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The Ruins of Copan

The Ruins at Copan are believed to have been inhabited by the Maya as early as 1200 BC and are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Not as impressive in size as Tikal in Guatemala or pre-Columbian ruins in Mexico, the Copan Ruins nonetheless have some intricately carved stelae of former leaders and a well-preserved ball court. Excavation is still in process and some of the pyramids remain partially buried.


This 30,025 hectares (74,190 acres) of lush, hilly land set on the Copan River holds pyramids, temples, 21 intricately carved stone pillars or stelae of ancient Copan kings. Researchers believe that the city’s demise was the result of overpopulation.


The hieroglyphic stairway is Copán’s centerpiece and one of the most fascinating ruin structures in all of Latin America. The stairway is a wide serried of ascending steps, elaborately chiseled from massive rocks into skulls, faces and designs. According to researchers, the stairway is a family tree of sorts, telling the story of the mighty lords of Copán. Tragically, the blocks had fallen out of place in the centuries that the city was lost, and no one knows where to put them any more. The stairway is easy to find: it is covered by a large tarp-like construction to protect the stairway from further destruction at the hands of the elements.


The ball court is one of the most impressive in all of the Maya sites. Like the hieroglyphic stairway, it was begun during the reign of 18 Rabbit, one of Copán’s greatest kings. The ball game was a special cultural phenomenon of the Maya, who tended to see divine significance in the outcome. This particular ball court is known for the carved macaw heads that adorn it.


The Acropolis consists of two plazas. The western plaza is home to temple 11 and temple 16. Both were completed during the reign of Yax-Pac, one of the last rulers of the city. Temple 11 is impressive and elaborately carved: some believe that Yax-Pac built it as a gateway to the underworld. There are several tunnels under the acropolis, which allow visitors to view earlier structures.


There has been a great deal of archaeological interest in Copán. The most important single piece of archaeological history is known as “Altar Q”. This relatively small piece has depictions of all 16 of the major rulers of Copán, and although it baffled researchers for decades, they now believe they understand most of it. Most visitors notice the stelae, or tall, ornately carved standing stones, that can be found in the courtyard. Most of them were created during the prosperous reign of 18 Rabbit.




Entrance Fees

Entrance to the ruins is $10 USD. The museum on-site holds some interesting and very well-preserved stelae , jade jewelry and photos and costs $5 USD to visit. Take a guide around with you, or pick up the inexpensive booklet on the ruins at the entrance.


Tours and Transportation

Copan is close to the Guatemala – Honduras border and many tour operators from Antigua, Guatemala offer regular service to the ruins, which can be seen in a day trip from Antigua. However, the town of Copan is lovely and worth at least a night’s stay. Lodging is inexpensive and the central plaza is pleasant with a nice selection of restaurants and hotels.


15 Feb 2006

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