The vast northern department of Petén occupies about a third of Guatemala but contains just over three percent of its population. Both the birthplace and heartland of the ancient Maya civilization, the region is peppered with hundreds of sites, and exploring the temples and palaces is an unforgettable experience. The ruins are surrounded by a huge expanse of tropical rainforest, swamps and savannah, with ancient ceiba and mahogany trees that tower above the forest floor. Petén is also extraordinarily rich in wildlife: some 285 bird species have been sighted at Tikal alone, including hummingbirds, toucans, hawks and wild turkeys. Among the mammals are lumbering tapir, ocelots, jaguars and monkeys, plus thousands of species of plants, reptiles, insects and butterflies.
In the past few decades however, swathes of this uniquely biodiverse environment have been ravaged. Waves of settlers have cleared enormous tracts of jungle, while oil companies and commercial loggers have cut roads deep into the forest. The population of Petén, just fifteen thousand in 1950, is today estimated to be around five hundred thousand, a number that puts enormous pressure on the remaining forest. Despite forty percent of Petén being officially protected as the Reserva de la Biósfera Maya (Maya Biosphere Reserve), regulations are widely ignored and ecological activists are subject to routine threats.
The hub of the department is Lago de Petén Itzá, home to the delightful lakeside settlement of Flores, which makes a perfect base. An hour or so away are the astonishing ruins of Tikal, Petén’s prime attraction, located superbly in a rainforest reserve: no trip to Guatemala would be complete without a visit. Other imposing sites include fascinating, accessible Yaxhá, while the ruined cities of the Lago de Petexbatún region, particularly Aguateca, are spectacular. In terms of scale and historical importance, a trip to the jungle-buried monumental remains of El Mirador, a 2500-year old city of superpower status, offers a once-in-a-lifetime experience – if you’ve the time and energy for the trek to get there that is.
For almost two thousand years from 1000 BC onwards, Maya culture reached astounding architectural, scientific and artistic achievements. Petén was at the heart of this magnificent culture: great cities rose out of the forest, surrounded by huge areas of raised, irrigated fields and connected by a vast network of causeways. But climatic changes provoked the fall of the Preclassic Maya in northern Petén about AD 150, and, incredibly, history repeated itself seven centuries later when high population densities and a prolonged drought provoked the collapse of the Classic Maya. At the close of the tenth century, the great cities of Petén were abandoned, after which some Maya moved north to Yucatán, where their civilization flourished until the twelfth century.
The Reserva de la Biósfera Maya
The Reserva de la Biósfera Maya
In 1974 UNESCO established the idea of biosphere reserves in an ambitious attempt to combine the protection of natural areas and the conservation of their genetic diversity with scientific research and sustainable development. The Reserva de la Biósfera Maya, created in 1990, covers 16,000 square kilometres of northern Petén: in theory it is the largest tropical forest reserve in Central America.
On the premise that conservation and development can be compatible, land use in the reserve has three designations: core areas include the national parks, major archeological sites and the biotopos, areas of scientific investigation. The primary role of core areas is to preserve biodiversity; human settlements are prohibited though tourism is permitted. Surrounding the core areas are multiple-use areas where inhabitants, aided and encouraged by the government and NGOs, are able to engage in sustainable use of the forest resources and small-scale agriculture. The buffer zone, a 15km-wide belt along the southern edge of the reserve, is intended to prevent further human intrusion but contains many existing villages.
Fine in theory, particularly when you consider that much of the reserve borders protected lands in Mexico and Belize. In practice, however, the destruction of Petén’s rainforest proceeds virtually unchecked in many parts. Less than fifty percent of the original cover remains and illicit logging is reducing it further. Oil exploration is the other industry that has driven the destruction of the forest in the west of the reserve, as petroleum companies have pushed roads deep into the Parque Nacional Laguna del Tigre. Incredibly, successive Guatemalan governments have aided and abetted the oil companies, issuing concessions for exploration. As soon as a road exists, land-hungry migrants follow and slash-and-burn the forest and plant milpas, which they farm. After a few years the thin soil is depleted, and cattle ranchers move in. In 2003 the smoke from these fires was so thick that it even affected southern Texas, where children were sent home from school.
Although much has been lost in the west and south of the reserve, environmental groups are fighting to conserve what remains. Foreign funding provides much of the finance for protection, and NGOs are working with settlers to encourage the sustainable use of forest resources. Tourism is an accepted part of the plan and visitors are increasingly getting to remote biotopos and national parks – though numbers are still small. The forests and swamps of the Mirador Basin (w miradorbasin.com) at the core of the reserve are still well preserved and have been spared thanks to the efforts of campaigning archeologists including UCLA’s Richard Hansen. In 2008 President Colom announced plans for a Mirador Basin National Park, a proposal that was still in development stage in 2012. It’s clear that a wilderness area, with limited or no road access is essential to safeguard what Hansen calls the “Cradle of Maya Civilization”.
Fiestas in Petén
Fiestas in Petén
Flores, the final day is the most dramatic
San José, a small fiesta with parades, fireworks and dances
April 27–May 1
San Benito, sure to be wild and very drunken
Melchor de Mencos, main day 22nd
Dolores, main day 28th
Sayaxché, held in honour of San Antonio de Padua
San Luis, main day 25th
San José, a fascinating pagan fiesta
San Andrés, main day 30th