In the northern section of Alta Verapaz, the lush hills drop away steeply onto the plain that marks the frontier with the department of Petén. The terrain is a beguiling mix of dense patches of rainforest, towering tooth-like outcrops of limestone called karsts, and pastureland. Some of the most extensive cave systems in Latin America are located here, particularly in the Candelaria region, which is riddled with caverns. The paved highway runs north from Cobán, passing Parque Hun Nal Ye and Chisec, from where you can explore Bombil Pek cavern and Lagunas de Sepalau, then skirts the ruins of Cancuén. Otherwise it’s dirt tracks all the way, including a branch road that leads to the spectacular, remote lake of Laguna Lachúa.
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.
The limestone mountains in northern Alta Verapaz are full of caves, of which the most impressive and extensive are those at Candelaria, northeast of Chisec. Here the Río Candelaria has formed an astonishingly complex system of caverns and passages, occasionally penetrated by skylights from the surface. The Candelaria cave network extends for 22km (though if you include all the subsidiary systems it’s more like 80km) and includes some truly monumental chambers.
It’s quite straightforward to visit part of this cave network, but rather confusingly, there are four possible entrances. Two are community-run (Candelaria Camposanto and Mucbilhá) and two are privately owned (Cuevas de Candelaria and Cuevas de los Nacimientos); the two most impressive sections are the latter two options.
The most memorable way to explore the cave system is on one of the full-day river tours (US$17; minimum four people) run by Hotel Cancuén in Raxrujá, which visit Los Nacimientos, where you can take in the crystalline Cueva Blanca, and involve floating for several hours through bat-filled caverns on a tube.
Some 60km north of Cobán, CHISEC is a quiet, agreeable little town spread out along the highway that’s grown quickly in the last few years as land-hungry migrants have moved into the region. It’s one of the very few places in Guatemala without a church on its huge central plaza – many of its population are former guerrillas and repatriados opposed to religious influence.
Chisec makes the perfect base for visiting two remarkable natural attractions, the nearest being the “painted cave” of Bombil Pek. There’s a community-run guide office a kilometre north of Chisec, right on the highway, where you pay your entrance fee and collect a flashlight; they also rent tubes (US$3; best July–Oct) for river exploration here. A guide leads you along a delightful forty-minute hike through the milpa fields and forest, and down a steep, slippery wooden staircase into the sinkhole and its vast 50m-high main cavern. Many ceramics have been found here, and the cave is still used for Maya religious ceremonies.
Your guide will then try to persuade you to squeeze through a tiny hole at the rear to a second, much smaller cave where the faded painted images of two monkeys, possibly representing the hero twins of the Popol Vuh, adorn the walls.
The three exquisite jade lakes of Lagunas de Sepalau, Chisec’s other outstanding attraction, are easily visited. You’ll be dropped off at the Q’eqchi’ village of Sepalau Cataltzul, where entrance fees are collected. While you’re here, ask to see the new secondary school which has been built from recycled plastic bottles and inorganic waste.
A local guide will accompany you to the lagoons, 1km further away, where there are lanchas for paddling across the water (and lifejackets). Laguna Paraíso, the first lake, is ringed by untouched dense jungle and has beautiful turquoise water; the second, Atsam’ja, is much smaller. The third and largest lake, Q’ekija, another kilometre down the track, is the most remarkable of all – a gorgeous blue-green colour, its near-vertical limestone sides backed by towering jungle. It’s perfect for swimming. You’ll almost certainly hear howler monkeys and see kingfishers and perhaps toucans, and there are jaguars in the region, too.
West of Raxrujá a recently paved highway crosses steamy, thinly populated lowlands – the flatness of the landscape broken periodically by soaring forest-topped karst outcrops – to the magical Parque Nacional Laguna Lachúa, a near-circular lake surrounded by a dense tropical jungle. One of the least-visited national parks in Central America, this is a supremely beautiful, tranquil spot, with pristine azure-blue waters perfect for swimming. About 2km in diameter and over 200m deep, Lachúa is thought to be a natural sinkhole in the limestone crust, though its circular shape has led to speculation that it could have been formed by a meteorite impact. The rangers are extremely protective of this magnificent national park, and visitors have to carry back all non-biodegradable material.
The reserve is home to tapir and all the main Central American wild cats, including jaguar, but though these creatures usually prove elusive, you’re virtually guaranteed to hear howler monkeys, and armadillos and otters are often seen. There’s also an abundance of exotic birdlife (around three hundred species have been recorded here), including snail kites and flycatchers, but watch out for mosquitoes.