When people refer to Copan, they could be talking about very different destinations without even knowing it!
Copan is a magical destination located in Western Honduras, bordering with the country of Guatemala. However, Copan can actually mean several different places, and it can get confusing… I know of many a different tourist that ended up at a different location than originally planned because they did not grasp what Copan can actually refer to!
For starters, Honduras is divided in 18 different departments, more or less the equivalent to states or provinces. One of those 18 departments is Copan, located in Western Honduras. Of course, the department of Copan is divided into many different municipalities, and most of them actually have the department name within them. For example, you have the capital: Santa Rosa de Copan, you then you have other towns, such as Dulce Nombre de Copan, La Entrada de Copan, and Copan Ruinas, just to name a few.
If you show up at the San Pedro Sula bus terminal and ask for a bus to Copan, you will usually be sent to either the bus company that offers service to Santa Rosa or to the one that travels to Copan Ruinas. (Many Hondurans confuse these two cities also!) Although they are within the same department, they are over 100 km away from each other, via a winding, hilly road that will take you a couple of hours to drive. The bottom line is that you do not want to end up at the wrong Copan. Both of these two different destinations offer great alternatives for a traveler looking for a unique experience, however, they are very different Worlds, and if you are on a tight schedule, then you should make sure you do not end up at the wrong destination and take time away from the experience you are seeking. If you do not have a tight schedule, then perhaps you should make sure you visit both!
Copan Ruinas is home to the magnificent archaeological site of Copan, rightfully dubbed the Paris of the Maya World! This is a unique rural town in Honduras, offering all of the charm of colonial villages, with cobblestoned streets, red tile roofs and white washed buildings, where you will enjoy the rich heritage that the ancient Maya left in this land. People are friendly, there are great restaurants and bars and outstanding hotels, ranging from boutique inns to budget hostels. Nearby, the Macaw Mountain Bird Park is absolutely unique, here you will learn about the relationship between the Maya and the magnificent macaws, and if you consider that the Scarlet Macaw is the National Bird of Honduras, then you will learn more about the important meaning of this unique bird for Honduras.
Santa Rosa de Copan is a larger city, and is an important commercial hub for two of the different agricultural products that Honduras is now famous for: Coffee and Tobacco. At Santa Rosa you may visit nearby coffee fincas, see industrial facilities where coffee is processed and of course, enjoy a cup of some of the best coffee in the World! Santa Rosa is also home to an important cigar factory that produces some of the best export quality cigars. You can even arrange for a tour of the manufacturing facility and learn a bit about cigars, tobaccos, and how they are hand rolled. In addition, Santa Rosa is the ideal gateway to the Lenca Trail, a large expanse of beautiful highlands that are located in Western Honduras and are home to the Lenca ethnic group. The towns and cities offer lovely colonial churches, laid back and very relaxed lifestyle, and some of the most dense pine forests in Honduras. Despite being a larger city than Copan Ruinas, Santa Rosa also has a lot of charm, with cobblestone streets, red tiled roofs and white washed buildings. People are also very friendly and both are extremely safe destinations for tourists.
As you can see, there is good reason to visit both, Copan Ruinas and Santa Rosa de Copan, but it is also important to understand that they are two different destinations offering very different experiences. If my advice is any good, and you are still in the planning mode of your vacation to Honduras, make sure you allow yourself time enough to visit them both, you will be happy you did!