(Honduras - travel log from 1992)


Some are broken, some intact, but they are all spectacular. Perfectly carved statues of Copan's mighty rulers stand exposed under the merciless tropical sun. Mayan sculptors of Copan have worked on these stones as if they were made of butter, capturing every nuance of detail in an attempt to immortalise their subjects. Larger than life, with their lips slightly apart, these figures seem so real that you feel they might start speaking at any moment!

There are at least 4500 mounds containing ruins in the valley surrounding Copan. 3500 of these are in the 24 sq km immediately surrounding the main group. Of these, only a fraction are properly excavated or restored. The main group of ruins is surrounded by well kept lawns and neat little signs telling you all about the main trail around the ruins. Pockets of original forest remain around isolated ruins, transporting the viewer to a time when this entire city was engulfed by the green tide. There is an interesting nature trail, historical trail and plenty of places to have a picnic. Beware of the monkeys though. They love tourists who have foolish notions of "Take a snap dear while I feed these cute monkeys." This is no Trafalgar Square and these are no city pigeons, so be warned!

Best time to see the ruins is in the cool of the morning or late afternoon. Do what the locals do, have an afternoon siesta. It is far more sensible and comfortable to curl up in cool shade rather than run around the ruins under a blazing afternoon sun. Local monkeys and lizards also prefer take an afternoon nap - even they don't wants to pose in the mid-day heat.

To really appreciate Copan, one should really spend a couple of days there. If however, you are really pushed for time, it is possible to enjoy the main sights and splendours of Copan in half a day. I based my self at Chiquimula, Guatemala, and travelled by an early bus (6.30 am) to the Honduran border. Buses to the border are fairly regular throughout the day. But, the early bus is recommended as the ride is relatively less hot and sticky that time of the day. You also get more time to see the ruins and feel less pressured about coming back in time for the last bus home. There is no accommodation at the frontier so, if you are likely to miss the last bus, stay in Copan. This involves less hassle with the border guards and is more comfortable than sleeping with the jaguars.

The bus ride was bumpy and crowed, but it was fun and the scenery more than made up for the discomfort. 58 km and 2.30 hours later, the tiny frontier settlement of El-Florido was as busy and colourful as any other trading post. Be ready to play a game of bureaucratic trivia at the borders. Custom officials the world over seem to get some sort of perverse pleasure in harassing unsuspecting tourists. There is a special permit for a day trip to Copan, this will save time and money on custom duties and fees.

There are plenty of mini-buses leaving from the Honduran border to the ruins, 12 km away. There are two Copans, and just to confuse everyone, the village is called Copan Ruinas whilst the actual ruins are 1 km east of the village. (So remember to tell the mini-bus driver you want the ruins and not the Copan Ruinas, otherwise you will be dropped off in the village and will have to walk the rest of the way.) Village is pleasant and functional enough, it even has a bank, police station and an immigration office. What more can a tourist want? There are some good hotels in the village and a camp site near the ruins for the more adventurous.

Village's main square has an interesting museum housing some artefacts including grave goods of Copan's past residents. It is pleasant, well kept and surprisingly informative. The village it-self is nice to walk around in. It's cleanliness and orderly lay-out are strikingly beautiful. Best place to shop is where the locals shop, prices are definitely reasonable and quality is good compared to "tourist" shops. Having sold (yes sold) my old Nike in Guatemala, I brought a new pair of comfortable walking shoes from a local shop and still had some money to spare!!!

Short walk from the village to the ruins only takes about 10-15 minutes. It is also a good way of walking off those extra calories from the night before. The road takes you past several stele and alter stones, standing like isolated islands in a sea of green fields. Some farmers have erected tin roofs to protect their finds, whilst others brave the elements as they have done for centuries.

The main archaeological site is open from 8 am to 4 pm. For those with more money than time, there is a small air strip for light aircrafts to land near the ruins. Tourists can be whisked in and out of the site before their make-up starts to run in the afternoon heat. Visitors' centre has a small book shop and a free audio visual show (in English) explaining the history and lay out of the ruins. There is a patio restaurant, souvenir shop (scourge of the tourist race) and a make-shift post office to post those corny messages home.

Archaeologists are still working on this site, their precious findings are stored in crude open sheds dotted around the park. Tall pyramids, elaborate ball courts, memorial plaques, ceremonial staircases made of hieroglyphics, skull pyramids etc. are all being arranged in "suitable order" by modern archaeologists. Some of the taller pyramids look like small hills, hibernating under trees and shrubs grown tall over the centuries. Resurrection of these giants is not easy or inexpensive.

A shady avenue of trees leads to the "Great Plaza". This contains a number of stele, alter stones, pyramids and temples. Mayans equated trees with stele and so the historian Linda Schele named this area "Forest of the Kings". A misnomer of sorts, the "Forest" really represents a magnificent collection of ancient stele set in well manicured lawns.

Apart from the "Forest of the Kings", Copan is famous for it's unique hieroglyphic staircase and a beautifully restored ball court. King Smoke Shell recorded the official History his ancestors on 63 steps of a tall pyramid, which he constructed around 743 AD. Several feet wide and rising far above the trees, the staircase is a mysterious 3-D jigsaw puzzle whose "before" picture has been lost. Historians and archaeologists are working hard to reconstruct the stairs by exercising their "professional judgement" (posh word for guess word) to put these several thousand glyphs back together.

On one side of the hieroglyphic stairs is the second largest ball court in Central America. It is rather impressive with it's gleaming walls and restored side temples. There is a suggestion that the loosing team was sacrificed to the Gods - sure incentive to win! (Perhaps the England team managers might want to consider the merits of this custom.)

Other side of the stairs leads to a steep, lofty and extremely tall pyramid housing the "Temple of Inscriptions". This a good place to get a bird's eye view of it all and appreciate the sturdiness of Mayan architecture. Mature trees are growing on this pyramid, and yet, it is still standing!! A number of trails descend to plazas and courts surround this important landmark. There is one particular pyramid which is composed entirely of large skulls! Albeit stone-skulls, but it is sobering enough, even under the mid day sun. Plaza opposite this grim monument houses some interesting finds, including King Yax Pac's tomb, alter showing the 16 great kings of Copan, large ornate glyphs and some statues.

Exploring the ruins is a perfect way to soak up both culture and sun at the same time. Tourists wonder around these beautiful ruins with their mouths open, wondering how did they originally move such huge stones in to position? Lizard darts out of a camera shot, wondering with it's mouth open, why are these humans invading his ancestral territory? Talking of animals, it is amazing to think that all this was achieved with out the use of pack animals, wheel or metal tools! Mayans knew the concepts of these, but for some unknown reason they never utilised them.

Copan was abandoned long before the Spanish conquest. From the ninth century AD, Copan was reclaimed by mother nature. Covered in her shawl of thick green vegetation, ignorance proved to be bliss for Copan. Thus, saving it from a fate far worse than being forgotten for centuries. Thousand years later, in 1841, John L Stephens bought the lease for the archaeological site for only $50. Restoration work now costs considerably more, an expensive white elephant for a small developing nation. It is easy to criticise their government for not spending enough for preserving such "World Heritage" sites, but, consider their choices. Struggle to live from day to day, or reminisce the glories of the past.

Armchair ideas on culture, philosophy and heritage can not be digested on an empty stomach. When fighting for sheer survival, a piece of antique represents a month's supply of food rather than some vague ancestral link. I do not condone buying antiques (stolen or otherwise), but this at least allows us to understand local attitudes.



� Bhagwat    [email protected]


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