Guatemala’s Petén Department: Sights Near Flores and Santa Elena

View of colorful houses clustered on a verdant shore across a calmly rippling lake.

View of Lake Flores, Petén. Photo © Graeme Churchard, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Map of Petén, Guatemala

Petén

There are a variety of attractions in and around Flores and Santa Elena that work well if you have a day or half a day while awaiting connecting flights or onward travel. Several of these attractions—ARCAS, Petencito Zoo, and Tayazal—are a five-minute boat ride across the lake from Flores’s north shore near the village of San Miguel. A road also goes this way along the shoreline and is useful in this discussion for orientation only, as most visitors find themselves catching a boat when heading out in this direction. You can take in 2-3 of these destinations as part of a lake tour leaving from Flores, which should cost between $15 and $20. Colectivo boats ($0.50) leave from a dock beside Restaurante La Guacamaya, on the north shore of Flores, as they fill up.


Parque Natural Ixpanpajul

Covering an area of nine square kilometers and conveniently just off the highway toward Guatemala City, the main attraction at Parque Natural Ixpanpajul (tel. 5619- 0513 or 7863-1317, 7 a.m.-6 p.m. daily) is a series of six suspension bridges built over the forest canopy, giving you a toucan’s-eye view of the forest. The trip along the forest trail takes a little more than an hour and includes a stop at a lookout point to take in the astounding view from the top of the mountain. Other activities include a Tarzan Canopy Tour (zip line), Spot Lighting (nighttime wildlife-viewing), horseback riding, mountain biking, tractor rides, and ATV rentals. You can tour the hanging bridges (Skyway) for $30 per adult or $22 per child. You also have a choice of mountain biking, tractor rides, or horseback riding, ranging from $5 to $25. Packages allow you to combine the Skyway with the Tarzan Canopy Tour and/or the Spot Lighting tour for a full day of adventure. You can combine two activities for $55 or all three for $75.

There is a campsite on the premises ($5) and you can rent tents ($10) and other equipment, but you have to book at least one of the main activities at a cost of $30. There are now also accommodations consisting of comfortable cabins with bunk beds and private bathrooms sleeping up to 5 people.

The park can provide transportation from Flores or Tikal if you call in advance. A taxi from Flores should cost about $5.


Cooperativa Nuevo Horizonte

Seventeen kilometers south of Santa Elena on the road to Guatemala City lies Cooperativa Nuevo Horizonte, a community of returned refugees and former combatants from the Guatemalan civil war. The cooperative was formed in 1998, when the community was resettled near the town of Santa Ana following the 1996 peace accords.

Nuevo Horizonte offers a fascinating glimpse into Guatemala’s sociopolitics. Although each family retains individual ownership of their house and farm plot, the pasturelands, a 250-acre forest preserve, a lake, and plantations of pineapple, pine, and lime trees are collectively owned. The co-op provides free day care, primary and secondary education, adult vocational training, and operates a pharmacy and clinic. The community also keeps two pickups and a minivan for anyone’s use. Additional infrastructure includes a welding shop and two corn mills. In an effort to minimize dependence on outside sources, the community maintains its own seed bank.

Many of the community’s residents lived in the Petén rainforests during the war years, on the run from Guatemalan government forces. In time, the jungle became a source of food, shelter, and safety and these experiences provided insights into uses for medicinal plants and food.

Among the cooperative’s initiatives is community- based tourism. They are happy to show you around the village and share their stories, and also take great pride in their forest preserve and reforestation program. Rustic cabins and meals from the community are available for visitors.


Hotel Villa Maya

As you head east along the road to Tikal, an unpaved road cuts north toward the Petenchel Lagoon for about four kilometers to the excellent Hotel Villa Maya (tel. 2223-5000, $85 d), with its 56 comfortable, tastefully decorated rooms equipped with air-conditioning, hot water, and balconies overlooking the placid lagoon. There are also a swimming pool and an excellent restaurant. It’s a bit out of the way, but the exclusive feel of this jungle outpost only adds to its allure.


Petencito Zoo

Farther west along this same road leading to the village of San Miguel is Petencito Zoo (8 a.m.-5 p.m., $3), housing a collection of local wildlife, including jaguars, monkeys, and macaws. The intrepid can ride the concrete water slides here, though their safety is questionable and at least one death has been reported.


ARCAS

Continuing west, the road again connects to the larger Lake Petén Itzá to ARCAS (tel. 7926-0946), the Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Association, where an animal rehabilitation center harbors animals captured from poachers, including jaguars, macaws, monkeys, and coatis. Although the animal rehabilitation area is not open to outsiders, an Environmental Education and Interpretation Center caters to the casual visitor. There is a nature trail showcasing a variety of medicinal plants, a beach, a bird observation platform, and an area for observing animals that cannot be reintroduced to the wild. During turtle season there are public hatchling releases with informative lectures (tel. 4144-9762, 8 p.m. daily, $1.50).

Although the site is perfectly accessible by road, most visitors come by boat. Tours leave Flores on weekdays at 8:30 a.m. (Spanish) and 3:30 p.m. (English) from the boat dock next to Restaurante La Guacamaya on the north end of the island. A tour costs $7 per person for a group of 1-2 people. Call ahead to confirm availability. You can also take a tour 9 a.m.-3 p.m. for $1.25 but you’ll have to arrange your own transportation. Confirmation is not required if you choose to go this route.


Tayazal

Not to be confused with Tayasal, which once occupied the same territory as present-day Flores, the remains of this small site can be found up a hill near the village of San Miguel. Although the ruins themselves are not overly impressive, there is a wonderful lookout, known as a mirador, built into a tree atop a temple mound from where you have an exceptional view of Flores. The lookout is about two kilometers outside of town. Follow the signs for the “mirador.”


Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Guatemala.

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