Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Welcome to Honduras

Sunset in Copán Ruinas
"Bienvenidos a Honduras" was printed on a big sign at the border. Immediately after the fast and easy immigration process, we were greeted by two young people in an tourist information booth. It actually looked more like the kind of makeshift stalls that we've seen in local markets. They offered us maps and brochures of various popular places in Honduras, even giving us an Honduras Tourism branded water bottle... What a nice welcome "basket" for a new country.
This may sound trivial to many people who might wonder: "What's the big deal about tourist information at a border anyway?"
The welcome delegation
Well in the developing world (aka. Government sponsored) tourist information is rare to non-existent and here we are being showered with information and gifts at small town border crossing.

It worked for us, our first impressions of Honduras were very positive, including the easy bus ride to the nearby town of Copán Ruinas. This town was our first stop and would serve as a base to visit the Copán Mayan ruins just outside the town.

We very soon noticed that this town is extremely touristic: most restaurants had bilingual menus, the streets were lined with Hotels and Restaurants, and Gringos. We even noticed quite a few Gringo-owned businesses. Actually, the town was also filled with many local tourists too. We therefore decided to take everything here with a grain of salt: this likely is not "real" Honduras.

Copán Ruinas is commonly visited by tourists that travel through Guatemala and probably also Belize. It's only 12km from the border and there are many day trips on offer esp in Antigua. Most people only stay long enough to visit the Copán archeological site for a day and then head back (hence only staying in Honduras for a night). Despite the loads of tourists. we didn't notice the cash cow attitude that bothered us in Flores, actually everybody was nice and helpful.

The Copán Maya Ruins
Of course, we spent most of our time in this area visiting the ruins, which are just 1.5 km (1 mile) walk outside of town. Transport is therefore not a problem, we can walk there.
View down to the Grand Plaza
The park only opens at 8am, unfortunately that means also no sunrise experience here either. But we were at the entrance at 8am sharp to have as much time as possible before the big tour groups arrive.
We paid the $15 entrance fee for each of us and noticed that we actually were second to sign into the guestbook, just behind a group from the States.
We had the privilege to be first in the grand plaza and see the some of the major sites without any other people around.

Here some history of Copán
Not much is known about the early rulers of Copán before a new Dynasty was formed in the early 5th century AD, the new rulers originated from Tikal and made Copán into a powerfull city states of the southern Mayan territory. The city had 16 generation of rulers, whith Waxaklajuun Ub'aah K'awiil being the longest ruler. He was also known as "Rabbit 18" and was beheaded by a rivaling city after 43 years in power.

Southward view of the Grand Plaza
The first mentioning of Copán after the Spanish invasion was in 1576 by Diego García de Palacio of Guatemala. A Frenchman named Waldeck was the first one to draw maps of the site in the 19th century.
Excavations started as early as 1834 by Englishman Juan Galindo however he only excavated a very small portion. The main excavation work started in the 20th century under the sponsorship of the Peabody Museum of Harvard University.
Stela of "Rabbit 18 "

The ruins suffered considerable damage from the nearby Copán river that gradually changed course and washed away a major section of the ruins, some say up to 10% was lost to the river. The Carnegie Institution sponsored a redirection of the river around 1939, and therefore prevented further loss to the waters.
The Copán runis were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980, excavations continue to date, although most of the site has been uncovered and some of it restored. Looting remains a problem, despite the fact that the site is declared a national park and not accessible to the public from 4pm to 8am.

As usual, here the link to Wikipedia for more history if you are really into learning more about Copán

The site is much smaller than Tikal, we spent about 3 hours looking at the various temples, stelae, altars, and carvings.
Hieroglyphic Stairway
One of the most important sights is the "Hieroglyphic Stairway". Basically a tower with a stairway made of 64 steps with several thousand glyphs telling the story of Copán and the dynasty of its rulers. The stairway is covered by a large, overhead canvas to protect it from the elements, that unfortunately also impacts on the beauty of the site.

The upper part of the stairs were collapsed when archeologists started the reconstruction, so they had no means of knowing the correct order of the glyphs when restoring the stairs. Thus, only about 45% of the hieroglyphs carved in the lower part can be deciphered. The rest is lost to eternity.

is strictly off limits to climbing.
The  temple of inscriptions...

Most ruins are off limits for climbing, there isn't much chance to get away from the crowds once they arrive. On the Saturday we visited, there were also bus-loads (literally) of school children there. Thankfully we had seen most sites before they took over the park. But we did notice that they used the old North American Blue Bird buses to get there. So chicken buses can also sometimes become school buses again… now this is getting confusing.

The national bird of Honduras
The Copán ruins also have a lot of wildlife nearby. At the entrance to the park, we noticed two Scarlet Macaws, later in the day we saw many more of them flying around the ruins. Just before leaving, we were disappointed to see that they were only partially wild: a big feeding station was setup right next to the exit. This explains why they love hanging out here and are not shy at all. The Macaw is by the way the national bird of Honduras and called Guacamaya in the local indigenous language. The Maya believed that this bird represents the sun; easy to follow given it's vibrant colors.

In the center of the Great Plaza is the Ball Court. Here was played the famous ball game of the Mayans called Juego de Pelota. The players attempted to hit on of the elevated stone sculptures of the Macaw to score points.
The "ball park" of  the Copán ruins
"Hit me if you can!"

Afterwards, we walked the 30 minute nature trail that connects the museum to the entrance of ruins. It also passes by a minor ball park ruin in the middle. The forest trail has about 20 stations that explain about the wildlife and flora and also some of the traditions of the ancient Mayan civilization. We were the only people on the tree canopy shaded trail and we were greeted by some nice birds, butterflies, and a rodent that looked like a giant rat. We think it might be an Agouti.

Replica of "Rosalila"
at the center of the museum
We opted to return the next day to visit the museum as we didn't need to cram everything into one day and were looking forward to cooling down in the small pool on the top floor of our hotel and then swing in the hammock a bit too. We've gotten pretty good at perfecting this skill!

The museum costs another $7 entrance fee but is located outside the archeological site and can therefore be visited separately. It is very well designed and highly recommended (at least by Julane) to visit.

Julane in front of "Rosalila"
It was built in 1996 and is an interesting design. Visitors enter through the mouth of the mythical serpent used by the Maya rulers to communicate with their dead ancestors. Following the 50 meter tunnel that represents the body of the serpent, they are symbolically transported into the past.
A virile bat sculpture
The visitor enters into a courtyard dominated by the colorful, full-scale replica of Rosalila, which is carefully recreated to appear as it would have in its glory days. The original one is still underground and was consequently preserved from fading. Archeologists discovered it by digging tunnels under the later built structures.

Intricate sculpture?
There are also many intricate and beautiful sculptures housed within the two floors of the museum. The skill and craftsmanship is extraordinary and it's labeled well in English also.

We spent about 2 hours exploring and basking in the well lighted and spacious building. As usual, Patrick was less excited to visit the museum than Julane; but found his ways to keep himself busy.

After 3 nights in Copán, we are ready to venture off to the highlands in anticipation to find "the real" Honduras. Hopefully, we manage to get to a place where Semana Santa is not giving us too many headaches.

Julane liked Copán much more than Tikal, Patrick thinks that the ruins at Tikal are more impressive. But if you are into carvings and hieroglyphs, then Copán is probably better to visit. We both agree that the town of Copán Ruinas beats Flores, especially because of the charm of the people. Our last night we even had a home cooked meal on our roof top of our hotel. The location was so nice and we had read that the mother of our family run hotel would make breakfast or dinner for guests on request. So we had a private dinner with moonlight. The charm is increasing! If you ever visit Copán, we can definitely recommend to stay at the "Posada del Belssy"