I made my first trip into the Guatemalan Petén about ten years ago for a brief two day stint. I spent one day visiting the archeological site of Yaxha which was just opening up to the public, and my second day at Tikal, overnighting in the town of Flores. This time around I planned for another two day visit – one day in Flores and a return trip to Tikal. I was tempted to explore other archaeological sites, but my travel companions had never been, so back to Tikal I went.
Flores is built on an island in the middle of Lake Petén Itza, and is near the biggest airport in the Petén region, the Mundo Maya International Airport. As hinted in the name, the airport’s primary use was to cater to tourists visiting Tikal. It is a 45 minute flight from Guatemala City or an 8 hour (if you are lucky) bus ride. You can also get to Flores via Belize. My brother and his girlfriend decided to do some diving in Belize before traveling overland to meet up with me in Flores. It took them only a couple of hours to get to Flores from the Guatemala/Belize border riding in a collective van.
When I was visiting in 2007, Flores was a sleepy town full of colorfully painted townhouses. Packed onto the small island, it was easy to walk from one side of the island to the next. A small two lane bridge will get you on and off the island. Santa Elena was a small crossroads on the other side of the bridge where the bus terminal and airport sat. Other then that, there was little to no development around the lake – a few small towns, farms, and ranches along the main roads, but most of the land was undeveloped.
It was shocking when I returned ten years later, and everything was built up. Landing at the Mundo Maya Airport the first thing I saw this trip was a strip mall with both a Pizza Hut and Burger King. Santa Elena was a bustling town, and Flores had become party central. The lands on the far side of the lake were covered in houses and hotels. They had also built a road to run around the outside of the island along with a walking path. The waterfront walking path was a nice improvement.
Another improvement to the infrastructure was the installation of a sewage processing plant on the far side of the lake. Prior to this all of Flores’ sewage would drain right out into the lake. Now days people actually swim in the lake, where as before, it was generally seen as a bad idea. I was still hesitant due to all of the new development on the far sides of the lake, there was no guarantee that the new out of town constructions were complying with the same sewage standards, but it was sure tempting to take a quick dip in the heat of the day. There is a swim area on the far side of the lake named Jorge’s Tire Swing. It’s in one of the less developed parts of the lake, and while I did not get the opportunity to check it out this visit, my sister said it was a fun place to hang out and cool off.
This visit to Flores happened to correspond with their hottest time of the year – right as the dry season is finishing up and they are waiting for the rains to come in. The Monday before we arrived was a record breaking 41°C (105.8°F), not including the heat index. Thankfully it had cooled down a degree or two before we arrived, but it was still unbelievable hot, humid, and tropical.
If given a choice this would not be the time of year to visit the Petén. One of the best parts of visiting Flores is being able to watch the sunsets over the lake, or, on the flip side, the sunrise in Tikal. But at this time of year, as the dry season is finishing up, things can be a little dusty, and unfortunately, there is a lot of slashing and burning going on giving the air a smoky, smoggy haze. My previous trip was in January, and I found the weather to be a lot more pleasant. It was still hot, humid, and tropical, but the air was clearer and the area was a lot greener. There was a silver-lining to visiting in late March/early April though, many of the tropical deciduous trees were in bloom, lining the forest canopies with bright bursts of color.
A Day in Flores
I spent a day hanging out in Flores this visit. A morning touring around Lake Petén Itza in a lancha (small collective boats that ferry passengers around the lake), and the an afternoon wandering around town. The morning started out with a typical Guatemalan breakfast at Doña Goya’s down on the water front. Doña Goya’s has been my Dad’s go-to breakfast spot in Flores for years, although he swears that back in the 90s there was a small pensión run by an older women that had the “best” breakfasts. Unfortunately, when he returned in the 2000s he was unable to find it, and believes the lady running it must have retired. Flores is not known for its food, and most restaurants tend to serve “tourist fare” which mostly consists of pasta, sandwiches, and pizza with little emphasis toward good “ethnic” food. My sister discovered a new restaurant named Cool Beans which had a comfortable atmosphere (garden seating), economic prices, and good coffee. We frequented it and Doña Goya’s a lot during this visit.
Our first stop on our visit around the lake was to visit the ARCAS Wildlife Rescue Center. My sister spent a week volunteering with them, and my Dad has done some work with them in the past. ARCAS has a couple of different rescue centers around Guatemala, and they specialize in rescuing and rehabilitating animals in the hopes of reintroducing them back into the wild.
We dropped by for a quick tour of the animals that were too injured or domesticated to be reintroduced back into the wild. They had a large selection of birds including some guacamayas (macaws). There is estimated to be less then 300 guacamayas living in the wild, and the ARCAS’ center in the Petén is dedicating a lot of its time and effort into trying to change that. We saw two alligators that had been blinded by agricultural chemical runoff. They had a couple of cages of spider monkeys (including some babies) that had been so domesticated that they just want to hang around holding your hand. I think most people now days have an aversion to keeping humans as a pet, but is it alright to keep your fellow primates as a pet? There is only about 7% of DNA variation among all primates. Think about it as you shake their little monkey hands through the cage bars. I was. ARCAS also had several wild cats at the center including a full grown puma (mountain lion) that someone had once kept as a family pet, and two ocelots. One of the ocelots is missing a paw so it will be living out the rest of its life at ARCAS. They tried to rehabilitate the other ocelot, but when they released it, it chose to hangout around ARCAS and prey on the parrots so they had to place it back into its’ cage.
The tour of ARCAS takes only about an hour, and serves to further educate the public and raise funds for the organization. They also have a good volunteer program. My sister did it for a week (they charge about $175 a week for room and board), and during that week she was responsible for the care of 59 parrots, a stork, and an otter. The parrots gave her a bit of flip, but she really enjoyed catching live fish out of the lake every morning for the otter’s breakfast.
Following the visit to ARCAS we decided to visit El Mirador. Sadly, not the archaeological site which still requires a five day trek through the jungle or a 30 minute helicopter ride, but a small lookout on the far side of the lake. From the lookout you can see most of Lake Petén Itza and the town of Flores.
Tikal is a little over an hour (by car) away from Flores and the Mundo Maya Airport. I have found that it is best to enter the park as early in the morning as possible – before the heat gets to overwhelming and before the larger tour buses arrive. The site of Tikal is also located within a nature preserve and National Park. This serves as further incentive to get there early, and see the animals before the crowds scare them off. The park opens at 6:00 in the morning, although, they do offer sunrise tours for an additional fee and also have places where you can spend the night inside of the park.
Tikal is one of the largest Classical Period Maya sites to have been excavated to date. It had far reaching influence in the region during the Classical Period, and at its height supported a population of ~80,000 people. Tikal has been in the western spotlight for over 150 years making it one of the most well known and studied Mayan sites. Unfortunately, due to its long term exposure and the soft limestone used in a lot of its construction most of the detailing on the structures and stela has been worn away.
Nature: In the park we saw both spider and howler monkeys – with baby monkeys in tow. We also saw a capybara, and plenty of birds including two species of Toucans and a pair (one male and one female) of Trogons (related to the quetzal, but lacking the long tail).
Temple I: The Temple I was built by Jasaw Chan K’awiil in 732 AD. Jasaw Chan K’awiil was inarguably one of the more influential rulers of Tikal, ruling from May 3, 682 – 734 AD. He led a series of successful military campaigns against Calakmul and Calakmul allies, bringing Tikal out of a 130 year hiatus period, and implemented several large scale construction projects including Tikal Temple’s I, II, and the final construction phase of Temple 33. His tomb was found under Temple I in the 1960s.
The Plaza facing Temple I: The plaza between Temples I and II is lined with stela which have unfortunately been almost completely worn away. On the north side of the plaza is an area which has been named the North Acropolis, and on the south side is an area where the elite were said to resided known as the Central Acropolis. Tour guides clap there hands in the center of the plaza to demonstrate the strong acoustics of the space, and often times compare the resulting echo to the caws of a quetzal.
Central Acropolis: This area is thought to be a residential area for the elite. The only kink to this theory is that only a few burials have been found under these residential structures, and the Maya seem to have had a tradition of burying family members or ancestors under their residential spaces in an act of veneration. Although, areas of the Central Acropolis have yet to be excavated, it is possible that this space also served as a space for elite administrative needs. The picture below is of a palace which did have 4 burials found in it, and is thought to have been the residence of Chak Tok Ich’aak I.
Central Acropolis with Temple V in the background:
Temple II: Was commissioned by Jasaw Chan K’awiil for his wife Lady Lahan Unen Mo’, and was completed by their son Yik’in Chan K’awiil. This Temple is often referred to as the Temple of the Masks due to the series of masks carved along its top.
The Masks of Temple II:
North Acropolis: The North Acropolis is often referred to as the Necropolis, due to the large number of rulers that were buried in the temples along the plaza. Some of the more memorable rulers that found their resting places in the North Acropolis including Yax Nuun Ahiin I, who had some controversial ties to Teotihuacan, and his son Sihyaj Chan K’awiil II. Jasaw Chan K’awiil had Temple 33 of the North Acropolis reconstructed to house his father’s, Nuun Ujol Chaak, remains. Sihyaj Chan K’awiil II was buried in an earlier construction of Temple 33. Nuun Ujol Chaak seems to have been the last ruler buried in the North Acropolis.
Palace of the Windows:
View from the top of Temple VI: Temple VI is the tallest pyramid in Tikal, and at one point was thought to have been the tallest pyramid built by the Maya. This title has been passed on as larger pyramids have been discovered, such as La Danta at El Mirador. Temple VI is thought to have either been built by or in commemoration of Yik’in Chan K’awiil. Unfortunately, by the time we got up there the clouds and haze had started to set in, but the view was still phenomenal.