There are ancient Mayan cities with larger and more decorative temples and some with higher pyramids, but Copan is an experience I will always treasure. How can I ever forget the ride?
No doubt the remoteness of the Honduran ruin makes it all the more coveted. Francis Robiscek says so in his book "Copan," and I can vouch for it. If the driving had been left to me, I might have turned back in frustration, but Douglas Bailey had the wheel -- as good a bet as Andretti at Indianapolis.
Bailey was manning the Maya Tropic Tours counter at the Gran Hotel Sula in the city of San Pedro Sula when I popped in on a hot, dusty afternoon at the end of a day-long, air-and-ground odyssey from the island of Guanaja. What I hoped to do was to get to Copan before dark, perhaps spend the night in the area, and be on a plane the next day for Miami.
"No way," said Bailey, who knows the American vernacular from having grown up in Houston and who also knows, day to day, the conditions of the roads to Copan. He said a gringo would have trouble negotiating the last stretch at any hour, but especially with night falling on the jungle. Nor would I find the rattling bus ride very comforting.As for a hired plane (there is a small airstrip beside the ruins), that seemed too extravagant a scheme.
Not that a day with Douglas Bailey or another Maya Tropic Tours guide is cheap -- $65 for one, though correspondingly less for two, three, and up to 10 passengers. The price includes lunch in Copan, unlimited time among the ruins, and a lesson in Central American road strategy.
We left town at 9 a.m. the next day, the 19-year-old Bailey covering the first 70 miles, all paved, as though he were commuting to work -- which in a sense he was. Our path was crossed by one pichete (a homely local lizard), one sumbadora (a friendly Honduran snake that feasts on rodents), and lots of people wearing sombreros and carrying machetes.
At San Pedro Entrada the road turns off. In two years Route 63 is supposed to be a smooth black ribbon all the way from Entrada to Copan, but on that morning it was very much under construction -- pitted, rocky, swampy in spots, the kind of road on which they test radial tires for TV commercials.
No easy pickings, I would have thought, for the little Toyota that carried us faithfully through the jungle and past green, velvety hillsides planted with corn and beans. It took us 90 minutes to complete the second leg (three house in all: fast, but not a personal record, Douglas assured me). Shortly after noon we were seated in a yellow-walled cafe eating encebollados, grilled steaks, for $2.50 apiece.
Modern Copan (as opposed to the nearby ancient city) is a pleasant if dusty village that sits on the edge of the jungle at 2,200 feet, just 14 miles from the Guatemalan frontier. At that elevation, the air is warm but not sapping.
Ancient Copan, which flourished from A.D. 500 to 800, was not so much a place to live as a grounds for worship. You enter the gates, walk along an avenue of flowering acacias, and step into a vast green parkland studded with stone monuments -- or stelae. The scattered 12-foot-high figures are the "crowning glory of Copan," according to the archeologist who, in the 1930s, diverted the nearby Copan River and saved the ruins from future floods.
Copan was first noted by Westerners in 1576. But it wasn't until 1839, when archeological dilettante and U.S. diplomat John Stephens bought the ruins for $50 and began to write about them, that the world woke up to the rare discovery. Yet Copan still was something of a secret until the late 1800s, when teams from the British Museum, the Peabody Museum, and Harvard University made partial excavations, carrying away 50 percent of the remains.
Douglas and I walked among the towering statues, pausing at length before Stela B, a bearded figure whose shoulders appear to be topped by decorative elephant tusks. Over the years the tusks have generated heated speculation. Since elephants never existed on this continent, could there have been Asian origins to the pre-Columbian civilization? "A delightful mystery," writes Francis Robiscek in "Copan."
We stood before the steep Hieroglyph Stairway, obeying the signs not to climb or touch, while a worker sprayed a preserving chemical on the stone. Robiscek concedes in his book that the stairway is Copan's only great piece of architecture. Noting that Chichen Itza, Palenque, Uxmal, and Tikal were more splendidly constructed, he observes that Copan has "a charm so serene, a beauty so solemn, it is unmatched by any other archeological site in the Americas."
I haven't seen the others, but I can tell you that Copan, in the late afternoon stillness after the workers had put away their tools and the few visitors had left, was a sight I won't soon forget. It was worth every bump and jolt from San Pedro Sula and back.
If I ever return, I will stay the night at one of the small hotels in the village. I would like to see Copan at dawn.