The Artists of Copán
Things are less calm the next day in transit. On the way to Copán, we run into a roadblock and get delayed by two hours. Food and fuel prices are way up and protestors are blocking a bridge to spur the government into doing something about it. As in other countries, there is little the government can do but appeal for calm.
We arrive for a private tour at 300–acre Welchez Coffee Plantation just as the processing plant is winding down for the day. No matter. Although the processing methods here are low–impact, it's the growing conditions that make the coffee special. It's all shade–grown Arabica coffee grown at 750 to 1,350 feet in altitude, in sharp contrast to the plantation–type sunny fields I'd seen before in Costa Rica. A nature trail winds through the bushes and trees, past the nests of screeching oropendolo birds and those of 79 other species that make their home in these trees.
All the coffee beans are picked by hand at Welchez, by experienced workers who make 25 lempira—around $1.30—for each 5–gallon bucket. "It doesn't sound like much," my guide admits, "but the good pickers will fill up 6 or 8 buckets in a day."
An hour later we pull into the town of Copán Ruinas, a friendly and walkable town near the archeological park. I'm staying at the Marina Copán Hotel, under the same ownership as the coffee company and the region's top tour company: MC Tours.
"Tikal was like New York City and Copán was like Paris," my guide Juan Carlos says as we start exploring the ruins. The analogy is meant to illustrate the artistic importance of Copán compared to the impressive pyramids at Tikal, but New York City hasn't exactly been an also–ran when it comes to art and the arts. Perhaps Tikal is Midtown and Copán is Soho?
Comparisons to other places don&apost do Copán justice anyway. Unique in the Maya world, the adornments here are stupendous and abundant, nearly every surface covered by some relief or carving. Ironically, the most impressive temple is still underground, buried when another was built on top of it. We pass through some tunnels—open to only a few visitors at a time—and see the remains of it, still covered with the original stucco and brilliant hues of red and green. A replica of this Rosalita temple stands in the museum on the site, its brilliant colors and mythical stucco figures reminding us that most of what we see now in the ruins of the Maya world are faded relics, drained of all their life and color.
In the museum and around the park, hundreds of other carvings and artifacts are on display, from creepy underworld skulls to depictions of Copán's greatest ruler: "18 Rabbit." At its peak around 700 AD the city had a population of 27,000. Eventually the people overtaxed the resources and by the middle of the ninth century the population had dwindled to around 5,000. The area never regained its grandeur.
In the Sepulturas area of the archeological park, archeologists found over 500 skeletons, most belonging to the elites and their families. "The rulers lived into their 80s," says Juan Carlos. "Poor people lived into their 30s."
My next stop is Macaw Mountain Nature Reserve, an area where a couple of American expatriates set up a center to care for stressed–out birds that have been mistreated as pets. In an attractive wooded area with coffee plants and large cages, scarlet macaws, parrots, toucans, parakeets, owls, and others recover from stress while eating a proper diet. For most visitors the highlight is a photo op with colorful tropical birds perched on shoulders, but I end up with a parrot that keeps nibbling on my neck. I'm just happy to see so many beautiful birds in one place, in such a sublime setting under a tree canopy of nine acres.
My guide has planned dinner at Hacienda San Lucas, on a hillside overlooking the city, but we find out that it's closed for maintenance work. So instead I hit Twisted Tanya's, a place I'm told is the best restaurant in the city center. The three–course dinner is indeed impressive: a delicate and creamy red pepper soup, a huge platter of tequila shrimp with spinach pasta and chili garlic olive oil, and fresh carrot cake. Even nicer is the bill: $22 including two beers. "I can't believe we're paying $3 for cocktails with fresh fruit. These would cost us $20 each at home," says a Dutch couple at the next table.
I stroll around the cobbled streets of the town, having them mostly to myself since all the shops have closed. Right off the town square a man rolls cigars outside a bar. I buy one for $3 and light up inside while sipping some 12–year rum with some regulars. Then an archeologist walks in and everyone knows him. All is well and it is a fitting end to a trip through Honduras above the water.
Story and Photos by Timothy Scott