Parrots, sweets and cobbled streets… Oh, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site featuring some of the most brilliantly preserved Ancient Mayan sculpture to be found anywhere in the world. The picturesque Honduran town of Copán Ruinas, lying nigh on the Guatemalan border, is a breath of crisp, fresh, river valley air. Peeling ourselves off the seats of our non air-con bus from San Pedro, it was impossible not to be charmed by this beaut little town, nestled in the rolling hills of the Rio Copán Valley.
People-watching the afternoon away in the town’s main square is a pastime in itself – the palm trees and flowers frame scenes of men tipping cowboy hats, school children buying flavoured ice and women gossiping as they go about their day to day lives with a friendly smile. Copán Ruinas is the perfect weekend getaway break within a break…
What to do?
Seeing as the Copán Valley was one of the great centers of Mayan civilization once upon a thousand years ago, it would be rude not to take a trip to the big tourist attraction here, the ruins known simply as Copán. Hop in a speedy little mototaxi (they’ll cheerfully take you anywhere for 20 lemps per person and remember to pick you up a few hours later too) and get yourself up and going early to avoid traipsing around the ruins in the hot, midday sun. Another draw for an early start is the feeding of the scarlet macaws near the entrance gate. A bird that features prominently in Mayan mythology, these macaws have been nurtured and released into the wild at the archaeological park and it’s a cool start to the day to watch these exotic birds fluttering through the trees, living free.
The ruins themselves, whilst not as huge as those in Mexico or Guatemala proper, are nonetheless impressive. Richly carved stellae of ancient rulers with fantastic names like Waterlily Jaguar and Smoke Monkey set the scene. Some highlights are the impressive Hieroglyphic Stairway (considered an outstanding feat of Mayan architecture containing 1,800 individual glyphs which make up the longest known Mayan inscription); the sculpted figures of skulls, jaguars, macaws and such-like; one of the earliest Mesoamerican ball courts; and the breathtaking views as you scramble over the highest reaching points of a temple that symbolized a portal into the other world.
The sculpture museum at the site is definitely worth a look-see as most of the original sculptures are preserved here, safe from rain or shine. It also features a life-size reconstruction of the famous Rosalila temple. A demonstration of the Mayan practice of building over sacred temples, Rosalila was discovered hidden beneath and inside another version of the temple. With an elaborately painted stucco decoration of mountains, skeletons and crocodiles, invoking images of an exotic ancient culture, the tale of her discovery sounds like an Indiana Jones moment if ever there was one.
After all that culture and history, a fun way to spend a few hours of the day is to catch a ride over to Macaw Mountain, a tropical bird reserve with a collection of bright and amusing, squawking characters. There is a walk-through aviary of scarlet macaws and a central plaza where some Doctor Doolittle guy perches parrots on you without warning whilst people (such as me) snap photos in delight, ignoring your discomfort as those large hooked beaks chomp down on and poke holes in your t-shirt whilst inching their talons up your arm, towards your face. Try the award winning coffee and bring your swimming things too as the rainforest setting features a small swimming hole.
Other ways to take advantage of country life around the town is to take a coffee plantation tour (Café Welchez near the town square has delicious coffee and can arrange trips to see how their coffee is grown and processed) or go horse-back riding into the hills to see the Maya Chorti people of La Pintada. For a little more adrenaline, check out the rainforest canopy tour with one of the world’s longest zip lines.
Eats and drinks
Copán Ruinas puts on a veritable feast for travellers and taking a stroll around the streets will cook up a lot of options. Try the best omelettes in town at Café Balam, sip first rate coffee in the pretty, shady courtyard at Café Kappeh, drop by the bustling ViaVia to check out the changing specials and stop by Casa del Todo to take advantage of tasty homemade bread and yoghurt, cheap water refills and a bargain range of disco snacks from their Copáneco menu.
At the weekends, street vendors line up by the town square and the scent of sizzling pinchos (shish kebabs) fills the balmy evening air and during the day, enter the nondescript entrance at the walk-through market to find an internal food court filled with cheap eats and picnic bench seating. Best to take along your Spanish dictionary to avoid order misfortunes as none of the ladies speak English. I was in search of something light for lunch and ended up at the soup kitchen window, squinting at a vague, blurry photo of what looked like vegetable soup with the oddly sinister sounding word ‘mondongo’ printed above it.
When it appeared, I realized there was some kind of blubbering, mystery meat wobbling away at me, floating amongst some yams doused in butter. Needless to say, I went pretty hungry that day although when I did finally get my hands on my dictionary and discovered I’d accidentally requested tripe stew, my appetite ran for those Guatemalan hills.
Finally, for a little treat and to satisfy those mid-afternoon sweet tooth cravings, drop into Kobbs, the Honduran ice-cream chain. Gorgeous flavors and a crunchy waffle cone put smiles on our faces whenever we encountered this candy shop.
Copán is a great place for plenty of watering holes – Twisted Tanya’s was one of our favourites for the 2-for-1 cocktails (the creamy Monkey Lala and super-strength and aptly named Jamaican Me Crazy are specialties) and Xiabalba was a proper pub with occasional live music and great conversations to be had.
A place to rest my head
Copán is definitely not one of those places you need to worry about booking a bed in advance. There are an abundance of cheap and cheerful places and even though we arrived at the weekend, we were still able to find a room relatively hassle-free. Although we’d heard good things about La Manzana Verde (the green apple) and ViaVia (where we saw a lot of travelers stopping by), we ended up in a little place two blocks west of the park – Graditas Mayas. Negotiable rates, a little window and cable TV clinched the deal but the discovery of a huge roof terrace that nobody seemed to know about, complete with swinging hammocks and a colorful view of rooftops and gorgeous green hills was like hitting the jackpot.
Alex Saint is a writer based in Bristol, England – a place she calls home due to its friendly, diverse atmosphere and never-ending list of fun things to do. She loves tattoos, quirky fashion, pugs and, of course, travelling.Tweet