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In Copan, the Face of the Past

Exploring the mystery of the Mayas in a long-ago city of stones shrouded by the steamy Central American jungle


COPAN RUINAS, Honduras — When explorer John Lloyd Stephens began cutting through tangled roots and trees to the Mayan ruins of Copan in 1839, he didn't fully understand what he was seeing.

When we found the Copan ruins last August, we didn't understand what we were seeing either. Nothing in the park was labeled, guides were nowhere to be found and pamphlets gave minimal information.

My husband, Rolf, daughters Marisa, 18, and Talia, 12, and I waited at the entrance for a guide who was supposed to show up at noon; at 1 p.m. we gave up. It had been a long journey just to look at stones, but we went in anyway. The gods apparently were smiling: We found an unofficial guide to help show us around.

We came here, as other tourists often do, after a resort vacation on one of the Bay Islands, 40 miles off the coast, because we wanted to understand something of Honduras' history. Our choice of relevant sites was limited; Honduras is the least developed country in the Western Hemisphere and the poorest in Central America, according to World Bank. The infrastructure can't handle hordes of tourists, especially since October 1998, when Hurricane Mitch wiped out hundreds of roads that have yet to be repaired.

We flew from the island of Roatan into San Pedro Sula, Honduras' second largest city at 350,000, and picked up a rental car at the airport. When we asked for directions to the Copan ruins, the agent at the rental counter laughed. "There is only one paved road around here," she said. "Just drive on it until you get there."

From San Pedro Sula in the northwest corner of the country, you have three transportation options to the ruins 122 miles southwest: a five-hour bus ride that picks up passengers in villages along the way for $2.50, the express bus for $4.50 (which, inexplicably, also takes five hours) or a rental car, which will get you there in three hours if there are no police roadblocks, animals being herded or people sleeping on the pavement.

It was 3 p.m., and we wanted to get to the town of Copan Ruinas before dark, so we crammed into a '92 Mazda rental and maneuvered around horse carts, smoke-belching pickup trucks packed with riders, and worn-out yellow school buses from the U.S., which are used here as city buses. Traffic thinned out, and after an hour it consisted only of people, dogs and horses walking along the road.

We passed houses made of whatever is available--sheet metal, sticks, bricks, broken windowpanes, plastic bottles and grocery bags jammed into the holes to keep the rain out. Children carried bags of dried beans, women hoisted baskets of fruit on their heads, men carried machetes (a disarming sight, but they use them in the cornfields) and boys carried bundles of wood on their backs.

It was a cultural eye-opener, especially for my girls, whose only foreign travel experiences have been in Europe. Nothing, though, was more surprising for us, visitors from the land of freeways, than seeing people lying in the road. Few people own cars, and a walk into town can be long and hot. The pavement is the smoothest place to rest, and nappers figure that what few cars there are can just drive around them. Despite having to dodge the dozing, we made it to Copan Ruinas in three hours.

Here we found, to our delight, a quaint colonial town of narrow cobblestone streets and little houses with red-tiled roofs set against the lush green hills. After industrial-ugly San Pedro Sula, I was immediately enchanted: Copan Ruinas is quintessentially Central American in style and friendliness.

It was getting dark and beginning to rain when we pulled up to the Hotel Marina Copan, a Spanish Colonial-style inn with flickering candles in the courtyard, a cozy restaurant and marimba musicians. But the woman at the counter shook her head apologetically. No rooms. Our faces reflected our confusion. This was the off-season. The restaurant looked nearly empty, and we saw no one else in the lobby. "Well," she said, "we do have one room, but it leaks when it rains." We were exhausted. Any room in this pretty hotel, even a drippy one, was fine, we told her.

Now it was her turn to be nonplused. Unwittingly, we had thrown off her convoluted sales tactic by accepting the leaky room. She excused herself and disappeared into the back. A moment later she returned, saying, "Well, actually, we do have another room." Does it leak? No. Can we get $10 off the price? Yes. The bellman later told us the hotel was only one-quarter full.


Copan Ruinas lives off the tourist industry. About 60,000 visitors come to see the ruins in a typical year, though they don't all stay overnight in town. Street vendors sell necklaces, baskets and hammocks, and people hawking horseback rides were on every corner.

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