Planning Your Time
Petén is one of Guatemala’s most fascinating regions, particularly for lovers of archaeology and outdoor activities. The parks encompassing The Maya Biosphere Reserve could keep you busy for weeks, in addition to the requisite visit to Tikal National Park.
Visitors on one of these short stints should at least consider spending the night at Tikal or nearby Lake Petén Itzá. Another increasingly popular destination is the archaeological site of Yaxhá, site of Survivor Guatemala. There is a comfortable jungle lodge right on the shores of Yaxhá Lagoon where you can spend the night, a good idea if you want to take in all that this site has to offer, given its remote location.
El Mirador, deep in the jungle near the Mexican border, involves an arduous journey of two days from the nearest village but is well worth it for the opportunity to visit one of the largest and earliest Mayan cities in existence.
The tallest, and some of the largest, manufactured pre-Columbian structures can also be found here in the form of the massive La Danta and El Tigre pyramids, with bases the size of three football fields. A typical round-trip itinerary to El Mirador takes 5–7 days, depending on how long you want to stay at the ruins and if you want to stop at other nearby sites on the way back.
The most natural starting point and hub for any in-depth Petén explorations is the pretty island city of Flores; it’s unlike any other town in Guatemala. Its sister city of Santa Elena, on the mainland shores of Lake Petén Itzá, is an equally logical choice for a base, though it’s not nearly as attractive.
In southern Petén, the Petexbatún Wildlife Refuge harbors many fascinating archaeological sites set alongside the Petexbatún Lagoon. If you have an extra few days after checking out Tikal, Yaxhá, and Lake Petén Itzá, and if you’re a big fan of Mayan ruins, by all means continue south and check out the Petexbatún region.
Farther east, the area surrounding the town of Poptún, along the road connecting Petén and Izabal, is an excellent destination for cave tubing, spelunking, hiking, and hanging out at area lodges. A requisite stop along the Petén–Izabal Highway is Finca Ixobel, the most popular of the Poptún lodges, and with good reason. If you’re heading north into Petén from Izabal, you’ll want to spend a night or two in Poptún, assuming you have enough time to visit Tikal.
Exploring the Region
Some of Petén’s attractions, Tikal National Park for example, can easily be explored on your own. The remote location and rugged topography characterizing the great majority of Petén’s parks and ruins, however, means you will probably find yourself needing the services of an experienced guide sooner or later.
Another issue to consider is that hiring a guide provides locals with tangible evidence that the local environment and the Petén forests are worth more standing than cut down for cattle ranching or timber. It also provides a much-needed source of income and broadens cultural horizons.
There are several guide companies, based mainly in the city of Flores, offering excellent guided trips to some of Petén’s more exotic offerings and all of these work with local communities to ensure the sustainability of their tourism practices. While there is certainly a glut of tour companies in and around Flores, not all of them are reliable, and many of their owners are not in the least socially or environmentally conscious. Try to stick to one of the recommended outfitters.
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com