We arrived in the early afternoon to the peculiar metropolis of Tegucigalpa. We’d gotten up in Managua before dawn in order to arrive in this somewhat notorious city well before dark – ironic since we’d done the same thing in order to arrive in Managua during the day and ended up leaving from Managua in total darkness. The bus station was small but somewhat chaotic. As usual we brushed past the aggressive taxi drivers that jostled to be the first face you see when leaving the bus. We walked a few yards trailed by shouting taxistas and negotiated a price with a broken down sedan.
The hotel we stayed in was spotless and run by an extremely friendly staff. They jumped right into action as we reported a colony of tiny ants marching under our door and into the closet. We moved to another room with a window overlooking a music school where an orchestra practiced “The William Tell Orchestra” again and again. The presence of live music didn’t end there, we’d be followed around Honduras by schoolchildren practicing wind instruments and beating on drums.
We walked around town for a while, at first paranoid, then slowly relaxing as the muggers/murderers never materialized. The city was an interesting jumble of colonial buildings and questionable post-modern decisions, knotted together by a thick tangle of power lines as dense as matted dreadlocks. As the afternoon wore on, piles of trash developed on numerous street corners, then swelled in size. Soon, even in the nicely designed pedestrian mall, desperate trash pickers appeared in order to sift through the daily leavings, looking for anything of any value.
We found a cash machine, drank some coffee, and in general took in what was an odd looking but pretty peaceful town. Hemmed in on three sides by mountains, Tegucigalpa climbs up from a wild looking river until it reaches a narrow plateau where the heart of the old city is built. The pedestrian mall cuts the old city in half and is paved with a wave pattern of bricks. Musicians perform in front of large, appreciative crowds. The mall ends at the central square which is predictably overseen by a large, beautiful Catholic Church. The square was bustling with markets, lay-abouts, taxi drivers, beggars, school children and people selling tortillas. The city had an energy that surprised us with its contagion. When we returned to the hotel from our walk we were in an oddly good mood.
The reason we chose the MacArthur Hotel was because it had a pool. It wasn’t large, but it was full of water and a guy from Mexico City doing laps. After we jumped in he introduced himself, and then asked if it was safe to go outside. I looked at him strangely.
“Outside of where?”
“The hotel. Is the city safe?” He asked, looking genuinely worried.
“Um, it seemed safe enough. What city are you from?” I asked, confused why a Mexico City resident would be worried about a little place like Tegucigalpa. I was suddenly feeling much more optimistic about Mexico City if it felt safer than the capital of Honduras. Then again, as a businessman he’d probably heard stories. Stories we weren’t interested in hearing.
His question stayed with me. As we left for dinner at around 7 o’clock we asked the woman who’d helped us with the ants if it was secure to walk around after dark.
“Si, claro.” Yes of course.
“Until about what time?” We asked.
“Until eight o’clock.” she replied.
So we had one hour before hoards of banditos reclaimed their nocturnal playground. The streets were still busy. A line of tortilla vendors still sat with big baskets of steaming tortillas insulated by towels. Kids played on the sidewalks. We made it back to the pedestrian mall where the piles of trash had reached epic proportions and were crawling with scavengers. Businesses had begun to close; big rolling doors shambled down with a metallic crash. We had a recommended restaurant in mind and walked quickly and decisively through the thinning crowds. No one paid any attention to us, though we were the only obvious foreigners to be seen. We passed a police station were a commander seemed to be giving his team a pre-game pep-talk. Uniformed and plain-clothed officers listened, as did several men in black ski-masks carrying AK-47’s.
We walked faster.
When we found the restaurant we walked in planning on eating quickly then returning before the witching hour which was fast approaching, but with one look at the interiors and the complacent waitstaff that could barely be bothered to give us a menu, we turned around and walked out. Outside a man hurried by, pointed down the street and said something too quickly to understand. Then he walked in the opposite direction. Tired, hungry and increasingly paranoid again, we interpreted this as, don’t go that way.
Our short time in the restaurant had been enough for the landscape to completely change. Most stores were shuttered, the lively main plaza was almost empty save for a few people lingering in the dark. Of the several working street lights that illuminated the plaza, two or three occasionally blinked off as we crossed, leaving us alone with the shadows.
In response to a growing nervousness, we did something we never do. We abandoned the idea of sitting in a local place with great native cuisine and ducked into the single nicest restaurant we’d seen in the center of Tegucigalpa: Burger King. We ordered two hamburgers to go, and just like that, we were making our way back to the hotel holding our take-out food like paper sacks full of defeat. We returned a little after eight without a single attacker on our heals. The clerk didn’t seem at all surprised that we came back unmolested, but we felt some immediate relief none-the-less. We wished the whole night crew a pleasant evening and retired to our room.
That night we decided that one afternoon in Tegucigalpa was enough. It had its charms, but not enough to overcome the oppressive stigma that descends along with the sun.