Thursday, November 11, 2010
Gracias, Lempira, Honduras: Small Town with a Big Past and a Bright Future
The winding road from Santa Rosa de Copán to Gracias in Western Honduras dips and climbs like a roller coaster through a wild landscape of deep valleys, pine-clad mountains and rocky streams. It's no wonder that when Spanish conquistadors exploring this region during the early 1500's finally happened upon a stretch of flat land, they named the community that they founded there "Gracias a Dios" (Thank God).
Now known simply as Gracias, this sleepy town may not look very important today, but at one time it was the Spanish capital of all Central America. In 1544, Gracias was chosen to be the home of the Spanish Empire’s governing council, the Audiencia de los Confines. Gracias served as an administrative center until 1548, when the Audencia packed up and moved to Antigua, Guatemala.
Not surprisingly, given its isolated location, Gracias fell into a long period of anonymity. Recently, however, Gracias' quiet charms have been rediscovered by adventurous travelers, and the town is being put back on the map as a budding tourist destination and convenient base for exploring nearby Lenca Indian villages and Celaque National Park.
Gracias' compact historical center fans out from a tree-shaded main square with a tiny central bandstand that has been converted into a pleasant two-storey cafe. Restored colonial buildings line the town's narrow streets, and there are several old churches worth seeking out. The most attractive is the 17th century Iglesia La Merced, which has an ornate baroque-style facade with spiral columns and niches containing religious statues. Next to the white and yellow Iglesia San Marcos on the main square stands the building that was once home to the Spanish Audencia. A pair of sculpted lions with gruff, human-like faces keep watch over its wide stone entrance. Across the street is the Casa Galeano, a remodeled colonial mansion that now houses a very good regional museum and a small botanical garden.
Perched above Gracias is the Fuerte de San Cristóbal, a renovated Spanish fort that provides some inspiring views of the surrounding mountains. Also popular with both locals and visitors are two sets of natural thermal pools on the outskirts of town. The more upscale of these hot springs facilities is the Termas del Rio, which is operated by the Posada de Don Juan, a comfortable new hotel that has opened in downtown Gracias.
Gracias is also gateway to what has become known as La Ruta Lenca or Lenca Route, a series of picturesque villages inhabited by Lenca Indians, the largest indigenous group in Honduras. The Lenca are best known for their distinctive earthenware pottery that is sold in markets throughout the country.
The Lenca village easiest to reach from Gracias is La Campa located about 16 kilometers (10 miles) away on a paved road. At the entrance to La Campa sits an interpretation center named La Escuelona. This rambling colonial-era complex has galleries with Lenca pottery and historical exhibits as well as showrooms where visitors can buy locally made plates, chimes, whistles and other ceramic creations. Several other pottery stores and workshops lie scattered around town, including the well-stocked home of Doña Desideria Pérez, which has a traditional wood-fired Lenca pottery oven in the backyard.
Uunpaved streets lead downhill past humble dwellings with tile roofs to La Campa's main claim to fame, the Iglesia de San Matías. This three-hundred-year-old church was restored in 1938. However, its brightly colored facade decorated with floral motifs and fluttering angels looks as if it has just been given a fresh coat of paint in hopes that more travelers will soon be coming to admire it.
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Gracias and La Campa, Honduras - Images by John Mitchell