Just across the border in Honduras lie the famed ruins of Copán, the center of a kingdom that rose to prominence in the Classic period (5th to 9th centuries AD). The artistic structures here have led historians to dub the city "the Paris of the Mayan world."
As you stroll past towering cieba trees on your way in from the gate, you'll find the Great Plaza to your left. The ornate stelae standing around the plaza were monuments erected to glorify rulers. Some stelae on the periphery are dedicated to King Smoke Jaguar, but the most impressive—located in the middle of the plaza—depict King 18 Rabbit. Besides stroking the egos of the kings, these monuments had apparent religious significance since vaults for ritual offerings have been found beneath them.
The city's most important ball court lies south of the Great Plaza. Players had to keep a hard rubber ball from touching the ground, perhaps symbolizing the sun's battle to stay aloft. The game was more spiritual than
sportslike in nature: the losers—or the winners in some cases—were killed as a sacrifice to Mayan gods.
Near the ball court lies the Hieroglyphic Stairway, containing the largest single collection of hieroglyphs in the world. The 63 steps immortalize the battles won by Copán's kings, especially those of the much revered King Smoke Jaguar.
Below the Acropolis here wind tunnels leading to some of the most fascinating discoveries at Copán. Underneath Structure 16 are the near-perfect remains of an older structure, called the Rosalila Temple, dating from AD 571. Uncovered in 1989, the Rosalila was notable in part because of the paint remains on its surface—rose and lilac—for which it was named. Another tunnel called Los Jaguares takes you past tombs, a system of aqueducts, and even an ancient bathroom.
East of the main entrance to Copán, the marvelous Museo de Escultura Maya provides a closer look at the best of Mayan artistry. All the sculptures and replicas are accompanied by informative signs in English as well as Spanish. Here you'll find a full-scale replica of the Rosalila Temple.
The complex employs à la carte pricing, but all should be included if you're on an organized shore excursion. It's a good idea to hire a guide if you're on your own, as they are very knowledgeable about the site, and signage is sparse among the ruins themselves. English-speaking ones charge about $30 for a two-hour tour, while Spanish-speaking guides charge about half that. A small cafeteria and gift shop are near the entrance.