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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.