by Gale Randall
photos by Kim Randall
Gale Randall is a frequent contributor to the Mexico File. She lives in Palo Alto, California.
We’re flying into the San Pedro Sula Airport, en route from Miami. The seatmate to my right, a blond North American, has pulled out a copy of Isabel Allende’s memoir, Paula, and we begin discussing how much we enjoy reading Allende. She suggests I also try Gioconda Belli’s, The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War, about Belli’s native Nicaragua. It turns out my seatmate is a Peace Corps volunteer working out of Copan Ruinas, our first Honduran destination. She volunteers that her Peace Corps project has entailed working with a group of Mayan Indians on small business development, that she’s enjoyed living in Copan and feels safe there. This friendly encounter turns out to be fairly typical of all our encounters in Honduras.
The Honduran trip has come about as a kind of compromise between my daughter and myself. Kim is addicted to diving and wants to dive off of Roatan, one of Honduras’ lovely Bay Islands. I’m nutty about ruins and antiquities, so visiting Copan is my goal. We decide to spend a few days at Copan and the remainder of the week on Roatan. We arrive in San Pedro too late for the Hedman Alas afternoon bus to Copan, so are met at the airport by Hector Cueva, owner of Trifunio Tours (www.copanhonduras.org), who has set up our entire stay in Copan. The 2½ hour drive out to Copan Ruinas takes us through intensely green mountainous country dotted by cornfields and banana plantations, cattle ranches and small hamlets. En route we pass through a colorful village funeral procession and just miss barreling into a herd of slow-moving cattle.
The colonial town of Copan Ruinas, nestled in coffee growing country and close to the Guatemalan border, turns out to be adorable – it’s just one kilometer up the hill from the actual Copan ruins and reminds me a bit of Oaxaca. Hector points out an internet café up the street from our hotel and deposits us at Don Udo’s, our digs for the night. A beautiful small colonial hotel centered around a grassy courtyard, Don Udo’s (www.donudos.com) is just one year old, comes highly recommended and is owned by a Dutchman! For our one evening in Copan we had planned to attend an authentic Mayan dinner at Hacienda San Lucas (www.haciendasanlucas.com), an eco lodge just outside of town, but for some quirky reason because it’s a primary election day, the inn has been closed, so no Mayan meal. What a disappointment! But the food at Don Udo’s turns out to be quite good.
The next morning Hector picks us up at Don Udo’s and takes us down to the ruins where he hands us over to Fredy, our guide at the archaeological park. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and often called the Athens of the Mayan World, Copan exhibits strong Olmec influences and is noted for its striking sculptures and stelae. Believed inhabited some 2,000 years B.C. and ruled by a dynasty of warrior / builders, Copan’s classic period lasted just a few hundred years, from 465 to 800 A.D. The archaeological park is an impressive place – lovely in a leafy kind of way and well run. At the entrance we spot a very tame flock of brilliant macaws perched on a fence and of course have to photograph them. After a long walk down a shady path we climb up to a group of buildings known as the Acropolis. We then move on to the Eastern Court, a three-sided building with courtyard and an intriguing jaguar sculpture set into one of the buildings. Fredy points out the entrance to an excavation area housing the famous Rosalila temple which was completely covered over by another pyramid and discovered intact in 1989. (And yet another pyramid, Margarita, has been found underneath Rosalila.) A true-scale reconstruction of Rosalila, a brilliant red temple, was put up in the park’s museum, which, most unfortunately, is closed during our visit. Kim and Fredy scramble to the top of one of the pyramids to view the Copan River below the ruins, while I gaze in wonderment at these ancient edifices. We all head down to the grand Ceremonial Plaza to view a partially covered hieroglyphic staircase, ball court, and some impressive stelae – my favorite being a turtle stela – and leave this incredible place, contemplating life here some 1,000 years ago.
We meet Hector at park headquarters and he takes us into town to visit a small archaeological museum on the plaza and then to lunch at the Marina Copan, another gorgeous in-town hotel. Then it’s back to San Pedro Sula and the short flights on small Islena (Taca) planes to Roatan, which is some 30 miles off the coast. The first flight takes us to La Ceiba, south of San Pedro, where we have to change planes for Coxen Hole, Roatan.
For our Roatan stay Kim has found what turns out to be a lovely, laid back place, the Paradise Beach Club (www.roatanvillas.com) at West Bay, Roatan’s most popular beach area. The resort is PADI certified and offers a combination of hotel rooms, villas and penthouses (our attractive room with all amenities, including a safe, is $90 a night, a reasonable rate for February in the Caribbean). Here Kim and I settle into a routine of sorts. Most mornings she takes off for diving expeditions while I follow a more mundane existence – wandering about taking pictures, swimming in the pool and gentle surf off of our beach, and plowing through the current Spanish bestseller, Shadow of the Wind. Kim returns from her dives excited by the marine life she’s glimpsed off of Roatan’s amazing barrier reef – enormous black grouper, angelfish, blue parrotfish, barracuda, crabs and lobster – and vows to return someday with a waterproof cover for her digital camera. She also tries some snorkeling, and we discuss going on an island excursion – to a swamp tour, a swim with dolphins, or a visit to an iguana farm. Somehow, though, we never make it to these activities. We often lunch at the casual resort next door, Cabana Roatan, where we get to know the gal who runs its drink stand. Originally from British Columbia, she tells us she followed her parents down here after they bought property on Roatan. It appears that, well past its heyday as a banana republic (and as a training ground for the Contras), Honduras is still getting a lot of foreign investment.
Sporting two vocal green parrots and a family of friendly orange cats, our resort has a good restaurant, offering a lot of seafood and typical Central American fare – plantains, fajitas and platos typicos – a lot like Mexican food. Some evenings it really gets lively, with folk singers entertaining one night and a troupe of Garifuna dancers on another occasion. Adding to the international mix here, the resort is run by an Italian who’s married to a Costa Rican and there’s a comical group of Italians currently in residence.
The morning of our return to the States, our cab doesn’t show up, so Rico, the charming hotel manager, drives us to the airport – a gesture very typical of the hospitality we experience here. Back in San Pedro Sula, the airport is a hive of activity – gringo divers, Honduran families and student groups headed to unknown destinations. Kim discovers the airport’s internet café and I engage in a long conversation with a pleasant young man who’s just moved to Tegucigalpa as a business liaison between the Canadian and Honduran governments. This turns out to be yet another friendly encounter in a friendly country. It appears Honduras has not yet been spoiled by mass tourism.
Back home in Palo Alto, I begin unpacking and pull out my small stash of Honduran souvenirs: a few bags of aromatic Honduran coffee, a shimmery plastic bracelet that resembles a band of blue seed pearls, two tiny hand crafted boxes, and assorted postcards. And I dream of a speedy return to this gorgeous, verdant, mountainous country.
If You Go
Accommodations in Copan Ruinas:
The 16 individually decorated rooms at Hotel Don Udo’s range from $30 to $80 per night, including a continental breakfast. All rooms have A/C, phones and hot showers. There’s a library, sauna, jacuzzi and sundeck on the property. Tel: 504-553-2675, 651-4527/33; fax: 557-2040. www.donudos.com
Also highly recommended is Hacienda San Lucas, on a 100-year-old family owned hacienda outside the town of Copan Ruinas. Rooms, with a full breakfast included, are from $50 to $80. The hacienda’s special Mayan dinners run $25 per person, including transport to and from the hacienda. Other activities include horseback riding, a visit to Los Sapos, the hacienda’s archaeological site, and hiking its nature trails. Tel/fax: 504-651-4496. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org ; www.haciendasanlucas.com
Hotel Marina Copan, a lovely in-town hotel near the central plaza, with pool and restaurant. Rooms range from $75 to $120. Tel: 504-651-4070; fax: 504-651-4477. Email: email@example.com; www.hotelmarinacopan.com
Paradise Beach Club, West Bay, Roatan. A full service resort with pool, restaurant, dive shop and beautiful tropical grounds. Double rooms run from $74 per night, villas from $167 per night. Tel: in USA, 1-800-291-0288; 504-455-5723, 995-8316. www.roatanvillas.com