The best Maya ruins to visit, #1: Copán

Maya ruins to visit, #1 : Copán, Honduras

In Honduras you won’t find many Maya ruins to visit, but it houses the most impressive Maya site, namely Copán. 

  • Note: The original name of the Classical Maya city of Copán was probably Uxwitik or Oxwitik, meaning Three roots, Three mountains or Three stones. The city reached its peak roughly between the 6th & 8th century AD.

For me the Número #1 to visit of My Personal #12. Not only because of its beauty, but also because of what we already know about Copán’s past.

The Ceremonial centre or Acrópolis of Copán. The number #1 Maya ruins to visit within the Maya World.
The Ceremonial centre or Acrópolis of Copán.

Copán, a unique place to visit

In almost every old Maya city you’ll find the so called Steles. Tall standing stone slabs, varying in height from 1.5 meters to almost 10 meters. 

These Steles or Stelae generally represent Kings, sometimes Queens or other family members, surrounded by all kind of symbols & inscriptions. All signs telling about his or her Royal character, as well as his or her Historical deeds. 

Stelae A. One of the most beautiful stelae you’ll find among the Maya ruins.
Stelae A, Copán
Detail of Maya Stele A.

Generally these beautiful carved monuments were placed between, on or inside the temples. However, Copán had many Steles gathered in one space, on a field bordering the main constructions. 

Impressive smaller monuments that fortunately have stand the test of time. Mainly because of the stone type used. 

Besides the unique Steles, you’ll find many other artistic feats in Copán. Like the beautiful Altar Q, which shows 16 former rulers of the city. 

Altar Q. One of the attractions of the most beautiful Maya ruins to visit in the Maya World.
One side of Altar Q. The original, which you’ll find in the museum on site. 

Or the unique Hieroglyphic Stairway of Temple 26, full of Inscriptions.

The Hieroglyphic Stairway (Temple 26)
The Hieroglyphic Stairway (Temple 26)

Copán, rediscovered  

Copán has had the honor to be the first Maya city that was visited by John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood. The two men who rediscovered the Maya civilization for the world outside the Maya region. 

  • Note: Before them, there were other Westerners who brought a visit to the Maya ruins, including Copán. However, it were Stephens & Catherwood who would tell the world of the discovery through two highly popular travel books. 
  • To learn more about these fascinating men, and also about my book project on them, see my Introduction on the Mundo Maya.

Today Copán is still one of the most attractive Maya sites to visit. You can walk around freely. Partially among and even over the old ruins of the inner city, the Acrópolis. 

My wife & daughter during our last visit to the Maya ruins of Copán in 2016
Steps lead over the highest temples of the Acrópolis.

In the middle of the Acrópolis you’ll even find a temple within a temple. An inner temple – La Rosalila – that you can visit (Buying a separate ticket). 

To top it all off, there’s also a marvelous museum on site, El Museo de Escultura). One of the most beautiful museums within the Maya area. Here you’ll find many original monuments, protected from sun and rain, but also a replica of the mentioned Rosalila temple, placed in the centre of the museum. Don’t miss it!

La Rosalila Temple is placed in the centre of the Copán Museum.
La Rosalila Temple is placed in the centre of the Copán Museum.

Nearby Copán Ruinas as a base for your visit

Besides all these attractions, the nearby town of Copan Ruinas is a lively friendly place, with good hotels, bars, restaurants & little shops. The town is located just over the border from Guatemala. 

The Plaza Central of Copán Ruinas.
The Plaza Central of Copán Ruinas.
  • Note: The Maya ruins of Copán were originally named after the nearby town. However, old Maya remains have also been found in the city itself. 

Copán – Telling a story 

Copán is one of the most investigated Maya cities, if not thé most investigated. For me personally, that fact is a BIG extra. The reason I consider them the most interesting Maya ruins to visit. 

Inscriptions on the side of Stele A.

It’s just amazing to walk in the city, knowing the names of their former kings or ajaws and what they meant for Copán’s fascinating history. 

  • Note: Although it’s true that the monuments only tell the Royal story – or, if you want the story the Royal elite wanted to tell – little by little we gather more and more information on how the common people in the region lived. Not only by studying the old remains, but more so by studying the Maya people that still live in the area.
  • Note: Decline of Copán started during the 8th century. After 900 AD the city was abandoned almost completely.

Reading about Copán 

There are many books on the subject: the Maya World or Mundo Maya. Besides the famous Incidents of Travel books of Stephens and Catherwood – see Intro to the Mundo Maya – I’d like to mention one unique general book title:

  • Sharer, Robert & Traxler, Loa P., The Ancient Maya, 2006 (originally 1946), Stanford University Press, Stanford California. ISBN 0 8047 4817 9.

As well as, two excellent specific works on Copán:

  • Fash, William & Agurcia Fasquelle, Ricardo, Visión del pasado Maya – Proyecto Arqueológico Acropolis de Copán,  1996, Centro Editorial, San Pedro Sula, Honduras. (Only in Spanish). ISBN — 
  • Andrews, E. Wyllys & Fash, William L. (red.), Copán – The history of an ancient kingdom, 2005, school of American research Press, Santa Fe. ISBN 978 1930618381

Read them before you visit the Maya ruins of Copán or Uxwitik!

Me & my daughter Lisa at the Maya ruins of Copán.
I first had to sit down, arriving (again) at the ruins of Maya Copán. What a wonderful place.

For an overview of my personal favourites, go to: Top #12 Maya-sites

For an overview of all travel posts of my blog, go to: the Home Page.

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