Just over the border with Guatemala you will find the Mayan ruins of Copán in Honduras. Copán is a very beautiful and middle sized Mayan site partly hidden in the jungle that is infested with beautiful Macaws. A true Mayan paradise in Honduras.
Visit one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Are you nuts?
Well... no i am not nuts. At least not nuts in a way that i risk my life just to visit a Mayan ruin. It is true that on a ration of murders Honduras is the most dangerous country in the world. From every 100.000 inhabitants of this 8.5 million people counting country around 90 get murdered. But most of this murders are drugs related and most of them are in or around the city of San Pedro Sula.
So you say Copán is safe?
Yes. Absolutely. I don't say absolutely nothing can happen there. You still have to use your common sense just like in any country like for example the one you are living in. I have been in Copán for around 10 times now. And i am still alive, nothing got stolen, nobody beat me up and i never felt unsafe here for a moment.
So why go there?
Everyone absolutely have to go there to visit the Mayan ruins of Copán. They are well preserved, beautiful situated and have great nature as bonus and also the museum at the site is worth a visit as well. Beside this you can enjoy the Macaw Mountain Bird Park, Luna Jaguar Hotsprings. But what many people don't know and where many tour operators unfortunately don't have enough time for are the two Mayan sites Las Sepulturas and Rastrojón close to Copán. So 1 full day actually isn't enough for visiting Copán and its highlights. Especially when you want to do the highly recommended Other Side of Copán tour.
So now i am convinced, how do i get there?
Copán is just situated about 15 minutes from the border from Guatemala. Many people combine Copán with a visit from the city of Flores, the marvelous Mayan ruins of Tikal or with a visit to Rio Dulce. Many tour operators can offer a transfer to and from Copán. So when you are here please insert a visit to Copán as well, you won't regret it.
Why would i visit these ruins?
In 1980 UNESCO declared these ruins as a part of the World Heritage. They didn't do this without reason. Besides the well preserved and now good restored acropolis you are able to enter some of the tunnels underneath the temples. Besides this the absolute highlight of this place are the hieroglyphic stairways and the extremely detailed carved stelas. Copán is one of the best decorated Mayan temple complexes you can visit.
So how old is this place?
Well... first you should know that the place where the Mayan lived was a huge area covering the south-eastern part of Mexico including the whole peninsula of the Yucatan, Belize, the whole country of Guatemala and the most north western parts of El Salvador and Honduras. So Copán was one of the most south-eastern Mayan cities of the Mayan empire. This place what was long one of the main cities and regional capitol for the Mayans was occupied for more than 2000 years. Which makes this one of the cities with the largest history.
Because of this huge time span Copán was occupied during the 3 periods in which in the Mayan period is divided. The pre-classic, classic and post-classic period. Unfortunately not very much is know from the pre-classic period, specially the early part of this period. It is known that most part of the pre-classic and classic period Copán was a agricultural region. So there is no exact date to go back to the beginning. The first stone buildings in Copán date back to more than 900 B.C.
The most important year in Copán probably is the year 159 when the first kingdom of Copán was erected. This period made the City more and more important and in the 5th century Copán turned into one of the most important Mayan cities. The official name of Copán was Oxwitik. Around the year 1000 most of the area of Copán was abandoned. Probably due to a big drought in the 10th century. This resulted in a shortage of food supply and also caused wars between the nearby cities as Quirigua. When the Spaniards came to conquer the area in the 16th century everything already was covered with trees and only a few people were living in this area. A city of more than 20.000 people and an area of more than 25km2 during its best years was gone again.
So when did they find this place again?
Actually the local people living in this area always knew that there was a Mayan city underneath the forest floor. In the 19th century a guy called Juan Galindo wrote for the first time about this place. This came to the eyes of an American called John Lloyd Stevens who with another guy from Britain called Frederick Catherwood visited this place and started describing it in details. In 1891 to 1894 the university of Harvard send archeologists to Copán to discover the place. This made Copán one of the first Mayan places where archeologists started to work. Then in 1930 the university of Carnegee did further research. Since the 1970's the government of Honduras is restoring and researching the place.
What is an Acropolis
The acropolis is a place that can be found in many Mayan sites. Acropolis is officially a Greek term that means high city, high place, place of the living or center of the city. This actually describes the acropolis of Copán and the other Mayan sites pretty well. The acropolis was the most important place of the city. This was the place where the king of the city lived. This where big buildings, palaces and temples all together. It was the heart of the city and a place where only the royal people could come.
In Copán you will find a beautiful Acropolis which is very good restored. The temple you will see here is build on top of another temple, which is build on top of another, which... The kings of Copán used to build their temple on top of the temple of his predecessor, making his temple bigger than the temple of the ruler before him. They still aren't exactly sure how many temples are build on top of each other but they think it are 9 to 11 temples. The most famous one is the temple of Rosalila which can be visit by entering one of the tunnels.
The temple of Rosalila?
The 10th ruler of Copán was called Moon Jaguar. He ruled the city from 553 till the year 578. His temple or tomb was discovered when the archeologist discovered tunnels into the temple at the Acropolis. When they discovered the temple the colors of the temple were still in tact. The colors where like redish with orange and green. Unfortunately in the years after opening the tunnels the colors faded away. A full scale replica of this temple which the archeologists called Rosalila can be seen at the museum of the site. A part of the original temple can be seen when buying a extra ticket to enter the tunnels of the site.
What about this hieroglyphic stairway?
Absolutely one of the highlights of Copán are these stairways. The Mayan where the only inhabitants in the Americas that developed a writing system. Just like the Egyptians they used hieroglyphs, though the hieroglyphs where of course totally different then those in Egypt. The hieroglyphic stairway is one of the most important in the Mayan writing and tells a big part of the history of Copán. At least it should tell a big part. When the archeologists in 1930 discovered the stairway they placed back the stones. Unfortunately they didn't put them back in the right position so a big part of the history got lost. At least for now. Archeologist still are trying to figure out the right position for all the 2200 stones. Unfortunately a lot of the stones with hieroglyphs are damaged because of the thousands of visitors that during many years were climbing the stairs and due to the climate.
Fortunately the stairways now a days are protected by a very ugly and low hanging cover so it won't be damaged any further. The cover makes it a bit difficult to see it as a whole object and to photograph it. It also is prohibited to climb the stairs. The total height of the stairways is an impressive 21 meters. It can't be missed on the site and it is situated directly between the Acropolis and the ball-court.
The macaws where a holy bird for the Mayas. The ball-court is dedicated to this beautiful parrot. This makes this ball-court totally different in compare with all the other ball-courts at the Mayan cities. The ball-court was the place where the Mesoamerican ballgame was played. This ballgame wasn't just a sport but it had ritual purposes as well. The ballgame isn't called Mayan ballgame because it was played by other tribes outside the Mayan region as well.
Players from rivaling cities where playing against each other. And in some occasion the teamcaptain of the team than won the ballgame was beheaded and sacrificed. This sounds strange, but for the person who got sacrificed it was a true honor. The game was played with a rubber ball of around 2,5 to 3 kg. The ball could not be played with the hands, feet and head. But the ball had to be played with the hips, knees, elbows, arms, shoulders and chest. The purpose was to get the ball through a round circle at the upper part of the ballcourt.
This is what makes the ball-court unique in Copán. There is no round circle but a parrot shaped carving. The ball had to hit the parrot to score. The parrot resembled the great macaw deity. During the classic period this ball-court was the biggest in the Mayan region. Later surpassed by the ball-court of Chichen Itza. The ballgame could only be spectated by the royalty that was sitting on top of the surrounding buildings.
How about this stelas you mentioned before?
Beside the ball-court is the Gran Plaza. Here you will find big stone carvings many of which are very well preserved and are called stelas. The original ones are easily to discover. They are placed underneath a roof to prevent damage by rain. The stelas represent the rulers of Copán of which the most famous is called 18 Rabbit. It was normal in the period of the maya that the new ruler destroyed all of the buildings and memorials of the last ruler. 18 Rabbit changed this by not destroying the memorials of his former ruler and keeping it in honor of him. This preserved a lot of information for the Archeologists more than 1000 years later.
The stelas not only represents the rulers but also tells a lot of information about them with the hieroglyphs that are at the sides of the stelas. Besides the stelas there are many altars at the Gran Plaza that all symbolize rituals and has hieroglyphs as well.
All in Copán is restored and recovered?
No just about 25% of the city is recovered. Many buildings are still under the trees and soil. And most probably they will stay like this forever. The most important buildings are recovered and restored. The others will stay like this because it will not only costs a lot of money and time to restore the other buildings but especially it will be costing too much money to keep all of it in good condition. So it is better to leave it the way it is. Nonetheless it is an extraordinary site to visit with just this 25%.
How about the Macaws?
First thing you will see and absolutely will hear are the beautiful red, blue and yellow parrots flying around at the entrance of the site. The official name for this species are the Scarlet Macaws. Reintroduced at this place with also the help of the Macaw Mountain Bird Park. There are many couples of these bird now roaming free here. Though they are totally free to go where ever they want they will stay close to the site. The birds are fed daily so there is no need for these birds to go any place else. A good thing because wandering too far away from Copán will most likely result in capture of these birds for the illegal trade as they are worth a lot of money. The birds now even are breeding at the site, increasing the population.
Feeding of the Macaws also attracts many other species of animals to this site. So it is not uncommon to see birds like toucans, araçaris, grackles and orioles close to the feeding spots. Also the squirrels are enjoying the easy free meals. On the ground many times some agoutis can be seen. These rodents which are the smallest relatives to the capybara happily explore the area for the food that the other animals spoil onto the ground. For the visitors it is a feast to see all this wildlife together
For the people who want to see the animals truly in the wild there are some short nature trails just outside the enclosed area in where the Copán ruins can be found.
Do i need a guide?
Well, to get the most detailed information about this site it surely is worth to take a guide. They can give you a lot of detailed and interesting information that you won't find in the tourist guides. Many of the guides here are well experienced and know the most interesting parts. They can be found at the guide booth at the entrance of the parking lot. But please don't go tour-bashing. Interfering into a guided tour is just respect less and makes you look cheap. It also gives an uncomfortable situation for the group and the guide as well. When not taking a guide, at some places there is a little additional information with signs.
And the museum?
The museum is just outside the park and can be found next to the parking lot and restaurant. There is a separate entrance fee for the museum. It is worth visiting. Not only to see a full scale replica of the Rosalila temple with the official colors like it used to be before. Also many stelas and artifacts can be found here. So visiting this place is sure worth it to make it complete.
How about Las Sepulturas?
Las sepulturas actually used to be a part of Copán. Though it is situated a little more than 2 km's away from the Acropolis. It was a place where the elite lived and where buried. It was situated around 7 small plaza's. The most important building here is the house of a noble man called Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat. This building is well decorated with carvings and has a carved bench inside the building.
From the parking lot you can take a tuck-tuck that can bring you for a couple of Lempiras, Dollars or Quetzal to this site. The entrance ticket for Copán is also valid for Las Sepulturas. When you have sufficient time it is worth to visit this place.
Besides Copán and Las Sepulturas there is another site close by to visit. It also is situated around 2 kilometers away from the main site. Also Rastrojón officially used to be part of the entire city of Copán. This place was just discovered in 1979 and just opened to public a couple of years ago.
Here you find many Mayan sculptures representing jaguars, butterflies, snakes and other religious artifacts to the Maya.
So how much is the entrance?
There are three entrance fees in total for Copán. If you just want to visit the site you will pay $15 U.S. to get in. Wanting to enter the tunnels will costs you another $15 U.S. though it is expensive it sure is worth to go in when you are very interested in Archeology. Then the Museum is $7 U.S. The price for the guide you can discuss at the guide booth and is flexible and depending on the amount of people you are with.
Is it worth to visit Macaw Mountain Bird Park after seeing the Macaws at the ruins?
Definitely it is worth to visit this place when you love birds. The place actually started out as a rescue center for birds. The collection of birds started growing and became bigger and bigger. Then the owner decided to open a bird park near Copán in 2003. It is located in a beautiful forest and tropical garden next to a river. Part of the 9 acres of the park used to be a coffee plantation as well so you also should try a good cup of coffee here.
Birds now exists out of several species of macaws as well as many other types of parrots. You can see several species of toucans and birds of prey and owls. Also you can get up close with some of the birds that will interact with you. Besides these birds you can encounter many wild species of birds in this area as well as some kinds of reptiles that live around here. It can be visited daily between 09:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. A visit of a couple of hours is well spend and the entrance fee will be used for the birds in the park as well as many of the projects this park is involved in.
Where to stay in Copán?
Next to the ruins there is a small village that has the name Copán Ruinas. A nice town that especially lives out of tourism. The town has many hotels, hostels and lodges where you can stay. One of the most central ones is Camino Mayas. One of the nicest places to stay for a good price is ViaVia which is run by a devoted Belgian called Geert. Besides having a place to stay it is the best restaurant of Copán. My favorite meal here is the Thai Curry. A welcome change from than the taco's, tortilla's, rice and beans. ViaVia also offers many interesting tours of which the must do tour is The Others Side of Copán tour.
The Other Side of Copán tour... what is that?
Well... the other side of Copán tour is something else. It is a absolute must do tour. The tour is done by the ViaVia manager Geert and will open your eyes forever. While visiting Copan, Honduras, Guatemala and all this great places you will get many impressions. You will soak this impressions at the way you think it is. But Geert will wake you up, he will wake you up good, he will wake you up rude, he will make you understand how living in these countries really is.
And he can do that like no one else can do this. He lives here and knows how it works. The things you will hear during this tour will shock you and make you realize many things. You will understand why people at market places won't lack any motivation to sell you things. You will understand why people are tempted to go into the drugs business. You will understand why a third world country always stay a third world country. You will understand why people risk their lives to move legal or illegally to the United States. In a couple of hours he will change your perspective of life. And you will be thankful.
This tour will only take you like a couple of hours. Cost you only 10$ U.S. of which $5 U.S. is used to buy educational books which he will donate to children at the schools. Just go to ViaVia and ask for information about the tour. Geert isn't always there but when he is. Go for it.
Sounds cool Copán.
Yes. Copán surely is cool. When visiting Guatemala do go here. Again, you won't regret it. Transport to here is easily arranged. And don't worry about the borders. Crossing it will costs you about 10 minutes and just a few Quetzales.
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