There's more to San Pedro Sula than its body count

Stirred by harrowing stories of blood and gore, Jack Palfrey travels to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, to gain some perspective on the town behind the headlines.

It’s February 15, 1493. A 41-year-old Christopher Columbus lounges on the deck of the Niña, a small Portuguese sailing ship, as it cuts through the Atlantic Ocean.

On his knee rests a letter, addressed to the monarchy of Spain, detailing the findings of the first voyage to the New World.

“As for monsters, I have found not trace of them except at the point in the second isle as one enters the Indies, which is inhabited by a people considered in all the isles as most ferocious, who eat human flesh,” it reads. “They possess many canoes, with which they overrun all the other isles, stealing and seizing all they can.”

Though a relatively minor remark in a long, rambling letter, these frightening words dogged the European public’s perception of the New World creating a long-lasting stigma; America was somewhere to be explored, but also feared.

Over 500 years later, a remarkably similar scenario is taking place, fuelled this time by the screen and keyboard, rather than quill and ink.

'The Murder Capital of the World'

San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second city, has the dubious distinction of being ‘The Murder Capital of the World’.

According to The Citizen Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice, a Mexican NGO, in 2014 there were 1,317 homicides in San Pedro Sula – more than double that of the United Kingdom. Roughly three people a day are killed in the city, which, with a population of just 769,025, equates to the highest murder rate outside a war zone.

Stimulated by the striking stat, the world’s media has seized upon the city as a source for shock-value stories. The vast majority of which portray San Pedro as a one-dimensional dystopia, where every citizen is a violent, gun-toting gangster.

Similarly, a simple Google image search for San Pedro Sula returns a plethora of blood-soaked bodies and heavy-duty guns. The images are horrific and would make even the most foolhardy traveller consider altering their itinerary.

Though the statistics cannot be disputed, are the newspapers’ narratives telling the whole story? I decided the only way to find out was to visit myself.


The minivan wheezes as we stutter through the streets of San Pedro Sula. It’s a muggy Friday afternoon and the food stalls and open-front restaurants are bustling with people. On one dusty corner an old man sells colourful helium balloons to passing families.

Chugging through the traffic-clogged roads, a Dickensian charm emanates from the city, with its, now defunct, railway line running through the centre. On one side you have walled mansions belonging to the factory owners, and on the other, literally on the wrong side of the tracks, you have the factory workers in cramped high rises. On the outskirts lie the impoverished suburbs, and beyond them the lush mountains that encircle the city.

Organising a tour of the town proved difficult, with my requests usually resulting in bemused stares. Eventually I manage to find someone willing to take me, a straight-talking travel agent named Jalile.

The city centre is vastly different to its outskirtsThe city centre is vastly different to its outskirts
Creative Commons / Roberto Venegas

The minivan’s engine clicks off as Jalile and I pull up outside a sheltered bazaar in the city centre.

“So this is our tourist market,” says Jalile pensively. “You better take everything with you.”

Despite Jalile’s label of ‘tourist market’ I don’t see many other visitors surveying the sprawling stalls of tiny trinkets and baked goods. What I do see, aside from a lot of wooden ornaments, are police carrying automatic rifles. They patrol the narrow walkways and lean against the walls, taking long drags on cigarettes.

As we clamber back into the vehicle I quiz Jalile about the heavy police presence.

“They are everywhere,” she says. “It’s so sad.”

There’s a poignant silence that seems to drown out the sound of the minivan engine for a few seconds.

“Sadly,” she begins again in a soft voice, “we are the route for a lot of drug traffic.

“Many of the drugs that are coming from Colombia and going to the US are going through Honduras. Drugs and gangs are a problem here.”

This is the first time the subject of the city’s infamous reputation has risen. There’s an apologetic tone to Jalile’s words, bordering on embarrassment. She quickly brushes it off with a slight shake of the head.

“Fortunately you don’t hear many bad things happening among the citizens [in the city’s centre], but the police have to be there just in case,” she says, reassuringly.

Keen to return to the tour, Jalile enthusiastically lists a few sites we could see next, including the Museum of Anthropology and the city’s cathedral. When I ask if we could visit some of the gang-controlled suburbs she is taken aback, but eventually agrees.

"When the rain comes those houses nearest the bottom wash away"

There are a few infamous neighbourhoods in the city, most of which Jalile refuses to visit.

One such suburb is Chamelecón, which gained worldwide attention in 2004 after gang members murdered 28 people as a protest against the proposed reinstatement of the death penalty in Honduras.

After a gentle back-and-fourth, Jalile agrees to show me two outlying neighbourhoods. The first is Rio Blanco, a sprawling shantytown so overcrowded that the sheet-metal structures run down a hill and into a dry riverbed.

“When the rain comes those houses nearest the bottom wash away,” says Jalile, as we look on from the opposite side of the river.

Though this neighbourhood is not considered particularly violent, it is a poignant reminder that Honduras remains one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, with a poverty rate of 64% in 2013.

Armed police are omnipresent throughout the cityArmed police are omnipresent throughout San Pedro Sula
Spencer Platt / Thinkstock

Next we head to Rivera Hernandez. This shifty suburb made headlines in 2014, when local gangsters were captured with a haul of weapons that were linked to 60% of homicides in the city in the previous two years. Gang leaders reportedly offered military police six million lempiras (roughly £176,200) to set the arrested men free. They remain in jail.

We make a sharp left turn off a busy main road and stutter noisily along a dirt track. We pass a large sports field, in which two rusting football goals stand awkwardly with tattered nets, before the houses choke in around us and the street narrows. Jalile loudly swallows her nerves.

The streets are quiet. Shopkeepers sit on plastic chairs and smoke cigarettes while punters ignore their unappealing wares. We pass a children’s park with slides and swings, ringed by a high metal fence. An armed police officer stands guard by the gate. I note the sign next to him that gives the public park’s opening times.

The sun begins to dip below the mountains, and though I do not feel overly anxious, I’m relieved the bus doesn’t stop as we glide quietly through the streets.


The sun has long perished and San Pedro Sula’s well-heeled, hedonistic crowd are out in force enjoying Friday night.

I stand quietly in a queue that snakes across a lawn and into the entrance of a house-cum-bar in one of San Pedro Sula’s more affluent central neighbourhoods. The clientele are dressed in sharp suits with open shirt collars and polished shoes. A rumbling bassline reverberates out from the property.

Next to me is San Pedro Sula’s Tourism Minister, Gerardo. When I had asked for an informal interview with him to discuss the city, I did not quite envisage shouting my questions over house music.

We reach the front of the queue. A guard stands behind a table, searching people’s bags, while another lounges on a chair stroking a handgun.

After being frisked we proceed through metal detectors and into the busy bar. I secure a table away from the speakers, near a wall with garish floral-patterned wallpaper, while Gerardo gets the drinks in.

"We are not trying to hide something" 

He returns with a bottle of dark liquor that sports a voluptuous blonde woman on the label and takes a seat. Inebriated by the atmosphere and energised by the setting, I plough straight into my questions, asking him frankly whether the town’s bad rep is justified?

“We have some disadvantages,” he retorts. “The morgue in San Pedro Sula takes in [bodies] from three different cities nearby – that’s why the percentage [of murders] is so high.

“If that statistic was taken away and only the city’s [deceased] were counted, we would be in place 32 [on the murder rate list].”

There’s a defensive vigour in Gerardo’s voice. He takes a long gulp then ploughs on.

“We are not trying to hide something,” he says, raising his hands. “It [gang crime] has nothing to do with the normal life in San Pedro. It is more to do with newspapers being very, very eager to show the gruesome to sell more newspapers.”

The city's cathedral was built in 1949The city's cathedral was built in 1949
Creative Commons / Ian Mackenzie

The music loudens and the dancefloor fills when midnight arrives. As the bottle on our table empties, I ask Gerardo about his plans to re-launch the city as a tourist destination, which seems ambitious at this stage.

“It took too long for us to tell the world and the media, ‘hey that’s going too far’, but now we have entities like artists and civil movements joining with us to show the world the other reality of our city,” says Gerardo, pouring himself a drink.

“Just imagine what a great success story it would be for the ‘World’s Most Dangerous City’ to actually change in this way.” He says sinking his final drink.


If anything, the story of San Pedro Sula illustrates how little humans have changed in the last 500 years.

People are still roused by horror stories, whether they are tall tales of cannibalistic tribes or gory gang murders. But such reports sacrifice the truth on the altar of sensationalism, and leave the reader ill informed.   

Yes, San Pedro struggles with crime and drugs, but unless you are actively seeking peril, the city is not the pin-up danger destination it is painted to be. In fact, if anything, it’s a bit dull.

And while that may not be as titillating a story, it is the truth.


Getting there
United Airlines fly to San Pedro Sula (via Houston, Texas) from destinations throughout Europe including London (fare: £628 one way). San Pedro Sula’s geographical location makes it a great springboard for exploring Honduras and other countries in Central America, with direct flights to Panama, Belize, Guatemala and Costa Rica, plus numerous others.

Where to stay
The Copantl Hotel and Convention Centre (tel: +504 2561 8900; is located in the centre of San Pedro Sula with good links by road to the airport. The hotel boasts spacious modern rooms (with complimentary Wi-Fi), while an outdoor swimming pool and restaurant are among the numerous on-site amenities (from $107 per room, per night).

More information

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