After I rang the bell and officially became a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer I decided to take a short trip to Honduras to visit the Mayan ruins of Copán. After the trip I was going to return to León, say final farewells, and head off to the United States. A trip through Central America seemed somewhat natural for the author of a blog called Incidents of Travel. The blog is named after the travel memoir of an early Central American explorer. He is actually one of the first foreigners to ever visit Copán, and he detailed it extensively in the book.
Peace Corps Volunteers are banned from traveling to Honduras, so I had to make this trip after I completed my service or risk being kicked out of the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps itself left Honduras four years ago due to the escalating violence. A Volunteer had even been shot, although she survived. A few people told me I was crazy to go to Honduras. It has some of the highest murder rates in the world along with El Salvador and Syria. The drug gang fueled violence in Honduras is always in the news in Nicaragua, which enjoys relative safety. Ironically, one of the people who assured me I would be fine if I took practical precautions was the Director of the Peace Corps in Nicaragua. He has a lot of experience working in Central America.
Despite the unfortunate violence in Honduras I think that Nicaraguans still feel a lot of solidarity with Hondurans, as well as Salvadorians and Guatemalans. All four countries, as well as the Chiapas state of Mexico, were once one country, upon independence in 1821. León was actually the capital city of this Federal Republic of Central America. Ethnically, I think that Nicaragua and Honduras have a very similar composition. They are both primarily mestizo with Afro-Caribbean and indigenous communities. El Salvador may be a bit more predominantly mestizo, and Guatemala may have a larger indigenous population. This shared history and similar ethnic makeup creates a sense of solidarity, and they have worked towards cohesion. They are all members of the CAFTA-DR free trade zone and citizens of the countries can travel freely among them without a passport. They only have to present a national ID card.
The modern day town near the ruins is actually called Copán Ruinas – “Copan Ruins” in English. It is small and a very pleasant tourist town. It is in the mountains and relatively cool (compared to the Pacific lowlands of Nicaragua). The streets are cobbled, and the town is hilly and filled with tourist restaurants and nice little hotels with terraces. The town park is very nice, with some interesting statues, and has two archaeological museums right on it.
I was impressed with how well they have developed tourist offerings in Copán. In addition to the ruins there are the archaeological museums, a natural hot spring “spa,” a rescued parrot refuge, and other attractions, such as horseback riding and farm trips. I personally got to go to the big museum on the site of the ruins, as well as the parrot refuge and the spa. One day I hope that León will coalesce around this collective services model and get away from the private tours and questionable quality and customer service.
The Ancient Mayan Ruins of Copán
The main attraction in Copán are the ancient Mayan ruins. The city of Copán was one of the dominant cities in the classical Mayan world. It is in the eastern extreme of the Mayan civilization, and from there dominated over a sphere of influence that stretched west into modern day Guatemala. One dynasty of 16 kings ruled over the golden age of Copán, and they were constantly at war with other kingdoms. The 13th King was actually captured by nearby vassal state Quirigua and executed/sacrificed.
Ultimately, the downfall of Copán was unsustainable development. Their only source of fuel was tree wood, and they also used wood in their construction. The land was deforested, the soil was depleted of nutrients, and droughts became more prevalent. The land simply could not support a traditional city-state with nobility and peasants, and the civilization collapsed.
Despite this collapse, archaeologists have found excellent pieces of artwork buried throughout the valley (the city is named Copán after the Copán River that runs through the modern day town). The Copán kings commissioned excellent statues, carvings, hieroglyphic engravings, and stelae – flat stone statues depicting kings.
The museum on the site of the ruins was a pleasant surprise. In addition to well preserved statues and stelae from the site it has a full size replica of the Rosalia temple. Rosalia was found during excavations of the ancient city. Rosalia is an older temple that was built over in an expansion of the ceremonial center of the city. The replica is painted in original colors and is very impressive, presented in the center of the open air atrium of the two story museum.
So very appropriately, I finally got to see the original Mayan statue, Stela A, whose replicas I keep encountering around the world. First I encountered a full size replica at the Capilla del Hombre in Quito, Ecuador. Five years later I noticed another replica in the British Museum in London. Knowing that the original came from and remains at Copán, I was excited to finally see it. The original was found in the great plaza at Copán, a large field that offers no shade. The great plaza is filled with stelae, all commissioned by and depicting 18 Rabbit, the 13th king of Copán. I ran from stela to stela until I found Stela A, but in fact it was still not the original. I had to wait for the museum to finally see the original (which looks exactly like all of the others, as you can see from the pictures).
“Macau Mountain” Parrot Refuge
Macau Mountain rescues trafficked parrots, macaws, parakeets, toucans, and other tropical birds, and rehabilitates them with the goal of introducing them into the wild and restoring the wild bird ranges of Honduras. The refuge is only about a mile outside of town on the banks of a pleasant river, and it is open to the public for a visitors’ donation fee. A guide explains the project and the birds and lets you take pictures and hold the big macaws that are not suitable to be introduced into the wild. They have already restored a community of Scarlet Macaws to the site of the ruins, and they are now free ranging. In the future they have plans to release other species in other sites around Honduras.
Jaguar Luna Spa
Jaguar Luna is a community initiative to offer a spa-like experience at a natural hot spring about an hour out of town up in the mountains of Copán. Driving through the mountains to get there most reminded me of Yúcul in Matagalpa. Around the hot spring, up on the banks of a river (called Managua, ironically), the locals have constructed a series of pools for bathing and lounging. There are various temperatures that you can submerge yourself in, as well as a natural sauna, mud masks, and a massaging waterfall. I most liked the natural sauna and the massaging waterfall. The water emerges from the spring at more than 85°C.
The spa, just like all of Copán really, has the potential to be over-Mayaned. They could put Mayan statues everywhere and give absolutely everything an overtly Mayan motif. Generally, they have avoided this and have a done a nice job balancing the Mayan history of the area with modern Honduras. The spa is no exception to this. They have Mayan engravings and statues here and there, and all of the pools are signed using Mayan numbering (dots and bars), but other than that it is not in your face, which I appreciate.
The Tea and Chocolate Place
I absolutely loved the Tea and Chocolate Place, so much so that I went twice. The Tea and Chocolate Place is actually an agricultural research center and an environmental education center. In order to promote and support the center they open a small café and exhibition place from 4:00 to 6:00 PM from Mondays through Saturdays. The house and terrace is absolutely beautiful. It is filled with ornamental plants, photographs, books, and antique furniture.
The manager is a young Honduran woman who coincidentally got her BA at the University of Delaware. We overlapped by one year! She is very enthusiastic about sustainable agriculture and health foods. The café primarily showcases tree leaf teas, but they also have organic chocolates, hot sauces, moles, incenses, brown sugar (which they make with local farmers), noni fruit antioxidant juice (que asco!) and more. Most impressive to me, they have made solar dryers on the roof of the house, which is something that I always wanted to do in Nicaragua. The work of the Tea and Chocolate Place seems excellent, and I spent two hours there both days talking to the manager and sitting on the terrace enjoying the teas.
Do to an unfortunate incident involving my iPhone and the floor I have lost most of my photos of the Tea & Chocolate Place. However, I did get some of them on Instagram before the iPhone took its fateful plunge. Here’s one. For the sake of not inundating this blog post with bulky Instagram pictures you can check out the few others on my Instagram feed.
My Thoughts on Honduras
The tranquility of Copán should not be made to hide the true suffering of the country. In 2014 it had the highest murder rate in the world. Just like all of Nicaragua’s problems, it is America’s fault! Obviously I exaggerate, but poor American policies and our imperialistic tendencies have severely exacerbated the problems.
The term “banana republic” – it come from Honduras. The United Fruit Company of the US manipulated Honduras politics, sometimes violently, in the early 1900’s for the sole purpose of maximum exploitation. This continued in the 1950’s in Guatemala, and morphed into other forms of imperalism in Central American throughout of the rest of the century. Today, many of Honduras’ problems stem from drug gangs – gangs that were born in American prisons and gangs that are trafficking drugs to the United States. If we were to make drug use legal the gangs would likely act much less violently and abusively.
For anyone who thinks that the days of American imperialism are in our past, let the Honduran coup of 2009 be your evidence to the contrary. A leftist President of Honduras, who was trying to make populist reforms in the country, was removed in an illegal coup by the military, backed by conservative factions in the country. Like many countries in Central America, the Honduran society and economy are controlled by a few wealthy business owning families. They are the backbone of the conservative faction.
Being in America’s backyard, the US State Department, at the time led by Hilary Clinton, was heavily involved in responding to the coup and its aftermath. The State Department could have denounced the coup and worked to restore the Zelaya government. Unfortunately, they did the opposite and worked to legitimize the new regime. Hilary Clinton even expressed pride in her Honduras intervention in her memoir from her time at the head of the State Department. After she caught flack for this the entire episode was actually left out of the paperback copy of the book.
When I first starting reading about this episode earlier in the year when Berta Cáceres was assassinated I thought that there may be a nefarious connection between Hilary Clinton and the shadowy business interests backing the coup. I found no such connection. Hilary and Bill do not benefit from the Honduran cabals. It just seems that Hilary’s judgement steered her to the side of big business. She had no interest in supporting a democratically elected leader. Even though he was a Latin American leftist populist allied with Hugo Chavez and other “enemies” of Uncle Sam, someone leading the foreign policy machine of a country that beats its chest promoting democracy around the world should have worked in the interest of genuine democracy and in solidarity with the majority of people in Honduras.
The leaders that took over in lieu of President Zelaya, the leaders that Secretary Clinton expressed pride in supporting, are perpetuating the suffering of the Honduran people. Since the coup more drug lords have entered the government. The President controls police and military forces that are acting as roving death squads. Big business interests are seriously intimidating anyone who stands in their way. Berta Cáceres, an indigenous leader who opposed a major dam project on indigenous lands, was assassinated in her home by a hired death squad. Drug gangs would have been a problem whether or not Zelaya was allowed to complete his presidency, but I doubt the security situation would be as severe were he not illegally removed from power.
When the cards were dealt Hilary Clinton showed her hand, a hand that I am sure we will see more and more if she is elected president. She supported big business despite the best interests of the people of Honduras. It really disappoints me. Our country’s history of imperialism is not one to be proud of, and whether Hilary herself knows it or not she is nothing new. Her policies are business as usual for moneyed interests, just like most politicians of this day and age.
A Final Return to León
Copán was a great trip to bring my Central American sojourn full circle. I am very glad that I went, and I only wish that I could explore more of Honduras and I had brought some of my Peace Corps friends with me.
As we crossed the border back into Nicaragua for the last hour and a half of the bus journey they put a movie on the bus video screens. Of all the movies they could have played for my last arrival ever into León, it was this movie:
1 US Dollar ($) = 22.66 Lempira (L)
Nearly everything can be paid in Dollars or Lempiras. Check exchange rates to make sure that you are not getting ripped off.
If you are looking to get directly from León to Copán without taking public transportation you have two options: TicaBus or a private tourist shuttle. The private tourist shuttle leaves León on Saturdays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays at 2:00 AM and costs $85 per passenger. It arrives at around 7:00 PM to Copán. Book the shuttle at Hokano Adventures in León, on the same street as Bigfoot Hostel and Vía Vía. The shuttle company is called Intershuttles, and they will pick you up wherever you are staying in León. Be forewarned, their operation is a bit of a customer service disaster, but things went pretty well once I got picked-up (on time, I may add).
The shuttle goes direct to Berakah Hostel in Copán and one night at the hostel is included in the price of the shuttle. I wound up staying at Berakah for my entire trip. The dormitories are a little small, but they are clean, the beds are very comfortable, there is a fan in the room, and there were no mosquitoes in the dorm (there were outside though).
The hostel offers a return to León for a whopping $100. As far as I know the shuttles are the only way to get to and from León and Copán in one day. If you want to save a little bit of money you will have to take TicaBus to and from San Pedro Sula, which means spending one night in San Pedro Sula, which has the highest murder rate in the world. I did it and lived to tell the story. There are at least two bus companies that go to and from Copán and San Pedro Sula. The high end company is Hedman Alas. I took Casasola Express:
To Copán Ruinas:
2:00 (I don’t think this one runs anymore)
To San Pedro Sula:
Casasola has a Facebook page, and they respond to messages sent over Facebook. I reserved myself a seat on the bus over Facebook. The trip last three to three and a half hours and costs L140 one way.
If I may recommend a place to stay in San Pedro Sula, I stayed at a bed & breakfast called Los Dos Molinos. It is a family home with private rooms for guests. My room had a full bed, fan, and bathroom and cost $20. The real perk is that they offer free pick up and drop off at the bus station. They dropped me off at 4:30 AM, no complaints or questions asked.
TicaBus from León costs $42. You can book it at Hokanu Adventures, the same place as the tourist shuttle. They are a bit disorganized there, but the other option is at La Cumbia Travel Agency [LINK?], which is further from the center of town.
Los Dos Molinos Bed & Breakfast: firstname.lastname@example.org
Seeing the Copán Ruins
Seeing the ruins of Copán is very easy. It is a short walk from town. Entrance is $10, and the on-site museum costs $7. I highly recommend seeing the museum after the site. There is kiosk in the parking lot to hire tour guides. They offer many different languages. They charge flat rates. For one to five people they charge $30 for the tour. With six or more people they charge $36, and with more people prices go up incrementally. I recommend the guides. They help you get a sense of the ancient site and history. Just to give you an idea, I spent five hours between the ruins, short nature trail, and museum, and I spent $32 in total (I shared the guide with another visitor). It was worth the price.
Entrance costs $12 if I recall properly. I walked about 20 to 30 minutes to get there (walk towards the ruins and take a left at the walled-in soccer field – keep walking until you are out of town) and hitchhiked back, but you can also take a mototaxi (about L20 I think) and certain hotels and tour operators may offer a free ride. The visitors’ donation offers a free tour, and they have a small café and a restaurant that is open probably only at lunch time. Bring your bathing suit if you want to swim in the river and dammed up watering hole.
Jaguar Luna Spa
There is a $10 tourist shuttle bus that leaves every day at 1:00 and comes back at 5:30 PM. Ask at your lodging or at a tour agency. If you want to save a little bit of money you can take a micro-bus. They leave from the small bus terminal across from the soccer field on the way to the ruins, right before you cross the river. There are more departures in the morning than in the afternoon. Just head down and ask the attendants about departure times. The ride takes about one hour and 20 minutes. It costs L40 each way and will drop you off right at the spa.
Two signs are visible at the top of the driveway that leads to the entrance of the Luna Jaguar:
The Tea & Chocolate Place
Open from 4:00 to 6:00 PM Monday through Saturday, the Tea & Chocolate Place is a bit far from the center of town in the La Tejera neighborhood. I recommend taking a mototaxi (L10 or L15). Bring cash if you are interested in purchasing their teas and other treats for yourself or as gifts – maybe $20 or more.