Honduras March 2011 Part 4 – Copan Ruins

It was hard for me to believe there was a Hilton in San Pedro Sula, but there it was.  I used to splurge occasionally at the Gran Hotel Sula, and we did go there later for breakfast with the grandparents, but for now here we were.  My dad had made reservations online from home so as to have a destination on arrival, and we stayed for one night before heading back west, through La Entrada and out to Copan and the Mayan ruins.  Later, we stayed another night at the Hilton before catching our flights home, and it is worth mentioning that it was much cheaper arranging for the hotel in person.  My parents were pleased with the ‘senior’ discount they received at the hotel and at other places we went, so it is worth requesting if it applies to you or anyone you are travelling with.

I can’t find any of our pictures, but this is the pool at the San Pedro Hilton where we went, and a street view of the hotel. I like this street view because you see how different the hotel is from its surroundings; also I had to cross this crazy street with my dad to change some money at a (heavily guarded) bank across the street!

My parents had visited Honduras, including the village, when I lived there and were eager to come back.  My dad especially liked the Ruins, and a hotel we had stayed at there, so off we went.  We drove through the hills, passing roadside villages that were little collections of shacks, a few stands selling roasted corn or various fruits, small piles of burning trash, and the familiar sight of farmers walking by with their bundles and machetes.  The road was no problem, paved with asphalt and curving around gentle hills.  Getting lost is not an issue since there is really only one paved road between San Pedro and Copan.  You will get there as long as you don’t go South to Santa Rosa De Copan (a popular ex-pat town, it isn’t bad at all to end up there anyway!). We drove through La Entrada and continued to the town of Copan Ruinas.

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The Hotel Marina Copan is so beautiful – not only the pool which the kids adored, but there are mysterious little corners with beautiful displays of art, Mayan artifacts and plants.

The town of Copan Ruinas is well-known to backpackers and has become adapted to more sophisticated tourists as well.  There are now ‘resorts’ and bigger, newer hotels on the outskirts of town in addition to the simple varied-budget hotels on the stone streets of the picturesque central town.  The Hotel Marina is an easy walk from the central town plaza, many restaurants, and a local market.  It was built in the late 1940’s to house the growing number of archeologists and tourists coming to the ruins sites and has been lovingly maintained and modernized through the years.  From there, we walked everywhere except when we drove to the Ruins site a mile or so outside of the town.  We ate at a different low-budget, backpacker type restaurant every meal and were not disappointed.  There are many blocks of them, and walking the area is a pleasure.

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Inside public area nestled in a corridor of the hotel with couches and historic photos, Fiercely in a garden in the hotel, overhead view of hotel

The Ruins, synonymous with the town, have ongoing archeological digs as well as long-established stelae (Mayan hieroglyphic towers) and the famous Mayan ball courts as well as other structures.  Copan is known for artistic details such as sculptures and hieroglyphics as opposed to Tikal, Guatemala which is known for more for its stepped Mayan pyramids.  Copan has recognizable monkeys, bats, and Mayan rulers carved into stone that have endured the centuries remarkably well.

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Fiercely being a Mayan bat, Cleverly and me in front of the museum, which is painted as historians say the original sculptures were painted.

We spent a day walking around the Great Plaza at Copan and checking out the new (to us, actually opened in the late 1990’s) museum on the grounds.  This is an easy place to be with active kids because it is so big and open.  There are steps to climb, great lookouts, and also a newer tunnel area the kids liked a lot.  The museum houses sculptures, and is also large and spacious.  The kids were free, grandparents were discounted, I’m the only one who paid full price.  We had a lot of fun taking pictures at the museum.

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me and my Dad and a Mayan, Cleverly on part of the main plaza

One day we went to a bird sanctuary called Macaw Mountain in the hills above the town of Copan Ruins.  We took a tiny taxi, of which there are numerous, up to the site of a working coffee finca/rescue facility for birds confiscated from illegal trade.  We had an English-speaking tour guide as we walked the grounds and learned about the sad stories of the birds there.  Macaw Mountain is a newer facility here, and a wonderful example of eco-tourism as it is locally owned, ecologically sustainable, and provides a destination for these birds that have been mistreated.

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The taxi that took us into the hills, My mom and the girls with the guide, Cleverly with a parrot

We also found a children’s museum in the town, a bit uphill from our hotel.  Casa Kinich appears not to have its own website, which of course makes it more endearing to me.  The name means “House of the Sun” and the castle-like building housed a fun, interactive museum for kids and cost about $1 for me and was free for the kids to enter.  The exhibits covered the natural and cultural history of the area and Mayan civilization, and was geared towards children, so unlike the Ruins sculpture museum, the kids could touch and explore various parts of the exhibits.

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Kids at the Casa K’inich exhibits, and the building from the outside

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Honduras March 2011 Part 3- more at the Village, then the grandparents in SPS

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Cleverly (top) and Fiercely on mules, local kids are amused we don’t know how to ride them!

Not only did people feed and house us, but they let us ride their horses!  We went on several beautiful rides around the village and surrounding hills.  We provided amusement since we don’t know much about riding, especially bareback or on minimal saddles.  I’ll wager that four-year-olds here are better riders than most US citizens.

I knew people would be generous during our visit so we had discussions beforehand on what to bring as gifts.  Gift-giving can be difficult since it can cause a frenzy if you are giving things away, and it can breed resentment, jealousy, greed and ugly crowds.  The village has good soil, hard workers and good crops, as well as income from those working in the US, so it is well off compared to many Honduran villages.  Of course, the resource inequality between the average US family and the average village family is vast.  I had seen while living there charitable giveaways that were unneeded and sometimes detrimental to the village – processed food like canned sauerkraut which confused people, candy when tooth decay was already a problem, and fertilizer which depleted the soil and caused poisonings.  We decided beforehand to give things that could be shared, also we travel light so nothing could be large.  We settled on books for their school library, since I knew that was small, some soccer balls for the kids to share (we bought those in San Pedro with Isai), and a cell phone for Marta – I bought one while there to call home since they are so inexpensive, and gave it to Marta when I left.  I also procured toothbrushes, floss and toothpaste from a dental clinic and left them at the village health clinic.

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Inside and outside the village health clinic

We were there about a week then it was time to find our way back to San Pedro Sula to the hotel there to meet my parents.  They were actually staying at a Hilton Hotel, quite the other extreme from the village!  The kids were ready for the change.  I made a mental note that the village was tiring in many ways for the kids, and me too, always being the center if attention, living in an environment very different from home, dependent for food + housing on our hosts, living in a different language + culture, etc.  I plan to keep this in mind for other trips – it is wise to schedule breaks from intensive adventure travel.

People in the village assured me that Chema’s nephew always drives to a large town down the mountain with a milk delivery on Sundays, so we planned to get a ride with him.  Hondurans are unsettlingly casual about this kind of thing, especially if you are a US citizen used to time pressure about everything, but I didn’t worry.  I figured if the milk truck didn’t work we could go Monday when the bus went down – there seemed to be a reliable bus trip once a day from what people told me and I did see it once or twice while there.  Surprisingly, the milk truck did work out for us.  We waited with Chema and some kids and our luggage and the truck eventually came.  This part was kind of rough on me since I didn’t know when I’d be back.  I hate goodbyes, but I did have something to look forward to – meeting Marta and Chema’s kids in the US – and that made things a little easier.

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The milk truck stopped at a finca – a coffee farm on the way to the town.  Above is the coffee processing area with hand-cranked mill.  Coffee beans are seeds from a red fruit which are removed with the mill.  The driver and assistant loaded these huge bags into the truck bed along with the milk containers, there must have been literally a ton of cargo or more!

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A little mud brick house I liked at the finca, Cleverly on the minibus to La Entrada

The trip was 3 legs – first to the town, then a packed minibus back to La Entrada, then a  school bus to San Pedro.  Public transportation in Honduras was wonderful – so frequent, cheap, easily accessible, and they kept letting Cleverly in for free since she was under 9 years old.  Imagine considering a 7-year-old a child in the US, just unthinkable, and not charging them seems downright anti-business!?!  Many times the laid-back Honduran vibe did me right.  We got snacks from vendors at the bus station – cheap, healthy, wonderful!  We got popcorn balls held together with a sweet molasses syrup, ticucos which are corn dumplings with greens packaged in a corn husk, and datiles, fingerlike small bananas.  We got to the San Pedro Bus Station, a much newer facility and in a different part of town than I knew, and we took a taxi to the Hilton Princess.  And back to the developed world.  And grandparents!  There they were with a rental car and a sweet hotel with a pool!  The next part of the trip was to begin…

Honduras March 2011 part 1- Arriving

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Pre-dawn in Isai’s car starting out for the village

So this is how it went: I was a Peace Corps Volunteer back in the mid-90’s in Northwestern Honduras, then I came back, did a bunch of things, had 4 kids, and I looked around 14 years later and in front of my house in an East Coast city, I met the son of a Honduran farmer I had worked with all those years ago.  These places are 3400 miles apart (I google-mapped it), and most people in Honduras had never even heard of my Peace Corps site, let alone been born there and how did this guy end up on my doorstep?  Well, long story short, Mr. Fantastic had brought Bartolo to our house and needed me to translate something, which I did, then we got to talking and it turns out Bartolo and I both knew his dad.  Not only that, but Bartolo proceeded to look through my photos from that time and identify not only his father and various others from the village, but even horses! That’s right, he looked at my decade-and-a-half old photos from a village over 3000 miles away and he was like “oh, that’s Jose’s mare”.  ¡Qué miraglo!

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Anyone you know here?

All this got me to thinking.  Honduras isn’t really that far…Cleverly and Fiercely were 7 and 10 respectively, old enough to travel well and remember the trip…Really and Truly were almost 5 so Mr. Fantastic might be ok without me for a little while…I was working anyway so he was used to having the kids all day…we couldn’t afford to take the whole family but me, Cleverly, and Fiercely-we could swing that…my parents always say they would like to go back to visit…I’d love to see Bartolo’s dad and the other farmers I worked with, plus my adopted ‘family’ there and see how everyone is and introduce them to my kids…

Where is Honduras?  In the elbow of Central America, in orange, about the same distance from the US east coast as California!

A few months later, we were on our way.  A Honduran neighbor in the US wouldn’t have a conversation with me about appropriate hotels in San Pedro Sula- she insisted we stay with her brother Isai.  I couldn’t communicate with anyone in the village but I figured they would be there.  I had sent letters over the years but had never received one, I found out later they never got my letters.  But no matter, I got passports for the kids and shopped for plane tickets.  My parents planned to meet us for our second week there.  We headed out.

The flight was short and before we knew it, we were in San Pedro Sula.  Wow was it hot!  And disorienting.  The airport, like all airports, was outside of the city.  I hadn’t been there for 14 years and never spent much time at the airport anyway.  We looked around, and I started thinking about how to get to the city by taxi and there was Isai.  I’m not sure how we recognized him, but we must have been pretty easy to spot.  Three confused gringitas, 2 of whom were blonde children.  He hustled us into his car in a friendly way and off we went to his place.  Isai is a bachelor and he had gone out of his way to be an accommodating host.  There was Honduran food like chicken stew and beans and tortillas, and also coca-cola, fruit, milk, cereal, everything.  We had a tour of his house including the roof from which we could view his neighborhood.  We visited with his neighbors, showered, ate, and turned in early.  He set an alarm for some ungodly hour and we slept until we were awakened in the dark.  Again we packed into his little truck, this time headed towards the western hills.

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Fiercely and Cleverly with Isai at La Entrada, the last ‘city’ before my village

I tried to tell Isai that we could take a bus but he insisted it would not be safe.  I felt safe since I had lived in the area for over two years, but it had been over a decade ago and I did have my young kids with me this time.  As it turned out, he was right, to the extent that the US Peace Corps pulled volunteers out of the entire country later that year.  But at the time I was blissfully unaware as I planned on visiting with my septuagenarian parents and my young daughters there, oh tra-la-la-la-la!

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The road getting bad

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Cleverly and a local in the truck bed

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looking back down at the road we had come from

Isai insisted on driving us far out of San Pedro all the way to La Entrada, Copan over 2 hours away.  I felt certain that I was capable of getting to my village from there, however Isai was not so sure.  He kept driving in his little TWO wheel drive vehicle on a deteriorated rocky road that was clearly meant for 4×4 vehicles.  I winced at every turn, convinced that he was sacrificing his car for my comfort and safety, and I could never repay the favor.  Especially if his car died en route.  And we continued up the mountains.

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The road in the village

The road to my village is really quite bad.  It had gotten worse over my 14-year absence, years full of rain, mudslides, and a pronounced lack of road maintenance.  Honduras is not known for road maintainance.  Isai’s car inched upwards as we passed coffee fields, rocky hillsides, mud houses, and people walking with various burdens and the ever-present machetes.  The engine whined, rocks slid under the tires, and we slowed to a crawl as we negotiated various ditches in the road.  Every now and then we would mount a hill and get a new view, and several times I thought we had arrived only to be disappointed that more hills lay ahead.  The views became more astounding as we climbed higher – clouds and blue sky, cornfields, banana trees, clusters of whitewashed homes and the road below us becoming smaller and smaller and smaller.  We had several passengers in the truck bed at this point since there are few vehicles going to the remote village and drivers generally pick up walkers if asked.  I myself have walked this road many times, as there were even fewer cars when I lived up there.  The walk takes about 2 hours.  I walked alone many times, also with my brother when he visited back in 1995, and with Mr Fantastic when we visited in 1997, about a year after I had left.  It’s a lovely hike but not such a fun walk if you are carrying things or it’s pouring down rain or if you are just tired and trying to get home.  Anyway, it was bittersweet to see the familiar vistas and curves in the road, and at last the outskirts of the village.  To be continued…