A Little Exploration… How to Visit the Copan Ruins

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Paging through my Lonely Planet Central America guidebook in the quite cool of the Bagel Barn in Antigua, Guatemala (one of my favorite places for a western breakfast in the city), I was seeking inspiration in Honduras. I needed divine travel guidance on what I should do next on my backpacking trip south through Central America. There must be something of interest to break up the 16 hour commute between western Guatemala and eastern Honduras, where I would take an advanced divers course on Utila. I’m not a big planner, but I was down to a mere 12 hours before I boarded my 4am bus to the Honduran border. I was nearly out of time.

The natural stop would be a visit to Copán Ruinas, Honduras. A good traveler would eat up the chance to pass through a small town soaked in rich cultural history and boasting a full set of Maya ruins. But honestly, I wasn’t sure if the Copan ruins were worth it. If you’ve already walked the grounds of Chichén Itzá in Mexico and explored the most prominent Maya sites, Tikal in Guatemala, do you need to visit Copán Ruinas? The short answer, is yes. But at the time, I was determined to not let travel fatigue stop me from visiting a real highlight of Central America. I booked a place to stay in the charming town of Copán Ruinas with a firm decision to poke around the Maya ruins for a couple of days, while I was en route from Antigua to the Honduran coast.

A high view of the Copan ruins
A high view of the main Copan ruins, with the ball court on the lower right, and the carvings under canopy protection in the background.

Visiting Copán Ruinas

Getting to Copán Ruinas

Located in the mountains of western Honduras, Copán Ruinas is easily visited by bus from El Salvador; San Pedro Sula or La Entrada in Honduras (note that San Pedro Sula is a dangerous city and should not be visited for long—mainly just as a pass-through city); or from Antigua, Guatemala—this is the more poplar route to Copán Ruinas. You can book tickets on the shuttle buses that sweep across large swathes of this region, taking travelers quickly between sites, or if you have a whole lot of time on your hands (and if you’re on a tight budget), a series of local chicken buses will get you there.

The ruins themselves are located just 1 km from the cobblestone town of Copán Ruinas, so this is where you’ll stay.

For those backpacking Central America, you’ll already know that once you head a bit off-the-beaten path, the tourists all but disappear. This is certainly the case with the Copan ruins. The town is like a step back in time, and offers a laid-back charm I’ve only previously experience in the American south. Traveling alongside few other tourists was a welcomed change, even though I had thoroughly enjoyed the touristy streets of Antigua.

Ball court at the Copan ruins
On the ground at the ball court—which is similar to the one at at Chichén Itzá, but smaller (and without the rad acoustics trick).

When to Visit

I visited in May, which is after the dry winter season, which proved ideal. The town was even more deserted than usual, and I spent morning hours at the Copan ruins without a busload of tourists in sight. Why the morning hours? The ruins open at 8am and you should show up then to avoid the scorching heat of midday. I easily walked from my hostel to the ruins, though tuk-tuks will also whisk you to the ruins.

If you time it well, you will also have a lot of personal time with the carvings, exploring various sections of the ruins. Although some travelers might use a tour guide, I loved the written tour provided in my guidebook—it allowed me to putter around the Copan ruins at my own pace, while still enjoying all the historical input.

Copan ruins through the trees

Are the Ruins of Copán Worth Visiting?

I visited three Mayan ruins in Central America, and I am pleased with how each sight complemented the other—Chichén Itzá, Tikal, and Copán Ruinas each offer a very different experience. They each lend insight into the ancient Maya civilization, and the ruins themselves at each site are unique enough that you’ll love the chance to see well-preserved parts of each city.

Here’s a comparison what I loved about the three sites.

The Acoustics at Chichén Itzá

Although the Chichén Itzá ruins are small compared to the other sites around Central America, I actually registered a level of shock when our guide demonstrated the perfect acoustic alignment of the temples and structures. You can clap on one side of the ball court and hear a perfect echo. It’s eery and fascinating to see such an ancient structure retain this quality.

The Size and Scope of Tikal

Hiking among the ruins at Tikal rates as one of my favorite temple experiences. Most of Tikal is still hidden under hundreds of miles of dense green forest around the main site, Jaguar Temple. Wild animals roam the grounds. Panoramic views temples stretch forever into the distance (you peer into Mexico on a clear day) and the sounds of the howler monkeys echo across the forest canopy.

The Intricate Art at Copán Ruinas

intricate carvings still visible in the Copan ruins

Copan’s climate has preserved a huge number of amazingly detailed carvings on the temples and throughout the ruins. Tikal and Chichén Itzá were noticeably light on the actual Mayan designs, so Copan provides a missing link across the ancient Maya civilization. The impressive pre-Columbian carvings tell stories that you have to simply imagine when the guides at the other ruins attempt to describe the Maya ceremonial faces, figures, and gods.

All of those aspects are on display at Copán Ruinas. They are spectacularly well preserved and you have no trouble discerning the hard gaze of a god, or the fascinating curves of a carved animal. Nowhere else in the world offers the sheer number of Maya sculptures on display across the sight. You’ll marvel at carved stelae and the incredible hieroglyphic stairway.

Copán Ruinas pleasantly surprised me. Look, there’s a reason it’s not as famous as Tikal—it’s a much smaller sight, it’s in a remote area of Honduras, and there isn’t nearly the infrastructure other famous sites have. But if you’re backpacking the region, Copán Ruinas makes for a fun and fascinating stopover. I found the town of Copán Ruinas just as delightful as the ruins.

A remnant of the incredible carvings at the Copan ruins
The hieroglyphic staircase at the Copan ruins
Copan ruins carving
A stack of intricate Maya carvings at the Copan ruins

Things to Do in Copán Ruinas

The Mayan ruins are clearly the top priority in the area, but over the past decade the town has developed a few other excellent activities that make for an even more memorable visit to Copán Ruinas. These are a few of the key things you can do in Copán Ruinas once you’ve visited the ruins.

Visit Macaw Mountain

Macaw Mountain is a tropical bird sanctuary is dead simple to visit from town—you can take a 10 minute tuk tuk ride from Copán Ruinas for about $1; entrance is closer to $10, depending on the current exchange rate, but in return you get a chance to immerse in the beauty of the nearby jungle while supporting the wonderful work of this rescue, rehabilitate, and release center. You’ll spend several hours immersing in Honduras’ bird diversity with in-person encounters, enjoying a well-marked nature trail, taking a dip at the swimming hole, and ending with a fresh cup of locally grown and roasted coffee.

gorgeous birds at the entrance to the ruins
Gorgeous birds sit at the entrance to the Copan ruins.

Horseback Ride to Nearby Towns

Alongside Macaw Mountain, horseback riding tours are among the most popular things to do in Copán Ruinas. The rides are affordable—you’re looking at around $20 for three hours—and you can visited the Los Sapos ruins nearby, La Pintada or a Maya Chortí village.

Play with Butterflies

This outing doesn’t take long since the Butterfly Museum is on the edge of town, and you can wander the botanical gardens while bright flashes of color swirl around you. The center breeds native species of Honduran butterflies (mariposas in Spanish)

Zipline Through the Forest Canopy

Located just outside of town, you can book a zip lining excursion through any hotel in town. You can also do this as a joint day tour with Macaw Mountain, which is handy if you plan to do both. Each activity needs about two hours, so it’s easy to do both. There are 14 ziplines in total, and each one offers a chance to whirl through the jungle canopy—this is one of the better zip lining parks in Central America.

Soak in the Natural Hot Springs in Agua Caliente

Located north of Copán Ruinas, you can venture to Agua Caliente as a full day trip from town, easily arranged once you’re there—you can pay for a day trip from a tour operator, or ask your guesthouse how to catch a minibus from the soccer field. The hot springs won’t rock your world if you’re a connoisseur, but it’s a nice day out. You’ll find a bathing area with two small swimming pools and changing areas, as well as access to the river where hot water gushes from the rocks.

Enjoy Treats and Eats

Located in town, The Tea & Chocolate Place offers gorgeous views alongside a selection of delicious teas or hot chocolate, and traditional snacks—all organically grown at the nearby Copan Botanical Research Station. This is a nice way to pass away the hours back in town after a long day sightseeing, and sunset lovers will particularly enjoy the views. Note it’s only open from 4-6pm, every day except Sunday. For dinner, I loved the pupusas at Comedor Mary.

Stay Somewhere Nice

Accommodation in Honduras is affordable, and you have a few options depending on if you’re looking for a social vibe, a bit of extra comfort, or the opportunity to support a social enterprise.

  • Hostel Iguana Azul is the best hostel in town—it has great vibes and it’s where I stayed.
  • Hotel Cuna Maya is great for couples or those looking for a more full-featured property, while still being reasonably priced.
  • Hotel Ch’orti is a social enterprise where your money and your stay in this four-room hotel helps to support Honduras’ indigenous population.

Should you visit Copán Ruinas? Yes, why not. It’s on your radar and you’re clearly close enough that you could venture that way, and you won’t be disappointed. I’m so glad my Lonely Planet Central America guidebook put this on my radar. I stayed in Copán Ruinas for a couple of days before venturing onward to dive in Utila and boat ride down the Rio Dulce in Guatemala, and I have never regretted my decision to visit the incredible Maya ruins in Copan.

Don’t forget to book travel insurance for your trip—a great policy provides coverage in case of medical emergencies, lost or stolen gear, adventure sports riders, and more. I used World Nomads for this trip (and since 2008!) and highly recommend it!

14 thoughts on “A Little Exploration… How to Visit the Copan Ruins”

  1. It's funny. People ask us about our trip sometimes, wanting to know if we visited so and so place, or this and that museum. Usually, it's a no. They look at us like we're crazy — we missed a major opportunity to actually be in some postcard picture setting. On short trips, like a week in Costa Rica, etc. I might pursue going to more of the “sights” but we figured we'd just get jaded if we tried to do it week in and week out for a year. Instead, we just wandered around cities, shopped & ate in markets and hung out at neighborhood watering holes. I think it helped us see what life was like in other places… the whole purpose of our year abroad. I would love to go back to many of our destinations and get a chance to see x and z, but I'm not worried about missing it. I don't really understand the obsession with shooting my own images from the same spot as the postcard photographer did 3 years before. Another reason we didn't go to some sights was that the ticket prices were too high, it just didn't fit the budget to tour that castle or that museum.

    That being said, we did hit the ruins in Mexico with a vengeance. It all started with Palenque, which was so stupendous, we got some sort of ruins bug. After touring several more, including Chichen Itza, we realized that they didn't compare to our serene and magical first experience. What was nice, however, is how different the experience at each site was: bikes were offered for touring at one (Coba); one was completely unrestored (Sayil); another had tour groups — but only in the first 800 feet — the rest was our own private playground (Uxmal). It was amazing how much variety we found. We really were saddened to miss out on Tikal. We had planned on driving there from Mexico (we had a rental car for over a month), but the road systems were so poorly mapped that we got freaked out. This was the first month of our RTW… I know if we had done Mexico/Guatemala last we would have been motoring down that drug road without any hestitation.

    Oh well, next time!

    Reply
    • Tikal is amazing but at least you have something else that will really draw
      you back to that region! Guatemala ranks up there with some of my favorite
      experiences, Tikal included :-) It's funny how the perspective for longterm
      travel is so very different – although there are all of these touristy and
      amazing sites on the beaten track it's more about setting a sustainable pace
      and really taking all of that extra time to see more and experience more
      than you could on those whirlwind weekend vacations!

      Reply
  2. I'm glad that Copan was worth the trip! My mom refers to her travel fatigue as “castle fatigue” because she got to the point in Europe where she couldn't stand to visit another castle, no matter how famous. Sometimes you just have to say “I'll catch it next time” or be a rebel and not follow the guidebooks :)

    Reply
    • I can *completely* understand your mom getting castle fatigue in Europe! It
      can be best to just skip it for next time rather than go and leave with a
      negative impression!

      Reply
  3. Ah, travel guilt…like being between a rock and a hard place. You should see all the things a place has to offer because, after all, that is why you set out in the first place, but then you have to ask yourself, will you really appreciate the experience if your heart's not into it 100%? Another question is: are you actually a “bad” traveler if you don't go see what's been “prescribed” by guidebooks and other travelers? But then when you look at it from the other side it's like “well, maybe I'm being urged by something inside me to go see this thing because there's something the universe is trying to tell me…”

    Having said all that, I ask: are you really glad you went?

    Reply
    • You know Jen, I am glad that I went – I was on the fence before hand but
      looking back I can really say that I am glad I was able to see and learn
      about that site while I was there. It could be that this may not be the case
      all of the time, but it worked out in my favor this time!

      Reply
  4. That reminds me a lot of the Angkor region ruins in Cambodia. It's annoying to get a bit fed up with sights when you know how amazing your surroundings are but you're not in the mood to enjoy them.

    Reply
    • Argh! I Cambodia was a perfect example – I finished up at Angkor after two
      months in the region and I wish I had started there so that I was fresher to
      the temples :-)

      Reply
  5. Well, I think travel guilt can be a good thing sometimes – you might not want to visit X cultural landmark on the day that you're actually in town, but you might regret not doing so in the future when you had the chance if you don't! And as you said, it did wind up pulling your Mayan ruin visits together, so there's an unexpected surprise :)

    Reply
    • Sorry for the late reply – I agree that the travel guilt can really get you
      out…and I have actually never regretted dragging myself to a landmark, so
      there is something to say for just getting out there :-)

      Reply
  6. We were pleasantly surprised by the Copan ruins as well. Although I wouldn't list it at the top of my all-time travel favorites I really enjoyed how laid back it was with hardly any people around. After Tikal, I also appreciated the detailed engravings even more. I'd say it's worth a stop if you're in that neck of the wood.

    And you know, even if you didn't visit I wouldn't think any less of you as a traveler :) Sometimes you just need to let sights go – ruins will be there to return and visit at a later time.

    Reply
    • Sorry for the epically late reply! Agreed that they are worth a stop when
      passing through for sure – those engravings were really neat and so much
      more detailed then elsewhere :-)

      Reply
  7. Glad that you had a good time and that Copan wrapped everything together. At Angkor Wat, after seeing the main tourist populated temples, I sat around at a few of the least visited temples and enjoyed the quiet peace of them. It can be really nice when you aren't having to share with so many people.

    Reply
    • Angkor is a great example! There are just so many people there at the main
      few that it can get overwhelming and cause temple fatigue, while wandering
      the remote and quiet ones is a totally different experience. :-)

      Reply

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