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Ruta Maya 14 – Wrack and Ruinas

Friday 25th –  Saturday 26th April 2014

In a fit of stupidity that seems rather impressive, even for me, we took the overnight bus all the way from Flores to Guatemala City. Why we didn’t disembark 150km earlier when we passed the junction at Rio Hondo (for Copan Ruinas) I’ll never know. I think I was tired. It was a bit like wanting to get to Bristol from London and going via Liverpool.
Somebody made a map of stupid...

So we found ourselves in the middle of the monumental traffic jam that is Guatemala City searching for the bus station for the bus that would take us 150km back the way we came… and then with any luck, swing southwards towards the border with Honduras.

Only remember I said my Lonely Planet was six years out of date? Yeah. That bus station ain’t there no more.

One of my (albeit few) bugbears about Central America (and the UK!) is this: every damn bus company has its own damn terminal and they’re all clustered around the city centre like mad people preaching from The Bibble. This makes things needlessly complicated when attempting the traverse the length and breadth of this mighty isthmus in a limited timeframe. Happily, GuatCit One (as I like to call it) has just built a brand new bus terminal/shopping mall on the edge of town in which all of the competing bus companies can live together in blissful harmony without having to fight through 10 miles of gridlock to get to the middle of a city you’re not even interested in visiting anyhoo. ARE YOU LISTENING LONDON?!!


The only problem was that this semi-mythical bus station was (quite sensibly) situated on the edge of town, whereas we were currently situated slap bang in the middle.

We managed to get a bus for most of the journey, but at some point we did have to get off and get into a taxi. Which cost a small fortune. KICKING MYSELF.

Upon arrival at the squeaky clean bus terminal/shopping mall I quickly realised we stopped there on the way into town about two hours earlier, but kept it to myself lest Casey (she was asleep the first time) conclude I’m some kind of amateur at this travel lark.

Pretty soon we had purchased tickets to Chiquimula (or “Cheeky Mullah” as I like to call it) , the last Guatemalan town before the border with Honduras – just 35km from the turning I missed a several hours ago, which we will NEVER MENTION AGAIN.

The big bus was no problem, but the minibus ride from Chiquimula to the actual border… OH. MY. GOD. The guy driving must have been tripping balls, high on crack cocaine or something – he drove like Louis Hamilton only faster. It would have been terrifying enough in a F1 car on a racetrack, but this guy was weaving along winding mountain roads in the jungle DRIVING A BUS.

I just braced myself and hoped for the best (not for the first time).

Somehow we made it to the border in one piece. Immigration was very straight-forward and we waited on the Honduran side with some locals until the bus came to whisk us away to the town of Copán Ruinas – named for the Mayan ruins that lay nearby.

Like a lot of the small towns we visited on the Ruta Maya, Copán Ruinas was a delight. The backpackers we stayed at was seriously nice – colourful and rustic, so laid back it was silly. I had to pinch myself to remind myself that we were now in Honduras – the murder capital of the world.

After our epic journey getting here, there would be no tomb raiding or Indiana-Jonesing today. We settled in for the night and just chilled.

Early the next morning we jumped a tuk-tuk to Copán, the last site of our Ruta Maya.

Mayan Site #11: Copán

Copán is an archaeological site of the Maya civilization located in the Copán Department of western Honduras, not far from the border with Guatemala. It was the capital city of a major Classic period kingdom from the 5th to 9th centuries AD.
The city was located in the extreme southeast of the Mesoamerican cultural region, on the frontier with the Isthmo-Colombian cultural region, and was almost surrounded by non-Maya peoples.

Copán was occupied for more than two thousand years, from the Early Preclassic period to the Postclassic. It is likely the ancient name of Copán was Oxwitik, “Three Witik” (the meaning of witik remains obscure).

The fertile Copán River valley was long a site of agriculture before the first known stone architecture was built in the region about the 9th century BC. Mentions of the predynastic history of Copán are found in later texts, but none of these predates the refounding of the city in AD 426. That was the year that K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, established it as the capital of a new Maya kingdom. This coup was apparently organized and launched from Tikal.

After this, Copán became one of the more powerful Maya city states and was a regional power in the southern Maya region. B’alam Nehn (often referred to as Waterlily Jaguar) was the first king to actually record his position in the dynastic succession, declaring that he was seventh in line from K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’. Stela 15 records that he was already ruling Copán by AD 504. B’alam Nehn is the only king of Copán to be mentioned in a hieroglyphic text from outside of the southeastern Maya region. His name appears in a text on Stela 16 from Caracol, a site in Belize.

Copán suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of its former vassal state Quirigua in 738, when the long-ruling king Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil was captured and beheaded by Quirigua’s ruler K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat (Cauac Sky). Although this was a major setback, Copán’s rulers began to build monumental structures again within a few decades.

The population declined in the 8th and 9th centuries from perhaps over 20,000 in the city to less than 5,000. This decrease in population took over four centuries to actually show signs of collapse, showing the stability of this site even after the fall of the ruling dynasties and royal families. The ceremonial centre was long abandoned and the surrounding valley home to only a few farming hamlets at the time of the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century.

The Copán buildings suffered significantly from forces of nature in the centuries between the site’s abandonment and the rediscovery of the ruins. After the abandonment of the city the Copán River gradually changed course, with a meander destroying the eastern portion of the acropolis (revealing in the process its archaeological stratigraphy in a large vertical cut) and apparently washing away various subsidiary architectural groups, including at least one courtyard and 10 buildings.

Several buildings recorded in the 19th century were destroyed, plus an unknown amount of the acropolis that was eroded before it could be recorded. In order to avoid further destruction of the acropolis, the Carnegie Institution redirected the river to save the archaeological site, diverting it southwards in the 1930s; the dry former riverbed was finally filled in at the same time as consolidation of the cut in 1990s.

The Copán site is known for a series of portrait stelae, most of which were placed along processional ways in the central plaza of the city and the adjoining acropolis, a large complex of overlapping step-pyramids, plazas, and palaces. The site has a large court for playing the Mesoamerican ballgame. In two parallel buildings framing a carefully dimensioned rectangle lies the court. The site is divided into various groups, with the Main Group and the Cemetery Group in the site core linked by a sacbe to the Sepulturas Group to the northeast.

The Main Group represents the core of the ancient city, it includes the Acropolis, which is a raised royal complex on the south side, and a group of smaller structures and linked plazas to the north, including the Hieroglyphic Stairway and the ballcourt. The Monument Plaza contains the greatest concentration of sculpted monuments at the site.

The Acropolis was the royal complex at the heart of Copán. It consists of two plazas that have been named the West Court and the East Court. They are both enclosed by elevated structures. Archaeologists have excavated extensive tunnels under the Acropolis, revealing how the royal complex at the heart of Copán developed over the centuries and uncovering several hieroglyphic texts that date back to the Early Classic and verify details of the early dynastic rulers of the city who were recorded on Altar Q hundreds of years later. The deepest of these tunnels have revealed that the first monumental structures underlying the Acropolis date archaeologically to the early 5th century AD.

Structure 10L-4 is a platform with four stairways situated by the Monument Plaza.

Structure 10L-11 is on the west side of the Acropolis. It encloses the south side of the Court of the Hieroglyphic Stairway and is accessed from it by a wide monumental stairway. This structure appears to have been the royal palace of Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat, the 16th ruler in the dynastic succession and the last known king of Copán. Structure 10L-11 was built on top of several earlier structures, one of which probably contains the tomb of his predecessor K’ak’ Yipyaj Chan K’awiil. A small tunnel descends into the interior of the structure, possibly to the tomb, but it has not yet been excavated by archaeologists.

Structure 10L-16 (Temple 16) is a temple pyramid that is the highest part of the Acropolis. It is located between the East and West Courts at the heart of the ancient city. The temple faces the West Court within the Acropolis and is dedicated to K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, the dynastic founder. The temple was placed on top of the original palace and tomb of the king. It is the final version of a number of temples built on top of each other, as was common practice in Mesoamerica.

One of the best preserved phases of Temple 16 is the Rosalila, built over the remains of five previous versions of the temple. Archaeologist Ricardo Agurcia discovered the almost intact shrine while tunneling underneath the final version of the temple. Rosalila is notable for its excellent state of preservation, including the entire building from the base platform up to the roof comb, including its highly elaborate painted stucco decoration. Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil encased the Rosalila phase under a new version of the building in the early 8th century AD. An offering was made as part of the rites to terminate the old phase and included a collection of eccentric flints worked into the profiles of humans and gods, which were wrapped in blue-dyed textiles.

Structure 10L-18 is on the southeastern side of the Acropolis and has been damaged by the erosion caused by the Copán River, having lost its eastern side. Stairs on the south side of the structure lead down to a vaulted tomb that was looted in ancient times and was probably that of Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat. It was apparently plundered soon after the collapse of the Copán kingdom. Unusually for Copán, the summit shrine had four sculpted panels depicting the king performing war dances with spear and shield, emphasizing the rising tensions as the dynasty came to its end.

Structure 10L-22 is a large building on the north side of the East Court, in the Acropolis, and faces onto it. It dates to the reign of Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil and is the best preserved of the buildings from his rule. The superstructure of the building has an interior doorway with an elaborate sculpted frame and decorated with masks of the mountain god Witz. The outer doorway is framed by the giant mask of a deity, and has stylistic similarities with the Chenes regional style of distant Yucatán. The temple was built to celebrate the completion of the king’s first K’atun in power, in AD 715, and has a hieroglyphic step with a first-person phrase “I completed my K’atun”. The building symbolically represents the mountain where maize was created.

Structure 10L-25 is in the East Court of the Acropolis. It covers a rich royal tomb nicknamed Sub-Jaguar by archaeologists. It is presumed to be the tomb of either Ruler 7 (B’alam Nehn), Ruler 8 or Ruler 9, who all ruled in the first half of the 6th century AD.

Structure 10L-26 is a temple that projects northwards from the Acropolis and is immediately to the north of Structure 10L-22. The structure was built by Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil and K’ak’ Yipyaj Chan K’awiil, the 13th and 15th rulers in the dynastic succession.

Copan’s famous Hieroglyphic Stairway ascends the building on the west side from the courtyard below. It measures 21 meters (69 ft) long, 10-meters (33 ft) wide and and has a total of 62 steps.

Stela M and its associated altar are at its base and a large sculpted figure is located in the centre of every 12th step. These figures are believed to represent the most important rulers in the dynastic history of the site. The stairway takes its name from the 2200 glyphs that together form the longest known Maya hieroglyphic text.

The text is still being reconstructed, having been scrambled by the collapse of the glyphic blocks when the façade of the temple collapsed. The staircase was first built by Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil in AD 710, being reinstalled and expanded in the following phase of the temple by K’ak’ Yipyaj Chan K’awiil in AD 755.

The Ballcourt is immediately north of the Court of the Hieroglyphic Stairway and is to the south of the Monument Plaza. It was remodeled by Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil, who then demolished it and built a third version, which was one of the largest from the Classic period. It was dedicated to the great macaw deity and the buildings flanking the playing area carried 16 mosaic sculptures of the birds. The completion date of the ballcourt is inscribed with a hieroglyphic text upon the sloping playing area and is given as 6 January 738.

The Sepulturas Group is linked by a sacbe or causeway that runs southwest to the Monument Plaza in the Main Group. The Sepulturas Group consists of a number of restored structures, mostly elite residences that feature stone benches, some of which have carved decorations, and a number of tombs.

The group has a very long occupational history, with one house having been dated as far back as the Early Preclassic. By the Middle Preclassic, large platforms were being built from cobbles and several rich burials were made. By AD 800, the complex consisted of about 50 buildings arranged around 7 major courtyards. At this time, the most important building was the ‘House of the Bakabs, the palace of a powerful nobleman from the time of Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat. The building has a high-quality sculpted exterior and a carved hieroglyphic bench inside. A portion of the group was a subdistrict occupied by non-Maya inhabitants from Central Honduras who were involved in the trade network that brought in goods from that region.

Altar Q is the most famous monument at Copán. It was dedicated by king Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat in AD 776 and has each of the first 16 kings of the Copán dynasty carved around its side. Each figure is depicted seated on his name glyph. A hieroglyphic text is inscribed on the upper surface, relating the founding of the dynasty in AD 426–427. On one side, it shows the dynastic founder K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ transferring power to Yax Pasaj.

The Motmot Capstone is an inscribed stone that was placed over a tomb under Structure 10L-26. Its face was finely sculpted with portraits of the first two kings of the Copán dynasty, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ and K’inich Popol Hol, facing towards each other with a double column of hieroglyphs between them, all contained within a quatrefoil frame. The frame and the hieroglyphic names of mythological locations underneath the feet of the two kings place them in a supernatural realm. The capstone bears two calendrical dates, in AD 435 and AD 441. The second of these is probably the date that the capstone was dedicated.


You might think I’d be all Mayan’d out by now, but this trip has barely scratched the surface. Casey and I have been to 11 sites out of over 140 scattered across Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and El Salvador.

So there’s plenty more to see and do, of course there is, there always is! I quite fancy the trek through the jungle to see El Mirador, still hidden away in the very north of Guatemala. Seriously, you could travel every day for the rest of your life and still not see everything this crazy wonderful little big planet has to offer.

Although Copan is our last stop, this isn’t quite the end of our Ruta Maya. We still have to get back to Bocas Del Toro… back back back to Jinja Island.

Graham Hughes

Graham Hughes is a British adventurer, presenter, filmmaker and author. He is the only person to have travelled to every country in the world without flying. From 2014 to 2017 he lived off-grid on a private island that he won in a game show, before returning to the UK to campaign for a better future for the generations to come.

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