Arriving at the edge of town, our minivan slowed to a crawl on the paved highway as we crossed an arched stone bridge and climbed the bumpy, yellow cobblestone streets up into the village of Copán Ruinas or simply Copán.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site clings to a steep hillside, with the entrance reminding visitors of a medieval European village.
Copán offers a family vacation in one of the cleanest Latin American cities I’ve visited. The altitude ranges from 2,000 to 4,000 feet above sea level, so the weather is warm but not sweltering. Streets bustling with locals welcome tourists; cultural activities and museums (Casa K’ininch is especially for children) provide indoor activity options; inexpensive restaurants and “watering holes” meet your needs for nourishment and an evening cocktail.
Above all, a major center of Maya history being excavated from jungle ruins (with financial support of the Japanese) is a five-minute tuc tuc taxi ride away. Maya ruins are found throughout Copán, although most restoration is concentrated just outside the village. A suggestion to build a small airport in Copán was tabled because ruins not yet excavated would have to be destroyed even before we knew the historic value of the sites.
Copán’s restoration is considered the most elegant of Maya ruins, often referred to as the Paris of the Maya world. It offers a complex of stepped pyramids, buried temples, a ball court for playing pok-ta-pok, and a 72-step Hieroglyphic Stairway completed by Smoke Shell, the 15th ruler of Copán from 749 CE to 763 CE.
The city was at its apex from about 426 CE to 820 CE and there were 17 rulers during that time. It seems that when it was abandoned, the Mayas intentionally destroyed all their buildings. As you explore the pyramids and underground tunnels, you’ll observe tree and vine covered mounds containing rubble of buildings awaiting restoration.
A twinkle of an ancient obsidian knife may glisten in your pathway, stirred up by trampling tourists, but it’s not to be removed. The area is large and diverse enough, that I recommend a guide to enhance your visit. The tales they can tell, with lots of local humor and charm thrown in, are often not found in your printed materials.
Mountain thermal activity is worth the dusty country road drive, too. Thrills await you. Navigating rustic wooden suspension foot-bridges, you encounter the sulfur-scented mists of a steaming hot-spring fed creek. The surrounding rainforest is a manicured park-like environment and home to Luna Jaguar Hot Spring Spa. After your warm soak, you may indulge in a professional massage in a thatched hut spanning the steaming waterfalls.
Outside Copán, Welchez shade-coffee plantation offers an informative tour. English-speaking guides will drive you up the side of the plantation’s field-covered mountain. From the top, an easily negotiated trail descends through the jungle to the base of the mountain where your van ride began. (Insect repellant recommended.)
Within the plantation you’ll also visit a medicinal herb garden. Mountain villagers live far from modern medical facilities, and traditional herbal medicines remain popular. Your guide and the gardener will identify the various herbs and their uses. If natural medicines are of interest to you, a Maya pharmacy is located back in central Copán.
Near the end of your walking tour, a delightful jungle restaurant featuring a selection of delicious Honduran meals awaits you. Several items are similar to Mexican dishes; Honduran food typically does not include the hot peppers we know from Mexico. Lastly, be sure to visit the processing center for the harvested coffee beans. It is difficult for us to imagine that each individual coffee bean is manually inspected for quality.
A colorful experience for the family is the Macaw Mountain Bird Sanctuary. This natural reserve is home to recovered wild birds no longer able to fend for themselves in the wild. Many resident macaws, the national bird of Honduras, were abandoned after their owners discovered that they can be noisy and require too much care. Don’t be surprised if one of the vibrantly colored birds lands on your head or shoulders. They like their human protectors.
Local markets are entertaining, the buildings colorful, and gardens flourish with native flowers. Other activities include horseback riding, canopy tours, a butterfly park, and eco-tourism.
There are several B & Bs and fine small hotels located throughout Copán. The crown jewel of the places to stay is the Hotel Marina Copán. For years, the family matriarch of the hotel, Doña Marina Welchez, who opened the hotel in 1945, lived in private quarters within the hotel and entertained guests in her sunny garden.
Marina Copán’s spacious rooms are made more welcoming by several interior landscaped gardens. The patio swimming pool is next to a full service bar and Gilfo’s Restaurant, and poolside service is available.
The three hour drive from the airport in San Pedro Sula (served by American, Continental and Taca Airlines) to Copán provides several spectacular views of fog-kissed mountains and sunny, cattle-filled plateaus.
If you rent a vehicle, tailor your choice to practical needs. This is a poor country and flashy sports cars may attract too much attention. Large hotels may have secure parking lots, but smaller ones and B&Bs offer public curbside space – first come, first served.
(If you did not catch this, most photos can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)
The Copán Chamber of Commerce has an informative website.
Photos by David Currier