Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Visiting the Copán Ruins in Honduras

The Copán Ruins, also known as the Ruinas de Copán, is located in western Honduras approximately seven miles from the Guatemalan border. Dating back to A.D. 400, it was once a thriving city that served as the southwestern hub of Mayan territory. Today, its preserved portion  encompasses a fairly large area even though it represents only a small fraction of its original size. But it still includes decorative stone temples and plazas with some of the finest detailed sculptures in the world. Discoveries are still being made by archaeologists at an average rate of one per month.

The San Pedro Sula International Airport is one of the most convenient places to purchase a tour package for the Copán Ruins. There are several tour operators that not only offer round-trip transportation to the ruins but bilingual guides as well. Since I usually prefer to avoid the group tours and explore specific locations on my own, I booked a ticket on the Hedman Alas bus line that provides service from San Pedro Sula to the town of Copán Ruinas. The three-hour ride departs twice a day from both the main bus station in San Pedro Sula as well as the San Pedro Sula Airport. Very convenient! More information can be found at their website:

 As my bus from San Pedro Sula pulled into the charming town of Copán Ruinas, I quickly noticed that this location was just like many other locations in Central America. There were children dressed in their blue and white school uniforms kicking a soccer ball in the street and old men quietly played chess in the main square. Since it was early evening, their actions were under the watchful (or bored) eyes of the armed security guard sitting in a chair across the street. My eyes are always drawn toward the large shot gun carried by these "security guards" and wonder how gun-control laws are doing in that specific region. Anyway, I am sure that back in the time before mass tourism entered the area, the town was probably much quieter and maybe a bit safer. But now, it can become quite crowded especially with the average of 85,000 tourists who visit the famous nearby ruins each year.

After a good night's rest and a great breakfast of plato típico (a dish of rice and beans, eggs, meat and plantains), I headed up to the ruins. Even though the site is a 20-minute walk from the center of town, I decided to splurge and take a moto-taxi that took me up there in just minutes. The moto-taxis are quick, relatively safe, and affordable with fees of L$10 in town and L$20 up to the ruins. Once at the site, the visitor center is the best place to hire a guide who will enthusiastically explain every detail along the way. The tours are arranged in groups of 10 people and can last anywhere between two and four hours.

With my interest in history, I had always heard that the Copán Ruins were abandoned due to mysterious reasons. This of course, always fuels the conspiracy theories that include alien abduction or the same reasons that make Easter Island (off the coast of South America) unique. As the tour went along, it was acknowledged that for years, many scholars wondered why the Mayans abandoned the site around A.D. 900 and acknowledged that they had great difficulty trying to decipher the number of Mayan hieroglyphs. But after all of the theories (conspiracy or scientific), my guide clearly explained how recent studies of skeletons suggested that the city just simply became too crowded. I thought, "That’s it??!" By A.D. 800, the city had overflowed to approximately 25,000 people, which devastated all of the resources. To make things worse, there were also droughts that destroyed the vital crops in the area. Within one century, the city was completed abandoned as its residents left in search of more sustainable terrain. Then it sat quietly for over a millennium until excavations began in 1975. With each excavation, the former grand city was slowly revealed and a national treasure was reborn. In 1980, the site was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.

According to the Parque Arqueológico Ruinas de Copán, the site includes more than 4,500 structures with most of the focus placed on the "Principal Group," which was built between A.D. 400 and 800 and covers an area of approximately two square miles. The entrance fee is US$15 and it includes admission to all of the ruins and the following five major areas.

The Great Plaza: This massive plaza is well known for its large number of stelae (tree stones) that honor each of the city's rulers. One of the most decorative is "18 Rabbit," who was the 13th ruler. The sculpture depicts the ruler with his decorative head dress and an intimidating scepter with a two-headed snake. The area also includes a ball court, which is the second largest in Central America. An archway (seen to the right) leads directly to the ball court. You can just imagine the players running through this archway to the cheers of the crowds. But according to my guide, the winners were praised with feasts and songs while the losers usually lost their lives.

Acropolis: This area includes the eastern court and the mysterious western court, which was built as a "gateway to the underworld." For me, it was a bit eerie to walk around the ancient structure. At times, the only sounds were coming from the wind and the birds. Temple 16 was built on top of the previous temple (Rosalila Temple) without damaging the remains. You can climb to the top of Temple 16 for a great view of the original river bed and the overall layout of the city from the 100-foot vantage point. Located at the base of Temple 16 is the reproduction of Altar Q (seen in the photo to the left) that shows the succession of Copán's 16 celebrated rulers. The original is preserved in the museum. 

Hieroglyphic Stairway: Located on Temple 26, this spectacular stairway consists of 63 stone steps that depict the historic battles won by the region’s former kings. It also includes thousands of hieroglyphs, which makes it one of the largest collections in the world. It is still being studied by archaeologists and a large canopy helps to protect this precious location from the elements. Let’s hope that a future earthquake does not topple this important location.

The Tunnels: Located underneath the Acropolis are approximately three miles of tunnels with two that are open to the public: The Rosalila Tunnel that includes the remains of the temple of the same name and the Lost Jaguares Tunnel, which travels by a fascinating system of aqueducts, tombs, and former baths. As stated by my guide, "They were digging a tunnel under Temple 16 and to their surprise, there it was." Although an extra fee of US$15 is charged to enter the tunnels, it is well worth it.

Copán Sculpture Museum: For an extra US$7, you can visit the museum that includes many sculptures (and replicas) from the site. I especially enjoyed the entrance that resembled a snakes mouth. According to the museum director, "The snake represents a journey into the underworld and the winding, stone-lined tunnel that leads directly into the hillside giving you the impression that you are being swallowed up." The museum's most notable attraction is the full-size replica of the Rosalila Temple, complete with the bright red colors and ornate designs that once made this temple a structure to be admired. Located to the left of the entrance is the original Altar Q, the prized square stone depicting the rulers of the former city. The museum is a wonderful and memorable end for any visitor to this historic location.

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