Alta & Baja Verapaz

This large Maya site hit the papers when it was 'discovered' in 2000, even though it had already been 'discovered' back in 1907. Excavations are still under way, but estimates say that Cancuén may rival Tikal for size.

It's thought that Cancuén was a trading center rather than a religious center, and the usual temples and pyramids are absent. In their place is a grand palace boasting more than 150 rooms set around 11 courtyards.

Carvings here are impressive, particularly at the grand palace, but also along the ball courts and the two altars that have been excavated to date.

Cancuén's importance seems to stem from its geographical/tactical position. Hieroglyphics attest to alliances with Calakmul (Mexico) and Tikal, and its relative proximity to the southern highlands would have given it access to pyrite and obsidian, prized minerals of the Maya.

Artisans certainly worked here – their bodies have been discovered dressed, unusually, in royal finery. Several workshops have also been uncovered, one containing a 17kg piece of jade.

Casual visitors will need about an hour to see the main, partially excavated, sections of the site and another hour or two to see the rest, about five hours total.

Cobán tour companies make day trips to Cancuén. To get here independently, catch a pickup (leaving hourly) from Raxruhá to La Unión (Q20, 40 minutes), from where you can hire a boat (Q350 for one to 16 people, round trip) to the site. You can also hire a guide (Q100 to Q200, depending on group size) to take you on the 4km walk to the site from La Unión, but in the rainy season this will be a very muddy affair. If walking or going by lancha (small motorboat), pay at the small store where the bus stops – the boat dock is an easy 1km walk from there. Pay your entrance fee at the site when you arrive.

The last pickup leaves La Unión for Raxruhá at 3pm. Coming directly from Chisec, expect to pay Q50 for a ride to La Unión.