While most travel images of Guatemala conjure up bustling markets or religious processions with indigenous people dressed in colorful clothing, set amidst a backdrop of stunning natural beauty, the northern part of the country does not fit that description. Not at all in fact.
The state of Petén covers fully one-third of the country’s area, adjoining Mexico’s Yucutan and Belize, yet is typically not part of the country’s travel iconography. Until relatively recently, few roads penetrated the region’s dense tropical forests, and the current population of 600,000 pales in comparison to the number of people who lived there 1,000 years ago in the classic Mayan period.
Despite this relative backwater status, the area hosts some unique and incredible opportunities for the traveler interested in nature, culture, archeology, and exploration. First, of course, is world-famous Tikal, site of arguably the most impressive Mayan “ruins” in the world. It should certainly be on any self-respecting traveler’s life list. But beyond that singular attraction, there are all sorts of unique and interesting opportunities to explore less well-known elements of the region.
The first question that naturally arises when visiting an area that’s not strictly-speaking “on the beaten track” is where to stay. In our case, we considered some of the options directly adjacent to Tikal as well as various places to stay in and around the colonial town of Flores, on Lake Petén Itza. In the end, given our preference for smaller, unique lodging options, we chose La Lancha, a small (6 units) understated lodge built into a steep hillside on the north side of the great lake. Now owned by Francis Ford Coppola, the property is a 45 minute drive around the lake from the airport near Flores, and about an hour from Tikal itself.
The lodge enjoys a fantastic view looking south across Lake Petén Itza, and its thatched roofed buildings are surrounded by tropical forest brimming with life. Woken by birds and howler monkeys in the morning (not to mention the occasional grunting gecko on the ceiling), we would enjoy breakfast on the dining terrace before setting out for the day’s activities. Importantly, the staff at La Lancha is incredibly helpful and accommodating, aided by the lodge’s small size and rustic chic feel. They were always ready to help us organize a trip, take a canoe out on the lake, or offer up a bottle of Coppola wine. Dinners were full of fresh local cuisine with a touch of Western influence.
After spending some time relaxing on the first day, I borrowed one of the lodge’s bikes and rode 45 minutes along the rough dirt road to the local forest preserve, Cerro Cahui. An hour-long hike through beautiful primary tropical forest full of birds and monkeys brought me to a mirador (lookout), where I could gaze for miles across the lake and surrounding forest-clad hills.
Our next day was set aside for Tikal, a candidate for the title of Most Impressive Ancient Ruins in North America. The setting is truly magical—unlike places like Chichen Itza, the original forest surrounding the temples and structures has been kept largely intact, and the buildings are in various states of restoration, ranging from fully restored to partially restored/mid-restoration to completely underground. The scale of the place is enormous, and looking out across the treetops from atop the tallest temples, you feel at once a sense of ancient history and the passage of time merged with a sense of the current magic of the place and your tiny scale amidst the natural beauty and the endless forest.
Luckily, unlike many famous landmarks, Tikal had barely any visitors during our trip—perhaps less than a few hundred all day. A casualty of both the global recession and Guatemala’s poor news profile, the area is now anything but overrun. Birds and monkeys were our constant companion as we wandered in, on, and around the incredible monuments, temples, and residences. You didn’t need to be a passionate archeologist to appreciate how special it was to be in the midst of all of this, rather than reading about it or looking at artifacts through a glass case.
The following day we signed up for a tour of Lake Petén Itza. Later that morning, we were picked up by a lancha (small motorboat) and we cruised around the massive lake, visiting some small villages that dot the shoreline, and then having lunch in Flores. The wonderful little town lies on a small island connected to the mainland by a causeway, and is full of colorfully painted colonial buildings separated by narrow cobblestone streets. We had a nice meal and then ambled around town, walking the entire place in an hour. While there’s not a ton to do (some hotels, craft stores, and restaurants, plus an old church), it was incredibly picturesque. Afterward, we visited a tiny museum on an island just offshore of the town, and (shockingly) held 3,000 year-old Mayan pottery in our hands in between looking over arrowheads, spears, and flutes in dusty glass cases. Finally, we hiked up to a mirador just outside town that sits atop a buried Mayan pyramid. The views colored by the late afternoon light made for a fantastic conclusion to the day.
Things That Make You Go Hmm…
While La Lancha met or exceeded our expectations on most counts, there was one disappointing area of which prospective guests should take note. Namely, the lodge charges an obscene amount for tours to any local attraction. While the cost of the rooms is a fair price for a quality experience, the lodge’s remote location means that guests are at the mercy of the lodge for transportation and tours. For example, despite having few alternatives, guests must pay $45 for airport transfers between Flores and the lodge, each way. Similarly, lake tours or trips to see the various Mayan ruins cost anywhere from $100 to $200 per person, an extremely high rate given the low cost of local labor and limited input costs for these trips beyond some gasoline. The lodge admitted that these trips are sold at a large markup, which may be frustrating for travelers who can’t visit the region’s fantastic attractions without their help.
While La Lancha is highly recommended as the best place to stay in the Tikal region, there are some alternatives. The Camino Real Tikal is located in the same general area of the lake, and is the only other property with comparable facilities (and quite a bit larger). Travelers on a budget may choose to stay in and around Flores, in El Remate, or at Tikal itself.
We chose to fly to Flores (a 45-minute flight on Taca from Guatemala City), but you can also take a bus from the capital on the road built in the 1980’s—it’s a 7-8 hour journey. Alternatively, many travelers to Tikal enter from Belize, where it’s only 90 minutes or so from the border. Make sure you consider your transport options ahead of time.
Beyond must-see Tikal, there are several other worthwhile trips in the region, including the Ixpanpajul Skyway (a raised walkway through the forest canopy), the above-reference tour of Lake Petén Itza, and the Mayan ruins of Yaxhá, Ceibal, Uaxactún, and Nakum. For those with more time on their hands and an adventurous spirit, the multi-day trip into the heart of the jungle to see the incredible ruins of El Mirador comes highly recommended. (Some people travel by helicopter, but this feels like cheating).