling droves of believers ever since.

On days surrounding a religious holiday, the place must put Disneyland to shame. Thankfully, I missed the last big one (Corpus Christi) by about a week.

So I woke up today and checked out the carving—yawn—not that impressed. After walking through a winding path of empty, metal switchbacks (both outside and inside the church), I walked up to an elevated platform behind the alter. The figure is in enclosed in a glass display on an island that you walk around. It's pretty tiny, about the size of a child of seven, and of course very gaudy.

I was entertained by the description in my guidebook (and thankful I didn't have to endure its description):

Inside, the devout approach El Cristo Negro with extreme reverence, many on their knees. Incense, the murmur of prayers and the scuffle of sandaled feet fill the air. When throngs of pilgrims are here, you must enter the church from the side to get a close view of the famous Black Christ. Shuffling along quickly, you may get a good glimpse before being shoved onward by the press of the crowd.

The guide was right though, those believers that were there, were indeed deep in prayer/worship. And more power to 'em if that's their thing; I'm not one to criticize peoples beliefs (…usually).

Pensión Santa Rosa

Stay away from the hotel I spent the night at, the Pensión Santa Rosa. I didn't feel much like hunting in the dark in an unknown city, so I picked a place out of my guidebook—again, not impressed.

Overpriced at Q$40, the cold water showers and seat-less toilets were only complimented by the middle-aged manager and his friends blaring soft-core pornography on the courtyard television at midnight, while playing an annoyingly loud electronic gambling machine. I think I was the only guest staying there. Thank God I was tired.

Alma de la Tierra

Painted on a huge cement building in the capital is the phrase "Guatemala: Alma de la Tierra" (Spirit of the Earth). I really hope not—unless we want to consider widespread deforestation, pollution, and excessive littering as the spirit of our planet. Hummm… maybe the statement does fit.

Jumping the Border

Where I'm not

I got the most amazed look and outburst from the Guatemalan immigration officials when I gave them my passport. Apparently seeing an American traveler at this crossing is something of a raretity—damn near everyone passing through this area goes through Copán Ruines, the tourist heavy border town sporting some Mayan ruins.

A new one for me was getting the prints of my index fingers scanned into the Honduran passport control system. Pretty fancy, considering the location.

Santa Rosa de Copán

I'm back in Santa Rosa after making a loop through El Salvador and southern Guatemala. Like Old San Juan in Puerto Rico, it's enjoyable returning to a city I've explored before (after being away for some time). The place is a lot like I remember it, but much busier. It's really odd how a city with a population of over 30,000 can feel like a town of 3,000. I think there are a lot of people living in the hills around Santa Rosa proper. A warm and beautiful day today, I love it.

Hotel Hunting

Here's the problem with Santa Rosa: It's not a shoestring accommodation kind of town. There are at least a dozen hotels in the 10 block radius around the parque/plaza (pretty much representing Santa Rosa proper), but I would say only two of them are in the backpacker price range (I inquired at every one I could find).

This aspect of the town is a little confusing. People are staying at the hotels here (I can tell from the missing room keys at the manager's desk), but none are the typical Caucasian gringo variety. Why are they here? Where are they coming from? Do they feel comfortable paying (on average) US$15+/night for a room? I don't.

The hotel that I'm staying tonight is a real dandy of a place. The cheapest (overpriced) hotel in the area, the Hospedaje Calle Real—is a mistake I will not repeat tomorrow. I feel dirty just standing in the room (imagine how I feel about the grungy, rusting/rotting shared bathroom). I about laughed when they asked for L$70 for the night (a little less than US$4).

I need a shave, and will spring for accommodations with warm water tomorrow at my second option, the Hotel Maya (L$140).

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