The sounds of the modern town of Copan Ruinas — buses, trucks and radios — faded away as I walked slowly down the old Mayan road toward the historic ruins of ancient Copan and into the past. All I heard now were the soft brush strokes of the caretakers’ twig brooms. The rhythm of their sweeping was hypnotic: swish, swish, swish. In the clearing, mountains of glaring stone erupted from a sea of jade grass. Trees arched overhead, shading the perimeter, and serpentine vines drooped from their lofty branches to the ground.
I’d seen the Mayan ruins of Copan, Honduras, in pictures, but they didn’t prepare me for the Indiana Jones-esque mystique. As the cool mist tickled my skin, I felt like the first person to encounter the monuments, even though thousands had preceded me.
THE RUINS OF COPAN
The ruins at Copan were first discovered in the 16th century by the Spanish, but they weren’t fully explored until the 19th century by John Lloyd Stephens, who wrote about them in his travelogue, Incidents of Travel in Central America,Chiapas and Yucatan. It’s been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1980.
Visit the archaeological site early, like I did, to avoid the heat and day-tripping crowds. As I walked among the ruins, stelae protruded from the ground like teeth. Intricate carvings writhed around these pillars: pictures of deities and past rulers, some with incredible names like Moon Jaguar, Smoke Monkey and 18 Rabbit. Thick metal chains guarded the blocky stone men and discouraged my natural desire to touch them. But you can lean very close to inhale the designs of the place archaeologist Sylvanus Morley called the “Athens of the New World.”
Of any Mayan site in the Americas, Copan has the most hieroglyphic inscriptions and sculpted monuments. The artists of the ancient city succeeded in such depth of relief that many of the human figures appear lifelike. I wanted to feel the face of 18 Rabbit, with his open lips and large circular earrings. I longed to run my fingers over the feathered serpents, jaguars and macaws with huge hooked talons. Torch-bearing half-men, half-monsters with bulging eyes and bad teeth loomed over my head. Researchers say the buildings and sculptures were covered with dazzling pigments in Maya times — which added to the spectacle of stone.
Only 20 minutes after having my morning coffee on my first day in Copan, I already was hooked.
The town of Copan Ruinas is cradled in a valley in western Honduras — a mere seven miles from the Guatemalan border. Walking briskly, you can cross from one end of the village to the other in 10 minutes. But packed into that small space are multitudes of distractions. An obstacle course curved up the narrow, cobblestone road from my bed and breakfast, where I dodged young chickens crossing the road. Music and children streamed from gaping doors. People gathered around the central plaza to exchange the news of the day. Even with its Internet access and international cuisine, time stands still in Copan Ruinas.
VALLEY OF THE MAYA
Like most of the 140,000 annual visitors to Copan Ruinas, I was lured by the mysterious stone temples to the edge of town. But I quickly learned that the Maya scattered their legacy throughout the area. Las Sepulturas, an ancient residence, links to the main ruins by a mile-long stone path. The small sites of Los Sapos, La Pintada and Stela 10 hide in the hills, each about 90 minutes away on horseback. In the early 20th century, Morley had predicted that the entire valley would prove to be “one continuous settlement, one city.”
The Los Sapos ruins nestle within the Hacienda San Lucas property, which offers equestrian tours and access to hike its nature trails. If you’re not staying at the Hacienda, you can get access to the trails for $2 per day. My cowboy guide, Carlos, offered to take me “out there” — with a wide sweep of his arm. Our horses trotted through coffee plantations, waded through leafy tobacco fields and took a short snack break on a ridge, while Carlos pointed out his childhood home in the valley below. On our way down the hill, we spied a jewel-toned parrot flitting through the thick forest curtain. My companion noticed my wide-eyed reaction to the bird and led me along the jungle’s edge to where he assured me there would be “muchas mas.”
My day of adventures had worn me out. Surely even Indiana Jones ate three meals a day. Open restaurant doors beckoned, and smells of fish, tortillas and barbeque mesmerized me. I chose Carnitas Nia Lola, on the edge of town with views of tobacco fields. My dinner was a “tipico” beef dish right off the charcoal grill with fried plantains, rice and hard country cheese. A cold glass of beer was delivered atop the waitress’ head.
Nearby Twisted Tanya’s Restaurant celebrates happy hour from 4 to 6 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays, with a big fat menu of tropical cocktails. I was tempted, but with the sun getting lower in the sky, decided to postpone the drinks in favor of watching the sun set over the Mayan valley.
The vanishing rays washed Copan Ruinas in a gentle light. I climbed to the hills overlooking the town, which melted into an earth-toned mishmash of buildings, pastures and cobblestone roads. Nearby were the stone memories of the Maya, and surrounding both curled a thick ocean of emerald jungle.
The two Copans, old and new, weren’t as far apart as I’d imagined. Although the outward appearances of the village and people have changed over time, much has remained the same. The connection was difficult to see while in the realm of one or the other: looking at ruins or eating at restaurants, reading history or riding through a coffee farm. From the perspective of the unbiased hills, both clung together as a whole community, old evolving into new over thousands of years — an island amidst the jungle.
GETTING THERE: Continental, American, Delta, TACA and Spirit airlines provide nonstop service to La Mesa International Airport (SAP) in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, (a major city north of the capital, Tegucigalpa) from the United States. Car rental agencies are available at the airport. First-class bus service is offered by Hedman Alas from San Pedro Sula to Copan Ruinas three times a day (four times a day on Sundays and Mondays). The trip will take two-and-a-half hours, and the fare is $33 for the round trip.