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The ruins of Cancuén are an important Mayan site of the classical period (300 to 900 a.d.). Although they are technically part of the southern area of Sayaxché, Petén, they are accessible from Raxruha in the Alta Verapaz.

The port city of Cancuén, which was peopled by nobles and craftsmen, played a strategic role in the control of the trade route between the Highlands and Lowlands of Guatemala. It was founded around 656 on a meander of the Río de la Pasion, effectively controlling navigation. It reached the height of its splendor in late 8th century, as king Tajal Chan Ahk commissioned most monuments and made Cancuén prosper via political alliances, and via the trade of jade, obsidian, quetzal feathers, and other exotic goods. But in the year 800, a massacre, possibly perpetrated by a rival dynasty, wiped out the rulers and destroyed the city, leaving it to be slowly covered up by the jungle. The ruins of the ballcourt markers (juego de pelota) were discovered in the early years of the 20th century and in 1967, thanks to investigations by a Harvard archeological, the first mapping of Cancuén was conducted. Subsequent excavations, led jointly by the American University of Vanderbilt and the Guatemalan Universidad del Valle, uncovered the ruins of a palace, of a water reservoir and of several houses. These were restored (maybe a little bit too neatly), involving the local communities in the preservation and touristic exploitation of the site. A visit through the site takes you from the visitors’ center to the reconstitution of a thatched hut, then to the ballcourt where the game of pelota was played (using knees and elbows to pass a ball), then to the palace and its staircase with well-preserved murals. Several carved altars lying about the site are still used by nearby Mayan communities to celebrate traditional rituals.

As you follow the footpaths and boardwalks through the forest, you may see toucans, monkeys, agoutis, parrots, iguanas and butterflies. Unfortunately, habitual residents of the jungle also include bloodthirsty mosquitoes, who come in largest numbers from August to January, so try to visit outside of those months.

Admission to the site is 35Q, open daily 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. It is possible to camp at Cancuén, if you bring your own tent, the fee is Q25/person. Meals (roughly Q50 per dish) can also be prepared by the local community, if you give them advance notice of a few days.

Contact: Tel (502) 5042-1161.


Other places nearby Cancuén: Chisec, Parque Nacional Cuevas de Candelaria, Purulhá and the Corredor Biológico del Bosque Nuboso, Rabinal, Salamá, Sierra De Las Minas Biosphere Reserve , Cubulco, Biotopo De Quetzal, Parque Nacional Laguna Lachuá and Playa Grande.

By Andrea Davoust
After more than two years of working and living out of a suitcase in Eastern Europe and in various improbable African countries that no-one has ever...
07 Dec 2009

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