Once called “the Athens of the New World” for its 400-year reign as the Maya world’s undisputed cultural, artistic, and architectural center, Copán is also notable for its depth. Each new king would carefully bury the previous ruler’s monuments and then build his own on top of them.
A thousand years later, archaeologists have tunneled down into this dynasty, a labyrinth that continues to produce discoveries.
Copán was classic Classic Period: empires, deadly ball games, kingly propaganda, and the empire’s most skilled artists and scribes. Copán doesn’t have the sheer height and grandeur of Tikal , its rival to the west, but it makes up for it in details and mystique.
Copán contains a reference to 3114 B.C., the beginning of the Long Count cycle that ends in 2012. It is also on the same latitude as Izapa , the birthplace of the Long Count, and its artwork depicts astronomy-guided images similar to the galactic alignment.
Copán’s highlights include an early-morning walking tour of the Great Plaza, with its open lawn and freestanding stelae depicting the city’s history.
On Stela C, a ruler from the 8th century, 18 Rabbit, is depicted as a sun god standing in a caiman’s jaw, a symbol of the dark rift in the Milky Way. Author and researcher John Major Jenkins says this is a reference to the 2012 alignment of the solstice sun and the center of the Milky Way. (Similar to Izapa, where glyphs of the sun, Venus, the ecliptic, the Milky Way, and the dark rift also point toward 2012.)
The Hieroglyphic Stairway lies on the western face of the pyramid and was built in A.D. 753 by Smoke Shell. This one-of-a-kind structure contains more than 2,500 glyphs, emblems, and name glyphs from Copán’s history from A.D. 700. A tomb lies beneath these stairs, as well as several ceremonial rooms.
The Acropolis is another vast network of structures where astounding discoveries have been made. Altar Q lies in the West Court and depicts 16 seated kings carved around all four sides of a stone monument. Under the East Court lies the tomb of Yax K’uk’ Mo’ and his wife. Structure 16 was the site of Copán’s biggest discovery: Moon Jaguar’s Rosalila Temple, found in 1989. The Rosalila Temple actually lies beneath Structure 16; a full replica is in the on-site museum. Upon discovery, it was considered one of the best-preserved ceremonial spaces ever found in the Maya world.
About a mile through the trees from the Acropolis, Las Sepulturas served as a residential area for Copán. Because of the grand limestone causeway connecting this area to the temple site, this may have served as a kind of suburban neighborhood of elite Maya.
Copán and its museum are open 8 a.m.–4 p.m. daily. Entrance to the main park plus Las Sepulturas is US$15; the Museo de Escultura Maya (Maya Sculpture Museum) is another US$7. Both are highly recommended. Most of Copán’s best monuments and artifacts are actually in the Museo de Escultura Maya, so save time for a visit here.
It costs another US$15 to enter the tunnels (a little pricey, but you should get the full experience while you’re here). Amy E. Robertson, author of Moon Honduras , offers the following advice:
• It can be very nice to get in right when the gates open. In the early-morning hours, you’ll be able to enjoy the ruins in relative solitude, and you’ll have good low-angle light for photographs. This is also the favorite time for a group of white-tailed deer that live in the woods to come out and wander through the ruins.
• When walking around the site, refrain from walking on stairways that have been roped off.
• Try not to lean on sculptures, stelae, or buildings—salts from your skin can corrode the stone, especially when multiplied by the 60,000 or so visitors who come to Copán each year.
• It should go without saying, but let it be said: It is illegal to remove any stones from the park.
• Two pamphlet-guides to the ruins are sold at the ticket office: History Carved in Stone, by William Fash and Ricardo Agurcia Fasquelle, and Copán, Legendario y Monumental, by J. Adan Cueva. The former, written in English, has an excellent interpretation of the growth of the city and advances in archaeology, but does not discuss each monument individually. The latter, in English and Spanish, is weak on recent advances in archaeology, and although it does give descriptions of many major sites, they are often incomplete and not entirely useful.
• Guides can be hired at the site for US$25 for a two-hour tour. Some of these local men have worked at the ruins for many years and have a positively encyclopedic knowledge about the archaeology of Copán—not just the names of buildings, but explanations on how archaeological views changed, when certain discoveries were made and why they were important, and all sorts of other details. In addition to providing information on the ruins themselves, guides often relate interesting local legends and tall tales about the area. Casual tourists may find their brains spinning with the endless stories of temples, rulers, and altars, but if you’re really curious to learn more about Copán, you are definitely encouraged to hire a guide. They charge an extra US$10 to accompany you to the Sculpture Museum, and US$15 for Las Sepulturas—both worthwhile expenses.
• Although English-speaking guides are available, their language abilities vary. If your Spanish is nonexistent, check beforehand to make sure you and your guide can communicate well. You may want to consider contacting the Asociación de Guías Copán (tel. 504/651-4018, guiascopan [at] yahoo [dot] com) ahead of your visit to reserve a guide in English, particularly during high season (Holy Week, July and August). Guides are available in a number of other languages as well.
San Pedro Sula  is three hours away and has an airport. You can also take a six-hour bus ride from Guatemala City  to Copán. Several express bus services make regular runs from San Pedro Sula to Copán Ruinas . Hedman Alas has four daily buses, and Casasola Express has three daily buses.
For more travel information on things to see and do at Copán and in the surrounding area, please visit the Copán section of our Moon Honduras travel guide .