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El Petén

El Petén is a department of the nation of Guatemala. It is geographically the northernmost department of Guatemala, as well as the largest in size-- at 12,960 square miles (33,566 km²) it is about 1/3 of Guatemala's area. The capital is Flores. The population in 2000 was estimated at 350,000.

History

El Petén was already the site of ceremonial architecture by the Maya civilization around 500 BC. El Mirador is El Petén's most important Pre-Classic Maya site; other important sites from this era include Cival. Later El Petén became the heartland of the Maya Classic Period (c. 200 - 900). At its height around 750 it is estimated that El Petén was home to several million people, being one of the most densely populated regions of the world at the time. Some areas are estimated to have had 2,600 people/mile² (1,000 people/km²). Agriculture was very extensive, and there is some evidence suggesting that the land was depleted by unsustainable over-farming, resulting in a famine which was an important factor in the collapse of the Classic Maya states of this area. The population is estimated to have dropped by 2/3 between the mid 9th century and the mid 10th century.

Ruins such as Tikal, Holmul, Machaquila, Naranjo, Nakum, Piedras Negras, Seibal, Uaxactun, and Yaxha preserve important reminents of the Classic Maya in El Petén.

After the Classic collapse the population of the area continued to drop massively. The first Europeans to visit the region, an expedition led by Hernán Cortés which passed through in 1524 - 1525, reported that the region mostly had small hamlets separated by thick forest, with Tayasal being the only sizable inhabited city they observed in the region.

After Cortés' expedition, the Spanish largely left El Petén alone for generations until an expedition from Yucatán succeeded in conquering the last independent Maya state there in the late 17th century (see: Spanish conquest of Yucatán).

The Spanish town of Flores was established atop the site of Tayasal, but this remained an isolated backwater through the colonial era and after the independence of Mexico and Central America. When Guatemalan President Rafael Carrera sent a small force to Flores to claim the region for Guatemala in the 1840s, the governments of Mexico and Yucatán decided the region was not worth the trouble of contesting.

Starting in the 1960s the Guatemalan government offered land in El Petén to any citizen willing to settle on it and pay a fee of $25. A road was opened up to Flores, although it was unpaved, and the notorious bus trip to Flores was known to take up to 24 hours to travel the 300 miles (500 km). Small airports were built at Flores and Tikal, bringing tourists to the region. In the early 1970s a road was opened from Tikal to Belize.

The first paved road in El Petén was built in 1982.

Since the 1990s many new settlers have come to El Petén and it is experiencing severe deforestation.

Municipalities

El Petén consists of the following municipalites, listed with their population in 2000:

  1. Dolores - 26,269
  2. Flores - 22,594
  3. La Libertad - 79,416
  4. Melchor de Mencos - 23,813
  5. Poptún - 30,386
  6. San Andrés, Guatemala - 15,103
  7. San Benito, Guatemala - 23,752
  8. San Francisco, Guatemala - 8,066
  9. San José, Guatemala - 3,602
  10. San Luis - 44,903
  11. Santa Ana, Guatemala - 7,792
  12. Sayaxché - 47,693

Template:Guatemala

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