Copan and the World of the Mayans

As July gave way to August we rode on up to the Caribbean where we planned to take a trip out to the Bay Islands. Another fantasy ride took us north up through the chirpy busy little town of El Progreso, past the mainland beaches at Tela and on through miles of pineapple and coconut plantations to La Ceiba, where the ferry departs to the isles. Here we enlisted the help of two smiley Tourist Cops on a little scooter, who lead us through the city and out to the ferry port. It was too expensive to take the bikes at 2400 Lps (approx £70) for each bike and given that there are only around 30 miles of paved road on the islands, it didn’t seem worth it. So we abandoned the bikes with the Harbour Police and set off for the largest of the islands – 49 square miles of paradise – Roatán. On arriving on the island we heard a familiar engine drone from the sky and looked up to see a Shorts SD360 aircraft coming in to land, bringing happy holidaymakers from the mainland. I had worked in the factory in Belfast where these planes were built in the 1980’s and it was a lovely link between home and this island paradise! The couple of days that followed were simply idyllic and very, very lazy. Roatán is a luxury, a dream vacation spot. It is the sort of place you would fantasise of going to, to decide how to spend that huge lottery win. Spotless white coral sandy beaches lined with more palm trees than you could shake a coconut at all fronted with crystal clear warm ocean waters – it is an original Caribbean Paradise. Bob Marley in a hammock and ‘every little ting’s, gonna bee all right’. Snorkelling the reefs a few metres off shore, stick your head under and there’s Nemo, sipping Coco Loco’s or some other fantasy rum concoction. Crashing at Valerie’s Hostel, our little pine room a tropical bridal suite, the bed draped with the veil of the mossie net wafting us to sleep in the cool breeze of the fan. We heard a lot of English spoken, pidgin Caribbean for the most part and understandable given that the islands were formerly part of Belize. The islands were colonised by the Spanish in 1502, who packed all of the original inhabitants off into slavery. They in turn came off second best in a series of struggles with pirates resulting in the islands formally coming under British control as part of Belize in 1852. The US eventually persuaded Britain to hand the islands back to Honduras and we met people here who refuse still to communicate in Spanish or have anything to do with that tongue!

Back on the mainland, fully revitalised at the end of our island sojourn we set off back down through the Coconut Palm lined roads and up into cooler mountain climes to our last stop in Honduras, the incredible Mayan ruins at Copan. The town of Copan Ruinas was another of the trip’s little treasures surrounded by low mountains, with cobbled hilly streets and a lazy easygoing atmosphere. It’s a town that doesn’t have to try too hard to be good – it has the ruins, they are spectacular, everyone knows it, so there is no reason for any hard sell. We found a great little hotel, the ‘Mar Jenny’, with Italianate arches and a tiled balcony giving a grand view over the town. We are now in the world of the Maya. Unlike the Incas, whose heyday lasted just over a hundred years and left no written records, the Mayan era spanned eons and recorded their past using a series of hieroglyphs which have recently been deciphered, giving reams of information on their past history. The earliest settlements at Copan date back around 2000 years, but the golden age of Copan dates from around 550 to 800AD, during which the fantastic temple complexes to be seen today were built. It is impossible not to get drawn into the fascinating history of the place. History can be awfully dull & boring, Richard III won this battle in 14 such and such, was it Henry II or Henry III who founded the navy and who came first, was it William IV or Edward VI? But check out these Mayan guys – Kings with cool names like ‘Smoke Monkey’ and ‘18 Rabbit’ or, our favourite, ‘Smoke Jaguar Monster Imix’! You just want to know their story!

Archaeology at Copan has been a bit like peeling an onion, as up until the reign of 18 Rabbit it was customary fro the new ruler to destroy or build over the monuments of his predecessors. So digs around the surface monuments reveal numerous other hidden jewels underneath. The site has been studied since as far back as 1830 and the traditional view, given the number of temple-like structures and pyramids in the complex, was that Copan was a ceremonial centre, where priests would perform rituals and sacrifices to honour their gods. Then in 1975 a set of hieroglyphs on one of the stone altars (known by the unromantic title of Altar ‘Q’) was deciphered and it was realised that some of the hieroglyphs told the story of the last 16 Mayan kings leading through the golden age of Copan to its eventual decline. Modern thinking and further digs at surrounding sites now conclude that Copan was a major inhabited area with up to 30,000 people at its peak. In 1989 the huge hidden Temple of the Sun was discovered entombed inside one of the major pyramids. It has since been mapped & measured and a replica built in the site museum. What is particularly impressive is that, as it was fully enclosed, all of the original colours have survived and they now know that there was a lot more elaboration to these buildings in their day than just bare stone temples. Archaeological digs continue today and a massive undertaking is ongoing to discover more about this fascinating place. Wandering the ruins at Copan was a tranquil meander through gorgeous parkland filled with pyramids, temples, stelae and altars all in various states of beautiful tumbledown and set under some of the most magnificently monstrous trees you ever did see. On top of Temple 11 a huge Ceiba tree thrusts out of the stone blocks, it’s massive roots snaking over the stones like an untidy pile of dead elephant trunks. Guides told how hippies come here to hug the tree, drawing strength from its awesome presence – we gave it a little pet on the way past. The elaborate stone carvings on the stelae depict some of the 16 rulers in amazing detail. They appear god-like with amazing armoured costumes and headdresses, armed with fantastic double-handed battle swords all fashioned in a style reminiscent of the Far East rather than Central America.

Back in town we visited the excellent Casa K’Inich, a children’s interpretation centre were we learned of the demise of Copan. It was not destroyed by invaders like the Inca Empire or demolished by volcanoes or earthquakes. People were responsible for its demise, a feat accomplished gradually by the local inhabitants themselves and there are lessons here that can be read across to environmental problems today. As Copan grew, the forested valleys were slowly cut down as people needed clear areas for more extensive farming and used the cut wood for building and fuel. Over time the forests disappeared and the cleared land had no resistance to the heavy rain that frequents the area in the wet season and massive soil erosion became a problem. At the same time the local population increased until the day dawned when there was not enough land to sustain the numbers and starvation, famine and disease followed. This has been backed up by archaeological findings with many skeletons dug up showing signs of malnutrition and infectious diseases. Remains of children between the ages of 5 and 15 have been uncovered and this is the age group that should be most resilient to these phenomena. The most recent ruins at the site date to around 820AD and are incomplete suggesting that the area was no longer a seat of any great power from around this time. The area did sustain a population but it was a people in poverty and decline, struggling just to survive as nature reclaimed the area and the trees returned to cover up the ruined site.

When visiting famous ruins and attractions we come to stand in awe and be ‘wowed’ by the scene. At Copan we were ‘wowed’ in spades! It is an incredible place with a past being brought to life by very recent archaeology and the Hondurans have done a wonderful job in making the place accessible to visitors. It is a very definite highlight of our whole trip and a place we would recommend that everybody should see at least once in their lifetime. Copan was our last stop in Honduras and the only slight shadow on the horizon was the exit out into Guatemala, with another possible customs rip-off if Rene’s ‘$20 fine for no receipt’ story (see above) was a set-up waiting for us to fall into. Fortunately it was not to be. We left Honduras under blue skies with friendly helpful people at Immigration and at Customs. The entire proceeding lasted less than an hour and it cost $1 each to process our passports out, 10 Quetzales (14Q = £1) for entry into Guatemala and a further 40 Quetzales for each bike.

Anyone riding south please note: The crossing at La Florida had a billboard sign up explaining the costs for going into Honduras – I reckoned on $37 per person & vehicle. As we were leaving the customs guy enquired as to how much we paid on the way in. I told him $47 each and asked him if he could explain the difference. He gave an exasperated shrug and told us we were lucky not to have entered at Aguas Calientes, the main Pan-American crossing from Guatemala. There they were charging $100 per vehicle!!!


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