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It must have been a horrific scene. 1,200 years ago, near the edge of the Pasión River in modern-day Guatemala, more than 30 men, women, and children were executed by lance, spear, and ax. Their remains were tossed into a sacred cistern at the front of an enormous palace. Accompanying them to their final resting place were the precious jades, seashells, and jaguar fang necklaces that symbolized their prestige as the ruling class and nobles of the once-powerful Maya city Cancuén, the “Palace of Serpents.”


Some dignity and respect was reserved for the very last king and queen of a ruling dynasty dating as far back as the second or third century B.C.: their bodies were buried in full royal regalia 80 meters away in a shallow grave.


To the Maya—for whom life, death, and the supernatural world were closely integrated—the end must have seemed imminent.


Hastily built and unfinished walls around the city suggest there had been something to fear. After the executions, the city seems to have been abandoned, and the fate of its inhabitants is still unknown. Like Tikal, Copán and Palenque, the Maya city of Cancuén simply faded into time and the ageless jungle.


Recent excavations, led by Vanderbilt University anthropologist Dr. Arthur Demarest, highlight an extraordinary new chapter in Guatemalan historical and cultural investigations. Restoration and preservation is aided by the Q’eqchí Maya who reside in neighboring villages. Income raised through tourism will assist the local economy and support the stewardship of the site. The goal of the Cancuén Archeological Project is to establish the three-story, 170 room palace as a center that will attract eco-tourists, archaeologists, students, and researchers. The story of the lives, politics and trade and eventually decline of the ancient Maya, is slowly unraveling through the artifacts currently being examined in an on-site archaeology lab.


Unlike larger and more developed Maya cities such as Tikal or Copán, the adventurous and difficult trek to remote Cancuén attracts few visitors. The nearest hotels and restaurants can be found in the town of Chisec in the north-central Guatemalan region of Alta Verapaz. From there it’s a two hour trip along narrow highways (often crowded with pedestrians and livestock) and potholed back roads, followed by a scenic boat ride down the Pasión River. Plans are in the works for overnight camping and food service at the site.


Local guides share their perspectives and the latest scientific theories while escorting you through the emerald jungle. Visitors stroll through the ruins of the palace, past a ball court, around half buried temples and to the cistern where the details of the massacre recently emerged.


Crossing the less traveled paths through the colorful Guatemalan countryside is just about worth the trip itself. While there is a chance you might see howler monkeys, rare birds, and woolly anteaters, you will definitely see mosquitoes—thousands of them! Bring a lot of repellent.


Also, bring a lot of film. The excavations are expected to continue for the next decade, which means any visit to Cancuén will be at merely one stage of its reemergence.

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