The vast and sparsely populated El Petén department in Guatemala is a treasure trove of Mayan archaeology and jungle scenery. The region was once the heart of the Mayan civilization, and hundreds of impressive ruins are scattered throughout the dense forest.
Until relatively recently, El Petén was the wild frontier of Guatemala. The country’s largest and most northerly department was almost devoid of major towns and road networks, and only the most adventurous of travelers came to explore its ruins, lakes and jungles. Now, however, paved highways have made it more accessible, and towns like Flores, located in the center of the department, cater to a growing influx of tourists.
The most famous archaeological site in the entire region is Tikal. This stunning and sprawling Mayan city consists of thousands of ancient structures, some excavated but many still covered in jungle. Tikal dominated the region from around 200 to 900 AD, its monuments, temples and palaces forming the foundation of Mayan economic, political and military strength.
Tikal receives far more tourists than any other site in El Petén, and is easy to reach despite its location in the heart of the jungle. Other notable sites with decent tourist infrastructure include El Mirador, Yaxhá, Yaxchilan and Uaxactun, but many more lie across the department. Some are easy to reach by bus or car with tour agencies based both in and outside the department, while others require extensive pre-planning and tough multiday treks into the deep jungle.
Apart from the region’s wealth of Mayan ruins, El Petén is also home to the Maya Biosphere Reserve, an 8,341-square-mile protected area that covers the northern third of the department. The reserve consists of tropical forests, wetlands, small mountain ranges, lakes, rivers, streams and cenotes (sinkholes), creating a fascinating landscape with endless opportunists for exploration. And within this spectacular setting lives an abundance of wildlife, including jaguars, pumas, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, tapirs, ocelots, crocodiles, white-tail deer, harpy eagles, macaws and much more. For wildlife spotters with a passion for archaeology, there are few better places in the world.
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