Copán Ruinas » La Ceiba, Honduras

Latitude 15.5°N Longitude 88.02°W

Saturday, October 19, 2002

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Bad things come in threes

Today found us attempting to travel from Copán Ruinas to Roatán, one of the beautiful Honduran Bay Islands in the Carribean, where we planned to spend a week relaxing under palm trees on idyllic tropical beaches.

To get to Roatán, we needed to catch a ferry from La Ceiba, and initial inquiries revealed there was no direct bus from Copán to La Ceiba. Going by normal buses would entail changing several times, and the times of all the connecting buses were unknown.

Just as we had given up hope for making the trip in one day, we came across a bus company that advertised a direct route to La Ceiba, taking only five and a half hours and conveniently arriving in time to catch the connecting ferry to Roatán, which only ran once a day. The fare was significantly more expensive than taking normal buses, but we figured it would be worth it for the convenience of not having to change and being able to get to Roatán in the same day. So we booked two seats on the bus and left Copán Ruinas at 5:30am.

Around 8:00am we arrived in San Pedro Sula, the second largest city in Honduras, and on the route to La Ceiba. The bus pulled into a private bus terminal and promptly shut off the engine. The driver turned and made an announcement in lightning-speed Spanish, all the passengers started to get off the bus, and we were plunged into immediate confusion. Soon we managed to piece together following facts:

  • The bus we were on did not go directly to La Ceiba, as advertised. We would have to change in this terminal and transfer our backpacks to a different bus.
  • The connecting bus would leave San Pedro at 10am after a two hour stopover (not advertised).
  • Including the stopover, the journey would in fact take seven and a half hours rather than the five and a half advertised, arriving at La Ceiba at 1pm. This would be cutting the connection with the ferry a little closer than we'd have liked.

We thought of the premium we paid to catch this so-called direct bus and concluded that we'd been somewhat scammed. Since we had to change buses anyway we could have taken the cheaper buses and would probably have arrived in La Ceiba earlier! This annoyance was bad thing #1.

There was nothing much we could do at this point so we thought we'd spend the time by going into the city center for a quick breakfast, returning in time for the 10am connecting bus. We checked our backpacks at the bus terminal baggage area and set forth into town.

We had not had any luck with the ATMs in Copán and were in desperate need of Honduran cash, so when we came across the huge branch of Banco Atlantido we thought we'd try it here. Stepping past the teenage bank security guards proudly sporting their pump-action shotguns, we entered the ATM booth and went through the usual motions of withdrawing cash. The ATM thanked us for using Banco Atlantido, asked us to wait a moment, then promptly shut itself down, depositing our ATM card somewhere deep inside its belly with a series of very final sounding clunks. We stared at the machine in disbelief and horror as it then powered itself off completely, leaving only the ominous flashing message "No Service".

It did not take us too long to realize that - poof! - just like that, we were suddenly in deep poo. It was Saturday and the bank was closed. Closed, in fact, until Tuesday - since (as our luck woud have it), Monday was a public holiday as the security guards earnestly informed us. The guards all turned out to be of the rental variety and not actual employees of the bank, and thus had no knowledge whatsoever about how one would retrieve a card swallowed by an ATM. And our bus was leaving in about 90 minutes for La Ceiba. It seemed like we might now be staying in San Pedro Sula just a little longer than breakfast... which, from what we'd already seen of the city, did not fill us with much joy. Bad thing #2.

We circled the building and found an entrance to the upper office levels, manned by more security guards. Here we found someone who spoke enough English to understand what had happened. "No problems", he told us. "You should continue on with your journey to Roatán, and when the bank opens on Tuesday", he said with a big smile on his face, "we'll just send you the card. Very simple!". "Yeah, right" we muttered. It may have seemed a simple plan to him, but we both knew that if we left San Pedro today without our card, we'd never see it again. After more heckling we managed to get out of him that some kind of operations manager might be arriving at ten o'clock, and he might be able to help us. This did not console us very much, but it was all we had.

Knowing that the 10am bus was now impossible, we raced back to the bus terminal to try and explain our predicament and get a seat on a later bus. With our broken Spanish and wild gesticulating, I'm pretty sure the bus agent was not really able to understand too much of what had transpired back at Banco Atlantido. But he understood enough to know that we were not going to take the 10am bus and he obligingly moved our reservation forward to the next bus at 2pm. We went into the baggage room to check up on our backpacks, and they were still there, now tagged with a "10am La Ceiba" sticker. We asked the agent to change the time on the tag to 2pm, and he profusely assured us it would all be taken care of. "Don't you worry about a thing", he said over and over again, shooing us away as we tried to change the tag ourselves. "I will personally take care of it" he said. We didn't trust him for one moment, but like fools, we left it to him anyway.

Now we trudged across town once again, back to the bank. We patiently waited until 10am and asked the security guard we had spoken to before about the duty manager. At first, there was confusion among the guards as to who we were and what we wanted, almost as though they had never seen us before (after all, it had only been thirty minutes since we'd spoken to them), but soon we got past that to the recognition phase and their memories were jogged. After making a few calls, the English speaking guard informed us that the manager was not in the building yet, but the story had now become "usually he is here sometimes on Saturday afternoons". "What happened to him being here at 10am?" we asked with a sinking feeling. The guard just smiled and shrugged his shoulders. It would be a miracle if we got our card back today, I thought.

Then at 10:45am, out of nowhere, the operations manager did arrive, and even more amazingly, he had the keys to the ATM. After a few minutes he emerged with our card and Keiko almost hugged him with joy.

We thought at that point we were over the worst of it. We would miss the ferry to Roatán today and would have to spend the night in La Ceiba, but it was better than spending three nights in San Pedro. And we had our ATM card again. We never got an explanation why the machine swallowed our card, but we vowed then and there to never use a foreign ATM when the bank was closed unless it was a real emergency - or we could wait until the bank next opened.

We killed time in the city center until around 1pm, then headed back to the bus terminal. The Hedman Alas bus terminal was the kind of place that really made you nervous about your belongings suddenly vanishing the second you took your eyes off them. It was chaotic and noisy, full of people milling around waiting and coming in and going out and coming in again. We now realized that our backpacks had been in the baggage room of this terminal for most of the day, and while the room was closed off and guarded, we suddenly did not feel all that good about having left them unattended for so long. We entered the terminal and went straight into the baggage room. Sure enough, our backpacks were nowhere to be found.

Frantically we raced about the terminal looking for the agent we had spoken to before. When we found him, we dragged him to the baggage room and asked him where our backpacks had gone. He looked mystified and right then Keiko and I knew for sure that they'd been stolen. Our brief stopover in San Pedro was turning into a real train wreck.

Just then, an announcement came over the loudspeaker that our bus would be departing in a few minutes. I quickly checked to see if the backpacks had been already loaded on the bus (they weren't), while the agent made a few phone calls. Finally he approached us with a slightly embarrassed look and told us that our backpacks had traveled on the ten o'clock bus and were now waiting for us in La Ceiba. It seemed like the tags had not been changed after all, but we had no idea what to believe at this point and were suspicious of everything and everyone. The bags could have already gone missing from the baggage room, they could be hidden somewhere in the terminal until we were out of the way on the bus, or they could become "lost" while waiting unclaimed for hours in La Ceiba. It now seemed so easy for theft to occur any number of ways, and we felt like complete idiots for assuming the security of our luggage. But apart from running around the terminal like crazed lunes looking in every nook and cranny for our packs (which seemed to entertain, if not perplex, all the locals), there was nothing else we could do at that point except board the bus and travel to La Ceiba.

For three and a half hours we sat in silence and brooded over what we'd find when we got to La Ceiba. In Honduras, we knew we'd have absolutely no recourse if the bags weren't there. Officials would just shrug their shoulders, and that would be it. No one would be held accountable, there'd be no investigation. No one would know what happened. And that's just the way it is there. Despondently staring out the bus window, I took a mental inventory of the contents of our backpacks and wondered how we'd continue the trip if we lost everything. The thought made me completely sick.

When we arrived at the La Ceiba terminal, we were the first off the bus and into the baggage room. The lady there looked up and smiled and pointed to the corner of the room, where both our backpacks lay. "I'm sure these must be yours" she laughed as she saw the worried looks on our faces. "Don't worry, they were safe and sound the whole time". You could not imagine the relief that washed over us at that moment! We vowed to never again let our bags be out of our sight whilst in transit.

It seemed like the day had presented us with a series of wake up calls that made us realize how easy and quickly it is for things to go wrong when traveling far from home. In a way we had started to become a little too complacent and sloppy, and we were grateful that today we'd only been served warnings.

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