Guatemala’s second largest lake, 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.
Strategically located above the Pasión River, a once important trade route to the Gulf of Mexico, El Ceibal (also written “Seibal”) 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 El Ceibal 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 El Ceibal 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 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 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.
So, you want to explore Guatemala’s subtropical rainforest, but without getting too wild? Ixpanpajul Nature Park 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.