Living in Honduras and Guatemala is sometimes hard, mostly fun but never boring. Here some of my musings on life in this colourful part of the world where you can always expect the unexpected. Hence Serendipity, the gift of finding without seeking…

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Copán: a Love Story

 I first visited Copán Ruinas in 1994, during a short trip while I was based in Antigua Guatemala, studying Spanish. I spent only a few days in town, but really liked the place and thought how lovely it would be to go back there, somewhere in the future when I’d have more time on my hands.

That opportunity came a few years later when Dutch friends of mine asked me to take care of their restaurant in Copán for two months, while they went back to Holland. At that time I studied Latin American literature, without a scholarship, so I could no longer afford the regular trips I used to make during previous years when I had a short but lucrative career in fashion design. But now I had a chance to go back with room and board accounted for, so I bought a ticket and made my way back to that small town in the western mountains of Honduras.

It didn’t take long before I was totally, head over heels in love. With Copán.

Why? That is as hard to explain as why you fall in love with a person at first sight. But the symptoms were all the same: butterflies in my stomach, an eagerness to get out of bed every morning in order to face yet another day in paradise and a reluctance to go to bed at night because I didn’t want to miss a second of my stay.

I was overwhelmed with this magical place and its cosmopolitan ambience while at the same time so authentically rural. The people were so friendly, the climate so becoming. The few bars and restaurants in town were not as hip as the ones in sizzling Amsterdam, but great places nonetheless where I met an endless stream of interesting and entertaining people. The food supply was less variable than I was used too, but exotic in my eyes, and thus delicious. I found the Maya Chortí people so beautiful, so authentic, so quiet and reserved. They gave a sense of mystery to the place. The people were taking life at a slower space and it all seemed so right, so down to earth, so perfect. It was all so incredibly far removed from the life I was used to, the typical running around and busy, busy, busy, always. To have nature so close around me made me feel humble and rich at the same time. I didn’t need to own acres of land as long as I could roam around for free over the mountain trails, which I did (and do) every day. I learned to take my time, to wonder and appreciate. I felt like I had come home, finally, after a long, long way on the road of life.

Two months turned into a year. One year turned into many more.

In the beginning every small cultural difference delighted me. I quickly picked up gestures and bad language. In no time I was pointing with my lips instead of using my hand, I mastered the little twitch in the corner of my mouth that says ”hello, how are you, I’m fine, thank you” and I even counted on my fingers, starting with my pinky. I was intrigued to learn how to do my laundry at a pila, a big cement sink which serves as a water reservoir since the water supplies are unreliable. I learned how prepare and eat frijoles and tortillas and can’t imagine I’ll be ever be able to live without baleadas. I even got used to the power outages and to throwing toilet paper in a basket instead of the toilet. The people I met instantly became best friends. They were so gracious, so welcoming. I spent night after night partying, just hanging around and drinking far too much beer. My first two years in paradise were one long vacation.

I don’t know exactly when and even less how it changed, but it did. Was it me, this place, or my relationship with it? Maybe it was like any love affair: at first everything is new and exciting. Once that first stage is over, it all depends on how much mutual respect is left. And even if there’s not a grain of respect or love left, people often stick together for years, for the rest of their lives, just because they’re so used to each other.

I guess it is the beginning of the end when that what you first found charming, starts to annoy the hell out of you. People’s relaxedness becomes tardiness. Elaborate answers to please you become lies. A helping hand turns into someone who wants to take advantage of you. Where before you laughed when a Honduran started building a house by putting up the roof first instead of laying the foundation, now you roll your eyes and shake your head in disgust. You hear yourself say how hard it is to get a trustworthy cleaning lady and it somewhere stirs a memory of a heated discussion years ago about how wrong and how “colonial” it is to talk about how difficult it is to get good personnel. The food supply has improved over the years that what’s not available become more important than that what’s at hand. Before, you took a trip to the big city in the one and only chicken bus and you considered it an adventure. Now a trip out of town becomes an escape…

And the people: you realize they never really were your best friends: they were as long as you paid for the beers. But when you had a problem, either with them or one of their numerous family members, their friendship turned into chillness. They will never confront you, but every warmth and hospitality is gone. So what you do is you shut yourself up in your own place and pretend to live in your own world far away from Honduras. You can’t go back home; you won’t be able to adapt anymore. You’re too used to the freedom money can buy, since even the poorest westerner here is richer than a campesino. You don’t want to live in a world without hired help to do the laundry or the garden. You don’t want to be bothered with all kinds of taxes or being obliged by law to scoop up your dogs disposals. You hate the cold, the grey of your home country’s long winters. So there is no choice. You stay where you are and you create your own private state in the amidst of Honduras. You finally caught that gringo disease. It’s called bitterness.

I’ve had many “I hate Honduras” days. But I still stuck around. And things slowly moved around again.

I’ve fallen head over heels in love before only to fall out of love again and wonder what the heck you ever saw in that person. Tremendous love can easily turn into deep disgust and even hate. If there’s no love left, you better get the hell out of there. But that is not what happened with me and Copán.

I’ve lived in Copán for sixteen years now, and in more than one way, it is the love of my life. We have shared so much and Copán has been as good for me as it has been bad. I feel a tremendous love and respect for this place, its people and its history. It is a place as no other and it will always be in my heart.

However, I have decided to leave Copán. Not any time soon, nor am I leaving Copán for another love in my life. I just feel it’s time to move on. I feel good here, but it has become too comfortable, although hardly ever easy. But the world is bigger than Copán and I feel I’m not done exploring yet.

So I have no idea where I’ll end up, much less when. But wherever I’ll be, whatever I’ll do, there is no doubt in my mind that I’ll always think of Copán with much fondness and pride. I just love Copán. Para siempre!


  1. What an amazing story! You're a person I'll always remember because I learned a lot from you.
    Love, Silvia Avares

  2. It took me less time than you to realize that Copan was not for me. The reasons are too numerous to mention in a blog but they are clearly spelled out in my 2000 book, Journey to Xibalba: The Subversion of Human Rights in Central America. In my case, I believe that we Europeans are not cut out to live so distantly and dissimilarly from our own culture. But I know how you feel. Born in France, I have been living in the United States for the past 50 years and I still regard myself an alien on a remote and strange universe. I got used to all the comforts and prodigalities one can enjoy in the U.S., but I embraced none of its values, customs or ideals. I was and still am an incurable European, a Frenchman, a Parisian and, like you, I decided it is time to move on. Unlike you, I will not wait until nausea turns to hatred. I am now engineeering a return to my beloved Paris where I was born. When one is happy in one's heart, climate is irrelevant. Go back to Amsterdam Carin. It's a fabulous city I know well. Think of the Rijks Museum, Rembrandt House, the Concertgebow, the small cafes, the liberal politics, the cheese, the cleanliness, etc. Copan will never change. Like a reptile, it will grow a new skin now and then but its heart, its soul is forever tainted. Good luck.
    W. E. Gutman