by Judith Fein
hotos by Paul Ross

El Mundo Maya, the stones and artifacts of the Maya culture, are hot. People travel to Maya conferences the way Deadheads ran after their favorite band. A little over a year ago, when the Honduran government and Ministry of Tourism conducted the inspired experiment of holding a conference in Copan, one of the most well-studied of the Maya sites in Central America, five hundred enthusiastic groupies showed up. And the publicity garnered from the dream team of Maya specialists who spoke about ancient astronomy, art, politics, war, science, architecture, agriculture and religion in Copan added to its worldwide cache.

Visitors to the ancient site stay in nearby Copan Ruinas, a laid-back village with cobblestone streets, colonial buildings, affordable eats and friendly locals. Some tourists are well-informed about the Maya, and others know little or nothing, but would like to learn.


The ancient Maya of Copan, sometimes referred to as geniuses, did elaborate stone carvings, produced detailed statuary, were masters of solar and lunar astronomy, and lived in an empire that lasted from 426 to 820 C.E. Their leaders had evocative names like Smoke Monkey, Moon Jaguar and 18 Rabbit.

Their civilization can be seen at the ruins of Copan, where well-informed English-speaking guides lead visitors through the ball park (which was the social center of the city, and is considered to be the most spacious of its kind in all Meso America), the Great Plaza (with magnificent altars and stelae which are still standing), the Acropolis (with its temples and an altar that has carved portraits of all of the sixteen rulers of the Copan dynasty), and the Hieroglyphic Stairway, with the longest known text left by the ancient Maya. For the past three years, visitors have been allowed into two of the tunnels that were dug by archeologists; it is a descent into the history of urban development..

The ancient Maya world was a fascinating civilization that is slowly emerging from underneath jungle growth, earth and time across Meso America. They traded extensively, lived in a feudal society, played sacred ball games, were master architects of massive pyramids and temples, and their leaders were incarnations of the divine. They engaged in power struggles and warfare, the rulers performed bloodletting ceremonies where they pierced their bodies with knives and great ball game heroes offered up their lives in sacrifice. The Maya had an elaborate writing system, recorded important dates, observed the heavens, carved stone panels of the sun, moon and planets, and constructed stelae which marked solstices and literally shed light on pictorial representations of their leaders. They decorated teeth with inlaid gems, wore body ornamentation, and invested their jade jewelry with symbolic meanings relating to life, breath and the ancestors.

No culture in the world, including the ancient Greeks, ever achieved the Maya¹s extraordinary level of artistic expression in slip-painted ceramic vessels. Elaborate chemical-nuclear analysis of the ceramic paste of vases is revealing the exact earth where pottery came from, and it is clear that Copan had important links to Tikal in Guatemala and Teotihuacan in the highlands of Mexico. They ate a varied diet that included meat-filled tamales, posole, chocolate drinks and beverages made from the toasted seeds of the sweet kakaw fruit. They held huge feasts that were part of their rituals of power and involved give-aways of elaborate, expensive gifts like woven textiles and ceramics. They planted according to an ancient calendar and developed techniques for flood control that were so efficient that some are still in use today.

Generally, when a leader was establishing his power over a former dynasty, the latter¹s temples were destroyed. But, in one case, the temple was so feared or revered that it was quite literally mummified: the noses of pictorial representations were sliced off ( to “kill” or cut off the life or breath of the structure), the building was carefully covered in plaster, and then it was buried. When archeologist Ricardo Agurda Fasquelle uncovered the vivid red temple in the late eighties, he named it Rosalilo. Because of its fragility, visitors can access part of it through an underground tunnel, and observe it behind glass. But because of the importance of the find, it has been entirely and magnificently copied and reconstructed as the centerpiece of the Museum of Maya Sculpture, which is close to the Copan ruins. The museum is a must-see, with carvings, stone furniture, masks, glyphs and fabulous finds from Copan like the original façade of the ball court.

Who were the rulers of the ancient inhabitants of Copan? There were sixteen successive leaders, and governorship was passed from one to the next with a baton. Intriguing evidence links the first ruler, Yax K¹uk Mo¹, to Tikal, which may be his place of origin. The Copan civilization certainly had a connection to the Olmecs. The king played the terrestrial role of the sun, and governed the people as the sun presides over the earth. There is even a controversial they believe that there were empire builders who moved to different areas across Meso America, forced laborers to build elaborate pyramids and cities, ruled, collected taxes, and then moved on to develop and dominate the next area.

Modern technology has greatly impacted the study of ancient Maya sites. The complexities of scientific techniques are mind-boggling. Radiation can be measured from tiny potsherds, sites can be reconstructed with computers, precise times and dates can be known through astronomy and other secrets of the earth are revealed to botanists, geologists, linguists, anthropologists, agronomists and a host of other specialists.

Some of the Maya experts speculate that the language of the Copan glyphs may come from the Chorti Maya. Amazingly, the Chortis still exist today. Many are found in Guatemala, where their language is preserved, and clusters live in the mountains around Copan. In the recent past, they occupied the site of Copan and wanted to administer it. They want land returned to them. They want to benefit from tourism and have dominion over skeletons and spiritual artifacts from their ancestors. In light of legal pursuits in other parts of the world, the issues will have to be addressed. “Anger will not get us anywhere,” said one Chorti man in a private conversation. “We are patient and believe we will eventually get what we want.”

Fortunately, I was able to make two visits to a contemporary Chorti village. They grow corn, by terracing, on the hillside. In the humid climate, the plants are abundant and healthy. They also cultivate beans, greens, fruits, coffee, and raise chicken in earthen coops that are reminiscent of those found in the ruins of Paquimé, in northern Mexico. They grow special succulents that prevent soil erosion and act as natural barriers against animals. Their houses are made of wattle and daub. Vertical wood from cane-like trees holds the mud in place. Because of deforestation, they are using some adobe now, because it doesn¹t require wood. They plant according to the calendar, as they have always done. They are completely self-sufficient except for oil, rice, and building materials like tin, which has replaced some of the thatched roofs.

In this particular village, there are about three hundred people. There is no school for the forty children, and the adults have classes where they are teaching themselves to read and write. They have a governing board of eleven people, and the smart, resourceful man in charge of communications accompanied me everywhere and generously shared information in Spanish. There are only a few people who still speak Chorti. They have laid the foundation for a school, but need $1500 to finish it. When they work as laborers in the fields of others, back-breaking work with machetes, they earn about three dollars a day. The kids need clothes, shoes and school supplies. They are curious, active, friendly. No one begged. They had a lot of dignity.

Amazingly, after reading Maya studies that described ancient religious practices and vessels with hot coals and incantations that were used, I was able to experience the same thing today in a healing ceremony in the village. The curandero, or healer, used yellow candles, a stone container with hot coals, and prayers with Christian references. It is clear that the living Maya are a vital link to the past, and they hold several of the keys to unlocking the ancient world. Any contact with them will be rewarding and fascinating for visitors to Honduras.

Before leaving Copan, there are several other things of interest to tourists. The small Copan Museum, in the center of Copan Ruinas, houses some of the most recent finds from the ruins. Among the exhibits is the tomb of a scribe, statuary, jewelry, religious offerings, masks and carvings. A ten minute walk from the center of the town leads enchanted visitors to a butterfly house. An American ex-Peace Corps volunteer has set up hatching boxes and a large enclosed garden where uninhibited butterflies are born, eat, have sex and eventually end their short two-week life cycle.

Visitors who want to know more about Honduras’s past can rent a car for be $60 to $70 a day, brave the unpredictable Honduran drivers, or join a tour group and drive for a few hours to the towns of Tela and la Ceiba. After they enjoy the beaches and tourist sites, they can arrange to visit the Garifuna, descendants of the Carib Indians and slaves from Africa. They came from St. Vincent island several hundred years ago, and are the only blacks in the Americas who have maintained their native culture. In some of their villages, they still live in thatched huts made of wood cane that survived hurricane Mitch where more modern structures were destroyed. There has been a five-year blight in their palm trees, and the dead, headless, leafless trees spike the landscape like a phantasmagorical cemetery. The Garifuna dance to complex rhythms

Although a few boom boxes blare rap, and some t-shirts say “New York” or other American cities, the Garifuna still maintain ancient ways, eat native foods like fried fish and conch soup or rice and beans mixed with coconut milk. They hold fast to their music and their dances, some of which harken back to their fight against slavery.

So in Honduras these days, you have your pick

For general information on Honduras:

Honduras Tourism Hotline, 1-800-410-9608

Honduras Tips Magazine, www.hondurastips.honduras.com

For information on Honduras and throughout the Maya world:

Instituto Hondureno de Turismo, 504-38-39-74 or 75 (phone), 504-22-6621 (fax) or ihturism@hondutel.hn

For tours within Honduras:

Garifuna Tours (Ecological Adventures), garifuna@hondutel.hn, 504-448-1069 (phone), POB 74, Tela, Honduras

MC Tours, sales@mctours-honduras.com

Hotel in Tela and an ecoresort outside of La Ceiba:

Hotel Villas Telamar: telamar@sinon, intertel.hn

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