Bright Feathers, Stone Prayers: Copan Ruinas

After spending most of our day crossing borders and bus hopping, we were happy to find ourselves strolling along the sun-drenched main square of Copan on our way to our hostel, tucked back on a side street.  The friendly owner ushered us to our bunks, where we dumped our bags before going out in search of a badly needed cup of coffee.  Back at the main square, we found a squeaky clean café serving up great local coffee and enjoyed finally being able to relax and people watch.  Out in the square itself, we were a little surprised by the modern sculpture that stood along the walkways, in contrast to the lazy palms, old gazebo, and bright blankets of the people out selling their fruits and crafts.  As we ventured further around the town, we encountered all manner of charming eateries, a bustling market area, and a lively football (soccer) match off in the fields.

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The next morning, we woke early and cooked ourselves breakfast to power us through a long morning of our first encounter with Mayan ruins.  Down the rough, cobbled hill and over the bridge, we followed the road that leads east out of town.  As we passed through a kilometer of green countryside, we spotted our first stela, like a guard on the border of a hidden world, on the side of the road.  We entered the park gates right at 8AM as they opened, and tagged along after the few tour groups that had also arrived early, listening in on the guide’s introduction to the park.  But all talking ceased before anyone even reached the ruins… It was the macaws.  I had read online that arriving as the park opened promised that the resident flock of scarlet macaws were fed at this time, so we could see them up close as we entered the park.  We were not disappointed.  Up in the trees, standing on the feeding tubs, peering up curiously from the ground, there were at least twenty-some birds all around us.  Some locked claws and swirled in a mock fight that looked more like a kaleidoscope than anything else.  Squirrels, coatis, and other birds also took advantage of the tubs full of smashed fruit and other goodies.  And then…we walked a hundred meters onward and we were transported into the past.  We were in the Great Plaza.

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The Great Plazas focal point is, of course, the pair of tiered pyramids that have been cleared at its center, surrounded and set off by the half-overgrown structures that circle its edges.  In one of the most magical moments of our entire 14 months of travel, we climbed to the top of one of the two short pyramids…and another flock of scarlet macaws soared and wheeled overhead on their way to their feeding, calling in their raucous voices over the ancient stones.  A weaver bird high in one of the trees left standing in the plaza made its strange call, seemingly in response…a guide told us that this same weaver bird comes back to this tree year after year, even after a migration of hundreds of kilometers.  With all the nature and big structures, it was hard to be more impressed.  However, that was before we started to walk through the stellae and other sculptures, for which Copan is rightly famous.  On this, the southern edge of the Mayan world, they seemed to have perfected their sculptural techniques and left behind monuments that, even after all these years, enthrall everyone who steps close enough to really look at their details.  I didn’t discover this till later (at Tikal), but their hands are turned outward in prayer…to embrace the world.

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Did I say we couldn’t get more impressed?  We followed the trickle of people as they explored the grounds and passed through the Ball Court, and stumbled upon the famous Hieroglyphic Staircase, the longest Mayan text to be discovered thus far.  Standing at the bottom, next to the stela that guards it, we stared up at the rows and rows of evocative Mayan characters and imagined the lives of the kings that it details.  From there, we made the steep climb up the adjoining tree covered hill and looked down from the height onto the Great Plaza and Ball Court complex we had already explored and over into the Acropolis that we were moving towards.  A few more tour groups had arrived, but it still remained pretty quiet, with plenty of moments by ourselves among the stones.  Within the walls of the Acropolis, we passed more stela, many intricately carved altars, and even found representations of the Sun God and attending jaguars in the king’s own East Court, also used for ball games.

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We took a break, sitting atop the steeply tiered back wall of the Acropolis, near the spooky ‘death temples’ where priests might have conducted human sacrifices during the deadly drought period that clinched the end of most Mayan societies in this area.  Afterwards, we walked through the jungle along the edge of the structures, and wandered over into the deserted and dusty smaller ruins behind the main complexes before circling back to the front gate.

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Instead of turning west toward the town, we continued east to Las Sepulturas, an adjoining archaeological area that is included in the Copan Ruinas ticket price.  The ticket taker looked surprised to see us as we passed through and started our own tour of this second, smaller ruin area.  I guess we went backwards from the ‘normal’ route, but we weren’t bothered, especially when we found a cool place to rest next to the banks of the river.  One of the military guards passed us with his huge gun…and struck up a lively and friendly conversation with us.  He ended up leading us through the rest of Las Sepulturas, regaling us with the history and telling us about all the different plants that the Mayan scholars used as medicines, dyes, cloth, etc.  He even found several of the ‘sepulturas,’ hidden manmade caves, and pointed them out to us…including their vents.

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Famished and hot, we headed back into town and dug into a delicious lunch, complete with a fancy lemonade.  Our strength restored, we caught a tuktuk style taxi up the steep road north of town to Macaw Mountain Bird Sanctuary.  Surrendered and rescued birds of all kinds lived in large, well-structured cages that integrated into the jungle surroundings.  Several of the cages had open doors that humans could pass through to walk among the birds…including one for macaws, smaller parrots, and toucans!  We never knew toucans were so personable and curious!  The visitor path wove back and forth over the shallow river and passed below the towering cliffs that bordered it to one side, leading past owls, raptors, and other birds that the sanctuary nurses back to health and cares for if they cannot be rereleased.  It is this sanctuary that rehabilitated enough macaws to return them to free flight at the Copan Ruinas.  As an extra perk, there is an area of surrendered macaws who still like human company…and they will pile two to three birds on each visitor and take your picture for free.  There was also a restaurant, which we passed, and a coffee shop serving a deliciously strong cup, with all proceeds going to support their birds.

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That evening we fell into bed and woke early the next morning for yet another exhausting marathon, double border day.  If I had known how lovely and perfect our time in Copan would be…I would have scheduled a MUCH longer visit.

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