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Copan, Honduras — A Colorful Cultural Destination

Author: Jamie G.
Date of Trip: January 2007

The sound of marimba music rises up off of the cobblestone streets and mixes with the aroma of spiced meats and fresh tortillas being grilled on the street corners, and the voices of townspeople sharing the day in the town plaza. As locals would say, it’s a “typical” day in Copan, the heart of activity in northwestern Honduras.

Copan seems like what I heard Mexico was like 30 or 35 years ago before you could shop at the Gap or Wal-Mart; the days before a hamburger and fries cost you $15 U.S. It is intimate, friendly and colorful. Copan’s narrow streets, brightly colored buildings, numerous cafes, restaurants, hotels and shops are a lively example of rural Honduras mixed with the hustle and bustle of a larger town.

It’s a picturesque spot set against low-rising mountains, and it’s an artistic town. Wood and stone carvings, corn-husk dolls and handmade leather trinkets are available everywhere and anywhere. You may have to haggle a bit on prices, but the locals are incredibly kind and fair. Everywhere you look there are intricate carvings and colorful representations of the land, agriculture or animals.

The original town site of Copan, no more than half a mile from the present-day setting, is an ancient city, at its peak once home to nearly 30,000 Mayas around 800 A.D. When the city was mysteriously abandoned. Most of the population was moved to the northeast to its current location. Current-day Copan is far from 30,000 that once lived in the in the original city, now the ancient Maya ruins of Copan. About 5,000 people live in the current location, with another 20,000 scattered in the hillsides throughout the region.

The vegetation defies manmade structure. When archaeologists first started looking for the ancient Copan civilization, they found only large mounds of earth and foliage. The abundant surroundings had reclaimed the landscape and covered the temples. Over the last 100 years, the dense underbrush and earthen layers have been removed to uncover the once-thriving Mayan culture.

Honduran hospitality being what it is, it isn’t surprising that tourism came up quite incidentally. A few local families helped out visiting archaeologists with food and lodging when they first arrived in Copan and were visiting the ruins site. Many of those early visitors were greeted by the family of Dona Marina Villamil de Welchez, who opened her home to them.

By the mid 40’s the family of Dona Marina decided to construct a modest, yet comfortable lodge for the growing number of visitors. The Hotel Marina Copan was named in honor of Dona Marina and the hotel was built on the site of her family home in 1945.

The Hotel Marina Copan is a beautiful, quaint yet elegant jewel strategically located in the heart of downtown Copan. Over the past 60 years, the hotel has added rooms and expanded to meet the needs of travelers from all over the world. Yet it still retains a magnificent sense of Old World charm, with deep grained woods, colorful ceramic tile and bright plaster surrounding abundant natural courtyard gardens and a swimming pool that blends in naturally and subtly. My room was on the top of the three-floor building and it had spectacular views of the town — a myriad of intersecting red-tiled rooftops, and the lush surrounding mountains.

The tall tropical trees and the elevation of Copan evidently make it excellent coffee and pineapple growing country. The Welchez family also operate a coffee farm, or finca, just a few miles out of Copan: Finca Santa Isabel. You can be taken by horseback or ride in a funky coffee wagon to the top of the site, and then take a walking tour down into the plantation guides will introduce you to an abundance of plants, over 150 species of birds and other animal life which inhabit this system.

Throughout the ruins of Copan and recorded in the glyphs, stelaes and monuments is the scarlet macaw. The bird was revered by the ancient Maya as a source of great power. The scarlet macaw is still revered by Hondurans, and can be found in its natural habitat among over 330 identified species of birds in the area. I had to see some of these marvelous creatures ands found out about the Macaw Mountain Bird Park and Nature Reserve, an exciting new conservation project, just outside Copan. It lets visitors stroll along forest trails viewing brilliant multi-colored parrots, macaws and toucans, and other some rare and endangered birds.

Copan is an interesting mix of ancient tradition mixed with New World savvy. They have found that delicate mix of being able to show visitors their beautiful world, but without destroying that which makes it so unique. But it is also a very mystical place that Hondurans revere, that they willingly share with people from all over the world. It is a humble, safe and secure place with a prideful past. It is a society whose Old World charm can still be experienced in a world that has become all together too similar.

You can get to Copan easily by air as the closest airport, in San Pedro Sula, is regularly served by major international airlines with direct flights from Miami, Houston and Los Angeles. It is a scenic, comfortable trip on paved roads in excellent condition 2.5 hours to Copan.

Other airports are in Guatemala City, Guatemala (4 hours’ drive) and San Salvador, El Salvador (4.5 hours’ drive).

Charter service can be arranged to Copan’s airstrip. Rental cars are available at the airports and buses travel regularly from San Pedro Sula and other major cities.

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