"Greatest City of Art in the Ancient New World" Top 5 Page for this destination Copán by atufft

Copán Travel Guide: 227 reviews and 982 photos

Agricultural Wealth within the Copan River Valley

Copan is located on the edge of the Mayan World where it traded with the Lenca and other tribes to the south, as well as with the other great Mayan cities to the north. But, this opportunity for trade would not have occurred were it not for an abundance of food or calories for the resident population. The principal diet was much the same then as today--a staple of maize, with protein provided mostly by beans, and supplemented by squash, gourds, avocados, and a variety of wild fruits. Whatever meat was consumed was, similar in proportion to the Honduran meal today, likely only a thin tough slice on the side. Having an excess of food production among the resident farmers allowed for a sizable society of wealthy families, artisans, ball players, clergy, and merchants to emerge from toil of the fields, to devote themselves entirely to leadership over agricultural resources, development of writing and math, promotion of high art, extension of power through conquest and sports championships, and noble exchange with other tribes and other cities within the Mayan world. At an elevation of 600 meters (2,000 ft) the climate and temperature of around 78F (25c) was very agreeable and especially motivating for such artistic human achievement.

Rise and Fall of Copan

The Copan River valley, particularly within a region known as the Copan Pocket, has deep alluvial soils which were fertile enough for double cropping by the peak of population around 850AD. Thus, during the reign of the first ruler, for whom Rosalila was built, beginning in 426 AD, the population of Copan was only slight less than today (pop 4,000), and construction of the Grupo Principal began near a bend in the Copan River, where the soil conditions were especially rich. Over the next 16 dynasties, Copan was an urban core of demand, and religious and social prestige, that could assert itself over the rest of the valley. As the population grew to a peak of about 25,000 residents, food production became increasingly difficult because the best soil was occupied by the Copan temple city, and so dependence upon irrigation and on less fertile steep hillside soils, even as the over farmed remaining bench lands declined in fertility. Peak production was probably during the reign of last king shown on Altar Q, which ended in 810AD. Then, soil erosion caused by over farming hillsides, and probably by poor management of irrigation canals and storm drains by subsequent rulers, created some havoc in terms of adequate food production. By 1,000AD, Copan society collapsed altogether as the population of the valley declined due to ineffective leadership and an inability to feed the masses of workers not devoted to farming.

Extensive Ruins Remain Covered

An archeological survey of the Copan Valley completed in 1980 revealed some 3,400 visible structures or mounds, although satellite mapping since then has revealed that as many as 6,000 structures may exist beneath the surface. Yet, the 55 acres tourist most frequent at Copan are only one tenth the size of Tikal. Copan was a monumental small city.

Although Spanish account of the archeological region dates back to 1576, interest in Copan began in 1834 during an Guatemalan government sponsored expedition under the leadership of Colonel Juan Galindo, who subsequently published his accounts in Europe and the USA. In any case, the effort to uncover structures, recover stellae, and rebuild Copan began and continued until the present epoch. Everywhere in the Copan Valley there remain a large number of hills, each of which is a likely residence, buried by earth and vegetation.

The nearby town of Copan Ruinas, which itself is built upon the ruins of Mayan structures, has become the center of life for those interested in the great ruins of Copan.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:One of the Mayan world's most interesting ruins
  • Cons:A variety of good restaurants is surprisingly absent
  • In a nutshell:Can't miss Copan during a Tour of Honduras
  • Last visit to Copán: Dec 2011
  • Intro Updated May 9, 2016
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Reviews (48)

Comments (5)

  • angiebabe's Profile Photo
    Aug 11, 2012 at 8:46 AM

    Hi Alan been looking through your great info and pics here - your ongoing progression in getting to countries and places off the beaten track is great...am trying to get back into that myself (though much of my last 9 years of going to Morocco has been off the beathen track places) and trying to head myself in the direction of South America this year for the first time - a bit daunting with so many choices and juggling required to make the distances and perhaps with the aim of going independently in i dont know how much to allow as wanted to get home to NZ for christmas for the 1st time in about 20 years! which would only allow 3 weeks to see Sth America after a conference in Chile. but will keep lookingg and thinking! are you enjoying the last of the Olympics this weekend! the USA sprinting relay teams were amazing yest and day before!

  • glabah's Profile Photo
    Jan 23, 2012 at 7:37 PM

    For about 12 years now I have had a poster that I purchased in Honduras, which I believe features this area or one like it. It does not say on it where the photo was taken. However, you have given me some interesting ideas of a place to go some day.

  • wise23girl's Profile Photo
    Jan 22, 2012 at 3:11 PM

    Very interesting...not sure why your VT mail came from VT itself????

  • MM212's Profile Photo
    Jan 22, 2012 at 1:43 PM

    Most fascinating! It's always difficult to write about an archaeological site, but you seem to have mastered it here!

  • xaver's Profile Photo
    Jan 22, 2012 at 1:23 AM

    nice virtualtour for a sunday morning, thanks.


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