Thursday, December 16, 2010

Copan Ruinas

My trip fast approaching its end, I thought best to position myself close to the airport for an easy outing to catch my flight in 2 days time.  So I caught a bus to San Paulo Sula and found a nice hostel to stay in.  I had a thought of attempting to see the Maya ruins of Copan the next day but knew it would be a push.  The man at the hostel reception told me it could be done if I went early enough and caught the Casa Sola Express.  Good enough for me, I hit the pillow for an early start, arranging a taxi for 6:40am. 

Macaws mate for life
I arrived at the bus terminal and started trying my best to find the right bus, eventually finding the casa sola ticket window.  Through my broken Spanish I learned with disappointment that the bus could get me there but not back again.  I accepted my regret and headed for some breakfast.  Then I wondered, “could there be another bus?”  So, broken Spanish in tow I started a little investigative work and found another bus to Copan.  I could take this bus there and back but unfortunately would have only about a half hour in Copan.  That wouldn't work, but a combination of the 2?  I found I could take the 8am Casa bus to Copan arriving at around 11:30 and then take the 3pm Hedman bus back to San Paulo, leaving me with 3.5 hours to see the ruins.  The stakes were high though. If it didn’t work out, I would either miss my flight or have a very expensive cab ride ahead of me.  I took a deep breath and thought,” just go for it man”.  Sometimes ya gots ta take a chance. 

The Casa Sola Express wasn’t so much of an express as a slow moving chicken bus.  Probably it had been a school bus in another part of the world before retiring, and getting a job for Casa Sola.  These buses are always interesting.  People constantly get on to peddle their wares and stories, from chicklets, to fruit and newspapers.  One guy seemed to be going on about some sort of hard life caused by an injury, another was preaching for about a half hour, after which they came around for donations.

 3.5 hours later the bus rolled into Copan and I grabbed one of those 3 wheel taxi carts and started down a bumpy stone road to the ruins.  From there I enquired about a guide as I figured this would expediate my movements and give me a better picture of the ruins.  It was only $25 and I am glad I did so, seeing much more and getting loads more information than I could have gotten on my own.  My guide Carlos had Maya heritage and had grown up in the area.

The Maya ruins of Copan date back to around 426AD, the city being abandoned around the mid 800s AD.  Other cultures lived in the area from as far back as 1400B.C. The city was abandoned with the collapse of the Mayan dynasty which is believed to be due to over consumption and deforestation.  Sounds familiar doesn’t it!

The ruins were reclaimed by the jungle and remained hidden until the 1800s when the first of the archaeological digs began.  Even now, only a portion of the buildings have been uncovered and there are numerous mounds in the jungle telling the tale of more.

The Mayors house
Our first part of the tour was Las Sepulturas.  This is where the elite lived.  The elite consisted of the mayor (a relative to the King), the priest, the astrologist and high ranking warriors. Copan’s population reached around 27000, 1600 of which were considered elite.  While the commoners had 1 wife each, the elite had multiple wives.  Perhaps the most interesting element of these ruins is that the dead are buried in their houses, with jade in their mouths to buy their way into heaven.  400 hundred years of tombs and dead bodies in your house! At least they are quiet guests.

A statue of a croc
Carlos then led me to the main part of the ruins.  Here lie the large temples, the market, a ballgame court, the king’s palace, and the area where the elite worked.   The Copan River had once moved and washed down a lot of the site, exposing generations of ruins built on top of one another.  Carlos took me around pointing out the huge La Ceiba trees growing through many of the temples and brought me to the warrior training court.  Here he pointed at one of the temples and told me a story.  One of the Kings had put on a ceremony where he took blood from his finger, blood from his nose, blood from his ear, and blood from his genitals.  He then mixed the blood with a hallucinogenic, drank it and announced he was in communion with the gods.  When the trip was over he came to the people with the message from the gods.  He told how the gods had told him that he must “raise taxes, the people must work harder and that he must have more wives”  He then informed the people that if they dare not believe him the gods would bloke out the sun in 3 days time.  The Mayas had an incredible grasp on the movement of the sky.  The astrologist knew that there would be an eclipse that day.  The people were not privy to such information.

Warrior training area
We then made our way to the ball court.  They played a ball game with a large rubber ball, very heavy, hitting it with elbows, knees, and shoulders.  This game was played throughout the Maya Empire (which spanned from southern Mexico, through Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Western Honduras).  In most areas, after the match they would sacrifice some of the losers.  In Copan however, they would sacrifice the best player.  This was an honour in the players eyes as from a young age the priest led him to believe he would go straight to heaven where many virgins were waiting for him. 

Just outside the ball court was the sacrificing area consisting of a large round stone with a divot in the top.  The chosen person would rest their head in the divot, have their throat cut and the blood would spiral down into a jar.  Surrounding this area were many statues of the kings.  Some of these elaborate statues were missing their noses.  I asked Carlos about this and he told me how in the Maya culture a big nose was a sign of aristocracy.  Obviously the king was not always liked and the statues had been defaced accordingly.

The modern warriors
Astrologist office
Before beginning this whole journey I tried to find a book on the Maya culture.  All I could seem to find were books about 2012 written by some white guy who claimed to know all the secret prophecies of the god like Mayas.  I asked Carlos what he thought of all this hype.  It was his understanding and opinion that December 2012 brings to and end a 5000 year old calendar and the Mayan believe that this will be the end of one era and the beginning of a new one.  He said he knew nothing of predictions of destruction or the end of the world.  Remember too he is part Maya!  As for the romantic view of the Mayas being somehow superior in their knowledge of the future, I really didn’t see it like that.  What I saw was an impressive civilization that had great knowledge of stone work, mathematics, science and astrology.  They were surely not immune to the follies of human civilization around the globe and throughout history in terms of thirst for power, greed, and manipulation over fairness, humility, and compassion.  Here in Copan the elite lived high and frivolously off the hard work and oppression of the common folk.  Like many other civilizations these follies brought about their destruction,  a lesson that we should be all heeding.  While I don’t feel like I am one to judge what is right and wrong, I have a hard time accepting any culture that practiced human sacrifice as superior or more in the know.  Maybe I’m wrong but I guess we will see on December 22nd or 24th depending on which white guy is making the predictions!  None the less though I found the ruins to be fascinating and saw that this culture had its greatness.  The Maya people still thrive on with a population of over 6 million scattered throughout Central America.
The market place
I had a quick whistle around the museum and made my way to the bus terminal with 25 minutes to spare.  There I saw an American fellow with dive gear.  I got all excited and went over to chat with him.  He told me that the diving in Honduras sucks (a first that I had heard) and the country is backwards and boring.  I smiled and told him I was hungry making my way over to some more amicable people.
A replica of a temple found inside another temple

My last night in Honduras I spent sitting on the hostel balcony drinking a Salva Vida (a local beer) that I got at a gas station for 14 Lempera ( ~ 90 cents or so) and reflected on my trip.  I am glad that I chose Honduras.  It was very interesting; full of neat things to do and friendly people.  I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it all the time, with the foreign language, garbage all over the place, poverty, and dog bites.  Sometimes I was definitely out of my comfort zone, but at the end of the day, that is in part what I was looking for and part of the adventure of travel.  Many of the best experiences are great fun but some of the greatest experiences aren’t much at all!
With that I made my way to my flight, said good bye to Honduras and the tropics, arriving back in Toronto just after midnight.  The outside temperature, -8 with a cold wind blowing in thoughts of the many adventures that lay ahead in the Canadian winter...

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