Image: Rio Platano Nature Reserve
Gustavo Amador  /  EPA file
An aerial view of the Rio Platano nature reserve in Honduras. This is probably not a good year to take a summer trip to Europe, but in Honduras, the travel bargains are as plentiful as tropical fish on a coral reef.
By Tim Leffel Travel columnist
updated 6/11/2008 12:32:34 PM ET 2008-06-11T16:32:34

The advertising slogans concocted by many tourism boards sound forced and downright silly, but one that Honduras espouses in some of its materials is simple and rings true: “One small country, three big worlds.”

While the price of traveling through it may be a steal, in this small country you can do it all — from diving great reefs to exploring ancient history — in a nation that has roughly the same land area as Tennessee.

Reefs and dive bargains on the Bay Islands
If you are a scuba diver, you probably already know about Honduras. The Bay Islands are right on the second-longest coral reef in the world, the same one that stretches up along the coast of Belize and Mexico. Utila Island is one of the most inexpensive places in the world where you can earn an open water PADI scuba certification, with the five-day course coming in at under $200. Lodging there is just as reasonable, making it a magnet for divers on a budget.

Roatan is more upscale, but it’s still an unpretentious, laid-back island where a hotel’s room amenities almost always take a back seat to a the dive center and the bar. The positive side of this is that very few hotels are over $200 a night and at many of them, that includes a couple of dives and your meals. You’ll seldom pay more than $2 for a local beer in a bar and a fruity rum cocktail might set you back a buck or two more at a fancy place — umbrella and slice of pineapple are included.

All this value is not lost on traditional vacationers, so more families are drifting in to play on the beach and go snorkeling. Delta, Continental, and Taca have direct flights to Roatan from several U.S. gateways, mostly on the weekends, with plenty more options to two cities on the mainland.

Natural Honduras
Nobody will mistake Honduras for Costa Rica when it comes to environmental stewardship and eco-tourism, but the country does have a tremendous amount of protected public land. Hard-core adventurers spend a week or more in the Miskito region (of the famed Mosquito Coast book and movie), going into the jungle on the Rio Platano waterway. The best accessible national park, however, is Pico Bonito, near the city of La Ceiba. A direct flight to here from Roatan is only $60, or you can catch the comfortable 1.5-hour ferry over instead for just under half that amount.

Pico Bonito National Park draws plenty of birdwatchers, who get a combination show of migratory birds and tropical permanent residents. On a two-hour hike from The Lodge at Pico Bonito, I spotted 18 different birds, including a mother White-crowned Parrot and her babies, two types of toucans, Pygmy Owls, Bat Falcons, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, and the iridescent blue Lovely Cotinga.

Many visit this region for more heart-pumping pursuits though, such as white-water rafting around boulders the size of a house on the Cangrejal River. This is one of the most thrilling and picturesque rafting trips you can take in Central America, yet many La Ceiba companies set up half-day trips for less than $40, transportation from your hotel included.

Maya Honduras
In the far western corner of the country, near the border with Guatemala, lies the ancient city of Copán. This was one of the greatest Maya kingdoms, rivaling cities to the north such as Tikal and Palenque. In 700 A.D. the city had a population of 27,000. Copán was the most artistically advanced by far, however, so while the ruins here won’t wow you with colossal high-rise pyramids, they are a treasure trove of astounding carvings and statues. One especially interesting feature is in the accompanying archeological museum: a replica of a temple that lies under a visible one discovered here intact. It is covered with stucco and painted bright reds, greens, and yellows, just as the original Maya temples were before centuries of weather and erosion took their toll.

Admission to the park is $15 and another $10 covers two museums, one here and one in town. An English-speaking guide for up to 9 people is $60 for several hours.

The adjoining town of Copán Ruinas is almost as big a draw as the ruins themselves. It’s attractive and walkable, with cobbled streets and red clay tile roofs branching out from the central square. A double room at the best hotel in the town center lists for $85 a night and if you go for an all-out splurge at dinner, you’ll have a really hard time spending more than $25 each with drinks. If you end your trip here, you can move on to Guatemala overland or fly back to the U.S. from the city of San Pedro Sula. For more information on this area, see the official Copán Ruinas Web site.

If you think the outlook is all gloom and doom for the U.S. travel dollar, you’re probably not looking at the right destinations. Like many of the best bargains for Americans now, Honduras is only a quick flight south — with bargains galore and no jet lag.

For more information see the official Let’s Go Honduras tourism site, or follow this link for lots of privately run Honduras travel information resources.

Tim Leffel is author of the books "Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune" and "The World's Cheapest Destinations". He also edits the award-winning narrative Web 'zine Perceptive Travel.

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