A pretty little town with cobblestone streets lined with adobe buildings, a laid back lifestyle and the ruins of a once great Mayan city, Copán Ruinas is a delightful place to relax and get away from it all for a few days, weeks, months, or even years.
Copán Archeological Site
Located in Western Honduras, the area’s primary draw is the Copan Archaeological Site, located about half a mile from the town. It is an easy twenty minute walk along a paved walkway running alongside the highway or a short $1 tuk-tuk ride. At the ticket office, you can buy a ticket (good for one day) to the ruins ($15), the archeological tunnels ($15 and overpriced) and the Museum of Sculpture ($7).
A small bookstore next to the ticket booth sells books about the site – pick up a copy of History Carved in Stone by Fash and Agurcia Fasquelle. English speaking guides are available ($25/group for a two hour tour), well worth it if you go in a group, but make sure you talk to the guide first to test out his English. The entrance plaza also contains a cafe (try their baleadas, a sort of Honduran taco) and a handicrafts shop, though you are better off saving your money for the better articles sold in town.
Between the 5th and the 9th centuries, Copán was the site of the great Mayan kingdom of Xukpi, known for its monumental buildings covered with hieroglyphics. By the late 9th Century, the Xukpi civilization had come to an end, possibly because of the depletion of natural resources caused by unsustainable growth, and Copán disappeared back into the jungle, where it was forgotten until the early 19th Century.
Though little of the monumental buildings remain, the many hieroglyphic details, stelae (gravestones of many Copán kings) and sculptures that survive make Copán one of the most rewarding Mesoamerican sites to visit. Go early and you’ll have the place to yourself except for the many colorful macaws that fly, fight and play amongst the ruins.
The ruins are divided into three parts: the plaza, the Acropolis, and the East and West courts. Start at the plaza with its stelae, many of 18 Rabbit, the thirteenth Copán king whose defeat signaled the end of the kingdom. Colorful macaws fly up and down the plaza as if guarding the many spirits buried there. At the southeast end of the plaza is a Mayan ball court and the remains of a grand staircase with its hieroglyphics intact. A path from the southwest leads up to the Acropolis, with great views of the plaza and the East and West courts.
The East court contains the Rosalila temple, a temple constructed in 571 AD by King Moon Jaguar. The temple is mostly buried but a tunnel (tickets available at the entrance plaza) provides access for a rather blurred look from behind plexiglass shields at the buried exterior of the building. The same ticket provides access to a longer tunnel in the East court that is kind of fun to walk through but provides little insight into the ruins. The West Court contains a copy of a fascinating altar with beautiful carvings of the first 16 kings of Xukpi, each handing what looks like a baton to the next ending at Yax Pac, the 16th king. The original is found in the Museum of Sculpture.
The Museum of Sculpture ($7), a sort of Louvre of the Mayan world, is not to be missed. Enter through the mouth of a serpent, walk up its gullet in the dark and you enter a brightly skylight-lit atrium with a life-sized reproduction of the Rosalila temple, complete with adobe stucco and paint. For anyone who has seen any Mayan buildings anywhere, it is a shock to see what the structures must have looked like in their time. The museum houses many sculptures (sculpture was unique to Copán in the Mayan world) and stonework recovered from the site.
In addition to the archeological site, the town serves as a base for adventure activities in the Mayan highlands and is gaining popularity as a quieter and less commercial alternative to Antigua (Guatemala) for immersion Spanish lessons. But, there is plenty to do in and around the town itself. Walk around, people watch and shop for Mayan handicrafts, all while drinking Salva Vida (literally ‘life saver’) beer. Less Honduran and more Guatemalan (the border is 7 km away), the town retains a peculiar blend of Spanish and Mayan cultures.
All the activity in town is around the central plaza (Parque Central). Two museums, both focusing on Mayan life, anchor the east and west sides of the plaza. Museo Regional de Arqueología Maya ($3) focuses on Mayan history while the Casa K’nich ($2.50) provides a child-friendly introduction to Mayan culture, science and mathematics. Roadside stalls selling Guatemalan handicrafts line the street to the south and west of the plaza and the entire area has a lively atmosphere in the early evenings.
Things to do
Basecamp, a tour company located at the ViaVia Cafe is the best place to organize a long hike, caving, plantation visits, or even a zip line canopy tour ride from La Pintada down to the river. They also run daily tours to the hot springs at Aguas Termales a short distance away.
Guacamaya Spanish Academy is one of many places where you can brush up on your Spanish. One-on-one immersion lessons available from half-day ($50) to one week ($225) or longer. They also arrange homestays. website
A short and pleasant one hour hike along the river, past the Hacienda San Lucas, and then up a mountain is the village of La Pintada, a good place to see the life of the Ch’orti, the indigenous Mayan people of the region. The village is small with a small school, two small cooperatives selling Mayan dolls and handicrafts, and a cafe for a cold Coca Cola. On the way back, stop at Hacienda San Lucas and sample their tamales for lunch.
Souvenirs el Nasareno, across from Twisted Tanya’s Restaurant, has a friendly proprietor and an excellent selection of Guatemalan clothes and linen. For large hammocks, try El Pabellon Maya. Bags, costume jewelry and other small handicrafts are available around town.
Eat & Drink
Comedor Mary is popular amongst locals and serves excellent pupusas (corn tortillas stuffed with cheese, beans or meat) and platos tipicos (rice, beans, fried plantains, and meat) for about $2. Open for lunch and dinner.
ViaVia Cafe (website) cooks up an eclectic international vegetarian-centered menu (try the Pad Thai and the brownies). $2 – 4 for lunch or dinner, $1 – 3 for beer or cocktails.
Twisted Tanya’s (website) is a rooftop restaurant and bar with excellent cocktails and curries. Don’t miss the salad with local fruits and cheese. Drinks run from $1 to $3. Dinner $18 for a 3-course meal (backpacker special, served everyday from 4pm – 6pm: $6 for soup, pasta and cake). Open 3pm – 10pm and closed on Sunday.
Reserve one evening for a candlelight dinner at the restaurant at the Hacienda San Lucas. With an open kitchen, fine wines and excellent Guatemalan food (the tamales are to die for), you can’t go wrong. $5 – $20 (excluding drinks) plus about $3 for the taxi. Reservations (tel: 504-651-4495) are required for lunch and dinner. website
Where to Stay
La Casa de Cafe (504-651-4620, website) has quiet and comfortable white adobe rooms tastefully accented with Guatemalan touches, lovely gardens and an amazing breakfast that changes every day. Rooms are $35/$40 (single/double) with ceiling fans.
Hotel Don Udo’s (504-651-4533, website) with its colonial atmosphere is a comfortable upscale hotel with air-conditioned rooms, cable TV and a full service restaurant. Rooms range from $35 (no AC) to $140, including breakfast.
The Hacienda San Lucas (504-651-4495, website) is about 2 miles outside town, is a lovely hotel in a restored ranch with beautiful rooms, lovely views and excellent food. The hotel has a shuttle service (and an office) in town. Rooms range from $80 – $100.
Tax on hotel rooms is 12% added to the bill.
Hedman Alas (website) runs comfortable, air conditioned buses from San Pedro Sula in Honduras (5 buses daily, 3 ½ hour trip, $16.50) and Guatemala City in Guatemala (2 buses daily, 5 hrs, $32). San Pedro Sula airport has a Hedman Alas office and buses to the city bus terminal (30 mins, $3.50). Direct flights to New York, Atlanta and Houston are available from both San Pedro Sula and Guatemala City.
Safety and Information
Copán is a very safe place. Don’t flash your cash, leave your valuables in the hotel and nothing untoward is likely to happen to you.
Tap water is not considered safe to drink anywhere in Honduras. Stick to bottled water.
Visas: Americans do not need visas to visit Honduras or Guatemala for trips less than 30 days. A valid unexpired passport is required.
Currency: The Honduran currency, the lempira, is pegged to the US dollar at about 20 lempiras to one dollar. Dollars are accepted everywhere but it is useful to carry a few lempira around for small transactions and street food. ATMs dispense both dollars and lempiras.
The usual services (ATMs, post office, tourist office) are all situated at the central plaza. There are also a couple of ATMs at San Pedro Sula airport. Howard Rosenzweig at the Casa de Cafe is a fountain of knowledge. Wireless internet is available at most hotels (the town has a pay per use wireless network) and Copan Connections provides (slow!) wired connections.