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Location and Boundaries
Honduras, located at the widest part of the isthmus of Central America, is the second largest Central American republic. The triangular-shaped country has a total area of about 112,000 square kilometers. The 735-kilometer northern boundary is the Caribbean coast extending from the mouth of the Río Motagua on the west to the mouth of the Río Coco on the east, at Cabo Gracias a Dios. The 922-kilometer southeastern side of the triangle is the land border with Nicaragua; it follows the Río Coco near the Caribbean Sea and then extends southwestward through mountainous terrain to the Golfo de Fonseca on the Pacific Ocean. The southern apex of the triangle is a 153- kilometer coastline at the Golfo de Fonseca, which opens onto the Pacific Ocean. The western land boundary consists of the 342-kilometer border with El Salvador and the 256-kilometer border with Guatemala.
Honduras controls a number of islands as part of its offshore territories. In the Caribbean Sea, the islands of Roatán (Isla de Roatán), Utila, and Guanaja together form Islas de la Bahía (Bay Islands), one of the eighteen departments into which Honduras is divided. Roatán, the largest of the three islands, is fifty kilometers long by five kilometers wide. The Islas de la Bahía archipelago also has a number of smaller islands, among them the islets of Barbareta (Isla Barbareta), Santa Elena (Isla Santa Elena), and Morat (Isla Morat). Farther out in the Caribbean are the Islas Santanillas, formerly known as Swan Islands. A number of small islands and keys can be found nearby, among them Cayos Zapotillos and Cayos Cochinos. In the Golfo de Fonseca, the main islands under Honduran control are El Tigre, Zacate Grande (Isla Zacate Grande), and Exposición (Isla Exposición).
A two-centuries-old border dispute between El Salvador and Honduras appears to have been resolved in 1993. At issue in this territorial dispute was ownership of six contested bolsones (pockets) of land encompassing a total area of 436.9 square kilometers as well as two islands (Meanguera and El Tigre) in the Golfo de Fonseca, and right of passage for Honduras to the Pacific Ocean from its southern coast.
The origins of the boundary dispute date back to the eighteenth century when colonial boundaries were ill defined. In the late nineteenth century, numerous attempts at mediation failed to settle the dispute. The issue continued to fester in the twentieth century and was a contributing factor in the outbreak of war between the two countries in 1969. The General Peace Treaty, signed by El Salvador and Honduras on October 30, 1980, in Lima, Peru, represented the first real breakthrough on this border dispute. The peace treaty stated that the two parties agreed to submit the boundary dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague if they failed to reach a border agreement after five years of negotiations. By 1985 the two countries had not reached an agreement. In 1986 the case reached the ICJ, which handed down a ruling on September 11, 1992. Both countries accepted the ICJ decision, and a commission was established to decide the citizenship of residents of the bolsones.
Of the 436.9 square kilometers in dispute, 300.6 square kilometers were granted to Honduras, and 136.3 were granted to El Salvador. Of the six bolsones, Honduras was awarded complete control of one and approximately 80 percent of another. The remaining four were split with El Salvador. El Salvador was awarded possession of the island of Meanguera, and Honduras was awarded control of the island of El Tigre. More importantly for Honduras, the ICJ ruling assured Honduras's free passage to the Pacific Ocean. The ICJ also decided that the Golfo de Fonseca does not represent international waters because of the two countries' shared history as provinces of the same colonial power and subsequent membership in the United Provinces of Central America. The court ruled, rather, that the Golfo de Fonseca is a condominium, with control being shared by El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. The latter country also has a coastline on the gulf. The decision allowed for the possibility that the three nations could divide the waters at a later date if they wished to do so.
Honduras has three distinct topographical regions: an extensive interior highland area and two narrow coastal lowlands. The interior, which constitutes approximately 80 percent of the country's terrain, is mountainous. The larger Caribbean lowlands in the north and the Pacific lowlands bordering the Golfo de Fonseca are characterized by alluvial plains.
The interior highlands are the most prominent feature of Honduran topography. Composing approximately 80 percent of the country's total area, these mountain areas are home to the majority of the population. Because the rugged terrain has made the land difficult to traverse and equally difficult to cultivate, this area has not been highly developed. The soil here is poor; Honduras lacks the rich volcanic ash found in other Central American countries. Until the early part of the twentieth century, the highlands economy consisted primarily of mining and livestock.
In the west, Honduras's mountains blend into the mountain ranges of Guatemala. The western mountains have the highest peaks, with the Pico Congolón at an elevation of 2,500 meters and the Cerro de Las Minas at 2,850 meters. These mountains are woodland covered with mainly pine forests.
In the east, the mountains merge with those in Nicaragua. Although generally not as high as the mountains near the Guatemalan border, the eastern ranges possess some high peaks, such as the Montaña de la Flor at 2,300 meters, El Boquerón (Monte El Boquerón) at 2,485 meters, and Pico Bonito at 2,435 meters.
One of the most prominent features of the interior highlands is a depression that runs from the Caribbean Sea to the Golfo de Fonseca. This depression splits the country's cordilleras into eastern and western parts and provides a relatively easy transportation route across the isthmus. Widest at its northern end near San Pedro Sula, the depression narrows as it follows the upper course of the Río Humuya. Passing first through Comayagua and then through narrow passes south of the city, the depression widens again as it runs along the border of El Salvador into the Golfo de Fonseca.
Scattered throughout the interior highlands are numerous flatfloored valleys, 300 to 900 meters in elevation, which vary in size. The floors of the large valleys provide sufficient grass, shrubs, and dry woodland to support livestock and, in some cases, commercial agriculture. Subsistence agriculture has been relegated to the slopes of the valleys, with the limitations of small-sized holdings, primitive technology, and low productivity that traditionally accompany hillside cultivation. Villages and towns, including the capital, Tegucigalpa, are tucked in the larger valleys.
Vegetation in the interior highlands is varied. Much of the western, southern, and central mountains are open woodland-- supporting pine forest interspersed with some oak, scrub, and grassy clearings. The ranges toward the east are primarily continuous areas of dense, broad-leaf evergreen forest. Around the highest peaks, remnants of dense rain forest that formerly covered much of the area are still found.
The Caribbean Lowlands
This area of river valleys and coastal plains, which most Honduras call "the north coast," or simply "the coast," has traditionally been Honduras's most exploited region. The central part of the Caribbean lowlands, east of La Ceiba, is a narrow coastal plain only a few kilometers wide. To the east and west of this section, however, the Caribbean lowlands widen and in places extend inland a considerable distance along broad river valleys. The broadest river valley, along the Río Ulúa near the Guatemalan border, is Honduras's most developed area. Both Puerto Cortés, the country's largest port, and San Pedro Sula, Honduras's industrial capital, are located here.
To the east, near the Nicaraguan border, the Caribbean lowlands broaden to an extensive area known as the Mosquitia. Unlike the western part of the Caribbean lowlands, the Mosquitia is Honduras's least-developed area. Underpopulated and culturally distinct from the rest of the country, the area consists of inland savannah with swamps and mangrove near the coast. During times of heavy rainfall, much of the savannah area is covered by shallow water, making transportation by means other than a shallow-draft boat almost impossible.
The smallest physiographic region of Honduras, the Pacific lowlands, is a strip of land averaging twenty-five kilometers wide on the north shore of the Golfo de Fonseca. The land is flat, becoming swampy near the shores of the gulf, and is composed mostly of alluvial soils washed down from the mountains. The gulf is shallow and the water rich in fish and mollusks. Mangroves along the shore make shrimp and shellfish particularly abundant by providing safe and abundant breeding areas amid their extensive networks of underwater roots.
Several islands in the gulf fall under Honduras's jurisdiction. The two largest, Zacate Grande and El Tigre, are eroded volcanoes, part of the chain of volcanoes that extends along the Pacific coast of Central America. Both islands have volcanic cones more than 700 meters in elevation that serve as markers for vessels entering Honduras's Pacific ports.
Although all of Honduras lies within the tropics, the climatic types of each of the three physiographic regions differ. The Caribbean lowlands have a tropical wet climate with consistently high temperatures and humidity, and rainfall fairly evenly distributed throughout the year. The Pacific lowlands have a tropical wet and dry climate with high temperatures but a distinct dry season from November through April. The interior highlands also have a distinct dry season, but, as is characteristic of a tropical highland climate, temperatures in this region decrease as elevation increases.
Unlike in more northerly latitudes, temperatures in the tropics vary primarily with elevation instead of with the season. Land below 1,000 meters is commonly known as tierra caliente (hot land), between 1,000 and 2,000 meters tierra templada (temperate land), and above 2,000 meters tierra fría (cold land). Both the Caribbean and Pacific lowlands are tierra caliente, with daytime highs averaging between 28 C and 32 C throughout the year. In the Pacific lowlands, April, the last month of the dry season, brings the warmest temperatures; the rainy season is slightly cooler, although higher humidity during the rainy season makes these months feel more uncomfortable. In the Caribbean lowlands, the only relief from the year-round heat and humidity comes during December or January when an occasional strong cold front from the north (a norte) brings several days of strong northwest winds and slightly cooler temperatures.
The interior highlands range from tierra templada to tierra fría. Tegucigalpa, in a sheltered valley and at an elevation of 1,000 meters, has a pleasant climate, with an average high temperature ranging from 30 C in April, the warmest month, to 25 C in January, the coolest. Above 2,000 meters, temperatures can fall to near freezing at night, and frost sometimes occurs.
Rain falls year round in the Caribbean lowlands but is seasonal throughout the rest of the country. Amounts are copious along the north coast, especially in the Mosquitia, where the average rainfall is 2,400 millimeters. Nearer San Pedro Sula, amounts are slightly less from November to April, but each month still has considerable precipitation. The interior highlands and Pacific lowlands have a dry season, known locally as "summer," from November to April. Almost all the rain in these regions falls during the "winter," from May to September. Total yearly amounts depend on surrounding topography; Tegucigalpa, in a sheltered valley, averages only 1,000 millimeters of precipitation.
Honduras lies within the hurricane belt, and the Caribbean coast is particularly vulnerable to hurricanes or tropical storms that travel inland from the Caribbean. Hurricane Francelia in 1969 and Tropical Storm Alleta in 1982 affected thousands of people and caused extensive damage to crops. Hurricane Fifi in 1974 was the worst natural disaster in recent Honduran history; more than 8,000 people were killed, and nearly the entire banana crop was destroyed. Hurricanes occasionally form over the Pacific and move north to affect southern Honduras, but Pacific storms are generally less severe and their landfall rarer.
Honduras is a water-rich country. The most important river in Honduras is the Ulúa, which flows 400 kilometers to the Caribbean through the economically important Valle de Sula. Numerous other rivers drain the interior highlands and empty north into the Caribbean. These other rivers are important, not as transportation routes, but because of the broad fertile valleys they have produced.
Rivers also define about half of Honduras's international borders. The Río Goascorán, flowing to the Golfo de Fonseca, and the Río Lempa define part of the border between El Salvador and Honduras. The Río Coco marks about half of the border between Nicaragua and Honduras.
Despite an abundance of rivers, large bodies of water are rare. Lago de Yojoa, located in the west-central part of the country, is the sole natural lake in Honduras. This lake is twenty-two kilometers long and at its widest point measures fourteen kilometers. Several large, brackish lagoons open onto the Caribbean in northeast Honduras. These shallow bodies of water allow limited transportation to points along the coast.
SOURCES: Library of Congress Country Studies/Area Handbook