What is Copan?

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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 07 September 2019
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Copan is a set of ruins in western Honduras. They are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and have been since 1980. Copan was a major site of the Mayan civilization in the pre-Columbian era. Copan consists of some of the most fascinating Mayan ruins in the Americas, and are a very popular tourist destination for visitors to Honduras.

The Maya were never a cohesive empire. Instead, they made up a larger culture that consisted of various kingdoms and city-states. The power and influence of these kingdoms waxed and wanes over the centuries, and their sizes varied accordingly. Some Mayan kingdoms were quite small throughout their entire lives, while others encompassed enormous tracts of land and enveloped other kingdoms and cities through war and political alliances.

Copan was the chief city of a large kingdom called Xukpi. The name itself means literally something like Corner-Bundle. This was a reference to the fact that Copan is in the far east of the Mayan territory. The site is located just over the western border of Honduras, up against Guatemala.


The kingdom of Xukpi has its roots in a small kingdom around Copan during the 2nd century. The kingdom expanded over the years, and by the 5th century was one of the most important Mayan sites in the Classic period. Xukpi continued as a major power until the early-8th century, when it was defeated by a smaller state within its kingdom, Quirigua. The ruler of Xukpi at the time, Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil, referred to as 18 Rabbit, was beheaded by the Quiriguan king K’ahk’Tiliw Chan Yopaat, referred to as Cauac Sky.

Although Copan eventually recovered some of its power, it never became a truly mighty power again. For the next hundred years or so, growing population growth, coupled with the dwindling of natural resources, took its toll on Copan, and the city began the slow decline that plagued most of the Mayan lands. From a population in the tens of thousands, Copan was whittled down to less than 5,000 people, and eventually everyone abandoned the city itself and moved into the surrounding lands to farm.

The site of Copan was never truly forgotten by locals, and some early explorers were aware of its existence. It wasn’t until the early part of the 19th century, however, that Western explorers and writers began taking word of it into the outside world. In 1834 a popular account of the site was published, and it captured the public imagination. When excavations began in the Mayan lands in the late-19th century, Copan was one of the first visited by archeologists.

Copan is most well known for its large carved stone stele. These stele feature ornate faces, depicting the rulers of Copan over its centuries of regional dominance. The stele at Copan are some of the best preserved in the Mayan region, and are a big draw for visitors.

Unlike many of the Mayan sites in Mexico and Guatemala, the Honduran site is relatively unfrequented. Because the amount of tourist traffic to Honduras is much less than to either of the other two major Mayan nations, the site can be quite peaceful. The nearby town of Copan Ruinas has plenty of hotels, guides, and vehicles for rent to explore the Copan site, and visitors can either fly into Honduras, take a bus directly from Guatemala of San Pedro Sula, or take a taxi from El Salvador.


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