Cancuén’s rediscovery dates to the early 1900s, but it is only recently that archaeologists have begun piecing together its rich past and the full extent of its power, along with its corresponding significance in the place of Mayan history. Cancuén was largely overlooked by archaeologists for much of the 20th century because it lacked large temple pyramids and defensive structures like those found elsewhere in the Mayan world.
It is thought that Cancuén existed as a mostly secular trading center, which gained much of its prosperity from its enviable position on the Río La Pasión at a strategic geographic transition zone between the southern highlands and the northern lowlands. Its importance as a trade center is substantiated by large amounts of pyrite (for making mirrors), jade, obsidian, and fine ceramics found here. It has been speculated that the absence of large temple pyramids may be a product of the site’s proximity to the Candelaria caves, which certainly held spiritual significance for the Mayans living here in those times, as they still do today.
Adding to Cancuén’s splendor is a paved plaza covering two square kilometers. It may have doubled as a marketplace. Among the incredible finds uncovered in recent years by a U.S.-Guatemalan team working under the direction of Vanderbilt University’s Arthur Demarest is the largest known Mayan palace. Built in A.D. 770 during the reign of Taj Chan Ahk, the three-story palace covers about 23,000 square meters and has 200 rooms built around 11 courtyards.
The archaeologists working here have also recently uncovered the third and final marker from a royal ball court, which has been gradually excavated during the last century. The markers served as goalposts. The first of these markers was unearthed in 1915 and can be seen in the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología in Guatemala City. The second marker was looted from the site in 2001 but recovered two years later thanks to unprecedented collaboration between Guatemalan undercover agents, local villagers, and archaeologists. The third marker is an elaborately carved stone altar uncovered from the stucco surface of the ball court.
A separate, 100-pound stone panel with hieroglyphics and carved images was also found at the ball court, the second such panel to be unearthed here. It depicts Taj Chan Ahk installing a subordinate ruler at the smaller state of Machaquilá. The panel is interesting in that it confirms Taj Chan Ahk’s status as a great Mayan king who was able to maintain power over a large area through politics and economic clout, rather than warfare, at a time when most Mayan city-states had begun their decline.
The peaceful prosperity would be short-lived, however, as recent finds reveal a wide-scale massacre of at least 31 nobles and several others at the hands of invading armies from Machaquilá and Ceibal sometime around A.D. 800. This marked the beginning of the end for Cancuén, and the city was abandoned shortly thereafter.
Excavations and restoration work at the site are ongoing, and it is certainly thrilling to walk around the site and see the work in progress. The jungle around the site is thick with vegetation and mosquitoes are there in droves. Bring plenty of bug spray and wear long pants. There is a recently opened visitors center with informative displays and a campground, as well as restrooms and showers.
Accommodations and Food
You can camp at La Unión for $3.50. Meals are available from local families with prior notice ($3.50–5.50). At the Cancuén visitors center, camping and tent rental for two costs $7, or you can camp in your own tent for $3. Meals are also available ($3–5). Book in advance.
Getting to Cancuén
Pickups leave about every hour from Raxrujá to the village of La Unién, 16 kilometers to the north, where there is a visitors center. From there, boatmen take you on the 30-minute boat ride up the Río La Pasión ($40 for 1–12 people) to the site. You can also book a tour via one of the Cobán travel outfitters.
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com