Honduras is one of the most dangerous countries in the world by homicide rates. The first time I was confronted with this fact was on a highway about 50 kilometres out of San Pedro Sula. We were sitting in a tinted window SUV, well on our way to Copan, when a police officer pulled us over.
“Find your passport. He needs to make sure that you’re not a hostage,” our driver said.
Kidnappings, extortion, murders and corruption is a daily burden in this Central American country, and only a few weeks earlier, a mother of two was carjacked and kidnapped, but luckily saved by a routine road control. This had caused an increase of checkpoints on the roughly 200km stretch to Guatemala.
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First impressions of San Pedro Sula
It was pitch black outside when we descended onto the Honduran city, San Pedro Sula. Glued to the window and eyes wide open, I caught the first glimpse of a small, dimly lit airport surrounded by palm trees. Not the happy beach types, but the dense, foggy deep-in-the-jungle types.
Getting off the plane, I was instantly met by a wall of sticky heat, a wonderful 92 % humidity. Air was thick, and the fear of what awaited on the other side of the airport doors slowly started to build up inside of me. As we walked towards the arrival area, I suddenly realized we were the only white people there.
No foreigners in sight.
So there we were: two gringos fresh off the plane in the most dangerous city in the world. Guards were everywhere in the entry area, all with machine guns, sunglasses and serious expressions on their faces.
After getting our bags and standing in line for inspection and body search, I noticed both bags had been opened and searched through. Imagine my panic, most likely coming from watching too many episodes of “Locked up abroad.”
After a frantic search for planted drugs in both bags, we were cleared through customs and got to the other side. Phew. No more excitement for me, please!
Former murder capital of the world
Until recently, San Pedro Sula held the title – Murder capital of the world.
Today (2019), the murder rate of San Pedro Sula in Honduras is 51.2 for every 100,000 people per year. That’s 1.1 murder per day.
To put this into perspective, St. Louis in the U.S. has 64.54, London has 1.6, Tokyo 0.4. You get the picture. Most homicides are gang or drug related, but you hear about killings on journalists, civilians and tourists, too.
The situation has improved for San Pedro Sula and it’s not as unsafe as it used to be – at least if you’re looking a homicide rates. From a high of 1,143 homicides per year in 2013, it’s down to 436 in 2019, which is a significant drop. While it’s still on the list, SPS is no longer in the top 10 of the most violent cities in the world.
Know the risks
Honduras has suffered political crises, gang violence and military conflicts throughout much of its history. And as the second poorest country in Latin America, 65% of the population lives below the poverty line. As things stand today, the country—and San Pedro Sula in particular— has severe issues when it comes to safety.
These are the risks you should be aware of in San Pedro Sula:
Firearms cause 83.4% of homicides in Honduras, compared to 60% in the U.S. And you will see a lot of guns in San Pedro Sula. Not just handguns. No, I’m talking about pump guns.
Armed security guards keep watch at businesses and even inside the local 7-elevens, and locals wear them openly in the streets, the malls and the restaurants. Anyone can own up to five firearms and weapon laws are largely unenforced.
Drugs and gang violence
Drugs and gang violence is a big issue in San Pedro Sula and without doubt the main reason for the country’s high levels of violence.
One of the worst gangs, MS-13, developed in the prisons of California in the 1980s and spread to Honduras and El-Salvador when inmates were deported. They often cover their bodies and faces in tattoos, like the letters M or S.
Another notorious gang in San Pedro Sula is Barrio 18. These gangs rely on extortion revenue from the public and they recruit young children as low as eight years old to conduct some of their brutal hits.
Corruption and political impunity is also an issue in Honduras. The government is believed to be manipulated by gangs, and bribes are also common practice.
In 2016, the successful mission – Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) – was formed to prevent corruption and hold the politicians accountable, but as of 2020, the situation if full of despair.
Risk for tourists
As a tourist, you’re not a primary target of organised crime. BUT you still need to be careful. The largest risks traveling in San Pedro Sula are muggings, armed robberies, kidnappings and getting caught in crossfire.
While the latter isn’t common for foreigners (especially if you stay in the safe areas of town), that doesn’t make the risk any less real.
Safety in San Pedro Sula, Honduras
Visiting San Pedro Sula is only safe if you use common sense and make your security a main priority. These general safety tips apply for anywhere you travel, but Honduras requires some special considerations.
Safety tips for San Pedro Sula:
- Look out for tattoos – especially facial ones, which many gang members have.
- Only use ATMs in shopping centers, hotels, inside banks
- Don’t go out after dark
- Ask your hotel to arrange transport
- Avoid dangerous and isolated areas, also during the day
- Watch out for two men on a motorcycle, as this is how hits are generally executed
What to do if you’re robbed
If the worst happens and you do end up a victim of a robbery, here’s what to do.
Give them what they want. Typically, robbers only want your money and valuables. If you’re robbed, keep your head down and just hand them over. Your life isn’t worth whatever you have on you.
Don’t call attention to yourself. I wouldn’t normally give this advice in case of robbing, but here there’s a higher risk of the situation escalating to violence or worse.
How to get around
Getting around San Pedro Sula
I recommend asking your hotel to book an authorised cab or you can get a driver. Don’t travel by public busses or random taxis. Taxis are often operated by gangs, while busses are targeted in armed robberies.
If you’re looking to explore the city, you can opt for a guided tour, which will ensure that you only visit safe and interesting places.
Getting around Honduras
Consider the Hedman Alas bus company or domestic flights. Both have good, reliable service as far as I experienced it.
We traveled through Honduras both with domestic flight, HA bus and with a private driver.
If you can’t reach him, you can go with this private driver who is authorised through Viator.
Where to stay in San Pedro Sula
Hyatt Place San Pedro – This lovely hotel is probably the best hotel in town. There’s a pool, great restaurant next door, and the mall is just a few minutes walk away. Very modern and with a friendly staff. Find the latest prices here.
Dos Molinos – This hostel is in a safe neighbourhood, close to shopping malls, and the owner Luis will gladly pick you up from the airport or bus terminal. The room is very basic, but the owners, Luis and Blanca, are helpful, and most importantly: you’ll be safe.
Should you visit San Pedro Sula?
I’ve been to San Pedro Sula twice and didn’t experience anything bad. However, I always felt on guard, and I have to say of all the countries I’ve been in I felt the least safe here.
When we were at Roatan island, every Honduran I spoke to advised us to avoid the mainland because of the crime rate and poor security. We spoke to several people who had fled their homes because they felt unsafe.
If you ask me, I wouldn’t recommend San Pedro Sula as a destination. And there are several reasons for that.
One of them is the general safety (or lack here-off). Sure, nothing happened to us, but you’re still at greater risk here than in many other and more interesting travel destinations. And that brings me to the second reason – there’s very little to see and do in San Pedro Sula.
Honduras is a beautiful country, boasting ancient Mayan ruins, the most stunning beaches in the world, island hopping and lush jungle.
Are you headed to San Pedro Sula? Ask me anything in the comments!
More posts from Honduras
- 12 amazing things to do in Roatan
- Copan Ruinas: Mayan temples in Honduras you must see
- 10 best Roatan snorkeling tours you shouldn’t miss