I admit I was scared the first time I went to Honduras, which was just last month. All I really knew of the place, aside from a little about the food, were this year's painful stories of Honduran children escaping to the United States because crippling poverty and gang violence have made their country the world's deadliest.
But my good friend was getting married, and I'd found a cheap plane ticket.
One explanation for the reasonable fare: It had me landing in San Pedro Sula, which since 2011 has been labeled the "murder capital" of the world, with the highest homicide rate of any city on the planet. A recent Business Insider feature said Tegucigalpa, Honduras' capital, ranks fourth. In 2013 the United Nations clocked the national murder rate for Honduras at 90.4 per 100,000 people, the world's highest. The second-highest is Venezuela's, at 53.4.
So I was understandably apprehensive about the four-hour bus trek from San Pedro to the capital, "Tegus," where our hotel and the wedding were. It was a rough day of ground travel.
But, to my relief, never due to safety concerns. (Our bus broke down on the side of a hill somewhere, and I waited two hours with some 20 other travelers for the bus agency to send another.)
My entire stay in Honduras -- even while I was stranded between cities -- no one tried to murder me, rob me, or do anything but help or serve me in some way.
Honduras gets a bad rap -- or at least an incomplete one.
Who knew it was such a beautiful country, filled with needy but charming, fervently religious people?
Tegucigalpa is like a miracle in the mountains. Homes and streets scattered in a tiny city cling to hills or cut through cliffs, almost unaware of how fantastical their setting is.
The view from our room at the city's Marriott was a comprehensive snapshot: rusted tin roofs over squalid shops between American fast-food chains, sleeker buildings towering here and there, and a misty green valley spiked with tall, skinny trees surrounding everything.
Thirty minutes outside Tegus is Valle de Angeles. The drive there is a green-grass, red-dirt, mountainous dream.
It was so idyllic it took a while to sink in. I'd anticipated dirty floors and children begging, the sort of thing I remember seeing in while growing up on the coast of Peru, poor mothers dragging starving kids through open-air markets, you get the gist. To be clear: There was plenty of that in Valle de Angeles -- but, stupidly, I wasn't expecting much more.
All you hear about Honduras nowadays is how dangerous gangs known as the Maras are. You never hear about a valley so dense and green it's like the Rockies, if Colorado had roadside shacks selling pupusas (tortillas), tripe soup and who knows what other street-made culinary treasures.
You don't hear about the warmth of the people. Sitting outside a pupuseria in Valle de Angeles, at least five strangers who walked past our table said "buen provecho," the Spanish equivalent of "bon appetit."
That has never happened to me anywhere. Definitely not in my native Lima, nor in my hometown Miami.
Some of that charm is what provoked a recent NPR feature on Honduran singer Aurelio, the first black Honduran elected to congress, who dedicated his latest album to his mother.
My mother didn't want me to go to this wedding. She was afraid for me, because she watches the news.
I didn't travel alone -- another friend from Miami came with me, and three other wedding guests were from here, too. It was a pair of siblings originally from Honduras and one of their spouses, a gringo. The sister in the pair said to me, "It's good that you guys came [just for the wedding]. I came but, this is my country, and I know there isn't that much to do here."
But I think there is.
When the bride and groom were driving back after our trip to Valle, I told them I was impressed by this country of theirs. "They should film movies here." "It's like a scene from an Aesop fable."
They told me about all the other places they'd show me if my trip were longer. We talked about how nice the people are, but acknowledged the squalor too many of them live in.
There is still graffiti all over Tegus denouncing a military coup that rocked the country five years ago. There are messages of freedom spray-painted on the walls.
When we talked about Honduras' image in the international media sphere, my friends conveyed that cynicism people cultivate when they grow up in developing countries, mixed with pride for their tierra.
Something along the lines of: "Of course you don't hear about the good things."
But they're there. Even through the turmoil.