Touring the Copan Ruins

Things haven’t changed much in Copan Ruinas. Old men play checkers in the plaza and barefoot kids kick soccer balls in the dusty square. But the village, now the gateway to the restored Mayan city of Copan, thrives on its ancient neighbor, the National Monument whose massive pyramids and plazas rank among Central Americas preeminent cultural sites.

Like most vanished and deliciously ghoulish civilizations, the Mayan world fascinated our two grandsons, Will and Dillon. What better, then, but to show them the real thing?

Copan Ruinas baked in the heat on the afternoon that our tour bus from Tegucigalpa, the capital, pulled into town. Like most of the 80,000 tourists who visit Copan annually, we planned two days touring the site, and another exploring the town, sampling Honduran food and shopping for crafts – including a gift box (for our dog-sitter) of the first-rate Honduran cigars produced by Cuban families who’ve fled Castro’s Cuba.

It was late when we arrived, with just enough time to check into the Hotel Marina Copan, cool off in the swimming pool and grab a meal. But we were up early the next morning, ready to meet our guide at the park entrance.

As we walked through town, store owners stood in their doorways, yawning. Grade-schoolers in blue and white uniforms paraded down the sidewalk. Across the street, a security guard in cowboy boots and a Panama hat lounged against a store-front bank, a sawed-off shotgun slung over his shoulder. Dillon’s eyes went wide and the guard gave him a broad smile.

Ideal companion

As promised, our guide, Inmar Diaz, young and clean-cut, was standing by the gate feeding fruit to two adult macaws, big birds with brilliant blue, green and red feathers. Handing some fruit to the kids, he showed them how to feed the parrots without getting nipped.

“These birds were sacred to the Mayans,” he said, as we shook hands. “You’ll see them today, represented in ancient iconography.”

Diaz was a traveler’s ideal companion, an enthusiast who knows his subject. A chance encounter with a visiting American led to a home stay with an American family and a scholarship at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. After graduation, speaking perfect English, he came home to a job in tourism.

“Copan isn’t the largest Mayan city,” he told the kids, “but it’s known for the finest sculpture and carving. Archaeologists from the United States and Honduras discover new things almost every month.”

In 800 A.D., Copan was the center of an empire, its temples the skyscrapers of their day, its broad plazas and elaborate carvings designed to exalt the rulers and impress the humble.

“It’s a spooky place,” said Pete Anderson, an American we met in the hotel restaurant. “Spooky but fantastic,” he added. “According to our guide, strange rites and human sacrifices were a common practice. But the temples are an engineering marvel. Each of those tens of thousands of stone blocks is perfectly shaped to fit together.”

It took a full day and plenty of energy just to walk around Copan’s two-square-mile site, built between 426 and 800 A.D. Your best bet is to follow a map, for sale at most tourist shops – and in most guidebooks.

Continue Miami Herald Travel Story here.