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Mayan Ruins of Copán – What to See and Do

The Mayan Ruins of Copán were once home to a powerful dynasty ruling a vast kingdom within the southern Maya area.

Widely recognised for its intricate sculptures and hieroglyphics, the archaeological ruins are considered by many to be one of the best in Central America. It’s not surprising therefore that today, the Mayan Ruins of Copán are one of the must see places for visitors to Honduras.

Here are my suggestions of what to see and do there.

A Brief History of Copán

Although people have lived in the Copán valley since 1200 B.C., the city emerged as the capital of a major kingdom during the Classic Mayan period between 250-900 A.D. As a result, the ruined city seen today dates from that period.

The traditional named founder of the dynasty ruling the kingdom was King K’inich Yax K’uk Mo’ (Great Sun Lord Quetzal Macaw). He is credited with making Copán a major centre and was revered by the 16 subsequent kings.

The population, along with the military and trading power of the city, grew and under the 13th and perhaps greatest King (known as 18 Rabbit) intricate artwork and sculpture began to flourish.

In 738 A.D., 18 Rabbit was captured and beheaded by his former vassal, the king of Quirigua. Despite this setback, the rulers continued to build large monuments.

At its peak, the kingdom had a population of around 20,000 and covered an area of over 250 square kilometres with an estimated population in central Copán of 6,000 to 9,000. However, several droughts ultimately resulted in the city being abandoned by the 9th century.

The ruins were discovered in 1576 by Spaniard Diego Garcia de Palacio but it wasn’t until almost 300 years later that archeological investigations began, investigations that continue to this day.

Copán gained UNESCO World Heritage status in 1980 and cultural monument status from the Honduran government in 1982.

Getting to the Mayan Ruins of Copán

Now for the slightly confusing part….in order to visit the Mayan Ruins of Copán, you will first need to arrive in the small town of Copán Ruinas!

Copán Ruinas is located in western Honduras, not far from the border with Guatemala. The Honduran city of San Pedro Sola is about 180km away. I was travelling on an organised group tour and we made for Copán Ruinas after crossing the border from Guatemala.

The ruins of Copán are located a short distance (about 1km) from Copán Ruinas and are easily accessible on foot or by vehicle (eg tuk tuk).

If you are planning to stay in Copán Ruinas, do read my post The Best Things to Do in Copán Ruinas for some suggestions on how to spend your time there.

Visitor Information

The Mayan Ruins of Copán open at 8am daily and close at 4pm.

There is an entry fee of USD15 with additional sums payable to access the Museum of Sculpture and the tunnels.

If you are visiting as part of a group tour as I was, then entry fees are likely included. Guide fees may not be so do check in order to avoid disappointment.

What to See at Copán

The site covers about 80+ hectares and comprises thousands of structures. It is divided into various groups, with the main one being the Principal Group.

After entering the site but before reaching the ruins, you will meet some of the feathered inhabitants, scarlet macaws! The macaw held a special place in Mayan culture and long after the abandonment of Copán, the macaws remained. Declining numbers however led to the establishment of Macaw Mountain, a bird rescue, rehabilitation and release centre. Today, many macaws freely make their home amidst the ruins at Copán.

Principal Group

The Principal Group is, as the name suggests, the main part of the ruins. It comprises the Acropolis, the Hieroglyphic Stairway, the Grand Plaza and the ball court.

Acropolis

The Acropolis was the Royal complex at the heart of Copán and comprises two plazas, the West Court and the East Court.

In the West Plaza you will find Temples 11 and 16. The first of these, Temple 11, was built during the reign of the last King of Copán as his portal or gateway to the underworld.

Temple 16 is dedicated to the founder of the dynasty and is the last of several structures built one on top of the other. Buried beneath Temple 16 is the Rosalilia Temple and beneath that, the Margarita Temple.

At the base of Temple 16 is a reproduction of Alter Q, a monument depicting the succession of the Copán dynasty.

Hieroglyphic Stairway

The Hieroglyphic Stairway is the jewel in Copán’s crown. It’s the longest pre-Columbian hieroglyphic inscription in America with over 2000 hieroglyphics on 63 steps. The stairway is 10m wide and 21m long.

Hieroglyphic Stairway at the ruins of Copán

Tunnels

Two tunnels beneath the Acropolis, the Rosalila and Los Jaguares, were opened to the public in 1999 by archaeologists. These give visitors the opportunity to see pre-existing structures. Unfortunately, I did not have opportunity to experience these.

The Great Plaza of the Stelae

Huge, intricately carved stone stelae are positioned across the Great Plaza. Many portray the 13th King, Rabbit 18. Also within this area is the ball court, the second largest in Central America. It is thought that competitors kept a hard rubber ball in the air using their thighs and hips but not their hands.

Museum of Sculpture and Las Sepulturas

There are a further two areas at the ruins that are available to visitors. The Museum of Sculpture contains, as the names suggests, many examples of Copán’s highly regarded sculptures, including a replica of the Rosalila Temple and the original Alter Q.

Las Sepulturas is an area that many visitors do not see for some reason. It is believed to have been a residential area for the rich and powerful and included burial sites.

Visiting Tips

In order to make the most of your visit, I would suggest:

  • planning to spend at least half a day there as there’s much to see
  • getting a guide or at least taking a guide book with you. For those exploring Honduras on a group tour, a guide may be included but if not, seek one out! 
  • visiting during the morning when it’s less busy and cooler
  • wearing covered, supportive shoes
  • being careful when walking around as surfaces are uneven and steps high and steep! 
  • taking (and drinking!) plenty of water
  • wearing sunscreen and bug spray  

The Mayan Ruins at Copán are a fascinating excursion for those travelling through Honduras. Well preserved, detailed and not overrun with tourists, the site is definitely worth visiting.

Is Copán on your bucket list?

Disclaimer: Visitor information was correct at the time of writing but do check before visiting.

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