Copan

Why Honduras:

I was looking to travel for the Thanksgiving holiday. After scanning flights, I noticed that United flew nonstop from Newark, New Jersey to San Pedro Sula in Honduras with a cheap fare with miles. I had never been to Honduras and COVID-vaccinated people could enter without a test, so I decided to book it. 

Honduras has two main attractions: the Mayan ruins at Copan and the Bay Islands of Roatan and Utila. Roatan has its own airport with flights from the US, but Copan is only accessible by a bus from San Pedro Sula or from a bus from Guatemala. Copan seemed to make the most sense- especially since I had already been to Guatemala. 

About 2 weeks before the flight, I received word that United had cancelled my flight. Instead, I had to leave the next morning with a connection in Houston. Annoying, but I would still get one full day in Copan with this itinerary.

To avoid road closures and taxi issues stemming from the Macy´s Thanksgiving Day Parade, I left New York City on Wednesday night and got a (horrid) motel room near the Newark airport.

November 25, 2021: From New Jersey to Copan

Happy Thanksgiving! I left the hotel on the shuttle at a super early 3:00 for my 5:45 flight to Houston. The flight took off on time and I made it to Houston just in time for my layover. The second flight, however, was delayed an hour, but, despite a huge storm, we made it out. 3 hours later, at 13:45, we were on the ground in San Pedro Sula. Not surprisingly, I was one of two white people on the flight. 

The immigration line was taking some time, so I decided to chat up the person next to me. He worked for American Airlines and was on his way to a wedding (not sure why he flew United). I explained that I had a short timeframe to catch the 3pm bus to Copan, the last direct bus of the day. He said that he and his driver could drop me off at the bus terminal on his way into the city. I decided to take him up on the offer as it seemed safer and more reliable than the taxis. 

The ride to the bus station took 20 minutes and I decided to pay the driver the going rate for the trip, $7. I then got the driver´s number, since he would be available when I returned to town in a couple days.

I reached the bus terminal, which doubles as a mall, 20 minutes before the scheduled departure. I then went to the window, purchased my $6 ticket, and walked over to my departure gate and found the bus. 

The bus was a medium-length bus without air conditioning. It was about 1/3 full and the ride was scheduled to take 3 hours. If experience serves me right, the time estimate is wishful thinking.

Ready to board my bus to Copan

We departed on time, but soon after the driver would stop at every corner and an assistant would call out asking for passengers. He did this until the bus was mostly full. 

With a mostly full bus, we could finally leave town. The city quickly faded to beautiful jungle. Honduras is so pretty! 

Honduras

1.5 hours into the ride, we reached a random spot on the road and a huge bunch of people got onto the bus. Standing room only. I´m glad that I had a seat! 

2 hours in, we reached La Entrada, the largest town between San Pedro Sula and Copan. As we pulled into the spot on the road designated the bus terminal, a crowd swarmed our bus. So many people got in. Everyone on the bus was smushed beyond belief. I was reminded of the Tirumala temple in Andhra Pradesh, India. It was so crowded that people were sitting on top of the bus with their belongings. I have no idea how many people were able to fit on the bus, but it must have been at least 60. Insane. 

Past La Entrada, the road became steeper and windier as the day turned to night. The bus continuously dropped passengers off seemingly in the middle of nowhere. By the time we reached the modern town of Copan Ruinas 4.5 hours after leaving San Pedro Sula, there were at most 10 people on the bus. 

Whew! I made it

Copan Ruinas was quite a surprise! The town is full of colonial charm with cobblestone streets, historic buildings, and a cute town square. As mainland Honduras´s lone mainstream tourist town, the government has gone to great lengths to make it a beautiful and safe place. 

Copan Ruinas is securely on the Gringo Trail, the unofficial network of destinations that backpackers visit in Latin America. The town has decorated restaurants, souvenir shops and, most importantly, hostels full of information and other travelers. For those wondering, many parts of Latin America are dangerous, but the Gringo Trail is safe and well-trodden. 

I got dinner at a US roadhouse-themed restaurant. There I ordered an elaborate “tipico” plate of beef, rice, beans, and yucca for about $7. I had certainly come a long way from New Jersey. 

Tipico

I then checked into my hostel and went to bed.

November 26, 2021: Copan 

I woke up amongst the green jungled hills of western Honduras. Scarlet macaws were flying around. I could not imagine a more picturesque locale. 

Copan is full of scarlet macaws

It turns out that my hostel is paired with a boutique hotel next door, and they serve the self-proclaimed best breakfast in town. Breakfast was served on the terrace overlooking the jungle. For $5, I got scrambled eggs, beans, tortillas, a plate of fruit, and a glass of juice. It was delicious. I chatted up a group of travelers from the UK and Australia. They had been backpacking around Latin America for 11 months and were extremely well traveled. My rule held true: the more remote the location, the more interesting the travelers you will encounter, and it certainly held true here.

It was now 9:30. I walked out of town and over to Honduras´s star attraction, the ancient Mayan city of Copan. While not the largest, Copan is known to be among the most elaborate Mayan ruins in the world. 

Hola Copan

Copan was the capital city of a Mayan kingdom from the 5th-9th centuries. During this period, the city was ruled by a series of 16 kings. The greatest of the kings was the 13th. However, his rule abruptly came to an end when he was captured and killed by a former vassal. His demise led to a downward spiral from which the city-state never really recovered. After the 16th ruler, the dynasty ended, and the town lost all power. Nobody knows exactly why the city collapsed but after the 16th ruler, everybody fled the city.

When the Spanish first visited in 1576, the Mayans were long gone. While the city was abandoned, the people all stayed in the region, where they still are today. The people of Copan are proudly Mayan.

Modern excavations and conservation efforts of the ruins began in the 1800´s. A lot of work has been undertaken to restore the site including rerouting the river to prevent erosion. Today, the site is well maintained by the Honduran government and their partners including major global universities such as the University of Pennsylvania. 

Entry to Copan is a steep $15 plus another $7 to visit the museum. However, the guidebooks all recommend getting a guide. The price for a 1.5-hour tour of the site was $30 per group. So, for a group of 1, I ended up paying $52. That is a LOT of money, especially for Honduras. However, since the ruins were my main reason for visiting Honduras, I felt it was worth doing right. 

One of Copan´s highlights is this staircase which is engraved with the history of the city

My guide spoke English perfectly well, but we decided to try to do it in Spanish. He spoke in very slow Spanish and chimed in in English when I did not understand what he was saying. 

The ruins are extensive and contain many pyramids, temples, and palaces. Compared to other Mayan sites such as Chichen Itza or Uxmal, Copan is similar in terms of size and overall impressiveness. The highlights of Copan included an entire staircase carved with the history of the city. There were also original in-situ steles of the kings of Copan.

Original stele

While the Mayan gods changed over time, the one constant has been the Mayans´ obsession with death. The underworld is the realm of the dead. Each day the sun god emerges from paradise and then returns to the underworld in the evening. The jaguar, which has both the colors of day and night (yellow and black) is considered a sacred animal as it can bridge both worlds. 

The way someone dies is the crucial determinant in how they are received in the afterlife. Those that die a violent death: in battle, by human sacrifice, in the ballgame or in childbirth are buried in maize fields and are transported directly to heaven. 

My guide in the ball court

Copan had a ball court too where the famous game was played. However, it looked a little different from the ones in Mexico. Nobody truly knows the rules of the ballgame, but it is hypothesized that one scored points by kicking the ball so that it hits the head of the stone jaguar. In Mexico, the ball courts had large stone hoops. Despite the variation on the rules, the consequences were the same, the winners or losers (depending on the circumstances) were sacrificed. A few steps away from the ballcourt was the ritual stone where the beheadings and disembowelments would occur.

The flora surrounding Copan was also gorgeous. There were many enormous trees including the ceiba, Honduras´s national tree. Additionally, the wild macaws were all over the ruins. The Mayans and latter cultures once traded these macaw feathers with their neighbors. Feathers from Honduras have been found in archeological sites as far north as Mesa Verde in Colorado, USA. 

My visit to Copan was special because there was nobody there – probably due to a combination of COVID and Honduras´s less than stellar reputation. Regardless, I had the place all to myself. During the 90-minute tour, I saw exactly 4 other tourists and 5 staff.  

Empty Copan

Most of the artifacts are real and displayed as they were found in-situ. However, there are some replicas displayed. The originals for the all the replicas are displayed in the museum, which is located right next to the entrance of the ruins. There are plaques in Spanish and English. 

As I left the ruins, my guide asked me if I had plans for the afternoon. Having none, he recommended a horseback ride through the countryside for $30. I accepted his proposition and he said that his friend Walter would pick me up at my hostel at 14:00.

The town of Copan during the day

Since I had time, I decided to get lunch with two other tourists at the ruins, who both happened to be staying at my hostel. One guy was from Armenia and the other guy was from the Netherlands. We walked into town and got lunch. There, we ordered pupusas, a famous dish from the region. Pupusas are thick savory corn pancakes stuffed with cheese and sometimes meat. They are typically topped with coleslaw and a tomato sauce. There is an unofficial battle between Honduras and El Salvador as to where pupusas originate. The archaeological evidence shows that the Pipil, a post-Mayan tribe in El Salvador first made pupusas. Sorry Honduras!

Pupusas

At 14:00, Walter arrived on horseback at my hostel. He wore a cowboy hat, collared shirt, and jeans. I got on his second horse. He asked if I had ridden a horse before. After saying yes, we galloped away! 

With Walter

After leaving town, we crossed the Copan River and rode along the far bank. 

The surrounding countryside was hilly jungle. We rode along a single track for 20 minutes. Then, we explored some unexcavated Mayan ruins. Walter explained that only a tiny portion of Copan has been excavated and there was much more to be uncovered.

The beautiful countryside

We then reached an indigenous village. While I had never been here before, the sight felt familiar. With wooden houses, corrugated steel roofs and no paved roads, the village reminded me of southeast Asia. The smell of wood-fired stoves put a smile on my face. From the village we rode down a steep hillside to reach the river again. 

Walter and the horses wanted to head back to town, but we still had some time on the ride, so I insisted we continue along the river. Here we saw what appeared to be large private compounds. One was being turned into an organic farm and another into an AirBNB. As Honduras´s lone tourist destination, it makes sense that there are some entrepreneurial ventures going on.

Eventually, we rode back to town. 

For dinner, Babken (the Armenian man) and the Dutch guy got dinner in an international restaurant before getting beer in a surprisingly popular German bierhall. The owner was German, and the clientele were local. The bar closed at 10, but we were home and asleep well before then.

Dinner with my friends

The next day, I headed to San Pedro Sula. 

Final Thoughts:

Copan is a magical place. The cute historic village in the middle of the macaw-filled jungles is straight out of a fairy tale. The Mayan ruins at Copan are extremely impressive. I have only been to two other UNESCO-listed Mayan cities, but I found Copan´s Mayan ruins to be just as good as Chichen Itza and Uxmal. The difference is that Copan has zero tourists. Had Honduras had a better global reputation, this town would be packed with tourists.

I could have easily spent another day in Copan. The two major attractions that I missed were the Macaw Mountain Park where you can get up close to the parrots and the Jaguar Moon hot springs, which can be visited as an afternoon excursion. 

Getting to Copan via San Pedro Sula on the chicken bus was certainly an experience that I would only recommend for experienced Latin America travelers, but luckily there are other transportation options. One way is to take the air-conditioned luxury coach bus which leaves once a day from both San Pedro Sula and Antigua in Guatemala. Another option is to pre-arrange a car and driver from the San Pedro Sula airport.  

In terms of safety, I felt that Copan and the surrounding countryside felt completely safe. The Honduran government has gone to great lengths to ensure that Copan is safe. 

In short, I believe that Copan is a very worthwhile destination that is probably best explored as part of a longer Central America trip.

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