Lew is an American expat living in Honduras. A former gold assayer, he is now a photographer and conservator of Central American culture.
When the word “Honduras” enters a conversation, many people in the United States conjure up visions of crime, gangs, drugs, and thousands of starving people clamoring to swarm the U.S. illegally at any cost. Others envision idyllic scenes of tropical splendor, a Garden of Eden where beachcombers bask in a hammock under mango trees and soak up the sun and trade-wind breezes. There are times and places where both these daydreams are true, but for the common rural Honduran campesino (farmer) the reality is very different.
A Step Back in Time
A trip to rural Honduras is a step back in time. I’ve occasionally compared it the the Wild West of the United States, but in reality rural Honduras is more like a continuation of the Spanish Colonial era. Except for a few small details, a visitor from 1750 would hardly notice a difference; roads are still dirt and dusty and filled with kids and dogs; women still wash clothes by hand and dry them on rocks in the sun; an occasional burro or ox-cart can be seen plying what roads that are wide enough for such traffic.
In the photo above, about a hundred yards down the hill is the end of all modern conveniences—including the wonders of electricity. The last pole is just ahead; beyond that is a whole different world, a world unimaginable to most modern armchair travelers. The summit of the Cordillera is a short climb up the mountain to the right, but this is the highest pass for automobile traffic on the Camino Blanco. This is where “rural” Honduras truly begins.
Scattered among these mountain peaks and valleys are many dwellings and small subsistence farms, some inherited from ancestors who benefited from Spanish land grants, others who took advantage of Honduras’ liberal homestead laws.
How Land Is Acquired
Much of the land in remote sections of Honduras is owned by the government. A person in need of a home or small farming space can apply to the local aldea (municipality) for a plot of land. The only real conditions are that he must prove he was born in the local area, and he must pay a nominal filing fee. The aldea will then send their surveyors to measure the land and mark the boundaries. If approved, the successful applicant must construct some form of dwelling on the land within a certain time and pay a tax assessment. The land is then his for all time.
Squatters' Rights Law
Honduras also has a “squatters’ rights” law. Occasionally someone will take up residence on land belonging to another person. If they live there for a certain time without protest from the legal owner, seven years I believe, then the government can declare that portion of land abandoned. The squatter can apply for legal ownership by right of abandonment. It thus behooves all landowners to keep a close eye on who might be living on their land uninvited. Squatters’ rights do not apply to government land. That has to be done as above from the local municipality.
In rural Honduras nearly all houses are built of adobe. Adobe is cheap, fireproof, and good insulation against heat and cold. If a landowner is fortunate enough to have a supply of good gray adobe clay, then his building expenses are practically nothing, just roofing and any outside labor.
The house started in the photo above is now the home of our neighbor on the Cordillera. He may not have electricity to light his home at night, but he has one great view!
Adobe houses sometimes have concrete floors, some with tile. Others in more remote areas have pounded earth floors. Few if any have indoor plumbing. After a coating of stucco and paint, adobe houses can look quite nice. These little dwellings are comfortable, cool in summer, warm in winter, and almost none have glass windows or even screens. Windows are left open during the day, and closed with wooden shutters after dusk to keep out mosquitoes and any uninvited jungle critters. One little animal, however, infests nearly every house in rural areas and many in the cities. These are geckos.
These cute little lizards are clean, quiet and eat tons of mosquitoes, centipedes, spiders and other unwanted pests. They are considered good luck by most rural people. Since Pre-Columbian times the Lenca people have had a high regard for the little gecko. They are a favorite motif on traditional pottery.
How People Make a Living
Planting, harvesting, and caring for animals takes up a large part of a rural campesino’s time. Sometimes crops that don’t take a lot of care, like squash or pataste, are collected along with wild jungle fruits and taken to the nearest village for sale. A man wealthy enough to own a yoke of oxen and cart is fortunate, indeed.
Horses, Mules, and Burros
Horses, mules, and burros have great utility in rural Honduras, not only for transportation but primarily for hauling wood. Many families make most of their actual money by cutting and selling firewood to buyers in the municipalities. Woodcutters spend many days cutting and drying wood. Good seasoned oak commands a premium price in town, and every rural child, boys and girls alike, learn at a very young age how to handle a horse and how to load and unload a pack saddle. Many are excellent horsemen at eight or nine years, and it’s not uncommon to see little kids no more than six years old riding several miles into town to buy something the family needs. Responsibility and independence are learned at a very early age.
It’s the wife’s job to take care of the house, do the cooking, washing, and tending of the children as well as the chickens, ducks, and pigs. The law in Honduras requires children to attend free public schools to age 16; however, in the remote rural areas that law is mostly ignored. Few kids learn to read and write, and school is considered a waste of time by most families. Children are more valuable to the family at home helping with the workload to eke out a living on the land.
Nearly every house in Honduras, including rural areas, has a fogón and a pila. The fogón is an outdoor (usually) wood-fired grill where all the cooking is done. A pila is a water tank and washboard to do laundry.
A wife’s first daily duty is to provide breakfast for the family by sunrise. This usually consists of pureed beans, eggs, tortillas, and maybe avocado if in season, or various other things the farm or the jungle provides. And coffee. Always coffee. If she has a clay oven she might make rosquillas or other baked treats.
After breakfast it’s time to put the clay pots on the fogón to boil a portion of beans for later, and to boil corn in lime water or wood ashes to make more masa for tomorrow’s tortillas and tamales. When the corn is transformed into hominy it will be ground on a stone metate. Later she usually finds time for a short visit with a passing neighbor to catch up on the local gossip.
These people are mostly sturdy and healthy but illnesses and accidents do happen. When the need is severe the patient is transported to a municipality for a doctor’s care. There is usually a clinic or local hospital subsidized by the government to care for the poor, so medical care is available if necessary. If a condition doesn’t warrant a trip to town there is always the local “Brujo," or witch doctor. Most communities have one. A concoction of roots, herbs, and whatnot combined with a magical spell of sorts usually does the trick. It’s remarkable how well some of these “cures” work, especially among those who truly believe.
Churches are everywhere with one in most every community. Though nominally Roman Catholic, some people still cling to more traditional philosophies including Santeria and, among the Lenca and Chortí, certain vestiges of ancient Mayan beliefs.
Life in rural Honduras is hard. The people are poor by monetary standards, but they accept their lot stoically as the traditional way of life handed down to them from many past generations. They are a remarkably proud and happy people, and hopefully no well-meaning or self serving social worker or politician will come to tell them they are poor.
News is scant in the hinterlands, and most people know little or nothing about happenings in the world. If the world economy collapsed today, few would notice for they would be little affected. Their way of life would go on.
Everything changes with time. I only hope our modern changes for these fine people will not come soon.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 24, 2020:
Thanks for writing about rural life in Honduras. It would seem that they are people tied to the earth, ancient customs, and vagaries of weather. It is nice to know that their way of life would persist if the world economy suddenly collapsed. There is something to be said for that!