In the footprints of Mayan Kings – deciphering impressive hieroglyphics in Copan, Honduras

PEmblem glyphs, ancient ball courts, scarlet macaws, hieroglyphic stairways… this was all nonsense until I visited the Mayan ruins of Copan and spent six hours (yes SIX hours) rambling around, Who knew it would be so fascinating? (And of course I wanted to get my full $15 worth).

Copan Ruinas, Honduras
Welcome to Macaw City

The site is an easy ten minute walk from the town of Copan Ruinas. One backpacker I met last week described the town as a Honduran Disneyland so I didn’t quite know what to expect. It turned out to be a rather quaint place with cobbled streets, almost vertical inclines and a town square festooned with fairy lights. One street, which we referred to as Pine Needle Street for the duration of our stay, had a permanent street market and each day fresh pine needles covered the entire length of the street.

The ruins are the largest in Honduras and being right on the El Salvador and Guatemala border makes the town a mecca for domestic tourists as well as us foreigners.

At 8am the gates to the ruins open, and being the sad case that I am, I was outside waiting clutching my $15 dollars. For at least the first two hours the only other people I saw were the park workers sweeping the grass (yes, you read that right).

Copan Mayan Ruins, Honduras
The Great Plaza

The scarlet macaw adorns every single souvenir for sale in Copan town. There were also live ones making the loudest racket imaginable as I approached the park entrance. They were sacred in Mayan times and can be seen in high relief carvings all over the park. A local rescue project has reintroduced semi tame ones to the park, making for an impressive sight with their bright colours and wide wingspan. Interesting fact – Louise, my stalker who I met in Lake Yojoa and who followed me to Copan so we could spend NYE together (awww), was researching Macaw Mountain, the rescue project, and told me that it was founded on Roatan Island initially, then when they relocated to Copan (allegedly due to gang activity) an airplane was chartered to fly in 90 birds!

In other wildlife news, I also saw a giant guinea pig (not sure what it’s actually called, but I was pretty excited to see it ambling past me).

So the ruins are kind of like a massive football pitch (the Great Plaza) with random stelae (carved standing stones of ancient Mayan kings) littered around, then a cluster of stone temples resembling pyramids all higgledy piggledy on top of each other off to one side. And below there, a residential area, with stone walls and platforms where nobility probably lived. There are hieroglyphs everywhere. Apparently each Mayan city had its own emblem glyph – Copans was the leaf-nosed bat.

Stela A, Copan Mayan Ruins, Honduras
After much deliberation, 18 Rabbit is officially my favourite Mayan king

Each successive Mayan king developed and added to the structures, so buried inside the temples are earlier structures. You can pay extra to go through tunnels built by the excavating archaeologists and see all the layers.

I was really impressed with the Hieroglyphic Staircase which is sixty-three steps telling the history of the royal Copan Mayan family in thousands of glyphs. It’s the longest Mayan inscription ever discovered. The names of the kings are brilliant – if I was ever to have a child (I won’t) I would definitely be calling it 18 Rabbit (king number thirteen) or possibly Waterlily Jaguar (king number seven).


And did you know the Mayans are credited with inventing football? They played in L-shaped courts with stone bleachers on either side and used a hard rubber ball which they likely had to keep in the air using hips and thighs only. Here at Copan, the ball court has six stone macaw heads high above it, which would have scored points if they were hit. It’s possible that some matches were gladiator style events with the losers being sacrificed to the gods (or fed to the macaws?).

So I have so much more to tell you about Mayan ruins, but I might leave that until I visit Palenque (Mexico), Chichen Itza (Mexico) or Tikal (Guatemala). I’m totally going to be a Mayan expert by then!


4 thoughts on “In the footprints of Mayan Kings – deciphering impressive hieroglyphics in Copan, Honduras

  1. Looks amazing. We saw some giant guinea pigs at the zoo the other day and I can’t remember what they were called. Waterlily Jaguar sounds like a name you would choose!!


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