Copán, near the town of Copan Ruinas in Honduras, is an archaeological site housing the ruins of a major Maya settlement which was probably the most influential city in the south eastern area occupied by this civilisation.
History of Copán
Copán is thought to have been inhabited as early as 2000 BC, despite the fact that there is sparse evidence to this effect. It was certainly at its peak between 300 AD and 900 AD, when it was the capital of an extensive kingdom in the southernmost Maya area and home to at least 20,000 people. The extensive stelae found at Copán give us a detailed description of the city’s history.
In the eighth century AD, Copán experienced a significant military defeat when its leader, the otherwise glorious Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil, was captured and beheaded by the rulers of the city of Quirigua in what is now Guatemala. Copán collapsed relatively suddenly in the early 9th century: it seems that a combination of poor agricultural land, malnutrition and disease meant the population was ravaged.
Despite the city’s collapse, people continued to live in smaller groups in the surrounding areas, and pillaged the ruins for stones to build with. The city was mentioned in late 16th century Spanish writing, and was explored more extensively in the 19th century. The city’s proximity to the river Copán meant serious erosion had occurred.
The cultural, social and ceremonial significance of Copán has been confirmed by UNESCO, who listed it as a World Heritage site in 1980. Amongst other things, UNESCO cites the fact that Copán was the site of great advances in astronomy and mathematics.
Copán is often extremely quiet: the border crossing deters many less hardy tourists, and it’s a corner of Honduras that not many visit otherwise. Having the site to yourself is a particular treat – there’s quite a bit of ground to cover, and some of the ruins are still on the edge of the jungle.
There is a visitor centre, small museum and café on site, and plenty of guides will be willing to offer their services. Look for ones with official credentials if you’re going to hire one – they can be an absolute wealth of information, particularly as signage and information is often relatively scarce.
Copán is famous for its stelae more than anything: look out for them and it can be worth bringing a torch as some are covered to protect them from further damage from exposition to the elements. The Hieroglyphic Staircase is particularly impressive, especially when you take into consideration that it was built without the use of the wheel.
There are a number of incredible structures, which also rank highly amongst the reasons for the site’s UNESCO status. Containing five main plazas, an acropolis, numerous temples, terraces, pyramids and dwellings, one cannot fail to be impressed by Copán. Incredible glyphs adorn its staircases, structures, temples and altars, with depictions of animals and human faces. The sculptural style at Copán is relatively distinct, and some historians believe it was designed to emphasis Maya ethnicity.
Getting to Copán
The ruins are about 1km outside the town of Copán Ruinas: it’s an easy walk or you can hop in a mototaxi. The town itself is about 10km away from the Honduras-Guatemala border: many tourists visit from Guatemala City or Antigua. San Pedro Sula is about 200km away.