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Copan Honduras: Things to See and Do in the Ruins Region

There are hundreds of Maya archaeological sites scattered around multiple countries of the Americas, but a few stand above the rest as important sites. One of those gets far fewer visitors than most though and it’s in a pleasant area to use as an exploration base too: Copan Ruinas.

Copan Honduras town near the ruins

Honduras seems to be perpetually off the radar of most travelers who aren’t backpackers. Those who aren’t so adventurous just fly in and out of the islands–which are some of the best vacation bargains in this hemisphere. The real gem of the country is easy to reach from Guatemala on an overland trip though: the Copan Honduras Ruins area with a nice town and a beautiful setting in the mountains.

I didn’t do much research on Copan before I got there and just expected some trashy town set up for travelers like you see in so many parts of Asia and Latin America. I was surprised to find cobblestones and colonial buildings, red clay roofs and courtyard restaurants. Copán Ruinas, as it’s officially known, really draws you in and surprises you if you give it more time than an hour on a tour bus stop.

Ideally, you come overland from Guatemala and rest up from the journey for a few days here before moving on. The two main cities of the country have a nasty reputation for high crime anyway and you don’t want to hang out in those. So do your interior touring here and then head to the coast or the islands after.

3 Days in Copan: Suggested Itineraries 

Day 1 – The Archeological Sites of Copan

Visit the main archaeological site, the sculpture museum, and Las Sepulturas, as well as the tunnels if you desire. Spend the evening dining in town and having a Central American rum or Honduran cigar.

Day 2 – Coffee, Macaws, and Butterflies

Visit Enchanted Wings Nature Center in the morning for the chance to see babies emerging from their cocoons before seeing the adults flitting from flower to flower. Visit Macaw Mountain in the afternoon to see the rescued tropical birds and get insight into the coffee growing and roasting process. Hike to Los Sapos and get dinner afterward at Hacienda San Lucas or return to town for the evening.

Day 3 – Day Trip and Museums

Spend half the day visiting the hot springs or Quirigua, see the museums in Copan Ruinas in the afternoon.

Ready to book an excursion now? Check local tours on Viator here

The Mayan Ruins of Copan

Carvings at Copan - photo by Tim Leffel

Guides like to say that Tikal was the New York City of its time, while Copan was its Paris. Full of artists and intellectuals for hundreds of years, Copan was a city where what was on the pyramids was more important than how high they rose. So you don’t come here to be wowed by the scale, rather to take in the artistic beauty and skillful stone carvings of the Mayan people.

This site offers the best chance in the Maya world to go back in time to an age when the buildings were covered with stucco and painted with lively scenes: you can still see the original pigments. One replica pyramid enclosed inside shows what one would have looked like in the original times, with bright colors and details—not the bleached stone we’re used to seeing at Maya archaeological sites.

Also unusual for Mayan sites, this one has an attractive colonial town near enough for walking, Copan Ruinas, full of good-value hotels and restaurants. It’s the kind of place where a lot of tourists come for a few hours on a tour and regret that they can’t stay longer.

The Main Site

Copan Honduras pyramid

Several grassy plazas and a ball court are surrounded by pyramids and other temples, many decorated with lively carved stone symbolic figures and former kings. Nearly every surface is covered by some relief or carving. Stone stelae illustrate the various rulers over the centuries and tell stories spanning more than 600 years.

Sculpture Museum

To understand what the temples looked like in their heyday, enter here to so a reconstructed pyramid that is brightly colored and covered with painted figures. Original sculptures and painted sections are on display showing what is often missing from visits to ruins now. See more in the next full section below.

Las Sepulturas

This site a little more than a kilometer from the main archeological park, included in the admission, is where the elite lived and buried their dead. It contains tombs—some elaborate, some simple depending on rank—for the city’s royalty and spiritual leaders. See more in the section below.

The Tunnels

Two tunnels under one pyramid provide a view into how one pyramid was built on top another, as well as how the civilization evolved over time and became more sophisticated. The tunnels are only open to a few people at a time. Here’s me hiding my feelings of claustrophobia.

Tim Leffel touring Copan tunnels

As best I can tell from the Honduran government agency website, admission for this UNESCO World Heritage Site is now $25 for foreigners without the tunnels, $40 if you go into one of those. That’s high for this country (locals pay far less), but on par with Chichen Itza in Mexico. It has only gone up by about 10 bucks in 10 years. Open daily from 8 am to 4 pm unless there’s some kind of work going on.

The whole archaeological site is located just outside of the attractive Copan Ruinas town, on the western edge of Honduras close to Guatemala. You could walk there if it’s not too steaming hot, or it’s a short taxi ride.

Museum of Maya Sculpture

Located on the grounds of the main archeological site, this impressive museum will change how you look at every Mayan construction you see after it. First you go through a snake’s mouth to enter, the passage in symbolizing a journey into the underworld, and it leads through the hillside into the partially subterranean museum.

A replica of this Rosalita temple stands in the middle of the museum, extending up through the second floor, its brilliant colors and mythical stucco figures adorning all the surfaces. It reminds us that most of what we see now in the ruins of the Maya world are faded relics, drained of all their life and color.

painted Maya pyramid reproduction in Honduras

While this structure was rebuilt to look like the original still preserved under a larger one, other items on display were excavated from the grounds here and nearby. Archeologists were able to piece together a full picture of the ruling order over the whole reign of 16 kings from carvings and illustrations contained here. Well-preserved paintings and sculptures also give a view into the rituals and wars of the times, while reliefs show how much adornment and finery the kings and their court displayed.

A mile from Copan Ruinas town, on the grounds of the archeological park

Hours: Daily 8am – 4 pm

Las Sepulturas

This fascinating archeological site provides insight into how the ruling families lived in the heyday of the Maya people. It also explains how long periods of peace were not sustainable: the number of elites grew faster than the taxes and tribute to support their lifestyle. They ate well and lived long lives, while each of their many children grew up expecting the same.

In Las Sepulturas (“the tombs”) area of the archeological park, archeologists found more than 500 skeletons, so this area served as both living quarters and graveyard, new homes built on ancestral tombs. Don’t expect elaborate mansions though: most living was done outdoors and meals were prepared in a communal kitchen. This is a spot where a good guide can bring sense to it all.

Many of the adornments from the area are housed in area museums, but some carvings and reliefs are still in place.

Located 1.5 kms down the road from main archeological park

Hours: Open 8am – 4pm daily

Admission: Included in ticket to Copan Archeological Park.


Macaw Mountain Bird Park

This attractively designed and well-run park grew out of a mission by a couple of American expatriates to care for stressed–out birds that had been mistreated as pets. Biologist Lloyd Davidson and business partner Pat Merritt purchased nine acres containing old-growth mahogany, Spanish cedar, fig trees, and other local species. They first opened to the public in 2003 and now take care of more than 100 birds.

In a wooded area interspersed with coffee plants, the residents stay in large aviaries visitors can walk through, but get out in controlled sessions to climb on visitors’ shoulders. Tropical birds, owls, and hawks recover from past abuse while eating a proper diet. Butterflies, wild parakeets make a regular appearance while orchids line many of the trails. If the tropical heat gets to be too much, there’s a cool natural bathing hole on site.

Macaw bird park Copan

Appropriate to the name, there are five kinds of Macaws at this bird park, though occasionally some leave to go live on their own. Many species of parrots and toucans make this a colorful—and noisy—place to visit. Sometimes you’ll see this place listed as The Guacamaya Mountain Bird and Nature Reserve.

Part of the property was previously a coffee plantation, so those plants live on and are harvested for shade-grown coffee. Beans from here and another farm the owners have go into the coffee brewed and sold by the bag on site. There’s also a historic coffee roasting house for demonstrations.

Five minutes by car or taxi from Copan Ruinas town (2 km).

Hours: Open daily 9am – 5pm except less on holidays

Admission: $10, or $5 for kids

See the official website here.

Casa K’inich

This small interactive Mayan Children’s Museum is a worthwhile visit for families, though opening hours can be more of a guide than a reality. It contains musical instruments and clothing items, as well as lessons on how to count in the ancient language and play their ball game.

The non-profit museum provides insight into the advanced astronomy and math knowledge of the Mayan elite, as well as a look into how the regular people lived their lives. All 34 exhibits have explanations in English and are meant to be touched.

This building was originally a barracks, so if you climb the ladders into the turrets you’ll be rewarded with an expansive view over the town and the Río Copan Valley.

Avenida Los Jaguares, five blocks north of the main square in Copan Ruinas

Hours: 8 a.m.–noon and 1–5 p.m. Mon.–Sat., closed Sundays.

Admission: free for children, $1.25 adults

Maya Archaeology Museum

The small Museo Regional de Arqueologia Maya in the heart of town feels as musty as its 1970s building and most descriptions are in Spanish only, but it does contain plenty of treasures from the region. Jade sculptures, obsidian flints with carved faces, and pottery give a sense of what was inside many of the grand structures in the archeological zones. Ceramic incense pots are decorated with images of Copan’s rulers.

The highlight is a reproduction of a complete shaman’s tomb, laid out just as it was found at the nearby Las Sepulturas site. It contained pieces of pottery, seashells, skulls, and the remains of a sacrificed jaguar.

In the heart of Copan Ruinas, on the main square. Just show up to check hours: as best I can tell there’s no website in English or Spanish.

Hours: usually open daily

Admission: $3

Los Sapos

This minor archeological site is on a mountainside above the main archeological park, reached by a hiking trail. It’s a short stroll from the Hacienda San Lucas hotel if you’re staying there. The site is said to be dedicated to women and fertility, a place where royal women would come to conduct fertility rituals and possibly give birth. This is based on a carved rock in the shape of a woman with her legs spread.

The other main carving, from which the site gets its name, is a giant toad. Without knowing there was something here, you might walk right past the whole collection. The rocks show only minimal carving and have eroded over centuries of being exposed to the elements. The main reason to come here is to take in the views over the valley and have a destination for your hike.

The trails to this site are maintained by Hacienda San Lucas, so follow directions to there for the trailhead. Stop in for a drink or meal afterward at the hotel as it shares the great views.

Ten minutes across the river and uphill from Copan Ruinas by car or taxi.

Hours: no set hours, but go during daylight

Admission: $2 for non-guests of Hacienda San Lucas

Aquapark Mi Pueblo at Hacienda El Jaral

While the centerpiece of this complex is a hacienda converted to a lackluster hotel, it’s a magnet for families due to its having the first water park in Honduras. It’s a rather basic affair by U.S. theme park standards, but has plenty to keep the little ones occupied for hours. A fast “kamikaze slide” and a slower curved and enclosed slide lead down to a large pool. A giant bucket alternately fills and empties on those waiting below.

A smaller and shallower pool for small children has sprinklers and smaller slides. You can take paddle boats out on an adjoining pond and food is available at the restaurant.

A small shopping center and cinema are also on the grounds, as well as a cow museum honoring the heritage of the hacienda.

Located in Santa Rica, about a half hour from Copan Ruinas

Hours: 9 am – 5 pm daily except Monday

Admission: $8 per person

Aguas Termales at Luna Jaguar Spa

Getting to these hot springs 22 kms outside of town may require an hour’s ride, some of it on a rough dirt road. The scenery on the way is varied though and you get to see the real rural Honduras, with small farming communities and hillsides covered with coffee plants.

The springs themselves are in a bucolic setting, hot water bubbling up from the ground and a cool waterfall feeding into a small river. The bathing areas are fashioned like public swimming pools, with flagstone stairways leading down to pools of different sizes and temperatures. Or you can sit in the hotter river itself close to the source. Large trees provide some shade on sunny days and you can buy drinks and snacks on site. Try to avoid Sundays, when the locals come out in force.

Hours: 9 a.m. until 9:00 p.m.

Admission: $15 per adult, $5 for kids under 12

Check hotel rates in Copan

Day Trips to Quirigua

Quirigua gets a fraction of the visitors of Copan, but is another UNESCO World Heritage site and was an important city for the Mayan people. Visiting here on a day trip requires crossing into Guatemala.

It was founded in AD 200 reached its peak of importance between the years 600 and 900. Copan’s greatest king, “Rabbit 18,” was actually sacrificed here after a lost battle and capture.

At that time this was the center of a prosperous state, an area that controlled trade in jade and obsidian extracted in the region and traded with coastal people. They had a near-monopoly on these goods at the height of their power.

Quirigua is worth a visit for its outstanding 8th-century monuments, carved stelae and sculpted calendars. This is an earthquake zone, however, so some former temples are in disarray. The big claim to fame here is Stele E, finished in 771 AD, which is the largest known quarried stone in the Maya world. It is 35 feet tall and weighs 130,000 pounds—65 tons.

Located near Quirigua village, 48 kms north of Copan Ruinas

Hours: 8 am – 4 pm

Admission: $12

Copan Recommendation Overview

The key historic site in Honduras is a popular destination in itself, but also a popular stop for those traveling overland between Guatemala and Honduras, near the border. It’s one of the most important sites in the whole Mayan world and represents the pinnacle of their craftsmanship.

There are two good reasons to spend more than a day or two here though: the attractive town that’s just a short hop from the archeological sites and the wealth of other attractions nearby. Copan Ruinas is one of the most pleasant towns in Honduras, filled with traveler-friendly places to eat housed in Spanish colonial buildings. Using it as a base, you can see tropical birds, walk among butterflies, visit a coffee farm, or soak in local hot springs. It’s one of my favorite places in Central America.

Copan Ruinas hotel

Search hotels in Copan town here.

Search tours around Copan at Viator or from Antigua with GetYourGuide.

Check local rental car rates if you want your own wheels.

Article by Tim Leffel, author of The World’s Cheapest Destinations. All photos by the writer except for the Los Sapos photo courtesy of the top hotel in Copan Ruinas, Honduras. 

Gipsy Dean

Thursday 12th of October 2023

Well at that price I would pass unless I was in Central America all winter. I visted the place twice, the first time many years ago, the second time I didn't bother to go to the ruins I was just passing through. The village is nice, and if you have lots of time to kill go for it. My Youtube video: Copan Ruins, Honduras HD