You wouldn’t have wanted to watch a ball game at the close of the season in the ancient Mayan city of Copan.
Oh, sure, the views from the towering pyramids would have been just fine, and the ball court itself would have been a show: angled stone walls to keep that ball flying fast from elbow to elbow, chest to chest, player to player, one end of the court to the other.
Then at the end of each game, the best player from the winning team — not the worst, no, that might make sense — got sacrificed.
The end-of-season game must have looked like a J. League match. Everyone banging the ball around the pitch with consummate skill, lots of fancy moves, plenty of ostentatious effort, but no one actually scoring. Picture it. All the first-division Mayan hotheads are long gone, the surviving players are bouncing that fatal ball around, missing in every conceivable way, and all the while the high priests keep consulting their complicated astronomical calendars (Mayan astronomical calendars were excellent) and balefully intoning, “Extra Time! Extra Time!”
I watched this still beautiful ball court, from a still awe-inspiring pyramid, 900 years or so after the last game of the final Mayan ball season. Then I asked our guide why they’d come up with such a silly rule for what could, after all, have been simple, clean family entertainment. Give the winner a trophy or something. Not, you know, remove his heart still thumping from his chest.
This was obviously not the first time he had been asked the question.
“It’s like football,” he responded. “People dying is part of the excitement.”
Not a bad answer. Particularly applicable here in Honduras, which in 1969 set a new precedent for belligerent idiocy (or sporting enthusiasm) by going to war with El Salvador over a soccer match. There were, apparently, some great cavalry charges. These Latins take their football seriously.
In fact I take it back. Maybe there was some great ball at the end of the season.
“OK,” I said, “What’s next ?”
“Eighteen Rabbit,” he said. And we moved on through the ancient brooding edifices of Copan.
Hurricane Mitch played merry hell with parts of Honduras, and Central America still rings with the horror stories — some nastily real, others retold and improved upon just a few too many times. We heard of hands sticking up through landslide mud “like a crop.” Villages wiped out. People jostling (unsuccessfully) with poisonous snakes for space in trees above rising floodwater. Alligator farms ruptured, hungry gators cruising flooded streets. Sharks thick about the estuaries waiting for bloated cattle drifting seaward. It was, and in some places, still is, grim.
Still, a lot of it isn’t. Perhaps it’s due to long practice, but Central America has the great gift of bouncing back speedily from catastrophe. The roads are once more open to Copan. The bridges are repaired and you can go there if you want to.
If ruined Tikal was the “Mayan New York,” then Copan, they claim, was the “Mayan Paris.” By this they mean that Tikal is a city of looming, in-your-face skyscrapers, and Copan is a city of sculpture, sophistication, elegance and grace (from which we can infer that “they” obviously haven’t been to Paris).
Copan was rediscovered in 1839. All the features of the Mayan mythical world are represented in the structures: The Bat Palace, the House of Knives, the Mountain Where Maize Was Born. There are even traces remaining of the red cinnabar that once coated all the walls. This March, tunnels beneath the pyramids were opened for the first time to the public.
King Eighteen Rabbit was not the greatest of Mayan rulers. Sad to say, he was murdered at a feast. His name lives on, though, in a way that those of his ancestors’ and descendants’ do not. All the Mayan rulers contributed to the construction of Copan in grandiose ways, but Eighteen Rabbit definitely won out in the carved memorial stakes. His name and likeness are chiseled everywhere.
One of the downfalls of ancient Copan was deforestation. Bones of children at the time of Copan’s collapse show signs of malnutrition due to failed crops on eroded soil. Although Copan means “place of birds,” the really splendid wildlife — the macaws, quetzals, the pumas, the spotted cats — are long gone.
Ignoring the lessons of history, and of Mitch, deforestation continues apace in the surrounding hills. There is none of the Tikal wilderness feel here. It is still unquestionably a beautiful “lost city,” though, eloquent testament both to human achievement and to the environmental perils of human overachievement.
And the carvings are wonderful.
Copan is in cowboy country. Copan town, nearby, manages to seamlessly blend Spanish language schools, fine cigar bars and gringo tourists with the unhurried daily business of a working Honduras mountain town. All the men here sport jaunty white hats and the narrow streets ring with the clicks of high-steppin’ hoofs. Passing horsemen will offer to take you for a ride — up the valley to see the old Mayan hospital, bird-watching along the river (there are still some) or out into the surrounding tobacco fields to the curing sheds.
This is an offer you shouldn’t refuse. We were hailed by one Sen~or Candana Banana, who modestly promised us the best horses in the world. At the agreed rendezvous, it emerged that said Banana wasn’t actually in possession of any horses himself, and from his aroma had clearly spent his commission very wisely on vast quantities of rum. Even the rogues in Copan are reliable, though, it seems; tourism is understated but still a town staple, and Banana had arranged for a friend to provide both guidance and steeds.
They were lovely little horses. Trim, well cared for, and the kind that you can sit on with confidence even if you know nothing about riding. Any and all horseback excursions around Copan are recommended.
One thing not to get too excited about is the 30-minute drive to the hot springs. They are bright green, lukewarm, the haunt of off-duty drug lords, and the river which is their source has chicken viscera bobbing about in it. Other than that, you really can’t go wrong in this precious piece of old Honduras.