Walking down a country road in western Honduras, we spotted a large pillar of rock to our left and stopped by the rusted barbed wire fence to examine it. It was engraved with elaborate and much degraded carvings, spotted by lichens and eroded by a thousand years of neglect. It had a strong resemblance to the stelae we’d seen on Ometepe in Nicaragua, which in turn resembled the sculptures we’d marveled at in San Augustine in Colombia. But the San Agustin sculptures and this stelae, standing forlorn in a Honduran cornfield, had little in common other than they were also in low relief, commemorating a fanciful human facing forward, standing as rigidly as a pillar of stone.
We’d finally made it into the territory of the next great pre-Colombian culture, the Maya. As we gradually traveled north we left the sphere of the Inka and the land became less and less obviously transformed by the hand of man, the stonework less monumental. As we entered Mesoamerica, the home of a dozen advanced ancient cultures, the landscape once again began to shift.
We passed another stela, this one even more ornately carved. At its feet lay a great stone disk covered in hieroglyphics. The place it stood, on a pathway leading from the town of Copán Ruinas, may have once been a grand thoroughfare connecting the residential area of the elite to the majestic pyramids that lay just a little ways before us.
In the valley of the Copán river, flat and rich with sediment from the thousand year cycle of floods and droughts, stand dozens of towering pyramids, some that are still covered in earth and forest. They stand in contrast to the level river-plain. They are the remains of one of the most beautiful of the Mayan cities, the so called Paris of Mezo-America.
As we entered the site we were greeted by the screeching of a dozen scarlet macaws, vivid red and yellow against the tropical canopy. The holy birds, revered by the Mayans almost as much as the jade colored Quetzal, have been reintroduced to Copán as part of a breeding program. A little Honduran boy squawked at the birds and they mocked him in return, ruffling their brilliant feathers. One of them let out a piercing screech that sent the boy howling in terror back down the path. The birds cackled with which I projected to be joy.
Anxious to first tackle the grand finale, we stepped off the suggested walking path and into Copán’s piece de resistance, the great plaza. It is a wide open stretch of grass, surrounded on all sides by pyramids, some lovingly restored, some tantalizingly shrouded in earth. A dozen intricately carved stelae were placed around the plaza, each baring the likeness of one of the great kings of Copán. In their sides were hieroglyphics telling of his fantastic exploits, reinforcing his place squarely at the center of the universe.
As we explored the rest of the ruins, the pyramids that represented attempts to capture the glory of the mountains themselves, and the giant hardwood trees that were destroying them, we came across multiple plaques and sculptures reminding the people of Copán of their central place in the world. I became a little melancholy knowing the outcome of this particular story, and that it ended covered in vines and earth and forgotten by the world.
We had the ruins almost to ourselves. Apart from us a handful of other gringos and few Hondurans wandered the site. From the top of one of the largest pyramids, beneath the bows of an incredibly large cielo tree who’s roots were ripping the magnificent structure apart, we looked down on the empty plaza, with its ball courts that once played out what was considered a real contest between the balances of nature. A giant flight of stairs overlooked the field as well, famous for the lengthy history inscribed on either side. It is the longest piece of writing in the pre-Colombian world, and is where much of the history of the Mayan people was deciphered by archeologists. The pyramids surrounding the court seemed to grow together naturally, as if they too had been left to grow wild and had tripled in size, swelling and merging together; fed by the constant sun, and rivers of water and time.
We found a surprising amount to keep us occupied in the little town of Copán Ruinas. Its sole existence was thanks to the old city in the forest, but the surrounding hills were filled with coffee plantations, picturesque haciendas and the eroding remains of outlying Mayan houses and temples.
Mayan society mirrored much of the world’s social arrangements at the time, despite being cut off from the other continents. A small group of wealthy people ruled by force and superstition over a huge number of peasants. When the Spanish came and dealt the death blow to an already mortally wounded civilization, they installed themselves in the niche left behind by the deposed Mayan royalty. In some places in the Americas, the elite/poor dynamic has changed little despite the epic cultural shift following 1492.
In the heart of Finca El Cisne, a vast coffee plantation an hour outside of Copán Ruinas, three grand haciendas were splayed out on top of the high ground. Below them were scattered a collections of wood slat shacks surrounded by earthen yards. We’d paid far more money than we usually are willing to part with in order to stay the night at this remote Finca. The tour included room and board, a horseback ride through verdant fields, and a trip to a nearby hot-springs. All turned out to be well worth the price, but the difference in living conditions between the family that ran the Finca and the Mayan workers in the shacks rattled at the back on our minds.
As we were to learn, it was a subject one of the owners of the finca and the force behind the tour had also given much thought.
We were swinging in hammocks on the veranda outside of our lodgings, on a distant corner of the Finca far from its center, when a Carlos Castajon pulled up in his pickup truck.
Charming and hospitable, Carlos introduced himself and apologized for not being able to lead our tour of the Finca himself. He usually spends the day with his guests, but this day he’d only been able to join us for dinner. A tall, fair Honduran, he wore blue-jeans and a battered straw cowboy hat.
Over a delicious traditional Spanish/Mayan meal we had an intense discussion about travel, the Finca, and what he saw as his duty to his family legacy. I posed a delicate remark about the estate, not wanting to offend, but probing into his feelings about having become the primogenic leader of not only one of the largest landholdings in Honduras, but of a virtual town of very poor Hondurans as well. He’d traveled widely and studied in the States, but had returned feeling a sense of duty and pride towards his inheritance. Along with his sister and his brother-in-law, he’d begun a massive transition towards educating the families who’d lived as residents and workers on the farm for decades. They’d started a school for orphaned girls, and were planning on converting the quarters we were sleeping in into a school for boys.
I couldn’t comprehend the economics of maintaining a large estate based on an ancient business model while simultaneously upgrading the living conditions of the workers to a modern standard. But by educating the children of his workers and diversifying from coffee and cardamom, adding hardwoods, chocolate and Eco-tourism, Carlos was optimistic about making a change that could benefit everyone.
The Finca grounds were beautiful, with unbroken views of forest and farmland from the hilltops. Little houses thatched with palm sat on stilts above tranquil ponds as brahma cows lowed in the shade. We went from fretting about the archetypical colonial relationship to fantasizing about coming back here to help with the coffee harvest, or Carlos’ Eco-tour plans or as teachers in his schools. In fact of all the places we’ve stayed, Finca El Cisne had both the tranquility and promise of change we sought after most in our travels.
It didn’t hurt that they also served perhaps the best coffee we’ve ever had.
After an evening of utter tranquility, we were picked up by the van headed back to Copán Ruinas. It was a twisting, rutted road that was hard to picture coffee trucks commuting in and out on. We returned to the now familiar town and, suddenly regretting leaving Honduras so soon, awaited our bus headed towards Guatemala.