There’s something about ancient sites that drives people in droves to overrun what should be otherwise quiet and peaceful places. Machu Picchu in Peru (which I witnessed firsthand last year) and Chichén Itzá in Mexico are two such examples.
So I was pleasantly surprised to find the grounds of the Mayan ruins in Copan Ruinas, Honduras, to be essentially bare. The ruins in Copan span about 14 square miles (not all of this is accessible to the public), and archaeologists have found 3,450 structures within this space. The Mayan ruins in Copan Ruinas are among the finest examples of Mayan artifacts, and the site is covered in carvings, petro glyphs and statues. The public space is expansive, and visitors are welcome to roam the grounds at their leisure.
The grounds are part of the allure. With so much space and large Ceiba trees casting shadows across the lawn, this is not only a historic marvel but also a beautiful, natural place.
Why You Should Go:
This is a huge Mayan city. Much of the city has been preserved, though some of the larger artifacts have been moved indoors to a nearby museum, which protects them from the elements. The buildings are massive, and it is the site of the longest petro glyph in the modern world and has thus been named an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, in this small town in Honduras, is the longest known text in ancient Mayan civilization … and no one seems to know about it! Unfortunately it’s under this huge tarp so the sun, rain and wind don’t destroy it and these aren’t really ideal viewing conditions, but the detail of the carvings—and the severe lack of crowds—still make this specific part of the site particularly interesting.
The ruins are a conglomeration of free-standing statues and large, overwhelming temples. I’m always so amazed at the detail that people have carved in the rock—the stories the rocks tell—and the free-standing statues are no exception. Symbols are carved across the faces of rocks and detailed stories are spread across the grounds, just waiting to be deciphered. Though a lot of the ruins were roped off, we were able to walk along and on some of the temples.
It turns out that in this Mayan city, when a ruler was finished with his reign, they buried his temple and just built the next temple on top of it, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. First of all, why not just destroy it instead of burying it and building this huge heap of buildings? Second of all, after all of that hard work and effort, why would you want to disregard what’s been created just to turn around and exert effort building a new temple? I found that I spent a lot of time at the ruins asking myself questions that archaeologists have been asking themselves for years. With a civilization of around 30,000 people, you would assume there would be some answers somewhere, but as more artifacts are dug up, only more questions are revealed.
Answering Unanswerable Questions:
This isn’t a site heavy in placards spread across the ground, defining each and every thing you see. To get a big-picture view of the ruins, I recommend visiting the sculpture museum that is on the site. Many of the carvings and statues around the grounds are actually replicas, and the genuine artifacts have been moved into this large building. Though the archaeologists on site can never move them all indoors, this museum is a good place to find answers to your questions about many of the artifacts.
In this museum is a reproduction of Rosalila, one of the massive temples found on the grounds in recent years. Archaeologists uncovered it, documenting every detail about the building. Though visitors can see portions of this temple via tunnels in the archaeological park, it has, for the most part, been recovered to preserve it. The sheer size of the Rosalila reproduction is mind-boggling. To think that archaeologists have uncovered—and recovered—it one slow inch at a time is hard to fathom.
If You Go:
If the Mayan ruins in Copan Ruinas are on your list of things to do when you visit Honduras, I suggest the following three things:
- Visit early before it gets too hot. Despite the shade spread sporadically throughout the park, you will walk a lot, and it gets warm quickly when the sun comes out. As a side note, carry water with you and drink it frequently to stay hydrated.
- Hire a guide. You can find knowledgeable people who are passionate about the sites for hire when you pay for entrance into the park. Because there aren’t many signs or placards on the grounds, having someone with you to answer your questions makes a visit to the site much more meaningful.
- If you pass on hiring a guide, consider purchasing History Carved in Stone, which is a guide to the archeological park. Though I haven’t used the book myself, it was recommended to me by our guide. You can purchase it on site.
Copan Ruinas Archeological Park, Copan Ruinas, Honduras | Open daily 8:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m. (tunnels closed on weekends) | Archeological Park and Las Sepulturas: $15, Sculpture Museum: $7, Tunnels: $15
My tour to the Mayan ruins and entrance into the sculpture museum in Copan Ruinas was paid for by the Honduras Institute of Tourism, but all opinions are my own.