For Spring Break 2007, we stumbled across a trip offered by
Nolitours.com to Royal Decameron Salinitas resort on El Salvador’s Pacific Coast
in the Sonsonate Region, 90 minutes from the airport. The experience was so
good that we returned for two weeks over the Christmas and New Year’s period in
Figure 1. El Salvador
Once the basic outline of the trip was clear, the web was
used to find the best prices for travel and accommodation and then to book
them. Without the Internet and a credit card, this trip could not have been
I had some trepidation going to Central America given its
turbulent and violent recent past. It turned out that these trips to El
Salvador gave us a chance to visit three of the four countries of Central
America, namely El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua (Figure 2). It is a part of the world with a sad history due to the effects or colonialism and exploitation of the masses.
2. Map of Central America
This trip report is written to remind us of the trip that we
took, the sights that we saw and why the places that we visited are of general
interest. Without the later understanding, the sights are little more than
interesting piles of stones that are unconnected to our heritage.
I've tried to illustrate our trip mainly with our pictures,
supplemented by other photographs freely available on the Internet. Apart from
describing our experience, I've included the history of many of the sights as
found on the Internet. I hope that I've given credit to any material taken
from the Internet in the list of references.
In February 2007, we flew Air Transat from Montreal to the San
Salvador Airport and then were bussed for about 90 minutes to the resort on
the Pacific coast. Once we were through customs at the San Salvador airport,
the staff from the Decameron took over and have use on our bus and off to the
resort in good time. We were provided with drinks and a box lunch for the 1.5
hour trip to the resort. The trip was very interesting as we got a chance to
see some of the country including San Salvador and the countryside.
On 24 December 2007, we flew Air Transat from Toronto to the
San Salvador Airport for a two week stay. For this trip we left our car at
the Days Inn for 15 days as part of a park-sleep-fly package (http://www.parksleepandfly.com/).
The package included one night’s accommodation prior to the flight and a
shuttle to the airport. The price was $108 which was very good value.
The question of safety when visiting Central America is an
issue, especially to those who remember the wars of the 1980s and early 90s. El
Salvador experienced a 12-year civil war that end with a peace treaty in 1992
and left thousands dead and many injured.
During our visit, three Salvadoran congressmen were waylaid
and killed on a road on the outskirts of Guatemala City. It did not take the
authorities long to find the culprits: they were Guatemalan police officers,
and their unmarked police car had a tracking device that proved they were at
the scene. They were sent a maximum-security prison where a group of heavily
armed men in military garb and ski masks made their way through seven locked
doors and executed them, with no interference from guards, removing any
possibility that they could identify co-conspirators. The two sets of brazen
killings set off a vicious diplomatic conflict between Guatemala and El Salvador
— heightened by news reports suggesting that the congressmen were indeed drug
dealers — and ignited a political scandal here. It shed light on how corrupt
the National Police has become, and raised questions about links between drug
dealers and high-level police officials, as well as whether the government can
contain drug trafficking without international help. (Ref C)
Since 1993, the United States has twice helped set up
special antinarcotics forces here, only to watch their commanders become
embroiled in the drug trade themselves. “The truth, I think, is the problem
comes from the end of the armed conflict, when the state tried to protect
itself against rebels,” said the editor of La Hora newspaper, Óscar Clemente
Marroquín. “When the war stopped, the apparatus kept operating the same way but
now it doesn’t protect the military. Now it protects organized crime.”
The Royal Decameron Salinitas hotel has its own security
force – not unlike many Caribbean resorts. Armed tourist police accompany
several of the offsite excursions and you will see a heavy presence of police
on the roads if you travel about. As well you may see the occasion patrol of
armed soldiers in the countryside. All that being said, at no time did I feel
in danger rather the reverse is true, I felt that the people were friendly. Of
course there are parts of San Salvador that you would be wise to stay clear of
as there are parts of Toronto that should be avoided. I saw more serious
police action in the Jane and Finch area of Toronto on the eve of my flight to El
Salvador than I saw in El Salvador where eight police cars were surrounding a
car in a strip mall.
Leg of Trip
22 February – 1 March 2007
1 – Ottawa-Montreal (return)
Cash taken on trip
2 – Airfare and resort (1
3 – Trip to Copán
24 December 2007 – 7 January 2008
1 – Ottawa-Toronto (return)
days parking at Days Inn hotel included
2 – Replacement of luggage
Left in car
3 – Airfare and resort (2
4 – Trip to Copán
5 – Trip to La Antigua
6 – Zipline/Canopy
7 – Culture & Crafts
Table 1. Key Vacation
The costs of this vacation are in Table 1. The total cost of the trip including the trip to Copán was about $2100 for two people for a week in February 2007. This cost of $1050/person/week compares to a cost of $1167/person/week for our summer of 2006 trip to
Europe and $1100/person/week for our Summer 2007 five week trip to SE Asia.
The Royal Decameron Salinitas is described as a four star
resort and for us it was. We had our room key within minutes of arrival and
shortly after getting to our room, our luggage was delivered. In short the
administrative organization at the resort is first rate. We soon found out that
the rest of the staff was friendly and efficient.
3. Satellite view of resort in 2005 (note tidal pool at resort sticking out into ocean).
Since the satellite photograph was taken in 2005 (Figure 3), there has been considerable construction of dormitory and restaurant buildings at the SE end of the property. For example between our visit in February 2007 and our return in December 2007 there was the construction
of four new 24-unit dormitories and another lobby along with a new buffet
restaurant at the south end of the resort near the Bambu restaurant. It
appears that they are for Czech tourists who now coming to the resort. This
new construction does tend to make the pool at the Bambu more crowded. The
satellite photograph also shows the breakwater, some 50 meters offshore, that
parallels the beach.
The room was good and the air conditioning effective. Every
room has an ocean view which made the room that much nicer. There are ample
pools, beach chairs and bars throughout the resort. I would recommend bring an
insulated mug to avoid having to make many trips to the bar for refills.
The weather was constant with sunny days and 33C temperatures the norm. It was
a welcome change not to have to worry about whether there would be any
The food in the buffet restaurant was good however the food in the four a la
carte restaurants was very good. We enjoyed all four: the Bambu (Thai),
Pastafari (Italian/Jamaican), El Mediterráneo (seafood) and the Mayan
The nightly shows at 2200 hours were excellent with very talented dancers who
put on entertaining shows. The disco was a good size and generally stayed open
until 0200 hours.
The sunsets over the Pacific Ocean were stunning and not to be missed (Figure 4).
4. Colourful local bus (left), Sunset
over tidal pool at resort (right)
The only caution that we’d give people about this resort is
its beach (Figure 5). The beach slopes steeply down to the water and there is a breakwater about 75 yards offshore. The breakwater protects the beach in the storm season. The tides on the Pacific coast here are very high which means that
at low tide, the beach is exposed and there is only shallow water out to the
breakwater. During our stay the tide was out more often then it was in during
the daylight hours. To compensate for the disappearing water, there is a large
manmade tidal pool about four feet deep that has water when the tide is out (Figure
4). As well the resort provides a free school bus that makes three trips daily of 30 minute duration to the Costa Azul and its magnificent wide beach (Figure 5). The resort has rented a compound on the beach and there is a bar that serves food. There appears to always be waves on the Costa Azul so boogie boarding and bodysurfing are possible. You can walk a long way along the
5. Beaches at resort (left), Costa
Azul beach (right)
6. Copy of Mayan altar by a pool (left), copy of Mayan Ball Court (right)
The resort offers a wide variety of day trips. We took the
day long trip to Copán, Honduras for US $95. The resort has full sized copies
of the stelae and other sculpture from Copán that are displayed throughout the resort
(Figure 6 and Figure 60). They give the resort a fascinating look and serve as a good warm up for a trip to Copán itself.
There were several types of massages available at about US
$55 for 80 minutes. Donna availed herself of several massages in the massage
huts located right on the beach (left, Figure 7). There was also a sweat lodge run by a shaman beside the massage huts. I attended a couple of sessions which are very similar to a sauna except for the chanting and drumming (right, Figure 7).
7. Getting a hot stone massage (left), coming out of the sweat lodge
Figure 8. Akan Bar
and pool (left), workers clean out vegetation from artificial ponds (right)
Figure 9. Pelicans
in v-formation (left), stranded boat at
In the late afternoon, a couple of flights of pelicans would
fly over the resort in v-formation just like Canada geese. A new feature at
the resort in December 2007 was a stranded fishing boat at the south end of the
resort. The boat is just off the property and it’s completely exposed at low
tide (the tides run some 6 feet).
10. Friendly waiter (left), Maya Steakhouse (center), queen of the roast
pollo, i.e. chicken (right)
Most night we booked to eat a one of the four a la carte
restaurants. All of these restaurants served other functions, for example the
Maya Steakhouse served burgers, fries and roast chicken. Donna really liked
the roast chicken and talked to the cook who made this food (right, Figure 10). She also befriended the waiter named ??. We tipped both of them a couple of times and they appreciated it.
When it was time to leave, our departure was again expertly
handled by the resort’s administrative organization and it was hassle free.
In conclusion, we thoroughly enjoyed both our trips to El
Salvador and our stays at the Royal Decameron. A two week stay was more
relaxing than only staying for one week.
The Royal Decameron Salinitas is located on El Salvador’s Pacific
Coast at Salinitas in the Sonsonate Region, some 90 minutes from the airport (see
Figure 22). While this bus trip seems to be a disadvantage, it turned out to be excellent as it gave us the chance to see some of the country including a drive by San Salvador, the capital.
Figure 11. The trip
route from San Salvador Airport to Decameron Resort Salinitas
Leaving the airport, we traveled on major roads past San Salvador
to Sonsonate and then to Salinitas where the Decameron is located.
12. Sugar cane (left), coconut roadside stand (center), truck traffic
13. Changed at the San Salvador Airport (left), on bus to Decameron Resort (right)
14. Volcano over San Salvador (left, center), Volcan Izalco in Cerro Verde National Park (right)
15. Beggar on roadway (left), sugar cane processing plant (center), near
the resort (right)
The Decameron Resort offers a number of very interesting day
trips. As we wanted to see Mayan ruins we considered the “Mayan Route” tour
and the trip to Copán, Honduras. The “Mayan Route” tour cost US $70 and
visited four Mayan sites in El Salvador, including Tazumal, Joya de Cerén and San
Andrés. Someone who took it described spending 5 hours on the bus and the rest
hot slogging behind a guide explaining why the Mayan ruins here don't compare
with those of Mexico or Honduras, and looking at museum pottery shards behind
glass with explanation notes in Spanish.
22. The trip route to Copán from Decameron Resort Salinitas
The trip to Copán at US $95 seemed to offer much better
value as it visited one of the important Mayan sites. We were lucky that the
trip went on the week that we were there as this trip is frequently cancelled
either due to insufficient participation or security concerns. On our trip
there were only 10 tourists on the 26 passenger bus. The trip was a long one
that passed through western El Salvador, part of Guatemala and then into Honduras
and the Copán site. The route (Figure 22) took almost 15 hours with only two hours at Copán and one and a half hour for lunch in shopping in the nearby Copán Ruinas. We left at 0600 hours and returned at 2045 hours.
23. Map of the Mayan world (Copán in Honduras)
Figure 24. In Guatemala
– Basket on head (left & center), 3-wheel taxi (right)
Copán is in the Copán National Park. In addition to the
park, two museums contain more artifacts and information about the Mayan
civilization. One museum is housed at the archaeological site, the other in the
town of Copán Ruinas.
The Mayan World has more than 50 well known archaeological centres,
which for more than 150 years have attracted specialists. The Mayan culture is
characterised by its political organisation in cities and states that
flourished between 600 and 900 AD in the southern region, and from 900 to 1200
AD in the Yucatán Península.
The ancient city of Copán, known as Xukpi to the Maya,
produced some of the most skillful stone carvers of the Maya world. Copán was
once a Classic Maya Royal center, the largest site in the southeastern part of
the Maya world (Figure 23). Covering about 29 acres, it was built on the banks of the Copán River. Copán is one of the most exceptional and best preserved monumental cities of the whole Maya world and is highly appreciated for the quality of
its architecture and Maya sculpture.
Once abandoned by its last dwellers, the Copán ruins have
been scattered around by the forces of nature. Even in historic times,
earthquakes have shaken the ruins, e.g. 1934, and now the beautifully carved
fragments of its buildings lie scattered on the slopes of its pyramids like the
pieces of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle in stone. The Copán River changed it course
to gnaw at the east side of the Acropolis (see Figure 25). It has devoured entire several buildings and has washed away thousands of tons of stone, leaving exposed a vertical cut a hundred and eighty-five feet in height. Finally the thick roots of giant ceiba and cedar trees
have drilled down into the buildings and prised apart the carefully laid
Interestingly the Ceiba tree is dependent on bat pollination
and the bat was central to Copán's emblem glyph. Copies of the bat sculptures
in the Sculpture Museum are at the Decameron Resort (see center of cover
25. Model of Copán Site view from NW (left), view from S (right)
Of all the Mayan sites, Copán has been a major source of
information regarding the Mayan civilization. Designated by UNESCO as a world
heritage site, archaeologists continue to probe the site today. In contrast to Tikal,
Palenque, and Tulum with their impressive architecture, Copán offers visitors
a feast of Mayan artifacts to discover. The detail and sheer volume of carvings
and stelae are impressive: 4,509 structures have been detected with 3,450 of
the structures found only 24 sq km surrounding the Principal Group.
Figure 26. Copán
The Principal Group consists of five basic areas of
- The Acropolis - Divided in two big plazas: the West
Court and East Court. The West Court houses temple 11 and temple 16
with altar Q set at its base. Temple 11 was built as a portal to the
other world. Temple 16 sits in between the East and West Court; it was
built on top of a previous temple without damaging it. Altar Q depicts
the 16 members of the Copán Dynasty.
- The Tunnels - Archaeologists have dug 4km of
tunnels under the acropolis to view earlier stages of Copán civilization.
Two of the tunnels in the East Court are open to the public for an
additional fee of US $15.
- The Ball Court - The ball court is the
second largest to be found in Central America.
- The Hieroglyphic Stairway - The most famous of Copán's
monuments, 63 steps and several thousand glyphs tell the history of the
royal house of Copán and is the longest known text of ancient Mayan
civilization. Unfortunately, the steps have fallen out of place leaving
the exact meaning undecipherable.
- The Great Plaza - The immense
plaza is famous for its stelae and altars that are found mainly at its
The ceremonial center of Copán reveals an urban plan that
arranges space in a particularly flexible manner, and employs subtle means --
like stelae and altars on the main axes -- to make the major lines of its
composition stand out. The Great Plaza, with a north-south axis, is subdivided
into various parts by intermediate elements. The northern extreme constitutes a
grandiose ceremonial amphitheatre with a grandstand enclosing three sides of
the plaza, and a high stepped platform delimiting the other side. It
incorporates various rows of stelae and altars whose deep and whimsical relief
is markedly baroque in character. Entirely different in concept, the southern
extreme abuts on the imposing front of the acropolis, whose broad stairway must
have served as another great tribune. Toward the center of the plaza is a small
ball court partially enclosed by an L-shaped appendage.
Figure 27. Copán
reconstruction by Tatania Proskouriakoff
The Maya population was in general small, and very few of
the Mayas permanently lived in the urban centers. The central reason for this
is the nature of agriculture in tropical rain forest. The Mayas, like others
forced to cultivate tropical rain forest, practiced slash and burn agriculture
(called milpa by the Mayas). Milpa farming requires that the cultivated plot
keeps moving and this seems to have been the foundational basis of the Mayan
religion and the Mayan concern with time. The principal crop and food of the
Mayas was maize and maize production was the central economic activity of the
Mayas. (Ref EE)
Figure 28. Copán settlement zones (top), population densities
(bottoms) (Ref HH)
The settlement zones in the Copán varied in density from the
urban zone to the rural areas with the population centered in the river valley
bottomlands. The highest population density in the classic period was along
the Rio Copán near Copán itself.
Because growth is so rapid in tropical rain forests, the
nutrients provided by dead plants and animal feces gets used up very quickly
therefore rain forest soil, surprisingly, is remarkably unfertile for
agriculture. In slash and burn agriculture, the Mayans would cut down a swath
of forest, burn the felled trees and plants for fertilizer, and then cultivate
the plot. Now as then the Mayans did not employ sophisticated fertilization
techniques, so the plot of land would be exhausted in two to four years (some
archaeologists estimate that it may have taken as long as seven years if the
Mayans weeded by hand rather than using tools). What all this means is that it
takes an immense amount of land to support a family—among the Maya, it probably
required at least seventy acres for every five people. The population, then,
throughout the Classic Period was very small.
Slash and burn agriculture is also labour intensive. Modern-day
Native Americans in Guatemala who employ this agriculture spend about 190 days
every year in agricultural work leaving at least 170 days left over (almost
half of a year) for other types of labour. This “excess” time was used in the
Classic Period in the building and maintenance of cities as well as the
extensive production of art-work and the agricultural labour necessary to
support the priestly populations in the cities. It’s worthwhile to note that I
pay about 50% of my earning in government taxes which means that I’m working
182 days a year (half of a year) for the state - plus ça change, plus ça
reste la même.
Smoke Imix, Copán’s 12th ruler, reign of nearly 70-year
witnessed the flowering of construction and population growth at Copán. His
name turns up on a stone monument at Quiriguá, 30 miles north of Copán that may
mark a successful battle at Quiriguá by the forces of Smoke Imix. When Smoke
Imix died in his 80s, 18-Rabbit or Waxaklajuun Ub'aah K'awiil inherited the
throne. (Ref AA)
During the reign of 18-Rabbit, Copán’s most illustrious
king, the royal sculptors of Copán displayed their innovative talents in the
many stelae that 18 Rabbit commissioned between AD 711 and 736. Many monuments
in the Great Plaza depict 18-Rabbit with Classic Maya symbols of power,
including a jade belt of ancestor heads and sacred mirrors, a headdress and
giant macaw heads.
The name "18-Rabbit" comes from the days when archaeologists
did not understand how to pronounce Mayan hieroglyphs, but did understand their
some of their meanings, so the only way English speakers could know Mayan names
was by essentially listing the symbols used in the name. Hence, 18-Rabbit
appears simply as the number 18 plus the word Rabbit. Knowledge of Mayan has
grown considerably since Copán's rediscovery in 1843, so over the years
"18-Rabbit" has changed into "18-Gopher", which eventually
changed into "Waxaklajuun Ub'aah K'awiil," which translates roughly
as "Eighteen are the Bodies of K'awiil." K'awiil is the name of one
of the chief Maya gods associated with divine rule. (Ref G)
Copán did not exist in isolation of other Mayan urban
centers and it sought to dominate its region. This domination would have
naturally caused resentment and strife when it came to activities such as
trade. Figure 29 shows the intersection of the trade routes used by Copán and the potential rival city of Quiriguá, a city some 35 kilometres to the north of Copán.
The story of the downfall of 18-Rabbit begins on January 2, 725, when a man named Cauac Sky assumed the throne of Quiriguá, a vassal of
Copán. Cauac Sky was not a true king, however he was the selection of
18-Rabbit. Cauac Sky, perhaps suffering under rule from Copán or seeing an
opportunity to gain power for himself, apparently decided to rebel. Whether
18-Rabbit was kidnapped from his home, captured in the midst of battle, or was defeated
and decided that the treatment given to captured warriors was more dignified
than fighting to the last is uncertain. In any case, the result was that on May 3, 738, 18-Rabbit was beheaded as a sacrifice in Quiriguá. Inscriptions in Quiriguá
refer to this only as the 'axeing' of 18-Rabbit, nothing else. From this time
on, it appears that Quiriguá was an autonomous city and controlled the main
trade route from the Caribbean to the Maya world, which passed through the
Motagua basin, as Copán declined (Ref Z).
Unlike other centers, such as Tikal, Caracol, or Calakmul,
Quiriguá was never a large urban complex but rather served as the ceremonial
and market center for a dispersed rural population, in which ethnic Maya were a
minority. Hence Quiriguá was a site of roughly only 2000 inhabitants at its
peak, yet their ruler managed to nab and sacrifice the ruler of a site easily
50 times its size. One possible explanation for this stunning turn of events
may be related to a relationship Quiriguá had with Calakmul in defiance of
their relationship with Copán and that Calakmul may have aided in the overthrow
of the Copanec dominance of Quiriguá (Ref FF).
29. Intersection zones of Quiriguá and Copán trade routes (Ref J)
The death of 18-Rabbit signaled the end of Copán's golden
age and ultimately lead to the end of the city itself. After 18-Rabbit, no
monuments were constructed for nearly twenty years, while Quiriguá began
building some of its first monuments. Copán's scribes many years later noted,
apparently with some remorse, that during the period after 18-Rabbit’s demise
there were "no altars, no pyramids, no places," an apparent reference
to Copán's inability to continue in its monumental tradition (Ref K).
The king immediately following 18-Rabbit, Ruler 14 or
"Smoke Monkey", lasted only nine years, and the rejuvenation which
took place under Ruler 15 or “Smoke Shell/Squirrel” after him did not take
place until well into his reign. The threat posed by Quiriguá was no passing
event as the throne of Copán appears to have been vacant for some time before
the seventeenth and final ruler held the reins. That, combined with the loss of
fertile land combined to reduce Copán's former population of twenty thousand to
five thousand. It is thought that Copán was finally abandoned in the mid-ninth
century, after 600 years of habitation and some eighteen generations of
dynastic rule. (Ref G)
The Mayas were an agricultural people and needed fuel for
cooking, e.g. wood and much cleared land to raise the great quantities of corn
required to feed their large population. In a valley surrounded with steep
hills, the rate of erosion of the soil must have been enormously accelerated
when the forest was cut and the soil was exposed to the full force of the
torrential rains. Population size within the Copán area (13 x 4 kms) appears
to have grown to about 5000 people from 550 AD to 700 AD. The bulk of this
population would have resided along the river. The population then dramatically
increased up to perhaps 20,000 people from 700 AD to 850 AD, representing the
peak population size. This population expanded onto the foothill zone such
that virtually all areas except the upland forest were utilized for either
agriculture or habitation. As well the urban community may have expanded into
the rich agricultural areas reducing their effective size. In any event Copán was
no longer self sufficient and its rulers had to share power with valley nobles who
could supply the population with the necessary food. This power sharing led to
the diminishment of the rulers’ authority and eventually to the end of dynastic
rule at Copán.
The last date set in stone in Copán is February 10, 822 on Altar L. The carving of Altar L was not finished and it’s a if one
day the sculptor of Altar L picked up his tools, walked away, and never came
back to finish the job as the era of royal Copán was over (Ref X). Once the acropolis was abandoned the forest began encroaching to reclaim the area (Figure 32 - right).
Between 850-1000 AD, the population was reduced by 50%
within the Copán area, with the ensuing 150-year period experiencing an
additional 50% reduction in size. By 1200 AD, only a small residual population
of perhaps 2000 people, restricted to the area along the river, remained, and
by 1250 AD, the entire Copán area appears to be completely abandoned. It is not
until the nineteenth century that significant settlement returned to the Copán
area, increasing to its current size of about 20,000-25,000 people. (Ref W)
Skeletons of Maya, even those of the noble classes, that
were buried a few miles from Copán's acropolis near the end of the Classic
evidence of poor nutrition in the form of the anemia shown in the skulls - spongy-looking
areas at the back of the skull caused by a lack of iron in the diet (Figure 30 - left).
Interestingly, head-binding was a matter of fashion and
aesthetics to the Mayas. The skull was intentionally deformed, flattened and
pushed back at an angle by binding a small board on an infant’s forehead. The
skull became elongated either to resemble the life giving corn or as a status
symbol of rank (Figure 30 - center & right).
30. Spongy-looking areas due to Severe anemia (left), elongated
skulls (center & right) (Ref DD)
Eventually as many as 12,000 people lived in one square
kilometre around main group with a total of 25,000 people living in the
valley. This steady growth of population in the valley required more and more
intensive farming, which had a disastrous effect on the land. Farmers planted
on steeper and steeper hillsides which increased soil erosion. As well, settlement
and palynological data (study of spores and pollen) indicate that substantial
clearing of the upland pine forest had occurred prior to and during the
abandonment of the Copán urban center. A comparative use-rate analysis
suggests that the increased clearing of pine was primarily caused by demands
for domestic fuel wood by an expanding urban population. This forest
mismanagement is directly linked to accelerated erosion rates which are
considered primary elements in the collapse of Copán. In short the soil and
nutrient loss contributed to the reduced productivity of the agriculture
supporting Copán and stimulated political instability and encouraging the
gradual abandonment of this major center. (Ref W)
The ceremonial center at Copán 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.
31. Tour route of Copán Site (Ref F)
After arriving at the Copán entrance building, we are met by
our guide (Figure 48 - right) for our tour. He was one of a group of official guides. He explained that he had worked since age 14 at Copán, starting as a labourer on the archaeological digs. He learned his English from the American
archaeologists from Havard. The route of our tour is shown in Figure 31.
The Acropolis served as the seat of power for a dynasty of
at least 16 Maya rulers that dominated Copán for nearly 400 years.
The route to the Acropolis ascends a steep staircase (Figure
32 - left) at the top of which is an impressive view of the West Court dominated by Temples 11 and 16 (Figure 34). Having never visited a Pre-Columbian site, the West Court was everything that I imagined such a site would be.
The power of nature over man was illustrated by the ability
of the roots of the giant trees to breakdown the huge structures built by man (Figure
32 - right).
32. Staircase out of valley to Acropolis (left), roots breaking up
structure near Temple 11 (right)
The West Court
The West Court is framed on the north side by the stepped
building known as Temple 11 (Figure 33), and on the east side by the steps leading up Temple 16.
Ruler 15 (Yax Pasah) was responsible for the construction of
Temple 16, celebrating Ruler 1 (Yax K'uk'Mo') and Temple 11, a massive
structure that may have been a stone model of the Maya universe (Ref K).
33. Temple 11 (left), reconstruction of Temple 11
34. Donna near Stela P east of Temple 16 (left), partial restored south side of Temple 16
35. Altar Q at foot of stairs up Temple 16 (left), archaeological workers lunch at West Court (right)
Altar Q is a square table-like stone lying at the foot of
the steps leading up the west side of Temple 16 (Figure 35). Although not a terribly imposing piece of sculpture, nonetheless it might be considered the most important historical document from all of Copán. Around the four sides of this box-like stone are the portraits of
sixteen individuals seated on hieroglyphs. The figures themselves are all very
similar, although there are some important differences in their costumes, but
the glyphs themselves are all quite distinct from one another. In the 1970s,
the German scholar Berthold Reise recognized some of the glyphs as the names of
historical people named in other Copán texts, and he reasonably surmised that
the glyphs name the figures that sit on them. Based on the sequence of the
known names, he further guessed that the sixteen portraits are shown in a temporal
sequence. It was not very difficult to interpret Altar Q as a visual king list
of Copán, and that it has proved to be. (Ref K)
The Altar Q onsite is a copy with the original in the Copán
museum where it can be viewed along with the reconstruction of the Rosalila
(lily rose) temple (Section 220.127.116.11.4).
Excavations around Altar Q found the skeletal remains of 15
jaguars and jaguars were the ultimate symbol of Maya royalty (Ref X). This sacrifice (Figure 36) corresponded to the times of Ruler 16 (Yax Pac or Yax Pasaj Chan Yoaat) between 763-810 AD.
36. Jaguar sacrifice on Altar Q (left), Altar Q in front of Temple 16 (right)
Figure 37. Serpent
head at the base of Temple 11 (left), air plants on trees on top of Temple 11
South of the Acropolis area
is an area (Figure 38 - left) known as El Cementerio/Las Sepulturas that was once thought to be a cemetery because a number of bodies were found buried beneath the structures. However, it is now believed to be a residential area for the
nobles who buried their dead beneath their homes to keep them close.
Excavation has shown Las Sepulturas to have been an elite
residential zone. The man who lived here archaeologists see him as the
patriarch of a powerful lineage of scribed and artists--held tremendous power,
perhaps exceeded only by that of the ruler himself. The domain of the
patriarch at Las Sepulturas around the year 800 (Ruler 16 or Yax Pac) held a
population of some 250, counting kin and others. (Ref X).
38. El Cementerio viewed from Acropolis (left), Structure 18 (right)
In between and the East Court and on top of the retaining
wall is Structure 18 (Figure 38 - right). Structure 18 is Ruler 16’s (Yax Pasaj) mortuary shrine. Its carved piers present him in the guise of the warrior, an aspect assumed in a ceremonial event of 773 (Ref V).
The East Court
Running along side of the East Court is a retaining wall
about 100’ high. This wall was built by archaeologists to support the eastern
part of the East Court that had been badly eroded by the Copán River (see
Section 4.2.1). In addition to adding the retaining wall, the river was diverted away for the site.
At the north end of the East Court is Temple 22 (Figure 38 - right) which has been described as "one of the finest of all Maya architectural expressions" (Ref H). It was conceived as a model of the "maize sprouting mountain," part of a Mayan creation myth, in its day this structure boasted of many beautiful sculptures. It contains the only direct quotation of a
Mayan king yet found which reads "On the day 5 Lamat is the completion of
my k'atun in office." Hence the date of completion is March 27, 715. On this date, the king (18-Rabbit), in all his royal regalia on top of the
temple, would use a stingray spine to pierce himself in various places --tongue,
nose, and yes, even his genitals-- and let his blood drip from his wounds onto
pieces of bark as an offering to the gods. Unfortunately Temple 22 was built
with a mud based mortar and suffered without constant upkeep. (Ref G)
Figure 39. Retaining
wall built by archaeologists (left), countryside viewed from top of retaining
40. Jaguar Stairway & Temple 22 (left), Dancing Jaguar (inset), East Court & Temple 22 (right)
The Jaguar Stairway (named for the Dancing Jaguar sculptures
- see Figure 40) is on the west side of the East Court. The reconstruction in Figure 40 is by Proskouriakoff (Ref T). One of the three rulers Waterlily Jaguar, Ruler 8 or Ruler 9 is likely buried in the tomb known as Sub-Jaguar, which was found beneath the "dancing jaguar" sculpture of the East Court (Ref U).
Buried beneath the Acropolis is the Rosalila (lily rose) temple
(Figure 41). It was a practice of the Maya rulers to build their own buildings on top of the old ones. In fact, often they would just destroy the earlier buildings and build their own on the rubble. However for some reason, the
Rosalila was special and the Maya builders were very careful to preserve it as
they buried it, leaving about 5 feet between it and the new temple. Archaeologists
believe that this temple could have been the main center of worship for “Smoke
Serpent” and Stela P may have originally stood in front of it (Figure 34).
41. Rosalila Temple (left),
Rosalila Temple buried under Temple 16 (right)
The Rosalila is an Early Classic temple built around AD 571
by "Moon Jaguar," the city's 10th ruler. It is wholly intact and
covered with the most elaborate facade decoration yet discovered at Copán. It
preserve the Rosalila, the Mayas first plastered over the facade with a thin
veneer of stucco, and then they covered the whole building with a protective
layer of thick clay. The Rosalila was effectively entombed, and the
termination rituals included leaving a cache of nine eccentric flints wrapped
in a blue cloth at the front doorway. The plaster covering was a way to snuff
out or 'kill' the spirit of the building, which had come alive with the application
of color. Nearly the entire structure, including the roof crest was preserved
(the latter an architectural element heretofore unknown at Copán).
The Rosalila was one of the last stucco-decorated structures
ever built on the Acropolis. At one time all the buildings there were thus
decorated but this technique went out of fashion. Over a period of time
temples with stone-carved facades replaced it. The exteriors of these
new-style temples were given a thin wash of lye and then painted. The switch in
technology occurred sometime around AD 600. Carved stone was an entirely
different medium. The possibilities it presented for monument building appealed
to the Maya. (Ref M)
42. Rosalila Temple replica
(left), detail of Rosalila Temple decoration
Rosalila stands 14 meters high, with a 19 by 19-meter base.
A replica of Rosalila is the centerpiece of the Sculpture Museum in Copán which
opened 1996 (Figure 42).
Tunnelling under Structure 10L-16 has also revealed a number
of burials including the Margarita Tomb. This tomb holds the remains of a
woman who appeared to be a member of the royal house, possibly the wife of
K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo', the founder and first ruler of Copán who established
dynastic rule in 426 AD. This tomb (right, Figure 43) consists of an upper offering chamber (Chamber 2) and the lower burial chamber (Chamber 1). (Ref HH)
43. Structure 10L-16 (left), Margarita Tomb (right) (Ref HH).
Temple of the Inscriptions
At the south end of the plaza is a tall building backing
onto Temple 11 that houses the Temple of the Inscriptions at its top. The
walls of the Temple of the Inscriptions are carved with groups of hieroglyphs (Figure
44). Figure 45 (right) shows an artist’s conception of what the view looking north over Copán might have looked like from the Temple of the Inscriptions.
44. Wall of glyphs at its top the
Temple of the Inscriptions (left), close-up
of glyph (right)
At the base of the pyramid supporting the Temple of the
Inscriptions on the north side is Stela N (Figure 45). The south face of Stela N is the side with the face of King K'ac Yipyaj Chan K'awiil ("Smoke Shell") who ruled 749-763. It is interesting to compare the drawing by Frederick Catherwood in 1839 with its
actual condition today (Figure 46). It seems clear that there has been deterioration of the details of Stela N over the 180 years since the drawing was made. The stela is currently covered with a roof (Figure 45).
45. Looking down at Stela N from the
Temple of the Inscriptions (left), looking north (right)
46. Back of Stela N 1839 drawing (left), front of Stela N (center),
close-up of Stela N face (right)
The Hieroglyphic Stairway
Considered one of the most remarkable monuments built by the
Maya, the Hieroglyphic Stairway features the longest single glyphic text found
at any Maya site (left, Figure 47). When uncovered by archaeologists, only the bottom 15 of the stairway’s 63 inscribed stairs were in their original positions. At one point in the early 1900s, the bricks were put back on the stairway almost at
random. A second attempt has put many of the bricks in some relation to each
other however this is made difficult because many of the glyphs are badly
eroded. (Ref Y)
The Hieroglyphic Stairway is the primary reason why UNESCO
declared Copán a World Heritage Site. It is the longest surviving hieroglyphic
inscription of the Pre-Columbian Americas. Bearing over 1,200 individual glyph
blocks (and twice that many individual signs) in 63 steps, the stairway
represents an encyclopaedic treatment of the political history of one of the
most distinguished and long-lived cities of ancient Mesoamerica. Scholars are
now in the position to decipher that history at a level of detail and
understanding not heretofore possible.
The stairway is built on the western face of the pyramidal
structure 10L-26 just southeast of the ball court. Excavations have found that
like the Rosalila Temple buried under Temple 16, the structure 10L-26 seen
today is the result of repeated building on top of older structures as the city
evolved (left, Figure 47). Investigations of Copan Structure 10L-26 began over a century ago in 1902 by the Peabody (Ref GG).
47. Artist’s conception of the Hieroglyphic Stairway in its prime (left),
building on old (right)
The entire Stairway represents an ode to the Copán dynasty,
a singular affirmation of historical continuity and divine rule, beginning with
the first king (K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo') in 426 AD and continuing up to the time
of the fifteenth ruler (Smoke Shell or K'ak' Yipyaj Chan K'awii), who dedicated
the completed temple and stairs in 756 AD. The inscriptions accompany
life-sized portraits of the rulers themselves, whose exploits are detailed in
the text. (Ref A). When first discovered, the blocks were found tumbled down on the ground in disarray. Archaeologists struggled to assemble the blocks in their correct positions.
Among other things, the Stairway records the decapitation of
Copan’s 13th ruler, 18 Rabbit, by Cauac Sky of Quirigua in A.D. 738 (Ref GG). There is debate about whether the Hieroglyphic Stairway was commissioned as a conquest monument by the rulers of Quirigua or as a colossal attempt by the Copan lineage to re-legitimize their right to rule.
48. Donna at foot of Hieroglyphic Stairway (left), our guide beside Stela
M at Stairway (right)
Copán’s ball court is the second-largest in Central America
with the playing field some 29 meters long and seven meters wide. It is “I” shaped and surrounded
by benches for spectators (Figure 49 - right). In the middle of the field are three sculpted stone blocks known as markers, the central one commissioned by 18-Rabbit, were found on the floor of the court in the light areas in grass court of Figure 51.
The markers divided the court into zones. A sculpture of Seven Macaw, one of
the principal characters in the Mayan Popol Vuh (book of Mayan mythology),
overlooks the Ball Court (Figure 51).
49. 18-Rabbit’s ball court marker (left), reconstruction Copán (center), “I” shaped ball court (right)
The Maya ball game was not just a dangerous and exciting
sporting competition. It was a ritual based on religious beliefs. The outcome
of the game affected the lives of everyone playing and watching. Winners were
showered with praise and riches and cheers from the crowd. Losers often became
a human sacrifice to the gods.
The game was so important that the king or other members of
the elite class played the game. 18-Rabbit’s ball center court marker (Figure 49 - left) shows the king on the left wearing protective padding around the chest, neck and shoulders. He also wears shorts with a large piece of knotted cloth protecting the groin area. He is squaring off against the
great god of the number Zero, pictured on the right. This deity is frequently
associated with the underworld and is known as the death god of sacrifice. The
lower part of the jaw of this figure is actually a hand. This figure
represents completion, or zero, in the Mayan counting system. In the god's
hand is a human head. Both figures are kneeling ready to strike the ball
which, according to the other markers, has just been dropped to start the game.
50. Ball game re-enactment (left), returning with hip (center), hip
return with hand on ground (right)
The balls in the game were made from heavy rubber harvested
from the rubber trees that were native in the jungles of Mesoamerican. The
ball was heavy enough to break the player’s bones or even kill him. The
uniform that the players wore had to protect the player, yet allow for quick
movement by the player. When the players would first parade onto the field at
the beginning of a game, they were usually dressed in their finest outfits made
from animal skins and covered with jewellery and feathered headdresses. They
would remove these fine outfits to play and only keep on the protective part of
the uniform. The protective part of the uniform consisted of heavy padding of
leather, wood and woven materials over the places where they could strike the
ball - their hips and knees. Their hands were also protected against scraping
should the player need to balance himself with one hand on the ground to return
a shot with his hip (Figure 50 - right).
51. Ball court at Hieroglyphic Stairway (left), Seven Macaw sculpture overlooking
ball court (right)
The players on the two teams could not touch the rubber ball
with their hands. The rules are not fully known and varied from city to city,
however in general a team scored points when the opposing team failed to return
the ball or when the ball went into the opponent’s end zone. In some cases, there
were rings on the side of the court and the game was immediately won if a
player shot the ball through the hole. At Copán in lieu of rings on the court
sides, there are macaw head markers that if hit with the ball may have ended
Figure 52. Macaw at Copán (left),
macaw head marker on ball court (right)
Some believe that it was an honour to be sacrificed as the
act ensured brought the people the good fortune from the gods. Hence it’s
unclear if the winner or loser was sacrificed. For many years it was believed
that the winner may have been sacrificed to the gods as a ‘the perfect’
offering and that being such a god sacrifice was a great honour. Many now
believe the loser was sacrificed.
53. Mayan arch at Copán ball court (left), replica of Mayan arch at
Decameron resort (right)
The ball court’s eastern structure has an example of a Mayan
arch on its top (left, Figure 53). The Mayan arch is a form of corbel arch employing regular small corbels. The Royal Decameron Salinitas uses the theme of the Mayan arch in may of it buildings including the convention center (right, Figure 53).
The date of the ball court’s dedication is recorded on the
eastern structure, and has been read as 18.104.22.168.13, only 113 days before 18-Rabbit's
capture and execution by Cauac Sky of Quiriguá, thus suggesting the plausible
scenario that the Copán king had been raiding the northern borders of his realm
to secure captives for the dedication of his new ball court when he fell victim
to his erstwhile vassal at Quiriguá. (Ref I)
Structure 4 is the first structure that you can see when
arriving at the site. It is a modestly sized pyramid-temple that has a
stairway facing each of its 4 sides. Excavation of this pyramid came across
rich offerings including the remains of a jaguar offering. A similar offering
consisting of 15 jaguar skeletal remains was found near Altar Q (Figure 36). It is believed that Structure 4 possibly had its beginnings from the time of the founder Yax K'uk' Mo' or his son but was built in its present form by 18-Rabbit.
54. Structure 4 and Stela 3 (left), Stelae A, 4, B, C from top of
Structure 4 (right)
At the north end of the Great Plaza is a collection of large
stelae and associated alters (Figure 54 - right). The stelae were erected during the reign of 18-Rabbit (Waxaklahun Ubah K'awil).
55. Sketch of Stela H (left) (Ref P), Stela H (center), glyphs covering back of Stela 4
The costumes seen on the stelae are rich with details like
feathered backracks and elaborate headdresses, masks, jade pectorals and shell
belts. Although there are other types of ruler portraits found on murals
within the walls of the temples, they typically do not show the elaborate
costumes of these found on the plaza grounds.
Stela H is a sculpture of 18-Rabbit. On Stela H, 18-Rabbit
appears to be dressed in the traditional royal jaguar skin kilt and a long
skirt typical of the representation of women. However it is 18-Rabbit playing
a part in a creation myth involving the young Maize God, one of whose
attributes is a jade bead skirt (Ref Q).
Stela 4 portrays 18-Rabbit as a ballplayer. The inscription
on the back (Figure 55) is somewhat obscure, as it involves possible ritual activities that are poorly understood, involving the taking or tying of a bundle and the taking of a black headdress (Ref Q). The square stone sitting in front of the stela was found buried under the stela's foundation as part of a dedication cache. Its principal altar, Altar Y (Figure 55 - Right), depicts a flattened sphere bound by a twisted cord. Similar objects appear on the markers from ball court where they are identified as rubber balls still hanging from a binding rope tied to the rafters of a
The Dresden Codex images suggest that stelae served as loci
for sacrifice. The Altar Y in front of Stela 4 has a shallow depression on its
upper surface and drainage channels useful for channelling the blood of
sacrificial victims. In fact, many altars are carved in the image of the
quatrefoil portal to the underworld, implying the specialized function of the
altar as the point at which energies of sacrifice are magically transferred to
the spiritual beings that wait behind or alight upon a stela. (Ref R)
After leaving the Copán ruins we traveled a kilometre north
to the small town of Copán Ruinas, commonly referred to as Copán. This is a
town of steep cobbled streets and red tiled roofs (Figure 56).
56. Street in Copán Ruinas (left), outside our weaver’s shop (right)
Copán Ruinas has some interesting business signs, including
the Maya Connections Internet and laundry service and the Red Frog Bar (Figure 57).
57. Maya Connections Internet and laundry (left), The Red Frog Bar (right)
Given its proximity to the Copán ruins, Copán Ruinas has a
tourist trade orientation. There are small shops selling souvenirs but we were
lucky to find a weaver who seems very Mayan. She used a back-strap loom to
make colourful items such as runners and table clothes (Figure 58). Weaving has a long history amongst Mayan women and generations of women have patiently spun cotton, wool and rabbit fur into yarn, then they dyed the yarn and wove it into complex patterns, which they further
embellished with embroidery, brocade and applique. However the designs that
evolved over the centuries under European influences and the materials have
changed to use synthetic dyes and yarns.
"Most of the classic designs appear to have been
geometric with the patterns with figures of people and animals and birds coming
much later -- centuries later, even”, according to Cesareo Moreno, visual arts
director of the Mexican Fine Arts Museum. And because the Mayan world is so
fragmented -- with more than 20 Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala alone --
the designs that evolved were specific to a particular population (Ref CC). The articles that caught our eyes had bright colours and pure geometric patterns.
The weaver did not speak any English nor did we speak any
Spanish but we had in common the language of business and so with a calculator
we worked out a price for two runners and a purse. After bartering for a
while, I offered US $90 for our selected items and her bottom line on the
calculator was US $95. My final offer was US $95 and she pose for a picture.
She agreed and so we had for our items and some good pictures (Figure 58).
58. Our weaver in action using back-strap loom (left), our purchases
Departing Copán Ruinas (Figure 56), we headed back to the Guatemalan border and stopped briefly at a small business that makes copies of the Copán stelae (Figure 56). Our bus driver stopped to say hello to the workers as he was responsible for transporting the stelae made there to the Royal Decameron Salinitas resort. These stelae are everywhere around the resort and give it an
appealing atmosphere so it was interesting to see where they were made (Figure 60).
Figure 59. Copán Ruinas
(left), Stela makers near Copán Ruinas (right)
60. Copy of Copan stela at resort (left), stela at manufacturer near Copán Ruinas