The Mayans: First contact
Our rest day was in the legendary Copán Ruinas in Honduras, just a few kilometres from the Guatemalan border. Due to the incident with the dog, and the summersault over the handlebars, I was unable to visit on of our most amazing stopovers. However as luck would have it, my taxi driver, Guillome, who took me back to Gracias, has been a tour guide at the ruins for more than 21-years and during our 3-hour journey he chatted up a storm. Thanks to Suzette Nieuwoudt (Suzie Q), and Sarah Butler (Grommit), for providing us with your lovely photos.
Guillome, was born at home, in Copán Ruinas, and today there are still no hospitals in the village. It is all cobblestones and tiny restaurants and friendly residents. He lives with his 15-year old daughter, two dogs, (a German and a Belgian Shephard) and two horses, in the heart of the village. Guillome tells me that they have evidence that it took more than 500 years to build these ruins and that it was abandoned in 1180. Incidentally the reason for the Mayans abandoning the ruins is the most common question asked by visitors to the ruins. Guillome says that evidence of a revolution can be found in the hieroglyphs. In short: apparently the Mayan nobility built their palaces and temples on some of the finest fertile ground rendering it useless. They also used the best land to dig up limestone necessary for building their flights of fancy. Soon the last bits of land used for agriculture became overused, further rain brought more erosion to the already thin soil. Hunger and disease followed. A revolution erupted and Guillome says in the carvings you can find evidence of fires and destruction. The nobility was either forced out our fled. The later Spanish invasion further thinned out the Mayan community.
Copán was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. According to Guillome there are many small Mayan communities living on the outskirts of Copán, as well as Mayan shamans that perform rituals inside their homes. He kept on throwing me dirty looks whenever I asked about the Mayan shamans and their rituals, so I think there is a lot more to be uncovered than only the ruins.
During our white-knuckle drive and his talking we spend a lot of time on the wrong side of the road in order to avoid enormous potholes. The roads are as eroded as the morals of the politicians he assures me. We pass a pick-up truck filled to the brim with youths and young children. Guillome explains that the education industry had been shaped around the coffee industry. The beans are ready for harvesting around this time of year and so the school holidays have been arranged to coincide with picking time. Some of the kids look really young and I ask him about child labour laws. He says the law is 16 years with the parents’ permission. The problem is poverty and the kids are working to make money for their families or for school next year. So the law turns a blind eye.
Guillome is passionate about the ruins. His three favourite aspects of Copán?
- The hieroglyphical stairway depicting the history of Copán on its 36 steps. He calls it, “The first encyclopaedia of America written in stone”.
- The Mesoamerican Ballcourt. He says this is one of the most ornate Mayan ballcourts remaining. The Mayans played their games and it usually ended with a ritual human sacrifice. He says the ballgame is symbolic of life and death. The only way for warriors/gladiators to get to the next level (world) is to die.
- The plaza of stelaes. Guillome calls it “Mayan Baroque created 1000 years before Baroque”.
Does Guillome believe in the end of the world on 21 December? He gets very philosophical here and confirms for me at least what I believe. “We are very egocentric,” he says. “We think it is the end of the world but in so many ways it is the end of us. The end of an era. We cannot keep destroying the earth and think we can carry on. It is a time for reflection and protection and a new way of doing things. We think it is the world that will disappear but it is only us that will disappear. It is the scorpions and the cockroaches that will survive.”
I think there is a movie plot here simply waiting for Steven Spielberg to get his act together.
Guillome says there will be major festivities happening from 14 to 21 December at the ruins. Music, puppet shows, light shows, meditation and yoga classes and everyone in the village is getting involved. If you have not booked a room yet, you will have to look in nearby villages such as Villa Rosa as Copán’s accommodation is fully booked for those wanting first row seats to the end of an era.