Copán Ruinas, Honduras

Two armed guards are positioned in front of the little bank across the street from where I’m having my afternoon mocha (coffee mixed with hot chocolate) in the corner of the town plaza (the parque) in Copán Ruinas, Honduras. Although the guards are civilian, their outfit is military all the way through, but they are relaxed and chat amiably with each other in the afternoon sun. Still, their mere presence makes me wonder what would happen should somebody try to rob the bank. Most probably, any action would wound or kill more innocent bystanders than culprits.

Twin sisters in the front, armed bros in the back

In Central America, all the way from Mexico through Guatemala and Honduras, even the Coca-Cola delivery truck has an armed guard to secure the goods, but once you learn to ignore their presence, the special Latin American feeling of relaxation permeates the towns.

In all of Latin America the central plaza is a perfect square usually dominated by the church, the police headquarters, the municipality, and the bank or another semi-official building enclosing a rest area with benches between patches of flowerbeds, often framed by ornamented, low railings. The grid-like ordinance of the city streets was ordered in the early 1500s by the Spanish king Felipe 2. who wanted to establish order in the otherwise chaotic New Spain. (Leyes de Burgos, 1512, el acta de fundación): “Begin by laying out a central square to locate the church and the government. Then add another square in the same manner, then another, etc.” This was the beginning of the grid iron that is seen in many American cities - in other words, not a North American invention.

The royal ordinance that ordered the layout of cities in Nueva España
(from the archives in Seville, Spain)

From my vantage point on the corner of the central square in Copán Ruinas I watch life drift by. The ubiquitous street vendors deftly avoid the motorbike tuc-tucs that serve as cheap taxis, and as the twilight sets in around 5 p.m. more and more people gather in the “parque”, including the overdressed girls that strut and parade their good looks in front of the youngsters squatting on the concrete foundations of the railings. Three girls circle the parameter on a noisy buggy with enormous wheels, waving at the onlookers as they pass by. And they are looked at since there’s nothing else going on, or, rather, watching and being admired is what it is all about.

Copán Ruinas has its share of international tourists due to the world famous ruins of a Mayan dynasty founded some 
1500 years ago by Yax K’uk’ Mo:

Yax K’uk’ Mo is said to have come from a far away land (Mexico?)

The bulk of the ruins was not discovered until the 1990s; in fact, they cover an area of 24 km2 (close to 10 square miles), including not only temples and residences for the king, his family and concubines, the priests and the scribes, but also the ruins of the homes of their servants and their families. In the local museum the finds in their graves are on display, but the most interesting parts are actually the stelae (upright carved stones) and altars with hieroglyphs telling the story of the dynasty of 16 kings.

The altar shows the succession of the 16 kings of the dynasty, four on each side

The site is overwhelming in its many-faceted splendor. Like Gen. Patton when he visited the battle field at Cannae and felt History breathing down his neck, I can easily imagine the less than 5-foot tall Mayans populating the squares, doing their daily business and routines out-of-doors – indoors we see the stone beds where the families slept on straw mats and covered in furs.

Since the reading of the glyphs took speed in later years, much is known about the Mayas, the dynasty and the characteristics of each of its 16 kings. But the most interesting thing of all is probably the discovery of smaller and older temples inside the bigger ones, some of which have even retained their coloring (usually red). Thus the second temple of seven was found intact, and a replica has been erected in the museum. In the original temple grounds a tunnel system leads the visitor to the inner chambers.

Back in the city the tourists move from the central square and towards the many restaurants some of which offer “homely” specialities as if they’ve had too much of Honduran atmosphere. Busloads of tourists occupy the most San Francisco-like waterholes, and we keep on walking until we find a suitable place with delicious Honduran items on the menu.

A pleasant courtyard coffee bar and restaurant

Copán Ruinas is a modern mix of tourism and sleepy town with a five-star attraction in its midst. But there is more to see: outside the city is a bird refuge (they even take in “stressed” birds from other unnatural habitats), and close by is a village with a women’s workshop which produces small dolls made from corn leaves.

On the five-hour bus journey back to Guatemala City we try to embrace the impressions of our three day visit, but although we took our time to digest the information of a distant past, it is still almost too big for words. Copán Ruinas is a must-see if we want to understand Mayan culture.

View of the sacred ball court (pelota) from the top of the great temple

Erik Moldrup
November 2007