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When Christopher Columbus arrived near the site of the city of Trujillo, he reportedly said “Thank God we have departed from those depths.” Honduras—which is the Spanish word for “depths”—is a land of overwhelmingly diverse ecology and a rich history rooted in the central story of the Maya and the Spanish conquistadores.
Until the first Spanish conquests in 1502, the Maya created awe-inspiring monuments as the prodigious Hieroglyphic Stairway in Copán. Conquistadores including Hernán Cortés and Gil González Dávila ushered in the Maya’s demise in Honduras, instituting Spanish rule over the country until full independence in 1839. Since then, Honduras has endured a complicated political history of dictators and corruption.
Yet amid the political and economic strife of Honduras, its nature and history are where the country’s treasured reputation shines. Considered one of the most biodiverse nations in the world, Honduras has become a world-renowned birdwatching destination. Thick jungle and high-reaching cloud forests—areas where jungle canopies reach almost 10,000 feet in elevation covered in a persistent fog—jealously guard the many archaeological sites and mountains throughout the country.
For the hardy traveler, Honduras offers an adventure into the depths of the Central American identity—people living between ancient and colonial, a force of nature predominant throughout the country, and a simpler way of life.
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Copán Ruinas is above all else the gateway into Honduras from Guatemala, as well as to the heart of the country’s Mayan heritage. A quaint and charming destination for travelers of all kinds, the people and places of Copán Ruinas welcome visitors with open arms.
The cobblestone streets of Copán Ruinas run through a town proud of its heritage with a nod to the present. Sun-baked adobe and red-tiled roofs make up the aesthetic character of Copán Ruinas, and its people are notoriously friendly. The various souvenir shops give travelers the chance to take a piece of their journey home with them, and the restaurants embrace both the local and the global.
The Copán Sculpture Museum holds one of the best-preserved collections of Mayan relics in the world. From a brilliantly-engraved, red-stone gateway to the stelae—stone sculptures carvings of past kings—the museum offers an intimate look into some of the most important artifacts left behind by the Maya.
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Mayan Ruins of Copán
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Copán Archaeological Site contains the most studied Mayan ruins in the world. One of the grandest Mayan cities ever built, the site gives a particularly enriching look into the lives of the Mayan warrior kings of Copán.
Originally settled in the first century, the well-preserved plazas, complexes, and sports courts each have their own stories to tell about the life of the Maya. One of the greatest monuments at the site is the Hieroglyphic Stairway. The inscriptions on its 63 steps tell the story of the 16 warrior kings of Copán, from its founder Yax K’uk Moh to the mysteriously-named “16 Rabbits.” The more than 2,000 glyphs depict births, deaths, and a detailed history of each king’s rule.
Evidence from skeletons and historic inscriptions tell the story of a city that fell from grace. Once home to more than 25,000 people, drought and a lack of resources led to Copán’s abandonment in around the ninth century. Yet, the fizzling of a city’s spark cannot destroy its story: Copán’s ruins, unlike many other Mayan sites, offer a near complete history of a people whose legacy has lived on for centuries.
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Nature lovers and scientists have long enjoyed Central America’s astounding myriad of flora and fauna, yet Honduras takes it to another level. With more forest coverage than even Costa Rica or Belize, Honduras comprises more jungle territory than that of any other Central American country.
Yet, the complex mosaic of Honduras doesn’t end in the forests. Huge swaths of savannas, mangroves, and coastal lagoons are also home to the country’s nearly innumerable species of wildlife species.
It’s no surprise some of the world’s leading bird guides in the world treasure the Honduras experience. With more than 725 species calling the country home, it’s not uncommon to behold some treasured species such as the Scarlet Macaw, Lovely Cotinga, Black-crested Coquette, or the iconic keel-billed Toucan. And if you are able to spot the brilliant yellows and reds of the rare Aracari, you’ll have something to write home about.
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Films featuring Honduras from international, independent filmmakers
Everything is Incredible
Get inspired by the persistence of a Honduran man who strives to build his own helicopter.Produced by Tyler Bastian
Immerse yourself in Honduras with this selection of articles, recipes, and more
The Mayan empire fell centuries ago, but their legacy is still felt throughout Central America.
From Ancient Empire to Contemporary Culture
The Maya then and now
Although the Mayan Empire ended, the Maya continued to thrive in agricultural villages throughout the mountains of Central America ...
When Hammurabi ruled Babylonia and the ancient Egyptians were under Hyksos influence in the 13th Dynasty, another great empire was forming in the Americas. The ancient Maya began as farmers but went on to develop some of the most advanced forms of architecture, mathematics, language, and religion known to the Americas at the time. Even after the end of their 2,700-year reign of power in the region, the Maya continue to wield their influence on contemporary Central American culture, particularly in Guatemala, where modern Maya people comprise approximately 40% of the population.
Using glyphs to understand the past
It is through ancient Maya monuments, art, and architecture that scholars learned about the system of Maya writing, which many suspect is ancient Mesoamerica’s first writing system and the only ancient language in this region to be comprehensively translated. One of the landmark examples of Maya writing is the Hieroglyphic Stairway, consisting of 1,800 ascending glyphs in Copán, an ancient Maya city in western Honduras. While ancient Maya scribes created glyphs both in stones and in paper texts, the Spanish conquistadors burned most of the paper texts in the 16th century while converting the Maya to Christianity, and discouraged the use of Maya script. After the last of the Maya scribes died out, the text remained untranslated until Western explorers in the 1880s renewed interest in the glyphs.
The glyphs themselves were not fully translated until the 1980s—and a world of dynastic succession and a society beset with violent conquest and gruesome religious sacrifice came to life. The texts and stone carvings also illustrate vivid mythologies, the most seminal of which involves mortal twin brothers fighting gods in the underworld, eventually going on to feed the Maya and then transforming into the sun and moon.
Uncovering the world of everyday Maya
While ancient cities like Copán and Tikal harken to a golden age of architecture, art, and ideology in Maya civilization, our understanding of ancient Maya life greatly improved with the 1976 discovery of the village of Cerén, located in western El Salvador. Called “the Pompeii of the New World” because it was enveloped in volcanic ash in AD 590, the site serves as a time capsule for daily life in a small village of that era. Though it appears the residents had time to escape the eruption, they left behind an impeccably preserved village. Excavations revealed that cassava was widely grown. Some archaeologists have posited that this hardy, nutritious tuber—which remains a staple to this day—may have enabled the Maya Empire to accommodate up to two million subjects at its peak.
Although the Maya Empire ended, the Maya continued to thrive in agricultural villages throughout the mountains of Central America—and their cultural heritage still lives on today. Throughout Spanish conquest, they maintained the spoken language of their ancestors, of which there are dozens of dialects spoken in Guatemala alone. Maximón, the ancient Maya god of the underworld, was reincarnated as San Simón after hundreds of years of forced conversion of the Maya people to Roman Catholicism. In addition to a name change, Maximón also got a bespoke makeover and is usually seen in 18th-century European clothes. Many handcrafts produced in the region today reflect the art of their ancient ancestors, such as jade carvings and intricate textiles. The historic and contemporary legacy of the Maya serves as a window to their civilization at its peak, a haunting reminder of the impermanence of great empires, and a reminder of how the roots of the past give shape to a vibrant modern existence.
The Maya Then and Now
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Our Activity Level rating system ranks adventures on a scale of 1 to 5 to help you determine if a trip is right for you. See the descriptions below for more information about the physical requirements associated with each rating.
Activity Level 1:
Travelers should be able to climb 25 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 1-2 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last at least 1-2 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 2:
Travelers should be able to climb 40 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 2-3 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for at least 2-3 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 3:
Travelers should be able to climb 60 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 3 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 3 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 5,000 to 7,000 feet.
Activity Level 4:
Travelers should be able to climb 80 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 4 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 7,000 to 9,000 feet.
Activity Level 5:
Travelers should be able to climb 100 or more stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 8 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 10,000 feet or more.
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