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Copan Travel Guide

Copán Ruinas is a small village in western Honduras near the Guatemalan border. There is not much to the village itself. With a colonial church overlooking the village’s eastern edge and horse-drawn wagons strolling Copán Ruinas’ cobblestone streets, the village is definitely charming in an old-school way.

Copán Ruinas is also home to the Museo Copán Ruinas, which showcases the culture, artifacts, and artwork of the ancient Mayans who lived in the ancient city of Copán east of the village. The highlight of the museum is el brujo (“the witch”), the skeleton of a Maya shaman and his religious artifacts.

CopánThe main attraction of Copán Ruinas and why it is so frequently visited by tourists is the ancient Maya ruins of Copán, located east of Copán Ruinas. This ancient city was the center of a major Maya kingdom, Xukpi, that flourished from 5th century AD to the early 9th century, with antecedent settlement dating back to 2nd century AD. Xukpi was a powerful city state for many centuries until it suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of the Quirigua kingdom in 738. Copán eventually became a ghost city like other Classic-Age Maya city states; historians think that the depletion of the region’s natural resources is to blame. When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, Copán had long been abandoned. Today, the site is considered one of the most stunning archaeological sites in Central America, known as the “Athens of Central America”.
History of CopánThe first king during the Classic Period, Yax Kuk Mo, came to power around 435AD. Not a whole lot is known about Yax Kuk Mo or his successors. More is known, however, about the 12th king, Smoke Jaguar, who ascended the thrown in 628AD and reigned until 695AD. Under his rule, Copán grew to become one of the largest cities in the region. His successor, King 18 Rabbit (695-738AD), continued the quest for expansion of Xukpi’s dominion. However, the city suffered a setback when King 18 Rabbit was captured by the soldiers of Quirigua, a city in what is today a part of Guatemala. The king was brought to Quirigua and beheaded.

Smoke Monkey succeeded King 18 Rabbit and ruled for 11 years. During his short reign, he was increasingly challenged by powerful noble families. Smoke Monkey's son, Smoke Shell (749-763AD), tried to justify his power by promoting the historical importance of great warrior kings. He built the Hieroglyphic Stairway, the longest Classic Maya inscription ever discovered, which depicted the supremacy in battle of Xukpi’s past rulers. Dawning Sun (763-820AD), the 16th king, continued this glorification of warrior kings in his architecture but by the end of his reign, the political authority of the throne was all but lost and the kingdom of Xukpi withered away.

Features of CopánCopán is as large as many Maya sites in Guatemala and is more than 3,000 years old when considering the Olmec settlement on the site prior to the Mayans. Beautifully reconstructed temples line the ancient city. The stone structures are decorated with intricate carvings that are amazingly well preserved.

At the site’s “Great Plaza”, there are monuments erected to glorify Copán’s past rulers. Some stelae on the periphery are dedicated to Smoke Jaguar. The most impressive stelae is in the middle of the plaza, which depicts King 18 Rabbit. These monuments had religious significance; they served as vaults for ritual offerings by the people.

Perhaps most interesting of all are the ball courts. The most important one is located south of the Great Plaza and is one of the largest of its kind in Central America. These ball courts were used to play a game in which the players bounced a hard rubber ball from one side of the court to the other and the object of the game was to keep the ball from touching the ground. This game was taken so seriously that the losers were likely put to death.

The Hieroglyphic Stairway is another highlight of Copán and is located next to the main ball court. This structure contains the largest collection of hieroglyphs in the world. The 63 steps of the stairway immortalize the battles won by Copán’s kings, many of them glorifying King Smoke Jaguar. While the steps were once placed chronologically, earthquakes have knocked them out of place and they can no longer be read in proper sequence.

The Acropolis is another feature of Copán. Dawning Sun was credited with the construction of many of the buildings around this grand plaza. Below the Acropolis are tunnels that lead to some of the most fascinating structures including the Rosalila Temple, which dates back to 571AD. The Rosalila was buried below taller structures, but was unearthed in 1989. Another tunnel at the Acropolis called Los Jaguares leads to past tombs, an ancient bathroom, and a system of aqueducts.

The El Bosque and Las Sepulturas are two other sites that are part of Copán but about a mile west of the main public site. These two sites served as residential and administrative areas of Copán. The Maya had a stratified social system whereby the elite owned houses with many more rooms than the lower-class.

Museo de Escultura MayaThe Museo de Escultura Maya is located east of the main entrance to Copán and provides a closer look at Maya artistry. The museum showcases sculptures and replicas, exhibiting the Mayan artistic skills as well as educating the public on the layout and the ceremonial and political structures of ancient Copán.

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