Following Tikal, I took a long 8 hour bus from Santa Elena (near Flores) to Chiquimula on the Guatemalan side of the Guatemala/Honduras border. Arriving in Chiquimula reminded me of Mae Sot in Thailand where I used to live – it had that edgy, anything-can-happen vibe that border towns seem prone to.
After a night barricaded in a room in one of the worst hotels I have ever stayed in – like an inner city tower bloke complete with Guatemalan gang members, I caught a bus 1.5 hours to the border and walked into Honduras .
Arriving in Copa¡n was a pleasant surprise. It’s a very peaceful town centred on a plaza and food market, with cobbled streets and surrounded by lush, green countryside. The perfect town for doing very little, except perhaps wandering the streets absorbing the friendly atmosphere.
About 1km outside the ‘new’ Copa¡n are the ruins – another UNESCO World Heritage Site. CopÃ¡n was initially settled around 159AD, and in its heyday (5th to 9th century AD), Copa¡n was home to a population of 20,000 – 30,000 inhabitants. Although not the size of Tikal or El Mirador, Copa¡n probably has the finest surviving examples of portrait stelae and sculptured building decorations out of all the Mayan sites in Central America. There’s even a huge hieroglyphic staircase on the side of one of the temples.
A few years ago the local river changed course and eroded a section of one of the temples, revealing further structures beneath the visible outer layer. This led to a series of organized excavations using tunnels beneath one of the main temples, which in turn revealed a whole set of structures built on top of each other. The most famous ‘internal’ temple at Copa¡n was named Rosalina, and inside they found tombs of the first king of Copa¡n along with various offerings to the gods. It is possible to enter some of the excavation tunnels at Copa¡n but they charge a prohibitive $12-15 extra for the privilege on top of the entrance price.
I’d recommend getting a guide if you decide to visit Copa¡n temples as on the surface they are less dramatic than some of the other Mayan temples, but the experience is brought to life with the guide’s vivid descriptions of Mayan life, and explanations of some of the hieroglyphics & carvings. It must be noted thought that following a really interesting tour, our guide later cornered us individually in town, and tried to rip us off by claiming that a $20 note with which one of our group had paid for the tour was dodgy. It had definitely been changed.