Copan and the Western Honduran Highlands

Trip Length - 6 days
Destination - Copan and Lempira Districts, Hondura via Guatemala City
Highlights:
Getting from Guatemala City to Copan
The town of Copan Ruinas
The Mayan ruins at Copan Ruinas
Peripheral points of interest, including the Bird Park and Butterfly Place
Visiting other Western Honduran towns such as Santa Rosa de Copan and Gracias
Staying at an authentic agricultural finca (estate)

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In late 2013, I finally made it to Guatemala and fell in love with the country, the people, the culture, and the history. One of my regrets was not having enough time to make the trip to Copan, Honduras. So when I spotted a new non-stop United EWR-GUA flight that runs daily and was selling for only $350, I snapped up the chance to fly in and head in the other direction.

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Whether the bus or shuttle, the transfers into Copan leave around 5 in the morning from Guatemala City. Hedman Alas looked more comfortable, but had a reputation of being slower, and almost double the cost of the shared shuttles ($60+ vs. $30). I contacted Adrenalina Tours, a company I worked with in Guatemala, and made an easy Paypal booking to reserve my rides..

With a slight delay, I arrived at La Aurora Airport in Guatemala City around 10:30 at night. I had booked a night at the Barcelo to be in an easy area for pick-up and transit for the airport. La Aurora’s arrivals were as chaotic as always, with a massive traffic jam. I saw shuttles for the other hotels, but not the Barcelo. A man wandering around lent me his phone (for a small tip) and the shuttle only headed out after. I got to enjoy an additional wait while the driver waited for more passengers.

DSC_0007The Barcelo is less than 10 minutes from the airport, but my window for sleep slowly decreased more and more, and thank goodness for a fast check-in, as I rushed up to take in the view and get a few hours of sleep.

 

 

Guatemala City -> Copan Ruinas 

The shared shuttles start in Antigua, where most travelers are based, and then an hour later arrive in Guatemala City for any scheduled pick-ups. As I got into the vehicle, I realized I was the last man on. 2 people got the lucky seats with the driver. 4 people squeezed into the back, and then 2 other benches fit 3 people each, with the last bench having become a stockpile of backpacks and suitcases. I had the unfortunate luck of having a slightly larger woman on my bench, so I struggled to stay on the bench.

IMG_6045It was clearly a miserable ride for everyone, as they attempted to sleep trying to stick their heads on the bench in front of them with little luck. I was thankful to our driver, Victor, for giving us a half hour break at a restaurant a few hours into the drive on the Guatemalan side.

Between being deliriously tired and uncomfortable, I can’t say I noticed anything going on outside. The next break was at the border, with a fairly quick exit window out of Guatemala and an only slightly longer passport stamping and entry fee payment at the Honduras window. Trucks in transit snaked on the roads near the border, waiting for their turn.

After the border, it was less than 30 minutes until we arrived in Copan Ruinas, the town that shares the name of the actual Copan Ruins, not to be confused with the district of Copan, or the towns of Santa Rosa de Copan and San Pedro de Copan. So when someone says Copan, it could mean many different places.

My two seatmates had not made lodging arrangements, and when it became apparent they intended to have the shuttle driver stop and let them look at different options before they left the van, I grabbed my stuff, gave a sympathetic nod to Victor, and made my over to Hotel Marina Copan

Copan Ruinas Town

IMG_6259Copan Ruinas Town is small. I can’t imagine it taking more than 10-15 minutes to walk anywhere, BUT – watch out. As you head north in the town, the hills take over. Google Maps mistakenly pointed me up one of those hills, so as I dragged my stuff uphill and could not find the place, I stopped a good samaritan who gave me a sad look and pointed me straight back downhill.IMG_6107

I vary my lodging with every destination. In this case, I felt like a treat so hence the Hotel Marina Copan, probably the biggest and most well-known hotel in town. The Clarion had slightly better reviews, but when I saw that it was outside of town, my decision was made. You pay a premium, though…considering this is Honduras, $100USD~ a night is pretty steep.

IMG_6128For a traveler like me who generally likes to be comfortable, the place was charming. Large, open courtyards decked with fountains, flowers, trees, plants and even small lounges with unique decorations i.e. one was styled to look like an old-fashioned living area. Besides having a pool, it also has a 4th or 5th-level deck that looks out at the whole city.

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The rooms was old-fashioned, everything decked out in wood, and to be perfectly honest not really so much different than places I stayed in Guatemala and Nicaragua, just a bit more expensive with a bit of an odor – mildew? I think the main thing I cared about was an air-conditioner in the rainy season humidity.

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Copan Ruinas can be compared to Granada, Nicaragua; Antigua, Guatemala; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Casco Viejo in Panama City, and so on. A Spanish colonial-style town. As I took my walk around, I was charmed by how cute it is. Tiled roofs, colorful exteriors, and tuk-tuks plying the roads.

As expected, the town revolves around a Parque Central, which is where everyone comes to hang out, especially at night, when hawkers selling grilled meat and other food congregate along the side.IMG_6106

I never thought of Antigua or Granada as overly touristy. Locals far, far outnumbered the odd foreigner in those towns. Copan Ruinas is even less touristy. Despite the numerous hotels dotting the town, I saw very few Caucasian travelers roaming the streets. IMG_6056

Instead, my days in Copan brought me in contact with just a ton of Guatemalans who had come to take a mini-vacation over the border. That being said, a brown boy with gray contacts definitely attracted his share of attention.

 

 

IMG_6054The Parque Central has a Digital Museum and Archaeology Museum. Unless you are extremely bored or have a well-beyond-the-average-guy interest in Mayan history or the history of Copan, I would skip both. Honestly, besides the architecture, it is a a treat to just walk around and see local life. Take a stroll through the Mercado Central and observe how people shop. Stroll up the hilly streets until you reach houses with overgrown grass and chickens roaming around. Watch people at the barber, or sit in the Parque Central and watch the town’s dedicated pack of stray dogs have an orgy (that one was quite something).

Tea & Cacao

Out of sheer boredom, I looked up the Tea & Cacao Place. I mistakenly read it as Tea & Coffee and assumed it was a cafe. After a couple of uphill attempts to locate it, I came upon the almost hidden location. Google listed the hours as 4am-6am. I thought to myself – that must be a mistake! Well, kind of…it is only open from 4-6, but PM. As luck would have it, I stumbled upon there just before 4 as the door was being opened.

The Tea & Cacao Place is a family-run initiative where they sell and serve different teas and cacao products, and almost nothing else. The roasting of cacao and making of the tea of cacao are demonstrated, without feeling too gimmicky. Everything from a cacao rub for mosquito bites to chocolate truffles are sold in the shop.

I headed straight out to the beautiful deck to hang out and sip on an iced dried Citrus tea, as well as a hot Noni Leaf Tea (Te de Hoja de Noni). Complimentary were the Tea of Cacao and various cacao creations. It was just a great place to come and hang out with a book.

And the Ruins

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From the perspective of grandeur, I knew the ruins at Copan were nothing close to Tikal, which I visited back in 2013. From an artistic perspective, the sculpture and design work at Copan is the star attraction. Instead of looking out for mammoth structures, I learned to take a closer look at the artwork, of which much can still be easily observed. Copan Ruinas has covered many structures with roofs to prevent erosion, and many of the statues and other sculpture have been moved into the museum and replaced with replicas to be preserved.

 

IMG_6406While it is a bit of an eyesore, I applaud them for making those efforts to allow people in the future to keep seeing this piece of history. My Spanish is pretty good, but when it comes down to keeping up with detailed historic information and terms, I definitely was lost sometimes by my guide from the Copan Ruinas guides association.

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He was a well-meaning guy who wanted to me as much information as possible slowly, which I admired, but whether in English or Spanish, at some points it was a bit of information overload as he explained the concept of the sky gods, the Mayan rulers as the deities of the land and the underworld.

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Instead of walking into the main square, we started at the residences of the rulers and their families, making our way through ceremonial courts and even into the archaeological tunnels, which help to appreciate the excavation of structures build underneath, such as the Rosalilla Temple.

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The most renowned structure of this place is the incredible Hieroglyphics Staircase. The 66-step staircase is the longest known Mayan text in the world and the design work is incredible, even if darkened by the roof that has been placed over the entire structure.

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On the other hand, my favorite story was to hear about the famous Mayan Ballgame and it’s significance on sacred days and the human sacrifice that became part of it. There is some ambiguity on which parts of the body could be used to keep the rubber ball into play, whether it was just the hips or forearms and other objects to hit the ball.

I wouldn’t miss out on the museum at the ruins. Some of the best-preserved sculpture work is kept right in there, including many of the originals of the statues. Even a full-scale model of the Rosalilla Temple is included, with the deep red and other colors that would have been there at the time, almost hard to imagine with even the best-preserved stucco.

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Parque de Aves AKA Macaw Mountain

IMG_6452Just a couple of Km north of Copan Ruinas town is Parque de Aves (Bird Park), commonly known as Macaw Mountain. So scratch my notion that Macaw Mountain was a bird sanctuary where they freely fly. As the explanation began, I came to realize it is more of a rehabilitation center for birds who were kept as pets or confiscated from traffickers, with the goal to re-introduce them to full or partial independence, like the red macaws seen at the ruins, or at the least return them to a mentally healthy state where they are not plucking out their feathers out of boredom and frustration.

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The range of birds is incredible, from falcons and owls all the way to the beautiful toucans, and that too, with different variations. I have been to the Jurong Bird Park in Singapore, but this had a much different vibe. It wasn’t about being a type of zoo, but educating visitors on the purpose of the project and understanding more about these exotic birds.

The Butterflies

IMG_6256Having run out of options, I asked a tuk-tuk driver honestly what else there was to do. He took me to the Hotel and Mariposario Mayan Hills, just on the edge of town. After a quick explanation about the development of butterflies, I had free time in the greenhouse to just watch them. If you need something to do in Copan while killing time, this could be interesting. If you had been to butterfly houses before, maybe not so much.

 

Santa Rosa de Copan

IMG_6319The road between Copan Ruinas and Santa Rosa de Copan could be nicknamed avoid-the-pothole. It is in dreadful condition, leading to a good 2 1/2 hour journey for a rather small distance. The drive on the way, though, held some beautiful landscapes – lush greenery, mist-capped mountains, and cute small towns.

 

IMG_6318Santa Rosa de Copan is the administrative capital of Copan, so it has a much bigger feel than Ruinas. Some colonial architecture exists and some color, but I can’t say the town is worth more than a short stop. The central park is surrounded by a few historic buildings, including the main church, where people were starting to make their way out. But the treat for me was to be in time to watch a celebration of a professional syndicate society, complete with marimba, dancers and a little boy nicknamed “Rancherito” in full costume belting out three numbers in a row.

To be honest, if the festival was not ongoing, I don’t think exploring the town would have taken more than a couple of hours, so try to go on a Sunday. You never what even will be going on.

Gracias, Lempira

IMG_6326More than Santa Rosa de Copan, the town of Gracias in the neighboring district of Lempira is better-known for it’s colonial architecture. The town is also known for it’s different churches celebrating different saints, where special celebrations take place throughout the year focused on each one. The most intricate and ornate is Iglesia La Merced. I was pretty excited to visit, and guess what? I found out it is locked up except for Saturday mass. Bummer! I did get a visit to Iglesia San Marcos next to the main town square.

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Not quite so interesting from an aesthetic perspective, but still a lot of history. Plus, just like in Santa Rosa de Copan (referred to often as SRDC), Sunday meant outdoor festivals with vendors selling different foods and knickknacks and people enjoying the nice weekend day.

The historic district of Gracias can be covered in very little time. Andalusian-style buildings abound everywhere, with maybe even more charm than Copan Ruinas.

 

 

 

IMG_6331Uphill from the town is the other star attraction, Fuerte San Cristobal. The fort was constructed to provide protection against Spain’s enemies in the late 1800’s. It is not terribly large or grand, but the star-shaped fort is reasonably interesting for a an hour or two.

 

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It is nice they planted more trees below the fort. Unfortunately, the trees completely block the view of the town that once existed. Still, the other side has some great views of the Celaque National Park. But really, the most interesting aspect of the fort is how it has become more of a hang out spot for young couples in love.

And hey, I learned something – Gracias is named for Spanish soldier who exclaimed “Gracias a Dios” when they found this flat terrain in the mountainous highlands.

 

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For food, check out El Jarron across from Iglesia San Marcos for some inexpensive, buffet-style local food. Another interesting stop if you are a foodie is Envasados y Dulces Lorendiana, famous for it’s pickles and preserves of about everything, ranging from whole peaches to micro-chilis. I didn’t buy anything, but the owner was happy enough to let me sample a few things and just chit-chat about the places she wanted to visit.

 

Look, I liked Gracias, but I wouldn’t pretend to have been overwhelmed by it. Not being able to enter Iglesia La Merced was a pretty big disappoint,ent.

Overall, I think taking some time to visit the others town of Western Honduras is worth it, but definitely makes more sense to stay overnight somewhere and then span out into the lake, Celaque National Park, or even down to El Salvador.

Finca El Cisne

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One of the most wonderful experiences around Copan is the option to visit and/or stay at an agricultural estate. The two more famous ones are Finca El Cisne, an hour north of Copan Ruinas, and Hacienda San Lucas, just south of the town.

IMG_6335I was pleasantly surprised to find out Finca El Cisne was willing to accommodate a single traveler. When I was picked up by Carlos, whose family owns the Finca, I found out I was to be joined for the day with a friendly German couple who were not staying the night. I was pretty surprised as I imagined a place like this had a group there every single day, but I was the only one staying there, and when I talked to Carlos later, he mentioned that after the 2009 coup, tourism was pretty badly hit and does not seem to have recovered, so that people really only come out a few times a week, and that too usually small groups.

IMG_6337Like the drive down to Santa Rosa de Copan, the drive north heads up into higher terrain with beautiful landscapes of coffee, corn and a host of other agricultural products. We were amused when a cattle drive gone wrong was blocking the road, and the cows began licking the truck. With the rainy reason, a major gap formed in the dirt road that was being filled in as we headed up. The workers had to quickly set some rocks in-between with wooden board to make a temporary ramp for the truck to pass.

IMG_6281The day started with a quick demo of some of the products of the finca, such as the different types of cacao, which let us taste the fruit, and Carlos basically let us sample a little bit of all of the different local fruit near the family home, before a truly exciting discovery known as the “magic fruit”. Apparently, this fruit gives a sweet taste to everything afterward, so we experimented by eating limes as if they were oranges. It was pretty incredible.

IMG_6338But the highlight was next – a horseback ride through the Finca. It was actually my first time on a horse, so I was a tad bit nervous, but after a quick walkthrough, I think I picked up on it fairly quick. It probably helped that these were extremely well-disciplined horses who followed the leader, so a lot of it felt like auto-pilot.

IMG_6292We took a few stops to count the cattle and try a few of the other crops, but otherwise it was just picture-perfect countryside.

Again with the auto-pilot, towards the end, the horses began breaking into a trot with each other. I just held on and assumed they were headed in the right direction.

 

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Besides a walkthrough of their coffee process, we were treated to a heavy lunch with everything from achiote chicken to fried yuca with a radish relish and chocolate fresh from the estate. We were stuffed, with the finca coffee being our only pick me up.

Carlos took us over to the Luna Jaguar Spa (Aguas Termales) close by the Finca. I highly recommend this spot. There were a series of hot and cold pools, set up in a slightly tacky but cute Mayan-inspired motif. The best part was the shade covering all of the pools, keeping us out of the elements, and it was not crowded at all, with a blend of tourists (the most I had seen in one place anywhere on this trip!) soaking up the waters.

DCIM131GOPROSome of the pools were downright scalding hot, so much that people couldn’t even attempt to go in the water. I actually found the cold pools incredibly refreshing.

 

 

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While Tom and Laura from Germany were on the bus back to Copan, I headed over with Carlos to my new digs. I had the whole place to myself, with just the caretaker/administrator Wilson (whose wife and daughter had come in for the week). It was fun hanging out and talking to them, besides taking a stroll through the mud down to the river. Carlos swung by to join me for a much lighter dinner and breakfast. The only noise around was the sound of the rain at night, and the only sight after dark the fireflies lighting up. The roosters woke me up in the morning, so Wilson invited me to help milk the cows, an interesting experience for a guy who has spent his live in the suburbs or a city.

 

Back to Guatemala City

DSC_0515I was dreading the ride back to Guatemala City. The first thing I asked Victor when he pulled up was “Hoy cuantas personas hay?” when I saw nobody else in the van, assuming I was the first to be picked up. He smiled and told me that I was the only one. I sat up front, rolled down the window, reclined the seat and was ready to enjoy the ride. It was a perfect day. DSC_0522

I breezed through the border, and while the ride in was 6 1/2 hours with a 30-minute breakfast break, I arrived back in Guatemala City in 4 1/2 hours with just a couple of breaks – a quick bathroom break by the side of the highway and of course, the famous coconuts by the side of CA10.

DSC_0549In order to avoid the traffic in Zone 9/10, the drop-off point for me was at the Tikal Futura Hotel and Casino, basically a shopping mall for all intensive purposes less than 10 minutes from the airport. The place was as uninteresting as any other shopping anywhere else in the world, and even though my bag was small, there was nowhere to store it, so it became annoying to take it with me around this mall.

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It wasn’t even worth it to head back to Zone 9/10. I was exhausted and famished at that point, so I wound up dining at the hotel’s restaurant, Hibiscus. Oh boy, talk about New York City prices in Honduras, and waiters who practically insist on speaking in English. The food was good, but I realized later the place had a much less expensive food court of all the typical junk I get at home – Taco Bell, greasy Chinese, and more – yuck! I was so bored hanging around the Tikal Futura I went to the airport super early, thinking I’d kill the time there.

On a side note – I have flown into Guatemala City about 6 times now, and have never actually gotten the time to explore the city during the day and hope I get the chance one day, even if the reviews are not so great.

Lesson learned – La Aurora basically shuts down by 6-7. Almost every store and restaurant was closed. I looked at the departures board and understood why. Aside my homebound flight to EWR, there was only one other evening flight.

Dining in Copan Ruinas Town

  • Cafe San Rafael 4/5

More of a cafe than a restaurant, but they had a big menu of grilled cheese sandwiches and cheese platter that would be great for a quick lunch. Quick service.

  • ViaVia Cafe 4/5

Was surprisingly pretty empty. I expected it to be this packed backpacker bar based on what I was told, but it wasn’t busy at all. Friendly staff, and as it started pouring I decided to grab dinner here, which was a pretty decent mixed grill with good accompaniments.

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  • Asados Copan 5/5*

The extreme amount of grilled onions on the onion steak was shocking, but delicious. This place is really friendly with delicious, well-seasoned meat and the service was really fast.

  • Cafe Welchez 4/5

Definitely pricey coffee and desserts by Honduran standards, but along with San Rafael and Ixchel, this is one of the spots known for using good-quality coffee.

  • Carnitas Nia Lola 1/5

The absolute worst gimmick of a restaurant ever where they make the waitstaff balance bottles on their head as a cheesy, humiliating gimmick. Service so slow I was in pain. Awful poorly-seasoned food, and I had to get up and go downstairs to pay my check just to avoid waiting another half hour.

  • British Colonial House 5/5*

With Twisted and the German restaurant shut on a Sunday night, I headed to British Colonial House. I was a little skeptical seeing the outside, but it has a cute garden and the biggest surprise was the food. Freshly prepared, nicely-presented with garnish, and at least for my Chicken Mole, delicious. I think the Danish chef keeps the menu small to stick to dishes that can be freshly prepared and will work with the ingredients at hand.

Solo Traveler Comments:

Pros

  • Like Guatemala, the solo traveler in Copan is likely to feel more welcome than in any tourist-crazy location, whether in restaurants or just exploring. You may even be a novelty getting further away from Copan Ruinas into the other towns, where visitors are rare.
  • I actually experienced zero harassment. The lack of heavy tourism seems to have kept people from trying to badger you. No one will be bugging you to buy things on the street or following you.
  • You can explore the town of Copan Ruinas on foot or by inexpensive tuk-tuk. Even for the ruins, Macaw Mountain, etc…you could simply use tuk-tuk and arrange guides if you wish without a lot of cost or hassle to you as a solo traveler.
  • There are at least some shared shuttle public transportation options between Copan Ruinas and the other towns, with more expensive Hedman Alas buses to San Pedro Sula and beyond.

Cons

  • Unlike more well-frequented spots in Guatemala, less expensive group activities seemed almost non-existent. Unless you manage to group 2-3 people together, a few companies won’t do anything without a minimum of 2 people, or for a private activity, will charge a rather exorbitant amount.
  • Compared to Antigua, you may feel a little bit more odd dining out alone or hanging out on your own. The vast majority of visitors I encountered were from Guatemala, traveling in a large family unit.
  • That being said, you are also likely to get looks of curiosity. I suspect in my case it may have even been more about people having no clue what I was exactly.
  • So a couple of places were recommended for meeting other travelers – Via Via and Twisted. I went to both in the evening and they were practically empty. I ended up talking to the bar staff instead!
  • Many of the restaurants close on Sunday, some even on Monday.

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