Guatemala’s northernmost department has always conjured images of a remote wilderness characterized by dense forests and lost Mayan cities. Today, that image is only partly true as much of the Ohio-size Petén has been cleared by settlers for subsistence agriculture and cattle ranching.
In an attempt to save the remaining forest and the still unexcavated Mayan ruins they harbor, roughly a third of Petén has been protected since 1990 in the form of several national parks collectively known as the Maya Biosphere Reserve. It is one of the largest remaining continuous tracts of tropical forest in Central America and recreational opportunities are boundless. The region is slowly becoming a magnet for adventure and ecotourism, thanks in large part to the filming of Survivor Guatemala here in 2005.
Among the attractions are the enigmatic Mayan ruins of Tikal, one of the largest cities ever populated by the Mayans and certainly a must-see for any visitor to the area. Not only are the restored ruins impressive, but the abundant wildlife found in the lush rainforests protected within the adjacent Tikal National Park make this a prime spot for birders and wildlife enthusiasts.
Along the paved road to Tikal, you’ll pass spectacular Lake Petén Itzá, one of Guatemala’s largest, surrounded by jungles and characterized by its luminescent turquoise-blue waters. The village of El Remate has sprung up along the highway and is quickly becoming a destination unto itself with a number of very comfortable accommodations and plenty of activities for the outdoor enthusiast. Many travelers now spend an extra day here after exploring the ruins.
Southeast of Tikal, the ruins of Yaxhá, overlooking the site’s namesake lagoon, remain a remote jungle outpost despite their prime-time TV fame and you can still have the place all to yourself on a typical afternoon. But that probably won’t last too much longer.
Petén is without a doubt the cradle of Mayan civilization, as it lays claim to some of the oldest known Mayan sites along with the earliest evidence of the writing and royal dynastic rule characterizing the civilization that flourished here. At El Mirador, on the northern fringes of Petén near the Mexican border, you can gaze in awe at the massive temple pyramids of El Tigre and La Danta, which were erected centuries earlier than most other well-known Mayan sites.
All of these sites are harbored within the Maya Biosphere Reserve and its seemingly interminable expanses of mostly undisturbed tropical forests. Hikers will appreciate the numerous opportunities for trekking to remote Mayan ruins along jungle paths, creating the potential for adventures not unlike those of the early explorers.
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com