With twilight sinking to moonlight I rode into Ruinas de Copán, just a few clicks from the border town of La Florido in southeastern Guatemala. I’m getting used to quickly adjusting to new currency and quickly calculating conversion rates. Complete with new faces of people from the past, denominations and colors, I made the mind switch from Guatemalan Quetzales to Honduran Lempira. Though I’m not sure exactly the derivative of most countries, I’m eager to learn. In Guatemala Quetzales come from the national, yet allusive bird, the Quetzal. In Honduras case it’s gotta be from the indigenous and charasmatic “cacique” (chieftan) Lempira. From Erandique in southwest Honduras, Lempira persuaded the tribes of the center and western highlands to rebel against the Spanish in 1536. He amassed “troops” numbering 30,000 or more. The Spanish had a hard time controlling the rebellion, which lasted for three years or more, but eventually lured Lempira out of the highlands for peace talks. then shot and killed him in 1539. Then the Lempira forces were easily overcome and Spanish colonial rule prevailed. A side note, on Christopher Columbus’ fourth and final journey he landed on Guanja, one of the Islas de Bahia just off the cost of Honduras – just a short distance from Roatan.
Yet rolling into Copán, I was at the same time excited and relishing in my regained freedom. For the first time I arrive in a Latin American city without riding partners. Sacha was surely taking in his last days in Antigua and Sacha liely was gazzing over the grand pyramids of Tikal. But here I am at Parque Central in Copán alone. Traveling alone has pros and cons. Most important is as a solo traveler you are more likely to engage in conversations with the locals. But perhaps more important, solo travelers seem more approachable to locals and other travelers. A few backpacekrs guide me to cheap accomodations, but a busload of German tourists beat me there and I’m off climbing the cobblestone streets for an alternative which proves simple enough to find. Later I drop into a restaurant/bar owned by a British ex-pat woman. She cranks up the volume and lip syncs hit songs from a previous era. Another ex-pat, an older man, hits on a local Honduran woman while yanking on the collar of his large dog to keep it from scarfing on my peanuts.
Not only does a visit to Copán make an ideal stop for the night before heading to the Carribean beach resorts and islands that have recently put Honduras on the tourist map, but a visit to Copán allows me to visit the only cultural UNESCO World Heritage Site in the country. A hotbed of Mayan culture, Ruinas de Copán are extremely significant for they provide a keen eye into hundreds of years of history with its Hieroglyphic Stairway, a 72-step stone staircase made up of more than 2,000 stone blocks, each intricately carved to form a glyphic sequence making perhaps the longest-known Maya hieroglyphic text. The stairway was built to record the history of several dynasties and the history of the city.
Without boring you with the details of the staircase, suffice to say that three generations of leaders, starting with Eighteen Rabbit in 710 AD, devoted time to recording the history of this grand Mayan city. Copán was once the most important city-state in the southern outskirst of the Mayan world. And while the site had been known to the Spanish since 1576, it wasn’t until the 1800’s when John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood published their grand travelogue “Travel in Central America, Chiaps and Yucatan” did Copán come into the world’s eye. Shortly after, then aacting US-ambassador Stephens bought the ruins and ultimately succeeded in creating more interest in Mesoamerica from anthropologists and archaealogists worldwide.
Today, the ruins are in excellent condition, though the stairway has faded and a canopy of corrugate metal has been placed above it to protect it from the sun. Rumor has it that the staircase will be moved to a museum under construction and a replica will take its place as has been done with several stela. Also, thanks to its status on the UNESCO World Heritage List, an airstrip just 100 yards or so from the ruins that used to shuttle in toustis and archaelogists has been shut down, and work continues on renovating structures buried and tangled in roots in the jungle. My tour guide tells me that the Japanese increasingly show interest and invest money into restoring these ruins because they believe tthe Mayans to be decendents from Japan. The restoration we can see today, which is impressive, was funded and executed in part by Harvard’s Peabody Museum and the Washington Carnegie Insittute, which helped divert the Rio Copán (Copan River) to prevent it from carving into the site. More recently the Instituto Hondureeño has been running a nubmer of projects with the help of the US, Japanese and others helping make Copán perhaps the most undrestood of all Mayan cities.
Leaving Copán for the Carribean coast, my departure is ironically timed as a dozen motorcycles speed by the entrance of the ruins and into a nearby gas station. I cruise to the gas station to meet my new friends from Guatamala who must returned from a 4-day jaunt to Roatan. They shower me with advice about Honduras, the roads and conditions and the BMW riders in the group tell me they had met a woman rider known by her handle, Moto Diva. It’s Anne Giardin, another rider on a bike similar to mine currently heading to Argentina. She had been in Guatemala City a month o f so back getting her bike serviced at the BMW dealer. Her name is familiar and I quickly realize she spent some time riding with Sacha when they both were in Alaska earlier this summer.
We quickly say goodbyes and I head to the coast.