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El Petén is virtually synonymous with Tikal, the spectacular Mayan city carved out of the northern Guatemalan jungle. Walking among the pyramids and temples here — some reaching almost 200 feet tall — is accompanied by a soundtrack of bellowing howler monkeys, screeching macaws, and chirping tree frogs. Ongoing excavations and investigations mean that increasing numbers of the 4000-plus buildings spread throughout the central complex are available for viewing. El Petén is known for its wildlife reserves and natural bounty (the birding is notable), making the ecological-archaeological combination a perennial draw. Many visitors ...

El Petén is virtually synonymous with Tikal, the spectacular Mayan city carved out of the northern Guatemalan jungle. Walking among the pyramids and temples here — some reaching almost 200 feet tall — is accompanied by a soundtrack of bellowing howler monkeys, screeching macaws, and chirping tree frogs. Ongoing excavations and investigations mean that increasing numbers of the 4000-plus buildings spread throughout the central complex are available for viewing. El Petén is known for its wildlife reserves and natural bounty (the birding is notable), making the ecological-archaeological combination a perennial draw. Many visitors combine their jungle and site explorations with volunteer work, Spanish-language study or both. Moving beyond Tikal to visit Mayan sites deeper in the jungle, where snakes and wild animals, mud and machetes are de riguer, is challenging and rewarding. Sites including remote El Mirador, riverside Sayaxché, lakeside Aguateca, El Perú, (where the highlight is the Scarlet Macaw Trail) and El Zotz, Mayan for bat (thousands call this site home) offer unforgettable adventure. Towns en route to Tikal, including Poptún and, closer to the actual site, El Remate, are known for their extracurricular activities including horseback riding, caving and hiking, which has contributed to their fame as traveler hangouts. Although much of El Petén is protected as biosphere or national park, human activities including logging, looting, tourism, and farming often contradict preservation strategies; striking a workable balance is an ongoing struggle here.

Conner Gorry
About the Expert

Conner Gorry is a contributor to more than a dozen Lonely Planet guidebooks and is the lead writer for Lonely Planet's Yucatan, Belize, and Guatemala guides.

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Conner Gorry for Triporati

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Facts at a Glance

  • Location: Central America; bordering the North Pacific Ocean, between El Salvador and Mexico
  • Language: Spanish (60%), Amerindian languages (40%)
  • Currency: Guatemalan Quetzal; US Dollar
  • Research: Peten | Tikal | Peten | Tikal
  • Weather: Daylight | Rainfall
  • Current Time:

Climate

  • Best Time to Visit:

    Cooler months from December to February are best.