Things to Do in Petén
The third-largest archaeological site in Guatemala is not well known, overshadowed by the fame of neighboring Tikal. Archaeologists are only now sorting out the secrets of this city on the northern shore of Laguna Yaxhá, named “Blue-Green Water” for the lake’s unusual color. Founded around 800 BC atop a long, limestone ridge, the city was home to more than 40,000 people at its peak, around 250 AD.
Yaxhá’s sophisticated builders left behind more than 500 structures, including nine temple pyramids, two ball courts, forty unusually carved stelae, and numerous causeways. Climb to the top of Temple 216 for remarkable views over the lakes and rivers. While the city must have become quite isolated during the Mayan civilization’s (and Tikal’s) collapse between 800 and 900 AD, it continued to function well into the 1500s.
Today, Yaxhá is rarely visited, and therefore offers a peaceful and introspective experience of the Mayan world. Birders and wildlife watchers will especially appreciate the solitude, as well as the numerous crocodiles in the lake.
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.
Worth the effort for adventurous travelers and history buffs, El Mirador is a truly ancient urban center that flourished almost a thousand years before Tikal had constructed its first pyramid. With an estimated population of close to 100,000 in 600 BCE, it was one of the first megacities in the Americas.
Archaeologists who began excavating El Mirador (“The Viewpoint”) thirty years ago have basically rewritten early Mayan history based on their findings. The Mayans were organized and technologically advanced centuries before previously thought, their accomplishments preserved here in a city they now believe was the capital of the region’s first true political city-state.
The site is centered on three huge temple pyramid sites, “El Tigre,” “Los Monos,” and “La Danta,” the last of which is one of the largest pyramids in the world. Set atop natural summits, they offer outstanding views to other ruined cities rising above the rainforest, only a few of which have been studied by experts.
Uaxatún (wa-sha-TOON) is best known as the most accurate observatory in the Mayan world. The city was founded centuries before Tikal, and may well be the birthplace of the Mayan calendar and writing system; the oldest known arch in the Mayan world is also here. It was conquered by Tikal in 378AD, but probably become a learning center for elites from the capital, rather than a vassal state.
Today, its pyramids and plazas are interspersed with the tiny houses of a modern village (also called Uaxatún), once dedicated to the gathering of chicle. Tourism is now a small but growing business.
The city’s original Mayan name, Siaan K'aan, or "Born in Heaven” reflects the city’s astronomical obsession. Solstices are marked by temple pyramids, which form part of the oldest known Mayan calendar. While crowds come to see these impressive alignments, you may have the site to yourself other times of year.
Strategically located above the Pasión River, a once important trade route to the Gulf of Mexico, Seibal (Ceibal) is one of the best preserved of Peten’s Mayan cities.
Archaeologists are in awe of elegant ceremonial construction dated to 900BC, among the earliest known monumental architecture in the Mayan world. Most visitors, however, will remember Seibal for its remarkably detailed stelae and sculptures, many carved after 800 AD, when the rest of the Mayan Empire was already in a state of collapse. Rendered in unusually hard stone, these detailed portraits and glyphs were influenced by foreign civilizations, and are unusually beautiful. This is why Seibal is sometimes called the “Mayan Art Gallery.”
The city was built on several elevated terraces overlooking the river, and is relatively small, covering about one square kilometer (2.5 acres). Plan to spend two or three hours exploring.
The little-touristed ruins of Aguateca Archaeological Site are worth the long trip for at least three reasons. First, to get here, you’ll traverse Petexbatún Wildlife Refuge, a birders paradise of mangroves and marshlands, in a motorized canoe. Second, the city was abandoned so suddenly, during a massive attack in 830AD, that everyday relics were preserved Pompeii-style, in place, offering archaeologists an unprecedented look at everyday Mayan life.
Finally, Aguateca Archaeological Site is strategically located atop a 90-meter (300-foot) limestone bluff, fortified with defensive walls. These form a massive ravine that divides the city, La Grieta, traversed by an old stone bridge. Amazing.
More than 700 structures still stand at this site, with its epic views over the Petexbatún Basin, far from the tour buses and casual tourists. Several plaster walls and murals dating from the Classic Period, when Aguateca and neighboring Dos Pilas formed the region’s dominant polity, are unique in the region.
Guatemala’s second largest lake, Lake Petén Itzá (Lago Petén Itzá), a sparkling expanse at the heart of the hot, humid Petén Basin, was one of the earliest cradles of Mesoamerican civilization. The lush rainforests at its fringe are home to at least 27 archaeological sites, in addition to Flores, capital of Petén Department. Once known as Nojpetén (City Island) by the Itza Mayans, Flores was also their regional capital, and was the last Mayan city to fall to the Spanish, in 1697.
You’re probably staying on the island, a great base for enjoying the lake. Head to the north shore for a walk on the malecón, or jump in for a swim with the locals. The west side boasts lakefront restaurants and bars where you can watch the sunset. Hire a cayuco (small, motorized boats) to other attractions overlooking the water, including ruins, Petencito Zoo, Cerro Cahuí Nature Reserve, “El Museo,” a small archaeological museum, and other towns along the lakeshore.
So, you want to explore Guatemala’s subtropical rainforest, but without getting too wild? Ixpanpajul Nature Park (Parque Natural Ixpanpajul) offers a several lush and well-maintained ways into the jungle, perfect for a family outing.
The pretty little park preserves 450 hectares (1.7 square miles) of almost untouched rainforest, into which they’ve packed all sorts of activities. The most popular trek is a self-guided hike (a little over an hour) that takes you to several spectacular viewpoints. There are also suspended bridges through the forest canopy, horseback rides, night safaris, birding treks, ATV rentals, and even a Tarzán Zip Line Canopy Tour, if you’re feeling particularly brave.
Though this tiny corner of the jungle has been partially developed, it’s still wild: More than 200 species of trees, 150 birds, and 40 mammals, including three types of monkey, all call the park home. It’s a great half-day trip, but keep in mind that wildlife is most active in the morning and evening.
The vast tropical basin that covers Petén, the northern third of Guatemala, remains largely wild, its jungle-carpeted Mayan cities and traditional indigenous villages left largely unmolested within the protected 2.1 million-hectare (almost 8000 square-mile) Maya Biosphere Reserve (Reserva de la Biosfera Maya), created by UNESCO in 1990.
Home to only 3% of Guatemala’s population, the Maya Biosphere Reserve has become an adventurous ecotourism destination. The reserve comprises Tikal National Park, El Zotz and Naachtún-Dos Lagunas Biotopes (Uaxatún), Yaxhá-Nakum-Naranjo National Park, and Mirador Basin National Monument, along with at least 200 other Mayan ruins, mountains, rivers, cenotes, hiking trails, and 14 lakes, including Lake Petén Itza, gateway to the reserve.
The Maya Biosphere Reserve is part of a protected area stretching from central Mexico, through northern Guatemala and Belize. The Mayan city-studded forests are home to thousands of rare and beautiful species, including jaguar, puma, ocelot, margay, spider monkeys, tapirs, deer, scarlet macaws, and much more. There are dozen of ways to explore the wilderness, most of which are easily arranged from Flores.
The limestone bedrock beneath the Petén has been carved by water into beautiful caverns, several of which can be visited. The most impressive and convenient in the Petén are just minutes from Flores.
The Aktún Can Caves, also called La Cueva de la Serpiente (“Cave of the Serpent,” in Mayan and Spanish, respectively) may have once been home to a giant snake, or were perhaps a shrine to a Mayan snake deity. A sign at the entrance assures visitors that there are currently no snakes on the premises.
Instead, visitors will find an underground waterfall, as well as stalactites, stalagmites, and other unusual rock formations with names that are an excellent clue as to what they supposedly resemble: “The Thinker;” “Elephant Foot;” “The Stone Rose;” “God of the Rain;” “Virgen de la Grotto;” and many more. It’s a dark, cool, relaxed way to pass a couple of hours.
More Things to Do in Petén
Sayaxché is a small frontier town southwest of Flores on the Río de la Pasión that acts as a central hub for the many Mayan ruins of the area—the most notable of which are Ceibal and Aguateca. Though for most a visit to this river town is a means of getting to the archeological sites, Sayaxché holds its own as a riverfront community full of motorboats and barges transporting people and vehicles over the water.
From here the La Pasión and Petexbatún rivers lead to the El Petén forests, which are full of sites at different stages of excavation. Venturing south from the town leads to Lago de Petexbatún, with lakeside Mayan ruins for exploring. It is also the starting point for trekking to the massive ruins of Dos Pilas.
The swamps and forests of this area have been important trade routes since Mayan times. Monkeys, birds, crocodiles, turtles and iguanas can be seen and heard throughout the jungles and shores.
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.
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.
The Petencito Zoo, located on two small islands just east of Flores, offers visitors the chance to encounter local wildlife such as ocelots, pumas, jaguars, spider monkeys, lizards, and crocodiles.
A suspension bridge connects the two islands. Colorful native birds such as the scarlet macaw and toucan can also be spotted here. The zoo maintains various forested trails to walk through as you look for the animals, and several local trees and shrubs can be seen throughout.
Signs in Spanish, English, and Mayan identify the different species. A visit to the zoo grants the opportunity to see the local wildlife from a much closer perspective. Expansive views of the surrounding lake add to the scenery and experience. One trail leads up to a treehouse outlook of the water and surrounding jungle. There are concrete water slides that lead into the lake, though some advise against their use.
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