Things to Do in Petén
Yaxhá was founded circa 800 BC along the shores of Laguna Yaxhá, and was home to more than 40,000 people at its peak, around AD 250. Though overshadowed by Tikal, this ancient city is Guatemala’s third largest archaeological site. And since it’s less visited than its famous sibling, Yaxhá offers a peaceful, introspective experience—especially for birders and Maya aficionados.
Once a powerful seat of the Mayan empire, the Tikal ruins are now the most famous archeological site in Guatemala and one of the most-visited sets of Mayan ruins in all of Latin America. The UNESCO World Heritage Site, consisting of temples, plazas, and pyramids, was first settled around 700 BC, and modern visitors still get swept away by their beauty and powerful aura.
An ancient urban center that flourished almost a thousand years before Tikal had constructed its first pyramid, El Mirador once had a population of close to 100,000 in 600 BC, making it one of the first megacities in the Americas. When it was excavated 30 years ago, the findings basically rewrote what was considered early Maya history.
Ixpanpajul Nature Park offers nature treks and activities within the lush rainforest just outside Petén. Ideal for family outings, the 1,112-acre (450-hectare) reserve has bridges and zip lines over the canopy, horseback rides, night safaris, birding treks, ATV rentals—and a chance to see some 200 species of trees, 150 birds, and 40 mammals, including three types of monkey.
Founded centuries before Tikal, the ancient Mayan city of Uaxatún features the oldest arch in the Mayan world and may well be the birthplace of the Mayan calendar and writing system. Today, tiny modern houses sit alongside the ruins of pyramids and temples, which the Maya expertly positioned to accurately observe the seasonal positioning of the planets and stars.
The Pasión River (Río La Pasión) and its tributaries cover nearly 2,000 square miles (5,180 square kilometers) in Guatemala, forming a diverse ecological zone and main transportation source. The river traces the ancient trade route that the Maya used; today visitors use it to access many Maya archeological sites that lie near its shores.
Guatemala’s second largest lake is a sparkling expanse at the heart of the hot, humid Petén Basin, and was one of the earliest cradles of Mesoamerican civilization. The lush rain forests at its fringe are home to some 27 archaeological sites. Use the ancient Mayan town of Flores—the last Mayan city to fall to the Spanish in 1697—as a base to explore the lake and the surrounding area.
Hidden in limestone bedrock beneath the sacred ruins of Petén are the cavernous Ak'tun Kan Cave, which is Mayan for “Cave of the Serpent.” Inside the serpentine subterranean complex is an underground waterfall and plenty of impressive stalactites, stalagmites, and unusually-shapedxa0rock formations.
Set on the edge of Lake Petén Itzá (Lago Petén Itzá, this small zoo houses a collection of native Guatemalan animals, including ocelots, pumas, jaguars, and spider monkeys. Forested trails weave past the enclosures, which are spread across two islands connected by a bridge. Its shoreside position affords stunning views of the lake.
This small city on the southern shore of the Pasión River (Río La Pasión is a popular jumping-off point for travelers. Explore nearby Maya remains, including the ruins at Aguateca, Ceibal, and Dos Pilas, and go wildlife-viewing in the dense jungle, home to howler monkeys, iguanas, and other wildlife.
More Things to Do in Petén
In the northeast region of Guatemala, Petén Forest is made up of dense swamp and jungle habitats connected via a chain of lakes, 40 percent of which is within the protected Maya Biosphere Reserve. The forest is home to dozens of Maya archaeological sites, and the highlight for most visitors is a trip to the impressive ruins of Tikal.
Guatemala’s Estación Biológica las Guacamayas (EBG), named for the country’s endemic scarlet macaw, is an ecotourism-focused environmental research and conservation center. Its mission is to preserve the natural and cultural heritage of Laguna del Tigre National Park in the Maya Biosphere Reserve of Petén. The name means Las Guacamayas Biological Station.
Mayan archaeological site Aguateca sits atop a hill along the coast of the Petexbatún Lagoon in Guatemala’s Peten department. Hastily abandoned after an attack around 830AD, the city has a ghost town ambiance reminiscent of Pompei. Penned in by a defensive wall are some 700 structures including royal and elite residences and a grand plaza.
One of the best-preserved Mayan cities in Petén, the elevated ruins of El Ceibal peer out over the Pasión river. The site’s elegant ceremonial structures date to 900 BC, the earliest in the Mayan world, and remarkably detailed altars and stelae were carved after AD 800, when the rest of the empire had already collapsed.
Within the 5.1 million-acre (2.1 million-hectare) Maya Biosphere Reserve, created by UNESCO in 1990 is Tikal National Park, El Zotz and Naachtún-Dos Lagunas Biotopes (Uaxatún), Yaxhá-Nakum-Naranjo National Park, and El Mirador National Monument—along with some 200 other Mayan ruins, mountains, rivers, cenotes, hiking trails, and lakes including Lake Petén Itza, gateway to the reserve.