Things to Do in Petén
Once a powerful seat of the Mayan empire, the Tikal ruins are now the most famous archeological site in Guatemala and one of the most-visited sets of Mayan ruins in all of Latin America. The UNESCO World Heritage Site, consisting of temples, plazas, and pyramids, was first settled around 700 BC, and modern visitors still get swept away by their beauty and powerful aura.
An ancient urban center that flourished almost a thousand years before Tikal had constructed its first pyramid, El Mirador once had a population of close to 100,000 in 600 BC, making it one of the first megacities in the Americas. When it was excavated 30 years ago, the findings basically rewrote what was considered early Maya history.
Yaxhá was founded circa 800 BC along the shores of Laguna Yaxhá, and was home to more than 40,000 people at its peak, around AD 250. Though overshadowed by Tikal, this ancient city is Guatemala’s third largest archaeological site. And since it’s less visited than its famous sibling, Yaxhá offers a peaceful, introspective experience—especially for birders and Maya aficionados.
Guatemala’s second largest lake is a sparkling expanse at the heart of the hot, humid Petén Basin, and was one of the earliest cradles of Mesoamerican civilization. The lush rain forests at its fringe are home to some 27 archaeological sites. Use the ancient Mayan town of Flores—the last Mayan city to fall to the Spanish in 1697—as a base to explore the lake and the surrounding area.
Within the 5.1 million-acre (2.1 million-hectare) Maya Biosphere Reserve, created by UNESCO in 1990 is Tikal National Park, El Zotz and Naachtún-Dos Lagunas Biotopes (Uaxatún), Yaxhá-Nakum-Naranjo National Park, and El Mirador National Monument—along with some 200 other Mayan ruins, mountains, rivers, cenotes, hiking trails, and lakes including Lake Petén Itza, gateway to the reserve.
Founded centuries before Tikal, the ancient Mayan city of Uaxatún features the oldest arch in the Mayan world and may well be the birthplace of the Mayan calendar and writing system. Today, tiny modern houses sit alongside the ruins of pyramids and temples, which the Maya expertly positioned to accurately observe the seasonal positioning of the planets and stars.
Ixpanpajul Nature Park offers nature treks and activities within the lush rainforest just outside Petén. Ideal for family outings, the 1,112-acre (450-hectare) reserve has bridges and zip lines over the canopy, horseback rides, night safaris, birding treks, ATV rentals—and a chance to see some 200 species of trees, 150 birds, and 40 mammals, including three types of monkey.
Mayan archaeological site Aguateca sits atop a hill along the coast of the Petexbatún Lagoon in Guatemala’s Peten department. Hastily abandoned after an attack around 830AD, the city has a ghost town ambiance reminiscent of Pompei. Penned in by a defensive wall are some 700 structures including royal and elite residences and a grand plaza.
One of the best-preserved Mayan cities in Petén, the elevated ruins of El Ceibal peer out over the Pasión river. The site’s elegant ceremonial structures date to 900 BC, the earliest in the Mayan world, and remarkably detailed altars and stelae were carved after AD 800, when the rest of the empire had already collapsed.
Hidden in limestone bedrock beneath the sacred ruins of Petén are the cavernous Ak'tun Kan Cave, which is Mayan for “Cave of the Serpent.” Inside the serpentine subterranean complex is an underground waterfall and plenty of impressive stalactites, stalagmites, and unusually-shapedxa0rock formations.
More Things to Do in Petén
The Petencito Zoo, located on two small islands just east of Flores, offers visitors the chance to encounter local wildlife such as ocelots, pumas, jaguars, spider monkeys, lizards, and crocodiles.
A suspension bridge connects the two islands. Colorful native birds such as the scarlet macaw and toucan can also be spotted here. The zoo maintains various forested trails to walk through as you look for the animals, and several local trees and shrubs can be seen throughout.
Signs in Spanish, English, and Mayan identify the different species. A visit to the zoo grants the opportunity to see the local wildlife from a much closer perspective. Expansive views of the surrounding lake add to the scenery and experience. One trail leads up to a treehouse outlook of the water and surrounding jungle. There are concrete water slides that lead into the lake, though some advise against their use.
Guatemala’s Estación Biológica las Guacamayas (EBG), named for the country’s endemic scarlet macaw, is an ecotourism-focused environmental research and conservation center. Its mission is to preserve the natural and cultural heritage of Laguna del Tigre National Park in the Maya Biosphere Reserve of Petén. The name means Las Guacamayas Biological Station.
Sayaxché is a small frontier town southwest of Flores on the Río de la Pasión that acts as a central hub for the many Mayan ruins of the area—the most notable of which are Ceibal and Aguateca. Though for most a visit to this river town is a means of getting to the archeological sites, Sayaxché holds its own as a riverfront community full of motorboats and barges transporting people and vehicles over the water.
From here the La Pasión and Petexbatún rivers lead to the El Petén forests, which are full of sites at different stages of excavation. Venturing south from the town leads to Lago de Petexbatún, with lakeside Mayan ruins for exploring. It is also the starting point for trekking to the massive ruins of Dos Pilas.
The swamps and forests of this area have been important trade routes since Mayan times. Monkeys, birds, crocodiles, turtles and iguanas can be seen and heard throughout the jungles and shores.
In the northeast region of Guatemala, Petén Forest is made up of dense swamp and jungle habitats connected via a chain of lakes, 40 percent of which is within the protected Maya Biosphere Reserve. The forest is home to dozens of Maya archaeological sites, and the highlight for most visitors is a trip to the impressive ruins of Tikal.
The Pasión River (Río La Pasión) and its tributaries cover nearly 2,000 square miles (5,180 square kilometers) in Guatemala, forming a diverse ecological zone and main transportation source. The river traces the ancient trade route that the Maya used; today visitors use it to access many Maya archeological sites that lie near its shores.
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