The ruins of the Mayan city in Honduras’ western highlands are the most important in the country and are a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Copán was once the intellectual center of the Mundo Maya. A total of 17 rulers ruled here from 426 AD to the 9th century.
One of the most important sources for Maya research is the famous Hieroglyphic Staircase, which originally had 63 steps and was decorated with about 2500 hieroglyphs. They reflect the chronicles of Copán’s rulers and represent the longest pre-Columbian text in the Americas.
The aesthetic attraction of Copán for today’s visitors are the numerous stelae in high relief, which are unparalleled within the “Mundo Maya”.
A sensational discovery was made by archaeologists led by Ricardo Agurcia in 2009, when they found a partially preserved temple (Oropéndula = oriole) under the temple 16 belonging to the acropolis complex. Its architecture, based on stone blocks covered with thin stucco, represents a radical aesthetic change compared to the Rosalila Temple built a few years earlier, whose smooth walls only received their ornamentation through elaborate stucco.
It is believed that this aesthetic change was triggered by the lack of firewood, which was essential for the production of the lime plaster.
Thus, only an ecological crisis would have enabled the elaborate stonework in high relief that became characteristic to Copán in the following centuries.
Since 1989, excavation and search tunnels have been constructed, especially in the area of the acropolis, which traverse the entire complex and have now reached a total length of four kilometers. Two of these tunnels are open to visitors without claustrophobic tendencies (for an additional entrance fee).
Copán’s acropolis is divided into two large plazas, the West Court and the East Court. The west courtyard houses Temple 11 and Temple 16, with the famous Altar Q at its base, whose four sides depict the 16 rulers of the Copán dynasty.
Copán’s ballcourt, with its striking parrot-head-shaped markers attached to the side walls, is considered one of the largest and most elaborate of its kind in Mesoamerica.
The site’s museum, which is well worth seeing, features a faithful reconstruction of the temple known as “Rosalila,” which vividly illustrates the former colorfulness of the ceremonial Maya buildings.
Since most of the valuable stelae and altars that once adorned Copán’s extensive ‘great plaza’ are also protected as originals in the museum and have been replaced on site by copies, it is recommended to visit the museum first and then the ruins site.
The town of “Copán Ruinas” itself is a pleasant little town with a good selection of hotels and restaurants, well worth a longer stay. In the surrounding area there are waterfalls, hot springs and charming landscapes that can be explored on foot or even high on horseback.
Also worth seeing is the privately organized “Macaw Mountain Parque de Aves y Reserva Natural,” a sanctuary dedicated to the endangered bird species of Central America, especially macaws and toucans.
Note: Copán Ruinas is located near the Guatemalan border and can also be easily incorporated into a Guatemala trip.