Coffee, cowboys and Captivating Ruins

Whoever named Copán Ruinas had it easy.

A town springs up by mysterious Maya ruins in Honduras’ Copán Valley? Presto, just link the location to its main attraction.

Visitors often presume this tranquil town near the Guatemala border is all about the archaeology: Not true. If you only stop at the amazing Maya excavations – granted, no Central America jaunt is complete without doing so – you’ll miss the small town’s many beguiling charms.

Just take a look beyond the town’s buildings. From the outskirts you can watch morning mist unfurl around Guatemalan mountaintops. From the sloping streets, you can gaze out over the lush Copán valley.
Before long, you’ll realize why the Maya civilization lived and thrived in this beautiful, fertile countryside millennia ago.

In Copán Ruinas’ cobblestone streets, life moves at an easy pace. As with most Central America settlements, everything revolves around the parque central, or town square. Here, locals in cowboy hats and traditional Maya dress sit alongside people-watching tourists.

Founded as a gateway to the ruins, the town is used to a steady flow of foreigners – cuisine, night life and accommodation is a notch up as a result. You won’t find filet mignon or Dutch cheeses in most Honduran towns, but you will here.

Agriculture is a staple of the Copán Ruinas way of life, but the valley still has swaths of untamed jungle. The intrepid can see it in a host of ways: by an inflatable tube down a river, on a canopy tour, by foot, on horseback or even by motorbike. Basecamp Tours (011-504-651-4695) is one of the most inventive and trusted tour operators in the area.

One memorable Copán-based tour gives a taste of how the region’s nutritious soils have shaped life from colonial times to today. A bumpy, mountainous pickup ride from town, Finca El Cisne (www. is an old-style coffee plantation and cattle ranch. Visitors tour the estate on horseback, trotting or careening down mountain roads and through streams.

At a pause in a pasture, riders slurp juice served from a coconut hacked from a nearby palm tree. For lunch, the group dismounts at an old hacienda house where a wood-fired stove is used to prepare classic Honduran dishes, including ground-corn tamales wrapped in plantain leaves. At ride’s end, visitors soak saddle-sore limbs in the local natural hot springs.

Meanwhile, other attractions have sprung up around the town. Macaw Mountain (www.macaw, a beautifully landscaped bird sanctuary, boasts raptors, macaws and toucans. In the other direction is the Enchanted Wings Butterfly Farm, which displays orchids along with many exotic butterfly species.

Of course, there are those Maya ruins, the legacy of a sophisticated, mysterious civilization that thrived while Europe was fumbling about in the Dark Ages. This Unesco World Heritage site has less grand architecture than Tikal in Guatemala, but Copán excels in its craftsmanship. Intricately carved stelae (stone and wooden slabs) tell of the centuries-long dynasties that made the city one of Central America’s most powerful.

Watch out too for the futbol pitch, where the Maya once played their own version of soccer (see a virtual re-creation of the game at the free Museo K’inich in town).

Kingdoms may have been won and lost using this game – take that, David Beckham.

With so much to do today beyond the ruins, it’s probably a good thing Copán Ruinas was so named way back when.

By Jolyon Attwooll

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