Getting in/out of Honduras has never been easier thanks to Aeropuerto Internacional Ramón Villeda Morales; the newly renovated facility 15km outside San Pedro Sula. Considering location, this is the best option for making connections to the country's most popular sites, including the Copán Archeological Ruins and the Bay Islands. Industrial nature of this region keeps the airport busy with frequent global business travelers unlike in Tegucigalpa; the Capital's less-frequented airport.
TACA and Copa have daily flights, connecting through other Central American cities. Delta and Continental offer daily international service from the States as does American, which I flew.
American's flights are based from Miami International, with roughly a two-hour gate-to-gate time for San Pedro Sula. They've a couple of daily flights, arriving around 12:30pm and 5:30pm. If schedules permit, I highly recommend the earlier flight. Honduras doesn't acknowledge Daylight Savings Time, it's dark before 7:00pm. Bus transportaion has already ceased for the day, and orientation to San Pedro is overwhelming enough by day; little alone after dusk!
-- AA-frequent flier award flights are based at 35K-miles. Shoulder/Off-Season usually nets at least a 5K-savings. For CitiAAdvantage card members, both San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa regularly appear on quarterly Discount Mileage Awards lists. Using this, and another promotion offered with the new AAmExpress Citicard, I got round-trip flights from the midwest for 17,200-miles and $42.50, which included all taxes and the $15 booking fee by phone. Special awards can't be booked online.
Arriving in Honduras
All necessary forms are distributed on the plane, and must be completed before passing through immigration. There is no official tourist card or entry fees. In fact, hallway signs proclaim, 'Welcome to Honduras; it's Free to enter our country'. As hospitable as that sounds, they get you on the way out!
Officials scan and stamp passports, as well as staple necessary documents onto passport pages. Luggage carousels are beyond as are another set of customs inspectors. All items must pass through x-ray. From here, travelers were waved-on while nationals and businessmen had belongings thoroughly inspected.
The main terminal area is rather confounding with that first blast of tropical heat. There was no signage for navigating through the beehive of activities, including the onslaught of individuals with fists full of Lempiras; the official local currency. I eventually discovered that independent money changers offer the going rate, but be wary about digging into stashes amid so many distractions, which invite potential theft!
On far-side of the concourse is a small bank branch, where I recommend exchanging currency just to be safe. Lempiras, simply referred to as "Lemps" and designated Lps on prices, have a stable history against the American-$. In 5/07, exchange rate was holding at 18.9. Also, there's no transaction fee.
-- The bank also converts Travelers Cheques and gives cash advances on credit cards. Otherwise, these forms of payment are accepted in only the most heavily-frequented tourist areas, and are hit-and-miss even in San Pedro Sula businesses. Banks in remote towns don't have ATM's, but at least will exchange currency since Casas de Cambios are rare.
Beyond the Airport
Future plans call for new international airports scattered around the country, including the Copán region, and Gracias -- heart of the Ruta Lenca. In the meantime, ground transportation is the only way for getting around.
Hedman Alas is the premier bus company, at almost triple the rates of other outfits. While travel times are basically the same, inflation is justified by luxury service including air-conditioning, onboard snacks and entertainment, and restrooms that actually function. They've recently opened a terminal at the airport, which spares further hassle if connections can be coordinated. Otherwise travelers must venture into the City, which was not an impressionable way to begin!
Taxi drivers quickly zero-in on potential prey, asking $20 though the going rate is either $10 or Lps200. Basic Spanish can help stand your ground, but there's no reason to pay anything more! Arriving early enough to make a bus connection will actually determine where you need to go, and where things got rather confusing.
I was headed for Copán, and while I could've caught a Hedman Alas bus at the airport or at their in-town terminal, El Rey Express and Casasola offered the same routes for $5.29/Lps100. Requesting El Rey with time to catch a listed 1:30pm departure, driver inadvertantly dropped me off at the unmarked Casasola lot; perhaps because it was closer.
By time I discovered the mix-up, it was too late. Casasola's listed last departure at 2:40pm was actually 3:30pm, leaving more than 2-hours to kill in a very desolate, impoverished area. Quite honestly, I was too paranoid to venture far beyond, or purchase anything more than bottled water amid the filth. There were no restrooms; guys told to pee anywhere, while who knows how females manage.
Unfortunately, these are the first perceptions most will have of the Country and San Pedro Sula; especially budget travelers! When later returning to the City, I would find the Rey Express lot just as haphazard and chaotic, though thankfully San Pedro had more than just these highly suspect areas.
-- Hope For the Future includes a new Bus Terminal, completed more than a year ago but sitting vacant because transportation companies have refused to use it! A major resistance had begun on 5/28/07 when smaller city buslines blockaded all major companies' buses within the new terminal, after they agreed to begin usage that morning. However, that's a start and hopefully the problem will be solved sooner than later.
-- Once the new terminal is up-and-running, expect cab fares to rise to/from airport. It wouldn't surprise me if the rate doubled to $20/Lps400 because it's in the opposite direction from the airport, another 5km south of the City.
Departing from Honduras
Arriving two-hours before departure is recommended, but quite frankly I was shocked that the whole procedure was quick and effecient at every check-point; even with waiting lines!
The entry level is expansive, with plenty of seating before passing through checkpoints. Off the central fountain is a Coffeeshop Kiosk; a large negro costing 14Lps. For those wanting a bit more, there's also Wendy's on the far end. The giftshop closest to Wendy's had the best slections, but outrageous prices. Smaller one towards the middle offered less, but had 15%-discounts on everything.
On the upper-level, passengers must first pass through immigration/customs, which was rather backasswards. They'll ask to see passport, but didn't bother with exit stamps or declaration of goods. Main concern is paying Departure Tax of 627Lps or $33.19. And yes, they expect that 19¢! If paying in dollars but don't have coins, 4Lps covered the difference. If using dollars, I recommend exact amounts because any change is returned in Lempiras.
-- A large 'Taxes Paid' receipt will be stapled to ticket envelopes. This is your ticket out of the country!
Security checkpoints were very casual, and handled with more respect and dignity than you'll ever get at an American airport. The x-ray technician obviously spotted a cigarette lighter tossed into the jumbled abyss of my backpack. An officer checked through pockets, took a couple of things out, but gave-up without further asking. (Nothing supposedly illegal was even detected or questioned at Miami or Dallas).
The whole 3-1-1 business was also very nonchalant. I had a 3-oz bottle of mouthwash in a clear zip-lock stashed within my backpack, and never kept it out nor was asked to at any airport. At San Pedro Sula, bottled water wasn't even an issue. Before boarding the plane, there's a table where passengers are expected to voluntarily leave any deviant contraband. Otherwise, no one was thoroughly searching carry-on contents.
The waiting area has a small snackbar and pair of souvenir kiosks. As an added bonus, I'm always impressed that AA distributes snack bags when leaving Central America. This one contained ham and cheese croissant, small pastry and a banana; more than you'd ever get within the States, including on Miami international departures.
Duty Free Shopping
There's only one store, but a big one! Aside from perfumes, cigars and what you'd expect, a 10-pack $18 carton of cigarettes might be cheaper than the States, but hardly a deal when individual packs never cost more than $1.30 in the city; 90¢ in rural areas. Best buys are wines and liquors; selections quite impressive. I loaded up on Barceló Añejo; a superbly aged, dark Rum from the Dominican Republic, for $8 a 750ml-bottle. Purchases are delivered to departure gates.
-- Here's the quandry: From Honduras, there's no problem taking perfumes and liquors onboard as carry-on luggage. However, once arriving in Miami and passing through customs, items must be packed into checked luggage before they're reprocessed for connecting flights. Otherwise, they're confiscated at the next security checkpoint.