Copán Ruinas: My Life in Ruins
litost (Czech) n. A State of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.
After a sticky and sweaty night in the nude (because even a t-shirt was too unbearably hot), we awoke ready to get the hell out of this hell. We were being optimistic that the rest of Central America wasn’t going to be this hot and humid, though knowing our luck it would be even hotter. The one bonus about our hostel was that breakfast was included with our stay, which was the only thing that really stopped me griping about their per person rather than per bed charge. The breakfast was a meager meal of a couple eggs, some toast, and a banana, but at least it was something.
After breakfast, we packed up our stuff and met Louis, the hostel owner, in the lobby. He would be giving us a free ride to the bus station where we would catch a shuttle out to our next destination: Copán Ruinas. Any website will make you believe that the only way to get from San Pedro Sula to Copán Ruinas is by the charter bus company, Hedman Atlas. While I have read that Hedman buses are nice and comfortable, they are far from the only means of transportation in Central America, nor are they the cheapest. To make the journey, we used a company called Casasola Express at the word of Louis. Casasola Express uses minibuses to travel between the two cities at a fraction of the price. Whereas Hedman Atlas costs about $20 per person, a Casasola Express ticket cost us only $6 each. Departures from San Pedro Sula are at 8:00am, 11:00am, and 1-2:00pm (what 1-2 means).
We were aiming for the 11:00am bus, so Louis dropped us off at the station with plenty of time to spare at 10:00am. WE ducked through a rusted fence, as all the locals seemed to be doing, and headed inside the chaotic and buzzing terminal. We purchased our tickets at the office and headed out to Door 6, where we were told the Casasola bus would be. Seeing as we were there so early, the bus had yet to arrive, and so we decided to get some street food from a nearby vendor. As I attempted to converse with the teenage boy working at the counter, he suddenly started laughing with his friend seated just outside.
“Los gringos,” were the only words I had made out. And there it was: the first of what I could only assume would be many times that I would hear those words. Though I felt the eyes of everyone on me constantly and every car that passed by when walking on the sidewalk sought to remind me of my pasty white complexion, this was the first time it had been verbalized. Gringo: outsider. Here, that’s all I was. In Europe, I could blend in with the conglomerate of other tourists and foreigners almost to the point of outnumbering the local population. Here, however, there was no blending in. Chris and I stuck out like sore thumbs on a population born without them.
Even so, the name-calling didn’t feel malicious. No one we had encountered thus far seemed malicious or even discriminatory. We were more so an oddity, something to take interest in and get a few chuckles at, but it didn’t feel like we weren’t welcome.
By the time we finished eating, the minibus had arrived and we got onboard. The scheduled time of departure came and went as more and more people piled onto the tiny vehicle. As we sat ad waited in the smothering heat, I did my best to take in everything around me, but Honduras was an absolute assault on the senses. Between the honk happy bus drivers all attempting to pull onto a one-lane road at once, the yelling of everyone at the station, and the frantic running back and forth between the buses and the station, it was difficult to find logic in anything going on around me.
Finally, half an hour after the bus was meant to depart, it did, and off we went. Did I mention the drivers in Honduras are insane? Absolutely bat-shit crazy. Being on Honduras’ roads means taking your life in your hands more than walking down the most dangerous street of San Pedro Sula at night. The roads themselves are in rough shape, with potholes cut into the pavement, grades of random dirt and gravel, and trash littering the surface and sides. There are no lines painted on the roads and vehicles sticking to the appropriate side seemed to me more of a suggestion than an actual rule. That’s why the drivers pass each other at every opportunity. Even giant trucks and buses will pass on blind corners, merely honking their horn to informing nearby traffic of their intent.
That’s not even to mention the chaos when the buses aren’t moving. Every time out bus stopped for even the slightest reason, a hoard of kids would pile on with racks of goodies to sell to the passengers. These goodies ranged from strange bright red spiky fruit called mamones to mysterious bags of colored liquid. You name it, they sold it. And sold it and sold it. I don’t think I have ever encountered such obnoxious salesmanship in my life, and I’ve been to a lot of car dealerships. These kids would hold their racks of goodies in our faces repeating the name of the goods over and over until we finally had to say “no gracias” several times. And then they merely offered again on their way back through the bus. The bus driver would then take off regardless of whether or not they had cleared the bus and the kids were left to jump ship. The kids were brave, I’d give them that. Even braver were the kids that stood in the lines of traffic themselves selling to car windows. What a strange and chaotic place this was shaping up to be.
To add to the chaos, halfway through the trip, it began to rain. Normally, this wouldn’t have been concern to someone inside a bus. Our bags, however, were not so lucky. They had been strapped to the roof of the van upon boarding. Not only did I need to worry about them getting stolen or falling off on one of the many wild corners, now I needed to worry about them getting wet. I timidly tapped the ticket agent sitting on a fold down seat next to me on the shoulder.
“Umm, nos equipaje,” I said, pointing to the roof. He nodded and got up. While the bus was still moving, we pulled himself through the open window and onto the roof of the bus to pull a tarp across the bags. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but I hoped the tarp would at least protect them enough.
Though we were told the bus ride should take 2.5 hours, by the time we pulled to a station just outside Copán Ruinas, it had been over four hours. The second we stepped out of the bus, we were assaulted by a hoard of men yelling, “Taxi? Taxi?” Seeing as we had no idea where our hostel was in relation to where we were, we decided to go for it. The cost was hardly enough to bat an eye. Though many places in Honduras accept U.S. dollars, the official currency of Honduras is the lempira, an exchange rate of L28 to $1. The taxi ride would cost us L20 each, or about $1.50. We just needed to decide which taxi driver to pick. We got in the nearest taxi, hearing all the ones who had lost out groan and shout playful curses at the winning driver. A quick note: these were not like normal taxis. These tuk-tuks as they are called are three wheeled motorcycles with a cab perched on the top. The tuk-tuk took off and suddenly we were rattling over steep cobblestone streets, turning sharp corners, and whizzing by locals carrying heavy loads on the backs.
Copán Ruinas was small, and the ride only took about five minutes before the tuk-tuk driver dropped us off in front of the Hotel Don Moises. Right away, this place looked far nicer than the previous hostel had, though perhaps a bit less organized. When I told the woman at the front desk my name, she cocked her head, checked her reservation book, and shook her head. I showed her a screenshot of my reservation confirmation from Hostel World (a trick I’ve learned to prevent such confusions) and she led me directly upstairs to our room.
The room was large, with two double beds and a small dank smelling bathroom with a line of tiny ants crawling in from a hole near the ceiling. There were no windows, only a dim, florescent bulb in the center of the room. Again, we had no air conditioning, only a large freestanding fan. Luckily, being higher in elevation here, the humidity was a little bit less offensive than it had been in San Pedro Sula. As we opened our packs, we found most of our belongings damp, but at least not wet enough to ruin anything more sensitive to water (luckily our laptops had been in the bus with us). Using the extra bed in the room, we pulled everything out of our packs, unrolled each and every item of clothing from their sacks, and laid them out to dry.
Seeing as we hadn’t eaten since the bus station in San Pedro Sula, we set out to find some food. Though small, Copán had far more options than even the big city of San Pedro Sula and we found a suitable restaurant only a few blocks from the hostel. After dinner, we took a brief walk around the city to grab some groceries. It turned out that city was a generous word to use. Despite the fact that Copán, famous for its nearby site of ancient Mayan ruins, is probably one of the most touristed spots in Honduras, it hardly felt like it. A tourist spot in Honduras was like the most remote places I visited in Europe. Everyone we saw seemed like a local and we were definitely the only white folk in the place. As we walked along the narrow, broken sidewalks, I didn’t feel I as though anyone paid any mind to my presence. There was no catering to the tourist as people went about their daily lives. The tuk-tuks raced along the narrow cobblestone streets, followed by trucks with beds filled with students in school uniforms. People lugged heavy loads of fruit, rice, and beans, in bags and baskets balanced atop their heads. And not a single person stopped me to try to sell a selfie-stick.
I realized I had the opportunity to engage in the lives these people lived without mind to the outside world, rather than merely observe the watered down version one encounters in a tourist culture. This was the type of travel I had craved for so long, one that would truly allow me to become the traveler and not the tourist. Regardless of what people may argue, there is a different between the two.
Sure, this place was rough around the edges. Hell, it was rough all the way down to its core. Our shower didn’t work, our plumbing was poor, we had ants in our bathroom, and yet I loved Honduras because it challenged me. It forced my to redefine my concept of travel and truly made me feel like I was gaining new perspective.
Unfortunately, my happiness didn’t last long. Sometime in the middle of the night, I woke to painful, gut wrenching cramps tearing through my abdomen. I lay awake for over an hour as Chris stroked my side and tried to sooth me before finally falling back to sleep. In the morning, my pain had eased and turned into nausea that left me curled up in bed for the greater part of the morning. Just as it was finally beginning to subside, I attempted to turn on my laptop only to find that it wouldn’t respond. I tried everything, from plugging it in, to booting in safe mode, and just about every other hot key combination the Internet could recommend to me. Nothing worked. My computer was dead, and so was my will. While I never stored my photos on my computer for lack of hard drive space, I did store all of my writing on it. And I mean all of it. Stupidly, none of it was backed up. All I could do was think about how I had lost everything I had worked so hard on for eight years of my life. Chris tried to comfort me, suggesting that maybe if we let the computer sit for a while it would work. Even if not, he insisted it was unlikely that the problem was a hard drive issue, meaning that an Apple store could recover the files. The problem was that were in Central fucking America for the next six months. I wouldn’t actually be able to know until the end of this trip. And in the meantime, how would I do my blogging? This was absolutely worst-case scenario, and it had happened only days in the trip. What would the rest of the trip bring?
For the rest of the day, I pretty much laid helplessly in bed as Chris tried to console me. I admit that I was downright pathetic. I liked to think of myself as this non-materialistic untethered person and yet something as simple as a laptop crash had all but removed my will to live. After hours of crying and talking things out, Chris and I finally came to a more optimistic point of view. This was, after all, my trip. Chris had only come because of me, and if I wasn’t happy, then what was the point. We both vowed to try to be more positive and to make the best of the circumstance.
The next day dawned anew. I was feeling better, with only a slight headache from all the crying I had done the day before, and was eager to go out and do something. I had wasted yesterday with all my wallowing, and I planned on making the most of the day. Oddly enough, our plans for Copán Ruinas did not actually include visiting the ruins, at least not after we found out they charge $15 per person to walk around amid a field of rocks.
Instead, we were heading outside the city in the opposite direction, to a lesser ruin site, but a free one. A couple kilometers outside the city, there is a lovely secluded hotel called the Hacienda San Lucas, located high on one of the many hills overlooking Copán. It’s easy to get to. Just ask the reception desk at your hostel and they’ll point you in the right direction outside the city. From there, you walk straight along a muddy dirt road until you cross a large, muddy river. Turn left onto a smaller dirt road at the sign for Hacienda San Lucas.
We followed this road through a couple more forks, all well marked with signs point us toward the Hacienda. As the road began to take us uphill, we turned behind us to the verdant green valley stretching out for miles, the town ofCopán just filled with tiny dots of color against the green. On the opposite hillside, we could barely make out the main ruins. After a one kilometer hike up hill, we reached a wooden gate bearing the name, Hacienda San Lucas. The grounds of this quaint little hotel were beautiful to say the least. Small cobblestone pathways wound their way through lush and dense foliage, leading to the various cabanas. It seemed entirely deserted, save for a lazy black lab that lay sprawled out near a water jug. We looked around the grounds, but found no sign of a trail that lead beyond. Finally, we a friendly old gardener with a couple of missing teeth pointed us int he right direction. The trail lay lay just down the bluff to the left of the main gate, well hidden from plain sight. He rambled some quick directions at us in Spanish, but all I got was a lot of “a la derecha” and "a la izquierda” in an order that I promptly forgot upon encountering the right fork in the road. I went with my gut and turned left, and after a short distance, came upon another fork, the right path marked with a boulder bearing two carved feet. I did remember him mentioning this, so I turned right. A little further down the path, far sooner than I expected, I saw the sign for Los Sapos, pointing to the right. We turned off and found ourselves in a small, circular clearing. It wasn’t until we doubled back that we even noticed the boulders carved into frogs guarding the entrance.
Los Sapos, or the frogs, is thought to be an ancient Mayan birthing or fertility site for those who lived in main ruins at Copán. Today, not much stands of it, save for a few eroded frog carvings that you need to quint a little to see. It was all a bit uneventful, but I was still struck by the gravity of standing in the ruins of a people far older than anything I had ever encountered.
From there, we got back on the main path and continued straight, deeper into the jungle. Maybe half a kilometer further, the dense trail once again opened up, this time to a dirt soccer pitch with children of all ages running back and forth. On the opposite side of the pitch was a row of sheet metal and wooden hovels, crudely constructed by whatever scrap material was probably lying around. This was the village of La Pintada, one of the few more traditional villages that still remains in Honduras, only accessible by foot, horseback, and motorbike. Its people make a living on farming beans and rice and the only building in the town to have electricity is the school. While all of Honduras was more of a developing country as opposed to a developed one, this redefined even that.
We skirted around the soccer field as the children gave us wary glances. When we reached the other side, a group of young girls ran up to us, waving around cornhusk dolls. While I would have loved to support the economy of this little place, I had nothing to do with such a trinket. That is both the blessing and curse of the backpacker lifestyle. We shook our heads and watched them all slowly disband. We walked into the village, which consisted of a steep, rutted dirt road lined with hovels. Each one seemed to have an array of laundry hung out to dry and more chickens running around than people. We were stopped various times by locals asking what we were doing there, not unkindly, and we answered that we were simply looking. “Solo somos mirando.”
One older gentleman we talked to made mention of a waterfall up the trail beyond the village, just ten minutes or so deeper in the jungle. We thanked him for the recommendation and exited the village the way we had come. At the man’s recommendation, we continued further down the trail, as the foliage got denser and denser. The trees thickened, allowing less light to pour in, and the only sound we could hear was the grating chirping of thousands of either insects or birds. I still don’t know what it was. We continued on a while, with no sign of a waterfall.
Finally, as the trail start to rise, we turned back, but I wasn’t quite ready to give up yet. On a hunch, I left the trail and descended down into the small creek bank we had been following. A little ways downstream, the creek dropped off over a large boulder and I had a hunch that if I climbed down it, I’d find myself looking at the waterfall. I was right. After a slick and muddy climb down the embankment, we found ourselves looking at waterfall pouring off a mossy rock maybe twenty feet high. Form the pool below it, a plastic pipeline had been constructed, probably for the purpose of pumping water to the village. In the stickiest of the jungle and mugginess of the day, we briefly thought about jumping in to cool off, until Chris looked down at hundreds of tiny leeches clinging to the rocks by the shore.
We followed the pipeline just a little ways, to see if it lead anywhere interesting, before the trail got a bit hairy and we decided to turn back. We retraced our steps, back to the village, to Los Sapos, to Hacienda San Lucas, and finally back to Copán. The whole venture had only taken about four hours and we still had some daylight left to wander around the city just a bit before departing the next day. Unfortunately, our wandering led us right into the company of a stray Dalmatian with beautiful heterochromic eyes who took a liking to us. We had already been struggling with the rampant amount of stray dogs we had seen, Chris especially. So when that little fellow followed us all the way back to our hostel and waited expectantly at the front door, it broke our hearts. We sat outside on a bench with him for close to half an hour, having retrieved some bread in our room for him. We even did something as stupid as give him the name Pluto. We knew we couldn’t take him with us, but that didn’t make the decision to leave him any easier. But finally, as darkness fell and we gathered our resolve, we slipped inside the hostel and watched out the window as he finally left. I wasn’t sure what was more heartbreaking: losing all my writing with my computer, or having to leave that dog.
The next morning, we repacked all of our now dry things and headed to the cafe attached to the hostel for breakfast, a lovely little establishment called Comida’s Bon Appetit. There is ordered some panqueques (yes, that is the actual Spanish word for pancakes) and a licaudos de fruit y leche, or a milkshake, but just made with fresh fruit and milk. Together, our very full breakfast cost us maybe $6. The hostel was not quite so cheap, ringing in at $48 for three nights, and an additional. $20 each for the shuttle that would take us right from the door Antigua, Guatemala. Finances taken care of, we retrieved our things and said goodbye the dark and dingy little room that had cast shadows over the trip in more ways than one. It was high time to leave this place and to leave Honduras. And besides, the ants had grown more numerous.