Visiting the Valle de Copán, Honduras

September 6, 2013 by

Places to Go, South & Central America, Things to Do

Set within a scenic valley in Honduras’ western extreme is the country’s most famous Maya site, the Ruins of Copán. Archaeologists have been excavating this site’s huge temples since the 1830s to uncover the mysteries of a buried Maya dynasty.

While seeing the ruins may be the main reason for many tourists to visit the Valle de Copán, this spectacular area offers a wealth of activities, traditional villages and natural beauty to explore as well.

From bird watching at several bird and nature reserves, to visiting butterfly gardens, touring century-old coffee plantations, or soaking in the area’s hot springs, all of these activities can be done within a short day-trip distance from the charming colonial town of Copán Ruinas.

Copán Ruinas

The small, out-of-the-way village of Copán Ruinas, located just one kilometer northwest of the Mayan Ruins of Copán, was once a small pueblo, but the town has been transformed by all the area has to offer into Honduras’ number one mainland tourist attraction.

The town of Copán Ruinas

The town of Copán Ruinas

Bustling with tourists, locals sporting cowboy hats, and hippie-esque western backpackers selling hand-made jewelry on the sidewalks, almost everything in Copán Ruinas is within a few blocks of Parque Central, the heart of town.  It’s easy to get around on foot here, but if you’d rather ride along the town’s cobblestone streets, you can hop on one of the bright red three-wheeled tuk-tuks.

The colonial-style Hotel Marina Copán on Parque Central is one of the best hotels in Copán Ruinas.  With 51 rooms set amid tropical flower gardens scattered with koi ponds, burbling fountains and comfortable seating, the hotel is a peaceful oasis. Some of its rooms feature balconies with sweeping views of the town, others overlook red-tiled roofs, palm trees and the lush, landscaped pool.  All are decorated with stylish Old World furnishings.

The pool at Hotel Marina Copán

The pool at Hotel Marina Copán

The hotel’s restaurant, Glifos, is one of the finest in Copán Ruinas, with a live marimba band entertaining some evenings. Three blocks away is another excellent restaurant, the Carnitas Nía Lola, dubbed “King of the Kabobs” for the huge portions of grilled meats they serve.  Their Shish Kebobs are artistically arranged with onions, pineapple, chicken and tomatoes.  We dined with a party of fifteen and the atmosphere was lively, even when an unexpected storm hit and the electricity went out, turning our dinner into a candlelit evening.

Also in town is a small but impressive archaeology museum, Museo Regional de Arqueología Maya, which gives a good overview of the Maya and their presence in the Valle de Copán, and has some beautiful examples of painted pottery and carved jade.

To see where these artifacts come from, though, head to the Mayan Ruins of Copán.

The Mayan Ruins of Copán

The Mayan Ruins of Copán

The Mayan Ruins of Copán

Our guide, Julio, told us that if Guatemala’s Tikal, with its towering temples, could be compared to New York, then Copán would be Paris.  Indeed, Copán, one of the most important cultural monuments in the world, is considered the Maya’s crowning artistic achievement due to its unique and abundant high relief style of stone sculpture.  Because of this great quantity and quality of stone sculpture, Copán has been called the “Athens of the New World.”

In AD 250 the Maya — Mesoamerica’s most advanced culture — began building these elaborate cities.  Several of them, including Copán, flourished until about the year 900 in what is now called the Classic Period of Mayan civilization.

One of the keys to understanding Copán, the most thoroughly researched and understood of all Maya sites, is a large block of carved stone known today as Altar Q.  Built by one of the city’s last leaders, Yax Pac, it depicts sixteen seated men, a dynastic lineage of sixteen kings whose rule spanned from 426 AD to about 820 AD, a period called Copán’s “Golden Age.”  All of the temples, and stelae, or stone pillars, erected in Copán were to commemorate the accomplishments of this group of kings.

Your exploration of the archaeological park will begin with the expansive, grassy GreatPlaza with a pyramid in the center and elaborate carved stelae arranged throughout.  Most of these stelae have glyphs that refer to one of Copán’s most important figures known as 18-Rabbit, the thirteenth king.

Taking a tour of the Mayan Ruins of Copán

Taking a tour of the Mayan Ruins of Copán

The Acropolis, which towers a hundred feet over the GreatPlaza, is a large complex of pyramids and temples, including the Plaza of the Jaguars, where you’ll find rich carvings that depict Maya beliefs about the afterworld.

Don’t miss the famed Hieroglyphic Stairway, covered by a green tarp to protect it from the elements.  Built in AD 749, it is one of the tallest structures at the site.  You can see its 63 steps carved with 1,500 glyphs, the longest known text left by the Mayans, thought to give a chronicle of Copán’s rulers and a history of their deeds and battles.

Temple dedicated to Yax Kuk Mo at the Mayan Ruins of Copán

Temple dedicated to Yax Kuk Mo at the Mayan Ruins of Copán

Beneath the Hieroglyphic Stairway lies the rose-pink RosalilaTemple, or Temple of the Sun.  Found intact, it is one of the most important recent discoveries found in Copán.

South of the GreatPlaza is the Ball Court, decorated with images of sacred Macaws.  In the game played here, Mayans put a hard rubber ball through a stone hoop without using their hands.  No easy task. And it is believed by some that the losers became sacrifices to appease the Gods.

Las Sepulturas Archaeological site, once an upper class residential neighborhood, is a couple of kilometers away.  One of the few Mayan residential areas ever found, it gives a fascinating look at the daily life of the people who lived here.

Copán Sculpture Museum

A representation of Rosalila temple in the Copán Sculpture Museum

A representation of Rosalila temple in the Copán Sculpture Museum

To enter the superb CopánSculptureMuseum located adjacent to the archaeological park, you walk through the gaping mouth of a Maya serpent. Then you’ll meander through a long, winding tunnel, a symbolic journey into the Maya underworld and a representation of the recent tunnels dug by archaeologists in the Acropolis area.

The tunnel opens out into a four-story representation of the life-sized RosalilaTemple.  This vividly-painted building is a reminder that the drab stone Maya buildings you see on archaeological sites today were actually much more colorful.

This huge museum houses three-thousand of the important original sculptures found in the park, with Rosalila as the centerpiece.

Tours and Activities

A hike in the pine-covered mountains and the cloud forests of CelaqueNational Park is a great way to enjoy the natural beauty of Western Honduras.  Another option is to head to the Hotel Hacienda El Jaral, a ten-minute drive from the Copán ruins, where you can hire a guide and inflatable inner tubes to spend 40-minutes floating over the mild rapids down the CopánRiver.

From October through May, the same hotel’s lagoon is a great place to sit and watch small flocks of graceful white Cattle Egrets fly in.  Or take a tour with a local operator to other favorite bird watching spots for glimpses of colorful Turquoise-browed Motmots and other vivid tropical species.

A macaw at the Mayan Ruins of Copán

A macaw at the Mayan Ruins of Copán

If you love macaws, parrots and toucans, you’ll want to visit the Macaw Mountain Bird Park & Nature Reserve.  Started by US Biologist Lloyd Davidson with rescued birds he inherited from Mandy Wagner, a North American conservationist and bird lover, it’s just a five-minute drive from Copan Ruinas.

There are many other outdoor activities in this area offered by local tour operators, including horseback riding and visits to the hot springs in the village of Agua Caliente.  You can also get to the hot springs on your own, by hitching a ride on a pickup heading that way.

Consider stopping at a coffee plantation as you head to the Hot Springs. The village of Sesamil 2 is home to the well-kept coffee farm of Don Mauro, who loves to show visitors how coffee is grown and processed.

Honduras’ Valle de Copán is as serene as it is beautiful, and with so much to do, it’s well worth spending a few days here.

-Melody Moser

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