Walking to Copán in Honduras#

By Hasso Hohmann

My father in Essen in Germany had a large library and there were several books concerning the ancient Maya culture. Two of them had wonderful photos of sculptures and structures of the old Maya city of Copán in Honduras. These were unusual to me and immediately fascinating. When I was a young student of architecture in Graz I borrowed further literature about Copán at our University Library.

The Medical Faculty of our University in Graz organized an inexpensivestudent charter flight to New York City in 1968. The organizers offered also students of the Faculty of Architecture to join this flight into the New World. My declared aim was to reach Copán. My father doubted that I had studied carefully enough the distances in my America maps. Therefore I sent my father my first post-card not earlier than from Copán.

In New York Annegrete, a colleague from Graz first tried to work in an architect’s office but then decided to join me. We hitch-hiked through the States to the Mexican border at Brownsville, since as all other transportation systems were too expensive for us at this time. From the Mexican border on we were able to pay for buses. We visited numerous Mexican ruins of different Mesoamerican cultures. In Guatemala City we got to know Werner Römich, an Austrian teacher working at the ”Instituto Austriaco Guatemalteco”. When I asked him how to reach Copán, he explained the two options – riding from Camotan near the Motagua valley by horse, or just walking

View from Pacaya volcano
View from volcano Vulkan Pacaya at three other volcanos in Guatemala.
Poto: H. Hohmann 1968, under CC BY-SA 4.0

We took the bus from Guatemala City to Puerto Barrios and left the bus in Zacapa. We could change immediately into a smaller bus for Chiquimula. There we had to wait for a quite long time for a pickup to Camotan. We had to sit on the open load area of the pickup together with numerous native Indians. We arrived at Camotan in the late afternoon, asked for Father Bodo in the mission and brought him the best wishes and greetings from Werner Römich. He invited us to sleep in the mission.

When he heard that we planned to walk to Copán he drew a small map by hand on an sheet of paper including the names of some very small villages on the way, the most important junctions of our trail, a land-mark rock high up in the mountains, and the Rio Grande de Zacapa which changens its name to Rio Copán after the border to Honduras. This River we had the cross. Before it was getting dark we bought something to drink and eat for the next walking days.

The room Father Bodo gave us belonged to a priest who was abroad for several weeks. The quite basic small shower room without a hothead and with only cold water nevertheless seemed to be attractive after a long bus tour. But when I started turning on the water immediately a scorpion came out of the outlet just between my feet. In substandard quarters I always use bathing with shoes to prevent infections. With one of these shoes I killed the small but dangerous animal. But there followed immediately another seven scorpions of different sizes one after the other, a large scorpion family. I had to kill them all.

After a quiet and refreshing night without more scorpions or other bad animals we were woken up by my alarm clock long before sun rise. We had a small breakfast, packed our things together, wrote a short letter with greetings and thanks, left a small bag with objects we did not want to carry around and started our tour to Copán using the map of Father Bodo. It was quite easy to follow the map through the fields around Camotan. But then we walked into the forest without any overview. Trees accompanied us from here until to Copán. After about two hours we reached the small village Lela Chanco with only a few huts.

In contrast to countries in the Mediterranean like Italy, Greece, Turkey or Egypt there were no noisy children coming out of the huts welcoming us. We had the feeling that the Chorti-Maya were just watching us through the windows of their huts but no one came out. We asked a man working in a garden to show us the way to Copán – he pointed in the direction and continued working.

In the last hut of this village we asked to leave a second small bag for about two days. The weather was quite hot and the very high humidity did not make it easier. Each pound we did not really need we did not want to carry. Therefore we left our small tent and the petroleum lamp here. They owners agreed of the hut agreed: We left the small bag in one corner of the hut. It seemed this corner was tabu from this moment on until we came back. We thanked and went on.

After this village we saw the rock mentioned in the map for the first time. It had the form of a horn high up in the mountains on the other side of the river valley. It was high enough that we saw this landmark from now on from time to time almost all day long. Sometimes we also saw the Rio Grande de Zacapa which here is also called the Rio Grande de Camotan. We marched nearly parallel to the river following the topography of the valley. On the way we had to realize that there were much more trail junctions than mentioned in the map. Each decision created the risk of a wrong way and a time and energy consuming detour.

After we had already passed the landmark we realized that we obviously had missed the ford through the river. It had been raining heavily during the last days and therefore the river was high, the water yellow and muddy. One could not see the bottom. This might have been one of the reasons for our mistake

I was looking for an alternative possibility to cross the river, which was quite deep. Just by chance I found a very small dug-out canoe made of one tree hidden behind some bushes at our river bank. It was so small that it could have only been used by a child. I put all luggage and our dresses into the small boat and we swam over the approximately 50 to 60 m broad river. I than brought the empty boat back and swam a third time through the river to bring myself to the right side. The river was not very fast here and therefore the eddies seemed to be not really dangerous. There were quite a lot of bushes, even some trees and swimming islands of grass on the water. Fortunately we did not meet any electric eels, which are a real danger in the river Usumacinta in the Northwest of Guatemala at the border to Mexico. I forgot to ask if there are also such electric eels in this river.

Being refreshed by crossing the river we walked on with new power. The landmark rock was now on our side of the river and still visible until the later afternoon if we looked back through the trees and if the ceiling of forest was not too dense. When it was getting dark we reached an area which was quite flat. There were some houses belonging to a small village under trees. All the thatched roofs of the huts were closed with palm leafs. Nowadays it is called Aldea Caparja. 50 years ago there were fewer huts and it had a different name. At a half open small plaza we asked some inhabitants if we could sleep here. They were hospitable and ounted two of their hammocks between poles under a kind of roof. We deposited our rucksacks and the shoes into the hut for safety reason.

When it was getting dark we saw fires in each of the houses. Metates with Manos were used, tortillas, frijoles and other foods were heated up, the villagers were speaking with each other, but soon they went into their huts. The family we were invited to sleep had their sleeping room immediately around the corner behind the wall left of the entrance. It was just a raised platform made of a large series of small wooden beams resting on a grid of larger beams held by the surrounding three walls. The entire family was sleeping on this wooden bench. The bench was covered with several textiles to make it softer. Our baggage and shoes were in a huge niche under this sleeping platform.

After the last fires had burnt down it became very quiet. Quite big glow-worms flew between bushes and trees. Bats became active, some horses which were not carefully fastened trotted around. The weather was not so bad and sometimes even stars were visible between the trees. We were not used to sleep in hammocks, but nevertheless I slept quite soon and very well. In the night I woke up when a curious horse lowered its head deep into my hammock and snorted. I took the chance to go behind a tree.

In the early hours it became a bit cool. Thus we got up, took our shoes and rucksacks from the hut, thanked and said good bye. We went on fast as we hoped to get to the ruins of Copán as soon as possible. If we wanted to be back in this village next night we had to be in the ruins before noon.

But the way seemed to become longer and longer. It lead up into the mountains as a shortcut. We still had not even passed the border. But than I saw a broad wooden sign on the ground; it was heavily damaged by termites, but it was still possible to read HONDURAS in walking direction and GUATEMALA in the other direction. This obviously was the moment we passed the border.

This motivated us to walk even faster. Soon we reached a small one room school. When we walked to the school building the two teachers and all children said hello to us. W we took a photo of them and the school. The children were just learning on the back side of the school house how to produce pottery. It was the school for children of El Florido and the surrounding area.

Fortunately we were still on the right track. From here the trail went down into the Copán valley. This valley has a very specific, unique smell. I am quite sure I could identify this valley without using my eyes just by its smell. The earth is very fertile and is used for much agriculture. In addition to maize they plant beans, pumpkins and many other fruits.

On the way
On the way to Copán
Photo: Hasso Hohmann 1968, under CC BY-SA 4.0
The small one room school of El Florido with the two teachers and the school children
The small one room school of El Florido with the two teachers and the school children.
Photo: Hasso Hohmann 1968, under CC BY-SA 4.0

The most remarkable plant is tobacco. There are huge fields of tobacco and even some very young children ran around in Copán-Ruinas around smoking big “burros”, the local cigars. Years later people told me that the tobacco from this valley is the best of the entire world and the tobacco for the most expensive cigars from Cuba is produced using the tobacco from the Copán valley. When I brought some burros from Copán to Graz several years later cigars experts agreed that these burros are excellent and of very high quality

We passed the little town of Copán-Ruinas, drank two Coca Cola’s and asked for the distance to the ruins. Than we walked the last one and a half kilometers quite fast and arrived there a bit before 12.00 a.m. I photographed several of the stelas and altars, the ball court, the Hieroglyphic Stairway and the Acropolis of Copán. After one and a half hours of hard work we had to leave the ruins hoping to reach the village behind the border in the late afternoon. When we passed Copán-Ruinas for the second time I bought a post card and stamps for my father. We also bought also some more drinks and cookies and were happy to be able to pay in Dollars as we had no Lempiras, the Honduranian currency. We had even not officially crossed the border to Honduras.

Stele 10L-H on the Plaza Mayor.
Stele 10L-H on the Plaza Mayor.
Photo: Hasso Hohmann 1977, under CC BY-SA 4.0
Stele 10L-A in the Plaza Mayor of Copán\Photo: Annegrete Vogrin 1968
Stele 10L-A in the Plaza Mayor of Copán together with the author.
Photo: Annegrete Vogrin 1968, under CC BY-SA 4.0
Westsite of Stele 10L-H
Westside of Stele 10L-H in Plaza Mayor.
Photo: Hasso Hohmann 1977, under CC BY-SA 4.0
Stele 10L-1
Stele 10L-1 integrated into the stairway of the ball court building STR 10L-9.
Photo: Hasso Hohmann 1977, under CC BY-SA 4.0
The ball court of Copán with structure STR 10L-10
The ball court of Copán with structure STR 10L-10; in the background the Hieroglyphic Stairway with a text of approximately 2200 Maya glyph blocks of structure STR 10L-26.
Photo: Hasso Hohmann 1977, under CC BY-SA 4.0
The head of one of the giant atlas sculptures of structure STR 10L-11.
The head of one of the giant atlas sculptures of structure STR 10L-11. This belonged to the sculpture at the northeastern corner.
Photo: Hasso Hohmann 1977, under CC BY-SA 4.0
One of the representations of the death at the plattform of sacrifice on the western stairway of Temple STR 10L-16 in the centre of the Acropolis of Copán.
One of the representations of the death at the plattform of sacrifice on the western stairway of Temple STR 10L-16 in the centre of the Acropolis of Copán.
Photo: Hasso Hohmann 1970, under CC BY-SA 4.0

It was hot with high humidity. The long steep way out of the Copán valley up the mountain to the small school of El Florido was exhausting. But from there the trail was quite comfortable. To the border it was nearly on the same level, than it continued sloping down. We arrived at the small village when it started to get dark. The two hammocks still hang in front of the hut of our hosts. Here we were already “old friends”. The villagers told us that there will come a weekly Jeep from Camotan next day to the other side of the Copán-river. It would stop at the ford through the river at about 10.00 a.m..

I set the alarm clock for four a clock in the morning. When we got up we heard a group of five more people who also wanted to go to the Jeep. Fortunately it was full moon and the cloud cover was thin and with holes in them. We even could see a bit of the trail under the trees. We started together with the other people from the village as they knew the way better and we could not see very much. Most of the time we could see the moon behind the thin cloud cover if there was a field without trees next to the trail. Together with the other people we were quite fast. The temperature was pleasant cool. Around 6.00 a.m., as it was getting light all the birds, cicadas and other animals started to communicate producing the sounds of the jungle. It starts immediately and each place has its specific sounds.

When we reached the Copán-river we realized the water had fallen. And we saw people walking through the river at the ford. But there was enough water that nearly the entire body of the people was under water. We were quite early and the place with the small boat was not far and the car was not jet there. We decided to use the boat. I fetched it from the other side of the river. We undressed, put cloth and rucksacks into the small boat and swam over the river and I brought the boat back to its place. This was more complicated but helped to keep our dresses dry. We thought this might be better when sitting in the driving Jeep.

I heard from far away the Jeep coming. When it stopped the five people hurried to get to the car. One person with a child sat already next to the driver and had also some baggage. I saw that two of the five persons bought seeds from the driver and paid him with onions and other fruits. The baggage of the woman and also our baggage was put on the roof rack and fixed there. So we all had sufficient space in the car.

When we later passed the hut with our small bag the Jeep stopped for a moment. Our bag still waited untouched in the corner of the hut. The parents were not at home. We gave the children a box with cookies, thanked and said good bay. Here also one more passenger got into the car. We were soon in Camotan. The driver told us he would go on to Chiquimula and would not stay in Camotan. Therefore he had to stop for a second time for a moment at the Mission as we had to fetch our second bag. Soon we jumped back into the Jeep. The journey to Chiquimula was quite fast and the driver dropped us at the bus station. A bit later we had a bus to Zacapa. And even there we did not have to wait very long until the next bus from Puerto Barrios to Guatemala city passed by and we could get in. In this way we reached the capital city of Guatemala quite late, but the same day.

Looking back I have to say that we were lucky, weatherwise: It was rainy season and it had rained all three days.

Today there is a good asphalt road from Camotan to Copán crossing the river by a concrete bridge. The distance from Camotan to Copán is now 52 km. That means we walked at least about 94 km. When I drove several years later to Copán with a taxi I realized how far it really is. I had the feeling that walking all the way was a great achievement we could be proud of. Most young people even cannot imagine to walk such a distance.

After marching to Copán I thought we would never get back to Copán again in our life. But two years later we had already a contract with the Austrian Scientific Research Fond for a project to document and to analyze the architecture of Copán. In 1970 we did not have to walk but flew with the private plane of the President of Honduras to Copán. When we just had finished our Copán project in 1977 the PAC (“Proyecto Arqueológico Copán“) was started with hundreds of archaeologists and helpers. This project was several times prolonged and modified and still continues. We were invited to join the project and continued our architectural work. In 1995 our work ended with the publication of the last results of our project.