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Published: July 16th 2006
A Dancing Jaguar
This is the dancing jaguar sculpture that I liked so much from the Patio de los Jaguares.
When I originally put together the plans for my trip I wanted to see how feasible it would be to travel around the world over land and sea, without flying. I have stayed true to the plan up to this point, traveling overland from Atlanta, through Mexico and Belize and it has been very rewarding, but I have now decided to make some slight changes to my plan. Realizing that it took me considerably longer to get through Mexico and Belize than I had planned and I still feel like I rushed, I have decided to concentrate on seeing the parts of the world that can’t be seen properly during a short trip from home, otherwise I will be on the road for the next ten years or more (I imagine it will be difficult to explain a ten year gap on my resume if it ever comes time for me to rejoin the rat-race!) I still plan on traveling overland and sea, but I will not do so continuously and I will concentrate on the areas I am most interested in seeing first, which means I will be flying some. With this in mind, I have decided to skip the
Copan Ruinas was a pleasant little town of cobblestone streets and colonial architecture, which serves as the base for exploring the ruins of Copan.
rest of Central America for now, because all of the Central American countries can be easily seen in short trips from home. I will go home for a little while to see my family and to plan the next portion of my trip, but first I will work my way through Guatemala bringing a proper end to my journey along La Ruta Maya. Of course, I ended my last blog by walking across the Honduran border, because there was one ancient site I had to see there - No trip along La Ruta Maya would be complete without a visit to the famous ruins of Copan, just across the border, so into Honduras I went.
The small town of Copan Ruinas is the closest town to the ruins of Copan and it is heavily oriented towards tourism. In fact, it is one of the most touristy cities I have been in on this trip, but, surprisingly, it is a comfortable little town to spend a few days in. There were so many travelers there that I had a problem finding a place to stay, but I finally found a nice hostel and dropped my bag off. Copan Ruinas was
This is one of the agouties that I startled during the walk to the ruins.
a picturesque town that would have been worth a stop even if the ruins were not there. The town is perched on a large hillside surrounded by green pastures and rolling, heavily deforested green hills. The town is set around a lovely central plaza decorated with a fountain and several carvings, all done in a Mayan theme. The cobblestone streets that lead away from the plaza were surrounded by simple colonial style buildings, complete with Spanish tile roofs and large courtyards, and several newer looking buildings that were carefully designed to compliment the historic feel of the town. There was an abundance of excellent restaurants serving just about any type of food you could hope for - I even found a place that made excellent pizza that was as good as it is back home!
I set out by seven in the morning for the ruins and after a leisurely twenty minute walk in which I passed a worn but nicely carved stela that was standing next to the stone paved sidewalk, I made it to the dirt parking lot of the ruins. With the exception of the people working at the site, I was the first person there.
The Orange Carpet
This was my first view of the ruins of Copan and the main plaza. Mother Nature had rolled out the orange carpet for me!
The lady at the ticket office let me go in early, so, after I purchase a series of pricy tickets that gave me access to the ruins, the museum and the two tunnels that have been opened to the public, I set off down a lovely path through the forest to the site entrance. Along the way I startled several agouties that were out searching for food in the early morning coolness. I got my ticket punched at the main gate while a flock of (domesticated) scarlet macaws filled the trees and sat on the fence squawking and play fighting amongst each other - The beautiful scarlet macaw is an endangered species and it is Honduras’s national bird, so it was a rare treat to see so many of them in a semi-natural setting. I walked down the long path from the gate to the main plaza. There was a large, overgrown stone mound to my left that also had a few macaws playing on its slopes and in front of me, just before the green grass of the plaza, there was a giant tree with bright orange flowers glowing brightly in the early morning sunlight. I walked over an
One of the very impressive stelae from Copan. This one still has some red paint on it!
orange carpet of flower peddles that had fallen from the tree and I stepped on to the well manicured grass of the main plaza. The early morning dew was coating everything and my sandaled feet were quickly wet, but it was a nice contrast to the tropical heat that the rest of my body was already feeling. My trail through the dew was the only one I could see, which meant I was the first person there! Copan is a famous site mainly because of its sculpture work, which is considered to be some of the best in the ancient world, not just the Americas. I was already familiar with several of the magnificent stelae at Copan, because they have been heavily reproduced in the form of casts and appear in museums throughout the world - It was exciting to finally get to see the real monuments. The sunlight was still just hitting the tree tops and the plaza had a misty layer rising a few inches above the grass as I set out to explore the plaza’s magnificent stelae. Knowing that the most famous sculptures were in the center of the plaza, I forced myself to skip them for
Stela C (2)
The other side of Stela C, notice the beard and more red paint.
a moment and I headed to the un-restored structures forming a horseshoe around the north end of the plaza. The forest grew up from the top of the northern structures giving the stelae along their flanks a lovely backdrop, but it didn’t take long to see everything there was to see there and I moved on to the center of the plaza. The sun had started hitting the stelae in the center making their details stand out, but the shadows from the protective roofs made photography difficult. I went from remarkable sculpture to remarkable sculpture taking in the beautiful details that were carved into the stone nearly two-thousand years ago without the help of modern tools. The magnificent stelae from Quirigua in Guatemala were my favorites in the Mayan world until I got to Copan and now Copan’s stelae firmly hold the top spot. Some of the carvings still had traces of the red paint that once covered them - It must have been a spectacular and awe-inspiring scene seeing all of the monuments and buildings painted a dark, blood red. I made my way to the top of the small, but well restored pyramid like Structure 4 in the
Stela B had some impressive stone work - It was one of my favorite on site.
center of the plaza and then I headed for the ball court. I explored the well restored ball court with its Mayan arches and sculptured macaws and then I headed to the giant tarp that was concealing one of the most magnificent and lengthy texts in the Mayan world - The Hieroglyphic Staircase. When archaeologists discovered the staircase only the first few steps were intact, the rest had fallen from their original positions and had to be painstakingly reconstructed, which must have been a difficult task considering that most of the hieroglyphs couldn’t be read when restoration work began. Now the text is believed to be fairly close to the original layout, but work continues. The giant tarp that now covers the staircase is unfortunately a necessary evil, because without it we would just have a staircase, the hieroglyphics would be nearly gone thanks to Mother Nature’s unrelenting eraser - I talked to several people back in town that were mad that the tarp was there, but I doubt that they would have been happier with a plain un-tarped staircase, there are lots of those around the site! I read that the long term management plan at Copan involves moving
The Back of Stela B
The Stelae were completely carved on all sides and they tell a story of an important event in Copan's history.
all of the original sculptures from the site under the protective roof of the site museum and replacing them with high-quality reproductions or casts. Several of the most famous and most important sculptures have already been moved and, were it not for a small plaque that said “reproduction” next to them, I would not have been able to tell the difference. I think that is a good plan, because it protects the original art and it provides jobs to local artists who would otherwise have to succumb to the pressures of modern life and give up their trade - It also means that someday the tarps and protective roofs may be able to come down. The entire south side of the plaza was one giant staircase leading up to the Temple of Inscriptions. The staircase has not been restored and was, therefore, off limits, but it was one of the most picturesque features of the site with several giant trees growing out of its uneven rows of steps and vines hanging down from the canopy above them. One of my favorite stelae, Stela N, was at the base of the steps which added even more to the scene. I sat
Some consider Stela A to be the most beautiful of Copan's stelae. It was certainly beautiful, but it wasn't my favorite. This is one of the excellent reproductions - The original was in the museum.
on the lower steps for a while and watched the plaza come to life with the first visitors - I had been there for an hour and the park had been officially open for half an hour, so I was amazed that the first people were only just arriving. I walked up a modern staircase off to the side of the Temple of Inscriptions and from the top I took in the hieroglyphic covered walls of the temple and the impressive views of the plaza below and the rolling green mountains in the distance. From there I made my way past a few other nice structures and down into the Patio de los Jaguares. There were several nice sculptures surrounding the Patio, my favorite being one of a dancing jaguar, but the big reason for coming to the plaza was to gain entrance to the site’s two public tunnels, which were dug by the archaeologists to explore the earlier structures without destroying the newer ones. The first tunnel, called the Rosalila Tunnel, was short, but it had two windows looking onto the early façade of the nearly perfectly preserved Rosalila Temple, which was left intact when the later structures were
The Glyphs on the Back of Stela A
The detailed hieroglyphics on the back of Stela A were in excellent condition (the reproduction is an accurate re-creation.)
built over it. The second tunnel, called the Jaguares Tunnel, was a lot longer and contained the façade and foundation of Temple 22 as well as a tomb and a well preserved drainage culvert. I enjoyed both tunnels and I am glad I went to the extra expense to see them - I was told it wasn’t worth it, but I do have a strange passion for both ruins and tunnels! The Jaguares Tunnel exited into the old river bed for the Copan River, which had moved in the years since the Mayans had abandoned the site and was cutting into the ceremonial structures by the time the site was rediscovered. The river had destroyed a large portion of the eastern structures resulting in a vertical wall a few stories high, which bisects the center of the structures. The river was rerouted to protect the site from further damage and, apparently, every once in a while they still find sculptures from the destroyed structures in the old riverbed. I had to walk back around to the main plaza and back up the Temple of Inscriptions to continue my exploration. The site was now so full of other tourists that I
Alter G (I think!)
There was a row of very interesting carvings in the main plaza - I think this one was Alter G.
gave up on trying to avoid the crowds and I headed down to the West Plaza where I saw Altar Q, which is one of the most famous sculptures on site, depicting sixteen of Copan’s greatest kings - The original is now in the museum. I walked back around to the Patio de los Jaguares and then I continued my tour where I left off. I passed another tomb and then headed down the hill to what appeared to be a residential area. I found another tomb in one of the structures there that I was ‘forced’ to climb down into to remove some unsightly trash (there were no signs telling me to not climb down there). I found a few more very nice sculptures and then I headed back out to the entrance - It had taken me about five hours to see the site at my own pace, now it was time for the museum. The macaws at the main gate were entertaining a large group of tourists with their play fighting and squawking and by occasionally grabbing the hats off of their heads - It was funny to watch. On the way to the museum I decided
The Back of Stela F
I may be wrong regarding which stela this is but I liked the carving on the back of this one a lot.
to do a nature walk through the jungle, which was a lot of fun. I didn’t see any wildlife, but I did see another well restored ball court. I did my best to get the mud off of my shoes and then I entered the mouth of the serpent and headed down its winding gullet into the bowels of the Museum of Sculpture. The first view I had as I exited the long, tunnel-like, serpent entryway was of a full size reproduction of the Rosalila Temple, complete with detailed stucco work and brightly painted, multicolored sculptured details - It was a beautiful sight, but you will have to use your imagination again, because I lost all of my pictures from inside the museum in the same unfortunate CD burning accident I mentioned in my last blog! The museum had several of the most famous sculptures from Copan and the near by site of Las Sepulturas. It was a two story, open air structure with a central courtyard containing the Rosalila Temple. There were a lot of spectacular carvings, some of which were truly amazing - My favorite was a head carved in the form of the sun god, with his
The Main Plaza
This is the view looking across the main plaza towards the stelae.
large round eyes, wearing a giant bird-head headdress; the bird had a long beak and a graceful, long neck and everything was carved out of a single piece of stone. I left the museum and went to the site’s snack-bar where I sat and ate lunch with a theater group from Canada. After lunch I headed back out to the road and the stone-paved walkway and I started walking to the ruins of Las Sepultruas, two kilometers further from town. The walk was very nice and I reached the site fairly quickly. I was the only person there with the exception of the caretakers and a few guides (and a heavily armed guard that I ran into later). I set off to explored the site. Being mostly a residential area, there was not a lot to see, but there were several impressive carvings and restored buildings. I spent a lot of time walking down narrow, pottery strewn jungle paths between the structures. At one point I came out into a clearing and there was a very bored looking man in military garb holding a big machine gun and smiling - I said hello and went about my exploration, so I
suppose he was a guard. When I had finished seeing the site I found a nice trail through the jungle and I followed it, not sure where it would take me, but my impeccable sense of direction told me it was going in the right direction and I was correct. The trail was muddy in places and completely flooded in others, which made for some great photography. I said good bye to the caretaker and I headed back down the stone pathway to town. That evening I had pizza while I sat under a palm thatched roof listening to the thunder and watching the rain fall in torrents that quickly flooded the open-air restaurant, but made for a wonderful dinning experience - I was forced to eat slowly because I had errantly left my poncho at the hostel. The following day I went to a butterfly farm and got to play with more butterflies, but not as many as up in Morelia with the Monarchs. I also saw the city museum which had a lot of stuff from the ruins and was very interesting. That evening I had my CD burning incident that I have mentioned several times now and
Struggling Against the Jungle
The ruins of Copan have been reclaimed from the jungle, but it is an ongoing fight - The jungle scenery makes Copan one of the most beautiful sites I have been to.
I planned a trip deeper into Honduras for the next day.
I found a cloud forest that was fairly close to Copan and was supposed to have excellent quetzal spotting, so I set off for the town of Gracias. It took me all day to get there even though it was only a two hour drive. The reason the trip took so long was that I was finally experiencing the chicken busses. It took over an hour to fill the one up in Copan Ruinas, so I sat around waiting there. The next bus went a bit quicker with only forty-five minutes of waiting and then the last bus was a little better than that, but between the rain, the waiting and the incessant stops along the way it took me more than six hours to get there. In Gracias I went to several hotels before I found one that fit my budget and then I stashed my bag and went to play in the rain. Gracias was a town that, at one time, must have been very beautiful, but the ravages of time were not kind to the place - The buildings still had some charm, though they
The Ball Court
While certainly not the biggest in the Mayan world (the one at Chichen Itza wins that title), it is one of the more impressive ball courts.
were all run down, and the cobblestone streets had turned into muddy, bolder strewn river beds that posed an incredible hazard to pedestrians and cars alike. I had an early dinner and then I walked up to the fort on top of the hill above town, which had some great views. I then walked around town trying to plan my trip to the Celaque cloud forest. I immediately found out that I would either have to walk the seven kilometers up hill or take an expensive cab, but I was fine with that. The next morning I attempted to purchase the food I would need for two days of camping with out a stove, which turned out to be not only difficult but somewhat impossible - The only markets I could find either sold expensive food imported from America that had to be cooked or no food at all. About mid morning I decided to throw the towel in and head back to Copan - It would have been a little foolish to try and tackle the forest by myself anyway! I will return when I come back to Honduras next time. I am glad that I went to Gracias
A Carved Macaw
The arched doorways at the top of the ball court were flanked by these sculptured macaws, but this is the only one that is still intact.
despite the failed attempt at going hiking, because I got to see some of the real Honduras and I got to meet several of the locals, who all seemed to be very nice. The bus journey went surprisingly well on the return trip and I was back in Copan Ruinas early in the afternoon.
I went out to dinner with several of my fellow travelers from the hostel and then I purchased a shuttle ticket to Antigua, Guatemala for the following morning. I had decided to take the shuttle because I had had enough hassle the previous day on the chicken busses and I wanted a smooth ride all the way. The following morning I was packed and waiting at the pick-up point amid a large crowd that had gathered to watch the opening game of the World Cup. I was off, headed back to Guatemala and to the colonial city of Antigua.
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