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La vida loca! Wished you were there? We did, so here we are on our big adventure! A year in central America, to make sense of this vida loca...

The Mayans Fried my Brain

HONDURAS | Tuesday, 6 January 2009 | Views [3186]

Scarlet Macaw on inscribed pillar - not bad!

Scarlet Macaw on inscribed pillar - not bad!

We took a bus from Comayagua up winding mountain roads up to Lake Yojoa - the largest freshwater lake in Honduras. Its surrounded by jagged, green mountains, and the lake edge is dominated by wooded flood meadows, unlike anything we’d seen in our travels so far. After a bus change and a beans n’ rice at at a one horse junction, we managed to find a taxi to take us to the D&D brewery and guesthouse, just minutes away from the northern lakeside. The place is run by a friendly Oregonian, and I have to say that I really appreciated his Porter ale – the first decent beer that I’d had since the Bavarian Dark in Costa Rica. The food was jolly nice too, especially the local freshwater fish.

We arranged for a boat birding tour with one of the local guys. We left near dawn after munching a breakfast burrito and five of us piled into a rather small row boat, with about two inches of clearance from the water. It took me a while to stop staring nervously at the side of the boat, expecting us to sink any minute. Luckily, no one rocked the boat and we were soon gliding down a canal and out through wetlands onto the glassy lake. There were tonnes of waterbirds like gallinules, herons, egrets and grebes, along with many snail kites and an osprey. We also saw our first emerald toucanet and a family of collared aracari (small, brightly coloured cousins of toucans). Rainforest comes right down to the waters-edge, allowing you to see birds in the canopy that would usually be hidden. Like Lake Nicaragua, the lake level was much higher (nearly two metres) than usual, and we literally floated over a cattle pasture, over fences and past a partially-submerged house. So, that’s what the flood meadows are about.

Reeds in the water, early morning on Lake Yojoa

After a few relaxing days we were offered a lift up to Copan in the far north-west of the country by an American couple who were also staying at D&D. It was a nice change to travel in a car, although it was a long slog – nearly five hours. We stayed our first night at Copan at a place that D&D had recommended – nice enough, but we managed to get nearly zero sleep from an almost continuous, complementary dog and cockerel chorus. A dog would howl, and then the next one up the valley would go, and then up and down ad-infinitum. Same with the cocks. Don’t these animals need breaks? Don’t they get hoarse? Apparently not. Anyway, the next day we moved to a quieter place.

Copan has a distinctive, pleasant upland character. It’s dominated by stone buildings, and nearly all the streets are cobbled. Its one of Honduras’ main tourist centres, so has a lot of souvenir stores, cafés and restaurants. Still, as these businesses are part of the old fabric of the town, they don’t dominate. We also found a café that served the best coffee we’d had since Boquete in Panama, which served its own stuff, grown on the slopes above the town. Another brand to add to the list of coffees to order once we’re back home.

Stelae of one of Copan's ruler-gods

The main reason tourists come to town is to visit Copan ruins – the remains of a large Mayan city in the far south of Meso-America. The ruins encompass the whole valley and the city-state once supported 20,000 people. The main excavated areas are just outside town. They’ve got a really good partially covered museum where they’ve rebuilt many of the facades from temples and palaces, along with altars, and many bits of sculpture, which Copan is famous for. We were shown around by a small, rotund guide with missing front teeth, but a wealth of knowledge about Mayan society, religion, politics and science. In the centre of the museum is an exact replica of the Rosalita one of the first temples at Copan, buried, intact, beneath the main temple – it was found, complete with red-painted plaster, when archaeologists dug into the main structure.

We got to the ruins early in the day, so there weren’t many people around which was nice. We were greeted at the entrance by a group of tame scarlet macaws – it was lovely to see more of them up close, even if these ones weren’t technically wild. They also had feeding stations for numerous agoutis (orangey rabbit-type mammals that we’d seen wild in Costa Rica).

Temple steps covered in Ceiba trees, like something out of the Jungle Book

Following the path, the forest opens up onto the Plaza of the Sun, a massive open space, dotted with huge Stelae (standing stones), each carved with the image of a Copan ruler, with the rear sides covered in glyphs recording the big cheese’s lineage and deeds. There are also some smaller pyramids, but these are dwarfed as you look south at the main temple plazas; massive pyramids the size of small hills, the broken stairways covered in huge Ceiba trees like something out of the jungle book. In front is the ceremonial ball-court, where ceremonial teams played something approximating to an ancient version of volleyball, but using their thighs and buttocks only! In big games, the winning (or losing) side gained the privilege of being sacrificed after the game. And you thought the FA cup had high stakes?

Up and over the temple stairs are massive temple plazas, surrounded by altars bedecked with Mayans in full regalia, glyphs and skulls. Behind these huge edifices are the royal quarters, each surrounding its own square. Each, rather pokey dwelling is set atop an impressive platform. You can see the sleeping and living platforms, some still replete with painted plaster. However, its very hard to imagine where these highest of the high actually lived their lives, as the rooms are so small.

Altar Detail - Skulls seem a favourite, can't think why...

We came away from the ruins both awed by the scale, and slightly brain-fried by the amount of new information we’d taken on board. The next day we visited a suburb of the city where nobles and scribes lived in large palaces (again with pokey little rooms). Instead of security guys with shotguns here, we had army squaddies with assault rifles wandering round to dissuade thieves. Quite reassuring, in a slightly alarming way.

The town museum has a good selection of artifacts taken from the site, including ornate obsidian knives Mayan kings and nobles would use to cut themselves and make an offering of their own blood to appease the gods. It also explained the really accurate Mayan calendar. The Mayans believed in a set of epochs that are ended by catastrophes. The current epoch finishes on December 23, 2012. Bear that in mind when making future holiday plans. You might want to be avoiding areas with volcanoes/earthquakes and/or coastlines.

Royal Residences

I’m sure we’ll bore you with more reports of Mayan ruins from Belize, the Yucatan and Guatamala – there are quite a few to get through!

For more pictures of Lake Yojoa and Copan use these links:



Tags: copan, d&d brewery, lake yojoa, mayan ruins, nice coffee


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