Exploring the Highlands of Western Honduras: Visiting Belen Gualcho
High in the mountains surrounding Celaque National Park, nestled in small valley lies the town of Belen Gualcho. Belen Gualcho is accessible from Santa Rosa de Copan. Daily bus service departs from the Santa Rosa de Copan the bus station at 10:30, 11:30am and 12:30pm. The three hour bus ride leads west to the town of Cucuyagua. From where it takes the detour west towards Corquin. From there the road leads up to the mountains towards Belen Gualcho. The town sits at an altitude of 1,800 metres above sea level. (Almost 6,000 feet above sea level!)
En route between Cucuyagua and Corquin you will pass small towns, the largest of which is San Pedro de Copan. San Pedro is a quaint town with friendly people. If you are driving your own car, it is worth while to make a stop and stroll through the town. The area is safe and its people are very friendly. Another town worth visiting is Corquin. The road to Belen Gualcho will not enter Corquin. Don’t be fooled by a large park with an ugly coffee “beneficio” or processing plant. This is not the center of Corquin!
The town itself is typical of Honduras. Its main produce and economic main stay is coffee. During the coffee harvesting season, (October to February), there is a lot of activity in this region. If you are on the public bus, consider visiting Corquin on your return trip. It is much easier to get a bus to take you to Santa Rosa that it is to get one to Belen Gualcho.
Recently, a nice hotel opened its doors near Corquin. The Café Capucas hotel offers nice cabins and grounds. If you like good coffee, and want to learn more about it, this is a great place to stay! They also have great activities related to rural tourism and a fun canopy tour!
From Corquin, you will begin to climb into the mountains. The climb is a spectacular, before you realize it you have a superb view of the Sensenti valley. From this vantage point, you can see the towns of Corquin, San Pedro de Copan and Cucuyagua. The trip between Corquin and Belen Gualcho should take you no more than one hour. In the higher elevations you enter a cloud forest habitat. As you descend into Belen Gualcho, you will find many ferns growing amongst the different species of trees. Although I did not have an altimeter with me, I am sure that we climbed above 7000 ft.
Once in Belen Gualcho, you will notice that the town does not have the traditional Spanish trace. This is because there is no flat land in the town. The town is actually built on the mountain sides, making for very steep streets. One of the first buildings you will see is a lovely colonial church. The locals call this church the “Iglesia Colonial”. It is interesting to note that this lovely church is not on the central park. It has a very interesting altar. The architecture is quite unique for Central America as the roof is not built of wooden beams and tiles, but of concrete and stones. It actually has three separate domes.
The only flat part in town is used as the market area. This is where the traditional market sets up on Sundays. Belen Gualcho is is far away from any trade routes, so they depend on the weekly market to get their wares and goods. Don’t expect a typical Indian market. Despite the fact that 95% of Belen Gualcho’s population are Lenca Indians there are no handicrafts produced in the area. You should not expect to see a market as you would find in Guatemala. Having said this, the market is definitely a colorful and interesting one.
The market sets up at dawn, and by 10:00 am most of the stalls begin to pack up, as there is not much more left for them to sell. Therefore, if you plan on visiting the market, you should be there early. Better yet, arrive the night before and spend the night. There is a small, basic hotel, the Hotel Belen where you can overnight. Another alternative is the Hospedaje de Doña Carolina. Café Capucas in nearby Corquin is probably your best alternative though!
The boundaries of Celaque National park are less that 3 km’s. from down town Belen Gualcho. , and although there are no marked trails, you can plan on going into the park from here.
Locals will tell you that it is not possible, as the “gringo’s” have fenced the park. It is now a sort of zoo, with all the animals roaming freely within the park. A nice alternative is a hike from Belen Gualcho to San Sebastian, on the other side of Celaque mountain. It is impossible to do this by car, so you can hire a horse or walk it. It appears that it will take you no less that 5 hours to do the hike, and I would recommend doing so with a local guide. Once in San Sebastian, you can take a pickup towards Gracias. Make sure that you stop and visit the colonial church in San Manuel Colohete. Also look into the ceramic pottery that is hand-crafted in La Campa.
If you decide against the hike, and prefer to return to Santa Rosa de Copan, the buses leave early in the morning, which means that you should spend a night in Belen before leaving. Buses to Belen Gualcho depart from Santa Rosa de Copan bus station, on the CA4 highway. Since this town is at the end of the road, there are no other buses you can take will go by the town. You must take a bus specifically to Belen Gualcho.
For tours to Belen Gualcho, contact Lenca Land Trails, based at the Hotel Elvir in Santa Rosa de Copan.