Maya site of Copán

A precious testimony of the Maya civilization


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Copán Ruinas, Honduras

GPS: 14.837303103387, -89.141363140735

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The Maya site of Copán is located in the western part of Honduras, about 12 kilometres from the Guatemalan border. For several centuries, this city has been known as Xukpi or Oxwitik. It was under the reign of King K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, founder of a new dynasty, that it was renamed Copán and developed rapidly at the beginning of the 6th century. As a large city-state in the Maya Lowlands, Copán was the regional capital and cultural centre in the post-classical period (from 500 AD to 900 AD). During this time, the Maya civilization spread over a vast territory from southern Mexico (Yucatán) to Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and as far as El Salvador.

The ruins of Copán are located near the modern city of Copán Ruinas, in a fertile and mountainous valley. They are among the most important remains of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization with the archaeological sites of Chichen Itza (Mexico) and Tikal (Guatemala). Like most of the ancient cities of Central America, the site of Copán was discovered when it was completely covered by tropical jungle. The Spanish conquistador Diego García de Palacio was the first to discover its ruins in 1570 before they were studied in depth by the American explorer John Lloyd Stephens in 1839. According to specialists, this major Maya site experienced its golden age between the 5th and 7th centuries. It is said to have developed close links with the cities of Teotihuacan and Tikal, before being gradually abandoned by its 20,000 to 30,000 inhabitants from the beginning of the 10th century. Intensive deforestation, combined with soil erosion, the impoverishment of agricultural land and population growth, probably caused the decline of the city. Episodes of drought and flooding increased in the region, leading to food shortages, increased child mortality and the spread of disease.

Although it does not contain the highest buildings in the Maya world, Copán is closely studied by archaeologists due to the multitude of inscription, hieroglyphic and stelae found there. These relics impress with the level of mastery and precision in sculptural art. It represents the finest artistic achievements of the Maya civilization. In addition to the ceremonial buildings and royal monuments in a formidable state of preservation, the Copán site contains a Hieroglyphic Stairway with more than 2,000 glyphs and very elaborate motifs. The Maya language found in Copán is still spoken by the Ch’orti people living in this region of Honduras and neighbouring Guatemala.

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  • The exceptional remains of the archaeological park of Copán (laid out according to Mayan cosmos to follow the movements of the sun and the moon); the thousand buildings, temples and structures visible
  • The Acropolis and the Great Plaza (ceremonial centres of the city); the ballcourt (the largest in Central America after that of Chichen Itza); the Altar Q (a superb stone block representing the Copan kings of the same dynasty, from the 5th to the 9th centuries); the Rosalila (under temple 16) and Margarita temples (hiding two ancient structures: Yehnal and Hunal) with stuccoed facades; the two underground tunnels that give access to the foundations of the city and to the royal tombs; the Hieroglyphic Stairway of temple 26 (it is a monumental staircase of 63 steps on which is engraved more than 2,000 glyphs, the longest Maya text ever discovered)
  • The royal burials, the carved stones and the enormous stelae rich in Maya hieroglyphic decorations or inscriptions; the ingenious rainwater drainage system (the site was subject to risks of flooding)
  • The Copán Sculpture Museum (including a life-size replica of the Rosalila Temple) and the Copán site museum (an exhibition of eccentric artefacts and flints extracted from the site); the Maya Archaeological Museum suitable for children (Casa K’inich) located in Copán Ruinas
  • The archaeological sites Los Sapos and Las Sepulturas nearby
  • The cobbled streets and colonial architecture of the charming town of Copán Ruinas; the customs of the inhabitants and the musical traditions of the Ch’ortis people
  • The jungle and surrounding coffee plantations; the tobacco fields and cigar production in the region; the 200 species of birds including the guacamayo (or scarlet macaw), a large colourful parrot emblematic of Honduras
  • The many possibilities for hiking in the mountain valley of Copán
  • The Cocoa Festival and the Guacamaya Festival (which honours the scarlet macaw) in June
  • The Copán region has been inhabited since 1500 by a farming population. King K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, founder of the Copán dynasty, was the first sovereign of the city, while Ukit Took’ was the 16th and last monarch to accede to the throne in the year 822 (so almost 4 centuries later).
  • In all likelihood, the city of Copán was emptied of its inhabitants from the 10th century but continued to be inhabited by a handful of people until the beginning of the 13th century. They had an important cult to their ancestors, especially the leaders of the royal dynasty.
  • Historic cocoa capital of Honduras and epicentre of the sacred valley of the scarlet macaw, Copán prospered through trade in shellfish, cocoa, tobacco, jade and bird feathers (exchange and barter were common practice at the time).
  • Accompanying John Lloyd Stephens on his expeditions to Central America, the British illustrator Frederick Catherwood introduced the site of Copán to Westerners through a series of representations dating from the mid-19th century. His very realistic drawings also made it possible to reconstruct Maya works that had deteriorated over time.
  • The Rosalila Temple, located in the centre of the Acropolis, is one of the best preserved buildings in Copán. Built in the 6th century, it was deliberately buried under a thick layer of white plaster by the Maya (in normal times, the earlier structures of the Copán temples were destroyed by the new king coming to power in favour of newer and larger buildings erected on top of each other). A life-size replica of the Rosalila Temple is on display in the Copán Museum (it was covered in red stucco).
  • Like other archaeological sites in Mesoamerica, the Maya city of Copán includes a field where the ballgame (also known as pelota) was played. More than just a sport, it was probably a religious ritual that could be accompanied by human sacrifices and was practised with a small rubber ball (a sacred material among the Maya). Some historians believe that it was the winning and not the losing team that was subject to human sacrifice to the gods, considering this practice to be an absolute honour for the participants.
  • The Maya site of Copán can easily be reached on foot from the modern town of Copán Ruinas. Two or three days are not too much time to explore this thousand-year-old city.
  • It is advisable to hire the services of a local guide at the Copán archaeological park Visitors’ Centre to discover and understand the richness of the place.
  • Several bus companies (including the Hedman Alas) offer to visit Guatemala’s neighbouring country. Guatemala is also home to some major archaeological sites, including the ancient city of Quiriguá (located a little further north, it is home to some superb Maya stelae and its history is closely linked to that of Copán).

Where to eat

  • The Tea & Chocolate Place
    (educational snacks)
  • Comedor y Pupuseria Mary
    (local food)
  • Cafe San Rafael
    (the cheese temple)

Where to go

  • El Puente
    (Maya site near Copán)
  • Luna Jaguar Spa Resort
    (ancestral hot springs)
  • Macaw Mountain Bird Park
    (exotic bird sanctuary)

Where to stay

  • Iguana Azul
    (youth hostel)
  • Finca El Cisne
    (stay at the farm)
  • Casa Dona Elena B&B
    (nice well-kept house)