Lost Mayan City of Copan ~ Honduras


For those of you with an interest in history and archaeology, the western corner of Honduras hides a pearl of place for you…

What is Copán?

Copán was once one of the most beautiful and important cities of the Maya civilization – one of the great ancient cultures of the American continent.   Today, the ruins of Copán is one of the richest archeological sites to be found in the entire American continent and a mayor tourist attraction.

Where is Copán?

Map of western Honduras,
showing location of the Copán site



The ruins of Copán are located in the valley of the same name, in the west corner of Honduras, near the border with neighbouring Guatemala.  The Copán valley is 12.5km from east to west and 2 to 4km from north to south.  The modern town of Copán Ruinas is a just down the road from the main archeological site.


The town of Copán Ruinas.  Photo by Juan Bendeck.

How to get there

There is no direct road from Tegucigalpa, but you can drive to Copán from the northern city of San Pedro Sula.  Along the way you will pass through Santa Bárbara, which is known for hand-made hats and other interesting straw-woven handcrafts.

View of road to Copán from San Pedro Sula


Copán can also be reached by road from Guatemala, the border being only a few kilometers due west of the site.

History of Copán

Birth of a Dynasty

Archaelogists believe that by 200AD there already was a prosperous tribal settlement in the valley of the Copán river, in western Honduras, in the place where the ruins are today.  It is believed that the originator of the Mayan dinasty of Copán came from México (probably from the great Aztec city of Teotihuacán) and established his rule approximately in 426AD.  He was called K’inich Yax K’uk Moh, which in the Maya language meant “Green Quetzal Makaw” or “Shining Quetzal Makaw”.

Mayan clay statue of K’inich Yax K’uk Moh

The Great Age of Copán

The rulers of Copán were able to sustain their political and military power for 650 years, with a dynasty of 16 kings or ahaus overseeing the city’s expansion.  Gradually Copán gained more military and political importance within the Maya world.  The city prospered and its population grew.  the construction of greater and more ambitious ceremonial buildings, and comissioning lavish works of art. As in other cities in the Maya world, new temples were built on top of older ones, with each iteration being larger and taller the previous.

Artist’s rendition of what the main ceremonial centre of the city of Copán
could have looked like between 400 and 850AD, by T. Proskouriakoff.
Note the original course of the Copán river.

Artist’s concept of the Petroglyph Staircase at Copán,
as it could have looked like between 400 and 850AD, by T. Proskouriakoff.

Copán’s decline

Unfortunately not all of Copán’s rulers were able to provide strong leadership for their people.  Sadly, the Maya had no sense of sustainable growth:  as the city grew in size and population, they cut away deeper and deeper into the jungle, with a slash-and-burn agriculture method yielding poorer crops each year.  They did not use their land effeceintly either:  the aristocrat class increasingly used the land near the Copán river to build their homes – exactly the land that should have been used for farming.  By 850AD the population of Copán had risen to 20,000 and the valley could hardly provide substinence for them.  In a way, the Maya were victims of their own success.

In 738AD the Mayan citiy of Quirigua grew weary of of Copán’s rule over them and responded with military action against Copán.  Quirigua’s military force captured and executed the 13th ahau of Copán.  This marked the beginning of the decline of Copan’s power in the region.

The lost city

After the demise of the 16th ruler, Yax Pasah, the following ahau was only able to maintain power for a short period.  Then the archaelogical record falls grimly silent: construction of monuments halted and production of artworks ceased.  All evidence suggests that the Maya simply abandoned Copán.  By 900AD only a tenth of the population was still present in the valley.

Over the following centuries, the jungle 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

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 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 partially trapped by the jungle.

Stephens even went as far as buying the land were the ruins of the Maya city stood from one of the local farmers… for only $50.00.  This was probably considered a good deal by the previous owner, 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 published a book titled “Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan”, in which he described his 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 to the world and sparked enough interest to launch a series of archaelogical expeditions.

Broken Idol at Copán, by Frederick Catherwood

Stela at Copán, by Frederick Catherwood

Altar at Copán, by Frederick Catherwood

Archeological Expeditions to Copán

Stephens’s expedition was only the beginning.  Archeologist Alfred Maudslay organised hiw own exploration 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.

The Carnegie Institute conducted an extensive restauration project of Copán from 1934 to 1942.  The effort was continued from 1952 by the Instito Hondureño de Atropología e Historia (Honduran Institute for Anthropology and History).  A project involving American and Honduran archeologists, named Proyecto Arqeológico Copán was started in 1977 and carries on to this day.

Archeological exploration of the Copán site goes on even as you read this.  Thousands of earth mounds hiding Maya structures of one type or another have been identified in the valley and the sorrounding hills, but are yet to be studied.

Copán Today

The Archaelogical Park

Today the Copán site extends over most of the valley of the same name, with numerous stone monuments, structures and pyramids craddled by the rain forest and neighbouring mountains.

View of the central plaza at Copan. Photo by Juan Bendeck

Aerial photo of the main Copán site.

The Ball Court and the Petroglyph Staircase can be seen.
At the top of the image, the course of the Copán River has been diverted to protect the ruins.


The main archeological site covers over 3 hectares.  One of its outstanding features is the known as the Petroglyph Staircase:  a stone staircase built on the side of a 30-meter high pyramidal structure.  The stairs are decorated with stone carvings that narrate the story of the 16 kings of Copán and constitute the single longest stone-carved Maya text ever to be found.

The Petroglyph Staircase, today.  It is kept covered to prevent rain damage.
Photo by Juan Bendeck


Another interesting feature of the Copán site is the known as the Ball Court:  two stone buildings, similar to elongated pyramids, aligned parallel to 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. There are other buildings nearby, from which the people of the city would watch the game.

The Ball Court at Copán.  Photo by Juan Bendeck


One of the most important pieces found at Copán is known as Alta Q.  Its importance lies in that not only is one of the most elaborate examples of Maya artwork found on the site, but also in that it is a historical document that depicts all 16 known kings of Copán in carved stone.  It was used for sacrifices during special ceremonies by the high priests of Copán.

Replica of Altar Q in the Acropolis of Copán

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

The Museums

There are several museums at Copán. The largest is the Sculpture Mueseum, a large and relatively new museum on the western edge of the archeological park and houses a variety of monumental Maya works of art, both originals and reproductions.  The piece de resistance in this museum is a complete and full-sized replica of one of the temples that is buried underneath the Acropolis at Copán.

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 pieces stand out in this museum: the original Altar Q and a reproduction of the burial of a Mayan tribal healer (called “La Shamana” by the local tourguides), including pieces of pottery, seashells and the remains of a sacrificed jaguar.

Copan Photo Gallery

Click on the thumbnails below to see larger versions of the photos.

Click to see larger photo.
Click to see larger photo


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