For 364 days out of the year, Gracias, a town of about 25,000 people located four hours from the famous Copan ruins, is merely one of the most charming small towns in Honduras. Iglesia San Marcos, a yellow-and-white lemon meringue pie of a church, anchors the town's leafy central park. Cowboys on horseback and women selling homemade bread from baskets on their heads are as common on the cobblestone streets as motorized vehicles. There is no ATM.

Like so much of this part of the world, Gracias was conquered by Spaniards in the early 1500s, but not without a remarkable amount of resistance from the indigenous Lenca people led by a hothead known as Chief Lempira. He managed to unite historically warring tribes into an anti-Spaniard force 30,000 strong.

The Lencan leader was eventually killed by the Spanish and in his absence the popular uprising fizzled. However, Chief Lempira's legend lives on. The currency of Honduras is called the lempira and he is still a hero to the Lencans, the largest indigenous group in Honduras.

I arrived in Gracias the day before the most important Lencan festival, Cacique (Chief) Lempira Day. Held every July 20 and celebrated nationwide, the event is most vibrant here, in the heart of southeastern Honduras' 80-mile Ruta Lenca. Even the country's president helicopters in to attend.

Although the festival was a mere 24 hours away, preparations moved forward at the typical Central American pace: slow and more or less steady.

The town's central park was ringed with temporary stalls in various stage of construction, each adorned with palm leaves and bamboo and garlands of vines and other jungle finds until the structures looked more like wildlife observation blinds than coffee stands and craft stalls. Women were sweeping the dusty streets. Children were bouncing off everything in sight, fueled by pure anticipation.

Somehow everything was ready for the parade's 9 a.m. start the following day. For the next three hours, the streets of Gracias were awash in homemade floats topped with waving children and adorable animals, groups of costumed paraders representing either the Spanish or the Lencans, the sound of marching bands and beauty queens of all ages, each wearing a heavy handmade dress decorated with beans, corn kernels and plants in designs representing Lempira's face, farm life and jungle scenes. Many of the dresses also had decorated side panels, which added even more weight.

An impressive fireworks display, daring flyovers by a pair of jets from the Honduran Air Force and the presence of Porfirio Lobo Sosa, the president of Honduras since a 2009 coup ousted Manuel Zelaya, provided dramatic peaks to the day's events. The emotional culmination of the festival, however, was a solemn costumed re-enactment of Chief Lempira's final moments at the hands of the Spanish, re-enacted by children wearing conquistador helmets made of silver paper and riding papier-mâché horses.

The next day, with no costumed children or visiting politicians on the streets, Gracias resumed its languid pace. I wandered into the Casa Galeano museum for a more formal introduction to Lencan culture. The breezy rooms in this former home are now full of masks, pottery, history and lore, including the Lencan legend of La Sucia, a mythical hag believed to present herself as a gorgeous temptress.

History in their hands

The tiny village of La Campa, less than 10 miles from Gracias, is the epicenter of traditional Lencan pottery production. Using techniques that date to the 1500s, Lencan women create pots of clay, water and natural dyes. The dishes, cooking vessels and enormous urns are decorated with geometric patterns inspired by natural elements such as the moon. Displays at the Centro de Interpretacion de Alfarería Lenca pottery museum give a good overview of the process and art that's being kept alive there.

You won't find a pottery shop in La Campa, but many of the potters' homes and workshops are open to the public. Doña Desideria Peres is one of the best known local potters (anyone in town can direct you to her workshop). Examples of her reddish-brown glazed pots adorn the lobby of the Hotel Real Camino Lenca in Gracias.

It's worth continuing another 10 miles past La Campa to the Lencan town of San Manuel De Colohete. Settled by some of Chief Lempira's warriors, the big attraction here (besides the verdant, hilly scenery) is the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Concepcion, one of the loveliest and oldest churches in Honduras.

Built by the Spanish in 1721, the interior still shows traces of 400-year-old frescoes and a wonderful wooden ceiling that was constructed without nails. Although some renovation has taken place, the church retains an ambience of elegant decay and an almost Moorish style. If the doors are locked, ask in town for the key and locals will proudly show you their "Sistine Chapel of Latin America."

The conquistadors may have defeated Chief Lempira and named this town Gracias de Dios in thanks for finally finding land flat enough to build on, but it's Lempira's legacy that makes me thankful.