Copan Ruinas (henceforth just Copan although that is technically the name of the whole department, not the town) is probably one of the nicest tourist spots in Honduras. The charming cobblestone-laden town is set on a sloping hill that falls into a big rolling river and is filled with quaint accommodations and a variety of dining options. We especially enjoy a 100% German brewery (run by an actual German guy) that serves up homebrewed wheat beer and German sausage, a café with toasted bagels and scrumptious veggie cream cheese, and several pizza places, all things we cannot find in our own town despite it being twice as big as Copan. It’s ironic to us that although Copan is the largest inland tourist attraction, the road from San Pedro is still a two lane mountain highway with more fallas (failures/depressions) and derrumbes (landslides) than can be counted, serviced most often by chicken buses rather than a more luxury line of coaches. You’d think they’d put some priority into improving that route and transportation options since it’s one of the most heavily trafficked.
Obviously, the most important reason to visit Copan is for the Maya ruins which are just a 10 minute walk outside of town. The ruins are small in area and height when compared to other notable sites like Tikal, Chichen Itza and Caracol, but they offer some of the best artistic endeavors of the period. Copan was ruled by 16 kings before it was abandoned similar to other Maya sites. It was important for each king to demonstrate his power and status by building things. One highlight is the Hieroglyphic Staircase completed by the 15th King which is a temple of hundreds of intricately carved steps that tell the history of all Copan’s leaders. When discovered, it was a pile of rubble and the archaeologists didn’t really know how to put it back together, so they just guessed, meaning the order is incorrect, but it still looks magnificent. Also, the archaeologists decided it would be good to take a piece of the staircase with them, so part of it is actually missing, on display at Harvard University.
The most powerful ruler was King 13 called 18 Conejo (18 Rabbit), which actually isn’t his name somehow. He built some of the biggest and best temples and a number of stellae honoring himself in various vestments, warrior, priest, young man, ball player etc. Our tour guide said some of the figures of him have Asian looking features (eyes, beard), evidence that some Asian peoples had contact with the Maya and influenced their art. They have a small but nice ball court which is famously pictured on the one Lempira bill – we got the idea from another volunteer to take our picture at the ruins with the bill.
The central area where everyone visits is mostly a ceremonial center where the royal people lived and the rulers and priests performed ceremonies. The middle class lived in a separate area around 1 km away and the thousands of peasants needed to grow crops and build things lived in dispersed settlements all over the valley. The most memorable event came when we were walking over to Las Sepulturas (where the middle class lived) and we ran into a short Honduran Maya man. Turns out he was the assistant to the head archaeologist currently working in Copan and decided to give us some history and cultural lessons on our short walk. He told us the first settlers in the area lived in caves up in the mountains. He explained to us about the Maya class system, making us act out the ruling, middle and lower classes. The rulers picked one wife, the smartest, who would have one child (a male) to be the heir, then proceeded to host a number of concubines (the dumb chicks) to populate the city. He told us about a sacred birthing spot (Los Sapos/The Toads) where the smart wives usually had C-sections, after which they could no longer have children. He told us the Maya didn’t really disappear, more like dispersed themselves, and he was proof because he was Mayan, a modern Mayan. He kept asking us if he was taking up too much of our time, but we of course were thrilled with our free tour guide. He just had so much to share and was so proud to share it, what a guy.
We had the chance to visit a bird park full of exotic species such as the Scarlet Macaw which was extremely sacred in Maya culture. Its feathers were used in headdresses and it was believed they were the link with heaven/the gods because they could fly. We also saw toucans, parrots, owls and a host of others we can barely remember. They even insist that you hold the birds to take pictures, which we all did despite them eating assorted items of our clothing such as buttons and earrings.
We also took an interesting tour of a coffee finca (farm) where we hiked down a mountain among coffee, banana and cardamom plants and learned about the benefits of shade grown coffee, ideal altitudes and the steps of harvesting, processing and roasting beans. Our tour guide looked like he should be in WWF rather than giving cheesy tours, but he gave a good performance. We had an awesome three course lunch with a special type of encurtido (pickled veggies) that included the flowers of the yuca (not yucca root, but yuca like the palm) which have an artichoke-like flavor. Since then I’ve been seeing people selling them at our local market all the time.
We highly recommend Copan for anyone coming for a visit, although to us it doesn’t feel quite like the real Honduras we know. The fancy restaurants, hotels and attractions seem to suggest to tourists that everything is hunky-dory, when actually it’s not. Still, it’s a pleasant escape for us once in awhile and should be on anyone’s tourist itinerary.