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San Pedro Sula has—for the last two years—had the highest murder rate of any city in the world. I heard this grim fact about the Honduran city rife with gang warfare before setting off on our trip, and thought to myself: there’s one place I won’t be going. I was wrong.
The murder rate in 2013 was 169 murders per 100,000 residents, with battling gangs willing to off their rivals wherever necessary. In one of my less smart moves, I found myself arriving in the murder capital, unplanned, late at night, without a place to stay.
Reading up online, it seemed difficult but possible to complete the gruelling trip from Semuc Champey all the way to La Ceiba, Honduras in one day. It wasn’t. Tired after 12 hours of travelling, we got dropped off on the side of a road on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula, and so our night in the murder capital began.
We encountered two problems as we arrived: firstly we didn’t get dropped off at the bus terminal as expected and secondly, we’d missed the last bus out of town anyway. Other than the grim statistics, we knew nothing about the city and most importantly didn’t know the name of a single hotel in the city. As we were being quoted an extortionate amount of money for a taxi to an unknown location, the first friendly local that we met suggested we followed him.
We didn’t have much choice.
A couple of minutes later a minibus screeched around the corner with its side door open, a man clinging on to the roof screaming a list of indecipherable destinations. Our new friend hopped on, apparently we were going to one of these places. It was a normal sized minibus, but in Honduras the expectation is that you can fit five people across the three and a half seats. Squeezed in to the corner with some not so friendly locals beside us, backpacks lodged between lap and roof, for a second I found it hard not to laugh at the situation.
Soon enough, the lad charged with drumming up business for our minibus, still hanging out the side of the ever open sliding door, decided to try out a new tactic: frantically smacking the roof of the van as hard as he could to let everyone within a 50 mile radius know that this minibus was ready to take them home.
Remarkably, it seemed to work. He must have been chuffed as his bus overflowed with blank faced Hondurans, the friendly guy that we were following and two tired backpackers (us).
There was lots of shouting, pointing and urgency to get us out of the van as quickly as possible. Somebody grabbed our bags and threw them in to another van that happened to be parked where we stopped.
Our friend, who we now knew as Pedro, hopped on and so we followed. We drove through dark street after dark street until we arrived at some kind of dodgy looking market. Everybody got off.
Pedro started to walk off, but looked back at the two of us as we stood there looking confused. He told us he knew a hotel and pointed us around a dark corner. Pausing as we checked out the sketchy road that we were supposed to walk down, he very kindly told us he would walk us there.
We made it to a hotel. Pedro, the absolute legend, had walked in the complete opposite direction to his house to guide us to our safe haven for the night. We bid him farewell and approached the hotel.
As we went to enter the hotel, a grimacing security guard with an 18 inch machete strapped to his belt appeared from behind the door; quite the welcome! I wasn’t sure whether to be happy that we had security, or worried that his weapon of choice was effectively a sword.
Looking at the hotel, it was unlikely anything of value was going to be kept there, so we assumed that chances of a robbery were minimal and checked in to our room that had presumably been decorated at 3am with the lights off. Not that I cared one bit.
Having been on the road all day, we were ravenous. However much we wanted to skip dinner and sleep immediately, we needed food and so we headed out. We enquired at reception for the closest eatery, to which we received blank expressions almost to say “you want to go out there, in the dark?”. We finally received an uncertain response “I think there might be something up the road”. “Great, thanks”. We passed the machete wielding security guard, smiley as ever, and exited the hotel. It was almost pitch black as the street lights flickered a faint light across the road, casting long shadows.
Within 50 metres of the hotel, 4 teenagers approached us “money, money, we’re poor”. I didn’t have any. “Money, money!”. As they began to follow us we picked up the pace and quickly entered a burger restaurant, ordered and sat down. The teenagers were stood at the window, staring at us. One looked me right in the eye as he knocked on the window. Shit.
We took our time eating dinner, savouring every mouthful both due to hunger and due to the fact we didn’t fancy venturing back outside. But eventually we had to and we were surrounded once again… “money, money”. We repeated that we had none (which really was true) and speedily walked back to the hotel, with the teenagers behind us. We made it, and then we slept.
The following morning, we woke early, checked out and headed to where the minibus had dropped us off, grabbing some fruit on the way. “Papi, papito!!” one guy shouted at me as we approached the road. “Hey shorty, get over here!” another screamed in English, banging on his minibus.
Here we go again I thought. I found being called “shorty” pretty funny being over 6’2″ tall, so we hopped in that guy’s minibus.
And with that, our time in the murder capital had come and gone, thankfully without any murders (that we’d seen anyway). There was an understandably strange feel about the city. Everybody seemed to be on edge, and we saw very few smiles, in stark contrast to most other places we visited. Granted, we only had one night in the murder capital, but that was enough for me, I was just happy that we’d made it out alive!
Have you ever ended up somewhere that you wished you hadn’t while on your travels?