Trip Report: Copan Honduras, Dec. 2021

Old Apr 8th, 2022, 03:59 PM
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Trip Report: Copan Honduras, Dec. 2021

Trip Report: Copan Honduras, early December, 2021.



Attractions: Ancient Mayan ruins, and a quaint, pleasant town.



Copan: the town

I first saw Copan way back in 1982, when it was really, really off the tourist trail. I’ve sort of “monitored” it since then, with repeat visits in 1993, 2001, and again just last December (as part of a broader visit to mainland Honduras). And though the town has adapted itself more to tourism since my first visit, it’s done so gracefully. It’s still a pleasant, low-keyed town, and still very Honduran; the more tourist-oriented cafes I visited, like Via Via and Casa de Todo, had a friendly, bohemian vibe. (Casa de Todo also has an associated arts-and-cratfs shop that’s worth visiting.) And somehow, the town acquired the most elegant, modernist coffee shop I’ve ever seen (San Rafael). If you should suddenly crave German food while in Copan, check out Sol de Copan.

The town has a charming colonial look, though dating the town seems to be harder than dating the ruins themselves. Some evidence I have at hand indicates that the Spanish town may date from the late 1700s, though a so-called “Indian pueblo” had been there by the early Spanish period. But I suspect that few visitors are going to worry much about all this. Note that the official name of the town is “Copan Ruinas,” perhaps to distinguish it from Santa Rosa de Copan, a quaint colonial town in its own right, but not where the Copan ruins are.

The Copan site museum, and the museums in town, were closed at the time of my visit (because of Covid), so I can’t report on them, but if the site museum is the same as what I saw on my visit 20 years earlier, it will be worth the small extra cost, once it opens.

Copan: the Mayan ruins

The magnificent ruins, a short and safe walk outside town, are of course the main attraction. This is one of the major archaeological sites from the Mayan civilization. “Ruins” isn’t perhaps the best word for them, for they’re still in rather good shape, though some modern restoration has helped. Most of what we see there today dates from the 7th and 8th centuries AD, though major construction in Copan had begun centuries earlier. On the grounds of the site there is also a park which offers a variety of birds to be seen. I’m not a bird-watcher myself, so I can’t personally guarantee that you’ll see them all, but even I was able to recognize several bright red macaws.

At least this time, the Mayas picked a decent spot for their city. While several Mayan ruins are in tropical forest or savannah, Copan is in the mountains at a pleasant 2000 ft. While the ruins are, of course, the attarction, there are a few vantage points among them from which you get nice mountain views as well. I would like to believe that the Mayas rather enjoyed the views themselves.

The ruins were introduced to the world by the American lawyer and travel writer John Stephens in 1840. American can be proud of Stephens — in an age of swashbuckling explorers prone to tall-tales, the good yankee Stephens was consistently honest and plain-spoken. While many excited European explorers imagined that they saw Egyptians, Phoenicians, or Greeks in the ruins they encountered, Stephens never had any doubt that the ancient American ruins had been built by the ancient American themselves. You may want to read Stephens’s book (“Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan,” Vol. 1) before your visit — try to get a copy that contains the detailed illustrations drawn by his travel companion, Frederick Catherwood.

More

All in all, Copan, town plus ruins, makes for a very pleasant stay — one of those places that I, for one, regret having to leave. I have no figures at hand, but generally Copan has been relatively less “touristed” that other major ancient American sites, and it certainly seemed that way to me, though my recent December visit doesn’t allow me to comment on what it is like at other times of the year. Though I, a town-and-history type, didn’t take advantage of them, nature-type activities have generally been available in the Copan vicinity: the Macaw Mountain bird-watching park; a butterfly garden (Mayan Hills Resort); a traditional hacienda (San Lucas); a finca or traditional farm (El Cisne), with horse-riding and whatever else you do on traditional farms; and a hot-springs spa (Luna Jaguar). I don’t know the extent to which the Covid pandemic, or just changing times, might have affected these places; I mention them so if interested you can do a further internet search, or inquire about them at your Copan hotel.

There is a range of lodgings in Copan, the most “upscale” of which is probably the Hotel Marina. I, however, stayed at the pleasant, friendly, well-run La Escalinata guest house. I don’t know whether anything offered at a more upscale hotel could have beaten the fantastic mountain view I had from my room balcony. (Ask for room C or D if you want the same.)

As this is getting rather long, I’ll append transportation details in a note below.
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Old Apr 8th, 2022, 04:03 PM
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Trip report (addendum): Copan Honduras, Dec. 2021 — getting there

The best bus company in Honduras, and the one you would normally want to use, is Hedman-Alas. As of my visit, they had significantly reduced their routes becasue of the pandemic, though they were still doing the Tegucigalpa-San Pedro Sula-Copan route, with only one bus per day in each direction. However, there are many other buses that run throughout the country, and to Copan. I rode two of them on my trip, and assuming they were typical, I can say that while at first sight they may faze those who are accustomed so far only to “deluxe coaches,” they’re really not that bad. They’re a good cut above everyone’s idea of “chicken bus,” and in fact my two bus rides were rather pleasant, though obviously I can’t guarantee that yours will be.

If like me, you don’t make it to the Hedman-Alas bus, note that the Casasola company runs between San Pedro Sula (SPS) and Copan, a few times per day. They leave for Copan from the metropolitan bus terminal just outside of SPS — as does Hedman-Alas, though they have their own office just outside the main terminal building.

In Copan, note that perhaps wisely, buses are not permitted in the historic center of town. Hedman Alas, again, has its own terminal on the south side, while Casasola will stop at a lot on the main highway just outside of town. You’ll usually be able to walk to your hotel from there, if you know where you’re going; but of course the town’s mototaxi drivers all know the bus schedules, and there will be several there when you arrive. (A “mototaxi” is what tourists, for some reason, love calling “tuk-tuks,” though I think the latter is actually a SE Asian term.)

Hedman-Alas has a website; check it before your trip, and if possible, buy your ticket in advance. And despite all that over-blown bad press, don’t panic about passing through San Pedro Sula. Both the airport and the bus terminal are perfectly safe; and even if you have to spend a night in the city, pick an airport hotel (there are at least a couple of good ones), or one of the standard hotels in the safe, south-western quadrant of the city, and you’ll be fine.

I didn’t make it to Tegucigalpa on this last trip, so I can’t comment from experience on how to get from there to Copan. Unless you take the direct Hedman-Alas bus, you may have to change buses in the SPS terminal.

Last edited by Faedus; Apr 8th, 2022 at 04:07 PM. Reason: duplicated word
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Old Apr 8th, 2022, 07:08 PM
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Thanks for this detailed report. I hope to make it to Copan.
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Old Apr 8th, 2022, 08:38 PM
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Nice report. Don't know if I'll ever get there, but trip reports such as this make Fodor's interesting & relevant. Don't know if I've ever read a Copan report. Apologies to Daniel Williams if he did one. Thanks for the effort.
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Old Apr 9th, 2022, 02:32 PM
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Thanks much for the comments; I appreciate it. Also, Baldone, I enjoyed your San Miguel and Bernal posts -- regrettably, I haven't been to Mexico since 1992, and I know need to get back one of these days. The photos were great; the view of La Peña looming over the quaint Bernal street was particularly striking, and if not as striking, the "Free Tequila" sign was at least intriguing -- was there a "catch"?
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Old Apr 12th, 2022, 05:13 AM
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Hi Faedus,

I enjoyed reading your trip report, took me back to my visit to Copán Ruinas in 2019. I arrived by Hedman Alas from Guatemala City; I hope that route is still operational or will be again soon as it’s a gorgeous ride and a nice option for those visiting Antigua or the Guatemalan capital. I concur that the town is pleasant and the archaeological site was phenomenal; although I’ve enjoyed every Mayan site I visited, the artistry of the artifacts, statues (18 Rabbit!) and stelae was exceptional in Copán.

All the best,

Daniel
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Old Apr 13th, 2022, 01:37 PM
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Daniel: I recalled seeing your name when looking through the Central America forum entries about a week ago, just before I joined. As I visited Copan myself just four months ago, I went back and found your 2019 Copan report. It is nicely written, and expressed, very well, the fascination that the perceptive visitor will — or should— feel upon seeing the site. If that doesn't convince more people to see Copan, I can't imagine what would. I would add the following notes:

First, I enjoyed a line from a later comment of yours: “How Stephens and Catherwood would have loved the Hedman-Alas bus from Guatemala City to Copan.” Yes, that would have simplified some things for them.

And on my first visit to Copan, way, way back in 1982, I too heard the legend of winners being sacrificed after the Mayan ball games. I can see how tour guides would like telling the story, but it seems that experts are not so sure. Linda Schele and David Freidel, two distinguished experts on the Mayas, wrote simply that this was “a modern myth,” while other writers point out that the rules of the game still are not well understood, and may well have varied across the centuries, and among the numerous Mayan cities. In others words, maybe it could have happened -- winners sacrificed -- but there seems to be no definitive evidence.

But if it helps, I’ll admit that the next point you made was spot-on: “Going to Copan was one of the most amazing and eye-opening experiences in my life … the emotion of seeing this remarkable remnant of an ancient civilization was just as powerful [as seeing the pyramids of Egypt].” I haven’t seen the Egyptian sites myself, but otherwise I agree completely. And while the first visit is always, in some ways, the best, I never tire of revisiting.

And I also agree about the coffee -- even if Starbucks dared show up in Copan (I'm glad to report I didn't see one), I would just walk on to any of the great local cafes I patronized. (Actually, I don't even recall seeing a Starbucks in San Pedro Sula, but it's a big city, and there may have been one or two in there somewhere.)

Finally, if you find that people you talk to are still reluctant to visit Copan, “just because it’s in Honduras,” you can tell them, for what it’s worth, that after seeing Copan a little over two years after you, I agree completely — the risks in Copan are minimal, and it would be too bad to miss the place on account of badly-exaggerated fears, spread by media that usually will say nothing about countries like Honduras unless something bad happens.

Last edited by Faedus; Apr 13th, 2022 at 01:40 PM. Reason: fix error
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Old Apr 17th, 2022, 03:43 PM
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Faedus,

Thank you for your thoughtful reply, for responding to some of my comments in my 2019 trip report And for letting me know that there is some contention as to what happened to the winners of the ball game. I remember hearing some errors from the official tour I took while visiting Altun Ha in Belize (tour was very good in other ways), but I didn't think to question the Palenque or Copan guides as they said nothing I knew to be false. So thanks for opening my eyes to the idea of researching that more.

I'm glad to learn that your re-visits have been similarly enjoyable as your first, and I fully agree about the media; much media reporting (on all sides of the political spectrum) on the Northern Triangle region of Central America is disgraceful. While it's not in my cards in the short term, I'd be happy to visit Copan again.

Best wishes and thanks again

Daniel
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Old Sep 12th, 2022, 05:50 AM
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Thanks for taking the time to post such a detailed trip report! I've visited Copán Ruinas several times in the last 20 years and am sure to return at some point.
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Old Sep 12th, 2022, 05:53 PM
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@hopefulist: I believe I recall your name from several useful and informative posts I've seen on the Trip-Advisor Central America forum. It was good to get a nice note from someone who knows Central America so well!
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Old Sep 13th, 2022, 09:23 AM
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Thanks Faedus! I frankly only check in here every few months because about 95% of the posts are places in México that don't really interest me or Costa Rica (same). Nice for Honduras to get a shout out! Happy trails!
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