Except for divers, Christopher Columbus (who arrived there in 1502, but didn’t get off the boat) and pirates, most have not heard of the Bay Islands. Underwater aficionados flock to its largest island, Roatán, and its neighbor, Útila. The islands border the world’s second largest barrier reef (Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is number one.) Lurking under its crystal waters are huge creatures like manatees and humongous whale sharks. Near colorful reefs discover sea turtles, flamboyant tropical fish and sharks. The islands’ biggest downer are the pesky sandflies.
Útila, least expensive of the islands, is a favorite of backpackers. After jaw-dropping sunsets, parties crop up on the beach, dive bars and everywhere else.
Roatán is a bit more upscale but not touristy. Chill out on one of Roatán’s white sand beaches or shop at West Bay. For more excitement, visit nearby Gumbalimba Park. Visitors come up close and personal with monkeys and macaws. Monkey Trail Park’s 23 platforms connect 7,000 feet of ziplines - a thrill for adventure seekers.
Skip the rest of Honduras and head inland to Copan. It has always been a mystery to me why most Maya city-states sit in the heart of nowhere. Copan, deep in the Honduran jungle, is no exception. You really must want to get there.
It’s a three-hour drive from San Pedro Sula. The road is shared with not only cars and people but cows and pigs. Zigzagging over mountains and streams, it passes valleys that are rich with trees, bananas, and other vegetation.
The town square of Copan Ruinas is pretty much the whole village. Ruins are hidden within the thick jungle growth above the Copan River, about a kilometer from the square. Several macaws serve as sentries at the entrance gate. The path to the Grand Plaza is bordered by an uneven landscape of unearthed mysteries. Temples, staircases, and noble figures, depicted on three-dimensional stelae (carved stones), affirm the glory of a once great culture.
Between 250 A.D. and 900 A.D., Copan was a vibrant Maya civilization where astronomy and art flourished. Once considered “The Athens of the New World,” it is equaled only by Tikal and Palenque.
Monuments chronicle the lives of some of its rulers. Yax-Kuk-Mo, Copan’s first ruler, transformed the area from an agrarian community to a major Mayan nation. Another sovereign, Smoke-Imix, who ruled for 67 years, expanded the realm and brought wealth and prestige to Copan.
But, it was 18-Rabbit that made Copan a foremost artistic center. His ambitious building program included a remodel of the ball court and the construction of structures with intricate hieroglyphic texts that were based on astronomical and calendared calculations. Archaeologists have numbered these structures and stelae for easy identification.
Another 18-Rabbit structure, Temple 22, was built to commemorate the first 20 years of his reign. Its delicately sculptured door leads to the inner sanctum where he and his successors conducted bloodletting rites and communicated with gods and ancestors. Mayans believed that blood was the living force of the universe and the soul, and that life was lived according to the heavens. Since the king was the link between them, only his blood could be an intervening force.
This overabundance of pageantry plus the amplification of 18-Rabbit as a supernatural hero and god-like king made the city-state’s population swell. But great civilizations don’t always last. After 18-Rabbit, the city-state began to disintegrate. Weak leadership followed.
Fleeting glory returned to Copan with the rule of Smoke-Monkey. He created the Hieroglyphic Stairway to affirm the greatness of his ancestors. The stairway, with 1,300 glyphs, is the longest ancient text found in the New World. But early archaeologists badly botched the monument. It is like a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces. Stacks of stones in the “GOK pile” (God only knows) contain glyphs that archaeologists are still trying to match up.
So what ultimately happened to this wondrous civilization? It seems it became too much of a good thing. Its population became so overcrowded that it could no longer sustain itself.
Archaeology junkies and tourists still come to experience its wonders while others visit the Bay Islands to enjoy the vibe, both alongside and below the turquoise waters
IF YOU GO
As beautiful and interesting as Honduras is, the U.S. State Department has issued a travel advisory due to crime. The Bay Islands and Copan have a lower crime rate, but travelers should still be alert.
For more information contact Honduras’ website: www.letsgohonduras.com