Tegucigalpa, Honduras – September 20, 2014
Today I went on a Tour of Tegucigalpa, arranged by the Community Liaison Officer. I thought the cost of 600 Lempiras, about US$30, was very reasonable. She was kind enough to stop by my hotel to pick me up. She delivered me to the Embassy. There was a small bus waiting there. I got on, took a seat, and prepared for the ride.
There were 25-30 people on the bus, including four armed security personnel. There was a chase vehicle behind the bus with another four or five armed guards. The level of security is necessary for safety. Unfortunately, crime is rampant in parts of the city. Throughout the tour, we found ourselves in a protective bubble as we walked around. That was a little odd to get used to, but we certainly did feel safe.
The first stop was the small Virgin of Suyapa church. That area had usually been off-limits to Embassy personnel. However, with all of the “firepower” we had, we were able to be in the area with impunity.
The Virgin of Suyapa church is about two blocks east of the Basilica of Our Lady of Suyapa. We walked those two blocks with our security contingent. It was easy to tell we were in a very distressed and impoverished area. I was glad I was not there alone.
Several small children seemed to appear out of nowhere. There was a couple in particular that continued to tap on my arm, asking for money. They followed us during our entire walking tour of the church.
Approaching the small church, we saw several vendors setting up stalls from which they sold various religious items related to the Virgin of Suyapa. It was still relatively early. I can only imagine how crowded and bustling the area must be later in the day.
Construction of the Virgin of Suyapa church began in 1777 to honor a small statue of the Virgin Mary found by a young boy in about 1747. One can envision the faithful, but poor farmers that gave their time, talent, and treasure to build the church. It is not very ornamental, but it is awe-inspiring in its own right. If I understood correctly, the small statue of the Virgin Mary on display in the decorative wooden case above the altar is not the original statue. The original icon is safely stored in the nearby Basilica of Our Lady of Suyapa, only brought out for display on extraordinary occasions.
Over time, the large crowds of pilgrims became too much for the small Virgin of Suyapa church to handle. To handle the masses of people, the Basilica of Our Lady of Suyapa opened in 1954. Our tour guide said it is not a Basilica, but everyone refers to it as such. That may be news to Mr. Google. If one checks Google Maps, Our Lady of Suyapa is a basilica.
After touring the small church, we walked roughly two blocks to the Basilica of Our Lady of Suyapa. Once we got on the grounds of the basilica, there were very few people. Children no longer pestered us. The basilica itself was large but not as ornate as I was expecting. From the west side of the basilica, one has a commanding view of parts of Tegucigalpa. The small plaza just below the west entrance to the basilica contains a statue of St. John Paul II. The then-Pope visited the Cathedral on March 8, 1983. The statue faces the town, looking down over the vast cemetery and valley below.
We piled back onto the bus for the 20-minute ride to our next stop, a small park, Parque la Leona, overlooking the old-town section of Tegucigalpa. Our travels took us over some of the only remaining cobblestone streets in the city. The roads are incredibly steep, narrow, and have numerous curves. On several occasions, I was surprised the bus was able to continue making forward progress.
The current Presidential House is next to my hotel; however, from the overlook, one could see the previous Presidential House. It looked like an ornate castle, just a block or two away from the Tegucigalpa Cathedral.
The bus motored down the alleged steepest street in town after departing the park. I cannot speak to the veracity of that claim, but I can say it was by far the steepest street on which I have ever been! At the bottom of the hill, the bus stopped to let us off. From there we began our walking tour, heading to the church at Dolores Park. All totaled, we walked just over two miles (three kilometers) today.
As we walked along the street, I could not help but notice the plethora of wires and cables strung from power pole to power pole. It just looked like a mess to me. I am glad I am not in charge of troubleshooting when there is a connectivity problem.
When we made it to the small church on the plaza, Dolores Church (Church of Sorrows); I was amazed at the number of pigeons perched on and flying around the front of the church. Since the church was under construction from about 1732 until 1815, I guess the pigeons had plenty of time to find the spot! A small boy in the middle of dozens of pigeons in the plaza mesmerized many of us in the tour group. The pigeons focused on him because of the bird feed he threw to them.
Several small shops selling a multitude of items ring the plaza. Because of the security detail, it seemed the people in and around the plaza were as interested in looking at us as we were in looking at them.
Inside, the Church of Sorrows is very colorful. I do not believe I have ever seen the primary colors used so predominantly in a church. The colors and the Baroque style made it very eye-catching. The people we observed in the church praying seemed to be very poor.
Leaving the Church of Sorrows, our next stop was the Museo para la ldentidad Nacional (MIN)(Museum of National Identity). We walked for a couple of blocks along Avenida Cristobol Colon (Christopher Columbus Avenue) to get to the museum. The street in front of the MIN was just for pedestrians. It was visually amazing because, for one block, dozens of colorful umbrellas completely covered the pedestrian mall. The umbrellas stretched between the MIN and the Galeria Nacional de Arte (National Art Gallery). It was a fundraiser for the MIN.
In the late 1800s, the building housing the MIN was the first hospital in Tegucigalpa. In the mid-1920s, the government took over the building as the Palacio de las Ministerios, Ministerial Palace. The MIN opened its doors in this historic building in 2006.
When we entered the building for our tour, we found schoolchildren had pre-empted us. We waited for 30 minutes or so. While standing there with my camera, I found out I could not bring my camera into the museum, a crushing blow.
During the wait, the tour guide asked if anyone was interested in seeing the National Theater. He said it was only a block away. A few of us took him up on his offer. The 99-year-old National Theater sits directly across from a small park. It was a quaint theater modeled after one in Paris. A staff member related that the theater would soon be undergoing a significant restoration in preparation for its 100th anniversary.
A few minutes after arriving back at the MIN, we began our tour. A guide led us through the exhibits, describing Mayan artifacts, dinosaur bones, and silver mining artifacts. It was helpful having the guide lead us through with descriptions in English. Otherwise, for me, it would have been a little more challenging to understand the exhibits. The culmination of the tour was a 15-minute movie on the Mayan culture, mainly focused on the Copan site that is very near the border with Guatemala. It was in Spanish, so I only understood about 25 percent. Luckily, that was enough to get the gist.
When we left the MIN, we walked several blocks to the old American Legation. It was the first “Embassy” in Honduras for the United States, but the only identifying feature left today is the eagle above the main door. A bunch of wires and cables somewhat obscures it.
A block further down the road we found ourselves at the Plaza Morazan. What was most striking to me was the number of motorcycles and scooters that were parked, each one with their seats covered by a piece of cardboard. That was obviously to keep the bike seats from “burning” the butts of the owners when they returned.
The namesake of the plaza is Jose Francisco Morazan (1792-1842), a revered founding father of Central America. He was born in Tegucigalpa. There is a statue of him atop a horse in the plaza. There were dozens of people relaxing and talking in the “shadow” of the figure.
Although the statue was impressive, the main draw of the plaza is the Cathedral, built between 1765 and 1782; it is dedicated to Tegucigalpa’s patron saint, Saint Michael the Archangel. The richly decorated interior immediately pulls one’s attention to the sizeable Baroque altar.
A few blocks to the east of the Cathedral is the oldest church in Tegucigalpa, San Francisco. It dates from the 1590s. It was closed, so we were not able to go inside. The building next door housing a military museum used to be the monastery associated with the church. It was closed too.
Just around the corner from the old monastery building, we boarded the bus again. The next stop was an overlook atop Mount Picacho. It provided some fantastic panoramic views of the city. Mount Picacho rises nearly 1,000 feet (305 meters) above Tegucigalpa, which is itself at about 3,300 feet (1,006 meters) in elevation. There were several other people there enjoying the weather and the view.
At the far west end of the ridge is the Cristo del Picacho statue. Our bus took us to the parking lot. There was a small entry fee, about US$0.50, included in the tour fee. Once on the grounds, one is in a garden setting. A path meanders through the gardens, leading to the statue of Christ. The figure is about 65 feet (20 meters) tall. It sits on a 33-foot (10 meters) base, making the entire height just under 100 feet (30 meters). It is a recent addition to the Tegucigalpa skyline, finished in 1987.
At the opposite end of the parking area was a replica Mayan temple. I opted only to look, not walk to the top. After all of the walking during the tour, I was tired.
From there it was back to the Embassy and then my hotel for some rest and a private meeting with Captain Morgan.