The town of Copan Ruinas is a few short kilometers from the Mayan historical site; and not all that far from the Guatemalan border. It would mean a ferry and two buses plus a few taxis here and there for us to get there. The chunder party we’d experienced on the way over was nothing of the sorts on the way back as the sun emerged over flat seas and sparkled across the surface, lighting it up to this golden syrupy colour. Disgusting. We’d had nearly 10 days of sour clouds and rain and obviously much to Roatans delight, we were now leaving.
A taxi gets us to a secure compound bus terminal in which we quickly purchase tickets and are soon en route to San Pedro Sula. After a long, hot wait at the airport some 5 or so hours later we roll into the secure compound of San Pedro Sulas central bus terminal. The place seems fine; nice roads, plenty of roadside flowers and surrounding alpine scenery. Almost enticing. Almost. There’s a short wait between buses, but we’re soon on a bus destined for Guatemala City but making a stop in Copan Ruinas.
The Mayans are undoubtedly Central Americas most notable ancient civilisation. And suddenly this year, a whole lot more people know a whole lot more about them as they try and work out for themselves; the credibility of this December 21st, end-of-the-world event. We’d kind of forgotten about the whole thing to be honest, which was stupid because as our schedule worked out, we’d actually end up in Tikal, one of the Maya’s most notable sites, for the end-of-the-world event. So we’d put out some feelers to see how much available accommodation there was and found almost next to nothing. The best we could get was 2 nights the day after including the 23rd, so we took them.
All across Honduras, Guatemala, Belize and El Salvador there will be celebrations at many of the Mayan ruins. Descendants and local people will be engaged in solemn rituals to bring in the new sun, say goodbye to the old b’ak’tun era and begin the new; a cycle which lasts some 5125 years. Western organisations have pushed local authorities to fly in celebs for parties around the ruins. Elton John will be there, so will Bono and even the Jackson Brothers. It’s been marketed as a gathering of ‘the most creative minds’; and I’m reassured about this whole end-of-the-world thing now because Bruce Springsteen will also be attending; and his creative mind is basically a lemon right? So the whole things a fallacy.
Add to that, the leading astronomer out there in the Atacama in Chile responded as follows when I asked him directly about the proposed date.
‘Yep, the guy that wrote calendar just basically stopped.’
The Mayans have references to dates well beyond December 21st which leads researchers to believe the date is simply a cause for celebration. A closure of the what the Mayans believe is the fourth world, and entry into the fifth. Most of the hype and doomsday prediction have come from Western New Age spiritual beliefs and we all know those types right? Crazies.
So we roll into Copan Ruinas at about 8pm or so and shortly after find ourselves on an Indian style Tuk-tuk, bumbling over cobbled streets, flying up looming hills past colonial looking buildings and streets to our hotel. I hate arriving at places at night. It’s terribly disorientating so I find I rarely take in much. We went out for dinner somewhere, I’m not even sure it was in the same town.
But the next day, under the helpful guise of daylight we had an opportunity to take in the small and enchanting town of Copan Ruinas. Don’t get me wrong by my use of ‘enchanting’, I mean it in the sense of things being different and delightful and not in a ‘fairy in the forest’ kind of way. Because this town doesn’t have fairies. It has cowboys. Little Honduran men in fantastic shirts unbuttoned halfway. They’re just chilling on street corners, often alone, sometime standing with other cowboys. Beautiful boots, that clink and jingle when they’re walked in; and there’s great hats too, curled up at the sides. Often there’s fashioned facial hair, like handlebar or pencil thin mustaches; but there’s always an intimidating belt buckle that reminds you that we were in real man country. Make no mistake.
And the towns representative of that as well. Kind of colonial, but kind of western, much safer than most of the places we’d been to prior; but we were warned not to enter bars full of locals late at night. Because they carry weapons. And we saw proof of that, plenty of signs around saying ‘No Armas’ . There’s enough ex-pat investment in the town given it’s proximity to the ruins to ensure some quality food. Not to say there wasn’t some ripper local stuff, but certainly the variety is injected by foreigners.
The towns at about 700m of altitude so is surrounded by beautiful green mountains, fast moving clouds and beautiful sunshine. Everywhere there’s smiling locals and people to wish you a ‘ola or buenas . We could have stayed longer just grazing around at the cafes in town but we were here for a reason and the next day, with our new found American friend ‘Brad’ we grabbed a tuk-tuk and headed to the Mayan site.
We endlessly deliberated about the value of getting a guide for the site. Traditionally we’d rely on the text of the faithful Lonely Planet, which in this instance was particularly detailed, but we’d been approached by a teacher who spoke English and carried a feather atop the end of large walking stick. She stated that her fee was $25 for the 4 or us and I think she took some degree of offense when we tried to talk her down to $20. She kind of waddled off to her collective group of guides and they chatted amongst themselves. One of the other guides came over and explained the break-up of the fee which made perfect sense. She actually had to buy her own ticket with that money ($15), and a portion of the remainder goes to some governmental agency responsible for maintaining the site or educating guides or something along those lines. Regardless, it was measly, we all knew it, including the guide and our relationship from her never really recovered; despite the smiles and conversation we attempted, she remained ‘distant’. So we didn’t tip her at the end. How rude.
Anyway, the ruins. Our first Mayan ruins. Copan was a capital of the Mayan empire, a significant site from the 5th to 9th centuries. It’s believed there were 17 dynastic rulers before it’s demise as a result of what appears to be disease. The population of the central city at the time was between 6 to 9 thousand and a further 30 thousand or so outside the immediate area.
We were introduced to the site at a large open field centered by a small yet prominent 4 sided pyramidal structure. Typical of Mayan pyramids it had a staircase leading up the center of each side to the top, which was used to address large crowds by royalty. Scattered around the field are various relics and statues, our guide indicates that it’s possible a lot of the original artistic influence arrived from China, Japan and Mongolia and it’s evident in the designs. Copan is significant in the Mayan world for it’s unique artistry, and the statues here have the same glare and expressions that you find in the towering statues outside Japanese temples. Perhaps they’re glaring because the Mayan currency for trade was chocolate, which sounds great but would be annoying after a while.
Many of the statues are engraved with the unique Mayan numbering system where balls indicate a count of one and elongated lines indicate a count of five. Animals are iconic in their use as well, where there’s owls or turtles, there’s an indication of a connection to the underworld. Most stones are engraved with some indication of the dynastic period and the ruler to which they are
dedicated. ‘Smoke Imix’ ruled Copan for an amazing 67 years. And in my opinion had the coolest name, second only to ‘Moon Jaguar’ who ruled before him. Many of the artifacts exhumed were commissioned by Smoke Imix and many of the statues now on display around the main plaza are original, some have been damaged and so are on display in the nearby museum. Being Mayan, there’s plenty of stones used for sacrificial purposes in the event of an unsuccessful coup or random pleasing of the gods. Other stones have been extracted from various funerary sites around the complex.
At the southern end of this field is the Acropolis; which from a distance appears as though a plane-load of bricks had tumbled from the sky and scattered themselves across the hillside. Then, as time went on, trees grew from between the bricks and it’s left us now with what some archeologist terms ‘The Acropolis’. Upon close inspection though, the bricks take form as a stairway and an even closer look will uncover unique scrawling and engravings on each step in what’s now known as ‘The Hieroglyphic Stairway’. Archeologists have discovered a series of tombs and a network of tunnels under this massive stairway and even forms of prior buildings that had been built over by successive dynasties.
Nearby is the ball court, where 3 stone macaw heads line each side of a field enclosed by stadium seating. There’s two teams, with the aim being to use your hips, elbows, knees or head to hit a ball at one side of the macaw heads. The captain of the losing team gets a real close look at the beheading stone.
We wander around with our feather touting guide, who on occasions find a nice spot in the shade and simply users us in some direction to take a closer look at something. (No Tip) There’s sophistication mostly in the intrinsic carvings and sculptures. The temple architecture is unique in the sense that we’ve yet to really see much in the way of pyramidal formations in our travels.
After saying goodbye to our guide we spend a moment of two sitting on the steps of the ball court in the shade, admiring the location, the beautiful trees and the silence given the low amount of visitors.
We would leave Copan with the first Mayan ruins tucked under our belt but with plenty more to follow. Tikal, with who Copan was intrinsically linked would be our next destination, one day after the end-of-the-world. We had pre-booked and paid for accommodation there, so let’s hope everything’s okay because it was expensive and it would suck that we couldn’t get there because the world exploded. We’ll see.