Macaws. Mayan ruins. Men who wear cowboy hats unironically. Who wouldn’t want to go to Copan?
Actually, a lot of people. According to some statistics, Honduras is the least visited country in all of Central America. With under one million international visitors each year — and the vast majority of those heading to the Bay Islands — Honduras still retains an air of off-the-beaten-path authenticity that can be a little trickier to find in tourism powerhouses like Costa Rica. Of course, there’s a trade-off for that breathing room, mainly in the form of limited infrastructure and security issues. I’m generally fairly oblivious to safety statistics, so I was surprised by the number of my fellow backpackers who told me they were skipping over Honduras due to crime concerns. “Don’t you know they have one of the highest murder rates in the world?,” one dorm mate in Antigua asked me. “Um, actually I did not,” I said, replied, while scratching my head with one hand and discreetly beginning to google on my iPhone with the other.
Yet there was nary a whiff of trouble in the charming Copan Valley.
Due to my unexpected detour over to Guatemala City, I arrived in Honduras with only nine days to go until my flight out of Central America departed from La Ceiba. On a previous trip to Honduras in 2010 I’d visited Roatán, Utila, and La Ceiba, and so I decided to dedicate some of my time to somewhere new — the tiny mountain town of Copan, just over the border from Guatemala.
While geographically close, I felt far away from the country I’d just departed — there was a new currency, a palpable rise in temperature, a noticeable increase in visible firearms, and, thanks to gaucho culture, a strong penchant among the male half of the population for cowboy hats.
The town of Copan is teeny tiny, but packed with charm. I checked into Via Via guesthouse, where I shared an adorable private room with Polly, a girl I’d met in Semuc Champey, and also dined on many a delicious meal. Also worth raving about were San Rafael, which had one of the most beautiful selections of bread and cheese I’d seen anywhere in Central America, and British Colonial House, which lured me in with promises of Thai curries and delivered in the most delicious kind of way.
But I did more than eat and sleep — I swear. Copan proper is light on sights, and after one wander through town with a camera and one quick loop through the teeny Museo de Arqueología Maya, I felt like I’d seen it all. The surrounding valley, however, is rich with sights and activities for travelers, from horseback riding excursions to a working chocolate farm to an elegant hot spring. One afternoon, after a morning on my laptop, Polly and I set off for one of the most popular of them all — Macaw Mountain.
Macaw Mountain began as a private collection of rescued macaws in Roatan in the 1980’s. By 2000, there were more than 100 birds being cared for and thus they were relocated to Copan, where they they would have a dedicated facility for their care. Most of the birds in the park are former pets that the owners were no longer willing or able to care for — some were foreigners who returned to their home countries and were unable to bring their feathered friends with them. The rest are wild birds that were injured or ill and turned over to the park by animal services — in those cases, they try to rehabilitate and release the bird. However, birds born in captivity typically can’t be released back into the wild. While I’m sad that so many pet birds have been abandoned by their human companions, I’m glad they have a place to go as safe and beautiful as this.
Macaw Mountain is more than just pretty, though — the park was educational and informative, and highlighted the close relationship between macaws and the Mayans, who revered them as sacred.
The highlight, of course, was the final section of the park, where human-friendly macaws are hanging out ready to greet visitors. A park employee who knew the name and temperament of each bird was nearby, ready to make introductions and interpret body language to let us know when a bird wasn’t in the mood to socialize.
Thankfully, I found one willing to selfie with me.
Later, I was ready for the big one — Copan’s namesake Mayan ruins. Having already been to Tikal in Guatemala and Xunantunich in Belize, I was somewhat concerned that I’d be ruined out, the Latin American version of templed out; a condition that affects travelers across Southeast Asia. But Copan had a few things working in its favor. First of all, it was walking distance from town, which made this bus-averse traveler extremely pleased. Second of all, it’s a fairly small site, and the rumor has it that’s it’s one spot that’s easy to explore without a guide.
So off I went, first thing in the morning, to explore before the day’s heat and crowds followed me in.
After paying my $15 entrance fee, I snapped a photo of a wall map and started wandering. Like the other two I’d visited on this trip, this is a true jungle ruin, and the surrounding canopy pulsed with life. There were plenty of walking trails leading into the jungle that I’d have loved to have taken were I not alone, but considering I was solo I went straight for the main event.
I was delighted by what I found. While small and relatively squat, the Copan Ruins featured the most beautiful and intricate carvings I think I’d ever seen at a historical site. I couldn’t get enough!
One motif in particular looked mighty familiar. I guess those guys at Macaw Mountain knew what they were talkin’ about!
The ruins of Copan might have been no more than a half-day’s entertainment at most, but I sure did make the most of it — I could have stayed longer too, had I visited the onsite but separately ticketed Sculpture Museum. I was planning to do so but ended up not having enough cash and being kind of tired and not really caring, so all is well that ends well. I saw some pretty badass sculptures right there at the ruins, anyway.
Some of them just begged for matching mean-faced selfies. Those Mayans really had RBF nailed, don’t you think?
My time in Copan was short and sweet, with an emphasis on the sweet. I spent three nights here and thought it was a good amount of time to check out a few of the areas attractions as well as soak up some of the languid mountain air.
Though practically they really don’t make it easy for you (see my transportation section below), theoretically, Copan is the perfect stopover between Guatemala and the Bay Islands, where most travelers to Honduras are eventually headed. Including, as it turns out, me…
Next stop, Roatan! Have you ever visited Honduras? Where did you go?
Where I stayed: Vía Vía, which no longer has dorm rooms available as advertised in many guidebooks. That said, private rooms with private bathrooms are a great value at $10 per person.
Where I ate: As referenced above, great best are Via Via, San Rafael, and British Colonial House. Smoothie shacks are scattered around town and make for a great breakfast or snack. The only place I can’t recommend is Twisted Tanya’s, where both I and my dining companion were underwhelmed.
How I got there: Direct shuttles from Antigua take 6-7 hours and cost around $30USD — I was able to get one to pick me up in Guatemala City, from where it takes 5-6 hours to reach Copan. That part was easy. Getting from Copan onward to anywhere else in Honduras, however, is a pain. I was shocked to find there was no shuttle between Copan and Le Ceiba, where travelers catch ferries to the Bay Islands, considering these are the two biggest tourist draws in the country.
But after inquiring at literally every travel agency in town I received just one answer: you must go by public bus. (There is also a more expensive and luxurious bus company, Hedman Alas, that provides connecting service with just one stop to La Ceiba — but it arrived too late in the day to take the ferry, which takes on an overnight in La Ceiba to your trip.) In order to travel from Copan to either Roatan or Utila in one day, you need to leave on either the 5:00am or 6:00am bus to San Pedro Sula, connect in San Pedro Sula to a bus to La Ceiba, take a cab from the La Ceiba bus station to the La Ceiba ferry terminal, and then take a ferry to your island of choice. With memories of seasickness from my last ferry ride lingering in my mind, I decided to cut out a step and fly from San Pedro Sula directly to Roatan for $74. Including the $6 I spent on the bus and the $15 I spent on the cab to the airport, it was an expensive day, but I thought it would be worth it. Instead, it turned out to be one of the most disorganized and hectic airport experiences of my life, saved me zero time, and scared the crap out of me. At least I can say with confidence I won’t fly with SOSA ever again! If I could do it all again I’d just bus all the way to La Ceiba, and at least save some cash while suffering through a painful travel day.
Bonus tip: There are a number of high-end spas in the area, but for an affordable option right in town ask about massages at Via Via. A masseuse nearby has a small studio set up in her home where she gives hour long massages for 600 lempiras (about $27 USD). I had a full massage one day, and a half-hour foot massage on another!
I’ve also been to Copan and Roatan but slightly different route. We crossed the border from El Salvador at El Poy and took an overnight bus I think from Ocotepeque to San Pedro Sula and I think we stayed the night there before busing to La Ceiba. My poor ex-husband threw up on that ferry to Roatan, we didn’t know to ask for a motion sickness pill when you buy your ticket, they give them out for free!
Oof, I have such awful memories of that boat ride. It’s a rough one!
Not one bird pooped on ya either? Lucky! I seem to have a target on me.
Those ruins look great. Good balance between getting close but trying to preserve them. The canopy orchestra I’m sure adds to the effect. Pretty cool.
Oh man. I didn’t even think of that! I guess I’m lucky I made it out unscathed!
I found Copan to be such a blissful and friendly surprise!
In Honduras, I went there, Comayagua, San Pedro Sula, Tegu, and Utila (not impressed).
Can’t wait to see your diving pics from Roatan!
Me too Jason! Did you spend time in San Pedro Sula or just pass through? I haven’t heard of anyone really hanging out there.
Macaw Mountain sounds like exactly the kind of conservation-oriented wildlife center I seek out while traveling! Definitely remembering this one for later travels 🙂
It was pretty darn cool. Hopefully also serves as a warning to those considering getting a bird they can’t care for!
This post is awesome! It’s definitely sad that so many were abandoned, but at least they’re being taken care of at Macaw Mountain. The ruins look phenomenal!
I’m so glad I didn’t pass them up due to heat and general ruin apathy 🙂 They were awesome!
Oh my gosh, the colors in this post are phenomenal. Such gorgeous birds. Love reading about your travels! Have a great weekend.
Thank you Diane, I love sharing them! It’s like I get to go on every trip twice 🙂
I always think it’s better to be a little unaware of the crime statistics otherwise I’d never go anywhere..! Or at least not to pay too much attention to them. It’s important to be safe and trust your instincts when out and about in any country- not just the dangerous ones. People always said that about Venezuela (the thing about having one of the highest murder rates in the world) when I was working there, but I didn’t have any problems. In fact, back home in the UK is the only place (so far!!) that I’ve had problems. Glad you didn’t skip over Honduras!
Nope, I’ve now been there twice and been totally without incident. I was a little on edge traveling through San Pedro Sula but otherwise my time there has been absolutely lovely.
I’m glad! I’m considering going to Nicaragua to study Spanish for a couple of weeks then travelling up through Honduras after. I don’t often travel solo these days so Im glad I get to read these posts from you first. It’s not definite yet but I’ve always wanted to study Spanish in Latin America and its a good time for me to go right now as I don’t have a job in the U.S. yet. I will be re-reading these posts multiple times I’m sure.
Ah, you know my vote — do it! Sounds like an awesome opportunity, Joella!
Copan looks like such a charming little town and omg all those beautiful birds at Macaw Mountain! The ruins look amazing too, I don’t think I could ever get ruined out.
I’m pretty sure I could, ha. Having my camera does keep me engaged in most things though as if I can be finding creative shots I don’t ever get bored!
Oh man! Those birds are amazing! I’d love to visit Honduras, can’t wait to read more!
Two more posts coming at ya next week 🙂
Those gorgeous birds! Oh my gosh, I might have tried to take them all home. (My parakeet might have literally gotten his feathers ruffled about that though.) The Macaw selfies are fantastic – he (she?) looks like (s)he’s really into it.
Right?! I think macaws were made to preen!
Those Macaws look absolutely beautiful. At least they are getting some care now that they can’t be released back into the wild.
Oh the joys of the pet industry!
I know :/ Hopefully visiting this place will make some people think twice if they really can’t care for a pet forever…
I went to Copan during my trip to Central America and I really liked those ruins! I didn’t know about Makaw Mountain though. I would have really liked to visit. Those birds you’re holding are enormous!! It now makes so much more sense why birds are featured so prominently in Mayan architecture. I’d never thought about it before 🙂
I loved learning about the connection! It really tied the town’s two star attractions together. Amazing!
Animal selfies are the best. Glad you found at least one bird that wasn’t a stick in the mud! 😀 Beautiful little guys.
Actually, the one Polly got was even better — intensified by the fact that HER NAME IS POLLY and she was posing with a parrot. I was more than a little jealous.
The Mayan Ruins look interesting. Did you gain any sorta spiritual vibe there?
You know, I can’t say I did — but maybe that’s because I was distracted by it being like a thousand degrees, and trying to get the best photo angles in direct sunlight 😉 Perhaps if I’d concentrated I might have felt something!
See, now this is what I envisioned all of Central America to look like (and why I was so disappointed in Guatemala). I love Copan, and I’ve never even been there!
It definitely did hit a lot of the Central America dream high points — bright colors, gorgeous Mayan ruins, and fun jungle animal encounters!
I like your travel blog!! How can you take fotos like those?!? Just with the Canon?? The colors are so bright!
Yup! You can find links to all my photography equipment on my obsessions page. Thanks for reading!
Sounds like an amazing visit! I loved the pictures, especially you with the macaws!
Ha, it was indeed a very fun afternoon!
AHHH the macaw selfie!! I love it. Also, yes, I have been to Honduras… once or twice 🙂
Ha, not a bad place to hang, huh?
Here’s an unknown treasure of Honduras! If you are still in Honduras, you should check it out! I’m am fighting to keep it this way! Please sign and share! https://www.thepetitionsite.com/314/228/111/save-guanaja-for-future-generations/
I’ve heard all about Guanaja but have yet to visit. Perhaps on a future trip. Best of luck!
I’m working to keep a place for future visitors to look forward to visiting. Signing this petition shows that the tourist they are looking to attract will come, as long as it does not turn into another generic developed island. Thank you!
Hi Alex! I have a general Central American travel question: Since you were hopping around between all of the countries there, do you get some kind of international sim card or regional phone plan to be able to use your phone while traveling? Do you have any recommendations on the best options for backpackers who are going to be bouncing around between all of the countries there? Thanks for any tips you can offer!
I just used my phone whenever I found wifi. When I’m in Thailand I have a local phone with a local SIM, but don’t bother for shorter stays like these.
I have loved all of your Central America coverage! Do you still experience anxiety when traveling to a new location? You’ve said many times that you don’t factor in safety that much to your travel plans, but do you still have a fear of the unknown? If so, is it just in certain regions? I’m currently trying to rearrange my life so I can do some long term travel and I think some of my fears are holding me back. Does it get easier the more you travel?
Well, I don’t want to seem like I’m being flip about personal safety when I say that I don’t factor that in. It’s just that I’ve never not gone to a place just because it was rumored to be dangerous, you know? I feel like those warnings are so vague and often don’t apply to travelers, so they just don’t really register when I hear them. Or if they do, I just adjust my behavior rather than change my plans.
I definitely get a little anxious before going to a totally new region of the world, but it’s quickly abated when I touch down and realize that I’ve got this! There’s a line in the song Breezeblocks that says, “the fear has gripped me but, here I go.” I love that line because I think it describes exactly how I feel — I just have to embrace that fear and go for it, and that’s where the magic happens!
Honduras has always been a country I have been interested in visiting but like many others the crime stats always made me nervous. My mom went there recently and said it was pretty intense in major cities, people with guns everywhere etc. but the smaller towns sound absolutely amazing!
Yes, even in the small town of Copan I saw a lot of guns. It is something to get used to but I’m equally shocked by all the “no concealed weapons” signs when I’m traveling in the South in the USA! I was a little on edge traveling through San Pedro Sula and in La Ceiba when in transit, but in my actual destinations of Copan and Roatan I felt perfectly safe.
This is a great post, I really enjoy when bloggers show some love for the smaller, less ‘popular’ stops on the way to other destinations… that’s where you can find the magic 🙂
And it’s great to be able to write about a place less people have covered… you don’t have to work so hard to find an angle 😉
I’m glad you visited Honduras! I really loved it there, coming from Mexico I have always been fascinated by the similar yet different Mayan ruins that one can find in Belize, Guatemala and Honduras.
Copan was definitely one of my highlights although I specially found it odd to see so many armed soldiers during my visit! I even took a selfie with one 😀
Ha! I wish I’d thought to have done the same. Selfie with a macaw, selfie with a machine gun…
I love those carvings. They really are beautiful. It is so funny that people are happy to skip entire countries just because they think it is dangerous. Some of these statistics are so outdated and Honduras has actually changed a lot in recent years. I recently read a UN report about it. Glad you enjoyed it.
I’d be interested to read that report, Tammy!
Alex i love your selfies so much fun!!! and i didnt know that you can take a bus from Guatemala to hoduras
Ha, I just can’t help myself from a good selfie! Thanks Izy, I had fun taking them.
What beautiful tropical birds! How cool that you actually got to hold them too. Enjoy the rest of your trip!
It was a really unique opportunity. Definitely a highlight of Copan!
I know it will be brief, but I’m excited for your Honduras coverage! Copan is home to my favorite pupusas in Honduras at Pupuseria Mary (yes, it happens to share my name but I swear I’m not biased about their deliciousness!)
I’m itching to go back for a visit, but the security situation has been holding me back. I know there are plenty of areas that are safe, but they all require transit through SPS, which my family in Honduras tells me to avoid at all costs. Glad you had a safe trip!
I definitely did feel a little on edge traveling through San Pedro Sula and La Ceiba! However, once in my destinations I felt totally at ease. If only I had known about Pupuseria Mary!
Seems like you had a great time visiting Honduras. bookmarking your blog for more posts like these. it’s my first time here. 🙂
Hey Max! Indeed, I had a great time in Honduras. Thanks for stopping by — hope to see you again around here! 🙂
Your description’s so vivid and clear. I would definitely put Macaws and mayan ruins in my wishlist of travel location. I felt as though i was there my self. What could be better than that?
Thanks Spenser! I’d go back here in a heartbeat!
Even though I’m from Honduras, I have never visited Macaw Mountain 🙁 I just Love It! Thanks for sharing your experience. Your Pictures are Awesome. In my next trips I would love to start taking professional photos (just as you) but I don’t know which camera would be the best for it, Which one do you use?
Hey Diana! Macaw Mountain was indeed awesome. I have a detailed list of all my camera gear on my Obsessions page. Take a look and let me know if you have any questions!
Great post! Love all your pictures! I am glad to see you had a wonderful visit to my lovely town. Woindering some day see you back! Saludos!
Central America is always in my heart 🙂 Hope to be back someday!
Hola Alex! I’m very happy and humbled by your amazing post about my Honduras, as a Catracho I can’t help but appreciate and want to share your experience with others, so that Honduras and all my fellow Central American neighbors can get more needed tourist to enjoy the richness of culture we have!
I hope God allows you to have many more wonderful trips throughout this unique and precious globe we inhabit!
If you ever wanted to (in case you don’t already do) learn Spanish, so you can travel more confidently and comfortable, I leave you this link which is a referral for Preply so you can hire a tutor (hopefully me) to learn Spanish and venture your way into the 20+ countries of our world that mainly speak in Spanish!
Stay safe and be blessed!
My best regards,
Hi Roberto! Indeed, Honduras is a beautiful country I feel lucky to have traveled. I have many more Spanish speaking adventures ahead of me, I’m sure!