Copan

I was becoming a pro at Central-American border crossings.  My first experience at the Mexican-Guatemalan border was much improved; I was able to get my vehicle permits and border stamps without the use of a translator.  Perhaps the process was a bit easier here but it was nice to be able to do it alone.

Just across from the border to the east are the ancient ruins at Copan.  These ruins are perhaps some of the most famous in Honduras and I had them on my “must see” list since this trip  started.  After entering the park, I found a wide open fairground with some pyramids on the far side.  Some of the pyramids were obscured by jungle and when you looked out to the growth around the site it was easy to see how all of these ruins could be swallowed by the jungle.

At the park’s entrance a large model of the ruins was laid out on a table.  When looking at the model (below), the photo above was shot in the left of the photo mid center.  The ruins are quite elaborate you could easily spend a full day here looking at all of the different pyramids, buildings and ruins.

Like the ruins at Tikal and Chichen Itza, the Copan ruins are a remnant of the Mayan people.  The site was the capital city of the Mayans and had a population as high as 9-12,000 people with additional people living in the nearby valley.  The total population of the area was as high as 25,000.  The site was at its peak from the 5th to the 9th Centuries AD

In the central courtyard is a stela commemorating one of the Copan Mayan rulers.  I found the design of the statues and the people depicted in them to be quite different from those I’d seen at Tikal and Chichen Itza: the designs and styles here seemed a bit more edgy with exotic costumes and body designs.  Unfortunately, a large part of the ruins here were destroyed by erosion from the nearby river.  The river has since been diverted to avoid further damage and roofs have been added to protect the ruins from the rain and sun.

I noticed that the archways had a very similar look to those at Ur in Iraq.  While the ruins at Ur pre-date these ruins by millenia, I couldn’t help but wonder if travelers from the new world to the old brought some architectural influence across the Atlantic?

Of all the sites at Copan, what I found most interesting was the history of kings that was incorporated into the stairs of one of the pyramids.  Using a hieroglyphic language, the history of each successive king is placed as one level in a series of stairs.  In this way, the kings’ genealogy is preserved right into the steps fo the pyramid.  Each block in the stair steps (in the photo below) is a word and each stair makes a sentence that tells the history of one of the kings of this city.

Some of the Kings’ names and history in the stairway include:

K’inch Yax K’uk Mo’ (Great-Sun First Quetzal Macaw)  ruled 426-c. to 437 AD

K’inch Popol Hol (Great-Sun) ruled c.437

name unknown ruled c.455

Ku Lx (K’altuun Hix, Tuun K’ab’ Hix) ruled c.465

name unknown ruled c.476

Muyan Jol ruled c.485

B’alam Nehn (Jaguar Mirror; Waterlily-Jaguar) ruled 504-544

Wil Ohl K’inich (Head on Earth) ruled 532-551

Sak-Lu ruled 551-553

Tzi-B’alam (Moon Jaguar) ruled 553-578

K’ak’ Chan Yopaat (Smoke Serpent) ruled 578-628

Chan Imix K’awiil (Smoke Jaguar) ruled 628-695

Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil (Rabbit) ruled 695-738

K’ak’ Joplaj Chan K’awiil (Smoke Monkey) ruled 738-749

K’ak’ Yipyaj Chan K’awiil ((Smoke Shell, Smoke Monkey) ruled 749-763

Yax Passaj Chan Yopaat ruled 763-after 810

Ukit Took ruled 822 – ?

Throughout the Copan ruins were stones stacked one upon another that had hieroglyphics carved into them.  These stones told stories of the Mayan rulers and the history of this land.  Some of the stones had odd skull shaped faces and even though these were the same people who built the pyramids at Chichen Itza the designs looked completely different.  I found the variation in the Mayan ruins that varied from one area to another to be quite interesting.

We spent the day wandering around the ruins enjoying the adventure of exploring these ancient ruins.  At the tops of the pyramids we had commanding views of the lush jungle-covered valleys and hillsides.  I captured a photo of Jeff and Donja as they explored the ruins.

Donja cut her hair for this trip; she explained that she cuts her hair when she goes on a backpack trip and later Jeff and I looked at her German driver’s license and almost didn’t recognize the long-haired beauty in the photo.  Donja does a lot of vertical cliff climbing and told us that she “fattens up” between holidays because she is likely to loose 10kg (20lbs) when on a climbing trek.  I did notice that her arms and shoulders were quite ripped and cut and it always put the thought into my mind that rock climbing was a good thing to do to your physique LOL.

The ruins went on and on.  Behind some of the walls we found rooms that were lived in some 1500 years ago; we thought of what it must be like to have lived here so long ago.  This entire acropolis was inhabited by royalty and the wealthy of this land, their lives must have been of luxury and relaxation.

As we looked out beyond the ruins we could see the lush jungle (bottom photo) and I tried to imagine what it must have looked like to have been clear-cut back for several kilometers and this entire valley turned into farm land.  Surely little huts and houses must have dotted the horizon – filled with farmers’ families who tended the land and paid taxes to the royalty of this palace.  It must have been quite a sight…


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Tikal

One of the most popular destinations in Guatemala is the location of the ancient Mayan city of Tikal.  Located way up in the northeast of the country it is just west of Belize and southwest of the Mayan Peninsula.  The ruins at Tikal are some of the largest in the Americas; excavation has only been a small fraction of the buildings and archaeologists will likely be excavating and learning about the Mayans for the next two centuries.

What is most amazing about this site is that it went “missing” for centuries.  The jungle just swallowed up this city that was once the size of a modern city.  As you look at these photos, try to imagine this entire area clear-cut for many miles similar to the ruins at   If you have seen Mel Gibson’s movie Apocalypto you’ll have some idea of what this place may have been like during the zenith of its history.

After parking in the lot and paying our park fee we began to walk towards the pyramids – some of the most famous spots in the site.  We noticed the Ceiba tree (below), it is the national tree of Guatemala.  As we made our way along the thick jungle trail we had glimpses of the pyramids that were hidden under the canopy of jungle (top photo).

As we continued along the path towards the pyramid complexes we ran into dozens of little lemur type animals called the Coatimundi.  So the guidebook says that these little creatures can be quite fierce and that you shouldn’t mix with them but they seemed harmless enough and all of the tourists were feeding them all kinds of junk food.  Poor little buggers will probably have heart attacks at mid-life from all the processed junk food…

This area was first inhabited about 2,000 BC and reached the height of its civilization in the 7th or 8th centuries AD.  The civilization here, much like many in the Americas, had a sudden collapse.  The exact reason for the collapse is unknown; some attribute the ruin of Tikal to war, famine or disease.  It is likely that a change in the climate or rainfall caused crop failures; without a tax base the central government lost its power.

As we approached the twin pyramid complex we came up behind one of the two pyramids (below).  Two identical pyramids face each other in a beautifully designed courtyard with additional buildings nearby.

In the photos below you can see some of the other ruins that are just off to the side of the twin pyramids.  As always, I am amazed that you are allowed to walk on these ancient ruins.

The shot above and below are taken from the top of the second pyramid.  The steps are quite steep going up the pyramid and it seemed that most people had an easier time going up than down.  Once up on top a lot of people were afraid to climb down as they could see how high they were; when climbing they didn’t realize how high they were as they were looking up!

In the photo below I’m looking from one pyramid to another, both similar in size and shape and you can get an idea of what the layout of this complex is.  I tried to imagine all of the jungle cut back and the entire area full of buildings and people.  At the height of the civilization here as many as 90,000 people called Tikal their home.  The pyramids were likely whitewashed and painted in bright white, red and yellow colors.  I can only imagine what a spectacle it must have looked like some 1,300 years ago.

As we continued on to the next complex we came to another pyramid that has been left in the condition it was found in and it makes it a little easier to understand how an entire pyramid can be swallowed up by the jungle.  After years of disuse seeds embed between the stones and not just plants but entire trees grow up out of the pyramid.  After some time the entire pyramid is covered in lush jungle and just looks like another hill.  In the photo below, Charlotta and I are climbing a ladder that helps tourists bypass the tree growth but this is actually the base of one of the pyramids.  You may recognize the photo from the top of this pyramid.

On top of the tree-covered pyramid we had a wonderful view of even more of the complexes.  You can see how thick the jungle is – covering what used to be a thriving city.  Does this photo (below) look at all familiar?  If you watch the original Star Wars movie, towards the end when the X-wing and Y-wing fighters are taking off to go and attack the Death Star, they are flying out of this jungle with these pyramids in the background.

If you want to know more about the history of Tikal a quick Google search will give you quite a good background on its history and the Mayan people.  Wikipedia has a decent history line at Wiki Tikal.


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