Our Central America tour (16): Copan

It had rained in the night but Friday morning was another bright day. – perfect for our visit to the Maya location that is a World Heritage Site. Oddly the town is called Copan Ruinas while the site itself is simply known as Copan. We left the hotel at 8.30 am and returned at 1.10 pm and virtually the whole of this time was spent at the ruins because they are only a 10 minute ride from the town centre,

Our local guide was Marvin Diaz who was of part Maya descent. He was absolutely passionate about the pre-Columbian civilisation and both informative and amusing in his explanations of each section of the site. He had a long thin stick with coloured feathers attached to one end which he used as a pointer.

The approach to the site is along a nature trail with various plants, trees and birds which were explained to us. We were blown away by the number and beauty and proximity of around a dozen macaws – resplendent in red, yellow and blue and flying free and wild.

Like all lengthy civilisations, the Maya civilisation is divided by historians into periods and all the sites we are are visiting on this tour are from the classical period which ran from approximately 200-900 AD with 426-822 AD said to the height of the civilisation. The Maya civilisation was over by the time of Columbus and seems to have been wiped out by drought – an early example of the consequences of climate change.

The Copan site embraces 20 structures and a number of plazas. The official estimate is that it housed a community of around 25,000 but Marvin believes that the site had 10 times that many inhabitants. Life expectancy for the Maya was about 30-40 years.

We were fascination by Marvin’s explanation of the Maya numbering system which was based on the number 20 – because we have 20 fingers and toes – and is made up symbols for zero, one and five. He illustrated the system by tracing out each number with his stick in the soft soil and then showed us actual usage on some of the monuments.

Looking at various stelae and structures, we were told about different kings who ruled the community. Successful in military conquests and the greatest patron of the Maya arts was the wonderful named Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil, known by the delightful appellation 18-Rabbit, who ruled from 695-738.

The most famous monument on the site is the Hieroglyphic Stairway (which is covered for protection). The 63 surviving steps contain no less than 2,200 inscriptions – of which around 85% have been deciphered – setting out information on important historical events.

The Ball Plaza was the site of a Maya game using a ball of 3-4 kg which could not be touched with hands or feet but had to be kept in the air with any other part of the body such as elbows, knees, hips and backside.

After walking round the site, Marvin took us to the Museum of Sculpture which is entered through a winding tunnel representing the body of a serpent. This excellent museum contains artefacts from the site that are better protected under cover. It is a modern and airy structure which includes a full-scale, full-coloured reproduction of the Rosalila temple which is not accessible to tourists on the actual site. Alongside the museum there is also a souvenir shop where Roger & Vee supported the local economy with some purchases of gifts.

For only the second time on the trip, we had a free afternoon and this time there were no real options. Since this is Day 12 of an intensive 19-day tour, we were all pleased to have a well-timed and very welcome pause in the programme. Vee & Roger chilled: eating, sleeping, reading, writing.

Refreshed, we then went for a wander around the cobbled streets of Copan and in no time met two colourful middle-aged characters. A Canadian from Ottawa wearing a red Stetson said he was a songwriter called the Happy Cowboy and gave us some hug tokens. An American from Florida, speaking in a pronounced Southern drawl, said that, an hour after leaving the aircraft, he met the Honduran women who is now his wife and we met her and their two delightful children.

We returned to the hotel for dinner with our new best friends. At the weekend, the staff wear an especially coloured outfit which was a cue for yet another photograph.

The rest of our trip will be in Guatemala …


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