This humble town in northern Guatemala is a great base for exploring the villages of Lake Petén Itzá and ancient Mayan ruins such as Tikal.
Stretching back from the southwestern shores of Lake Petén Itzá is the unpretentious town of Santa Elena. Come here to visit rock-cut caves and an eco-adventure park. Discover sleepy lake villages and take side trips to the ruins of ancient Mayan cities. Santa Elena is one of three sister towns that make up a region called Flores. The other towns are Flores and San Benito.
While Santa Elena’s major attractions lie in its immediate surroundings, the town itself also has its own sights. Relax beneath the shade of palm trees in Parque Central and enjoy some retail therapy at Mundo Maya International Mall. Walk or catch a tuc tuc to Actún Kan, a cave system strewn with impressive stalagmites and stalactites.
Just a 15-minute drive from the town center is Ixpanpajul Natural Park, an adventure sports center and nature reserve. Enjoy a bird’s-eye view of a rainforest from a suspension bridge, skyway trail and a zip-line course. Look for colorful birdlife and spider monkeys.
Go to the waterfront, where a causeway crosses to Flores Island and the charming town of Flores. Visit centuries-old landmarks, such as Catedral de Flores, and learn about the archaeological sites of Petén at CINCAP Museum. Wander the cobblestone streets to find pretty pastel-colored houses, cafés and restaurants. Stroll around the lakeshore promenade, swim in the emerald water or rent a kayak and cruise along the lake.
Join a boat trip from Flores’ pier and travel to villages such as San Miguel and San Jose. Spot crocodiles, ocelots, pumas and toucans at Zoologico Petencito.
Santa Elena is just an 8-minute drive from Mundo Maya International Airport, which receives flights from Guatemala City and Belize City. The town has a good selection of accommodations, although many visitors choose to stay on Flores Island.
While in Santa Elena take a daytrip to Tikal National Park, situated about a 1-hour drive to the north. Find ancient Mayan temples and palaces set within a verdant forest. Nearby Uaxactún is another Mayan site worth visiting.