Latin America | Honduras
April 28, 2008
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1989, Tuesday 31 October: Copan ruins, Honduras

Stepped pyramid under excavation, Copan Mayan ruins, Honduras

The ancient Mayan site of Copan in Honduras is one of the most evocative of all the lost cities of Central America. I approached from the modern Honduran town of Santa Rosa de Copan - itself a graceful colonial settlement - an hour or so's bus ride away, but most visitors hop across the nearby Guatemalan border on a day-trip. Even during the troubled 1980s, there was a steady trickle of people willing to make the journey, and it came as a shock after days of total isolation to suddenly see well-heeled, fresh-washed gringo faces.

The ruins were only partially excavated, but what I could see on arrival was intensely romantic: crumbling stepped pyramids, grotesque figures carved onto standing stelae and mysterious stone heads part-buried in the ground. Bizarre intertwining Mayan glyphs were everywhere, and, if you looked closely, skulls, snakes and ghoulish figures crawled through the ornamentation. The result was deeply creepy and, for me, the minds of the people who had created this stuff remained wholly closed. Impressive as the ruins were, what made the site most memorable was the way in which the surrounding thick tropical forest had only partially been cleared. Huge trees grew out of the stonework, their buttress roots cracking and lifting the slabs; liana vines draped casually against the pyramid sides; and lizards scuttled through the grass. Today, no doubt, everything is neat and orderly, with the monuments securely fenced. Back then, I was free to clamber, climb and rootle, without a 'Keep Off' sign in sight - pure Indiana Jones.
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