Copán: Easy Indiana Jones Adventure

Family-friendly exploration is easy and affordable in Copán, Honduras, from gazing at Mayan ruins to getting up close with tropical birds.

The sounds of the modern town of Copán Ruinas—buses, trucks and radios—faded away as I walked slowly down the old Mayan road toward the historic ruins of ancient Copán and into the past. All I heard now were the soft brush strokes of the caretakers’ twig brooms. The rhythm of their sweeping was hypnotic: swish, swish, swish. In the clearing, mountains of glaring stone erupted from a sea of jade grass. Trees arched overhead, shading the perimeter, and serpentine vines drooped from their lofty branches to the ground.

I’d seen the Mayan ruins of Copán, Honduras, in pictures, but they didn’t prepare me for the Indiana Jones-esque mystique. As the cool mist tickled my skin, I felt like the first person to encounter the monuments, even though thousands had preceded me.

The Ruins of Copán

The ruins at Copán were first discovered in the 16th century by the Spanish, but they weren’t fully explored until the 19th century by John Lloyd Stephens, who wrote about them in his travelogue, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan. It’s been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1980.

Visit the archaeological site early, like I did, to avoid the heat and day-tripping crowds. As I walked among the ruins, stelae protruded from the ground like teeth. Intricate carvings writhed around these pillars: pictures of deities and past rulers, some with incredible names like Moon Jaguar, Smoke Monkey and 18 Rabbit. Thick metal chains guarded the blocky stone men and discouraged my natural desire to touch them. But you can lean very close to inhale the designs of the place archaeologist Sylvanus Morley called the “Athens of the New World.”

Of any Mayan site in the Americas, Copán has the most hieroglyphic inscriptions and sculpted monuments. The artists of the ancient city succeeded in such depth of relief that many of the human figures appear lifelike. I wanted to feel the face of 18 Rabbit, with his open lips and large circular earrings. I longed to run my fingers over the feathered serpents, jaguars and macaws with huge hooked talons. Torch-bearing half-men, half-monsters with bulging eyes and bad teeth loomed over my head. Researchers say the buildings and sculptures were covered with dazzling pigments in Maya times—which added to the spectacle of stone.

Only 20 minutes after having my morning coffee on my first day in Copán, I already was hooked.

Copán Ruinas

The town of Copán Ruinas is cradled in a valley in western Honduras—a mere seven miles from the Guatemalan border. Walking briskly, you can cross from one end of the village to the other in 10 minutes. But packed into that small space are multitudes of distractions. An obstacle course curved up the narrow, cobblestone road from my bed and breakfast, where I dodged young chickens crossing the road. Music and children streamed from gaping doors. People gathered around the central plaza to exchange the news of the day. Even with its Internet access and international cuisine, time stands still in Copán Ruinas.

Family-friendly exploration is easy and affordable here. You don’t need to be a daredevil or sign on for a multi-day hack through the jungle to find excitement, and that makes it much easier for the kids as well (although carrying a bored toddler through the ruins won’t be fun for anyone). Everything was within my grasp—from Mayan ruins to jungle hiking and horseback riding to soaking in hot springs. The small stack of lempiras (Honduran money) in my wallet wasn’t a problem.

Valley of the Maya

Like most of the 140,000 annual visitors to Copán Ruinas, I was lured by the mysterious stone temples to the edge of town. But I quickly learned that the Maya scattered their legacy throughout the area. Las Sepulturas, an ancient residence, links to the main ruins by a mile-long stone path. The small sites of Los Sapos, La Pintada and Stela 10 hide in the hills, each about 90 minutes away on horseback. In the early 20th century, Morley had predicted that the entire valley would prove to be “one continuous settlement, one city.”

The Los Sapos ruins nestle within the Hacienda San Lucas property, which offers equestrian tours and access to hike its nature trails. If you’re not staying at the Hacienda, you can get access to the trails for $2 per day. My cowboy guide, Carlos, offered to take me “out there”—with a wide sweep of his arm. Our horses trotted through coffee plantations, waded through leafy tobacco fields and took a short snack break on a ridge, while Carlos pointed out his childhood home in the valley below. On our way down the hill, we spied a jewel-toned parrot flitting through the thick forest curtain. My companion noticed my wide-eyed reaction to the bird and led me along the jungle’s edge to where he assured me there would be “muchas mas.” 

Feathered Friends

An explosion of color and sound, the Macaw Mountain Bird Park and Nature Reserve lies just a short distance from Copán Ruinas. Open-encounter areas and flight aviaries allow visitors to get up close and personal with a variety of tropical birds. The screeching chatter of parrots seemed familiar, but I never imagined that the “kre-ek” of a keel-billed toucan was similar to a fingernail trailing along the teeth of a comb. Watching the wide-mouthed reaction of 7-year-old Samantha, visiting from Texas with her family, was almost as fun as watching the birds. With more than 330 feathered species in the Copán area, Macaw Mountain offers an easy start for a newly inspired watcher.

Besides the park’s nature trails and aviaries, Macaw Mountain has a coffee roasting house, a restaurant and a gorgeously clear natural pool to dip in during the warmer months. The park is open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets are $10 per person.

Evening Distractions

My day of adventures had worn me out. Surely even Indiana Jones ate three meals a day. Open restaurant doors beckoned, and smells of fish, tortillas and barbeque mesmerized me. I chose Carnitas Nia Lola, on the edge of town with views of tobacco fields. My dinner was a “tipico” beef dish right off the charcoal grill with fried plantains, rice and hard country cheese. A cold glass of beer was delivered atop the waitress’ head.

Nearby Twisted Tanya’s Restaurant celebrates happy hour from 4 to 6 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays, with a big fat menu of tropical cocktails. I was tempted, but with the sun getting lower in the sky, decided to postpone the drinks in favor of watching the sun set over the Mayan valley.

The vanishing rays washed Copán Ruinas in a gentle light. I climbed to the hills overlooking the town, which melted into an earth-toned mishmash of buildings, pastures and cobblestone roads. Nearby were the stone memories of the Maya, and surrounding both curled a thick ocean of emerald jungle.

The two Copáns, old and new, weren’t as far apart as I’d imagined. Although the outward appearances of the village and people have changed over time, much has remained the same. The connection was difficult to see while in the realm of one or the other: looking at ruins or eating at restaurants, reading history or riding through a coffee farm. From the perspective of the unbiased hills, both clung together as a whole community, old evolving into new over thousands of years—an island amidst the jungle.

My new friend, Carlos, waved from a street below me. He’d promised he knew a way into the old city at night. Anyone who sat still among the sculptures would see the ancient people. A chill ran through me, but I couldn’t refuse the unique encounter. I waved back, and walked down the hill, breathing the floral-scented velvet air.

Getting there: Continental, American, Delta, TACA and Spirit airlines provide nonstop service to La Mesa International Airport (SAP) in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, (a major city north of the capital, Tegucigalpa) from the United States. Car rental agencies are available at the airport. First-class bus service is offered by Hedman Alas from San Pedro Sula to Copán Ruinas three times a day (four times a day on Sundays and Mondays). The trip will take two-and-a-half hours, and the fare is $33 for the round trip. 

Destinations: Honduras, Copán Ruinas, Copán

Themes: Ecotourism, Family Travel, Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Hiking, Bird Watching, Horseback Riding, Swimming

User Comments

Getting there... got it! Answered my own question. Some good options on Page 2. Thx.

Really affordable adventure Jill - this looks amazing. Authentic and doable on a budget. What's the best way to get there?