I'm a communications strategist and writer with a long history of journalism in Canada, including 14 years of writing a column for the Victoria Times-Colonist. I'm back in B.C. as of May 2016 after almost five years of living and working in Central America with Cuso International.
We've made it through our first Semana Santa in
a Latin American country, an experience that we’ve been hearing out (and
studiously avoiding) for years now. Indeed, things were the busiest we’ve seen
them in Copan yesterday since we arrived here, but the hordes of travellers we’d
been bracing for never did really materialize.
A few people told us when we got placed here by
Cuso International that Copan was a “tourist town” where there was so much
English spoken that we might have a hard time learning Spanish. I suspect it must
have been quite some time ago when such people last visited Copan, because the
reality these days is a very quiet town that I’m sure would love more tourists but
in fact doesn't see that many. Copan certainly has a gentler feel, more gringos and nicer restaurants than other Honduran towns of its size, but the tourist business still seems very tough these days.
There are a couple backpackers’ inns that are
very popular with young travellers from Europe, the U.S. and Canada, but they
pass through in a couple of days and for the most part don’t wander much
farther than the bars closest to the inns. There are a couple of restaurants frequented by the gringos - a term in common use here - but the
little street market where the locals try to flog made-in-China jewellery rarely
has browsers, let alone buyers. There’s a ridiculously overpriced souvenir shop
or two selling made-in-Honduras crafts at prices that I’m sure the artisans
would be quite stunned by, but buyers appear scarce in those stores as well.
Horseback rides to La Pintada are popular with tourists
The horseback riding guides seem to do pretty
well here. And I imagine everybody pays a visit to the ruins. A couple of the
hotels benefit from the two-day excursions to Copan from Guatemala and San
Pedro Sula, but for the most part the town looks like it’s in waiting. I’m told
that June, July and August are the peak tourist months because Americans take
their summer holidays then, smack-dab in the middle of the Honduras rainy
season. But you have to hope it’s a real cracker-jack of a tourist season if
businesses need to sustain themselves for a year on three months’ worth of tourist
The travellers here for Semana Santa are almost
exclusively other Hondurans, looking much more monied and middle-class than the
typical Copan resident. I’m guessing they’re on a break from the big cities,
enjoying a small-town weekend and drawn by the Good Friday festivities, which
include the creation of a beautiful alfombra
– carpet – that volunteers create in the streets using coloured sawdust to
depict biblical scenes. The Catholic
church also organizes a big procession that starts at the main church in the
city centre and moves through 14 stages of the cross on its way to another
church on the hill, returning in the night to walk on (and destroy) the
The beautiful alfombra
The local restaurants were busy for the first
time ever last night, at least the ones lucky enough to be situated in the
two-block zone that tourists visit. A recurrent theme during the Catholic
procession yesterday was that Hondurans need to remember that Semana Santa isn’t
a “summer holiday,” it’s a time for religious observance. But I’m quite sure
Copan merchants are very, very happy this weekend that Hondurans don’t appear
to be paying a lot of attention to such admonitions.
Did this place ever bustle with tourists?
Maybe, but a coup in 2009 and a constant diet of scary-Honduras stories in the
world press have doubtlessly taken their toll. Copan also feels like a town
that needs to wake itself up a little and figure out more options for keeping
travellers in place for longer than a day or two. A town can only cruise on
ancient Mayan ruins for so long.
But the stalled-out work on a city museum is
underway again and a few new sculptures have appeared in the town park, which
is otherwise just a stretch of concrete with a few food vendors and one of
those pan-pipe guys selling CDs. The president was here late last year vowing
that Honduras was going capitalize on all the 2012 end-of-the-world hype.
For the sake of all the Copan restaurants that
will be sitting largely empty come Monday, I hope he meant it.