turtle diving

A Little Glimpse… Why Diving Provides the Ultimate Glimpse of Tranquility

Solitude. Tranquility. Utter peacefulness. That’s what it’s like underwater; you become a part of a world outside of human society – we can go down there for a visit, but it’s not ours.

I learned scuba diving the summer before leaving on my travels; my first stop was Australia and I was bound and determined to be comfortable underwater before hitting what I considered the mac-daddy of all sites, the Great Barrier Reef.

A Little Harm… Hunting Invasive Lionfish in Honduras

As I was jumping, wiggling, tugging and contorting my body into a ballet of ridiculous postures to pull the wetsuit over my damp skin my instructor and I went over our plan for the day’s dives as he also explained some of the fish I was about to see.

Trumpet fish and crabs, eel, barracuda, and a toad fish—they were the guaranteed sightings in the warm waters off the coast of Honduras that I hadn’t yet seen. But Ethan didn’t mention the lionfish until after the first two dives and two separate lionfish sightings.

Or should I say the “evil-lionfish,” as the divemasters on Utila so fondly refer to these non-native, invasive fish that has taken over the Caribbean given that it has no natural predators in these waters.

As is so often the case on my travels what I think is the story or the adventure is just never the case. Although I was pursuing my Advanced Divers certification, what struck me hard about the week of diving was the concern that grew every day among the locals as lionfish sightings increased on every dive trip.

History of the Lionfish Invasion into Caribbean Waters

Two lionfish spotted on my dive off the coast of Utila, Honduras.

The lionfish is a non-native fish from the Indian Pacific waters that was brought to the Atlantic and Caribbean waters through the aquarium and exotic pet trade in the late 80s and early 90s. For years, the general held belief attributed the sudden spread of this fish to Hurricane Andrew busting open a huge seawall aquarium in Southern Florida back in 1992 (a hurricane I actually vividly remember sitting through, clustered around the radio with my siblings, grandparents, and parents in our boarded-up house as the house rattled and shook from the storm). Newer reporting, however, indicates the aquarium trade brought the fish over even earlier—NOAA reports lionfish were spotted off of Florida’s coast in the mid-1980s. All reports, however, attribute the invasive lionfish to aquariums in South Florida—whether a hurricane then introduced them to the Caribbean or humans knowingly released them into the waters (the more likely scenario) will remain a mystery forever.

Regardless of how the fish got to the Atlantic and Caribbean waters, the outcome is devastating to the marine ecosystem and coral reefs that are already battling climate change. Because these fish have no known natural predators in the Caribbean, they breed incredibly fast and pose an unparalleled an invasive disruption to biodiversity in these waters. Lionfish are “carnivores that feed on small crustaceans and fish, including the young of important commercial fish species such as snapper and grouper.”

One particularly startling fact:

“The lionfish can reduce native fish population by an average of 79% over a 5-week period, hunting in groups and continuing to feed until all the prey in one area have been wiped out.”

And think this is a problem limited to the Caribbean? It’s not. In the three decades since the lionfish invasion began, the World Bank now reports this invasive fish has now been spotted all the way from Rhode Island to Brazil.

A group of divers enjoying the coral reefs off the coast of Utila.

How to Combat Lionfish: Identify, Kill, and Eat

Lionfish cannot be eliminated using conventional methods, and will likely never be fully eradicated in Caribbean waters. For that reason, new tactics were needed.

In addition to all of the skills I had to learn as a part of my dive course in Utila, I watched the divemasters signal each other and converge with their dive knives out whenever a lionfish was spotted. That was the first approach back in 2010—using the tools they had on hand to help thin the population. Now, divemasters and many divers are all equipped with spearguns—many Caribbean countries have initiated speargun training programs for divers so they can more effectively kill all lionfish spotted on dives.

Spearguns are more effective than dive knives because lionfish have venomous spines on their backs (part of what makes them so hard to control in the Caribbean). Humans stung by a lionfish are likely fine—it’s very painful, but generally not fatal. However, even as a nonfatal sting, many divers now wear gloves when out hunting lionfish to make the kill easier.

In addition to killing the fish, many marine organizations are also addressing this invasion through capture and control methods, ‘Lionfish derbies,’ as well as the creation of marketplaces for lionfish meat. And while some have described lionfish as a delicacy, it’s not a prefered meat by, well, anyone. There are tastier fish. That means the efforts to establish a market for lionfish struggle.

What Does this Mean for the Marine Ecosystem?

Beautiful coral reef where lionfish live in Utila, Honduras.

The lionfish problem hit close to home not only because I love to dive, but also because the problem started in Florida with the exotic pet trade. Last year Vagabondish released a piece about the disruption that the exotic snake trade has had on the Everglades ecosystem (also in Florida) and then I think about the poor tiger population as black market demand for tiger parts in many parts of the world.

Global warming is one of those controversial topics that can be poo-pooed and debated away by some (the cyclical nature of climate and all of that which I will not get into here) but there is no denying that we have done this. In all three cases mentioned above, humans have created the issues and it’s a result of the exotic and illegal pet trades—our desire for that which is so very foreign and different than what we have.

It’s actually a bit like travel, I travel to experience other cultures and bring them closer to my understanding. Perhaps for some these exotic animals are a way to bring what’s foreign right into their homes?

So what do we do?

The ship has sailed on ever eliminating lionfish from the Caribbean and Atlantic waters. Now it’s just about continual population control—left alone, the lionfish could completely wipe out many local fish species. Instead, governments must now monitor and control lionfish populations to keep them at a level where local fish populations can also survive.

Additionally, it’s time to educate; spread the word, and hope it clicks. We humans are causing irreparable harm to our environment, and much of our impact is not reversible. It will forever alter planet earth.

A Little Consideration…Honduras: The Central American South

“The American South” is one of those phrases that carries with it all sorts of implications depending on who you ask; Hollywood has sculpted the image of a region dotted with slow-talking hicks settled alongside gun-toting cowboys and the good-ole Southern hospitality thrown in there to serve up some sweet tea, fried chicken, and a dollop of mayonnaise.

Lazy Days in Central America

I actually grew up in the South, although saying that and being from Florida can cause all sorts of eye rolls from “true southerners;” but I do consider myself a southerner. Florida actually gave a bit of the best of both worlds – I grew up with all of the homey (read: unhealthy) foods of the South without the drawl (well, mostly without the drawl ;-).

The heat (and the elderly) makes the pace of life lazy and slow and the attitude is just different down there.

Which was precisely the thought moseying through my mind as I backpacked through Honduras.

Honduras is “the South” of Central America.

Central American Nut VendorStepping out of the bus into Honduras was like entering another world even though the border town of Copan was a mere 15 minute bumpy drive out of Guatemala. The sticky heat hit like a relentless wave attempting to drown an unsuspecting swimmer—Guatemala is hot, but the sun in Honduras is altogether different. Less elevation in the country translates into no cool air and pure undiluted sunshine baking the roads and anyone on them.

Then there’s the subject of cowboy hats. They’re everywhere. I may have spied maybe a cowboy hat or two during my months in Guatemala. Not the case in Honduras where all of the local men perching themselves within the Copan parque central avidly watched the new arrival of backpackers with a low and critical gaze skimming just under the brim of their downward tipped cowboy hats.

The entire vibe and culture took a major shift in Honduras…one that was not as immediately evident in the crossings between Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala and it immediately brought me back to feelings of traveling through the American South.

Everything I  see and do is filtered through my past experiences, my culture.  Extensive travel lessens that cultural bias in some ways, but it still lives on strong in others. So although Honduras is actually not one of my favorite countries (it has to happen at some point, I guess), the flavor of the interactions in Honduras created a déjà vu moment. Here I am surrounded by a heat so intense that it flows upward from the baking cement in visible ripples, surrounded by small glass stands selling greasy pollo frito while the locals take a slow and careful pace down the streets to avoid heatstroke and the one key difference is actually just the language…and even then, not so much.

For me, Honduras was a case of “anywhere you go, there you are.”

The Maya ruins near Copan Ruinas, Honduras

A Little Exploration… How to Visit the Copan Ruins

Paging through my Lonely Planet Central America guidebook in the quite cool of the Bagel Barn in Antigua, Guatemala (one of my favorite places for a western breakfast in the city), I was seeking inspiration in Honduras. I needed divine travel guidance on what I should do next on my backpacking trip south through Central America. There must be something of interest to break up the 16 hour commute between western Guatemala and eastern Honduras, where I would take an advanced divers course on Utila. I’m not a big planner, but I was down to a mere 12 hours before I boarded my 4am bus to the Honduran border. I was nearly out of time.

The natural stop would be a visit to Copán Ruinas, Honduras. A good traveler would eat up the chance to pass through a small town soaked in rich cultural history and boasting a full set of Maya ruins. But honestly, I wasn’t sure if the Copan ruins were worth it. If you’ve already walked the grounds of Chichén Itzá in Mexico and explored the most prominent Maya sites, Tikal in Guatemala, do you need to visit Copán Ruinas? The short answer, is yes. But at the time, I was determined to not let travel fatigue stop me from visiting a real highlight of Central America. I booked a place to stay in the charming town of Copán Ruinas with a firm decision to poke around the Maya ruins for a couple of days, while I was en route from Antigua to the Honduran coast.

A high view of the Copan ruins
A high view of the main Copan ruins, with the ball court on the lower right, and the carvings under canopy protection in the background.

Visiting Copán Ruinas

Getting to Copán Ruinas

Located in the mountains of western Honduras, Copán Ruinas is easily visited by bus from El Salvador; San Pedro Sula or La Entrada in Honduras (note that San Pedro Sula is a dangerous city and should not be visited for long—mainly just as a pass-through city); or from Antigua, Guatemala—this is the more poplar route to Copán Ruinas. You can book tickets on the shuttle buses that sweep across large swathes of this region, taking travelers quickly between sites, or if you have a whole lot of time on your hands (and if you’re on a tight budget), a series of local chicken buses will get you there.

The ruins themselves are located just 1 km from the cobblestone town of Copán Ruinas, so this is where you’ll stay.

For those backpacking Central America, you’ll already know that once you head a bit off-the-beaten path, the tourists all but disappear. This is certainly the case with the Copan ruins. The town is like a step back in time, and offers a laid-back charm I’ve only previously experience in the American south. Traveling alongside few other tourists was a welcomed change, even though I had thoroughly enjoyed the touristy streets of Antigua.

Ball court at the Copan ruins
On the ground at the ball court—which is similar to the one at at Chichén Itzá, but smaller (and without the rad acoustics trick).

When to Visit

I visited in May, which is after the dry winter season, which proved ideal. The town was even more deserted than usual, and I spent morning hours at the Copan ruins without a busload of tourists in sight. Why the morning hours? The ruins open at 8am and you should show up then to avoid the scorching heat of midday. I easily walked from my hostel to the ruins, though tuk-tuks will also whisk you to the ruins.

If you time it well, you will also have a lot of personal time with the carvings, exploring various sections of the ruins. Although some travelers might use a tour guide, I loved the written tour provided in my guidebook—it allowed me to putter around the Copan ruins at my own pace, while still enjoying all the historical input.

Copan ruins through the trees

Are the Ruins of Copán Worth Visiting?

I visited three Mayan ruins in Central America, and I am pleased with how each sight complemented the other—Chichén Itzá, Tikal, and Copán Ruinas each offer a very different experience. They each lend insight into the ancient Maya civilization, and the ruins themselves at each site are unique enough that you’ll love the chance to see well-preserved parts of each city.

Here’s a comparison what I loved about the three sites.

The Acoustics at Chichén Itzá

Although the Chichén Itzá ruins are small compared to the other sites around Central America, I actually registered a level of shock when our guide demonstrated the perfect acoustic alignment of the temples and structures. You can clap on one side of the ball court and hear a perfect echo. It’s eery and fascinating to see such an ancient structure retain this quality.

The Size and Scope of Tikal

Hiking among the ruins at Tikal rates as one of my favorite temple experiences. Most of Tikal is still hidden under hundreds of miles of dense green forest around the main site, Jaguar Temple. Wild animals roam the grounds. Panoramic views temples stretch forever into the distance (you peer into Mexico on a clear day) and the sounds of the howler monkeys echo across the forest canopy.

The Intricate Art at Copán Ruinas

intricate carvings still visible in the Copan ruins

Copan’s climate has preserved a huge number of amazingly detailed carvings on the temples and throughout the ruins. Tikal and Chichén Itzá were noticeably light on the actual Mayan designs, so Copan provides a missing link across the ancient Maya civilization. The impressive pre-Columbian carvings tell stories that you have to simply imagine when the guides at the other ruins attempt to describe the Maya ceremonial faces, figures, and gods.

All of those aspects are on display at Copán Ruinas. They are spectacularly well preserved and you have no trouble discerning the hard gaze of a god, or the fascinating curves of a carved animal. Nowhere else in the world offers the sheer number of Maya sculptures on display across the sight. You’ll marvel at carved stelae and the incredible hieroglyphic stairway.

Copán Ruinas pleasantly surprised me. Look, there’s a reason it’s not as famous as Tikal—it’s a much smaller sight, it’s in a remote area of Honduras, and there isn’t nearly the infrastructure other famous sites have. But if you’re backpacking the region, Copán Ruinas makes for a fun and fascinating stopover. I found the town of Copán Ruinas just as delightful as the ruins.

A remnant of the incredible carvings at the Copan ruins

The hieroglyphic staircase at the Copan ruins

Copan ruins carving

A stack of intricate Maya carvings at the Copan ruins

Best Things to Do in Copán Ruinas

The Mayan ruins are clearly the top priority in the area, but over the past decade the town has developed a few other excellent activities that make for an even more memorable visit to Copán Ruinas. These are a few of the key things you can do in Copán Ruinas once you’ve visited the ruins.

Visit Macaw Mountain

Macaw Mountain is a tropical bird sanctuary is dead simple to visit from town—you can take a 10 minute tuk tuk ride from Copán Ruinas for about $1; entrance is closer to $10, depending on the current exchange rate, but in return you get a chance to immerse in the beauty of the nearby jungle while supporting the wonderful work of this rescue, rehabilitate, and release center. You’ll spend several hours immersing in Honduras’ bird diversity with in-person encounters, enjoying a well-marked nature trail, taking a dip at the swimming hole, and ending with a fresh cup of locally grown and roasted coffee.

gorgeous birds at the entrance to the ruins
Gorgeous birds sit at the entrance to the Copan ruins.

Horseback Ride to Nearby Towns

Alongside Macaw Mountain, horseback riding tours are among the most popular things to do in Copán Ruinas. The rides are affordable—you’re looking at around $20 for three hours—and you can visited the Los Sapos ruins nearby, La Pintada or a Maya Chortí village.

Play with Butterflies

This outing doesn’t take long since the Butterfly Museum is on the edge of town, and you can wander the botanical gardens while bright flashes of color swirl around you. The center breeds native species of Honduran butterflies (mariposas in Spanish)

Zipline Through the Forest Canopy

Located just outside of town, you can book a zip lining excursion through any hotel in town. You can also do this as a joint day tour with Macaw Mountain, which is handy if you plan to do both. Each activity needs about two hours, so it’s easy to do both. There are 14 ziplines in total, and each one offers a chance to whirl through the jungle canopy—this is one of the better zip lining parks in Central America.

Soak in the Natural Hot Springs in Agua Caliente

Located north of Copán Ruinas, you can venture to Agua Caliente as a full day trip from town, easily arranged once you’re there—you can pay for a day trip from a tour operator, or ask your guesthouse how to catch a minibus from the soccer field. The hot springs won’t rock your world if you’re a connoisseur, but it’s a nice day out. You’ll find a bathing area with two small swimming pools and changing areas, as well as access to the river where hot water gushes from the rocks.

Enjoy Treats and Eats

Located in town, The Tea & Chocolate Place offers gorgeous views alongside a selection of delicious teas or hot chocolate, and traditional snacks—all organically grown at the nearby Copan Botanical Research Station. This is a nice way to pass away the hours back in town after a long day sightseeing, and sunset lovers will particularly enjoy the views. Note it’s only open from 4-6pm, every day except Sunday. For dinner, I loved the pupusas at Comedor Mary.

Stay Somewhere Nice

Accommodation in Honduras is affordable, and you have a few options depending on if you’re looking for a social vibe, a bit of extra comfort, or the opportunity to support a social enterprise.

  • Hostel Iguana Azul is the best hostel in town—it has great vibes and it’s where I stayed.
  • Hotel Cuna Maya is great for couples or those looking for a more full-featured property, while still being reasonably priced.
  • Hotel Ch’orti is a social enterprise where your money and your stay in this four-room hotel helps to support Honduras’ indigenous population.

Should you visit Copán Ruinas?

Yes, why not. It’s on your radar and you’re clearly close enough that you could venture that way, and you won’t be disappointed. I’m so glad my Lonely Planet Central America guidebook put this on my radar. I stayed in Copán Ruinas for a couple of days before venturing onward to dive in Utila and boat ride down the Rio Dulce in Guatemala, and I have never regretted my decision to visit the incredible Maya ruins in Copan.