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.