—Clinging tightly to the border of Belize, I took a trip to the Petén jungle where I encountered endangered wildlife, archaeological treasures and ancient civilizations all in the same day.
By the time I arrived at the gates of Las Lagunas Boutique Hotel, it was nearing 8pm and I had just stepped off my third flight of the day. After 15 hours of travel split between four different cities, it was hard to have a sense of place. That, and because the sun had already set, I was surrounded by an eerie yet serene darkness. Around me I heard the rustling of leaves, which seemed to be amplified by the quiet of the night. The outside air felt thick, heavy and still. Every time I inhaled, it was as if I was taking in someone else’s breath.
What brought me to Guatemala in the first place was the opportunity to explore the northernmost province of Petén, which, aside from the ruins of Tikal, is known for its large lagoons and abundance of indigenous wildlife. Petén is less developed than other parts of the country, but remains home to some of the most sacred and untamed land in all of Guatemala. It can be a dream destination for conservationists, a restorative retreat for anyone interested in ecotourism, or in my experience, Central America’s best-kept secret with countless ways to uncover the “Land of Eternal Spring.”
For people like Edgar Castillo Sinibaldi, the owner of Las Lagunas, true luxury means having access to parts of the world most people will never know. He’s been coming to Petén since the 1950s when the forests were so thick, no light could penetrate through and paved roads were merely pebbled pathways. While he was immediately taken by the region’s beauty, Sinibaldi was also outraged by the deforestation taking place due to the country’s lack of legislation and the toll that took on local flora, fauna and animal species.
It was at that point that the idea for a hotel emerged. Why not create a resort where guests could interact with habituated spider monkeys and ocelots? Why not build an infinity pool around, but without disturbing, the native pucte tree? It took Sinibaldi four years to acquire the property but when he finally opened the doors to Las Lagunas, he invited guests to come and revel in the same magic he experienced so many years ago.
I, however, do not consider myself an adventurer or even the outdoorsy type. So the thought never crossed my mind that I might one day come close to encountering crocodiles and jaguars or that I would find myself profusely sweating in the lowlands of Guatemala. I couldn’t help but imagine what the day would bring with it—green as far as the eye could see, trees stretching high into the sky, birds squawking at dawn. I was escorted along a winding walkway to my private suite, a stilted cottage whose turtle insignia matched my room key. The suite itself was suspended over Quexil Lagoon, reminiscent of a type of bungalow made popular by the Maldives. The L’Occitane bath products, dreamy rain shower and lofty wood-beam ceilings capture every essence of a true luxury escape, but at Las Lagunas it really is all about what’s on the outside.
The next day I awoke to my room filled with sunlight reflecting off the lake and the chatter of creatures I had yet to meet. Outside, I immediately noticed details I was unable to make out the night before—tree signage marked by species and stonework reminiscent of the ruins. It wasn’t long before my trip mates and I headed north for Tikal, about a 90-minute drive from Las Lagunas. On the way we passed roadside shacks, colorful Catholic churches, graveyards, but mostly small farms dotted with cattle. We killed time by discussing Mayan astrology with our guide, Gelver, and converted our birth dates into wordy reports that revealed our personality traits.
Pulling into the park I noted jaguar and snake crossing signs and even though it shouldn’t have surprised me when an array of wildlife started to appear left, right and overhead, I couldn’t help but feel like I had been transported to a time where dinosaurs roamed the earth. According to the UNESCO World Heritage List, there are five kinds of cats, several species of monkeys and anteaters, more than 300 types of birds, over 200 tree species and close to 2,000 plants that live amongst to jungle of Tikal.
At first, I assumed this was just the kind of information Gelver delighted all of his tour groups with but during the hours we spent traversing the park, I spotted toucans flying across the sky, furry coati scouring the grounds and howler monkeys swinging from the treetops. The latter of which I still firmly believe are descendents of some mystical dragon based on the boisterousness of their call. (Nothing a quick Google search can’t convince you of.)
Tikal, meaning “the place of spirit voices,” is still widely unexplored due to its lush landscape, remote location and historians believe that only 25 percent of the city has been excavated. One of the parks most impressive features is Temple IV, the tallest temple in all of Tikal, rising above the treeline, and the only one in the park that you’re still allowed to climb. We took a lengthy, but surprisingly modern wooden staircase to the top, an ascent that back in the day would’ve required gripping on to roots and branches. The payoff of making it to the peak is otherworldly— a sight you may recognize from “Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope.”
I couldn’t think of a better way to end the day than at Las Lagunas’ spa with a massage, even though after our arduous trek I would’ve settled for just a cool washcloth and bottle of water. I opted out for an initial steam in the sauna due to the fact I found the daily high of 105 degrees Fahrenheit to be oppressive enough. I emerged afterwards in a bathrobe and slippers, my muscles practically melting off my bones thanks to the masseuse and I sunk into the plush, oversized couch. In front of me was a box of homemade truffles, a copy of “Shiver” by Maggie Stiefvater and a mug of mint tea—the leaves of which, I was informed, had been picked on property. The book on the other hand, a text I’ve read and can say has no business being on a spa coffee table in Guatemala, seemed to have appeared unbeknownst to the staff, who I made sure to question about its origins.
It was a little after nine the next morning when we took off for Monkey Island, one of five nearby islets surrounding Las Lagunas. We gathered on the dock where a rather subtle caution sign nailed to a tree read “No Swimming” followed by a picture of a crocodile. In that moment, it didn’t seem all that impossible that we’d see one while out on the lake. A short ride across the water brought us to a 30-acre reserve where our guides pulled the boat over and began whistling for the monkeys and tempting them with bananas. The long, lanky-armed Margarita showed no hesitation before jumping on board to greet us and when she wasn’t taking a liking to my personal belongings, she was posing for pictures and gnawing on fruit.
Later that same day we wandered into town and strolled around a small neighborhood known as Flores—not to be confused with Florence, the Italian city, which is what my inquisitive seat-mate on flight number two thought I meant. Although a tiny island village by nature and a place few outsiders have ever heard of, Flores is the capital city of Petén and also its social and cultural hub. Next to cities like Old San Juan and Havana, Flores is brimming with just as much color and character and sits on the beautiful waterfront of Lake Petén Itzá. While some visitors consider Flores a stop along the way to Tikal, I could easily see myself checking into one of the bright, balcony-strewn buildings that overlooks the narrow streets or hanging out and having a drink on the rooftop bar above the lake.
That night, which happened to be our last, we feasted on traditional Guatemalan cuisine back at the hotel consisting of beef hilachas (similar to ropa vieja), pipián (chicken braised in a pumpkin seed sauce) and pollo en jocón (a green chicken stew that Executive Chef Michael Muller explained gets its color from tomatillos). Gathered around the table, we called out our favorite moments from the trip. For the majority, it was a toss up between meeting Margarita and getting to climb the ruins of an ancient city. What stuck with me were more like internal observations I made along the way. On the road to Tikal, I watched women on the roadside toss tortilla dough back and forth between their hands with precision. I was still haunted as to what caused the Mayan civilization to collapse so abruptly, especially after seeing its remnants up close. But most of all, what I couldn’t quite shake were those damn howler monkeys and their dog bark mixed with a bear growl crossed with a lion’s roar.