• Laura Bachmann

Discover Adventure in El Petén

El Petén

El Petén occupies approximately a third of the country of Guatemala, yet its population represents only about 4%. This vast expanse of tropical rainforest, swamps and savannah forms part of an untamed wilderness that stretches into the Lacandón forest and collects Maya cities from late pre-classic and classic period. Guatemala’s largest and northernmost department, the Department of El Petén is waiting for exploration. Whether the lush jungle and wildlife, the mystique of the Classic Maya, or the opportunity to relax in a unique environment inspire you, Petén will not disappoint.

Here, you have the chance to explore the Mayan Civilization. The Maya, known as one of the mother civilizations of humanity, have practices and traditions, which tap into the wonders of the universe and life. The Department of Petén offers an understanding of the cosmology and life vision of the Mayas from ages past to traditions carried on from generation to generation. Your intensity to experience the Maya culture depends on your enthusiasm to get your feet wet (literally).

The well-known temples of the largest Mayan site, Tikal, can be toured from almost any starting point, whereas the more isolated locations like El Mirador may require several days of planning and trekking through the dense jungle. The Reserva de Biosfera Maya (Maya Biosphere Reserve) includes nearly the whole northern third of the Petén Department. The Reserve was established and implemented by UNESCO in 1990 to protect the largest area of American tropical forest remaining north of the Amazon. Combined with an area in Mexico and Belize, the expanse forms a multinational wildlife refuge that extends more than 30,000 sq. km.


To visit El Petén many travelers journey into the twin cities of Flores and Santa Elena, about an hour’s drive from the site of Tikal, boasting Guatemala’s only functioning civil airport aside from Guatemala City. With the city of Flores becoming a major destination for those visiting Guatemala, there are several paved and maintained roads from areas such as Guatemala’s Rio Dulce to the southeast, the Belize border to the east, and the Mexico border to the northwest.

El Mirador

Hidden within El Petén’s dense jungle, just shy of the Mexican border to the north, lies the late Pre-Classic metropolis of El Mirador. El Mirador, or the “viewpoint”, contains the largest collection of buildings of any other Mayan site, along with the largest pyramid constructed in the Mayan world. The continual excavations of the area have nearly scratched the surface of this pristine site, with countless buildings still concealed by the thick jungle vegetation.

Local chicle (natural gum) collectors, or chicleros granted this Maya city, El Mirador, its namesake because of its amazing views atop the pyramids. For instance, a remarkable 70m above the jungle floor, La Dante (the Tapir) emerges through the forest to provide its exclusive view. In addition, El Tigre only 55m high boasts a base, which covers an astonishing 18,000 sq. meters. Sustaining tens of thousands of inhabitants at its peak, El Mirador extended over 16 sq. km, gaining it the right to be termed the greatest Mayan city of the Pre-Classic era, with no subsequent Mayan site surpassing its size.

Ready to visit El Mirador? Put your hiking boots on! Touring El Mirador requires a demanding trek through the dense jungle of at least five days. The trip offers no facilities or amenities and can be extremely arduous during the rainy season. However, there is also a helicopter option. A flight in from Flores provides a quick 30-minute ride over the heavy vegetation of the forest, tour the city, and return for the night into Flores. No matter how you get there, El Mirador is certainly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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