The Mayan city of Copan in Honduras lay lost and forgotten for more than eight centuries. In its day, Copan was a thriving and extremely beautiful place placed like a jewel of life into a dense jungle setting, in Honduras.
At the time when I made the trip, there were only two ways to reach Copan. One was to make a very long journey on foot through the dangerous and unbelievably dense Honduran jungle. Since, for me, a simple walk around the deck of the Oddessa was a major effort, that idea was out. The other way was to charter a small plane to fly you in. That idea was much more to my taste.
Even going in by small plane had its drawbacks. All Copan could offer in the way of a landing strip was little more than a small path carved out of the jungle with mountains and a lot of trees on both sides. To get a plane onto that strip was something like trying to thread a needle, hardly a safe way to set a plane down and even worse for a take off. Flying however did beat walking and the excitement of actually getting to see The Lost City of Copan made me throw caution to the wind in favor of adventure.
When we reached the airport and saw the plane that would take us on this adventure, my level of apprehension rose several notches. The plane was indeed a Cessna and it was as promised able to carry five passengers and a pilot. As a pilot myself however, I could very easily recognize the signs of an aircraft that was suffering from a very definite lack of tender, loving care. It looked as though even the scotch tape on the wings had not been changed for months if you will pardon a little facetious pun.
I joined Carlos, our pilot for the walk around check that precedes any flight and wound up wishing that I had not done so. There is one thing about a true photo bug however and that is the fact that most of us will gladly risk life and limb to get some great shots. That in mind, I managed to overlook what would under any other circumstances scare the hell out of me. What made it all even worse was the fact that because of my size and weight along with two other people in the plane, we would be seriously overloaded. When Carlos asked my weight which he could see was considerable I shaved two hundred pounds from the truthfulness of the answer. There was no way I was going to miss this chance, I really wanted to see this historical treasure called Copan.
We piled into the plane and belted up to prepare for take off. I had not mentioned to Carlos that I was a pilot but when I saw him planning to start our take off run from the three quarter mark on the runway, I strongly suggested that he use every inch of runway that he could get. Thinking me to be just a nervous flyer he happily obliged.
We lined up on the runway and the tower cleared us to roll. Carlos gunned the engine and off we went. Carlos seemed a bit surprised that the plane was taking so much distance to get off the ground. I knew exactly what was going on, this plane had never had a Big Jim to deal with before. At any rate, the low wing Cessna finally gathered up enough speed and managed to struggle bravely into the air, we were on our way to Copan.
It took us a fair bit of time to put six thousand feet under us for the flight that would take us about an hour and a half to get there. We settled back, snapped the caps on a couple of cold Pepsi and Carlos began to give us a verbal picture of what would see when we got there.
I was delighted and relieved that we had managed to get off okay but the one thing I had forgotten to take into account was the fact that, at Copan we would be landing on a make shift grass strip in the jungle. Even more important was the fact that we would have to take off again on that same strip and taking off on a grass strip is a lot more difficult than the concrete runway we had just left behind.
After an hour and a half had passed, Carlos pointed to a piece of land that looked like nothing more than a sliver of dirt carved out of the surrounding jungle. " There is Copan" he said as he pulled back on the power and began to set up for the landing. I had landed on many a short field myself but this was ridiculous. The approach was between two very steep hills that allowed for about twenty feet of clearance on either side and both hillsides were covered with trees and a sea of branches. Our approach caused a group of monkeys sleeping in the morning sun to wake to a great metal beast plowing through their territory. They were not at all happy about the intrusion and I swear that a few of them even tossed bananas at the plane as we roared past.
When I saw what we had to go through to get down, I immediately formed the thought in my mind " how in the name of God will we ever get out again"? With a series of savage bumps that I thought must have loosened the wings the landing gear tried valiantly to conquer the grass and mud potholes. Eventually we rolled to a stop, just inches from a small grass hut. Carlos turned the plane so we would be all set up for take off, shut down the engine and we got out. I was thrilled to be in a place that few people ever get to see.
I wasted no time in setting out, cameras in hand to capture the majesty and mystery of one of history's greatest stories. The scene that greeted me was more than I had hoped for. The ruins were nothing less than spectacular. Pyramids, game courts, monuments, stone- carved statues and temples were everywhere. There were several groups of archeologists working on digs to uncover even more of this Mayan wonder. One of them told me that there was a structure waiting to be uncovered under almost every grassy mound.
The story of the Mayan civilization and the evidence they had left behind to confirm their place in the time line of history is filled with wonder. The motor drives on my cameras were almost over heating at the workout they were getting. My camera was gathering images with the speed of a machine gun in my insatiable lust for visual gratification. In the space of just a few hours, I managed to take several thousand color slides. The people at Kodak love photo buffs like me.
The time we had on the ground at Copan passed all too quickly. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, we had to depart because there was no way we wanted to be flying over that green sea of jungle at night. If we delayed we would have been stuck until the next day and the ship would not be there when we got back.
Once again we piled into the plane and prepared for take off. It was not going to be a smooth run like the one we had when we left for Copan. Carlos stood on the breaks with all his might as he gunned the engine for all the power it had with the throttle pushed to the wall. With the plane champing at the bit to roll, everything was shaking. I thought the plane might actually, fall apart right there and then. After what seemed like a very long wait, Carlos released the brakes and the plane lurched forward with a vengeance. The jungle began to slide by faster and faster, the end of the strip was coming up fast but Carlos held the plane on the ground as long as he could to build up speed. As he pulled back on the controls, the plane leaped into the air only to fall back to earth several times. The trees and hills at the end of the strip loomed more ominously every second.
We managed to make it through in a manner that assured a memory that would last forever. If the Mayan spirits were watching they would have seen likely the only almost five hundred pound man ever to visit Copan, perhaps the only one who ever will.
After a great flight once again over the carpet of Honduran green below, we landed safe and sound where we had started out earlier that day. After our farewells and my compliments to Carlos for his flying abilities the waiting car took us back to the waiting ship and it was off to the next port of call.
For me, the chance to step back in time at Copan had been truly a once in a lifetime experience. I had come away with a treasure chest of wonderful images, evidence of my great photographic adventure, an adventure that I will never forget.
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