Must See & Do in Copan, Honduras

It’s just one small town, but Copan deserves its own feature article. It has so much to offer, from its beautiful setting to its history, its jungle, its bird-life, its relaxing spa and its culinary delights. You may not spend a full week here, but you must absolutely go there when you go to Honduras. It’s about a five-hour drive from the world heritage city of Antigua, Guatemala, or a three-hour drive from Ramon Villeda Morales International Airport in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

The main reason people visit Copan is, of course, the pre-Columbian ruins that have become a UNESCO World Heritage site. Even if you’ve already seen your share of Mayan ruins, we can guarantee you’ve never seen anything like Copan.

The site is set in the lush green jungles on the river so it’s easy (and cool enough) to spend more than a couple of hours exploring here. It is one of the sites that is least overrun with other travellers. And it’s only a 10 minute walk from town.

On entering the site you will hear lots of squawking. Those squawks belong to the Scarlet Macaws, the national bird of Honduras, who call Copán Ruins home. How they came to call this place home is an interesting story in itself, one you can read more about here.

Copan Ruins have been described as the most enchanting of the Mayan archaeological sites and one of the most artistic due to the many stone stelae. Stelae are a little like a stone banner, raised to honour the king and record his deeds. Both the intricacy and sheer size of these stelae impress. Each has a different portrait on one side and hieroglyphics on the other. There are approximately 80 at the site, so make sure your camera is charged! We don’t want to give too much away, but one of the main reasons you must see the site is the hieroglyphic staircase which is covered in around 2000 glyphs. Standing at almost 30 meters high, it is quite a sight to behold.

We would always recommend that you go into the site with a guide. This is their home turf; they have studied it, and can give inside stories you won’t find in a guidebook. They give you a real sense of what it would have been like in Copan. The entrance fee is $15, which can be paid in US dollars or Honduran lempiras. This fee includes entry to the ruins and the sepulturas and a graveyard located a few kilometres away. You’ll pay an extra $7 to visit the museum and $15 to explore the tunnels beneath the site.

Copan was the capital city of a major Classic Period kingdom from the 5th to 9th centuries AD. The city was located in the extreme southeast of the Mesoamerican (Mexico and Central America) cultural region, on the frontier with the Isthmo-Colombian cultural region, and was almost surrounded by non-Mayan peoples. Other facts about this advanced civilization include:
– The Mayans had figured out the concept of zero a thousand years before the Europeans.
– The Mayans were incredible astronomers, tracking the cycles of the sun and the moon with incredible accuracy. Their agricultural calendars were made with a 365-day year.
– Today Mayan ruins are found all over Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras, with the most in Mexico and Guatemala. Although there is no “official” list, it is thought there are over 4400 Mayan sites.
– Approximately 80% of the Mayan ruins are yet to be excavated and remain underground or buried beneath thick jungle. They will remain this way until funding and resources are made available.
– Today the Indigenous population of Honduras has dwindled to only around 8%, although Guatemala’s remains at 48%.

After several hours enjoying the ruins, you’ll probably be thinking about lunch. Given the size of Copan, it’s surprising how many amazing eateries there are to choose from.

For a delicious breakfast or lunch you can’t go wrong with Café San Rafael, a locally run establishment with an incredible range of locally produced estate coffee, artisanal cheeses and hot sauces. You can order platters of delicious cheese while looking out to the mountains of Honduras, sipping a Salvavida, one of Honduras’ refreshing beers. Perfectly prepared for your break after visiting the ruins!

For dinner we suggest visiting Twisted Tanya’s. This is a gorgeous spot above the local park, perfect for a happy-hour cocktail, paired with people watching. The food here is off-the-chain good. Tanya’s has a range of amazing dishes including daily specials made with absolute love, care and attention to detail.

Once you have indulged in lunch and made your dinner plans, you’ll have a couple of hours free, a perfect opportunity to visit Macaw Mountain, a mere 10-minute Tuk-Tuk ride from the centre of town. Entrance is around $10US and includes an English speaking guide. Most of the birds come from private donations of former pets. Others come from confiscations executed by the Environment office of the Public Ministry. The park showcases a full range of birds that are well cared for; a really magical experience!

If you are feeling like an adventure that ends in some sweet relaxation we suggest Luna Jaguar Spa pictured below). Though a mere 20 km from Copan, the 45-minute drive over an unsealed, bumpy road, is totally worth the effort. You arrive at a wee slice of paradise right in the middle of the jungle, surrounded by green vegetation, under a thick roof of treetops. Clouds of mist rise from the natural hot pools into the cool air, giving a truly mystical ambience. Transport can be organised through Via Via Restaurant in town (also a good spot to have dinner and drinks on your return, with some fabulous local fare!)

We know you’ll love Copan as much as we’ve come to love it. Our “Heart of Central America” trip sees us spend two nights in Copan, the perfect amount of time to see all of the above!

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