Copan, home of the Maya.

Copan is itself a department (region) with three different major towns which are named: Santa Rosa de Copan, La Entrada de Copan and finally – as well as most famously – Copan Ruinas. This post shall discuss the latter; a place which has recently become my new home – as of September 2020.

Within the Honduran tourism circle it is a celebrated and highly valued jewel, comparable to other extremely popular destinations for both national and international tourists – such as Utila and Roatan. Copan Ruins is the most visited destination within the department of Copan as well as throughout the entire country. The colonial town is renowned for its UNESCO preserved Mayan ruins, marvellous local coffee, roaming scarlet macaws and excellent hotels.

Many a foreign individual has ‘set up shop here’ from Germans owning breweries to North Americans running NGO’s, Italians owning spa resorts and even a fellow from Belgium who owns something of a restaurant/bar. There are many international teachers who work within local bilingual schools as well, such as the prestigious Mayatan Foundation.

A History.

Copan was first an ancient Mayan city ruled by a dynasty of 16 kings between roughly A.D. 426 and 820. https://lempiratimes.com/2020/03/31/pre-columbian-honduras/

The city’s original name is reported by historians to have been ‘Oxwitik’ with an official emblem of a bat – no less… The core of the settlement covered about 37 acres and archeological findings state that it was remodeled and rebuilt upon various occasion over a period of 400 years. At its final stage, the city possessed a great plaza to its north and an acropolis to its south.

The city was located on what was the outermost, furthest southeastern periphery of the Mayan territory. This separated it from some of the terrible warfare which ravaged the larger and more central Mayan kingdoms over in present day Mexico and Guatemala. However, all of Copan’s kings were fierce warriors and thus the city underwent many hostilities with the neighbouring realm of Quirigua resulting in the unlucky 13th leader Waxaklahun Ubah K’awil being captured and sacrificed via decapitation.

The city was also one of the most densely populated of all Mayan settlements. Monuments were handcarved from a greenish, volcanic tuff with Copan being famous amongst archeologists/historians for the “Temple of the Hieroglyphic Stairway”. This is a pyramid like structure containing more than 2,000 heiroglyphs on what is a flight of 63 steps. It is recognised as the longest ancient Mayan inscription in existence.

Copan also included a ball court with “tenon sculptures in the shape of Macaw heads as markers” – quote: Copan, the rise and fall of an ancient Mayan kingdom, Harcourt Brace and Company, 2000. How scoring worked in the ball games the Mayan men played remains a mystery however.

The great plaza most likely held a large amount of Copan’s populace during big, important events; historical research revealed that as many as 26,000 lived there in around A.D 750 (historians David Webster, AnnCorinne Freter and Nancy Gonlin). Another important structure found and excavated ruthlessly at Copan Ruins is known as “structure 22”, which was built in the 13th century. Ever since the 1900s this site has been excavated with archeologists having dug up over 4,000 pieces of sculpture from this particular site. The researcher Jennifer Ahlfeldt’s work suggests that this spot was used as a royal throne by the rulers of Copan. “It was here that the ruler was transformed into, and subsequently dwelled as, a deity,” she wrote in a 2005 report.

Around this royal throne were the royal residence quarters where all those close and related to the kind would have lived.

The last king of Copan was a one Yax Pasah who reigned into the 9th century: a period during which the Mayans met their sudden, mysterious end. The city’s governance became increasingly unstable and almost overnight the Mayan civilisations in their great cities perished. A huge drought is considered to be an important factor in the Mayan downfall by leading historians. Copan thus fell to ruin. 

It was then of course during the Spanish ‘age of discovery’ that the European conquistadores eventually stumbled upon the area as they expanded throughout Honduras. In the year 1530, a local native chief named Copan Calel led an uprising against the Spaniards and on being terribly and indeed easily defeated by the advanced military might of the conquistadores, his name was ironically attached to the ruins. Thus the area was christened ‘Copan Ruins’.

The Spaniards then set about colonising and constructing a town around the ruin’s periphery, which is – needless to say – what gave the town its colonial appearance. 

What else is Copan famed for?

The Macaw Mountain bird sanctuary.

Scarlet Macaw.

The story of Macaw Mountain bird park and nature reserve actually began on Roatan, in the Bay Islands. It was there that an American lady, Mandy Wagner, started caring for unwanted parrots and macaws during the 1980’s, amassing a group of 30 birds by the mid 1990’s. Many of these parrots had been left behind or donated by foreign residents when they had enough of “paradise” and returned to their home country. Eventually Ms. Wagner herself returned to the U.S. and care of her birds passed to Lloyd Davidson who was running a fishing business in Roatan at the time. This is how Lloyd accidentally became the “Bird Man of Roatan”.

Gradually the island park began to pay the bills but the Bird Man was ready for a change. A visit to Copán Ruinas in 1998 had him convinced that this area was a perfect environment for the birds and land was more affordable than in the Bay Islands. Within a year construction work began under the direction of Lloyd’s partner in the fishing business, Capt. Pat Merritt, Progress was slow but steady as efforts were made to limit impact to the natural beauty of the stream-fed valley on the property. In July 2001 a plane was chartered to fly 90 birds from Roatan directly to Tablones, a dirt strip just across the border in Guatemala. After a 5 month adjustment period to allow the birds to cope with the sudden move from the beach to the mountains, Macaw Mountain Bird Park and Nature Reserve was officially opened to the public in December 2001.

Information taken from the official website: http://www.macawmountain.org/en/home/

The Coffee.

This is a coffee region and the production, packaging, sales and even international exportation of cafe is a major source of revenue for certain local families and those whom they employ – from the workers on plantations – to the waiters/waitresses in coffee shops. Coffee can be encountered on literally every corner of the town from family-run pulperia stores to the supermarkets and plush coffee houses.

I shall mention the two biggest and most popular coffee houses in Copan Ruins.

Welchez Café. The Welchez are a well-known, well-established local family with coffee houses in both Copan Ruins and San Pedro Sula. They run guided tours as well taking clients through their plantations where the coffee-making-process is explained.

San Rafael.

This business is the competition to Welchez. I prefer this establishment not only for the coffee yet more so for the place itself with two floors, a open aired terrace and the outdoor garden section. The owner Carlos, is renowned for the fancy cheeses he makes and also for his excellent wine selection with bottles available for purchase. Good food too…

El Mariposario Mayan Hills Hotel.

This is an intriguing and indeed most enjoyable hotel known for its oustanding collection of over twenty species of lepidoptera – or butterfly. They flutter back and forth in a beauiful glass enclosure. Then comes the hotel, equipped with a swimming pool open to the general public at only 300 Lempiras ($US15.00) per head. One can quite easily spend an entire afternoon enjoying the pool and their food and beverage at the poolside restaurant. Recommended.

Where to stay.

There is an abundance of hotels, hostels and motels in and around Copan Ruins from plush resports to crappy backpacker joints for 10 bucks a night. A simple Google search or better still – a scout around Copan on arrival – will both generate endless results. For any questions on where to stay in Copan (or anywhere else in Honduras for that matter) please go to my contact page and reach out. I’ll be glad to help.

Posing.

La Fortaleza.

Just like in nearby Gracias (https://lempiratimes.com/2020/02/23/gracias-a-nice-part-of-the-world/), the conquering Spaniards constructed a fortress upon a towering hill directly overlooking the centre of the town and all surrounding hills. It is of typical Spanish architecture from that period, whitewashed and completed with turrets and a large main entrance, which was without any doubt – firmly guarded.

In conclusion.

To conclude, Copan is most certainly worth a visit. Before the Covid pandemic of 2020 I have informed that there was a vibrant nightlife scene. However, as of October 2020, bars and discos are beginning to open up again slowly but steadily – at a constant fight with the authrorities – who impose terrible demands upon establishments.

For nature, history, coffee or backpacking enthusiasts, Copan is potentially the best place to visit – in Honduras. As previously stated, any questions that you may have on Copan (or anywhere else here) – please hit the contact section and get in touch. I look forward to any possible queries.

Published by Ben Anson

Young writer with a passion for Latin American and Caribbean affairs.

One thought on “Copan, home of the Maya.

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