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 lakeside around Flores has several attractions including a quirky island museum, the peaceful villages of San Andres and San José, the Maya ruins of Motul, Tayasal and Nixtun Chi’ch’, a zoo and a wildlife rehabilitation centre.
Boatmen in Flores offer trips around the lake charging around US$30 to visit two or three of the main attractions. You’ll find them waiting for business behind the Hotel Santana, in the southwestern corner of Flores and by the public boat dock to San Miguel.
In the past, the mainstay of both San Andrés’ and San José’s economies was chicle, the sap of the sapodilla tree, used in the manufacture of chewing gum. The arduous and poorly paid job of collecting chicle involves setting up camps in the forest, and working for months at a time in the rainy season when the sap is flowing. Today natural chicle has largely been superseded by artificial substitutes, but there is still a demand for the original product, especially in Japan. Other forest products are also collected, including xate (pronounced “shatey”), palm leaves used in floral arrangements and exported to North America and Europe; and pimienta de jamaica, or allspice. Harvesters (pimenteros) use spurs to climb the trees and collect the spice, they then dry it over a fire.
San José is famous for its two fiestas. The first, to mark the patron saint’s day, is held between March 10 and 19 and includes parades and fireworks plus an unusual, comical-looking costumed dance during which a girl (la chatona) and a horse skip through the village streets.
The second fiesta is distinctly more pagan, with a unique mass, celebrated in the church on Halloween and a festival that continues on into November 1 – All Saint’s Day. For the evening service, one of three venerated human skulls (thought to be the remains of early founders of the village, though some claim they were Spanish missionaries) is removed from its glass case inside the church and positioned on the altar for the ceremony. Afterwards, the skull is carried through the village by black-clad skull bearers, accompanied by children dressed in traditional Itza traje and hundreds of devotees, many carrying candles and lanterns. The procession weaves through the streets, stopping at around thirty homes, where prayers are said, chants made and the families ask for blessings. In each home, a corn-based drink called ixpasá is consumed and special fiesta food is eaten, part of a ceremony that can take over a day to complete.
The exact origin of the event is unclear, but it incorporates a degree of ancestor reverence (or even worship). After all the houses have been visited, the skull is returned to its case in the church, where it remains, and can be seen with the other two skulls, for the rest of the year.
Boats from Flores head across the lake to San José (and back) on the night of the fiesta.
On the eastern shore of Lago de Petén Itzá, the tranquil village of EL REMATE lies midway between Flores and Tikal. The lake is a beautiful turquoise here and swimming is wonderful – an extremely welcome idea after a sweaty morning climbing jungle temples. It’s a lovely place to take a break from the rigours of the road, with little traffic and a lot of nature to enjoy, including the adjacent Biotopo Cerro Cahuí forest reserve.
There are several high-quality artisan workshops on the lakeshore that sell beautifully carved wooden handicrafts; stop by Artesanía Ecológical to see expert carver Rolando Soto at work.
The remains of the first great cities of the Maya are still engulfed by the most extensive forests in the region, an area known as the Mirador Basin. The discoveries here in the extreme north of the country have already led to a complete rethink about the origins of the Maya, and it’s now clear that this was once the cradle of Maya civilization. The main focus of interest has been the giant site of El Mirador, the first Maya “superpower”, which is famous for its colossal triadic temple complexes. But neighbouring Nakbé, the first city to emerge (around 800 BC), Wakná (which was only discovered in 1998) and the massive ruins of Tintal (on the scale of Tikal) are just three of the myriad cities that once thrived in this now remotest of regions.
The conditions are very difficult – marshy mosquito-plagued terrain that becomes so saturated that excavations can only be attempted for five months of the year. Currently only around three thousand people make it to Mirador each year, and archeologists outnumber visitors at any one time. Numbers are tiny because of the effort or expense required to get to the ruins, which either involves days of hard hiking through dense jungle and swamps or a brief visit as part of a helicopter tour.
At the time of research local issues in Carmelita were creating problems for travellers wanting to enter the Mirador Basin. An association of guides, the Cooperativa Carmelita, was insisting that all tourists in the entire Basin region (including Nakbé and Tintal) have to be accompanied by guides from their group, paid at their official rates (from US$350/head). Tourists on a helicopter tour at Mirador, and hikers heading to Mirador from Uaxactún have also been charged or turned back. Legal challenges to this action were ongoing. For the latest news consult w elmiradorhike.blogspot.com.
El Mirador is perhaps the most exotic and mysterious Maya site of all. Encircled by the Petén and Campeche jungles, this massive city surpasses Tikal’s scale although we are only now beginning to piece together its history. Mayanists are not even certain of its name – el mirador means “the lookout” in Spanish – but it could have been Ox Te Tun (Birthplace of the Gods). Until the 1980s, it was assumed Mirador was a city from the Classic era, but this theory has been totally overthrown. We now know that Mirador was a Preclassic capital of unprecedented scale, and its fall around 150 AD was just the first of two catastrophic collapses suffered by the Maya civilization.
The ruins are surrounded by some of the densest tropical forests in the Americas, and you’re sure to encounter some spectacular wildlife, including the resident troops of howler and spider monkeys, toucans and perhaps even a scarlet macaw. Wildcat numbers in the area are some of the healthiest in Latin America, with an estimated four hundred jaguar, as well as ocelot, jaguarundi and puma.
The latest research indicates that it was the boggy nature of the Mirador Basin that drew the first settlers here, the richness of its bajo mud allowing the early Maya to found villages based on crop cultivation. By 1000 BC (though some ceramic evidence suggests as far back as 1480 BC) these settlements were established and thriving at Mirador. The site chosen for the city itself was a commanding one, on an outcrop of karst (limestone) hills at an altitude of 250m, with swamps providing protection to the east.
By the Middle Preclassic, ceremonial structures were being built, including early temples at Los Monos, El Tigre and the Central Acropolis (generations later these structures would be built over and enlarged to a much grander scale). For centuries Mirador flourished, peaking between 350 BC and 100 AD, when it was home to over one hundred thousand Maya. The city’s ruling Kaan dynasty were overlords of hundreds of thousands more subjects in the Basin region and overlords of millions in the wider Maya World.
Mirador became a great trading centre as jade and obsidian were brought from the highlands; granite, shells and coral beads imported from the Caribbean and salt carried in from the Yucatán. The city grew to dominate the entire region, and by the time of Christ it must have been something to behold, its emblematic triadic temples painted scarlet with cinnabar and soaring high above the forest canopy, with a web of stone causeways connecting the great capital to dozens of other cities in its empire.
The Mirador Basin has no rivers (and had a population of hundreds of thousands in the late Preclassic) so the Maya developed extremely efficient water collection systems so that all available rainfall was channelled to huge reservoirs. In 2008, while investigating water channels in the Central Acropolis, archeologists discovered elaborately sculptured panels with scenes from the Maya creation story, the Popol Vuh. The two stucco panels, measuring 6m by 8m and still in situ, were carved about 200 BC and show the mythical hero twins swimming into the underworld to retrieve the decapitated head of their father. Dr Richard Hansen described it as like “like finding the Mona Lisa in the sewage system”.
Undoubtedly the greatest challenge facing the archeologists and Guatemalan authorities is to save the Mirador Basin ruins from the constant threat of encroaching settlers, loggers, drug smugglers, cattle ranchers and tomb looters. Because of this lack of security, environmentalists and Mayanists are lobbying hard to get the entire Mirador region – 2169 square kilometres of jungle stretching from the Mexican border as far south as El Zotz – declared the Mirador Basin National Park. President Colom announced in his 2008 inaugural speech that the creation of a national park here was a priority, though this status was not achieved during his four-year tenure. An application is also registered with UNESCO to get Mirador declared a World Heritage Site.
Immediate and effective protection is essential. Successive Guatemalan governments have dithered while neighbouring reserves like Laguna del Tigre have gone up in smoke. Forty armed rangers patrol the Mirador area, otherwise, according to archeologist Dr Richard Hansen (who has led the excavations here for decades) “we’d lose the whole city”. Hansen sees strictly managed ecotourism, including the construction of a jungle lodge and narrow-gauge railway, as the way to preserve the forest and the dozens of Maya sites in the Mirador Basin. But his vision is not universally shared. Many settlers on the fringes, and inside the reserve, see little future in ecotourism and are lobbying for timber and farming concessions to be allowed. Occasionally these land-hungry campesinos torch a ranger station, and villagers at Dos Aguadas have even been granted a concession to farm inside the Maya Biosphere Reserve. So the choice seems to be fewer trees or more tourists.
North of Río Dulce Town, it’s 38km to the dull town of Modesto Méndez (known as Cadenas locally). Aside from the tempting pools of Las Conchas west of here there’s nothing to detain you until you reach Poptún, an area that’s home to one of Guatemala’s finest rural lodges: Finca Ixobel.
Heading west to Mexico from Petén is fairly straightforward and highly scenic in places, passing remote ruins and patches of dense rainforest. Though the Mexican state of Chiapas has been relatively calm for several years, tensions remain between government and Zapatista-aligned campesinos, and you can expect army security checks every hour or so as you get around. That said, travel is perfectly safe in the region, and the armed forces courteous and polite.
There are two popular routes. The first and most scenic involves crossing the Río Usumacinta into Chiapas at Frontera Corozal, from either Bethel, or a little upstream at La Técnica on the Guatemalan bank of the river. This trip enables you to pass the first-class ruins of Yaxchilán and Bonampak on the way. Alternatively, it’s possible to head northwest from Flores to El Naranjo by bus, and cross the border at El Ceibo into the Mexican state of Tabasco.
Southwest of Flores on a lazy bend in the Río de la Pasión, SAYAXCHÉ is a fairly rough-and-ready frontier town that’s a convenient base for exploring the forests of southern Petén and its huge collection of archeological remains. The complex network of rivers and swamps that cuts through the jungle here has been an important trade route since Maya times. Nearby ruins include Ceibal, a compact but beautiful site, while to the south is Lago de Petexbatún, a stunning lakeside setting for the Maya sites of Aguateca and Punta de Chimino, and the trailhead for the substantial ruins of Dos Pilas. A visit to this region offers great opportunities to explore the Petén forest and watch the wildlife, including howler and spider monkeys, crocodiles, iguanas and superb birdlife.
South of Sayaxché, Lago de Petexbatún is a spectacular expanse of water ringed by dense forest and containing plentiful supplies of snook, bass, alligator and freshwater turtle. The shores of the lake abound with birdlife and howler monkeys, and there are a number of Maya ruins – the most impressive of which is the partially restored Aguateca, suggesting the lake was an important trading centre for the Maya.
Aguateca, perched on a high outcrop at the southern tip of the lake, is the site that’s furthest away from Sayaxché but the most easily reached, as a boat can get you to within twenty minutes’ walk of the ruins. This intriguing site (split in two by a natural chasm) was only rediscovered in 1957 and has undergone recent restoration work. The atmosphere is magical, surrounded by dense tropical forest and with superb views of the lake from two miradores. There’s a visitor centre close to the entrance, where Aguateca’s guards are based. The guards always welcome company, and if you want to stay they’ll find some space for you to sling a hammock or pitch a tent. Bring a mosquito net and food if you wish to stay.
Throughout the Late Classic period, Aguateca was closely aligned with (or controlled by) nearby Dos Pilas, the dominant city in the southern Petén, and reached its peak in the eighth century, when Dos Pilas was developing an aggressive policy of expansion. Indeed, Aguateca may have been a twin capital of an ambitious Petexbatún state. Military successes, including a conclusive victory over Ceibal in 735 AD, were celebrated at both sites with remarkably similar stelae – Aguateca’s Stela 3 shows Dos Pilas ruler Master Sun Jaguar in full battle regalia, including a Teotihuacán-style face mask. After 761 AD, however, Dos Pilas began to lose control of its empire and the members of the elite moved their headquarters to Aguateca, attracted by its strong defensive position. But despite the construction of 5km of walls around the citadel and its agricultural land, their enemies soon caught up with them, and sometime after 790 AD Aguateca itself was overrun.
The resident guards will provide you with stout walking sticks – essential as the slippery paths here can be treacherous – before escorting you around the site’s steep trails. The tour, which takes a little more than an hour, takes in the palisade defences, temples and palaces (including the residence of Aguateca’s last ruler, Tante K’inich) and a barracks. The carving at Aguateca is superbly executed and includes images of hummingbirds, pineapples and pelicans. Its plazas are dotted with stelae, including one on the Plaza Principal depicting Tante K’inich lording it over a ruler from Ceibal, who is shown cowering at his feet, and another that has been shattered by looters who hoped to sell the fragments. Aguateca is also the site of the Maya World’s only known bridge, which crosses a narrow gash in the hillside, but it’s not that impressive in itself.
Twenty-three kilometres north of Tikal, the adobe and clapboard houses that comprise the friendly village of UAXACTÚN are spread out on both sides of an airstrip, as are the ruins of the same name. With a couple of places to stay, a few comedores and daily bus connections from Flores, the village is an ideal jumping-off point for the remote northern ruins of El Zotz, Naachtún and Río Azul.
Substantially smaller than Tikal, the site (known as Sia’an K’aan in Maya times) rose to prominence in the Late Preclassic era when it grew to become a major player. Uaxactún developed rivalry with Tikal, which peaked in January 16, 378 AD, when Tikal’s warriors conquered Uaxactún armed with the latest high-tech weaponry of the day – spear-throwing slings from Mexico. Uaxactún never recovered from this epochal defeat, and for the remainder of the Classic period was reduced to little more than a provincial backwater.
East of the Ixlú junction on the road to Belize, a paved road runs 65km to the Belize border. The main attraction in these parts is Yaxhá, a huge Maya city on the fringes of two beautiful lakes: lagunas Yaxhá and Sacnab. The lakes are encircled by the dense jungle, swamps, savannah and wetlands of the Monumento Natural Yaxhá–Nakúm–Naranjo, whose 370 square kilometres harbour big cats, two species of crocodile and dozens of other reptiles, as well as prolific birdlife: spoonbills, the giant jabiru stork, eagles and vultures. It’s one of the very few places in Guatemala where tapir are known to be breeding. The Postclassic ruins of Topoxté are also accessible from Yaxhá, and a third large site, Nakúm, is about 18km to the north. Further east, close to the Belize border, a side track leads to the intriguing site of La Blanca and its imposing palace.
Covering several square kilometres of a limestone ridge overlooking Laguna Yaxhá, Yaxhá is a compelling and rewarding Maya site to visit. Its name means “green-blue water”, a reference to the wonderful turquoise hue of the lake just below. Of all Guatemala’s ruins, only Tikal and El Mirador (and possibly Tintal) can trump the sheer scale and impact of this site, which has forty stelae, numerous altars, nine soaring temple pyramids and two ball courts. The dense jungle and lack of crowds only add to the special atmosphere of the place, and the wildlife is prolific (particularly howler monkeys and toucans).
Relatively little is known about the history of Yaxhá, partly due to a relative lack of inscriptions and also because substantial archeological excavations have only recently begun. North of Plaza D the ruins are mostly Preclassic, while the bulk of the large structures in the south of the city date from the Classic era. The sheer size of the city indicates that Yaxhá was undoubtedly an important force in the central Maya region during this era, its influence perhaps only contained by the proximity of the “superstate” Tikal, with which it shares several archeological similarities and close ties. For much of the Classic period, Yaxhá seemed locked in rivalry with the city of Naranjo, about 20km to the northeast, dominating its smaller neighbour for much of this time but suffering a heavy defeat in 799 AD.
Flores, the final day is the most dramatic
San José, a small fiesta with parades, fireworks and dances
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