Storytime: A Scary Encounter With Rioters in Honduras
I've been fortunate that all the travel I've done so far has been pretty much hassle-free. I've travelled to 24 countries, many of them solo, without any problems. I'd say I'm careful about my personal safety but not overly worried about the media's depiction of certain countries as safe/not safe.
This story takes place in Honduras. Last year I spent three months travelling through Central America. After travelling overland from Cancun, Mexico down through the Yucatan Peninsula into Guatemala and then Honduras, I'd spent a fantastic week on the Caribbean island of Utila completing my advanced scuba qualification. My next destination was Leon, Nicaragua.
I'd initially been a bit hesitant to travel to Nicaragua. In April 2018 there had been some serious violent civil unrest and although the protests had eased by March 2019, the country was still marked a precautionary orange by the Australian government warning travellers to 'reconsider your need to travel to Nicaragua'. However, after chatting to other travellers I was reassured that the country was completely safe and super cheap at the moment - it was just a little quieter than usual and the locals would be very appreciative of the business. I would later note in my journal, 'the streets here are strangely quiet, lots of businesses seem to be closed'. It would also have been incredibly inconvenient and insanely expensive to 'skip over' Nicaragua and fly straight to Costa Rica.
So I'd booked myself onto a tourist shuttle that would take me from the ferry stop in La Ceiba, Honduras to Leon, Nicaragua - it was quoted to be an '8 hour' journey but anyone who has travelled overland through Central America would know 8 hours really means minimum of 12 gruelling hours in Central American time.
The trip was off to an unfortunate start the morning I boarded the ferry from Utila to La Ceiba. I'd left my earphones at my hostel. This was going to be a looong day. A driver collected me and four other fellow backpackers from the local La Ceiba 'Wendy's' restaurant.
We would be travelling the typical way backpackers got around Central America (or at least the way that those that could afford to 'splurge' a little to avoid the painfully slow, but cheap 'chicken buses' did) - squished into a 9+-seater Toyota van with our lugged piled on the roof.
By some miracle, there was only five of us booked on the shuttle that day so we each got a row to ourselves. I could even semi-comfortably lie flat - win! We traversed mainland Honduras on unsealed roads for a number of hours before we stopped at a roadside tourist establishment that housed a buffet restaurant and convenience store - the front door protected by an armed guard of course!
After I'd spent my last Lempiras on an apple, Jatz and a packet of pringles, we continued driving through rural, mountainous Honduras. I would often check on our progress using the Maps.me app, each time realising we still had a long way to go.
We drove into the night. At around 7pm we stopped for another roadside meal and to pick up travellers also headed from Leon that were coming from El Salvador.
Sometime later, in the middle of nowhere, we started to slow as there was a line of trucks stopped up ahead. I remember being confused as I was sure the Nicaraguan border was still a few hours off. Our driver started driving the wrong way down the other side of the road to bypass these parked trucks to see what the traffic jam was. As he slowed again we could see that something was happening up ahead.
"Ooooh protestor", our English-limited driver said.
As I heard the word protestor and noticed the road blocked by fire ahead, I was reminded of the travel advisory warnings for Central America I'd read online. They'd stressed for travellers to, 'avoid all protests, demonstrations and rallies' as 'even peaceful events can turn violent without warning'.
The reality of our current situation was: we were stuck on a highway in the middle of nowhere in Honduras at night with a bunch of angry protesters that had set the road alight.
Our driver parked the van (a lot closer to the action than I was comfortable with) and spoke to who seemed like the only police officer on the scene. He came back to give us two options: (1) bypass the blocked road and get to the Nicaraguan border using a "dangerous" road, or, (2) wait it out until a heavier police presence arrived and cleared the road. Knowing dangerous gangs and bandits operated on rural Honduran roads, we voted unanimously to stay and wait it out.
Our driver parked us right next to a petrol tanker (!?), left the engine of the van running and instructed us to "stay here" as he joined a gathering crowd of spectators watching the action from the sidelines. I felt like we were sitting ducks. I thought for sure we would get robbed (at the very minimum).
I stuck my passport and credit card down my pants just in case.
I'd written in my journal, "no sign of police at this stage, we could just see fires burning". We could really feel the tension escalating around us. After what felt like forever, it seemed like the police had arrived as we could see protestors throwing rocks at figures armed with plastic shields.
All around us we could hear what sounded like fireworks or gunshots - we couldn't tell.
After a lot more bangs and an increase in yelling, and then few final big bangs, the protesters dispersed and ran into the darkness of the bush surrounding the highway. Shortly after, we were able to drive through the re-opened road and past 50+ police officers in full riot gear. The scene was smoky and felt apocalyptic. Luckily it seemed like it had ended peacefully - we could see no signs of anyone injured.
It was now after 11pm. We continued our drive to the Nicaraguan border (safely) where we each paid a $14 USD entry free (and got a receipt for $10 USD ).
Finally, at 1:30am (19hours later), I was dropped at my hostel in Leon, Nicaragua. Safe to say I've never been so happy to see a bunk bed!
I ended up having a great time in Leon. I even went volcano boarding! You can read about that experience here.
While this experience does seem to contradict my 'Is Central America Safe blog post?', I still remain of the opinion that any country can become unsafe. To me being safe involves minimising the risks without letting the fear of 'something' happening stop you from travelling.
Sometimes things happen that are just out of your control. I would 100% feel comfortable visiting Honduras again in the future.
Read more about my adventures in Central America on my blog!