North of Raxrujá is the large Maya site of Cancuén, where a huge Classic-period palace has been unearthed. Cancuén was discovered in 1907, but the sheer size of the ruins had been underestimated, and investigations in 1999 revealed the vast scale of the royal enclave here. The site is enigmatic in many ways: uniquely, Cancuén seems to have lacked the usual religious and defensive structures characteristic of Maya cities and appears to have existed as an essentially secular merchant city. The vast amounts of jade, pyrite, obsidian and fine ceramics found recently indicate that this was actually one of the greatest trading centres of the Maya world, with a paved plaza (that may have been a marketplace) covering two square kilometres. Cancuén is thought to have flourished because of its strategic position between the great cities of the lowlands, like Tikal and Calakmul, and the mineral-rich highlands of southern Guatemala.
A trail takes you past the ruined remains of workshops where precious materials including jade were fashioned into jewellery by expert artisans. It continues to a ball court, where there are replicas of some beautifully carved markers; one depicts ruler Taj Chan Ahk passing the staff of the ruling dynasty to his son Kan Maax in 795 AD.
Before visiting nobility could enter Cancuén’s royal enclave, they’d stop to perform ritual cleansing at a highly unusual ten-metre stone bathing pool, then climb a hieroglyphic staircase to the entrance of the elite. The vast, almost ostentatious triple-level palace (Structure L7-27) itself has 170 rooms and eleven courtyards. Its sides are adorned with dozens of life-sized stucco figures, and it is Cancuén’s most impressive structure.
The trail continues past several stricken stelae, and returns through some towering hardwood trees to the modest visitor centre, which has information panels (some with English translations) and a model of the site. Cancuén’s very finest carvings lie elsewhere; there’s an absolutely stunning altar panel in the Maya museum in Cobán.