San Pedro Sula, Honduras: Is it safe to visit?
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 either book an authorised cab or recommend a driver. Don’t travel by public busses or random taxis. Taxis are often operated by gangs, while busses are targeted in armed robberies.
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. I felt very safe driving with Miguel Raymundo from San Pedro Sula to Copán. He’s bilingual, reliable, and a very nice guy. You can contact him at: [email protected] and read another review here.
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. San Pedro Sula doesn’t have much to offer in terms of sights or activities, so you’re better off heading to Copan Ruinas or Roatan Island if you want to experience Honduras.
I’ve been to San Pedro Sula too, in 2012 and I really didn’t feel safe too. As you say, it’s “safe enough”, but I think I would never feel totally safe beside someone with a gun. I even saw children with guns when I was there. Truly, it’s one of the place I would not recommend in Honduras. On the other hand, I still liked the country. Copan was cute and very interesting, and Utila was affordable and really easy going.
I feel the same way, Annie. There were simply too many safety precautions to consider so I don’t see myself returning. However, I’ve talked to several travelers who felt perfectly safe there so I guess it’s very individual.
Hi Miriam, I have been talking to a girl in San Pedro Sula for over a year now and we really like each other. She is heavily involved in her church like I am, and claims the city is safe if you just keep out of bad areas and use common sense. I told my family about wanting to visit her someday, and they started to get all agitated and said I would get killed in a day down there. Do you think the fears are overblown? It sounds to me that gangs only go after each other, not random tourists.
I’d love to tell you that it’s perfectly safe to visit San Pedro Sula, but the sad fact is that tourists have been killed randomly in town and Honduras is the most dangerous country in the world. So yes, there is reason to be concerned.
When that is said, you’ll be alright as long as you stay in good areas and don’t flash your valuables. There are dangers in every city, but at least in San Pedro Sula you’ll have a local showing you around and keeping you safe.
I’m from Roatan Bay Islands, Honduras, I’ve been living in the USA for thirty years, I want to return to visit my grandmother, family & friends have suggested that I can take a flight from MUA to San Pedro S. Then wait at the airport over night and catch a Bus to La Ceiba, then the Yatch from Ceiba to the Islands, my cousins Whos in her 60’s has been traveling in that manner, but I’m afraid someone can high jack me while on that two hours Bus, maybe they’ll watch and who knows what can happen, I say this because I’m a gorgeous lady, and this world is full of sick headed people, I don’t trust my looks to keep me safe on that journey, I think I’ll pay the extra $$ to fly directly to the Islands or from MIA to Cayman Islands to Roatan… any suggestions.?
If you don’t feel comfortable or safe taking the bus, I think you should take a flight. I was pretty scared when we took the bus from San Pedro Sula to La Ceiba. Nothing happened, but I don’t like to feel unsafe when I travel, so if I return to Honduras, I will fly instead.
You can fly to San Pedro Sula and then catch a flight to Roatan – I’m not sure if there are any direct flights to Roatan. That’s what I would recommend.
Thanks for sharing this. Safety should always be a priority. Glad there is an option to fly to Roatan.
Absolutely! If I return to Honduras, I would definitely just fly directly to Roatan.
Hello, my name is Jennyfer.
I was born in the United States but my parents are 100% Honduran.
Your article is so poorly written and degrades the beautiful country of Honduras. Any country is dangerous if you’re doing the wrong things. Misfortunes can happen to anyone…anywhere. San Pedro Sula is not just the most dangerous country. It has more to offer. I also believe Honduras is more than the beautiful islands. If you get to experience traveling look more for the culture, the people, the beauty in the different.
(Also, if you’re an “adventurer”, live like one. Full of life and full of love. Personally I’ve traveled quite a bit and there’s nothing better than my memories with the citizens of every country)
There’s no need to be spiteful just because you disagree.
From what I’ve seen of Honduras, it’s a beautiful country. But that doesn’t change the fact that San Pedro Sula used to be the most violent city in the world. The city had a murder rate of 173 per 100,000 residents, which was the highest in the world outside a war zone. Every single local I spoke to in Honduras advised us not to visit mainland Honduras (SPS in particular). Many of them had fled because they were scared or felt unsafe in their own city.
I’m just laying out the facts and my personal experience of SPS.
I’m with you in every word you utter, I visited Tela, San Pedro Sula and Rotan and I had a blast, I love the country, it amazingly beautiful and I’m going back soon. The people are very nice and treats you well, travel without fear and you’ll be fine..
I can only share my own personal experiences. I have been to Honduras 10 times since 2009, mostly because I have children down there who I sponsor and I like to visit them. I come from The Bahamas and there are portions of my capital city, Nassau, where I do not feel comfortable, so I did not find it hard to be cautious about where I went in San Pedro Sula. While the city itself has limited attractions, it makes a very convenient base with which to explore the many other wonderful sights on the mainland. Coming from an island nation, the Bay Islands are not that interesting to me, but the cloud forests, the waterfalls, lakes and mountains are. I am a single man, so that may be part of why I feel less at risk, but I have also taken my young son with me on several of the trips – he was 5yo the last time. I stay in hotels like the Intercontinental Real or the Hilton which are right next to malls, so I can go over there without leaving a secure area, but I have also visited the market a number of times. I do not venture out at night and the only time I ever felt a little uneasy was when I got caught in a large traffic jam and sunset caught me – it occurred to me I would have no way to flee if somebody with a gun threatened me, but there was no incident at the end of the day and I got back to my hotel without issue. I carry very little cash on me, of course, but would give it up in a moment if threatened. To me, the great thing about Honduras is that there are so many great sights that are no overrun with tourists such as is the case in places like Costa Rica. And the prices are great. I guess if you are the nervous type, I would not recommend it, but for somebody a little adventurous, it’s well worth a visit.
Hi Victor, I appreciate your insight. Thanks for sharing your personal experience and encouragement for visiting Honduras and SPS. I. think you’re right about that last thing you mentioned – it might be a great place to visit if you’re adventurous. I know people who have traveled to Syria and Afghanistan during the war and they loved it. I see myself as adventurous, but that? Nope. That’s where I draw the line 😀
Hi! I’m planning a trip soon to visit my boyfriend in San Pedro. I’m half Honduran but I look white compared to others. I’m 19 years old and I’m planning on going alone. Any tips to keep safe after getting off the plane? Like what I should be expecting to see? He plans to pick me up ASAP from the airport. Thank you!
Im going to Honduras either this summer to see my family and we have a house there, what safety items or precautions do you think i should take?
My family is Honduran but i was born in the USA
Hey Miriam I just wanted to say we are learning about this city in school and I just went to this and I gotta say this is Beautiful I like that you’re answering everyones comments and everything so just keep it up and By the way do you think it is safe for a family with two kids by the age of 12 and 17 to go there with their parents because I have no idea so if you reply with a answer I would appreciate it
Thank you for your kind words.
I have to be honest and say that no, I don’t think it’s safe. We all have different ideas of what safety mean and I’m sure you can find people who will tell you that it’s perfectly safe to visit. And you might also visit – like we did – and have no issues at all. But that’s the thing about places like SPS. They’re safe until suddenly they aren’t. San Pedro Sula is one of the most violent cities in the world, so the odds of something happening there are greater than visiting many other cities. That’s just the facts.
You lost me at ‘pump guns’ – I’ve lived and worked in SPS for years – you have no idea what you are writing about.
My experience is just as valid as yours.
Instead of being patronizing, you could have shared your own experience of living in the city for years and actually contributed to the conversation. Do better or don’t comment the next time.
I got actually shocked after reading this. Thanks for sharing this, it is very helpful if anybody is San Pedro Sula.
Thanks, Peter. It’s important to know what to look out for when visiting a new city.
Since 2018, San Pedro Sula has become a noteworthy spot to go for their restaurants, lounges and nightclubs. If you’re a club rat, you will not be dissatisfied with their nightlife. Sadly, COVID put a halt to the business which used to close at 3:30-4am Thursday-Saturday. I’m a monthly-bi-Monthly traveler to SPS and have never had an issue with anyone while I’ve been there. Sure there are always people looking for trouble in the club/bar scene, but common sense should keep you safe. It’s true, there isn’t much to do in San Pedro, but going to Tela is only a 90 minute or less drive. So beach in the day and nightlife is great if you’re a single and looking to mingle in SPS.
Is it safe to fly thru San Pedro Sula airport to get to Coxen Hole (Roatan)? If I fly to Roatan, I would have a layover in San Pedro Sula airport (SAP) for four hours each way (coming & going) and was curious to hear from anyone that has flown thru this airport, if the airport is safe? TIA.