Tikal’s brilliantly atmospheric Maya pyramid group seen from a plane by Dennis Jarvis.
One of the most impressive Maya pyramid groups anywhere, this magnificent cluster of ancient structures is embedded in 370 sq kms of howling, fluttering, overpowering jungle.
Day trips are possible from quiet Flores but VERY different from the Tikal dusk/dawn experience when you’ll be surrounded by fewer tourists but a forest of roaring monkeys (howlers), screeching parakeets, fluttering bats and all sorts of scary Indiana Jonesness, so stay overnight and go buggy!
Peeking over one million hectares of jungle reserve the stately Tikal pyramids have an earthy, dark and mysterious atmosphere like no other pyramid group except perhaps Palenque in Mexico. The only sounds will be of deep jungle, particularly the appalling roar of the howler monkeys, the squawking of parakeets or the shrieking of tour groups, while the primo sight is of a toucan hurtling like a guided missile across the central plaza.
However, to really experience this magical location you will need to stay nearby, preferably in one of the hotels within walking distance of the site, in order to bypass the seething hordes of daytime arrivistes.
Many visitors stay in the small conurbation of Flores, one and a half hours drive from Tikal. This is composed of three towns beside the lake of Petén Itza – Flores, Santa Elena and San Benito, with the first, Flores, offering reasonably attractive, old world surroundings, while the other two are noisome, recent and disorganized.
Halfway to Tikal but still on the lake shore El Remate is developing into a pleasant little base for Tikal trips.
From Flores travel to other less well-known, more distant Maya ruins are also possible, El Mirador, El Zotz and Rio Azul – still in Guatemala – and a much longer drive can take you across the border in Mexico, en route for Palenque.
*** Petén rainforest
Occupying almost one third of Guatemala land area Petén is not only alive with wild things – jaguars, tapirs, monkeys, toucans, macaws and a zillion insects – but also scattered with creepy, overgrown Maya ruins, including the premier Tikal.
Controversially Petén has also been opened up to settlers who are busy slashing and burning it as fast as they can.
A not very attractive highland city, but surrounded by attractions – stunning countryside, little traditional villages, volcanoes, hot springs, pagan shrines and activities galore. Good for Spanish language schools too.
On the Caribbean coast Livingston is home to black Carib people and has a very different atmosphere to other towns, particularly in the areas of music and cuisine. Nearby beaches are hardly worth the trip though (unless you take a boat ride) and the waterfalls 5km away will need a guide for safety.
Boat trips up the jungle clad gorges of the Rio Dulce, however, are impressive, and include water trails around the wildlife reserve of Biotopo Chocon Machacas where you will see plenty of birds and a manatee if you’re lucky.
This Pacific beach village has a fair beach, well battered by surf, a wet nature reserve (Biotopo Monterrico-Hawaii) riddled with turtles, caiman, iguana and all sorts of feathered friends. 2 hour guided tours on offer.
Best of all Sept-January every Saturday at sunset sees baby turtles racing to the sea. Tourists buy a turtle and race it against the others into the surf. Winner gets dinner. And no, not turtle stew.
Only go to this dirty, dull and dangerous city if you need transport connections, though there are a couple of OK museums, the Palacio Nacional and the central market is lively. Antigua is only an hour away.
San Andres Xecul church photographed by Chensiyuan.
Cycling and motorcycling
Popular and with plenty of local support, though don’t forget much of Guatemala is mountainous, roads are in poor shape and many vehicle drivers verge on the lunatic. Welcome to Latin America! Bicycles can be carried on most bus roofs.
Bikes and motorbikes can be rented in tourist locations like Antigua, Flores, Panajachel.
Hikers can lose themselves in the lowland rainforest of Petén, stumbling over toucans and undiscovered Maya pyramids or head for the highlands around Lake Atitlan for easy, spectacular, less sweaty walks.
Alternatively high altitude freaks will enjoy scrambling up volcanoes such as Pacaya or San Pedro. Guides are useful in low and high cases and can be recruited locally.
Horse riding is available, mostly around Lake Atitlan.
White Water Rafting: One day to one week expeditions. June-Oct on Rivers Esclavos, Motagua and Naranjo and all year on Rio Cahabon.
Kayaking: good in Sept/Oct on Lanquin, Sauce, and Esclavos Rivers, and all year on Rio Cahabon.
Caving: in Verapaces area, Lanquin and Poptun have well known cave complexes. Candeleria is the new cave wave, with Gruta Rey Marcos and Chicoy.
Climbing: many good climbs in the Cuchumatanes range or Tajumulco Volcano for a real challenge.
Beach bumming: on the Pacific coast there are a couple of OK beaches, Balneario Chulamar (5km east of Puerto San José) and Balneario Likin (17km east of Puerto San José) or for the Caribbean side see right, Livingston #7.
Fishing: the number one deep sea fishing port is Iztapa on the Pacific coast, and world records have been set here in the hunt for marlin, sharks and other big fry.