Mayan Ruins

Trip Start Feb 08, 2007
Trip End Feb 22, 2007

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Where I stayed
Acropolis Hotel

Flag of Honduras  ,
Tuesday, February 13, 2007

As we boarded our bus for Copan, an elderly couple were sitting in our seats.  We had to help them figure out where they should be sitting.  Most of this was done with gestures, because they spoke no English.  They jabbered away to us in Spanish, all the time apologizing profusely for taking our seats.  I think bus travel was a bit of a novelty for them.
It was about a two and a half tour bus trip to Copan through mountainous countryside -    spectacular scenery with lush green mountains and forests.  It reminded me of Costa Rica, except the roads are much better here. 
Snaking through the mountain passes, I began to feel nauseous and, of course, all my antacids were in my backpack underneath the bus.  I stumbled down the aisle to the bathroom, but couldn't open the door, so assumed someone else was in there.  After awhile when no one came out, I waved the steward down.  Was I embarrassed when I was told (in Spanish) that I just had to pull harder!  I was even more embarrassed when I thought I had closed and locked the door when, sitting on the toilet with my pants around my ankles, the door flew open for the steward to have a great view!  He quickly closed the door for me and very nicely told me, when I emerged very red-faced, how to lock it.  I didn't stay in there any longer than necessary as it was hot and very stuffy - needless to say making me feel even worse.  I remained at the back of the bus close to the bathroom for the rest of the trip. Although the deodorizer they used in the bathroom was close to being gaggingly intolerable, the back seat was higher than the rest of the seats and I could see out the front of the bus which seemed to calm my stomach down a bit.
Like many overseas long-haul buses, there was a movie on-board.  This one was "The Big Bounce" with Owen Wilson and Gary Sinise.  Although it was in English subtitled in Spanish, I couldn't hear the dialogue and never did figure out the plot. "Musak" followed the movie - everything from Bugs Bunny themes to a Whiter Shade of Pale.  Go figure.
I was very happy when we arrived at Copan town.  Thank heavens for air conditioning on the bus or I would have been sick for certain!  We decided to sit for awhile in the station until my stomach calmed down.  The local taxi drivers clamoured at the door for fares as passengers descended down the steps into the furor.  While sitting there figuring out our next move, we met Julie, a social worker from Salt Lake City who has also arrived on our bus.  She had come to Copan to spend a week at a Spanish school.  We were relieved when a local woman approached us and offered us a ride into town, thus avoiding the madding crowd.  No one bothered us in the least when the three of us and another American couple followed her to her truck and piled in.
The woman's name was Dona Flavia.  She and her family own a hacienda about 3 km outside of Copan.  She had married a Californian and moved to the US for many years, but had recently returned to her native country.  After we dropped Julie off, she took us to her office in town to phone around for a place for us to stay.  Our first choice was not available, but it didn't take long for her to find us a room at the Acropolis Hotel just a couple of blocks away.  Our guidebook didn't do the hotel justice.  It was a beautiful place - very clean, decorated with antiques and heavily carved wooden furniture and surrounded a courtyard full of plants and flowers.  And it was only US $40 a night.  We stayed four nights and for three out of the four we were the only customers there.  (The only drawback was the nightly dog fights outside our window.)
Copan, a tobacco-growing town set amongst the green hills of the Rio Copan Valley, exudes old-world charm with its cobblestone streets and colonial architecture.  It reminded us very much of Antigua, Guatemala and, similarly to Antigua, is a popular destination for westerners who wish to study Spanish.
Copan is also known for its excellent restaurants.  The first night we went to a place renowned for their "pinchos" (shishkabobs).  We were seated next to a group of eastern European tourists who made the mistake of each requesting an order of pinchos.  They were huge (meat skewered with cobs of corn and other vegetables) and there were two per plate!  They were all asking for takeout boxes for the leftovers. The waitresses were entertaining everyone by carrying glasses of wine and the meals on their heads.
We were only there for a short time when Justin and his friends (and a few other hangers-on) walked in the door.  By all accounts, they seemed to be having a great time.  They were, of course, staying at Dona Flavia's hacienda which was a little bit beyond our budget.
Honduran food is similar to most in Central America: meat, rice, beans and tortillas.  Upon arriving at a restaurant, you are often served "anafre", a heated clay pot holding refried beans with cheese and cream, to be eaten with tortilla chips.  There's always "plato tipico" on the menu which included beef, fried plantain, beans, marinated cabbage, rice, a chunk of salty cheese and sour cream.
Our destination early the next morning was the ruins at Copan or Copan Ruinas, a world heritage site, about a kilometre from town.  Another good thing about where we were staying was that we were on the route out to the ruins, so it was just a nice walk for us.  Our guidebook recommended going to the ruins early when there isn't so much direct sun (and thus photography will be better) and it's not so hot.  Local people called out "Hola" or "Buenos"/"Buenos Dias" as we passed them by.  Martin seemed to be to be of particular interest to the Mayan women who often gave him a big smile and giggled.  He is considerably taller than most Hondurans and has blue, blue eyes that aren't commonplace here (and he never wears sunglasses).
Entrance into the ruins is US $15 per person.  Although not nearly as extensive as Tikal in Guatemala or as restored as Chichen Itza in Mexico, Copan is definitely worth a visit.  At its height of power, Copan's population was about 24,000 (as compared to 100,000 at Tikal) and was described as "the Athens of the New World".  For reasons unknown, Copan was the principal cultural centre for the Maya when at the peak of its development, from about 400 to 800 AD.  Like many Mayan cities, it is believed that the city collapsed due to environmental reasons: drought, soil erosion and floods. 
To prevent further wear and tear, a number of the temples at Copan are closed to tourists and you can no longer climb on them.  (I understand that similar measures have recently been taken at Chichen Itza.)  As well, many of the carvings have been removed and placed in the Sculpture Museum and replaced by replicas. Though some travelers may find this disappointing, it is encouraging to know that efforts are being made to preserve this important historical site. 
We spent the morning at Copan.  This was enough time to walk around and photograph the various temples and points of interest.  The highlight is the Hieroglyphic Stairway just off the Great Plaza.  It is the longest hieroglyphic inscription found anywhere in the Americas and consists of 72 steps with more than 2,500 glyphs.  It is believed that the 15 bottom stairs are in their correct position; restoration work is ongoing on the upper portion of the stairway and a tarp covers the entire length, making photography challenging.
Just as interesting as the ruins themselves is the Sculpture Museum where a number of the original carvings are now held.  Opening in 1996, the museum was built into the hillside and is illuminated by a massive, open-air skylight.  The most impressive features of the museum is a reproduction of Rosalita, a red-stuccoed temple located underground at Copan.  It is considered the best preserved temple anywhere in the Mayan zone.  I was unaware that the use of stucco was common practice in Mayan culture.  Also worth seeing are many of the sculptures, including the Old Man of Copan.  (It was believed that elder deities help up the sky.)  The entrance fee into the Sculpture Museum is US $7.
It was certainly obvious to us that conservation is very important to the Honduran government.  Preservation of the ruins is recognized as being the key to the future for sharing the Mayan heritage with generations to come.  We were also impressed with how clean the grounds of Copan Ruinas were.  As we were there on Domingo (Sunday), several Honduran families were visiting and had brought along picnic lunches to eat on the grass.  Honduras prides itself on having some of the most advanced environmental laws in Central America.
There were lots of people selling souvenirs at the ruins - everything from plastic Mayan sculptures, to plastic beads, wood carvings and pottery.  Most of the items of quality (silver jewelry, textiles) appear to be from Guatemala.  We didn't get pestered much however; once you said "no", they pretty much left you alone.  (All except Martin's friend, Wilbur, who haunted the steps of our hotel on a regular basis insisting we go horseback riding - not one of my favourite activities!)
Near the entrance to the ruins is a nature trail where tourists can experience the outdoors as the Mayan might have (except there were no trees at that time).  It was a very enjoyable walk along the trail, the only sounds the calls of birds and falling leaves.  We were lucky that it had remained overcast during our investigation of the ruins, so it was not as hot as it might have been if the sun had been out in full force.  We saw a couple of small rodents called agouti, several ceiba ("say-bah") trees whose roots the Maya believed belonged to the underworld and whose limbs stretched into the heavens, as well as cacao trees.  Cocoa was considered "the food of the gods" and its seeds were traded for food and the feathers of the quetzal, a beautiful green bird, the national bird of Guatemala, once common to Central America.
One of the useful tourist resources we stumbled upon in Copan was a publication called Honduras Tips.  This book, available in many hotels and tourist shops, provides information in both Spanish and English, on various destinations.  More than once we used to guide to help communicate to non-English speakers where we were trying to get to.  It provides some interesting historical information, as well as helpful advice re: traveling in Honduras.
While waiting in line at an ATM in Copan, we met two retired Canadian couples, one from Prince Edward Island and the other from Nova Scotia who were bussing it around Central America.  They knew even less Spanish than we did!  They'd been to four countries thus far and were heading to Belize next.  We also met two young people from Holland who were trying to sell their tickets into the ruins.  (They had bought a two-day pass not realizing you can see everything in less than a day.)  She was a clinical psychologist who was taking a year off before starting a master's degree and had been traveling through South and Central America for eight months.  She had recently met up with her boyfriend in Guatemala. They had to be in Buenos Aires in a month's time for him to start a job, so it was going to be a whirlwind trip back through South America for them.
One of the other popular sites near Copan is the Macaw Bird Park, a two kilometer walk out of town (entrance fee = US $10 per person).  The park, originally located on Roatan island, was started by an American from Tennessee.   Macaws (both blue and red), parrots, pygmy owls and toucans flourish in the park - many are wild birds brought here because they are injured or pets whose owners can no longer care for them.  Our tour guide was a local fellow named Alejandro, who had spent a year in Houston as a landscaper and was very knowledgeable about the native birds and vegetation.  He had quite a sense of humour and informed us about the gumbo-limbo tree.  (The Mayan people used the bark of the tree as traditional medicine.)  He told us that the tree was also called the "gringo" tree because it is always red and peeling, just like the tourists (ha, ha).  As it was beginning to get rather hot, we took a moto-taxi back into town from the bird park.
Since we were only going to traveling for two weeks, I didn't spend much time looking for Internet businesses to check my email while we were away, but I did notice, particularly in larger centres and tourist towns (such as Copan) that there were a number of places advertising Internet services.  I thought I'd leave my travel blog until I got home (and then it took me several months to get at it!).
I was suffering from a stomach ailment while in Copan, so unfortunately didn't get to partake of the local fare as much as I would have (to starve the bug or feed yourself to keep your energy up is always the dilemma).  I did tag along with Martin every evening for supper.  One night we went for pizza; I ended up giving my share to two young girls and their crippled father who seemed very grateful.  We did splurge for supper on my birthday at a place called "Twisted Tanya's", owned by a British expat.  I had tilapia (a local freshwater fish).  It was delicious!
On our last day in Copan, we ran into Julie again.  Her Spanish lessons were going well, though they were very intense.  She was staying with a Honduran family and, although the mother spoke English, she ensured that there was only Spanish spoken in the home when Julie was there.  Like so many other American travelers we have met over the past few years, she lamented the failings and the policies of the Bush government.  One of her dreams was to go to Cuba which is difficult for Americans considering the US embargo.  She was finding traveling by herself somewhat intimidating, but planned to meet up with a friend on Roatan.
We had intended to make it out to the Dona Flavia's hacienda for supper one evening, but because I wasn't feeling well the night we'd made a reservation we never did get there.  Upon leaving, we did run into her and thanked her once again for her kindness.  She certainly helped to make our experience in Honduras a good one.

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