Copan, the Athens of Western Honduras

Copan is a perfect weekend getaway.

From Antigua or Guatemala City and only a few hours away by first class bus or shuttle ($35 or $12 and five to six hours), with the splendid scenery of the mountains and pastures of Guatemala giving way to the slightly more tropical and humid heights of a different geography. Set in a lush river valley, the enchanting and ancient city of Copan Ruinas is only twenty minutes from the Guatemalan border.

Expect a bit of a rigamarole going from one border to the other: Honduras Customs will extract $3USD or the Guatemalan equivalent in quetzals and they will not stamp your passport;that’s Window #4: you’ll get an official looking receipt. Gautemalan Customs officials will note your journey in their files, (Window #1) and give you an exit stamp(S is for Salida, E for for Entrada).This is a good place to change your money into lempira, and the money changers will find you quickly. The lempira is running about twenty to the dollar, so if you’re tipping someone, the 20 Lempira note works fine.

It’s full of Mayan history.

Copan is a pint sized version of Antigua, with the same colonial charm and architecture, except set on a hillside with gentle elevations. With a population of 5000 or so, and at 1500 ft, it was founded by the Spanish conquistadores in the early 1500s. The town was a site of an earlier Mayan village, associated with the nearby ruins (which are spectacular). In Copan, known as the Athens of the north, there is a street called Acropolis, just as if you were in Greece. The village itself has a very distinct sense and feel of Greek mountain towns, particularly those around Delphi. The ruins are among the finest in carvings and the quality of the stelae. By all means see the museum in the park. Tikal is good, but Copan Ruinas is better.

There are hotels for every budget in Copan.

Don Udo's Hotel

Don Udo’s Hotel

Copan offers a wide variety of hotels and restaurants, ranging from a basic room to a 4 star hotel. Two excellent boutique hotels are the Luna Jaguar and the Yat B’alam;the Luna Jaguar has a connection with the nearby hot springs, with transportation and a spa package at very reasonable rates. Their 4-poster beds of carved logs, draped with muslin, are provocative and their bathrooms are Euro-modern.

The best hotel in town is the Marina Copan, with a lovely blue curved swimming pool, well-stocked bar and all-around perfect service. Don Udo’s Hotel and the Hotel Camino Maya are good mid-range places to stay, with various attractions: try the Don Udo Special: Triple Sec, vodka, rum and passion fruit juice).

If a B&B is your cup of tea, Copan proper offers the Casa Rosada (eight well decorated rooms)and the venerable Ms. Tona, who makes house calls there, is the best masseuse in town. At the upper end of the price range, located outside of town, is the very good and serene Hacienda San Lucas, also with eight rooms, solar-power and candle-lit dinners that have been written up in every major travel magazine. Their yoga/massage pavilion overlooks the river valley and in the moonlight, there is a sense of the glorious past and the ghosts of the Lords of Copan linger in the shadows.

Copan offers delicious dining and regional crafts.

Twisted Tanya's place

Twisted Tanya’s place

Copan offers a wide variety of arts and crafts, mostly from Guatemala but with a few distinct Honduras and Salvadorean creations. Twisted Tanya’s and Nia Lola are the main attractions for ambiance, a mixture of ex-pats, tourists and delicious meals.

Tanya serves up a bacon-wrapped filet mignon and an authentic chicken curry with fresh home-made chutney; everything else is likewise hand-crafted. Nia Lola serves up gigantic proportions of grilled meats and the waitresses bring the guacamole in large bowls, carefully balanced on their heads. Welchez Coffee Shop on the plaza serves up a wicked espresso for those foggy mornings.

Mayan ruins, Macaws, and hot springs.

18 Rabbit

18 Rabbit

The attractions: Copan Ruinas is one of the finest examples of Mayan civilization at its peak, with finely carved stelae, hidden temples under the ruins and a history going back to 1000 B.C. The Mayan recorded history started at 426 A.D with the period of their greatest architectural creations starting at 553 A.D, when Moon Jaguar took the throne, followed by Smoke Imix and 18 Rabbit.

18 Rabbit later lost a decisive battle, along with his head and as with most great civilizations, wars, over-population and the destruction of their environment brought their eventual downfall. The people vanished, the temples fell and with the passage of the years, the vines and sands of the past gradually filled in the great plazas.

The secondary attraction is the Luna Jaguar Spa Resort, located 18 kilometers north of the city, 30 minutes by car and the scenery is lush with emerald green hills, flowers and cloud-draped mountains. Perhaps a bit ambitiously named, the aguas termales (hot springs) is set in a small canyon, accessed by a suspension bridge over the river, where the waters flow downhill into various stone-lined pools of differing temperatures, with rising clouds of steam and brilliantly blue butterflies flittering through the foliage.

the hot springs

the hot springs

Created with a Mayan theme, tall fierce carvings overlook the baths and the S-shaped grotto entrance is draped with ferns and framed with velvety green vines of an unknown variety.

The Macaw Mountain Bird Park is also on the way and well worth a visit. Macaws and other indigenous birds are carefully protected, sheltered and cared for. If you’re brave enough to dare the brilliantly colored macaws to land on your shoulder, it can be arranged. Hiking, overnight stays and horseback riding are available at the Finca El Cisne, 8 kilometers beyond the spa. There are other lesser Mayan ruins nearby, Las Sepulturas and Los Sapos (located near the Hacienda San Lucas).

Copan is also host to the occasional gathering of international expositions, with over 500 hotel rooms available. In August, 2009, the Peabody Museum and Harvard University sponsored a memorial exhibition of early photographs depicting the original excavations of the ruins.

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