A Mayan capital from the 400s to the 800s, Copan is one of the largest and most impressive of all the Mayan centers discovered so far. It consists of pyramids, temples and 21 stone pillars, or stelae, with exquisite carved likenesses of ancient Copan kings. Although Tikal in Guatemala is the largest known Mayan site and is easier to get to, Copan shouldn't be missed by anyone interested in the Mayan civilization. The ruins are accessible by road from both Honduras and Guatemala. Copan is 125 mi/200 km northwest of Tegucigalpa.

The Maya built Copan in one of the most beautiful areas of Honduras, on the banks of the Copan River in a fertile valley with a near-perfect climate, although the summer is extremely hot. There is evidence that the city's demise was brought on by overpopulation and deforestation: Overuse of the land rendered it unable to support the large population.

The Copan Archaeological Park covers 74,130 acres/30,025 hectares at an elevation of 2,100 ft/640 m. Only a fraction of the ruins have been excavated, but as jungle growth is cleared away from each new section and more mounds are tunneled into, even more wondrous things appear. One of the most spectacular was the discovery of the Rosalila Temple (named for its rosy red color), found almost intact under a later temple.

An exact replica, painted in the same red, yellow, green and white colors as the original, is in the Maya Sculpture Museum, located near the main entrance to the park. In addition to the Rosalila replica, the Sculpture Museum houses some of the original stelae from the park that were being destroyed by ground moisture and fluctuations in temperature. Though you may be tempted to bypass the museum for more time at the ruins, don't do it: The museum is one of the most rewarding parts of Copan.

It is now also possible to visit the original Rosalila Temple, which lies at the end of a dank tunnel under Structure 16. Only small groups accompanied by a guide are allowed into the tunnel.

Copan's Hieroglyphic Staircase contains the longest hieroglyphic text in the world. Although its 63 steps are covered with a canvas roof, the 1,200 glyphs are still in danger from the combination of moisture and the salt in the stones. Eventually they must be removed and treated in order to preserve them. The steps once led up to a small, thatched-roof temple, though the temple is now gone.

Other highlights include the beautifully preserved and restored ball court (its acropolis was eroded by the adjacent Copan River, revealing a cliff face 121 ft/37 m high in which a number of earlier levels of building can be distinguished) and Altar Q, a box-shaped altar in the west plaza, which has sculptures of all of Copan's rulers sitting on glyphs representing their names.

The excavation of Copan, which started in the 1930s, continues. Archaeologists have identified the remains of Copan's founder, K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo', or Sun-Eyed Green Quetzal Macaw, deep in the center of the massive Acropolis. Another site, El Sitio de las Sepulturas, is a rare example of fully restored residential dwellings of nobility and priests. Further excavation is expected to reveal a great deal about the daily life of nobles and others who lived with them.

Although the ruins take only a few hours to see, the nearby town of Copan Ruinas is a tranquil place to relax for a few days. With cobbled streets, mom-and-pop eateries, a wide variety of boutique-hotels and backpacker hostels, lots of shopping and a lively nightlife, it is a safe and accommodating area to learn about small-town rural Honduran life.

Don't miss the Regional Museum in Copan Ruinas, where objects found in a tomb discovered in 1989—three scepter pinnacles, two large jades and a shell containing congealed human blood—are on display. There are also several smaller archaeological sites in the area, as well as hot springs and waterfalls.

Activities include hiking, river tubing and horseback riding. Attractions in Copan Ruinas include the Casa K'inich Maya Children's Museum and the Enchanted Wings Butterfly House, which has more than 30 species of local butterflies and extensive orchid exhibits. Also worth visiting is the Macaw Mountain Bird Park on the outskirts of town. There you will find toucans, macaws, parrots and other exotic birds in large enclosures. There are also nature and bird-watching trails.

Bus tours to the ruins run from San Pedro Sula, which is a three-hour drive from Copan. Those visiting from Guatemala can take shuttle vans from both Guatemala City and Antigua. The road approaching Copan in Guatemala is paved up to the border. An 8-mi/13-km stretch from the border to Copan also is paved.

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