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WARNING! Honduras

Roatán at sunset

© Shawn Jackson | Dreamstime.com

A gunman robs and fires on a family of cruise tourists, a week after the State Department renews its warning to travelers on Honduran crime.

Quick, which country has the highest murder rate per capita in the world? Mexico? Brazil? Iraq? Pakistan?

The correct answer is Honduras.

The day before Christmas, the US State Department renewed its travel warning on Honduras, citing the country’s continued disturbingly high rates of crime and violence.

The day after New Year’s, Jeff Smith was driving with his three teenaged daughters on a rural road on the northeast side of the Honduran island of Roatán when a gunman jumped out of the bushes and started shooting at them.

In his panic to escape, Smith said he crashed the vehicle, after which the gunman walked up and robbed the family of their iPhones, a camera and cash.

You can find more details about the incident, as well as Roatán and Honduras in general, in this Cruise Critic story here.

I’ve heard of cruise ship passengers and crew being held up at gunpoint before (mercifully very rarely), but this is the first time I’ve ever heard of somebody being robbed and actually shot at.

The Smiths were passengers aboard Carnival Conquest out of New Orleans, one of several cruise ships that make regular port calls to Roatán the largest of several islands in Honduras Bay.

One look and you know why the cruise industry drops roughly 800,000 passengers a year on this island for a day. Roatán has that tropical paradise/picture postcard vibe. A photographer could go nuts here.

It’s known as a hotspot for eco-tourism. Jungle ziplines and suspension bridge walks, snorkeling and scuba diving in pristine waters, great food and nightlife. Some expatriates even tout Roatán as a place to retire.

All that, however, seems to be focused on the west side of this relatively small island. The east side, apparently, is a different story. The Smiths rented a vehicle and took off on their own to the east — by their own account, without researching Roatán beforehand.

Bad move. Almost fatally bad.

This took place on one island off the Honduran coast. The Honduran mainland is little better and can be worse. The city of San Pedro Sula has a higher murder rate than any city in Mexico — or anywhere else.

Nor does it fill you with confidence when you read things like this, from the State Department warning:

“Members of the Honduran National Police are known to engage in criminal activity, including murder and car theft. The Government of Honduras lacks sufficient resources to properly investigate and prosecute cases, and police often lack vehicles or fuel to respond to calls for assistance. In practice, this means police may take hours to arrive at the scene of a violent crime, or may not respond at all. As a result, criminals operate with a high degree of impunity throughout Honduras.

For the more adventurous traveler, there’s always the temptation to break away from the hordes of fellow tourists and their “canned” organized tours, especially if it means spending hours on cramp, uncomfortable buses. And there are places where you can do that, safely and enjoyably.

However, you need to take a few steps first.

  1. Do your homework
    Research your destination with security in mind. Check the State Department Web site for travel warnings. Make use of national, regional and local tourism boards. Hit travel forums like TripAdvisor and Frommers, among others. If you’re going to be arriving as a cruise ship passenger, talk to the cruise line and check their passenger forums, as well.
  2. Assume nothing
    Maybe you’ve spent a lot of time in your destination area in the past, so you feel comfortable and confident about returning. Things change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Make sure you’re up-to-date on current conditions. You don’t want to miss an opportunity for a great experience because of fears of conditions that no longer exist. Nor do you want to put yourself or your family in Harm’s way by presuming everything’s “cool” when it longer is.
  3. Use your instincts, use your head
    Your instincts exist to keep you safe. Don’t ignore them. If the little voice in the back of your head is telling you that driving off into the jungle on your own may not be the best idea, listen to it. Especially if you have kids along with you.

When it comes to your safety, due diligence is a must, because all destinations are not created equal.

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