Past the gate, where colorful macaws hang out, the trail heading to the right brings visitors to the Acropolis, a massive architectural complex built over the course of the city’s history and considered to be the central axis point of Copán, around which the rest of the city was focused. At the highest points the structures stretch 30 meters above the Great Plaza  (thus it was dubbed the Acropolis, or “high city,” by archaeologists), and the many large trees still standing atop the huge structure only add to its imposing grandeur.
The current Acropolis—perhaps only two-thirds as big as it was during the city’s heyday—is formed by at least two million cubic meters of fill. Some of the most fascinating archaeological finds in recent years have come from digging under buildings in the Acropolis and finding earlier temples, which were carefully buried and built over.
A steep set of stairs leads up to the West Court, a small grassy plaza surrounded by temples to the underworld. At the base of Structure 16 in the West Court is a square sculpture known as Altar Q. Possibly the single most fascinating piece of art at Copán, it depicts 16 seated men, carved around the four sides of a square stone altar. For many years, following the theory of archaeologist Herbert Joseph Spinden, it was believed the altar illustrated a gathering of Mayan astronomers in the 6th century. However, following breakthroughs in deciphering Mayan hieroglyphics, archaeologists now know the altar is a history of the city’s rulers. The 16 men are, in fact, all the rulers of the Copán dynasty, with the first ruler, Yax K’uk’ Mo’, shown passing the ruling baton—and the symbolic right to rule—on to the last, Yax Pac, who ordered the altar built in 776.
Between the West Court and the nearby East Court is Structure 16, a temple dedicated to war, death, and the veneration of past rulers. Heading around Structure 16 toward the East Court, one can look out to the right over the Cemetery, so called for the many bones found during excavations. Archaeologists later came to realize that the area was residential, where the royal elite lived. Homes were clustered around courtyards, and as per tradition, the deceased were buried next to their homes.
The East Court was Copán’s original plaza. Deep underneath the floor of the plaza, found by archaeologists in 1992 and 1993, are the tombs of Copán’s founder, Yax K’uk’ Mo’, and his wife, who were both venerated by later generations as semidivine. The tombs were built at a time when none of the rest of the Acropolis existed and are thought to have formed the axis for the rest of Copán’s growth. Studies are still underway on the tomb discoveries, which for the moment remain out of public eye.
Underneath Structure 16, in 1989, Honduran archaeologist Ricardo Agurcia found the most complete temple ever uncovered at Copán. It’s called Rosalila (“rose-lilac”) for its original paint, which can still be seen. Rosalila is considered the best-preserved temple anywhere in the Mayan zone. The temple was erected by Copán’s 10th ruler, Moon Jaguar, in 571. The short tunnel accessing the front of Rosalila is open to the public for a US$15 fee, paid at the museum entrance. A full-scale replica of Rosalila is in the Museo de Escultura Maya , which gives a much better sense of the grandeur of the temple than what can be glimpsed through the two small windows in the tunnel.
The ticket price of the tunnel allows visitors to go inside a second, longer tunnel, which begins in the East Court and goes underneath Structure 20 to come out on the far northeast corner of the Acropolis. This tunnel has many more windows, which reveal sculptures of the temple beneath the temple. Both tunnels are well lit and have written descriptions in English and Spanish explaining aspects of Copán archaeology.
On the eastern side of the East Court, the Acropolis drops off in an abrupt cliff down to where the Río Copán ran for a time, before it was diverted to its current course in 1935. Since the river ran alongside the Acropolis, it ate away at the structure, leaving a cross section termed by Mayanist Sylvanus Morley, “the world’s greatest archaeological cut.”
Climbing up the northern side of the East Court brings visitors to Temple 22, a “Sacred Mountain,” the site of important rituals and sacrifices in which the ruler participated. The skull-like stone carving on the side of the structure is of a macaw, the God of Brilliance.
Next to Temple 22 is a small, not visually arresting building called the Mat House, occupying a corner of the Acropolis near the top of the Hieroglyphic Stairway . It was erected in 746 by Smoke Monkey, not long after the shocking capture and decapitation of his predecessor, 18 Rabbit. Decorated with carvings of mats all around its walls, the Mat House was evidently some sort of communal government house; the mat has always symbolized a community council in Mayan tradition.
Following 18 Rabbit’s death, the Copán dynasty weakened so much that Smoke Monkey was forced to govern with a council of lords, who were commemorated on the building according to their neighborhood. The dancing jaguar carved onto the steps leading up to the Mat House is of Smoke Jaguar.