Copan, Honduras – Lying on the open-air yoga platform at the Hacienda San Lucas, a rustic but chic adobe resort, I try to ground my body and lengthen my spine, but really, I’m here for the view. Spreading out below me are the lush Honduran mountains, the green river valley and, though I can’t see them from my lizard-like pose, the Maya ruins of Copan.
Yoga overlooking the Mayan ruins
Normally 8 a.m. wouldn’t see me doing anything remotely physical, but the chance to do yoga on a hill overlooking the ruins sounded like a good way to soak up the atmosphere. The Maya, a sophisticated culture with an advanced approach to science and architecture, also had a rich spiritual tradition that embraced sun gods, corn gods, bat gods and a looming underworld. Just 12 km from the Guatemalan border and 168 km southwest of the Honduran city, San Pedro Sula, Copan is not the largest of the Maya ruins, but it is considered the most elegant, a graceful complex of stepped pyramids, buried temples, a mysterious ball court and a 72-step Hieroglyphic Stairway completed by Smoke Shell, the 15th ruler of Copan. During the city’s 400 year apex from 426 AD to 820, it was the cultural center of the Maya world.
After my yoga class I head to the ruins, just outside the laidback town of Copan. Yobani, my bespeckled guide, leads me down a shady promenade towards the Grand Plaza, a grassy expanse dotted with carved stone pillars, or stelae, depicting Copan’s most artistic ruler, 18 Rabbit. As I stand contemplating the ruler’s crocodile belt and serpent staff, a flock of macaws swoops by, their harsh shrieks piercing the humid air.
Domain of the macaws
They fly by again as we walk over the ball court, a narrow field flanked by stone ramps. “Now we can try to wake up the underworld gods,” Yobani says.
When I look startled, he explains that this was no ordinary ball game. Played with a heavy rubber ball, it was a ceremonial test against the forces of death, the field a watery meeting point between the Maya and the underworld below. Some theories suggest that the losing captain was beheaded in shame, others that it was the winning captain who was sent to the underworld, his death ensuring spiritual rebirth.
“When are we going into the tunnels?” I ask Yobani.
Into the underworld
“Yes, yes, we will soon enter the underworld, too,” he jokes.
A trip into a Hades-like world wasn’t what I had in mind. It’s the Rosalila Temple I want to see.
The Maya often built over old structures as new kings came to power and Rosalila was no exception. Buried beneath a building called Structure 16, this two-story terraced temple was built in 571 by Moon Jaguar, the 10th ruler of Copan. As I descend into the archeological tunnel and stare through the glass barrier, the temple’s faded pink walls seem to pulsate with mystery. This was a sacred place where rulers connected with their ancestors via ritualistic blood-letting and smoldering cloths through which visions emerged.
A different vision emerges later in the day when a driver takes a group of us up a red-soil road to Luna Jaguar, a hot springs resort nestled in the jungle hillside. Opened in January by an Italian spa company, the experience is based on Mayan tradition, and if you go, be prepared to die.
“This tunnel represents the underworld,” our Honduran hostess tells us as we stand facing a dark entrance guarded by a replica statue of Moon Jaguar. “As you go through, you are going to leave your problems behind and start anew.”
Even symbolically entering the underworld is eerie but I emerge unscathed and follow a trail to a series of spa stations. The steam bath, in particular, is ingenious and simple, a wooden platform built over the roiling hot springs that gush out at 85C. Amidst the flat wide leaves and tumbling ferns steam billows up and the boundaries between jungle and sky seem to blur.
A fantastic grotto
Bypassing the open air massage room I continue to the core of the springs, a circular hot pool bordered by river rocks. It’s a fantastic grotto. Vines drip down, banana trees rustle and I soak until my skin prunes. It’s twilight before I step out and plunge into the adjacent cold pool, springing up gasping and shrieking like a macaw. This may be the underworld, but I think I’ve just been reborn.
Copan Travel Facts:
Copan is the second most-visited destination in the Honduras after the popular island resort of Roatan. While major cities in the Honduras can be difficult to maneuver in, the town of Copan Ruinas is friendly and easy-going with a good tourist infrastructure and congenial restaurants and bars.
Where to Stay:
Hacienda San Lucas is a 100-year old family-owned retreat that offers accommodation, wellness weekends and yoga. www.haciendasanlucas.com
Centrally located and popular, the Hotel Marina Copan has colonial-style rooms and a courtyard kidney-shaped pool, but hot water is unreliable. www.hotelmarinacopan.com
Copan is a 3-hour bus ride from San Pedro Sula. One option is the Hedman Alas Bus Company www.hedmanalas.com. Alternatively, private tours or hotel transfers can be arranged with MC Tours at www.mctours-honduras.com.