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As seen in the Transitions Abroad Webzine July 2008 Issue

A Learning Adventure in Honduras

Girl in Honduras
Girl at Cruz Alta.

For one week each February, chaos reigns in the tiny village of La Campa, Honduras. During the village’s annual festival, over 30,000 pilgrims journey to the cathedral, Iglesia de San Matias to pay homage to the municipality’s patron saint. A sprawling tent town springs up to service the faithful and the air is filled with the din of vendors hawking everything from tamales to bootleg DVD’s. Religious ceremonies include candlelight processions, a traditional masked guancascos dance and a ritual exchange of relics between neighbouring indigenous villages.

The rest of the year, life is a struggle for survival. Situated deep in the remote highlands of western Honduras and a four hour drive from the Mayan ruins of Copan, the nearest major tourism destination, the village of 400 permanent residents sees few international visitors. A new community-based tourism project hopes to change that. By offering opportunities to experience the village’s authentic indigenous Lenca culture and leading environmentally-sensitive excursions into the surrounding cloud forest, they hope to generate much-needed economic growth and encourage preservation of their traditions.

It’s not an impossible task. Tucked in a canyon of white limestone cliffs, La Campa’s geographic isolation means it has been relatively untouched by mass tourism. Within the village itself, the cathedral, constructed in 1690, is a well-preserved example of colonial architecture and the meandering paths are lined with pottery shops featuring hand-crafted earthenware. Its dramatic river setting, numerous forest trails and cool highland climate make it an ideal hub for eco-tourism activities.  

Under La Campa’s new eco-tourism project, community guides are available to assist visitors who want to explore the hillside communities and neighbouring eco-systems. The easiest hike, a thigh-burning, hour-long, uphill walk to Mirador San Guanera, is a good way to get oriented. At the top, a lookout offers a panoramic view of the distant peaks of the Cerro de las Minas mountains, enveloped by clouds and home to rare animals, flora and fauna.   

Hiking the Mirador San Guanera.
Hiking up to the Mirador San Guanera.

A longer half-day hike to the village Nueva Esperanza just beyond the edge of La Campa is also worthwhile. With cows grazing in the lush valley pasture, life in the valley seems pastoral and uneventful. But behind the quiet exterior lies a world of mystery and legend, including tales of a duende or goblin that roams the countryside, causing mischief to those who live nearby.   

“Many believe the duende actually lives in Cueva de Taistado,” explains David Perez, a local resident who leads hikes to an enormous cave, hidden behind deep vegetation on a farmer’s pasture. Intrepid explorers who have ventured inside the cave’s dark interior report of signs of occupation and a labyrinth of tunnels leading to nearby villages. So well hidden it was used as hideout during the armed conflict between El Salvador and Honduras in the 1960’s, the cave sees few visitors.

“Whenever someone in the community tries to clear away the opening to the cave, they encounter serpents and insects,” he says. “It’s almost as though the duende is protecting it.” 

Another location rich in legend is Cruz Alta, located four kilometres up a steep hill behind Iglesia de San Matias. Centuries ago, following a series of devastating earthquakes, the church’s priest advised residents to carry crosses to the mountain in the hope that a demonstration of faith would put an end to the continual destruction. When the quakes ceased, residents deemed the hill sacred and erected two crosses in commemoration.

Accessible only by foot, horseback or four-wheel drive vehicle, the mountain’s steep slopes are blanketed in dense cloud forest, a mix of pine trees, vines and bromeliads that is venerated for its role as a watershed. Designated as a communal resource, local villagers have protected it from unsustainable exploitation since colonial times. Other community-based micro-enterprises on Cruz Alta include a paper-making cooperative, a traditional bakery and an organic coffee plantation, many of which can be visited for a short stay or as a community  volunteer.      

Within the mountain’s red earth is another valuable resource—the clay and unique pigment used as paint for the community’s best-known product, its finely crafted Lenca pottery. At one time, indigenous traditions involved ritual sacrifices to the spirits of the clay so that the gods didn’t bury the artisans alive while they gathered the materials. Now, it’s possible for visitors to learn the basics of such craftsmanship in hands-on workshops. Several La Campa residents, such as Dona Desideria, continue to maintain their ancient traditions and use only rudimentary tools such as corn husks and twigs to craft their products. A new interpretive museum in La Campa offers interpretive exhibits explaining their traditions and sponsors revolving expositions featuring local work.

Pottery shop at La Campa.
Women holding pottery at a shop at La Campa.

In time, the village hopes to launch culinary workshops and additional eco-excursions such as multi-day hikes. For now, it offers a leisurely, yet authentic glimpse into traditional Honduras rural life hosted by the people who live there.       

For information on La Campa:

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