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El Petén Travel Guide

  • Photo: sfeichtner / Shutterstock

Plan Your El Petén Vacation

The jungles of El Petén were once the heartland of the Mayan civilization. The sprawling empire—including parts of present-day Mexico, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador—was once made up of a network of cities that held hundreds of thousands of people, but a millennium ago this fascinating civilization went into a mysterious decline and soon virtually disappeared. The temples that dominated

the horizon were swallowed up by the jungle.

Today ancient ruins seem to just crop up from El Petén's landscape. In comparison with the rest of Guatemala, which has 15 million people in an area the size of Tennessee, El Petén is relatively sparsely populated, although this is changing. Fifty years ago El Petén had fewer than 20,000 residents. Due to massive immigration from other areas of Guatemala, El Petén now has more than half a million people (almost twice the population of the entire country of Belize). Still, nature reigns supreme, with vines and other plants quickly covering everything that stands still a little too long. Whatever your primary interest—archaeology, history, birding, biking—you'll find plenty to do and see in this remote region.

Four-wheel-drive vehicles are required to get to many of the archaeological sites (but not to Tikal), while others, such as those in the Mirador Basin, are reachable only by boat or on foot. The difficulty doesn't just enhance the adventure, it gives you time to take in the exotic scenery and rare tropical flora and fauna that are with you all the way. Most major roads in the Petén are now beautifully paved, and the towns of Flores and Santa Elena bustle with activity.

The Petén may be vast and remote, but the traveler's focus takes in a far more limited area. Ruins dot the entire region, but excavation has begun on only a few of them. In the center of the region on Lago Petén Itzá sits Flores, its administrative center, and its twin town of Santa Elena, the site of the regional airport. Northeast lie the famed ruins of Tikal.

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Top Reasons To Go

  1. Tikal is usually ranked as the most impressive of all Mayan sites. You'll never forget the jungle setting, rich with wildlife and birds.
  2. Tikal is the best known, but hardly the only important Mayan site in El Petén. El Mirador was a giant city-state, perhaps larger than Tikal, and in the Mirador Basin are the remains of at least four other centers, including Nakbé, El Tintal, Xulnal, and Wakná.
  3. The island town of Flores has a charming European feel, with red-roof houses and cobblestone streets.
  4. The indigenous population creates countless kinds of handicrafts. There's an open-air market in Santa Elena, and Flores has a number of little shops. The village of El Remate is known for its unique wood carvings, and the border town of Melchor also has shops catering to tourists.

When To Go

When to Go

It's very warm here year-round. The rainy season is May to November. Occasional showers are a possibility the rest of the year, but shouldn...

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