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

Entombed Human Skeleton Found

Archaeologists working in Honduras have discovered an entombed human skeleton of an elite member of the ancient Maya Empire that may help unravel some longstanding mysteries of the vanished culture.

The remains, seated in an upright position in an unusual tomb and flanked by shells, pottery, vessels, and jade adornments, suggest a surprisingly diverse culture and complex political system in the influential Maya city of Copán around A.D. 650.

Located at the western edge of modern-day Honduras near the border with Guatemala, Copán, was one of the most important Maya sites, flourishing between the fifth and ninth centuries A.D.

But until now, much about the political makeup and cultural range of the city—famous for its funerary slabs—has been poorly understood.

The position of the body, the structure of the tomb, and several unexpected artifacts suggest the interred individual was a political or priestly figure, said discoverer Allan Maca, an archaeologist at Colgate University in New York State.

The entombed individual was found with “a jade pectoral hung from a necklace of dozens of jade beads of various sizes,” Maca said. Because jade was a precious commodity, he added, the jewels represent “a level of control over economic resources.”

“The incised design on the pectoral likely represents a political title or social affiliation that links this individual to other major sites around the city,” Maca said.

The remains belong to a 50-year-old man with various illnesses. He had poor use of his left arm, poor arterial flow through his upper spinal cord, and a chronic infection of the skull known as mastoiditis, according to a bioarchaeological analysis by Katherine Miller of Arizona State University.


Maca discovered the tomb in 2005 in the Copán Archaeological park.

But Maca—whose work was funded by the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration—only announced his findings last week, in conjunction with officials from the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History, after months of excavation. (National Geographic News is owned by the National Geographic Society.)

“The tomb is characterized by a split vault created by interlocking lintels [load-bearing horizontal supports],” said Maca, who is also the director of the Project for the Planning of Ancient Copán.

“The chamber was accessed from above by a stuccoed stone chute that descends from the surface of the temple,” he continued.

Maca said the features allowed the tomb to be “reentered years after the original interment, for purposes of ancestor veneration.”

The tomb’s location, some 1,300 feet (400 meters) west of the Acropolis, Copán’s ceremonial core, was unexpected, Maca added.

“The design is without precedent in the Maya area and is the first elaborate tomb construction to be discovered outside the ceremonial center of Copán,” he said. (See pictures of what the Maya Empire might have looked like.)

The grandiose tombs belonging to members of the Copán dynasty, royal court, and royal family are typically found in Copán’s Acropolis, Maca explained. Copán archaeologists have focused their research in the central area for many recent decades as well as much of the 19th century.

“As we begin to think more broadly about the great extent of the royal city, and about how to protect it against modern looting and population growth, we are coming to understand that the dynasty manifested its power in sectors of the Copán Valley that have never been explored,” Maca said.


There are other oddities to the tomb.

The position of the buried individual—seated with legs crossed—was not common in Copán or in the Maya lowlands during the Classic period, which lasted from about A.D. 300 to 900.

And several vessels found in the tomb, made in sets specifically for the burial, bear “a type of false or alternative hieroglyphics unlike those used by the ancient Maya,” he said.

Some of the pottery vessels likely came from the south near present-day El Salvador, Maca added.

“Thus it is unlikely that these were made in Copán and probable that they signify some sort of cultural affiliation with that region,” he said.

Also found in the tomb were seashells laid in a pattern that appears to represent a kind of cosmological map and may be representative of the waters in Maya creation mythology, Maca said.

The shells must have arrived to the region through commercial exchanges with the coast, Maca said.

The findings bring into clearer focus a picture of a Classic-period Copán society that was culturally diverse.

The discovery provides “an unusual archaeological context that helps expand our knowledge of the sociopolitical and cultural complexity of the ancient city and of the funerary and ritual landscape of the Copán Valley during the seventh century A.D.,” Maca said.

Dario Euraque, director of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History, said Maca’s findings were significant for a number of reasons.

“Mainly, this is the first tomb to be found outside the principal monuments where all funeral sites are located,” he said.

“We never thought we would find any in the Bosque, which is along the periphery of Copán.”

He agreed that the artifacts and tomb characteristics were not representative of the Maya culture.

“This goes against theories that all populations in the Copán Valley were uniquely Mayan,” he said. “There appears to have been a cultural mix.”

Kelly Hearn
National Geographic News

Traveller’s Impressions

COPAN RUINAS, Honduras – Men in jeans and straw hats walked along the highway that snaked through the mountains from San Pedro Sula to Copan Ruinas; fruit stands speckled the route.

A small landslide caused by some heavy rains made part of our drive difficult, but my local guide, Eli, told me this was nothing – there had been times when he was unable to bring tourists to Copan because labor strikes blockaded this road.

In my mid-20s, this was my first solo trip. And to a country where I didn’t speak the language, no less.

I was armed with a sense of adventure, a quest to learn a little about Central America and a notebook filled with key phrases a friend had taught me (I memorized the phrase “I am a vegetarian.”)

I stayed in this quaint town near the Guatemala border for two nights. The major tourist draw is the nearby ancient Mayan ruins. My base here was the Hotel Marina Copan, located by the town’s central plaza. From here (or just about anywhere in the small town of Copan Ruinas), the ruins are just a few minutes’ drive or short walk away.

At the ruins, I was surprised when the ancient city seemed smaller than it appeared on the map. Hard to believe this city once housed 20,000.

After climbing to the top of one temple, Eli saw a hole in the ground, and with a long piece of grass we enticed a tarantula into a game of tug of war until several of its furry legs were out in the open. When its large, hairy abdomen quickly moved toward my hand, I instinctively jumped back. But it was cool to see the spider nonetheless.

From the temple top we had a good view of the ruins, which included numerous statues and intricately carved art pieces uncommon to other Mayan cities – Copanians were considered the most artistically advanced of the Mayan world. A highlight here is the largest hieroglyphic stairway in the Mayan world, which dates to the year 749.

Besides the view above ground, touists also can access several archaeological tunnels around and under the ruins.