The western highlands of Honduras present a picturesque landscape of pine forests, sparsely inhabited mountains and remote villages. The departments of Lempira and Intibucá contain the highest concentration of indigenous peoples in the country, and many of the towns in the region make up the so-called Ruta Lenca. Around the village of La Esperanza particularly, look out for Lenca women wearing traditional coloured headdresses while working in the fields.
Cobbled, colonial Gracias makes a relaxing base for hikes in the pristine cloudforest reserve of the Parque Nacional Celaque. An easy bus ride away is Santa Rosa de Copán, which is also a relaxing place to stay and still unspoilt, despite its growing popularity with tourists and its proximity to the famous Copán ruins.
Top image: Santa Rosa de Copan © Francky38/Shutterstock
The ruins of Copán are one of the most magnificent of all Maya sites. While its compact scale is not initially as impressive as Tikal or Mexico’s Chichén Itzá, it boasts an astonishing number of decorative carvings, stelae and altars, including a towering hieroglyphic stairway. Throw in a wonderful site museum and the delightful and friendly village of Copán Ruinas, where most people stay, and it’s easy to appreciate Copán’s appeal.
Delightfully located in a sweeping highland valley, the city-state of Copánwas the southernmost centre of the Maya civilization. The Maya chose a beautiful site on the fertile banks of the Río Copán at a pleasingly temperate altitude of 600m. Today the countryside around Copán is glorious to look at, with green rolling hills of pastureland and tobacco and coffee farms interspersed with patches of pine forest. Though the archeological site is the main attraction, there’s plenty more to explore in the surrounding area, with hot springs, fincas and bird reserves close by.
Just 10km east of the Guatemalan border, the small town of COPÁN RUINAS is a charming place of steep, cobbled streets and red-tiled roofs set among the lush scenery of Honduras’s western highlands. Despite a fast-increasing number of visitors, income from whom now forms the mainstay of the town’s economy, it has managed to remain a largely unspoilt and genuinely friendly place. Many travellers are seduced by Copán’s delightfully relaxed atmosphere, clean air and rural setting, and end up spending longer here than planned, studying Spanish, eating and drinking well, or exploring the region’s other minor sites, hot springs and beautiful countryside.
The forested, highland region around Copán is very beautiful and loaded with interest including waterfalls, hot springs, a minor archeological site, coffee fincas, ziplines and a spa. Tour operators can set up trips to all these attractions.
The Macaw Mountain Bird Park and Nature Reserve has abundant parrots, parakeets, toucans, six species of macaw, grey hawks and a great horned owl and makes a wonderful half-day excursion. Most of the birds have been previously kept as pets and donated to the centre, and breeding programmes have been started for very rare species such as the Buffon macaw and the yellow-lored amazon. There are walk-through aviaries and nature trails that wind through a lovely old-growth forest of cedar, mahogany, fig and zapote trees, interspersed with elevated viewing decks. You’ll also find a coffee-roasting house and an excellent café/restaurant serving gourmet coffee from the Copán region, as well as an information centre explaining the relationship between the Maya and birds, and a wonderful natural pool for swimming.
Some 2km east of Copán along the highway is the smaller archeological site of Las Sepulturas, the focus of much interest in recent years because of the information it provides on daily domestic life in Maya times. Eighteen of the forty-odd residential compounds at the site have been excavated, yielding a hundred buildings that would have been inhabited. Smaller compounds on the edge of the site are thought to have housed young princes, as well as concubines and servants. It was customary to bury the nobility close to their residences, and more than 250 tombs have been excavated around the compounds. One of the most interesting finds – the tomb of a priest or shaman, dating from around 450 AD – is on display in the museum in Copán Ruinas town.
Some 22km north of Copán, set in lush highland scenery dotted with coffee fincas and tracts of pine, the Luna Jaguar spa resort is a great place to relax. Here thermal waters pour into the cold-water river, creating natural pools and showers. L40 will get you into the man-made pools, but across the river, with another L200 entrance fee, you enter a world fit for a Maya king, with pools and footbaths all around.
Archeologists now believe that settlers began moving into the Río Copán valley from around 1400 BC, taking advantage of the area’s rich agricultural potential, although construction of the city is not thought to have begun until around 100 AD. By 760 AD the population had reached 28,000 before decline took hold in the 800s due to scant food resources and disease. Don Diego de Palacios, a Spanish court official, mentions the ruins “constructed with such skill that it seems that they could never have been made by people as coarse as the inhabitants of this province” in a letter of 1576. But it was not until the 1830s that archeologists, notably John Stephens, the US ambassador to Honduras and British archeologist Alfred Maudsley began to map and decipher the site. For those interested in finding out more, Vision del Pasado Maya by Fash and Fasquelle, available from the museums, is an excellent historical account of the site’s history in Spanish.
Founded in 1536 by Spanish conquistador Juan de Chávez, GRACIAS lies in the shadow of the nearby Parque Nacional Celaque. It’s a hot and dusty cobbled town, but well located for day-trips to surrounding natural attractions, including the park and some natural hot springs, about an hour’s walk south or around L60 each way in a moto-taxi – you can arrange for one to come and collect you for the return leg. These are small pools purpose-built for bathing in the 36–39° waters; an on-site comedor serves basic meals.
Northeast from Copán the CA-11 winds its scenic way through lightly wooded mountains and fertile pasture to LA ENTRADA, an unpleasant junction town 55km from Copán, useful only for its bus connections to San Pedro Sula, Santa Rosa and Copán Ruinas.
Just north of the town of Siguatepeque, a good paved road heads west from CA-5 to the village of LA ESPERANZA, the centre of commerce for western Honduras and the capital of the department of Intibucá. During the week there’s nothing much of interest here, but the town livens up considerably during the colourful weekend market (Sat & Sun), when Lenca farmers from surrounding villages pour into town. It’s likely that if you’re heading to Gracias you’ll need to stay overnight in La Esperanza due to the lack of buses.
PARQUE NACIONAL CELAQUE protects one of the largest and most impressive expanses of virgin cloudforest in Honduras. Thousands of years of geographical isolation have resulted in several endemic species of flora. Locals also claim that the park is home to more quetzals than all of Guatemala, though you’ll still have to keep a sharp eye out to see one. The focus of the park is the nation’s highest peak, Cerro Las Minas (2849m).
Inside the park, there are rambles and hikes of all experience levels to choose from. The most exciting and scenic option is the 6km marked trail up to the summit of Cerro Las Minas. In the upper reaches of the park much of the main trail consists of 40-degree slopes, so this is not a hike for the unfit. If the peak is your aim, you’ll need to camp at one of the two designated spots along the way. The cloudforest proper doesn’t begin until after Campamento El Naranjo, so try to make it this far. Guides aren’t necessary for the main trail, but you’ll need one if planning to undertake the more difficult treks on the southern slopes.
A bumpy 52km north of La Esperanza, the village of SAN JUAN INTIBUCÁ is slowly finding its way onto the tourist map thanks to a local cooperativa promoting the area’s Lenca traditions. Information about tours and demonstrations is available from Hotel Guancascos in Gracias or Gladys Nolasco (2754 7150 or 9786 1012, email@example.com), who can be found at a building marked Docucentro Israel copias y mas, a five-minute walk from the main square, opposite a small fruit and vegetable market. Options include participating in the roasting of coffee beans, hikes to nearby waterfalls and cloudforests, and observing the production of traditional handicrafts.
It’s an easy ninety-minute bus ride 45km northwest from Gracias to SANTA ROSA DE COPÁN, a colourful colonial relic built on the proceeds of the tobacco industry. Unusually for a town of this size, the majority of its streets are still cobbled, which gives it a traditional feel. While fresh in the mornings and evenings, the town heats up steadily during the day.
In the centre of town is the delightful, shady Parque Contreras, the Parque Central, with a beautiful cathedral on its eastern side. Calle Real Centenario, lined with shops and restaurants, runs along the southern edge of the Parque, past the town’s central market a couple of blocks east.
Colonia San Martín, a short taxi ride away, is home to the Beneficio Maya (cafecopan.com) coffee finca. A family-run business, they offer tours during the coffee season, which should be booked via the tourist office, and welcome visitors year-round.
Santa Rosa de Copán was chosen in 1765 as the headquarters of the Royal Tobacco Factory and the golden weed continues to play a role in the local economy. The Flor de Copán Cigar Company maintains offices in the town centre – in the original Royal Tobacco building on Calle Real Centenario – but their factory is 2km northwest of the town centre, about 300m after turning right out of the bus station. Around thirty thousand hand-rolled cigars are produced daily, and tours in Spanish and English are available, but you’ll need to book with the tourist office a day ahead.