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Valley of the Dammed? – Cangrejal Valley, Honduras

We arrived in the Cangrejal Valley at a bad time. A company called Hydro Honduras had their eye on the Cangrejal River which is the heartbeat of this valley outside the grotty town of La Ceiba in Northern Honduras. For more than a decade businessmen had been sniffing around the valley with plans to dam the river in order to produce hydroelectric power. A fresh batch of greased palms had suddenly spurred the project into overdrive and concerned locals were circling the wagons.

Congrejal Valley, Honduras

The Cangrejal River–target of hydroelectric dam builders–in the Cangrejal Valley in Honduras.

 

Damn the dam

Local children in the Cangrejal Velley, Honduras

Local children in the Cangrejal Valley in Honduras.

We sat in on a meeting of hotel and tour company owners as they shared the latest information and consolidated their position against the dam which would alter the  Cangrejal River and would include diversion pipelines that would cut through adjacent jungle.

The tourism business owners (a mix of locals and long-time expats) worried that the dam would mean the end of rafting trips, a primary source of tourist income in the region. A dam would change the natural dynamics of the Pico Bonito National Park, through which the Cangrejal River currently flows. A dam would affect access to fresh water and fish for the people living in the scrappy little villages in the valley.

Up to this point the dam project in the Cangrejal Valley had progressed pretty much like dam projects everywhere: the dam’s proponents had all the political sway, cash and organization while the dam’s opponents struggled to have their voices heard (mainly alleging that the Cangrejal dam project did not meet environmental sensitivity standards). The meeting we attended seemed like a turning point with valley residents putting their money where their mouths were, pooling funds to retain a lawyer to help level the playing field and keep them in the loop regarding developments in far away board rooms.

We hope a reasonable outcome can be reached, but it might be best to move the Cangrejal Valley up a bit higher on your travel to-do list if you want to enjoy all of its watery fun.

Your own private waterfall

Las Cascadas Lodge - Congrejal Valley, Honduras

The pool at Las Cascadas Lodge in the Cangrejal Valley in Honduras is lovely, but it’s over-shadowed by the waterfalls on the property.

Las Cascadas Lodge - Congrejal Valley, Honduras

Privacy and a lovely natural plunge pool make this waterfall, on the Las Cascadas Lodge property, an ideal skinny-dipping spot (Karen kept her clothes on for this picture, don’t worry).

If you had a rich uncle with a vacation spread in the Cangrejal Valley it would probably be something like Las Cascadas Lodge. This elegant retreat near the head of the valley has a main house (originally built as a residence) with an open kitchen/dining/living area and two rooms. An adjacent thatch-roof bungalow with a screened patio, built-in tub and outdoor shower was built later.

The place is aptly named. There’s a cascada (the Spanish word for waterfall) tumbling and rumbling just a few feet away from the main house. A 20 minute walk up a pleasant trail delivers you to another waterfall with the privacy and natural plunge pool that make it perfect for skinny dipping.

 

 

Riverside yoga

Built on the banks of the Cangrejal River, Casa Verde uses the valley’s tumbling water as a backdrop for their yoga and raw food retreats. Through a series of serendipitous, meant-to-be “accidents,” Wendy Green (a successful yoga instructor from New Jersey) purchased Casa Verde, then sold her home to the previous owner.

She now offers yoga classes (200L or about US$10) and full-on yoga/raw food/wellness retreats with her partner Garth. Casa Verde has a supremely peaceful setting, a wonderful outdoor shower constructed like the inner spiral of a conch shell, loads of fruit trees and the best composting toilet we’ve ever seen.

We took an early morning yoga class with Wendy and she managed to give even lapsed beginners like us a glimpse of the benefits she’s offering on the banks of the river. It didn’t hurt that our hour-long class was quietly observed by a toucan in a nearby tree.

Over the river and through the woods

Swinging bridge - Pico Bonito National Park, Honduras

This swinging bridge above the Cangrejal River is a dramatic way to enter Pico Bonito National Park in Honduras.

It’s always fun entering a national park, but the Cangrejal Valley entrance to Pico Bonito National Park, home to 7,988 foot (2,435 meter) Pico Bonito and a mind-boggling list of wildlife (including jaguars), takes the cake.

To enter the second largest protected area in Honduras you have to walk across a 395 foot (120 meter) long swinging bridge suspended across a gorge above the roiling Rio Cangrejal. Before the bridge was built the only way into the park at this entrance was in a bucket pulled across on pulleys.

 

 

 

 

River rafting pioneers

Twenty years ago a big German rafter named Udo came to the Cangrejal Valley to scout the Cangrejal River to determine if rafting trips could be run on it. The answer was yes and Udo and his wife Silvia decided to stay. They started Omega Tours and pioneered river rafting in the Cangrejal Valley.

Rafting - Cangrejal River, Honduras

Rafting on the Cangrejal River in Honduras with Omega Tours.

Udo and Silvia’s river trips are still the most popular in the region. When we were there water levels were slightly low but guides kept the rafting trip adrenaline level high by incorporating canyoneering, bouldering and dramatic jumps into the river as well as traditional rafting. We also loved the fact that Udo and Silvia are working hard to train valley locals as river guides instead of just hiring guides from overseas.

Canyoneering - Cangrejal River, Honduras

Bouldering and canyoneering up the adrenaline level of river rafting trips with Omega Tours in the Cangrejal Valley in Honduras. That’s Eric leaping into the Cangrejal River.

Boulder jumping - Cangrejal River, Honduras

We climbed up this house-sized boulder then jumped off into the river as part of our rafting trip on the Cangrejal River with Omega Tours.

Over the years Omega has expanded to include a wide range of accommodations (from super-clean dorms to two fancy two-story bungalows), a delicious (if a bit pricey) restaurant, a lively bar and a wonderful river-fed swimming pool (no chlorine!).

If rafting isn’t your thing, Silvia also keeps a small stable of horses and she loves to lead rides through the valley.

Omega Tours Rafting - Cangrejal River, Honduras

Eric and his brother Jeff, ready for the rapids. 

Though the word cangrejal means crab in Spanish, we didn’t see any when we were in the valley. We did see a lot of toucans, however, including one sitting next to the dirt road which runs through the valley–by far the closest sighting we’ve had.

The nearby Lodge at Pico Bonito was undergoing a management shift and general overhaul when we were there but the place was still a bird-watching hot spot. We saw dozens of species and, yes, more toucans including a nesting pair which we were able to observe as they used that massive bills to clean out the mess made by a nest full of toucan chicks.

Toucan Nest - Lodge at Pico Bonito, Honduras

This toucan was busy cleaning house on the bird-filled grounds of the Lodge at Pico Bonito hotel in Honduras.

Northern Potoo - Lodge at Pico Bonito, Honduras

Yes, those two drab lumps are birds. Northern potoos, to be exact. Just one of the fabulous bird species we saw on the grounds of the Lodge at Pico Bonito hotel in Honduras.

 

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How to Ruin an Island – Roatán, Honduras

We believe there absolutely was a time when Roatán Island, part of a collection of islands in Honduras called the Bay Islands, was a paradise of white sand beaches, laid back locals, pristine waters and affordable prices. Sadly, those days are over thanks to a few buzz kill developments.

Two words: vomit comet

Of course getting to any island is part of the adventure. But when your transport is nicknamed the “vomit comet,” requires a pass through a metal detector and costs US$28 per person each way (plus $6 a day for parking if you leave a vehicle behind like we did) it’s not necessarily a good adventure.

And that nickname? Not for nothing. The waters between the ferry station in the dingy town of La Ceiba and the island of Roatán can get choppy and the ferry is fast and essentially just blasts through the swells. We have strong stomachs for the most part, but other passengers were doing plenty of up-chucking on our one and a half hour ride to the island.

The crew is prepared, however. Air freshener is sprayed like crazy and there’s a constantly circulating gang of workers toting garbage bags, handing out fresh puke bags and urging the sick to go buy a tummy-settling soda at the on board refreshment stand. We dubbed them the Puke Patrol.

Or you could fly.

Develop a mini Cancun complex

The West End of Roatán, where the aforementioned stretches of pristine white beaches used to beckon, is now built up shoulder-to-shoulder with resorts that range from fairly good to something less than mediocre. Many of them have gone the all-inclusive route complete with wrist bands and watered down cocktails.

Though its estimated that 60,000 people live on Roatán you’d be hard-pressed to find many signs of non-resort island life.

Roatan white sand beaches - West End

The white sand beaches of Roatán Island in Honduras are at risk from all-inclusive resorts and increasing numbers of cruise ship passengers.

 

Sell your soul to the cruise ship companies

The very first thing we saw as our ferry finally reached Roatán wasn’t beaches, or the surprisingly high hills and dense jungle on the geographically diverse island. It wasn’t a charming village or even a charming port. The first thing we saw as we approached Roatán was a Carnival Cruise Ship that dwarfed the 37 mile long and five mile wide island.

The second thing we saw was the mini-city that Carnival finished in 2010. Built right at the port it seems purpose-made to disgorge and sequester cruise ship passengers–and there are hundreds of thousands of them and increasing every year.

In 2006, 250,000 cruise ship passengers arrived on Roatán. In the first six months of 2011 430,000 people arrived on cruise ships. That number is expected to skyrocket to 1 million cruise ship passenger arrivals in 2012.

Many of the passengers pass through Cruise Shiplandia–aka Mahogany Bay, a $63 million complex/staging area. From there they can get  on the so-called “magic flying chair” (a chair lift that costs $35 a pop) and travel to a man-made beach. Passengers can also choose to get on buses or other transport which whisks them to the zip lines, butterfly farms and horseback riding operations they’ve paid to take part in for the day.

An entire section of the West End beach has been taken over by an enormous holding area for hundreds of white plastic beach loungers just waiting for cruise ship passengers who prefer suntan oil to adrenaline.

Carnival cruise Mahogony Bay Roatan, Honduras

The Carnival Dream cruise ship dwarfs Roatán Island in Honduras. More than a million cruise ship passengers are expected on the island this year.

 

There are still some bright spots underwater

At one point Roatán was well-known for its diving too. After being so disappointed with what was going on on dry land we were prepared to be disappointed underwater too but we still gratefully accepted invitations to go diving with two dive shops on the island

We had some decent dives with a professional and well-stocked dive shop called Mayan Divers around the El Aquila Wreck and Half Moon Bay Wall where we drifted lazily with turtles and barracuda. Their dive masters and very comfortable dive boat made the day even better.

Mayan Divers Roatan, Honduras

Getting ready to go diving with Mayan Divers on Roatán Island in Honduras.

On the East End of the island we also did some diving with Subway Watersports, a PADI 5-Star shop that operates out of the not-fancy but surprisingly charming Turquoise Bay Resort. Though it could use a coat of paint, the food was good and we were charmed by the simple rooms each with its own marine theme.

The standout site on this side of the island was a place called Dolphin’s Den, a shallow-water cave where six dolphins became trapped and died a few years ago. What seemed like millions of fish undulated through sun-dappled water in the confined space.

Roatan transportation

Roatán water taxis still retain their charm. 

And Roatán is the only island we’ve ever been on where you can go down in a homemade submarine. Karl Stanley built a submarine, named it IDABEL and now takes passengers with him into the deep. He’ll take you down to 2,000 feet if you want…

Perhaps the thing we liked best about Roatán is that in 2011 Honduran President Porfirio Lobo Sosa created a permanent shark sanctuary which encompasses 92,665 square miles (240,000 square kilometers) of Honduran waters, including Roatán, and aims to reduce the number of sharks killed each year.

Oh, and something else on the plus side? The town near the ferry terminal on Roatán is called Coxen Hole. Yep.

Palmetto Bay - Roatan, Honduras

Karen’s cool office at Palmetto Bay Resort on the quiet side of Roatán Island.

 

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The Beverly Hills of Copán – Las Sepulturas and El Puente Archaeological Sites, Honduras

The Copán archaeological site is one of the top tourist attractions in Honduras and for good reason. Sadly, only a fraction of the visitors to Copán visit a little gem of a site located right next door (you can easily walk to it from the Copán site and your Copán ticket gets you in). It’s called Las Sepulturas and archeologists believe it was the Beverly Hills of Copán.

We’ve visited more than 60 Mayan sites and wandered around the residential areas at many of them. However, we never understood or appreciated the intricacies of day-to-day Mayan life until we visited Las Sepulturas with Mr. Perez who has worked with archaeologists at the site for years and works as a guide in his free time (+ 502 9699 5647, Spanish only).

Guide - Las Sepulturas, Copan, Honduras

Mr. Perez, our guide at Las Sepulturas archaeological site in Honduras, pointed out all the quirks and customs that existed in this residential area of the Mayan city of Copán.

 

The world’s first do-not-disturb signs

Mr. Perez told us that having mistresses was de rigeur for the upper class of Copán, but how can you keep your other wives and mistresses from walking in on you having sex? One of the nobles who lived at Las Sepulturas was famed leader 18 Rabbit who was believed to have had at least 15 concubines.

To avoid awkward situations, the Mayans invented what must be the world’s first do-not-disturb signs which they hung in front of their houses to make it clear that they were busy.

Houses of elite - Las Sepulturas, Copan, Honduras

Las Sepulturas was home to the upper class of the Mayan city of Copán and their houses were built and decorated accordingly. 

relief decoration - Las Sepulturas, Copan, Honduras

Fancy relief work like this stone carving was found in the homes of Las Sepulturas where the upper class of the Mayan city of Copán lived. 

 

Bizarre burial rites

Las Sepulturas means The Tombs because the residents (and, perhaps, all Mayans) had some pretty quirky burial customs which dictated the position of the corpse (fetal, laying down, standing up, etc) and the cardinal point it was meant to face.

At Las Sepulturas human remains have been found in special tombs built under beds and buried in courtyards around the houses of Las Sepulturas. One woman believed to have been of very  high rank was found buried in a standing position underneath a central plaza.

Bed - Las Sepulturas, Copan, Honduras

This stone structure covered in layers of plaster was a bed. It would have been covered with a mattress made from fluffy fibers produced by the sacred ceiba tree and maybe even draped with a jaguar skin. Family members were buried under beds like this which gives the Las Sepulturas site its name.

 

Home improvement

Red dye - Las Sepulturas, Copan, Honduras

Crushed leaves give up a natural red dye which the Mayans used to color the plaster they applied throughout the homes in the Las Sepulturas archaeological site. 

Mayans were just as clever with their homes as they were with their temples, calendars, stelae, stairways and sculpture. Mr. Perez pointed out the smoothness and durability of original plaster work, some of which is still visible, explained how the Mayans used the cotton-like fluff produced by the sacred ceiba tree (also called a cotton tree) to make mattresses and pillows (which were sometimes covered with jaguar pelts) and demonstrated how the leaves of another tree were crushed to created a vibrant red dye that was used like paint. The homes in Las Sepulturas even had indoor bathrooms with intricate drainage systems.

relief decoration - Las Sepulturas, Copan, Honduras

More relief decoration inside the remains of a nobleman’s home in the Las Sepulturas archaeological site in Honduras.

Structures - Las Sepulturas, Copan, Honduras

The remains of structures at the Las Sepulturas archaeological site in Honduras where the upper class from the Mayan city of Copán lived. 

 

El Puente archaelogical site

El Puente Mayan site, Honduras

Only a handful of the 200+ structures at the El Puente archaeological site in Honduras have been excavated.

El Puente Mayan site, Honduras

Excavation work inside a pyramid at El Puente archaeological site in Honduras revealed an earlier temple inside.

You can’t walk there, but El Puente archaeological site is another stop that will enhance your understanding of Copán. About 40 miles (60 kilometers) from Copán, El Puente is the second largest Mayan site in Honduras (after Copán) with more than 200 structures, though less than 10 are excavated. Archaeologists tell us that El Puente was it’s own city but was eventually absorbed into Copán.

We parked at the entrance, toured the small museum then walked about half a mile (1 kilometer) down a pleasant dirt road between fields to reach the small excavated plaza of El Puente.

 

 

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Inside the Sculpture Museum of Copán – Copán Archaeological Site, Honduras

The Sculpture Museum of Copán at the Copán archaeological site in Honduras may lack the romantic ambiance and sense of history of the site itself. However, the museum is home to the best original sculpture and architecture the Mayans of Copán produced and it should be an integral part of your visit to the UNESCO World Heritage site.

You enter the museum through a dramatic tunnel meant to mimic the experience archaeologists had while exploring the site. Inside, originals (and a few replicas) of Copán’s very best finds, including a full-size replica of the vibrant Rosalila structure, are well-displayed and easy to check out.

Absolutely worth the US$7 entry fee to see nearly 60 exhibits with more than 3,000 pieces of sculpture plus six restored buildings and some of the most important stelae from the site.

Here are some highlights.

Reconstruction of the Rosalila Temple

This reconstruction of the Rosalila Temple is what greets visitors to the Sculpture Museum of Copán next to the archaeological site in Honduras. The replica was created based on findings archaeologists made after studying the time-worn original which remains buried within Temple 16 at the Copán site itself. 

Rosalila Temple - Sculpture Museum, Copan, Honduras

The back of the reconstructed Rosalila Temple in the center of the Sculpture Museum of Copán in Honduras.

Stucco relief on Rosalila Temple - Sculpture Museum, Copan, Honduras

A stucco relief on the reconstruction of the Rosalila Temple, the centerpiece of the Sculpture Museum of Copán which is located right next to the archaeological site itself.

Mayn rain god Chaac with waterbirds sculpture - Sculpture Museum, Copan, Honduras

High quality sculpure is one of the things the Mayan city of Copán was known for. These intricately carved depictions of the Mayan rain god Chaac (center) and various waterbirds are original and on display in the on-site Sculpture Museum of Copán.

Tlaloc sculpture - Sculpture Museum, Copan, Honduras

Part of Structure 16 is preserved inside the Sculpture Museum of Copán, including this sculpture of the Mayan god Tlaloc which formed part of an ancient stairway. 

Macaw Heads - Sculpture Museum, Copan, Honduras

The Mayans revered scarlet macaws and this excellent original sculpture of a macaw in flight can be seen in the Sculpture Museum of Copán in Honduras.

Macaw Heads - Sculpture Museum, Copan, Honduras

The Mayans revered scarlet macaws and these macaw heads carved out of stone by the original inhabitants of Copán are on display in the excellent on-site museum. 

Reconstruction of Temple 22 - Sculpture Museum, Copan, Honduras

A detailed reconstruction of Temple 22 in the excellent Sculpture Museum of Copán in Honduras.

The Bat was the symbol of the ancient city of Copan - Sculpture Museum, Copan, Honduras

The bat was the symbol of the ancient Mayan city of Copán. This original sculpture can be seen in the Sculpture Museum of Copán, adjacent to the archaeological site.

Sculpture heads - Sculpture Museum, Copan, Honduras

Human and animal heads carved from stone centuries go by the Mayans who lived in the city of Copán. These original works of art are on display in the Sculpture Museum of Copán.

Detail of relief from Noblemans house in the Sepulturas area - Sculpture Museum, Copan, Honduras

This detail, now on display in the Sculpture Museum of Copán, originally adorned a Mayan nobleman’s house.

 

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Old Copán – Copán Archaeological Site, Honduras

You’re gonna pay dearly if you want to visit the most popular tourist attraction in Honduras. It’s US$15 per person just to enter the Copán archaeological site. Another US$7 to enter the adjacent Sculpture Museum of Copán where the best stelae, facades and carved details are preserved and on display. Want to walk through a small tunnel inside a structure which was built around a temple which is now hidden inside it? That’s gonna cost you another US$12.

All totaled up, that’s US$34 per person in entry fees.

Temple 16 - Copan, Honduras

For an extra $12 you can walk inside Temple 16 through a tunnel that leads you to a temple that was swallowed whole when 16 was built. But don’t. The plexiglass that was put up around the interior temple is so scratched and fogged that you can barely see through it.

Glyphs - Copan, Honduras

Carvings, like these glyphs, are of remarkable quality at the Copán archaeological site in Honduras.

 

Is Copán worth the fees?

Yes and no–mostly yes. After all, they didn’t make the remains of the Mayan city of Copán a UNESCO World Heritage Site for nothing.

Hieroglyphic Stairway - Copan, Honduras

The epic Hieroglyphic Stairway at Copán archaeological site in Honduras with Stele M standing guard in front of it.

 

Copán has a wicked set of hieroglyphic stairs, each one carved with glyphs which are the graphic symbols of the Mayan alphabet. Archaeologists believe that the massive staircase told the story of the rulers of Copán. Unfortunately, when the experts unearthed the stairs they’d crumbled into a jumbled heap. The first 15 levels of steps have been  meticulously put back together more or less in readable order (presuming you know how to read Mayan glyphs), however, the many, many levels of steps above that are a nonsensical jumble of stones.

 

 

Stela A - Copan, Honduras

Stela A at Copán archaeological site in Honduras.

Macaw - Copan - Honduras

Scarlet macaws were sacred to the Mayans. This one lives at the Copán archaeological site in Honduras, where macaw heads were also carved into the ball court and other important areas of the city.

 

 

 

Scarlet macaws were prized among the Mayans. A group of macaws lives at Copán and their carved images are found in the most important places like the ball court.Though the normal way to score points in the ubiquitous Mayan sport was by getting a ball through a stone hoop, at Copán points were scored by hitting big scarlet macaw heads carved out of stone with the ball.

 

Figure on Structure 29 - Copan, Honduras

Figure on Structure 29 at Copán archaeological site in Honduras.

Stela B - Copan, Honduras

Stela B at Copán archaeological site in Honduras.

 

 

Copán was also home to a ruler with one of the most delightful names in the Mundo Maya. Known as 18 Rabbit, he was revered for his epic building projects and support of the arts especially sculpture. One of our favorite carved pieces depicted a dancing jaguar which reminded us a bit of the Grateful Dead dancing bear.

Speaking of sculpture,18 Rabbit had eight stelae carved and put up at Copán during his 43 year reign. All of the stelae at Copán are amazingly intricate. Even the back of the stone slabs, which are usually flattened but left bare, are carved at Copán.

 

 

 

Spoiler alert: One thing we learned at Copán is that Mayans don’t call him 18 Rabbit. They call him 18 Agouti, but since a grand total of 174 tourists know what an agouti is (it’s essentially a large hamster that’s very common in the area, btw) guides and guidebooks all call one of Copán most important residents 18 Rabbit.

Pauahtun Head - Copan, Honduras

Copán ruler 18 Rabbit was a big patron of the arts, especially carving like this Pauahtun Head.

Ball Court and Hieroglyphic-Stairway (under cover) - Copan, Honduras

The ball court and the hieroglyphic stairway at Copán archaeological site in Honduras. Unfortunately, the stairway is currently protected under a hideous tarp. Site administrators are experimenting with other ways to cover the stairs but for now they’re under this ugly tarp.

 

So, what’s not worth it at Copán?

The tunnel sounds great: An almost garishly red/pink/rust colored structure called the Rosalila is entombed inside what’s now known as Temple 16 which was built around the Rosalila. The only way to see the preserved remains of the Rosalila is to pay US$12 which gets you inside Temple 16, down a cramped set of stairs and through a tunnel which leads you to a plexiglass window that’s been put up around a corner of the Rosalila temple to protect it from visitors.

The problem is that the plexiglass is so scratched and fogged that you can barely see through it. What a disappointment. Best to gawk at the imposing reproduction of the Rosalila that’s been built in the sculpture museum next to the Copán site complete with the decoration and color the experts believe the temple originally had.

Altar G - Copan, Honduras

Altar G is a great example of the skill of the sculptors at Copán archaeological site in Honduras.

Temple 22 & East Plaza - Copan, Honduras

Temple 22 and the East Plaza at Copán archaeological site in Honduras.

 

Use the savings to hire a guide

Stela C - Copan, Honduras

Stela C at Copán archaeological site in Honduras.

We’ve visited almost 100 archaeological sites and we can count the number of time we’ve used a guide on one hand. Copán is one of those times (thanks, Flavia). We heard rumors about a guide at Copán named Tony who is supposedly in the Guinness Book of World Records for being able to do the Copán tour in five different languages. We didn’t hire Tony but our guide, Julio Melendez, was young, informed, bilingual, passionate and not in a hurry.

We wouldn’t have known half of the most interesting things in this post if we’d toured the site on our own and we highly recommend taking $12 you didn’t spend to enter the disappointing tunnel and putting it toward a guide. The guides all charge a set price of US$25 no matter how many people are in your group, so make some friends too.

Skulls on Temple 22 - Copan, Honduras

Carved skulls on Temple 22 at Copán archaeological site in Honduras.

Glyphs on back of Stela A - Copan, Honduras

Even the back of the stela at Copán archaeological site in Honduras are carved.  Stela A has a whole panel of glyphs on the back side.

 

One more way to save

There’s no need to hire a taxi or shared van to take you between the town of Copán Ruinas and the archaeological site. They’re less than a half a mile apart and there’s a perfectly pleasant and shady sidewalk that will take you from door to door. There are even a few stelae to see along the way which you’d totally miss if you took a taxi or shared van.

And don’t miss Las Sepulturas, a neighboring archaeological site that was a residential area for the upper class of Copán, including 18 Rabbit and his mistresses. Entry to Las Sepulturas is included with your entry to Copán and the site is just a short walk beyond Copán.

Turtle Altar - Copan, Honduras

This turtle altar at Copán archaeological site in Honduras is one of the most unusual Mayan altars we’ve ever seen.

Skull - Copan, Honduras

This carved skull was just sitting on the jungle floor at Copán, waiting for archaeologists to figure out where it belongs.

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New Copán – Copán Ruinas, Honduras

It’s confusing, we know: The closest town to the ruins of the Mayan city of Copán, the most famous and widely studied archaeological site in Honduras, is called Copán Ruinas.Therefore, the comparatively new city of Copán Ruinas is your base for exploring the positively ancient remains of Copán ruins.

Sunset view over Copan Ruinas, Honduras

Sunset view over the town of Copán Ruinas in Honduras as seen from Hacienda San Lucas hotel.

Copán Ruinas is tiny but jam-packed with tourists and the services that come with them. Because the number one tourist attraction in Honduras is right on the town’s doorstep, most offerings are of the mediocre but overpriced variety (case in point: laundry is $1 per pound). We visited Copán Ruinas on two different occasions and found a few finds that stand out from the rest.

Sleep with the Mayans

About a mile and a half above the center of Copán Ruinas lies one of the most noteworthy hotels in Honduras. Hacienda San Lucas is the 100-year-old home of the Cueva family, whose patriarch was a passionate amateur archaeologist and instrumental in early protection and exploration of the remains of the Mayan city of Copán.

Hacienda San Lucas - Copan, Honduras

The inviting patio and sprawling lawn at Hacienda San Lucas hotel above the town of Copán Ruinas in Honduras.

His daughter, Doña Flavia Cueva, oversaw a disciplined reinvention of the family home which she has transformed into an eight room hotel. Flavia did a lot of the work herself (don’t miss the photos of the restoration in progress–Flavia is smiling in every single shot) and she worked hard to retain country touches like exposed beams, thick walls and ample patios.

Modern touches like electricity, hot water, great beds and WiFi were added. One thoroughly modern addition to Hacienda San Lucas is the large, colorful, graphic art work of Falvia’s daughter, Frida Larios. Frida has turned her artists’ eye to Mayan glyphs, transforming the traditional ancient stone carvings into modern graphic art which decorates the hotel. Frida calls it Modern Mayan and it’s great stuff.

The Hacienda San Lucas kitchen, staffed by Mayan women, also turns out some of the best food in the region. We had some of the tastiest tamales we’ve ever eaten here and dinner, open to non-guests too, is a set menu, multi-course affair featuring dishes made from traditional Mayan recipes paired with wines. The town of Copán Ruinas and the edges of the Copán archaeological site itself can be seen in the valley below.

Hacienda San Lucas, yoga pavillion - Copan, Honduras

Yoga with a view at Hacienda San Lucas hotel just above the town of Copán Ruinas in Honduras.

Your own (sort of) private ruins

Though touring the ruins of Copán is the main draw, guests at Hacienda San Lucas are only a ten minute walk away from a tiny, little-visited archaeological site called Los Sapos (The Toads) that’s actually located on land owned by Hacienda San Lucas. About the size of half a football field, the Los Sapos area features boulders carved into the form of toads. Dozens of types of toads live in this area and the toad is the Mayan symbol of fertility. The origin and importance of this odd little site are still being studied but one theory is that Los Sapos was a fertility and/or birthing site used by the inhabitants of ancient Copán.

Los Sapos - Copan, Honduras

Look closely. Can you see the toad in this carved rock at the Los Sapos Mayan archaeological site near Hacienda San Lucas hotel?

If Hacienda San Lucas is out of your price range we can also recommend Hotel Patty. Located right in downtown  Copán Ruinas, the basic rooms are clean with bathrooms and TV, there’s a  big secure parking lot, the WiFi works and the owners are friendly. Rooms start at US$25 double occupancy.

The best microbrew in Central America?

Tomas, Sol de Copan Brewery Honduras

Your new hero: Thomas, owner and brew master of Sol de Copan Brewery in the town of Copán Ruinas in Honduras.

Sol de Copan beer

One of the best microbrews in Central America at Sol de Copan in Honduras.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank Fabricio. He’s a local customs officer who we met when we crossed the border from Guatemala into Honduras. If he hadn’t told us about “the big German making beer” in Copán Ruinas we might never have found Thomas Wagner.

Thomas is serious about beer. Serious enough to drive 10 miles for his spring water. Serious enough to wear a lab coat while he brews. Serious enough to import all of his equipment and ingredients from his native Germany. He is not, however, very serious about signs. His tiny brewery and mini German beer hall is located down a residential side street with no more than a small sign right at the entrance. Ask anyone in Copán Ruinas for directions to the Sol de Copán Brew Pub (closed Monday and Tuesday), then look for the building with wacky castle-like turrets just a few blocks away from downtown.

 

Thomas, who has won awards for his beers in his native Germany, makes strictly German-style beer and you will find two different brews on tap along with a short menu of German dishes (spetzel, schnitzel) made fresh by Thomas’ bubbly Honduran wife. Their schnauzer, Sammy, usually makes an appearance too. Locals fill the place. Laughter spills out into the street–mostly Thomas’ laughter. He is visibly thrilled every time someone takes a sip.

It’s a good thing Thomas is getting joy out of his beer because he certainly isn’t getting rich. At 55 Lempiras (less than US$3) for a half liter of the delicious stuff, Thomas’ handcrafted beer is only slightly more expensive than a liter of Salva Vida, the ubiquitous but mediocre beer of Honduras.

We are happy to report that microbreweries are gaining a foothold in Central America but we can say with certainty that the stuff Thomas is making in tiny, remote Copán Ruinas is by far the best microbrew in the region.

Honduras draft beer - Sol de Copan Honduras

The only thing we loved as much as Thomas’ excellent German-style beers was his tattoo collection.

Hot springs worth the splurge

We set aside just a couple of hours to visit the Luna Jaguar Spa hot springs located in the town of (surprise, surprise) Agua Caliente about 12 miles out of town over a pretty rough dirt road. The US$10 per person entry fee seemed like a whole lot at the time, however, as soon as we walked through the gate, over a hanging bridge and into a series of atmospheric pools, falls and dipping areas artfully crafted into nature over a trail-laced hillside the fee suddenly seemed worth it.

 Luna Jaguar Spa hot springs - Copan, Honduras

The wonderfully natural Luna Jaguar Spa hot springs near the town of Copán Ruinas in Honduras.

None of the crystal-clear pools are sizzling hot, but they do the trick. There’s even a pool that includes containers of therapeutic mud which is high in minerals and great for your skin. Another area has a small circular path lined in smooth river stones and filled to ankle-level with hot water. Walk around it and you get a free foot massage! We could have soaked all day.

Relaxing at Luna Jaguar Spa hot springs - Copan, Honduras

Eric and his brother Jeff getting their money’s worth in the hot springs at Luna Jaguar Spa near Copán Ruinas in Honduras.

Mud bath Luna Jaguar Spa hot springs - Copan, Honduras

Eric’s brother, Jeff, trying out his moves on his sister-in-law. That’s hard to do while covered in mineral-rich mud…

A special note for drivers: If you’re driving to Copán Ruinas be prepared for the town’s cobblestone streets which are very narrow, sometimes steep and brutally bumpy. Parking is also tough. We had some tight squeezes in our truck.

Read more about travel in Honduras

 

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