Friday, November 14, 2014

Honduras: Copan Ruinas

Thanks to my early booking, I managed to snag a morning bus out of Puerto Barrios, and onward to the Honduran border!  The best bit of travel advice I have for anyone who intends to follow this route in the future is to book your departure at least 2-3 days ahead of time.  Otherwise, it's likely that you'll have to navigate a series of Chicken Buses, combis, lanchas, and tuk-tuks to get where you're going. And while I'll admit that that sort of travel is how adventures are made... you won't do yourself any favors if you've got a schedule to maintain (which you will if you're getting by on a paltry 3 weeks of vacation per year).

I found the border crossing into Honduras to be relatively painless, but I'd definitely suggest picking up an extra roll of toilet paper before you attempt the journey.  Most backpackers are always prepared for this eventuality, but I'm here to confirm: the toilets in the Honduran crossing station have TP rollers only as a distant memory.  I changed some money at the crossing, with mixed results.  The rates were OK.  But the Honduran Lempira is so de-valued compared to the USD or even the Guatemalan Quetzale that even a poor exchange of around $40 is going to keep you afloat for a few days.  Hell, I almost ended up using some of it as toilet paper before I found my emergency wet wipes.  It's also a very real possibility that the ATMs (there are about 2) in Copan Ruinas will be out of cash over the weekend, and won't stock up again until Monday.  Most businesses will take USD in a pinch, but unless it's a weekday, don't plan on withdrawing cash once you cross into Copan proper.

From the border, it's a very short combi ride to the town of Copan Ruinas -- but beware! The vans don't leave until they're full (a common, but annoying, practice that most travellers are aware of).  In this context, at a slow time of day, that can mean waiting more than an hour for other passengers to turn up.  Once I got into the town, I navigated my way out from the Central Plaza and found a hostel about 2 blocks away: Don Moises.  The rates were great, the accomodations were clean, and the water was hot.  Plus, they had a large balcony with hammocks.  Honestly, you've got to be prepared to navigate the hazards of electric shower nozzle water heaters throughout Centeral America, but Don Moises' were the least zappy... so they get an honorable mention for that.

Copan was once a major Mayan center, but it collapsed on itself -- archaeologists tell us -- because the huge volume of people and agricultural advancement led to extreme erosion of the jungle soil over steep, mountainous terrain.  The same thing is happening to Copan today, during its tourism renaissance, and it's easy to see where mudslides have come over roads if it's been raining.  But apart from that, it's a quite nice town with a busy street market.  There are all the usual goods, the token chicken-and-corn stalls, and one special feature that I didn't find in Guatemala: lychee berries.  The locals sell produce out of small shopfronts and pickup trucks, and you can buy a bag full of lychees for around $2 USD (and I assume this is the hose-the-tourist price).  I spent my down-time lounging in a hammock, drinking a licuada (smoothie -- banana and peanut, for preference), and reading Prattchett.

Then, before sunrise on my second day, the real highlight began.  Copan Ruinas, as the title implies, houses some of the finest Mayan ruins remaining today.  Though not the largest complex, or built on the scale of the Tikal pyramids, the carvings, stellae, and palaces are in excellent condition.  The jungle has been cut back to reveal intricate statues with beautiful and distinctive Mayan writing, and the foundations of massive homes, sports arenas, and tombs are scattered around the park.

The Copan Archaeological Site gets a 10/10 from me.  Keen visitors should arrive a day ahead of time, rise early, and take a tuk-tuk up the road about half an hour before the park opens.  Anyone with even passing Spanish should be on good terms with the cleaning ladies in about 5 minutes, and into the park twenty minutes before anybody else even shows up.  Having a space like that to yourself, in the cool of the morning... perfection.  My only real regret on this trip was not making time to see more of the surrounding sites in Honduras; I'm planning on going back some day.

They also have great trails out to some of the more remote sites, and there's very good bird watching.  I saw what I think was a Quetzal, about 10 different colored parrots, and heard more interesting chirping than I could even begin to identify.  Then we have the flora.  Some of the plants were wild.  I never expected that I'd be interested in visiting the rainforest; I've done the end of the Amazon that interests me, the pampas, and the rest seems buggy, muggy, and dense -- unless you're the sort of person who likes canopy walks and zip-lines (AKA not me).  But just walking through the underbrush in the Honduran jungle was a fabulous experience -- so I might revise my opinion on visiting central Brazil one of these days.

In fact, I liked it so much that I visited a botanical center that evening.  Just outside of town, Macaw Mountain functions as a bird sanctuary and finca, but the real treasure is their garden. They highlight local plants with small signs, and showcase the more exotic-looking flowers alongside some of the common growths I'd been seeing around the countryside.  The only moderately inconvenient thing were the transport options -- I had to walk about half way back to the town before I found another tuk-tuk.  But it was a nice walk, over paved roads, and all around a nice way to finish the day.  Definitely plan at least 2-3 hours if you're visiting.

By the time day 3 rolled around, I was sad to say goodbye.  But I was bound for Antigua, in a touristy shuttle-van, which -- though slightly more expensive than a coach bus ticket -- made shorter work of the 8-10 hour journey, and was the most direct solution for my scheduling options.

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