If you’re interested in locating the ruins of the Mayan city of Copán, just grab a map, scroll over to Central America, zoom in on Honduras, and run your finger along the border with Guatemala. The ruins are there, deep in the jungle, in the midst of the Central American isthmus.
But the political borders of Honduras and Guatemala were meaningless to the citizens of Copán. Back in the day the Mayan civilisation stretched all the way across Mesoamerica, from (current day) Mexico to Honduras, covering an area about the size of Poland.
Copán was situated on the fringes of the empire; it was about as far south, and as far east, as the Mayans went. But a provincial outpost it was not.
Occupation of the city dates all the way back to 1500BCE. The majority of the buildings that can be seen today, however, are from its glory years, between 426CE and 820CE, when the city was ruled by a dynasty of 16 kings.
During this period Copán went on to become one of the most powerful of the Mayan city states, with a population of up to 25,000 people.
This was during the height of the Classic Period (between 250CE and 900CE), when the Mayans were developing complex writing systems, acquiring a firm grasp on astronomy, coming up with a 365 day calendar, and building great temples and pyramids.
Copán, famous for its architecture, became one of the most ornate and beautifully carved of all the Mayan cities.
Its ceremonial plaza and processional ways were lined with portrait stelae (like the one in the picture above), created to honour the kings and record their many good deeds.
Hieroglyphic Stairway, Copán
The most impressive feature of Copán is the Hieroglyphic Stairway, made up of between 2000 and 2500 separate glyphs, which, when put together, form the longest known Mayan script in existence.
Unfortunately the glyphs bounced out of place during various earthquakes, and washed out of place during various flood events over the centuries. The archaeologists are still trying to put the pieces back in correct order.
Right next to the Hieroglyphic Stairway is the Ballcourt, dedicated to the Macaw God.
Six stone macaw heads decorate the Ballcourt. Stylised macaw mosaics adorn the adjacent structures.
Scarlet Macaws continue to frequent the ancient Mayan city (thanks partly to the breeding program undertaken at Macaw Mountain). The giant rainbow coloured birds can be seen flying across the central plaza during the early morning, and can be heard screeching across the site at all times of the day.
The last king of Copán, Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat, ruled between 763CE and 820CE. This was towards the end of the Classic Period, a time when the entire Maya civilisation was in trouble. Decades of drought and disease had weakened the opulent city states. The divine rulers of the Mayan world were being seen as less and less divine; their hold over their subjects incrementally weakening. The Mayan civilisation slowly crumbled.
Copán was on the periphery of the Mayan civilisation but it wasn’t immune to the region’s environmental adversities, and it wasn’t spared from the civilisation’s internal warfare and ultimate downfall. The city was abandoned in the early 10th Century. There it lay, used only by jungle creatures, until the Spanish stumbled upon the ruins in the latter parts of the 16th Century.
Restoration efforts began in the late 19th Century. Since then many key parts of the city have been rebuilt; pyramids have been neatly put back together, stelae uprighted, the Hieroglyphic Stairway slowly put back in order.
The rest of the site remains slumped where it fell, overgrown by moss, lichen, and trees.
As Mayan ruins go, Copán isn’t as grand or dramatic as Tikal, it doesn’t have a magnificent ziggurat like Chichen Itza, and it lacks pyramids to rival those of Uxmal, but the richness of its carvings gives the visitor a sense of its former affluence and splendour, and makes it one of the prettiest Mayan cities of all.
Practical information and how to reach Copán:
There are public buses running to Copán from San Pedro Sula (trip time is 4 – 5 hours). Private companies also run shuttle buses from Guatemala City (5 hours) and Antigua (6 hours). More transport info here.
Read more on the Mayan site of Copán in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.