The Maya Ruins of Copán

For those of you with an interest in either history, archaelogy, or anthropology, the western corner of Honduras hides an absolute gem for you.

What is Copán?

Copán was once one of the most beautiful and important cities of the Maya - one of the great ancient cultures of the American continent.  Over the course of 400 years, the Maya people of Copán shaped a small valley in western Honduras into a great city, building pyramids, temples, plazas, sculpting intricate statues of kings, gods, and animals, and decorating it all in beautifully colored stucco.  The ceremonial center at the heart of the city housed some of the best examples of Maya arquitecture and art to be found anywere, some of them reflecting the Maya people's skill at mathematics and astronomy.  

Every city in the Maya world is know for being "specialized" at something.  For example Tikal, in Guatemala, is known for the sheer height of its pyramids.  In southern México, Palenque is known for the lavishly decorated tomb of one of its kings, Pacal.  But Copán is famous for the both the quantity and quality of the carved stone sculptures that decorated plazas and temples in its ceremonial center - it is known by archeologists as the most "artistic" of all Maya cities.  

Today, the ruins of Copán is one of the richest archeological sites to be found in the entire American continent and an increasingly popular tourist attraction.   After 150 years of archeological research, Copán is perhaps the most researched and well documented Maya site of all.   It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Where is Copán?

The ruins of Copán are located in a small valley of the same name, in the west corner of Honduras, near the border with neighbouring Guatemala. The modern town of Copán Ruinas is within walking distance from the main archeological site and has many hotels offering accommodation for a very wide range of travel budgets.

How to get there

Roads to the Maya ruins at Copán

Map of western Honduras, showing roads to Copán from San Pedro Sula and from Tegucigalpa in thick red lines.

Map by ThisIsHonduras

Once you're in Honduras, you can drive to Copán using one of two routes:

If you drove from San Pedro Sula, you would pass through Santa Bárbara, an area known for hand-made hats and other interesting straw-woven handcrafts.  But if you did it from Tegucigalpa, you'd get to see Gracias, which is one of the more pintoresque colonnial towns in Honduras.  Either way, you'd be on roads winding up and down the Honduran mountains, which makes for both beautiful natural scenery and a very interesting drive.

Copán can also be reached by road from Guatemala - the border is a few kilometers due west.

History of Copán

Birth of a Dynasty

There is evidence of settlement in of the valley of the Copán river, in western Honduras, dating as far back as 2000BC.  Archaelogists believe that by 200AD there already was a thriving tribal settlement in the valley.  But they were neither as prosperous nor as advanced as the Maya of Guatemala or México.  That changed dramatically in 426AD, when a warrior-prince from central México arrived with his army, took control of the city, and crowned himself king.  He was called K'inich Yax K'uk Moh, which in Maya means "Blue-Green Quetzal Makaw" or "Shining Quetzal Makaw" and he would be the first in a great Maya dynasty.  All depictions of him found so far in Copán show him wearing distinct "goggles" that were used by the Aztecs to portray Tlaloc, their god of rain and war.  None of the rules of Copán after Yax K'uk Moh were ever portrayed in this way.

The Great Age of Copán

The rulers of Copán were able to sustain their political and military power for 400 years, with a dynasty of 16 kings (called "ahaus") overseeing the city's growth and expansion.  Gradually Copán gained more military and political importance within the Maya world.  The city prospered and its population grew.  They traded with other Maya cities in the region.  They constructed increasingly greater and more ambitious ceremonial buildings, and comissioned lavish works of art.  Following Maya tradition, new temples were built on top of older ones, each iteration being larger and taller the previous one.

Through success in battle, Copán established rule over a neighboring Maya city, Quirigüá (due north of Copán, across the border into modern day Guatemala), and regularly demanded tribute from its inhabitants.  Copán also established an outpost city to control trade routes in the ares.   The ruins of this city are today called "El Puente", and are a short distance northeast of Copán.

All Maya cities were built using the same basic architectural ideas, that refected Maya religion and mythology.  The pyramids were constructed to provide support to temples dedicated to the Maya gods, while flat platforms were built to host public ceremonial events.  All structures were rendered with stucco, painted over with a range of bright contrastinc colors, with a rich dark red being the dominant color.  The buildings and open areas in the ceremonial center were orientated north-to-south and east-to-west, as the Maya believed that each cardinal direction had a special significance in their myth about the creation of the world.  Maya ceremonial centers were also split vertically: there was a "lower" and an "upper" level (the latter called "acropolis" by modern archeologists), access to which was reserved for priests and nobles.  Another common feature of Mesoamerican cities was a ball court for playing a ceremonial ball game.  All of these features were present in the construction of Copán, but with it's own regional variations and style.

Below is an artistic rendition of what the ceremontial center of Copán may have looked like at the height of Copán's splendor in the mid IX century, by arquitect and mayanist Tatiana Proskouraikoff.  The ball court can be seen in the right of the image; the "acropolis" raised above the ground level and flanked by pyramids, takes up much of the right portion of the picture.

Artist's rendition of Copán

The main ceremonial centre of the city of Copán could have looked like circa 850AD.

Painting by Tatiana Proskouriakoff


Scale model of the Main Group of Copán, at Copán's Visitor's Centre.
The model was by American and Honduran archeologists in the 1980s.

Photo by A. Villatoro

Below is ThisIsHonduras's own effort: a virtual tour of Copán's ceremonial center, using 3D animation software.

NOTE: The 3D model that ThisIsHonduras presents here is a first trial version - not all structures, monuments, and statues known to have existed in Copán's "Main Group" are shown in the model, and those that are, have basic representative geometrical features only.  None of the residential structures that a surrounded the ceremonial centre are shown and the topography of the mountains around the valley is only roughly representative.   A more complete 3D model with higher level of detail, accurate valley topography, and showing more structures in the valley is being created as you read this.

Copán's decline

Given the success of the Maya people in the fields of architecture, sculpture, mathematics, and astronomy, one would imagine that they were a very resourceful and prosperous culture.  But they eventually fell into decline.  All across the Maya world, during the IX century, Maya cities collapsed one after another and their inhabitants abondoned them.   Why?  There is no single reason for this, but a combination of at least three factors: war, land use, and disease.

War and politics

Upon initial inspection of archeological remains throughout Mesoamerica, the Maya civilization could easily be mistaken for an empire, such as the Inca established in the Andes, but the Maya political system was different: instead of a united and centralized government , their culture was formed by individual and independent city states, each with it's own religious and political leaders and its own military force.  The Maya city-states did trade and cooperate with each other, but also frequently waged war against each other, driven by the political ambitions of their highly competitive kings.

Eventually, Quiriguá grew weary of paying taxes to Copán and in 738AD took military action.  Quirigüá's warriors succeded in capturing and executing the 13th ruler of Copán, Waxaklajuun Ub'aah Kawil (commonly know as "18 Rabbit").   This was the breaking of the city's dynasty of kings and marked the beginning of the end for Copán.  Some archeologists believe that it is possible that after 18 Rabbit's death, the roles of Copán and Quirigüá reversed: Copán may have became vasall to Quirigüá.  18 Rabbit's successors managed to keep Copán going for a a few decades more, but by the time the 16th ruler, Yax Pasah, rose to the throne in 763AD, Copán was already doomed.  

But it wasn't simply a matter of being successful in war with other cities - there were two other problems that by then were out of control.

Use of natural resources (...or misuse, rather)

Sadly, the inhabitants of Copán did not use their land efficiently:   the land best suited for agriculture in their valley - the land on the banks of the Copán river - is precisely were they built their cermonial center and where the higher social classes built their homes.   By the late IX century the population of Copán had risen to 20,000 and the valley could not support them.   Copán's people cut down the forests covering the mountains around the valley to clear space for crops, but their slash-and-burn method of agriculture yielded poorer crops each season.   They cut deeper and deeper into the surrounding jungle, slowly transforming their valley into a desert.  Copán tried to compensate by demanding increasingly greater tributes - in the form of food - from the neighbouring peoples they had managed to conquer.  But this was only a stopgap measure.  This story of environmental degradation happened not only in Copán - it became a pattern throughout the Maya world.  

To make matters even worse, the people of Copán contaminated all water sources in the valley with human and animal sacrifices that poisoned the water.


By studying burials at Copán, anthropologists know that by the VIII century the people of Copán were already suffering from both malnutrition and disease.  This was probably linked to their poor agricultural methods.  All inhabitants of Copán were affected - even the priests, nobles, and the kings.   Additionaly, the burials have revealed a decaying trend in their life expentancy - Copán's people were dying younger and younger.


The lost city

After Yax Pasah died, the following king, U Cit Tok, tried but failed to take the throne 822A.D. - the city was already collapsing.  All that remains of U Cit Tok's brief reign is a single unfinished stele (know as Altar L) near Copán's Ball Court.  Then the archaelogical record falls grimly silent: construction of monuments halted and production of artworks ceased.  All evidence suggests that during the next 100 years the Maya gradually abandoned Copán, either dispersing into smaller, more sustainable communities in the are or migrating north, to other Maya cities in Guatemala and southern México.

Soon after the end of U Cit Tok's reign, some of the temples and rohyal burials in Copán were looted.   The Copán river shifted its course, slowly eroding the base of the pyramidal structure that supported several temples on the southeast corner of the "acrópolis", to the point were part of the structure collapsed - at least 3 temples were lost forever in this way.  Over the following centuries, several earthquakes affected the valley and caused several stelae and other sculputres to break and topple over.  Some of structures, such as the upper portion of the petroglyph staircase collapsed simply because of the inferior construction quality used in Copán towards the end of the VII century.

Finally, the jungle's vegetation and trees slowly reclaimed the land that it had once given to the Maya for them to build their great city. 

The lost city is found... and found... and found yet again

Nearly 600 years passed before anyone took any interest in the city again.  In 1576, Spanish surveyor Diego García del Palacio wrote a haunting description of the remains of the Mayan city in a report to the king of Spain, Felipe II.  However, no effort to explore or study the ruins was made.

In 1834, Honduran army general José Galindo described the site in a report to the Federal Government of Central America.  Unfortunately, the Central American Federation's agitated political situation prevented any resources from being directed to investigation of the site.  Copán would have to wait several years more.

John Lloyd Stephens

Galindo might failed in attracting the attention of the government, but he certainly succeded in capturing the imagination of John Lloyd Stephens, an American diplomat, adventurer, and writer of travel books.  Inspired by Galindo's report, Stephens decided to organize an expedition to southern Mexico and Central America.  Using his connections, he managed to secure the post of Ambassador of the United States to the Central American Federation and even got the the American government to fund his expedition, which set off in 1838.

One of the members of Stephens's expediton was British egyptologist, architect, and painter Frederick Catherwood.  Stephenson and Catherwood visited no less than 40 sites throught the Maya world.  In particular, they spent several weeks surveying the Copán site, with Catherwood making stylish paintings of the monuments and buildings of Copán, as they lay trapped by the jungle.

Stephens saw the value of Copán both as an archeological site and a potential tourist attraction.  So he bought the place.  According to the generally accepted story, he purchased the land were the ruins of the Maya city stood from the owner - one of the local farmers - for only $50.00!  This was probably a good deal for the farmer, as the local people and the Catholic priests considered the area to be a "bad place", filled with "strange stones" and "pagan idols".

In 1841 Stephens and Catherwood published a book titled "Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan", in which they described their travels through the region.  Illustrated with engravings based on Catherwood's exquisite paintings, the book was a publishing success and made both men famous.  More importantly, it was the most detailed description of the remains of the Maya culture ever to be published until then and the first one to be distributed internationally.  It introduced the Maya culture to the world and sparked enough interest to launch a series of archaelogical expeditions.

One of the stelae at Copán, as found by the Stephenson/Catherwood expedition

Painting by Frederick Catherwood

Stela H

Painting by Frederick Catherwood

Stela D and the two-headed altar to Chac

Painting by Frederick Catherwood

Area now called "The North Plaza" of Copán, as found by the Stephenson/Catherwood expedition

Painting by Frederick Catherwood

Archeological Expeditions to Copán

Stephens's expedition was only the beginning.  British archeologist Alfred Maudslay organised hiw own expedition in 1881, followed by a team from Harvard University's Peabody Museum in 1891 - they stayed at Copán for 3 years.  Another expedition was organised by archaelogist Herbert Spinden in 1913, which produced a book about Maya art.  The Carnegie Institute conducted an extensive restauration project of Copán from 1934 to 1942.  The effort was continued from 1952 by the Instituto Hondureño de Atropología e Historia (Honduran Institute for Anthropology and History).  By far the largest and most enduring archeological proyect at Copán is Proyecto Arqeológico Copán, which started in 1977 with participation of both North-American and Honduran archeologists.  Having changed format and name several times, the project carries on to this day.

Archeological exploration of the Copán site continues even as you read this.  Thousands of earth mounds of different sizes, covered with grass and trees, have been identified in the valley and the sorrounding hills, and they are indeed hiding Maya structures, but are yet to be studied.

Archeologists regard Copán as a city of outstanding cultural and intellectual importance in the Maya world.  In 1980, UNESCO named Copán a World Heritage Site.

Copán Today

The valley of Copán extends for approximately 10 square miles and the remains of Maya stone monuments, structures, and pyramids can be found almost anywhere in it.  As an archeological site, Copán is usually thought of as 5 areas:

In addition to the archeological remains themselves, there are several museums devoted to Maya culture and to Copán specifically.  There are two museums within walking distance of "The Main Group" and there is a smaller museum in the the town of Copán Ruinas.

The Main Group

The best-known and most visited area in the valley is called "The Main Group" - it is the remains of a ceremonial complex of pyramids, temples, palaces, ceremonial platforms, statues and sculptures built and laida out following lines of symmetry, astronomical alignment, and to divide the complex itself into discrete areas according to specific functions prescribed by Maya religion and social order rules. 

"The Main Group" extends over approximately 3 hectares and it is within its boundaries that the greatest concentration of archeological remains in the whole of the valley is found.  The map below, by American archeologist Barbara Fash, shows the layout of "The Main Group" and its most important features.  Some of these features are described and illustrated below.

Map of Copán Ruins

Map of "The Main Group" and "The Cemetery" at Copán.
Published by Dr. Barbara Fash. 

Aerial view of Copán's Main Group, using ThisIsHonduras's 3D reconstruction.

Aerial photo of the Main Group at Copán.
The "North Plaza", the Ball Court and the Petroglyph Staircase can be seen surrounded by trees.  Note the course of the Copán river and compare that shown in T. Proskouriakoff's painting above - the river has been diverted to protect the ruins from further damage.

Features of The Main Group

There are far too many interesting and important features on the site to describe all of them.  Below are descriptions and photographs of the more prominent ones.

The North Plaza (or Plaza of the Stelae)

The Great Plaza is home to some of the most beautiful examples of sculpture in Copán.  Many of the stelae were carved and erected during the reign of "18 Rabbit" and most of the stelae do in fact depict him.  What is perhaps more interesting than the artistic value of the North Plaza is the fact that it is actually an astronomical observatory.  The stelae are orientated in such a way that equinoxes and solstices are marked by aligning the stelae with the rising (or setting) sun on specific dates of the year.  Archeologists have also discovered that Stela D, which is the northernmost stela in the plaza, was setup to function as a very accurate sundial.

Structure 4 at Copan

Structure 4, as seen when entering the Main Group from the main entrance to the site.

Photo by Aníbal Villatoro

Stela F at Copan

Stela F and its associated altar.

Photo by Aníbal Villatoro

Stela F at Copan (East face)

Petroglyphs and decorations on the east side of Stela F.

Photo by Aníbal Villatoro

Great Plaza at Copan

The Great Plaza as seen from the north-east corner of the grandstands.

Photo by Aníbal Villatoro

Altar G at Copan

The two-headed monster is 1 of 3 structures that make up Altar G.

Photo by Aníbal Villatoro

Altar G at Copan

The east-facing head of the two-headed monster. A human figure can be seen emerging from the monster's mouth.

Photo by Aníbal Villatoro

Altar G at Copan

One of the other two "twin" sculputures that make up Altar G.

Photo by Aníbal Villatoro

Great Plaza at Copan

The Great Plaza as seen from the south-east.

Photo by Aníbal Villatoro

Stela C at Copan

Eastern face of Stela C, in the Great Plaza.

Photo by Aníbal Villatoro

Steal C

Western face of Stela C, in the Great Plaza.

Photo by Aníbal Villatoro

Structure 2 and Stela D at Copan

A group formed by Structure 2, Stela D, and the Earth and Sky monster hold the northern sector of the Great Plaza.

Photo by Aníbal Villatoro

Earth-Sky monster at Copan

North face of the Earth and Sky monster.

Photo by Aníbal Villatoro

Earth-Sky monster at Copan

South face of the Earth and Sky monster.

Photo by Aníbal Villatoro



Petroglyph Staircase

The single most important feature of the site is probably the Petroglyph Staircase:  a stone staircase built on the face of a 30-meter high pyramidal structure.  It is not only impressive due to its sheer size and artistic value, but also because it is actually a historical document built on a monumental scale.  The stone blocks that make up the staircase contain 2200 petroglyphs and together are the single longest stone-carved text ever found in pre-Columbian America.  Unfortunately, when the structure was found by early archeological expeditions in the XIX century, it was in a state of extreme decay and was re-assembled with neither any understanding of the Maya language nor any knowledge of the correct sequence of the stone blocks.   Today, nobody knows the complete details of the story the staircase was meant to narrate.  What is known is that it is a story about the 16 kings of Copán, starting with Yax K'uk Moh at the bottom step and ending with the death of "18 Rabbit" at the 61st step at the top.  It is believed that the story does place emphasis on the 12th king, K'ak Uti Ha K'awiil, whose burial was found deep inside the pyramid that supports the staircase.  It is also known that construction of the staircase was started by the 14th ahau of Copán, K'ak Joplaj Chan K'awiil, and was completed in 753A.D. by the 15th king of Copán, K'ak Yipyaj Chan K'awiil.

Artist's rendition of the Petroglyph Staircase

Rendition of the Petroglyph Staircase at Copán,
as it could have looked like around 800AD.

Painting by T. Proskouriakoff

Petroglyph Staircase at Copán

The Petroglyph Staircase and Stela M, today.  
They are kept covered to prevent rain damage.

Photo by Juan Bendeck


The Petroglyph Staircase, today.

Photo by A. Villatoro


The Ball Court

Another interesting feature of the Copán site is the known as the Ball Court:  two stone buildings, similar to shallow and elongated pyramids, aligned parallel to and facing each other to flank a rectangular area on the ground between them, were Maya warriors played a sacred and fierce ball game filled with religious symbolism.  It was normally played to celebrate victory in battle against a rival city and the captured warriors were forced to play a game that was setup so that they would loose.  The end result was that they were ritually sacrificed to the Maya gods.  This type of ritualized game was common in Mesoamerican cultures and every city had a ball court of some kind (sometimes more than one), with the rules of the game changing slightly from city to city and also over time.  The architecture of the ball court itself would change as well to accommodate for this, which means that no two ball courts in Mesoamerica are exactly identical.  

The ball court that stands today at Copán is not the first one built there.  Arqueologists have found evidence of two older ballcourts in approximately the same location, the first one built during Yax K'uk Mo's lifetime, in the V century A.D.  The existing ball court was built during "18 Rabbit"'s reign.

View of Structure 9 (referencing Fash's map, above) , part of the Ball Court at Copán.

Photo by Juan Bendeck


The Ball Court at Copán.  Structures 9 and 10 (partially) can be seen, as well as Stella 2 and Altar L, and "The North Plaza", in the background.

Photo by Aníbal Villatoro


Copán ball court (southwest view)

Southwest view of the Ball Court at Copán

Photo by Aníbal Villatoro

Ball Court at Copan

The Ball Court at Copán, much as the players would have seen it.

Photo by Aníbal Villatoro


Altar Q

One of the most important pieces found at Copán is known as Altar Q.  Its importance lies in that not only is one of the most elaborate and beautiful examples of Maya artwork found on the site, but also in that it is a complete historical document that depicts 16 of the 17 kings of Copán in carved stone.

Altar Q at Copán

Replica of Altar Q in the Acropolis of Copán

Photos by A. Villatoro

Altar Q was commisioned by Yax Pasaj Chan Choat, 16th ruler of Copán, and was dedicated in 775A.D.  The top of the altar is a flat square surface carved with petroglyphs narrating the arrival of Yax K'uk Moh at Copán in 426A.D. and his assention to power.

Each of the four vertical faces of the altar shows 4 ahaus.  At the center of the west face, Yax Pasaj is seen receiving a staff of office directly from Yax K'uk Moh, the founder of the dynasty.  Then, starting from Yax K'uk Moh's left and moving around to the north, east, south faces, and then back to west face, the other 14 ahaus of the dynasty are shown in chronological order, all seated together as if they were alive at the same time and gathered for a meeting.  Thus, the altar does not depict a real historical event, but cleverly and simultanesously accomplishes two things for Yax Pasaj:  it graphically reinforces his right to the throne by depicting all of his predecessors in sequence, while symbolically linking him directly with the founder of the dynasty.

The Museums

The Visitor's Centre

At the entrance to Copán's main archeological park, there is a visitor's centre that doubles as a museum, though it is relatively small.  One very interesting item to be viewed at the Centre is a very detailed scale model of Copán's "Main Group", as it would have looked in the IX century.


Visitor's centre at the entrance to the archeological park at Copán.

Photo by Juan Bendeck


Northwest view of the scale model of The Main Group of Copán, at Copán's Visitor's Centre

Photo by A. Villatoro


Southeast view of the Scale model of The Main Group of Copán, at Copán's Visitor's Centre. This side of the model even shows the damage caused by the Copán river.

Photo by A. Villatoro

Sculpture Museum

Entrance to Sculpture Museum

Entrance to the Sculpture Museum at Copán.   It has been made to mimic the style in which
the Maya of Copán would have built the doorway of a temple that symbolized the entrance to the underworld.

Photo by Juan Bendeck

The largest and newest museum, located on the western edge of the Main Group.  It houses a variety of monumental Maya works of art, both originals and reproductions.  The "piéce de résistance" in this museum is a complete, full-size, full-color replica of Rosalila, a temple found buried and completely preserved inside one of the pyramids (Structure 16) in Copán's acropolis.  Carefully digging under Rosalila, archeologists have found two older, smaller temples - again, the newer built on top the older - the oldest of which contained the burial of none other than the founder of Copáns dynasty, Yax K'uk Moh.

Full-scale replica of Rosalila

The centerpiece of Copán's Sculpture Museum: a full-scale replica of "Rosalila", painted with the colors in which all temples and pyramids in Copán would have been decorated.

Photo by A.Villatoro

Archeological Museum

There is an older museum in the heart of the town of Copán Ruinas, in front of the town's plaza.  The exhibits in this museum focus on the history of the Mayan culture and the city of Copán itself, as well as showcasing works of Mayan stone sculpture and pottery.

Two important pieces stand out in this museum: the original Altar Q and a reproduction of the lavish burial of a Mayan tribal healer - which includes pieces of pottery, seashells, and the remains of a sacrificed jaguar.

Copan shaman burial

In the museum in the town of Copán Ruinas,
the elaborate burial of a Maya tribal healer quietly waits for your visit.

Photo by Juan Bendeck

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