Peten Itza
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Peten Itza, Guatemala

Also known as: Lago Peten Itza, Lake Peten Itza

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Map: Peten Itza, Guatemala

Peten Itza is the destination tropical rain forest dreams are made of! Located in the northern region of Peten, the lake covers more than 24,400 acres. Historically, Lago Peten Itza lies within the Mayan Biosphere Reserve and is steeped in the romantic mystery of these ancient people. Descendents of the Maya - the Itza - still live around Peten Itza with a very few still speaking a nearly extinct Mayan dialect. Much of the area around the lake is jungle. The municipal center of the Peten District is actually on an island at the south end of the lake. Connected by a causeway to the shore, the city of Flores is tourist-friendly, modern in a rustic sort of way, and very picturesque.

Peten Itza isn't a lake with many huge modern resort hotels, although a few four-star hotels do exist. It isn't known for fishing, although what the locals call 'white fish' (actually petenia splendida-a member of the perch family) is abundant in the lake and often served locally. It isn't even known for serious boating, but one of the favorite activities on the lake is to rent a small covered boat and operator to view the shoreline and travel to other villages. There are plenty of beaches for swimming and small shops for purchasing local handcrafted items such as textiles and wood carving. Several very comfortable hotels and a number of guest houses provide lodgings, and there is an assortment of local restaurants and internet cafes to provide for visitors' needs.

The biggest draws to Peten Itza are the sites near the lake. Near Flores along the shoreline is a new Animal Rescue Center and Environmental Education facility funded by the Disney Corporation and the Oakland Zoo. The ARCAS Rescue Center rescues rainforest animals and birds that are injured or ill and releases them back into the wild after recovery. Those that are unable to be released remain at the ARCAS Environmental Education and Interpretation Center, Kinkajou Kingdom, where they can be viewed by visitors. The purpose of the entire complex is to further environmental education efforts and help to protect the surrounding rain forest. Some of the animals and birds living permanently at the Center are parrots, macaws, chachalacas, kinkajous, raccoons, spider monkeys, margays and coatimundis. The ARCAS Center is a 10-minute boat ride from Flores and right next to the Petencito Zoo, which also has an extensive collection of native animals. The forests bordering the lake are a wildlife paradise, with more than 100 important indigenous species such as the red snook fish, crocodiles, jaguars, pumas, white-tailed deer, red brocket, and several bird species, including parrots, toucans, and macaws. On the lake's northeast shore is the Cerro Cahui Protected Biotope, a natural reserve for butterflies and birds. The 1,600-acre Biotope is home to toucans, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, and other rain forest species.

The majority of visitors who arrive at Peten Itza use the town of Flores as their base for visiting the Tikal National Park. The Park holds one of the most fascinating and extensive Mayan sites in Guatemala. Although more structures are excavated here than any other site in the Americas, there is much yet to discover and excavations are on-going. Ten square miles of structures have been uncovered so far, and there are many more yet to be exposed. Tours to Tikal can be arranged at Flores, but visitors should be prepared for a great deal of walking once they get there. It is suggested that visitors pick up a guide book before going to Tikal so they can identify the structures they are looking at. Tikal has been declared by UNESCO as both a Natural & World Cultural Heritage site.

Museo Ceramico, near the park entrance, has fascinating archaeological exhibits, including a skeleton with ornate jade jewelry in a reproduction of a burial vault, stelae (stone monuments), shells, ceramics, inscribed bones and other items recovered from the excavations. Adventurous visitors will want to take advantage of the private canopy tours offered near the park entrance. With zip-line and harness, the intrepid adventurer can fly 20 feet above the ground on short sections of cable. The entire tour covers about three-quarters of a mile.

Another attraction near Peten Itza is Ixpanpajul Natural Park. Located in the opposite direction from Tikal, the park offers a Sky Way tour - hanging bridges and walkways that allow visitors to view the lush vegetation from above. The park also offers horseback riding and mountain biking (equipment is rented in the park ). In addition, there is a tropical bird observatory, a camping area, and a canopy tour.

After visitors have thoroughly explored the many sights and sounds of the local rain forest, it's wise to take some time to explore Flores itself. The town has an interesting history extending to the ninth century. When the Spanish arrived in Guatemala, there was already a village at the site, a Mayan-Itza capital called Tayasal. The city was destroyed by the invaders in the 16th century and was vacant until the 18th century. Remains of the Mayan city and stelae can be seen along the lakeshore. Recently, divers retrieved a collection of intact ceramics from underwater near Flores, apparently abandoned when the water rose suddenly at some point in the past. The lake is over 500 feet deep, with parts of the north basin 165 feet below sea level.

Finding lodgings at Peten Itza is relatively easy if one makes reservations in advance. Hotels, guest houses and campsites are all well represented along the lakeshore. A growing number of resort-style hotels are being built, and tours arrive here regularly. Over 150,000 visitors come to Peten Itza each year. Real estate may be available in some of the smaller villages but will likely be hard to find as much of the area is now protected reserves. The Peten District and Peten Itza are probably the best places on earth to experience both the rainforest and its riches and the visible remnants of the Mayan culture. Bring the swim gear, the binoculars, camera, sturdy hiking boots and plenty of sun screen. You'll leave with a greater appreciation for the lush rain forest and its flora and fauna. And you'll no doubt want to come back!

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