Discover the Ruins of Copan in Honduras

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On December 21, 2012, the 5,126-year-long Maya long-count calendar came to an end. For those who missed the ceremonies and celebrations at the royal Mayan complex of Copan, turn the calendar page to a new era of discovery and come to Copan to get acquainted—or re-acquainted—with one of the Maya Empire’s most brilliant cultural centers during its seventh century heyday.

Located amidst the rainforests of western Honduras, a 2-hour drive from San Pedro Sula, Copan is the only major Mayan site in Honduras…and what a sight! The main ceremonial center covers some 75 acres with pyramids, temples, ball courts and dozens of intricately carved stelae—stone monuments that portray the story of those who ruled the great city-state between the fifth and ninth centuries. The history of the 16 consecutive kings of Copan is recorded on the 63 steps of the Hieroglyphic Staircase, and treasures found in the ruins—including a dazzling 4-story replica of the Rosalila Temple—are housed on site in the brilliantly designed Museum of Sculpture.

And there are always new things to see in ancient Copan. In 1989, archaeologists tunneling in behind the stairway stumbled upon a royal tomb that held a treasure trove of painted pottery and jade. In 1993, a chamber with offerings of painted pottery was discovered in another tunnel under the acropolis. The Copan Archaeological Park allows visitors to tour two of the tunnels that have been excavated under the site; the tours are limited to 10 people at a time, in the company of a guide.

And discovery continues, for in recent years, Copan has been one of the superstar sources of research in solving the mysteries of the Maya. At Copan, the hieroglyphic inscriptions are the most abundant and diverse of any center in the Classic Mayan world. They cover not only the forest of free-standing stelae and stairways, but altars temple panels. Deciphering their writings has revealed to archaeologists noble lineages of Mayan kings, and lives of great rulers—from Smoke-Imix to 18 Rabbit—have been tracked with surprising accuracy.

Indeed, it comes as no surprise that Copan is one of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Honduras. (The Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve is the other.)

Most travelers use as their base the small and charming town of Copan Ruinas, a 15-minute walk from the archaeological site (or just minutes by taxi). With cobblestone streets, a lively and picturesque plaza, and a bevy of informal restaurants, cafes, comfy inns and haciendas, this is a fun place to chill out over a cold beer and tasty burrito. It’s also a good base for learning about coffee production at local farms, horseback riding in the hills, soaking in the area’s hot springs, picnicking by the river that runs through the Macaw Mountain Bird Reserve & Nature Park, a sanctuary for rescued tropical birds. Many of those same colorfully featured creatures are easy to spot flying among the monuments of ancient Copan, one of the grandest and most magnificently preserved of all Mayan ceremonial cities.

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