El Peten

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  • 1. Tikal

    Although the region was home to Mayan communities as early as 600 BC, Tikal itself wasn't established until sometime around 200 BC. One of the...

    Although the region was home to Mayan communities as early as 600 BC, Tikal itself wasn't established until sometime around 200 BC. One of the first structures to be built here was a version of the North Acropolis. Others were added at a dizzying pace for the next three centuries. By AD 100 impressive structures like the Great Plaza had already been built. But even though it was a powerful city in its own right, Tikal was still ruled by the northern city of El Mirador. It wasn't until the arrival of a powerful dynasty around AD 300 that Tikal arrogated itself to full power. King Great Jaguar Paw sired a lineage that would build Tikal into a city rivaling any of its time. It's estimated that by AD 500 the city covered more than 18 square miles (47 square km) and had a population of close to 100,000. The great temples that still tower above the jungle were at that time covered with stucco and painted with bright reds and greens, and the priests used them for elaborate ceremonies meant to please the gods and assure prosperity for the city. What makes these structures even more impressive is that the Maya had no metal tools to aid in construction, had no beasts of burden to carry heavy loads, and never used wheels for anything except children's toys. Of course, as a hierarchical culture they had a slave class, and the land was rich in obsidian, a volcanic glass that could be fashioned into razor-sharp tools. By the 6th century Tikal governed a large part of the Mayan world, thanks to a leader called Caan Chac (Stormy Sky), who took the throne around AD 426. Under Caan Chac, Tikal became an aggressive military and commercial center that dominated the surrounding communities with a power never before seen in Mesoamerica. The swamps protected the city from attack and allowed troops to spot any approaching enemy. Intensive agriculture in the bajos (lowlands) provided food for the huge population. A valuable obsidian trade sprang up, aided by the city's strategic position near two rivers. Tikal thrived for more than a millennium, forming strong ties with two powerful centers: Kaminal Juyu, in the Guatemalan highlands, and Teotihuacán, in Mexico City. The city entered a golden age when Ah-Cacao (Lord Chocolate) ascended the throne in AD 682. It was Ah-Cacao and his successors who commissioned the construction of the majority of the city's most important temples. Continuing the tradition of great structures, Ah-Cacao's son commissioned Temple I, which he dedicated to his father, who is buried beneath it. He also ordered the construction of Temple IV, the tallest temple at Tikal. By the time of his death in 768 Tikal was at the peak of its power. It would remain so until its mysterious abandonment around AD 900. For almost 1,000 years Tikal remained engulfed by the jungle. The conquistadors who came here searching for gold and silver must have passed right by the overgrown ruins, mistaking them for rocky hills. The native Peténeros certainly knew of the ancient city's existence, but no one else ventured near until 1848, when the Guatemalan government dispatched archaeologists to the region. Tikal started to receive international attention in 1877, when Dr. Gustav Bernoulli commissioned locals to remove the carved wooden lintels from across the doorways of Temples I and IV. These were sent to a museum in Basel, Switzerland. In 1881 and 1882 English archaeologist Alfred Percival Maudslay made the first map showing the architectural features of this vast city. As he began to unearth the major temples, he recorded his work in dramatic photographs—you can see copies in the museum at Tikal. His work was continued by Teobert Maler, who came in 1895 and 1904. Both Maler and Maudslay have causeways named in their honor. In 1951 the Guatemalan air force cleared an airstrip near the ruins to improve access for large-scale archaeological work. Today, after more than 150 years of digging, researchers say that Tikal includes some 3,000 significant buildings. Countless more are still covered by the jungle.

    Tikal, Petén, Guatemala
    No phone

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Q150, Daily 6–6
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  • 2. Biotopo Cerro Cahuí

    With around 1,500 acres of rainforest, Biotopo Cerro Cahuí near El Remate is one of the most accessible wildlife reserves in El Petén. It protects...

    With around 1,500 acres of rainforest, Biotopo Cerro Cahuí near El Remate is one of the most accessible wildlife reserves in El Petén. It protects a portion of a mountain that extends to the eastern edge of Lago Petén Itzá, so there are plenty of opportunities for hiking. Two trails put you in proximity of birds like ocellated turkeys, toucans, and parrots. As for mammals, look up to spot the long-armed spider monkeys or down to see squat rodents called tepezcuintles. Tzu'unte, a 4-mile (6-km) trail, leads to two lookouts with views of nearby lakes. The upper lookout, Mirador Moreletii, is known by locals as Crocodile Hill, because from the other side of the lake it looks like the eye of a half-submerged crocodile. Los Ujuxtes, a 3-mile (5-km) trail, offers a panoramic view of three lakes. Both hikes begin at a ranger station (with toilets), where English-speaking guides are sporadically available. Leave early in the morning to beat the heat and bring plenty of water and bug spray. Some robberies and attacks on tourists have taken place in the reserve, so ask locally in El Remate about safety conditions before you explore on your own.

    El Remate, Petén, Guatemala

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Q40
  • 3. Ceibal

    Upriver about 10 miles (17 km) from Sayaxché are the impressive ruins of Ceibal, best accessed by boat from Sayaxche. Frequently rendered "Seibal" in English,...

    Upriver about 10 miles (17 km) from Sayaxché are the impressive ruins of Ceibal, best accessed by boat from Sayaxche. Frequently rendered "Seibal" in English, the site takes its name from the many canopy-like ceiba trees, the national tree of Guatemala, in the area. Ceibal achieved prominence in ancient times serving as a tollgate collecting tribute from barges plying La Pasión river. Its archaeological attractions are several restored temples, including the only circular one known to exist. Here you will also find intricately carved stelae—dozens in all—some of the best preserved in the region. Interestingly, a number of anomalies were found in these monuments, which hint at a foreign influence, most likely from the Toltecs of central Mexico. Carvings on structures here show dates corresponding to about AD 900 and are some of the latest among Mayan ruins in Mesoamerica. Ceibal is now thought to have undergone two distinct periods of growth, one in the late pre-Classic period and another in the late Classic period, the two interrupted by centuries of abandonment. The area is quite marshy, and rife with mosquitoes; lather up with insect repellent. There are buses from Santa Elena--Flores to Sayaxché, and from there you can get to Ceibal by boat on the La Pasión River or by partly dirt road by taxi or car. Tour companies in Flores can also arrange trips to Ceibal. The Sayaché area is considered a center for Mexican drug cartels, and large farms and tracts of land are said to be owned by narcotraffickers.

    On Río de la Pasión, Sayaxché, Petén, Guatemala

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Free, Daily 6–6
  • 4. Dos Pilas

    Dos Pilas is about 7 miles (12 km) west of the northern end of Lake Petexbatún. The nearest town is Sayaxché. Dos Pilas was founded...

    Dos Pilas is about 7 miles (12 km) west of the northern end of Lake Petexbatún. The nearest town is Sayaxché. Dos Pilas was founded in AD 640 by nobles from Tikal who fled Tikal after it was conquered by Calakmul. Most impressive of the ancient structures found here are limestone staircases and stelae covered with carvings that recount the battles against other city-states in the region, including Tikal. Unlike most other Mayan cities, this one was surrounded by a defensive wall. Dos Pilas was abandoned the late 8th century AD. This is not an easy, or inexpensive, destination to reach. In Sayaxché, you may be able to organize transportation by boat and horseback. In Flores, Martsam Travel, among others, hosts tours.

    Sayaxché, Petén, Guatemala

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Free, Daily 6–6
  • 5. El Centro de Conservación e Investigación de Tikal

    The Center of Conservation and Research is a collaboration with the government of Japan. There's a small exhibition and info center about its restoration and...

    The Center of Conservation and Research is a collaboration with the government of Japan. There's a small exhibition and info center about its restoration and conservation work.

    Tikal, Petén, Guatemala
  • 6. El Mirador

    El Mirador is still being explored and excavated, but elaborate plans are being laid to establish a huge park four times the size of Tikal....

    El Mirador is still being explored and excavated, but elaborate plans are being laid to establish a huge park four times the size of Tikal. Dr. Richard D. Hansen of the University of Utah is director for the Mirador Basin Project, sponsored by the Foundation for Anthropological Research and Environmental Studies (FARES). The Mirador Basin contains the El Mirador site itself, four other known Maya cities that probably were as large as Tikal (Nakbé, El Tintal, Xulnal, and Wakná), and many smaller but important sites—perhaps as many as 80 to 100 cities. The Mirador Basin is home to an incredible diversity of plant and animal life, including 200 species of birds, 40 kinds of animals (including several endangered ones, such as jaguars), 300 kinds of trees, and 2,000 different species of flora. It has been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Currently, fewer than 2,500 visitors get to El Mirador annually, as it's a difficult trek requiring four to six days of hiking (round-trip). The jumping-off point for the trek is Carmelita Village, about 50 miles (84 km) north of Flores. There are no hotels in the Mirador Basin and no roads except for dirt paths. Local tour companies such as Martsam Tours in Flores and elsewhere can arrange treks. For those with the budget, around US$675 can get you there by helicopter.

    Guatemala
  • 7. El Museo Lítico

    El Museo Lítico has stelae (commemorative stone slabs) found at Tikal and interesting photos from early archaeological excavations....

    El Museo Lítico has stelae (commemorative stone slabs) found at Tikal and interesting photos from early archaeological excavations.

    Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Q30 admission to both museums
  • 8. El Museo Tikal

    El Museo Tikal has a replica of Ha Sawa Chaan K'awil's burial chamber and some ceramics and bones from the actual tomb (the jade, however,...

    El Museo Tikal has a replica of Ha Sawa Chaan K'awil's burial chamber and some ceramics and bones from the actual tomb (the jade, however, is a replica). The museum may be a letdown after the magnificent structures you see in the park.

    Tikal, Petén, Guatemala

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Q30 admission to both museums
  • 9. El Zotz

    El Zotz is where you'll find the remnants of a Mayan city, guarded by bats and monkeys and a few park guards. On a clear...

    El Zotz is where you'll find the remnants of a Mayan city, guarded by bats and monkeys and a few park guards. On a clear day you can see the tallest of the ruins at Tikal from the top of El Diablo Temple or other mostly unexcavated mounds. The name, which means "the bat" in Ket'chi Mayan, refers to a cave from which thousands of bats make a nightly exodus. Troops of hyperactive spider monkeys seem to have claimed this place for themselves, swinging through the treetops and scrambling after each other like children playing a game of tag. Unlike those in Tikal, however, these long-limbed creatures are not used to people and will shake branches and throw twigs and fruit to try to scare you away. During the rainy season the mosquitoes can be fierce, so bring your strongest repellent. A few tour operators in Flores arrange two-night treks to El Zotz. Some visitors have been robbed on guided treks from Tikal to El Zotz.

    Guatemala

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Free
  • 10. Kinkajou Kingdom and ARCAS

    Take a 10-minute boat ride across the lake to the wonderful exhibit Kinkajou Kingdom, featuring the big-eyed honey-bear cuties, as well as spider monkeys, margays,...

    Take a 10-minute boat ride across the lake to the wonderful exhibit Kinkajou Kingdom, featuring the big-eyed honey-bear cuties, as well as spider monkeys, margays, and other nonreleasable animals. This education service of the conservation NGO ARCAS is seldom taken advantage of by visitors but you should try to make time for it. Though you can drop in, reservations are recommended.

    Mayan Biosphere Reserve, Flores, Petén, Guatemala
    5208--0968

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Q15
  • 11. Nakúm

    The late Classic ceremonial center of Nakúm lies deep within the forest, connected to Yaxhá via 10 miles (17 km) of jungle trails that are...

    The late Classic ceremonial center of Nakúm lies deep within the forest, connected to Yaxhá via 10 miles (17 km) of jungle trails that are used for dry-season horseback expeditions, SUV trips, or hikes. A number of structures here have been excavated. You can't visit during the rainy season, as you'll sink into mud up to your ankles. Even during the dry season, a four-wheel-drive vehicle with high clearance is a good idea. Explorer Alfred Tozzer rediscovered Nakúm in 1909 and began to assign certain structures descriptive names, some of which may not be accurate. Nakúm is best traveled with a reputable guide.

    16 miles (26 km) east of Tikal and 10 miles (17 km) north of Yaxhá, Melchor de Mencos, Petén, Guatemala

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Q80 (entry to all of Yaxhá-Nakúm-Naranjo)
  • 12. Punta de Chimino

    Southwest of the town of Sayaxché is the remains of the fortress of Punta de Chimino, 2½ miles (4 km) north of Aguateca. It was...

    Southwest of the town of Sayaxché is the remains of the fortress of Punta de Chimino, 2½ miles (4 km) north of Aguateca. It was the last residence of the area's besieged royal families as the area descended into chaos in the 10th century AD. The defenders dug several moats into the peninsula where the fort stood, turning it into an island.

    Sayaxché, Petén, Guatemala
  • 13. Uaxactún

    The 4,000-year-old city of Uaxactún once rivaled Tikal's supremacy in the region. It was conquered by Tikal in the fourth century and lived in the...

    The 4,000-year-old city of Uaxactún once rivaled Tikal's supremacy in the region. It was conquered by Tikal in the fourth century and lived in the shadow of that great city for centuries. Inscriptions show that Uaxactún existed longer than any other Mayan city, which may account for the wide variety of structures. Here, among the stelae and palaces, you'll find a Mayan astronomical observatory (designated "Structure E-VII-B"), thought to be the oldest in Mesoamerica. From the observatory, the sun lines up precisely on the solstices and equinoxes. As the excavated ruins here are much smaller and less impressive than at Tikal, you won't have to fight the crowds as you do at neighboring Tikal, leaving you free to enjoy the quiet and mystic air of the ruins. Although there are daily local buses from Santa Elena to the village of Uaxactún near the ruins, you'll probably want to arrange with a tour company in Flores to see the Mayan site. Predawn tours from Flores are beautiful. Some multinight tours combine a visit to El Zotz with one to Uaxactún.

    Uaxactún, Petén, Guatemala

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Q60, Daily 6–6
  • 14. Yaxhá

    Yaxhá is part of the Yaxhá-Nakúm-Naranjo Natural Monument. Though less expansive than Tikal, many report preferring its intimacy. It is relatively easy to reach by...

    Yaxhá is part of the Yaxhá-Nakúm-Naranjo Natural Monument. Though less expansive than Tikal, many report preferring its intimacy. It is relatively easy to reach by car from the Belize border, with a guide tour from San Ignacio, Belize, or by a guided tour from Flores or El Remate. From the Belize border it's about 25 miles (43 km), or an hour, by car, on roads that are passable even in the rainy season. There is a visitor center and small museum here, along with restrooms. It can be seen in about half a day, and wildlife, including spider and howler monkeys, animates its trees. The ruins, built of an unusual light-toned limestone, give it a different feel than most other ruins in the region. Only rarely are there more than a handful of visitors at Yaxhá.Overlooking a beautiful lake of the same name, the ruins of Yaxhá are divided into two sections of rectangular structures that form plazas and streets. A guide is a good idea here, because it is not obvious what all the structures are. Here's what is known: The city was probably inhabited between the pre-Classic and Classic periods, and at its peak contained 20,000 people. It was also an important ally of nearby Tikal. Only a portion of the estimated 500 structures are visible at present, the most famous of which is designated Templo 216, Yaxhá's highest edifice with splendid views of the adjoining lake and rain forest. Lake Yaxhá—the name, pronounced yah--shah, translates as "green waters"—surrounded by virgin rain forest, is a good bird-watching spot. In the middle of the lake sit the ruins of Isla Topoxté, a fortress dating from the post-Classic period about AD 1000, and the site of one of the last strongholds against Spanish invaders. Ask the park staff here about transportation. Someone can take you if you pay for the boat's gas. Crocodiles inhabit the lake.You can camp at Yaxhá, or stay at the solar-powered jungle lodge, Camapmento Ecológico El Sombrero (502/7861–1687) about 1 mile (2 km) south of the Yaxhá ruins.

    29 miles (48 km) east of Flores, 19 miles (30 km) southeast of Tikal, Melchor de Mencos, Petén, Guatemala

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Q80 (entry to all of Yaxhá-Nakúm-Naranjo), Daily 7–5
  • 15. Centro de Información sobre la Naturaleza, Cultura, y Artesanía de Petén

    Visitor Center

    In the 1800s, before it was a departure point for travelers headed for the ruins, Flores was called Devil's Island because of the prison on...

    In the 1800s, before it was a departure point for travelers headed for the ruins, Flores was called Devil's Island because of the prison on top of the hill (a church stands there now). Since 1994 the building has been home to the Centro de Información sobre la Naturaleza, Cultura, y Artesanía de Petén. This center has a small museum with photographs of the region and information about local resources, such as allspice, chicle (a chewing-gum base made from tree sap), and xate (a shade palm used in floral decorations). A gift shop sells wood carvings, woven baskets, cornhusk dolls, and even locally made peanut butter.

    North side of Parque Central, Flores, Petén, Guatemala
    -7926–0718

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