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Report from Copán Valley, Honduras

Currently I am traveling with a small group of Canadian and US travellers in the Copán valley in Honduras. While not wanting to wish away time in what I have found to be a remarkable area in a fascinating nation, I am fast-forwarding to August when I will have plenty of time in bed recuperating from hip surgery. I plan on catching up on some literature inspired by travels in Central America.

I will obtain a copy of Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan by John Lloyd Stephens who lived in Honduras as a US commissioner some 80 years ago. He had become very interested in the ruined cities of Central America and put some of his adventures to pen. Stephens and his traveling companion, architect and draftsman Frederick Catherwood came to Copán and wrote about their astonishment of the stone creations of a long-forgotten people. They spent a couple of weeks observing, mapping and creating illustrations of the site. The book contains the description and drawings of what Stephens witnessed in Copán, and from later visits to other ancient ruins in Guatemala and Mexico.

Copán lies in a fertile valley traversed by the Copán river, bordered by hills covered in dry pine and mixed forests. This UNESCO World Heritage site while not the largest Mayan city, was indeed a principal Mayan cultural center that existed for several hundred years including 400 years when the city was at the classical peak of its development. The hieroglyphic writing and detailed sculpturing on stellae and temple walls suggest this city to have been far ahead of other large Mayan cities in its development of astronomy and architectural and artistic capabilities. Archaeological Copán as it exists today is composed of nine classified areas with several secondary complexes encircling it. The Principal Plaza was the gathering place that could accommodate up 15,000 people. Some estimates put the ancient city population at 40,000 during its height. The collection of stellae in this area are often described as the most ornate and intricate of any of the Mayan sites in Northern Central America. Part of the complex showcases a Hieroglyphic Stairway that is one of the all-time outstanding structures of Mayan culture. On the steps of each 100m wide stairwell are individual glyphs that when strung together form the the longest known Mayan inscription of life, beliefs and cosmology of the Maya civilization.

Over four days I visited this site and two smaller sites in the valley. The final return to the main ruins was to view tunnels beneath the acropolis. Archaeologists have dug five miles of cut that lead to various chambers, tombs and carved altars. In the walls of the cut it is possible to distinguish the age of construction of previous plazas. The more recent constructions were built on top of older ones, a pattern that repeated itself from 4oo AD to 1000 AD and reveals itself as one maneuvers upwards and then down again in the dark passages.

My guides Katinka Domen and William Orellana have recently returned from an equally mysterious place, a ‘lost city of gold’ on the opposite side of Honduras. They spoke of the stamina needed to undertake a journey to the swampy rainforests there. Their stories make me want to read the novel Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston. The newly released book is based on a true story of an archaeological adventure deep into the heart of La Moskitia. The tale follows the search for a rumored once magnificent city in the near impenetrable landscape where few wander or settle. With the help of aerial surveillance, myth transformed to reality when contact was made with the ancient city now reclaimed by nature over the past 13 centuries. This book will also be by my bed-side during my recovery. For now however, there is more to discover this week as I pack for Lake Yojoa in Central Honduras.

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