Old Copán – Copán Archaeological Site, Honduras


You’re gonna pay dearly if you want to visit the most popular tourist attraction in Honduras. It’s US$15 per person just to enter the Copán archaeological site. Another US$7 to enter the adjacent Sculpture Museum of Copán where the best stelae, facades and carved details are preserved and on display. Want to walk through a small tunnel inside a structure which was built around a temple which is now hidden inside it? That’s gonna cost you another US$12.

All totaled up, that’s US$34 per person in entry fees.

Temple 16 - Copan, Honduras

For an extra $12 you can walk inside Temple 16 through a tunnel that leads you to a temple that was swallowed whole when 16 was built. But don’t. The plexiglass that was put up around the interior temple is so scratched and fogged that you can barely see through it.

Glyphs - Copan, Honduras

Carvings, like these glyphs, are of remarkable quality at the Copán archaeological site in Honduras.

 

Is Copán worth the fees?

Yes and no–mostly yes. After all, they didn’t make the remains of the Mayan city of Copán a UNESCO World Heritage Site for nothing.

Hieroglyphic Stairway - Copan, Honduras

The epic Hieroglyphic Stairway at Copán archaeological site in Honduras with Stele M standing guard in front of it.

 

Copán has a wicked set of hieroglyphic stairs, each one carved with glyphs which are the graphic symbols of the Mayan alphabet. Archaeologists believe that the massive staircase told the story of the rulers of Copán. Unfortunately, when the experts unearthed the stairs they’d crumbled into a jumbled heap. The first 15 levels of steps have been  meticulously put back together more or less in readable order (presuming you know how to read Mayan glyphs), however, the many, many levels of steps above that are a nonsensical jumble of stones.

 

 

Stela A - Copan, Honduras

Stela A at Copán archaeological site in Honduras.

Macaw - Copan - Honduras

Scarlet macaws were sacred to the Mayans. This one lives at the Copán archaeological site in Honduras, where macaw heads were also carved into the ball court and other important areas of the city.

 

 

 

Scarlet macaws were prized among the Mayans. A group of macaws lives at Copán and their carved images are found in the most important places like the ball court.Though the normal way to score points in the ubiquitous Mayan sport was by getting a ball through a stone hoop, at Copán points were scored by hitting big scarlet macaw heads carved out of stone with the ball.

 

Figure on Structure 29 - Copan, Honduras

Figure on Structure 29 at Copán archaeological site in Honduras.

Stela B - Copan, Honduras

Stela B at Copán archaeological site in Honduras.

 

 

Copán was also home to a ruler with one of the most delightful names in the Mundo Maya. Known as 18 Rabbit, he was revered for his epic building projects and support of the arts especially sculpture. One of our favorite carved pieces depicted a dancing jaguar which reminded us a bit of the Grateful Dead dancing bear.

Speaking of sculpture,18 Rabbit had eight stelae carved and put up at Copán during his 43 year reign. All of the stelae at Copán are amazingly intricate. Even the back of the stone slabs, which are usually flattened but left bare, are carved at Copán.

 

 

 

Spoiler alert: One thing we learned at Copán is that Mayans don’t call him 18 Rabbit. They call him 18 Agouti, but since a grand total of 174 tourists know what an agouti is (it’s essentially a large hamster that’s very common in the area, btw) guides and guidebooks all call one of Copán most important residents 18 Rabbit.

Pauahtun Head - Copan, Honduras

Copán ruler 18 Rabbit was a big patron of the arts, especially carving like this Pauahtun Head.

Ball Court and Hieroglyphic-Stairway (under cover) - Copan, Honduras

The ball court and the hieroglyphic stairway at Copán archaeological site in Honduras. Unfortunately, the stairway is currently protected under a hideous tarp. Site administrators are experimenting with other ways to cover the stairs but for now they’re under this ugly tarp.

 

So, what’s not worth it at Copán?

The tunnel sounds great: An almost garishly red/pink/rust colored structure called the Rosalila is entombed inside what’s now known as Temple 16 which was built around the Rosalila. The only way to see the preserved remains of the Rosalila is to pay US$12 which gets you inside Temple 16, down a cramped set of stairs and through a tunnel which leads you to a plexiglass window that’s been put up around a corner of the Rosalila temple to protect it from visitors.

The problem is that the plexiglass is so scratched and fogged that you can barely see through it. What a disappointment. Best to gawk at the imposing reproduction of the Rosalila that’s been built in the sculpture museum next to the Copán site complete with the decoration and color the experts believe the temple originally had.

Altar G - Copan, Honduras

Altar G is a great example of the skill of the sculptors at Copán archaeological site in Honduras.

Temple 22 & East Plaza - Copan, Honduras

Temple 22 and the East Plaza at Copán archaeological site in Honduras.

 

Use the savings to hire a guide

Stela C - Copan, Honduras

Stela C at Copán archaeological site in Honduras.

We’ve visited almost 100 archaeological sites and we can count the number of time we’ve used a guide on one hand. Copán is one of those times (thanks, Flavia). We heard rumors about a guide at Copán named Tony who is supposedly in the Guinness Book of World Records for being able to do the Copán tour in five different languages. We didn’t hire Tony but our guide, Julio Melendez, was young, informed, bilingual, passionate and not in a hurry.

We wouldn’t have known half of the most interesting things in this post if we’d toured the site on our own and we highly recommend taking $12 you didn’t spend to enter the disappointing tunnel and putting it toward a guide. The guides all charge a set price of US$25 no matter how many people are in your group, so make some friends too.

Skulls on Temple 22 - Copan, Honduras

Carved skulls on Temple 22 at Copán archaeological site in Honduras.

Glyphs on back of Stela A - Copan, Honduras

Even the back of the stela at Copán archaeological site in Honduras are carved.  Stela A has a whole panel of glyphs on the back side.

 

One more way to save

There’s no need to hire a taxi or shared van to take you between the town of Copán Ruinas and the archaeological site. They’re less than a half a mile apart and there’s a perfectly pleasant and shady sidewalk that will take you from door to door. There are even a few stelae to see along the way which you’d totally miss if you took a taxi or shared van.

And don’t miss Las Sepulturas, a neighboring archaeological site that was a residential area for the upper class of Copán, including 18 Rabbit and his mistresses. Entry to Las Sepulturas is included with your entry to Copán and the site is just a short walk beyond Copán.

Turtle Altar - Copan, Honduras

This turtle altar at Copán archaeological site in Honduras is one of the most unusual Mayan altars we’ve ever seen.

Skull - Copan, Honduras

This carved skull was just sitting on the jungle floor at Copán, waiting for archaeologists to figure out where it belongs.

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2 comments on “Old Copán – Copán Archaeological Site, Honduras

  1. I was just at Copan last week and I have to say it is totally worth it. Compared to the local price it seems steep, but all the archeological sites I have been to in the area charge more to foreigners. The stellas are some of the best preserved in the area (only second to maybe Quiroga) and the fisherman piece in the museum is truly amazing The only thing that is not worth it is the tunnel, which we avoided on advice of other travelers. Besides in the museum you can see a full size replica of what is in the tunnel. We didn’t use a guide. I find the guides boring, plus the ones I overhead were talking about a lot of nonsene stuff. As far as transportation goes we took a tuk-tuk that only charged us a $1 from the plaza and fit my dad, my 4 yr. old son, and myself.

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