Copan, considered by many one of the most spectacular cities of the ancient Maya civilization, is a ruins complex known for its beautiful stone temples, altars, hieroglyphs, and stelae. It was built between 400 and 800 A.D., until it suddenly was abandoned.
Even though Copan was well known since the early 19th century, it wasn’t until 1975 that excavations began –still ongoing– to uncover the mysteries behind the history of this lost city. Recent studies of skeletons suggest that the city was abandoned after becoming unstable around 800 A.D. By that time, the city had grown exponentially to approximately 25,000 people and constant droughts had destroyed vital crops in the area. Eventually, all the resources available were consumed, forcing the residents to abandon the city.
Today, the Mayan Ruins of Copan are one of the most important and impressive Mayan sites to visit thanks to its rich stone sculptures and intricate hieroglyphs. The ruins were added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1980.
The Copan Ruins are located 1 km east of the town of Copan Ruinas in the western part of Honduras, about 60 kilometers from the border with Guatemala.
To get to the ruins you can walk 1 km heading east along the road that starts at the Central Park of Copan Ruinas. You can also take a moto-taxi, tuk-tuk, that costs L$20 (aprox. $1.10).
Exploring the Ruin Complex
The entire ruin site includes more than 4,500 structures (spread over 24 sq km) with most of the focus placed on the “Principal Group”, which covers approximately two square kilometers. In addition, there is a secondary area –about one kilometer away– known as Las Sepulturas. Copan, the principal group and larger site, is a Mayan complex built for the high nobility, whereas the smaller one, Las Sepulturas, is a Lenca residential complex built for well established residents.
Since the sites sit in an unbelievably lush valley, it is easy to spot a variety of resident animals that roam around the ruins. Among those are monkeys, guacamayas (large parrots), macaws, sloths, and peccaries, among others.
At the Principal Group you’ll see a huge complex consisting of several plazas and temples built on various levels and adorned with intricate hieroglyphic patterns and stelaes. These are the mayor areas of interest:
This area consists of both the western and eastern court. The western court includes Temple 11, which was built as a gateway to the underworld. Temple 16 was built on top of a previous temple (the Rosalila Temple) without damaging the remains. You can climb to the top of Temple 16, approximately 100 feet high, where you can see the overall layout of the ruin complex. Located at the base of Temple 16 is the reproduction of Altar Q, which shows the succession of the 16 members of the Copan Dynasty (the original is in the museum).
The Great Plaza
The immense plaza is famous for its stelae and altars that are found scattered around a well-groomed lawn. One of the most famous stelae is of “18 Rabbit”, who was the 13th ruler of Copan. The sculpture depicts the ruler with a decorative headdress and an intimidating scepter with a two-head snake. The area also includes the ball court, which is the second largest court in Central America.
Impressive in detail and humbling in size, these unique sculptural monuments make Copan shine among the ruin sites of the Mayan empire and are invaluable to our understanding of this lost civilization.
The stelae are three to five meters tall and are carved in extremely intricate high relief. They are portraits of the greatest rulers in the history of the city. On one side is carved the figure and on the other are carved a series of hieroglyphs that describe the power and politics of the ruler depicted.
The Hieroglyphic Stairway
This is the most famous of Copan’s monuments. The stairway is located on Temple 26 and it contains 63 steps completely carved with hieroglyphs that tell the history of the royal house of Copan. It is the longest known text of ancient Mayan civilization. Archaeologists are still studying and deciphering the whole meaning of the hieroglyphic text.
Located underneath the Acropolis are over 4km of tunnels with two of them open to the public: Rosalila that includes the remains of the temple with the same name and Los Jaguares, which travels through a system of aqueducts, tombs, and former baths. In the tunnels you can see earlier stages of Copan civilization.
Copan Sculpture Museum
Located at the entrance of Copan, the Mayan museum includes many sculptures and replicas from the site. The entrance to the museum is made in the form of a snake’s mouth, representing the Mayan belief that snakes represent a journey into the underworld. The museum’s most notable attraction is the full-size replica of the Rosalila Temple, complete with the bright red colors and ornate designs that once composed this structure. Also here is the Altar Q, the square stone that depicts the rulers of Copan.
For some reason many visitors don’t get to visit Sepulturas, but it is well worth a visit since it shows a different scale and perspective of the Mayan civilization.
You can either walk an additional kilometer or take a tuk-tuk to get to Sepulturas. The entrance fee to Sepulturas is included in your Copan ticket. You can hire a guide for a one-hour tour of the residential complex.
Las Sepulturas (the burials) got its name due to the many burials found under each house. At first archeologists thought it was some sort of cemetery, but they later discovered families buried their loved ones inside the house, under their stone beds.
Prices and hours
The entry fee is $15 and it includes the entrance to Copan, Las Sepulturas, and the Mayan Museum. Guides cost $25 per tour with any number of people. The Tunnels cost $12 extra for entry and $10 extra for a guide.
Guides can be hired for groups of up to 10 people and the tours can last between two to four hours (depending on the number of stops).
It is open 7 days a week 8am-4pm. Due to the hot Honduran climate, it is recommended going early in the morning.