Once home to pirates, Honduras is now a haven for some of the lushest and most vibrant rainforest areas on the planet.
SLENDER green tendrils reach out from the tropical rainforest like the fingers of a trusting child. But behind these delicate creepers squats the vast animal presence of a dense, steaming jungle: a thick, musky 1073-square-kilometre pelt of mahogany and cocoa, broad-leaf banana palms, extravagant orchids and vast shivering ferns that stretch in all directions to the horizon.
Ruins in Copan - Honduras
Here it rises, morphing into ghostly cloud-forest as it climbs, and then thick pine, before finally emerging as the glorious, mist-crowned summit of Pico Bonito, Honduras’s third-highest peak and part of the sweeping cordillera Nombre de Dios (Name of God) mountain range.
“It’s 2500 vertical metres of habitat,” James Adams says, with something like paternal pride. “Each level supports its own ecosystem.”
Set in the heart of Central America, the country is as picturesquely rugged as it is boisterously lush. Dominated by soaring ranges that channel some of Central America’s main rivers, it offers a verdant habitat for more than 700 species of bird and 200 species of mammal, living in 80 protected wilderness areas and 20 vast national parks (the sprawling La Moskitia – Mosquito Coast – in north-eastern Honduras is the biggest and probably most important rainforest outside the Amazon).
The mineral-rich rivers also feed the fertile plains that attracted Mayan farmers across the border from Guatemala in the fifth century and the all-powerful American fruit companies (whose economic dominance arguably created the original banana republic) in the late 19th century.
Honduras also boasts 644 kilometres of Caribbean coastline, with the idyllic Bay Islands offering easy access to the Mesoamerican barrier reef, the world’s largest after Australia’s.
Copan is an archaeological site whose 3500-plus Mayan ruins, dating from between the fifth and ninth centuries, are scattered over 24 square kilometres of jungle in western Honduras, close to the Guatemalan border.
At 8am, the heat was already pitiless as my guide, Walter Villamil, and I picked a path between bulging roots and lumps of stone into the dense jungle that engulfed Copan until archaeologists began unearthing the site in 1841. It was madly atmospheric; overhead, huge red and blue macaws streaked noisily across the forest canopy like fireworks. They settled in the giant ceibas, the striking trees (imagine oaks hung with giant balls of cotton wool) sacred to the Mayans, who believed the branches, trunk and roots embodied the heavens, earth and hell.
I stumbled from the jungle and found myself in the arresting west (or death) court, a broad, open plaza featuring the first of a series of huge pyramids. A sprawling collection of altars, stelae and monuments were scattered around, their intricate carvings recounting the battles and beliefs of a dynasty of 16 kings who for five centuries ruled more than 25,000 people, accomplished in the arts of engineering, astronomy and physics. Some say sniffily that Copan isn’t as impressive as Tikal in Guatemala but the quality and condition of Copan’s artefacts is so good that they have informed much of what we know about Mayan civilisation today.
I was staying in Copan Ruinas (known just as Copan), the tiny Spanish colonial town a kilometre away, built on the site of a Mayan settlement. Charming is an overused word but Copan truly is. The town is spotlessly clean. Locals courteously wish you and each other “buenos dias”. Everyone gathers in the square at night, the shrieks of excited children competing with those of the parrots roosting in the palm trees, while street traders busy themselves selling skewers of freshly grilled chicken and corn.
The few tourists here were mostly Hondurans and travellers from neighbouring El Salvador. A handful of Americans and European backpackers congregated at Twisted Tanya’s, a relatively pricey ($22 for three courses) but unexpectedly gourmet rooftop restaurant run by Tanya, a charismatic British expat.
Everyone seemed to be following La Ruta Maya, the trail of Mayan ruins that leads from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico down through Belize into Guatemala and Honduras. I was more interested in La Ruta Lenca, named after Honduras’s largest indigenous group. It’s a trail of remote villages set along the winding ascent up Cerro de las Minas, Honduras’s highest mountain. The Lenca population is about 100,000. Their traditions and beliefs are shrouded in mystery and date to 3000 years ago but they are said to include sun worship and a belief in the sacrosanctity of nature.
There is no organised La Ruta Lenca tour and, although a number of regional buses do (eventually) stop at various Lencan towns, a recent storm had washed away key sections of the mountain road.
Walter offered to drive me though I was sad to leave pretty Copan and its lovely cafes (all selling thrillingly good, locally grown coffee). The ensuing four-hour drive was beautiful: swooping, winding roads through dense groves of coconut, mango, almond, fig and pine. We crossed wide rivers where locals cooled off from the intense heat.
Behind them tall, wooden drying sheds sat in wide green fields of tobacco, with the vast Cerro de las Minas mountain rising up beyond. The countryside is so physically succulent, it looks like a massive green cake: you feel as if you could cut a great big slice and cram it into your mouth. We rose higher, passing through villages where sombrero-wearing men on horseback, white shirts open to the waist, galloped alongside their cattle, whirling lassos. A yellow school bus disgorged smartly uniformed children and women chopped watermelon and pineapple at roadside stalls.
I was amazed by the mostly excellent condition of the roads and how courteous the drivers were. I’d had concerns about hiring a car but now I wished I had. Then again, Walter’s insights and knowledge were invaluable.
We made it as far as the town of Gracias before the road ran out. Like Copan, it has challengingly cobbled streets and stuccoed, tiled-roofed buildings and a main square, this one overlooked by the commanding Iglesia de San Marcos. It is just one of four grand colonial churches in the town and a reminder that Gracias – founded in 1536 – was once an important place (one-time capital of Spain’s Central American empire). But that was long ago: Gracias now feels splendidly remote and bucolic. I didn’t see a single tourist and as I walked down a clean but badly broken road, I realised that even if Copan is not exactly a Mayan Disney town, it is certainly shaped by tourism in a way that Gracias is not.
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