The Ecology of Tikal and the Surrounding Peten Region

Les Beletsky
Excerpted from Belize and Northern Guatemala: The Ecotravellers' Wildlife Guide

Guatemala PyramidGuatemala is five times larger than Belize and has some spectacular natural scenery and other attractions for the ecotourist. Yet until recently, relatively few foreigners journeyed there to roam remote parts of the country.

Belize and the Peten are adjacent, and many travelers to one side of the border also visit the other; many travelers to Belize also visit the unmatched Maya site at Tikal, located within the Peten; owing to fairly continuous habitat types along the border, much of the wildlife in Belize and the Peten is the same. Finally, the southern two-thirds of Guatemala, which consists predominantly of mountainous regions and a thin strip of low elevation Pacific coastal plain, is inhabited by a fauna largely different than that found in Belize.

Guatemala Excavation DetailThe Peten is a huge, mostly lowland region (there are few sections with elevations greater than 500 to 600 meters, 1600 to 2000 ft) which, owing to several factors, until recently held only a small human population and, as a result, has retained much of its original forest cover. Historically, the reasons include the hot, moist climate and the shortage of surface water over much of the region during the dry season, and the lack of roads. Another, more recent, reason for the intact survival of much of the Peten's forests is that, for many years, this remote region was a favored base for anti-government guerrilla armies.

The result of this inadvertent protection is that the Peten's forests, together with adjacent areas of Belize and southern Mexico, comprise the largest unbroken tract of tropical forest north of the Brazilian Amazon. Biologists estimate that the region holds, for example, more than 450 species of birds (about 400 have been seen), at least 60 reptiles, and more than 800 tree species. Unfortunately, current economic and political forces in Guatemala, chiefly the ending of the civil war coupled with great poverty, joblessness, and overcrowding in other regions of the country, have led to a rapid increase in immigration to the Peten; and more people means more pressure for forest-clearing for agriculture and for industrial development. Several international conservation organizations are working together with local communities and with the Guatemalan government to establish and maintain a large Maya Biosphere Reserve in the Peten (on paper, the reserve has existed since 1990; making it a reality is another story). The need is to teach and encourage environment-friendly uses of the region's forests so that significant damage to the great expanse of forest can be slowed and, hopefully, halted.

The Peten is a fantastic region, worthy of extended exploration. But the jewel of the area, and, quite understandably, the most popular destination, is Tikal. Here, stunning Mayan temples and hundreds of other stone buildings and structures rise from the middle of the tropical forest (thousands of other structures are partly or wholly buried, awaiting excavation). Tikal, archaeologists have discovered, was a powerful Mayan city, occupied by large numbers of people for about a thousand years, from at least 200 B.C. to 900 A.D. A few people visited the site during the 1800's and early 1900's but it was reachable only by horseback, and most of the ruins were hidden by jungle. During the early 1950's, an airstrip was built nearby, and so began detailed exploration, excavation by archaeologists, partial restorations and, inevitably, visitation by tourists.

What exists at Tikal now is a large national park, only a small, central portion of which is occupied by the famous major ruins. The site is visited by people from all over the world. It is popular but large, so the tourist density at Tikal on any given day is usually manageable. During many months of the year, the place is still relatively deserted (during a recent September visit, I had the place virtually to myself). There are a few inexpensive restaurants in the entrance area, a few mid-priced hotels hidden amongst the trees, a campground, and a small museum. Strolling along the forest paths, emerging into clearing after clearing of magnificent stone ruins is a great experience, one that many people enjoy over a two- or even three-day period. And walking along the old, abandoned airstrip (which the tropical forest is rapidly reclaiming) in the early morning, birdwatching perhaps, and looking back toward the ruins, and seeing the high temples of the Great Plaza rising out above the misty forest canopy, is one of the truly unforgettable sights of world travel.

From an ecotravel perspective, however, it is not so much Tikal's historical stone structures that matter, but the setting: miles and miles of wide paths and slender trails through beautiful, highly-protected tropical forest. And the site can be fairly said to be teeming with wildlife. About 350 bird species have been seen there, lizards abound along the forest trails and on the rocky ruins themselves, and larger mammals, including Jaguar, Ocelot, tapir, deer, and monkeys galore are frequently spotted.

Guatemala River RainforestFor some reason, animals that are rarely reported elsewhere are commonly seen at Tikal. Mention Tikal to one of the many biologists who have worked there or visited and, almost without exception, a smile will cross a face as he or she relates stories of the wonderful wildlife seen there. On a recent Tikal visit, for instance, I was surprised by a veritable herd of White-nosed Coatis, mid-sized raccoon-like mammals, perhaps 75 or 80 of them, moving through the forest only several meters from the trail. Later, in one giant tree adjacent to an ancient temple, I saw perched at the same time several each of three large, colorful species: Keel-billed Toucans, Montezuma's Oropendolas, and Brown Jays. Quite simply, you don't see such fine, abundant wildlife in many other places.

As to specifics of traveling in Guatemela and, in particular, in the Peten, the people are friendly, transportation, most of it by minibus, boat, or airplane, is OK, accommodations are usually OK, and the prices are often a good bit lower than those found across the border in Belize. Getting to major ecotourism sites - Tikal, Ceibal - is easy enough, whether with a group or alone. Of course, it always helps if you know a bit of Spanish. Yes, there is some crime. For instance, thieves occasionally stop tourist minibuses shuttling between Belize and Tikal. But these incidents are fairly rare; when they do occur, they are often magnified out of proportion. Traveling in the region is fairly safe - perhaps, as one travel book puts it "as safe as downtown Miami" - but perhaps that's not very reassuring. Traveling alone in the area, I've never had any problems.

In general, the conservation and ecotourism situation in the Peten today is this: the region recently emerged from three decades of civil war; it's still a poor area but it has a rich environment with large economic and tourism potential; and the area has both spectacular cultural and ecological attractions. The Guatemalans have a chance to preserve large chunks of their unspoiled habitats, and they have some interest in, and some governmental agencies and organizations charged with, doing so (CONAP, Guatemala's National Council for Protected Areas, operates all national parks and reserves except for the Biotopos; and CECON, the Center for Conservation Studies, which operates the Biotopos, the nature reserves). But, as in most other Central American countries, there is very little money available for active conservation. Parks and reserves have been established throughout Guatemala, but most of them, in relatively inaccessible areas, are parks in name only - lines drawn on maps; there are virtually no funds to survey, manage, and protect the sites. Increasingly, however, international conservation organizations show interest in and shower funds on this part of the world, on what is considered an international ecological treasure. The establishment of the Maya Biosphere Reserve is the major, multi-faceted effort at preservation of the Peten's wild areas, and increased ecotourism is a major part of the plan.

This is an excerpt from the author's Belize and Northern Guatemala: The Ecotravellers' Wildlife Guide, (Academic Press, 1998). Contact the author via email at Order this and other books on Belize at