Sunday, October 26, 2008

Jaguar Spa - One of Nature’s Wonders

As part of my blogging attempts to report on my recent visit to Copan with my son, I now want to relay our experience with one of Nature’s Wonders that is just 45 minutes away from Copan, Jaguar Spa – Natural Springs.

I had learned about the natural springs from a friend who visited there last year and returned to the island with rave reviews. So, naturally, when my son and I planned our vacation in Copan, I had to include a trip to the hot springs.

We arranged (through our hotel) for a driver to take us to the springs. The 45-minute drive was interesting as well as “rugged”. We passed through some beautiful countryside and some small hamlets with a spattering of homes and, once in a while, a small school with children spilling out into the play area.

We left early in the morning as we wanted to dedicate our afternoon to the ruins. We arrived well before 10 a.m. and were guided back into the springs by a friendly young man. We had arranged for a massage after a relaxing soak in the springs, which is an extra on the visit.

The hot springs are located on a well-kept, nicely manicured area, with a parking lot that gently slopes off down towards the river. There’s a ticket booth, an outdoor cold shower, a place to change into your swimming clothes, and typical lush flowers and plant-life all around. Luna Jaguar has been built to resemble, or at least pay homage to the Mayan ruins in the surrounding area. There is a lot of dark-gray rock set off by deep green leaves. The resort is pretty large; it took an attendant at least ten minutes to show us all the pools, the massage area, the foot bath, the mud bath, and the vapor area.

Much attention had been paid to carving out areas leading to the springs. We crossed over a rope bridge, carefully walked on stepping stones across a pool of water, entered a tunnel-like access which had been carved out of the mountainside and came across some interesting carvings of human skulls along with the ever present tree roots growing inside the tunnel.

We passed a small cascading waterfall, an interesting Mayan head carving along with a carving that constantly receives the sulphur-like hot water flowing over it 24/7.

There are several “steps” to relaxing in the hot springs: There is a natural mud bath area which one goes to after soaking in the hot spring and then the cold spring. The mud provided there acts as an exfoliant to scrub away dead skin cells and cleanse the body.

Next is a circular area for a natural foot massage. This area consists of smooth stones lining the bottom of the circular walkway divided into two areas; one walkway receives hot water and the other cold. One is told to walk around the area 6 times before proceeding onto the sitting area where you then soak in the hot springs before moving on to the cooling off pool.

There is also an area for a steam facial which consists of leaning over a rail and putting your face into the ascending column of steam. Really cleansing!

The final step in this relaxing program is a massage, if one cares to partake and how could we pass that up?

Above the springs is a shaded, covered area to change out of our swimsuits, don a soft robe and then lie down on a massage table and have a relaxing massage while listening to the sounds of nature. It couldn’t get much better than this!

We spent a couple of hours at the springs and I would recommend that if one plans on including this side trip in their journey, then, please, set aside the whole day so you can fully relax the relaxing waters, return to your hotel for a late nap and then have a great dinner. Since we were pressed for time we had to leave well before we wanted so that we could take in the ruins.
Along the drive back I was able to take a photo of an average Honduran house in the mountains. These are adobe-like houses finished with an outside coat of mud. On the way back we came across a huge tarp laid out alongside the road and on it red beans (or black beans) are laid out to dry. At the right time of year you will see coffee beans laid out in the same manner to dry in the hot Honduran sun. Small children are seen at various areas alongside of the road and I managed to get a quick photo of a group of charming, but wary, children.

The people at the Spa were friendly and accommodating. We had a wonderful experience and if I’m given the opportunity to return to Copan you can bet that I’ll return to Jaguar Spa Springs.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Out dumbed!

My husband remarks that living in Honduras is a country in which the people will never outsmart us, they will simply out dumb us!  And, it is true!

I recently went to LaCeiba with a friend who had doctors she wanted to see.  Leaving the island of Guanaja is fairly simple.  We have no complicated method of boarding; we wait under the thatched-covered casetta until we see the plane land, walk to the white picket fence that is on either side of the walkway, pay our airport tax and walk to the plane and board.  Our luggage is tagged at the casetta and taken up to the plane and loaded after the incoming luggage is off loaded.  Simple!  Right.  

We take off, fly all the way to LaCeiba with no incidents, get off the plane and go to collect our luggage.  After collecting the luggage one thinks, ok, I'll just head on out to my hotel!  Wrong.  Just as you reach the exit door some young man motions you to put your luggage on the metal chairs used for waiting (there are no tables in the room) and insists that you must open your suitcase before leaving the terminal.  Why, I have no idea!  I was a little miffed and challenged the young man asking him what he was looking for as I just got off the plane and we were all safe.  He shrugged his shoulders (the first sign of out-dumbing you) and says it is his job.  I say, yes, but what are you looking for?  He says "bad stuff".  I say, what bad stuff?  He replies with another shrug of the shoulders indicating he has no idea and then says it is his job!  Two military types are standing off to the side but no one offers an explanation.  Now if he were indeed looking for something that proved to be dangerous like a weapon or a drug, he would never find it the way he searched!  He patted my clothing a little big, lifted the corners of a few items, shuffled things on top around and proceeded to "clear" my luggage!  I really believe they do this just 1) to justify his salary and 2) to irritate deplaning passengers as apparently we looked too happy when we got off the plane.

Then we get a taxi!  I have just discovered on this trip that people on the coast, for one reason or the other (but I have no idea why) do not have change!  If you get a taxi and all you have is Lps. 500 (heck even Lps. 100) he must stop at a gas station and change the bill.  I can understand not wanting a lot of money on your person driving around during the day in case you get robbed but I doubt very much that these drivers make periodical stops to "unload" some the of money they have received from daily fares just so they will not have enough to make it worth while for someone to rob them!  

But, lo and behold it is not just taxi drivers.  I went to a large grocery store and made a purchase only to be told (at 9 a.m.) that they had no change!  They just opened their cash registers for Pete's sake, what would they do if everyone came in, bought groceries and needed change?  Refuse the sale?  At this particular store I had to wait 10 minutes for their clerk to go to the nearby bank and get change.  The peculiar thing is, they took their own money to get change!

I went to a restaurant; same excuse - no hay cambio!  So I must go to a bank and get change for some of the Lps. 500.00 I am carrying so I'll have smaller bills to pay with!

Then, back to the taxi.  In town I knew that the fare is Lps. 20 per person.  We had to go to a hotel out near the airport and they said now it was Lps. 40 per person.  We said ok, we'll go with that.  But when we tried hailed a taxi in the middle of town to take us to our hotel out by the airport, the driver wanted to charge Lps. 100-150 for 2 people!  In one cab I told him to stop we were getting out because I was not paying Lps. 150 for something I had been charged Lps. 80 the day before!  He relented and lowered his fare to Lps. 100.  Again, from the mall I hailed a cab while it was raining.  I guess the driver felt the rain justified a higher fare for one person and wanted Lps. 150 to take me to my destination.  I argued this was way too much and told him that I pay Lps. 40 per person or Lps. 80 for 2.  He said no, he would have to charge no less than Lps. 100.  So, I told him I would only if he would take his friend's umbrella and walk me to the door when we arrived!  On the way he said for two people, yes, it would be Lps. 80.  I said, good, I'm one person so it should be Lps. 40!  But he out dumbed me by shrugging his shoulders saying it did not work that way!

Of course there is the restaurant menu that gives varied selections but when you make your choice, the item is not available.  When you ask for a particular drink they say "no hay" but later on when one of the members of the group (male) gets a manager over, suddenly they have the drink!

My friend wanted to buy some personal apparel - a bra.  Now, all women know that you must try bras on as each one is different and will fit differently.  Nope, not in Honduras.  They ask if you know your "number" and if you say yes, they say, well, any bra with that "number" will fit.  You try to explain the fault in their logic and they look at your like they've never tried a bra on before --- well, now that I think about it, maybe they haven't.  After all, they work in lingerie and this does not necessarily mean they know anything about the product.  Finally the salesgirl tells my friend she can try on a particular brand but only that brand and not the other brands!  And, get this, she must try it on over her own bra!  Now that is really smart - like trying on shoes with heavy socks!  Out dumbed again.

In LaCeiba most stores close at 12:00 noon for lunch and reopen at about 1:00 or 1:30 p.m.  Imagine our surprise when we approached one store at 11:29 a.m. and they were closed.  We got to another store at 11:31 a.m. (down the block) and were told they too were closed!  I protested and the owner who knew me saw us outside and thankfully waived us in!  This is the biggest problem going from Guanaja to LaCeiba to shop.  We can no longer get an early morning flight and now arrive at about 11:00 a.m. (or 11:30 a.m.) and have to rush and find somewhere that is open so we can get some of our shopping done.  Re-opening at 1:30 p.m. only gives us about 45 minutes to shop if we want to return the same day and not incur the cost of a hotel, meals and taxi rides.  So, when the shops closer earlier than 12 noon, we are, once again, out dumbed!

The thing is, the people here come to expect this kind of treatment and, I guess, figure that's all they deserve - businesses with no change, businesses that close earlier than the expected hour, businesses who employ people that know little to nothing about what they are selling and employees who have no idea what they are suppose to do!

Yup!  Out dumbed - they have made an art of it!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Copan - Part II

To continue. We arrived at the hotel (Don Udo's) where we were greeted by a lovely young lady who was most helpful in arranging for our various activities. We had activities in mind and the staff at the hotel made everything run smoothly. The room was a good sized one with one large bed and a bunk-bed, an ample armoire, a large bathroom with a tub/shower, A/C and outside the door, a comfortable looking hammock.

After settling in at the hotel, we wandered to the center of town, grabbed a tuk tuk (a small three-wheeled covered vehicle) which is the main mode of transportation for tourists. They are efficient, a little cramped, and provide for an exciting ride on the streets of Copan. The village of Copan is built on hill country, therefore, some of the streets are extremely steep and, since they are all cobble stone, it makes for a bumpy, hang on to your seat kind of ride!

Rates are reasonable - Lps. 20 per person ($1.05) and you can travel to most areas around and in town for that price. Of course, as in any tourist town in Honduras they will try and charge you a higher price, but if you put your foot down and know the going rate, it is easy to get them to back down. We had one driver come to the hotel when we were ready to check out to go to the Hedman bus station. I asked him how much the ride was as the bus terminal was not far. I misunderstood and thought he said Lps. 10 a piece. I thought this was rather cheap but since it was not far, I agreed. We piled into the tuk tuk with our 2 pieces of luggage and went the short distance. Imagine my surprise when he demanded Lps. 100! I said no, he said Lps. 10 a piece and I knew that the going rate was Lps. 20. He finally said, no, it was Lps. 20 each. I said then it would be Lps. 40. He said no, he had to charge for each piece of luggage! I said then it would be Lps. 80 not Lps. 100. He finally conceded and I paid him. I must point out that I do not try and gyp the drivers, I just do not appreciate being overcharged and drivers in Honduras have a tendency to do just that when they see a person they perceive to be a tourist.
Anyway, we told the driver we wanted to go to Macaw Mountain. Macaw Mountain Bird Park & Nature Reserve is an innovative tropical bird reserve in western Honduras that cares for rescued and endangered birds of the American tropics. The park offers a first class experience in an unspoiled part of the world. Here you learn about and interact with the intelligent, colorful birds of Central America. The birds in Macaw Mountain are either rescued or donated by people wanting better lives for these beautiful creatures. Once recovered, the birds are carefully maintained and are free to fly in the aviaries. According to the Macaw Mountain staff, they "house, care for and feed [the] birds at a very high standard."

One finds toucans, macaws, hawks, owls, aracaris in the park. There is a great deal of history between these birds and the Ancient Mayans, who lived between 600 BC and AD 1500. Birds such as quetzals, herons, eagles, and of course macaws are ever-present in Ancient Mayan art. The ruins of Copan, as well, show extensive bird images, and in fact, K’inich Yax K’uk Mo’, the name of the founder and first ruler of the Pre-Columbian Mayan Civilization means Resplendent Sun Lord Quetzal Macaw.
Part of the Copan property had been used as a coffee plantation prior to its purchase. The owners of Macaw Mountain decided to maintain many of the coffee plants. They can be seen along the shady forest trails, bearing red berries when ripe. Macaw Mountain also owns a high-altitude coffee farm called Finca Miramundo. The park is well thought out and being a wife of an engineer I must admit it is one of the best constructed places I've seen in Honduras. The lay of the land was relatively undisturbed. There is a lovely little stream running through the property which provides the area with the tranquil sound of running water, singing birds and a break from the heat of the mid-day sun.

The aviaries that house the birds are roomy providing sufficient area for the birds to fly around. There are native plants in each cage and one cage was set aside for breeding pairs of macaws. We were lucky enough to view some hatchlings which were about ready to appear in the world, fully feathered, for the first time. Special hatching boxes are built into the cage where the chicks are born and raised. It takes about 90 days for them to become fully feathered and ready to make their appearance.

As I stated, this park is a refuge for injured and/or abandoned birds. It is illegal in Honduras to capture these birds as many are endangered. Of course, the people here, desperate for money, capture and sell them along side the roads throughout the country not even realizing how stressful this is for the birds. They have absolutely no knowledge regarding the care and upbringing of birds and many are put in cages which are too small, fed tortilla dough and sunflowers and the caged bird is lucky if their Honduran owners give them fresh water and fresh food daily. Immature keeled billed toucans found being sold along side the road between San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa were rescued and brought to the sanctuary. The transport of these birds took several days and the younger, weaker birds died on the way. Baby toucans must be hand fed 6-8 times a day until they are 8-9 weeks old and will not eat alone or on their own during that time. Once the birds are on a diet of soft fruits and are properly rehydrated, they begin to regain their strength. They can then move on to feeding themselves and learning to fly.

In one cage were several magnificent hawks all of which were found injured and brought here to live out their lives. They tend to stay high in the roost and photographing them was difficult but I managed to snap a fairly good photo of one.

There was also a cage of new macaws that had arrived in the park but were very stressed and had resorted to picking themselves. Birds, when they become agitated or nervous tend to pick their feathers. Some will settle down and overcome this nervousness while others never recover and can pick all the feathers off their body and remain "naked" all their lives. As you can see from this photo, this particular macaw has picked his chest feathers but is gradually recovering as new down is growing in and he is leaving it alone.

There is a special area set aside where birds are brought out in the open to be fed, observed and, if the individual wishes, the staff will place several birds on your shoulders and outstretched arms for a photo session. For the most part these birds are accustomed to people and are not aggressive. Having raised parrots, however, I know that birds are unpredictable and people can still be bitten very easily by a parrot who perceives a different view of the situation. The staff is very knowledgeable and by working with the birds they can, for the most part, control the birds so there is little aggression.

One can wander all day, back and forth between the cages enjoying the birds, the tranquility of the area and, if the need warrants, there are a couple of areas set aside for sitting and relaxing with a cup of coffee or juice and simply enjoying the natural surroundings.

I highly recommend anyone visiting Copan to take in Macaw Mountain Bird is something you will always remember and give you a deeper appreciation of the lovely birds of Central America.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Part I - My Trip to Copán

Wahoo - I hope that is not a phrase that is copyrighted! My son took his R&R from his job in Iraq (he works for a private contractor there) and came to visit his Mom! He deserved a vacation. After working 4 months at 7 days a week, 12 hours a day, his R&R was much needed.

Second, Wahoo - he and I took a few days before coming to the island to take a short vacation in Copán. Copán is my favorite vacation spot. I love that town. The ambiance, the beautiful valleys and mountains, the lovely village of Copán and the Ruinas! My husband and I had been to Copán about 4 years ago and we both fell in love with the place, thus, I wanted my son to experience the wonder that is Copán.

He arrived in San Pedro Sula on a Saturday and we spent the weekend shopping, eating at wonderful restaurants there and relaxing in the hotel pool. On Monday our hired driver, Oscar, picked us up at 8:30 a.m. for the trip to Copán.

I felt it would be far better to take a van going up to Copán so that we could see all the sites unemcumbered, take photos and stop when we wanted. Our return trip was on a Hedman Alas bus - but that is another part of the story. The trip to Copán from San Pedro Sula is about 3 to 3 1/2 hours. Copán Ruinas is located on the western side of Honduras, very near the border with Guatemala. It is only 12 km from the border crossing point of El Florido, and about 240 km from Guatemala City and 160 km from San Pedro Sula, which is the main Honduran gateway into Copán. Santa Rosa de Copán is the capital of the department (local equivalent to a state) of Copán. Copán ranks among the most important of Maya sites for many reasons, but foremost among these is its vast number of hieroglyphic texts. It is the site of a major Maya kingdom of the Classic era (5th through 9th Centuries). For its relative small size (many other sites in the Maya lowlands are physically larger), the amount of inscribed materials at Copán are truly astounding, suggesting that in some way the elite culture of this ancient kingdom was particularly interested in literate culture and whatever that entailed. It comes as little surprise, therefore, that Copán has long been a focus of intensive epigraphic investigation.

The highway to Copán is a two lane road and, for the most part, a nice road with relatively little traffic. Of course we were traveling during the "off season" so traffic was even less than what my husband and I had encountered on our previous trip.

We settled in and watched the wonderful scenery unfold. Within an hour and a half we were higher up in the mountains and viewed beautiful valleys. My son was enthralled. All he has seen for 4 months was sand, sand and more sand with an occasional sand storm tossed in for good measure. The green was overwhelming for him - he said he never realized how beautiful green was (I think there is a song about green and frogs, but I just can't remember the title). We passed a raging river that would have been really gorgeous except for the fact that all the silt from the topsoil had rendered it brown and unappealing.

The road from San Pedro Sula to Copán takes you through a large commercial town called La Entrada de Copán, (The Entrance to Copán) which is still 64 km. from Copán Ruinas. On both sides of the streets are various vendors, vegetable stands and people wandering from one booth to another looking for bargains. I managed to snap some photos but the one I like the most was this one. For the life of me I cannot figure out what in the world was to have been built on top of the building pictured. Rebar is sticking up all over the top of the edifice leaving one to wonder if they were anticipating expansion or simply put in rebar that was not the right length and no one bothered to cut it off!

As we continued down the highway which, up to this point had been in pristine condition, traffic suddenly slowed to a crawl. When we reached the front of the line we were met with what appeared to have been a mudslide. The rains had taken their toll and tons of dirt were covering the highway. Apparently crews had been working many hours to remove the earth from the road but the process was slow. You can't really see it from this photo, but on the other side of the pile of dirt on the right was a large dip in the road and I would hate to think what damage a truck or bus could incur when passing through this portion of road.

Further on down the road we again came to a crawl. This time it was not a mudslide but cows being herded down the highway! I had to chuckle thinking of what people in the states would do if their one and only main road was being used to herd cows! Of course, Oscar, our driver, took it in stride and didn't seem to be surprised at all by the presence of the herd.

We finally reached Copán and were intent upon finding our hotel. I had booked rooms at the Hacienda San Lucas but our driver was not familiar with the establishment and had to stop and ask no less than 5 different people, getting 5 different directions. We finally were pointed in the right direction and, after a 20 minute trip up a dirt road running along side the river, we arrived. Nestled in the hills above the tranquil Copán Valley, Hacienda San Lucas is a 100-year old family-owned retreat uniquely situated directly above the world-renowned Maya ruins of Copán. Hacienda San Lucas was recently restored by Flavia Cueva, the owner/manager and is a solar-powered adobe hacienda. The place was charming and tranquil. However, due to the fact that we only had 2 nights in Copán I decided that the distance to travel (which would have been much better had the road not incurred damage from the rain) to the town would interfere with our schedule. Flavia assured us that she understood our predicament and offered to find us a hotel in town. I thanked her but told her that my alternative choice for now was Hotel Don Udos. Had we more time, the Hacienda would have been a lovely place to stay with much to offer. However, since time was of the essence, I thanked our host and we climbed back into our van and proceeded to Don Udos.
Hotel Don Udo has 16 comfortable rooms each decorated in a different style offering private bathrooms with hot and cold water, ceiling fan, purified drinking water, and automatic international calls. Most rooms have A/C and cable TV. There was a full service restaurant and from reputation we understood that the cuisine was excellent. The hotel had a cozy bar, Copán's only sauna & Jacuzzi, swaying hammocks, and the fabulous views from the sun deck. Fortunately it was the "off season" and rooms were available. We checked in, unpacked and prepared for our first excursion.