Copán rivals La Ceiba and Roatán as one of the most tourist-friendly places in Honduras, and there are a growing number of ways to explore the city that go beyond the Maya ruins. You can now take a horseback ride into the hills, soak in a hot spring outside of town, or visit a coffee plantation and be back in town for happy hour. Just walk in to any tour operator or company office on or near the square to set up an excursion.
Copán is one of the grandest and most magnificently preserved of all Maya ceremonial cities. Surrounded by thick jungle and set beside the gentle Copán River, the ruins are famous for their raw stone-carved hieroglyphics, massive stelae, and the impressive Hieroglyphic Stairway. Your visit here should include the extensive archaeological ruins, recently excavated tunnels, and Museum of Maya Sculpture.
The current area around Copán has been inhabited since at least 1400 B.C., and some of the earlier discoveries here show Olmec influences. The Great Sun Lord Quetzal Macaw, who ruled from A.D. 426 to 435, was the first of 16 consecutive kings who saw the rise and fall of this classic Maya city. Some of Copán's great kings included Smoke Jaguar, 18 Rabbit, and Smoke Shell. The history of these kings is meticulously carved into the stones at the ruins.
Copán was famously "discovered" in 1839 by the adventurer John L. Stephens, who documented the story in his wonderful book Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (1841). The book is beautifully illustrated by Stephens' companion Frederick Catherwood.
The entrance to the Copán archaeological site is located along a well-marked highway about a half-mile from the town of Copán Ruínas. The visitor center and ticket booth are at one end of the parking lot; the Museum of Maya Sculpture is at the other. The Copán Guides Association has a booth at the entrance to the parking area. Here, you can hire a bilingual guide for a 2-hour tour of the site, which includes the Sepulturas, for L950, no matter the size of your group. These guides are extremely knowledgeable and are highly recommended to hire for your first visit. They aren't necessary to tour the museum, as the signs are in English, or the tunnels, which are so short that the guide isn't necessarily of much value.
Admission to the Copán ruins and the Sepulturas (L285 adults) does not include a guide. Visits to the tunnels (L285[LS13]) and Museum of Maya Sculpture (L133) are extra. Everything is open daily from 8am to 4pm.
Museum of Maya Sculpture
Considering that the ruins get more and more crowded as the day goes on, I recommend that you visit the new Museum of Maya Sculpture (L135 adults[LS14]; daily 8am-4pm) after seeing the ruins. The museum is located across from the entrance to the archeological park, a few hundred meters from the small visitor center where you pay your entrance fee. This large, two-story structure was built to protect some of Copán's more impressive pieces from the elements. Inside, you'll see beautifully displayed and well-documented examples of a broad range of stone carvings and hieroglyphics. At the center of the museum is a full-scale replica of the Rosalia Temple, which lies well preserved inside the core of Temple 16. The museum also contains the reconstructed original facade of one of the site's ball courts.
The ruins are at the end of a relatively short path from the museum exit. I recommend starting at the western plaza of Temple 16. As you face Temple 16, the Acropolis will be to your left. A trail and steps lead around the back, where you can enjoy a view over the Copán River to the surrounding mountains. Follow the path to the Patio of the Jaguars, where you'll find the entrances to the Rosalia and Jaguar tunnels. Continue on over the top of the Acropolis and the Temple of Inscriptions, and then down into the Great Plaza, where Copán's greatest hieroglyphic treasures were found.
The Temple of Inscriptions anchors the south end of the Great Plaza. To its east is the Hieroglyphic Stairway. This stairway, built by King Smoke Shell, rises up some 64 steps, each of which is carved or faced with hieroglyphs, telling the history of Copán's kings and their line of succession. To those literate in the language, the stairs once read as a giant book. Today, many of the carved stairs have fallen or faded, but enough remain to give a sense of the scale of this amazing achievement. The stairway is currently under cover, which makes it difficult to see. The lighting is poor, especially on cloudy days, but the trade-off in terms of preservation makes this necessary.
At the foot of the Hieroglyphic Stairway, and all around the Great Plaza, are examples of Copán's carved stelae. Many of these are carved on all four sides with detailed depictions of rulers, animals, and mythic beasts, as well as glyphs that tell their stories. Some of the stelae are originals, while others are replicas.
It Happened Here -- In 1839, American explorer John Lloyd Stephens bought the Copán ruins for $50 from a local landowner who felt that the land was just too rocky.
Located about 2km (1 1/4 miles) from the Great Plaza, Las Sepulturas is believed to have been a major residential neighborhood reserved for Copán's elite. The site gives you a sense of what the day-to-day living arrangements of an upper crust Maya may have been like. Las Sepulturas was once connected to the Great Plaza by a broad, well-worn causeway (which has been identified by NASA with digital satellite imaging), but today, it's reached via a gentle path through lush forests with excellent bird- and animal-watching opportunities.
The Rosalia & Jaguar Tunnels
Opened to the public in 1999, these two tunnels give visitors a firsthand look at the historical layering technique of the Maya builders, who would construct subsequent temples around and over existing ones, no matter how beautiful and intricate the original. Entrance to the two tunnels is an extra L190[LS15] above the general admission, though these are well-lit modern excavations and not tunnels left by the ancient Maya, so it's a tossup whether or not it's really worth the extra money. However, the tunnels are fascinating and do give you a further sense of the massive scale of the archaeological undertaking.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.