Our family of five (three teenagers aged 14, 15 and 17 years old) spent three days exploring Lake Peten Guatemala, and the region surrounding it. Originally, we headed up to the area to visit Tikal National Park which contains one of the largest Mayan ruins in the world. However, over three days, we toured many parts of the region. This included spending a day touring the Mayan ruins in Tikal with our amazing tour guide, but also included hiking in the Cerro Cahui Protected Biotope, exploring Lake Peten by boat, and visiting ARCAS, an internationally recognized animal sanctuary. In addition, we spent a day boating and snorkelling on the untouched and crystal clear waters of Crater Azul.
I enjoyed our time around Lake Peten Guatemala. Our experiences were very different from Antigua and Lake Atitlan, but nevertheless interesting and fun to explore if you have the time.
Lake Peten Guatemala
Lake Peten Guatemala is in northern Guatemala and one of the largest lakes in Guatemala. It is located in the “department” (similar to a province or state) of Peten, an area that makes up 1/3 of the total geographical area of Guatemala.
Flores is the capital of Peten and is found on the southern part of Lake Peten on an island. However, it is connected to the mainland by a short man-made causeway. Flores is a three hour drive to the Mexican border and 1 1/2 hours drive to the Belize border. Maya Mundo International Airport is a few minutes from Flores.
Lake Peten Guatemala has more than 100 important indigenous species. This includes jaguars, pumas, white-tailed deer, and several bird species, such as parrots, toucans, and macaws. In addition, there are at least 27 ancient Mayan sites around Lake Peten.
Differences between Antigua, Lake Atitlan and Lake Peten Guatemala.
Fundamentally, Lake Peten is hot and mostly flat, It is overflowing with jungle with lots of opportunities to see wildlife both on land and in the water. On the other hand, Antigua and Lake Atitlan in the south have more spring like temperatures year round. They are surrounded by both dormant and active volcanos, so other than the actual town of Antigua, I barely saw a flat piece of land anywhere. It is very lush and green, but less so with jungle. Other than birds, there is practically no wildlife there.
Day One – Tikal National Park and Jungle Lodge Hotel
Tikal National Park
Tikal National Park became a Unesco World Heritage site in 1979. It is one of the few World Heritage properties recorded as such for both natural and cultural criteria for its extraordinary biodiversity and archaeological importance. It is approximately 57600 ha (or 142,333 acres).
Tikal is also home to an ancient Mayan city that dominated Central America between 200 and 900 AD. It is considered one of the most important archaeological complexes left by the Mayan civilization. Dozens of royal palaces, houses, administrative buildings and stone monuments have been excavated and are open to the public for exploration.
We spent the day exploring the Mayan ruins in Tikal with our guide from Sin Fronteras and loved it. One of our favourite experiences was climbing 21m or 71 ft up one of the tallest temples – Temple IV. There, we had unparalleled views of Tikal National Park and the tops of other pyramids peeking through the rainforest.
Overall, one of the best things about Tikal is that visitors are allowed to explore the ruins with few limitations. We were free to clamber up buildings and pyramids, or squeeze ourselves into nooks and crannies. In addition, we saw very few tourists. This allowed us to appreciate the magnitude of what the Mayan people accomplished and the natural beauty of the jungle without fighting through crowds.
Tip: Many tour operators offer a day trip from Guatemala City to Tikal. In an earlier blog, I wrote about whether I thought this would be a good idea. If you are interested in learning more, please read Tikal Guatemala Day Trip: The Best or Worst Idea?
Travelling With Young Children or Physical Challenges
We loved the unfettered access to the Mayan ruins. However, if you are travelling with young children, you will need to stay alert. There were many places on the ruins where there was little to no fencing and significant drops. In addition, we walked on paths that started on ground level but without warning, steered us to a ledge with a large fall. On the positive side, the site is enormous with lots of grassy fields for children to run around and play safely.
If you have physical challenges, you will be able to walk around Tikal National Park and appreciate the ruins. For the most part, it is relatively flat with paths and grassy areas that would not form barriers to someone who can walk under normal circumstances. However, other than climbing up stairs and ledges, it would be difficult to reach the top of the temples or explore inside the ruins.
Jungle Lodge Hotel
The Jungle Lodge was a beautiful hotel with an amazing location. It was tucked in the middle of the jungle, a 10 minute walk to the first Mayan ruin in Tikal.
The main building, with the restaurant, bar and games room, was without windows or exterior walls. so that everywhere you looked, the jungle surrounded you. It was gracefully decorated with gorgeous oversized chairs and couches, and artistic touches connecting it to Tikal and its Mayan history. The rooms had large decks, comfortable beds, mosquito netting, a lovely bathroom, and a large ceiling fan. We admired the pool area and loved the idea of swimming surrounded by jungle and wildlife. The food was some of the best that we had during our whole time in Guatemala.
Considering the location, this was an extraordinary property. However, for those who expect all modern conveniences at hotels, you should note the following. The rooms did not have air conditioning although the ceiling fan did the trick for us. In addition, the rooms did not have electricity during certain times in the day and all night. Wifi was only offered in the main building and was also turned off at certain times during the day and after 10:00 pm.
Day Two – Las Lagunas Hotel and Lake Peten Guatemala
We checked into Las Lagunas Hotel for the next couple of nights. Although the Jungle Lodge was beautiful and offered an exceptional location to explore Tikal National Park, it would have been more difficult to tour other areas of the region and Lake Peten Guatemala. We especially wanted to be able to go into Flores to shop and eat. Las Lagunas Hotel was a 10 minute drive to Lake Peten, Flores and the airport.
We had a challenging time trying to find “nice” accommodation in and around Lake Peten. This included hotels or Airbnbs. There were lots of hostels and budget accommodation, but very little beyond that. Las Lagunas was at the opposite extreme. It was very luxurious. With little to choose from, we decided to splurge and finish our time in Guatemala in luxury.
At Las Lagunas, we had two enormous rooms perched overtop of its own lake, our own hot tubs in each room, a beautiful pool and bar area, and a fine dining room. Service and food were both excellent and refined. As an added bonus, there were miles and miles of hiking paths on its property that we got to enjoy. For better or for worst, one day this included seeing a panther when my son and I went on a hike. It crossed our path without a care in the world and carried on its way oblivious to our wide eyes and racing hearts. We walked a little faster after that, my son with a large rock or two in his hands, acutely aware of every snap or rustle coming from the jungle. For those of you who love the idea of being close to nature, this should do the trick!
Exploring Lake Peten Guatemala
Our whole focus on day two was Lake Peten.
Our guide collected us from our hotel and we drove approximately 40 minutes to Cerro Cahui Protected Biotope on the shores of Lake Peten. There, we went on a 1 1/2 hour hike into the rainforest.
Cerro Cahui is a protected reserve in the jungle that is 730 ha or 1800 acres. The hiking paths are fairly easy with some gentle slopes. More than 20 mammal species roam the reserve, including spider and howler monkeys, and white-tailed deer. Birdlife is rich and varied, and includes toucans, woodpeckers and ocellated turkeys.
I loved our time in Cerro Cahui. The jungle was beautiful and serene. We were totally immersed within the trees and the plants, and were barely able to see the sky. We didn’t see anybody else while we hiked. Unfortunately, other than birds, we didn’t see any wildlife either. Nonetheless, I would recommend giving yourself a half day or longer to explore the area.
The hiking path was wide and level. More importantly for those with children, the path was safe without any dangerous drops.
We drove from Cerro Cahui to Flores, a lovely town on the shores of Lake Peten Guatemala. It had colonial and red-roofed buildings, narrow cobblestone streets, a historic church, Spanish plaza, and many restaurants that were easy to stumble upon while walking around.
During our time in the area, we ate a couple of meals at La Casa De Enrico. I highly recommend it for its excellent Mexican/ Italian food and its ginormous delicious cocktails, all served on its patio overlooking Lake Peten.
We rented a boat in Flores and boated around Lake Peten Guatemala. Flores looked beautiful from the boat. I also loved seeing the different towns and homes along the shores. Our guide took us to a tiny island in the middle of the lake that was covered in iguanas. The kids really enjoyed trying to spot them while the iguanas desperately tried to stay camouflaged. A highlight was visiting ARCAS.
ARCAS is an animal sanctuary found on the shores of Lake Peten Guatemala. It is a NGO – a Non Governmental Organization- that is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries as having met the highest standard in humane animal care.
When we visited, ARCAS was divided into two sections. One section was zoo-like. There were lots of different breeds of animals, including monkeys, jaguars, and macaws, who were permanent residents of ARCAS. They would not survive if they were returned to the jungle. We visited these animals in their enclosures with a representative of ARCAS who shared facts and stories about these animals and their natural habitats.
The other section was an animal hospital. We were not allowed into this section. This area was where animals received medical help and then, eventually released back into the wild.
We spent a lot of time at ARCAS. My kids really liked seeing the animals. Even though they were in cages or large fenced off enclosures, we were able to get very close to them. So much so that a macaw tried to projectile pee on my son and a jaguar launched himself onto the fence mere inches from where we stood. A little unnerving but a very real reminder that these animals were wild, dangerous and unpredictable.
Day 3 – Crater Azul
We visited Crazter Azul on our last full day in the Peten region. This was a pretty cool experience.
La Pasion River
We drove 1 1/2 hours from Flores to Sayaxche, a municipality on the shores of La Pasion River. I liked the drive. We passed tiny little towns and farms, and were able to see the day to day lives of the local people.
When we arrived in Sayaxche, we found a long line of traffic waiting to cross the river by ferry. It was a short distance from point to point. Most places in the world would have built a bridge to connect the two sides, but apparently here, the ferry operators were doing everything they could to stop that.
La Pasion River was not a pretty river and Sayaxche was not a pretty place. The shores were muddy and the buildings were dilapidated. Here, we found our captain and our boat for the day.
We boated around one hour on the dark and murky waters of La Pasion River. It was a wonderful boat ride. Not because the river was pretty – it wasn’t – but because we saw beautiful birds, and crocodiles, iguanas and snakes on the shores and swimming in the water. In addition, we got to see a lot of small communities who live on the river. Unbelievably, they washed their clothes or their kids swam mere metres from where crocodiles rested. It was fascinating to watch.
Pucte and San Teodoro Streams
After an hour, we turned off of La Pasion River into the stunning Pucte and San Teodoro streams. One moment, we were boating on an ugly brown river and the next, we were on stunning crystal clear blue waters. Unexpectedly, we could easily see and touch pristine aquatic plants and trees just beneath the water. Other than plants, there was hardly any other river life in the streams. Accordingly, locals and even birds do not frequent the area very much.
We snorkelled, boated and had lunch in this beautiful and untouched part of Guatemala. It was amazing.
Lake Peten Guatemala is a very interesting part of Guatemala to visit. Most people come to the area to visit Tikal, but there are many other things to see and do while you are here. For sure, we loved Tikal – hearing about its history, and exploring the Mayan ruins with freedom. However, there are other lovely things to do and see to make your stay fun and interesting. If you like hiking, boating, and seeing wild animals, then Lake Peten Guatemala is an ideal location to spend a couple of days. You will see a very different side of Guatemala than what you will experience in Antigua and Lake Atitlan.
If you are interested in reading more about our time in Guatemala, please refer to the articles below:
- Antigua Guatemala: 8 Reasons Why It Is Worth The Fuss;
- Pacaya Volcano in Guatemala: Hiking Up an Active Volcano;
- Lake Atitlan Guatemala: Unravelling Its Mysteries;
- Lake Atitlan Activities in Guatemala: 10 Of My Favourites;
- Tikal Guatemala Day Trip: The Best or Worst Idea?
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