Copan, Honduras

View of the Mayan ruins in Copan Honduras

Copan, Honduras

Near the Guatemala-Honduras border is the ancient city of Copan (also known as Copan Ruinas) on the west bank of the Copan River, occupied for more than two thousand years and now an important archaeological site of Mayan civilization in Central America. The ruins of Copan, filled with Mesoamerican temples and other archaeological wonders, was inscribed on the UNESCO list of protected World Heritage Sites in 1980. A tour of Copan can be a day tour in your trip in the Honduras, or an overnight stay after a drive from Guatemala.

Copan, Honduras
Photo of an ancient ornate doorway in Copan, Honduras. Copan is an ancient Mayan site located in western Honduras, Central America.

Copan was once a powerful city ruling a kingdom in the western Honduras. It began as a small agricultural settlement and reached its peak in the 9th century, becoming the home of 16 kings who ruled Copan from 426 to 822. Around 738, one of Copan’s greatest kings Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil was executed by his former vassal, the king of Quirigua. (Quirigua is now a Mayan archaeological site located in southeastern Guatemala.) Copan began to decline, and was completely abandoned by the year 1200.

Centre of Copan
A map of the centre of Copan. Photo from Arjuno3/Wikimedia Commons. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A walking tour of the ruins of Copan, covering around four square kilometres in the Copan Valley, will reveal its history and what life was like in the ancient Mayan world. At the heart of Copan is the Acropolis, a royal complex consisting of temples and palaces with fragments of beautiful sculpture surrounding a raised platform. Digging in the site has also revealed extensive tunnels under the complex.

Another key attraction is the Hieroglyphic Stairway, which leads to one of the temples, is called us such because of the beautifully carved 1,260 hieroglyphic symbols of its 63 surviving steps. The symbols, which appears to tell a history of Copan’s rulers, is still being deciphered. There is also a ball court, though the rules of the Mesoamerican ballgame played here remain unknown.

A local guide will be able to provide insight, though there is also a Sculpture Museum (Museo de Escultura) on the site with English signs. The entrance to the museum is through the mouth of a serpent, invoking Mayan belief as the serpent is revered in Mayan culture, and symbolising a portal into another world. This museum is famous for housing a full-scale replica of the Rosalila Temple, a two-story building erected during the reign of Copan’s 10th ruler, Moon-Jaguar. The original temple, the most intact ever found in Copan, is still within a structure called Structure 16 in the archaeological site.

Copan ruinas in Honduras
View of ancient Mayan ruins at Copan Ruinas in Honduras

External articles to assist you on your visit to Honduras and Central America:

The following external links may help you in planning your visit to Central America.

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