Chris Moss, The Daily Telegraph, January 14, 2014
At first, you see only mounds of stones, a few trees bursting through the soil, a collapsed wall that seems to have been twisted and buckled. Slowly, recognizable forms take shape and you see a house, a long wall, a small pyramid. Then, as the far end you spy a large structure decorated with intricate reliefs – it’s a beautiful facade depicting a warrior emerging from the head of a jaguar. The reconstruction has been painstaking, and while missing sections have required the deft employment of sculpted cement, you can still sense the power and importance of the figure who inspired the artwork.
This is El Rastrojón, a residential Mayan “suburb” just a little over a mile from the Unesco World Heritage site of Copán in western Honduras. Though known about since at least 1979, excavation on the 1200 year-old site only began six years ago and on 1 August 2013 El Rastrojón was finally opened to the public.
“We realised El Rastrojón was a major site in 2009,” says Dr Jorge Ramos, lead archaeologist on the Harvard University-sponsored project to excavate and open the site to the public. “When we saw the quality of the sculptures and certain figures such as serpents in the stonework, we knew this was a residence of elite warriors.
“We can suppose that it was established when Copán was going through one of its defensive periods. Something must have been threating the main city for the rulers to establish an advance fort this far up the valley.”
As Central America’s dry season – and the high season for visitors – kicks off after Christmas, Honduran tourism providers are hoping this small but important Mayan ruin will give foreign travellers a new reason to travel to this poor but beautiful country. Since the June 2009 coup d’état that led to the exile of then president Manuel Zelaya, visitors have been deterred from Honduras by reports of high crime and general insecurity.
“Up until 2009, tourism in Honduras was doing great, growing yearly by over 10 percent,” says John Dupuis, Mexican-born hotelier and president of the Chamber of Tourism in La Ceiba on Honduras’s Caribbean coast.
”We were the envy of the rest of Central America. The 2008/2009 global financial crisis was hardly even noticed here until the coup. Unfortunately, since then geopolitics and lazy journalism have worked against Honduras, as has a lack of leadership from the administration of president Porfirio Lobo Sosa, which never put together a plan to improve the image of the country.
“As a result, tourism numbers are about 30 to 40 percent down on 2008 levels. The perception that we are the most dangerous country in the world is killing us.”
The latter is a consequence of continual reports that Honduran cities are the battleground of the arms and drug dealing “maras” (gangs) and that San Pedro Sula, Honduras’s economic capital, is “the murder capital of the world.”
“No one ever puts the statistics in context,” says Lloyd Davidson, who runs Macaw Mountain, a bird refuge in Copán Ruinas, a small town close to the Mayan site. “Every week I get at least three e-mails from reporters asking me if it’s safe here.
“Honduras is as safe as anywhere as long as people avoid certain areas – and use common sense.”
There is room for optimism. Honduras has navigated the past four years without descending into civil war. On January 27, Juan Orlando Hernández will be sworn in as the new president. The country boasts considerable riches; as well as Copán, US visitors – the main market – are gradually returning to the Bay Islands and their reefs and to the Pico Bonito and Nombre de Dios national parks.
Because it is new, El Rastrojón could help focus the attention of adventurous travellers on a country that could one day rival Guatemala and Costa Rica. “El Rastrojón is definitely a bit of positive news in the midst of all the sad stories,” says Dr Ramos. “It tells the world something good is happening in Honduras.”
Chris Moss offers a guide to the Central American nation with Caribbean beaches, Mayan ruins, and colonial towns