Text by Keith Ambrose
Photography by Curt Bowen
The team was packing up all the equipment; it was time to head back to the USA. Curt Bowen, Jeff Toorish, Erik Foreman, and I had just completed our expedition to the beautiful Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, and we were getting ready to head home. But Erik Foreman, our hound dog and relentless explorer, decided he would make a short pit stop before leaving the country….

Erik was embarking on a journey that would take him to the northern border between Guatemala and Mexico, about an eight-hour trip by van from Lake Atitlan. With our assistance, Erik was packed up with the needed supplies for traveling and the gas required for his solo reconnaissance mission. Using the remaining oxygen and air, Erik topped off his aluminum 40-cu-ft cylinders, filled his Copis Meg scrubber with sofnolime, and parted from us with a fare-thee-well.
Erik Foreman, team explorer and famed underwater hound dog, holds an ancient Maya relic from the uncharted depths of Lake Peten Itza, Guatemala.
Erik was headed to El Peten, a vast central lowland region, roughly ten hours of driving away. It is near the heart of the Peten, an interior drainage basin. Along the hills that form the northern side of this basin is a chain of about fourteen lakes. The largest, Lago Peten Itza, is some twenty miles long and three miles wide, and reported to be over 500 feet deep. Lago Peten Itza contains the island town of Flores, capital of the department of the Peten. Also on this small island is Tayasala, a pre-Columbian Mayan archaeological site, and the last independent Mayan capital.

Nearby lies the ancient city of Tikal, one of the Maya’s largest recorded settlements with over 100,000 inhabitants, and home of the great Jaguar Clan Lords. The ruins of Tikal include more than three thousand structures encompassing over six square miles, and has been declared a Heritage of Humanity site by UNESCO for its historical importance and its combination of natural and archaeological wonders.

Erik arrived at Lake Peten and discovered a great little paradise called Hotel Gucumatz. Over the next three days, Erik would utilize a local guide and the small motorboat owned by the hotel to search the lake’s depths for relics. The first two days revealed no discoveries, just deep mud and gelatinous plant matter. However, as luck normally follows Erik, on the third day his guide moved to the more mountainous side of the lake, and in one dive Erik discovered several intact artifacts.

Six months later, a new expedition begins

Hound dog Erik arrived a day early to set up transportation, and Curt and I arrived the next day. Renting a twelve-passenger van, we removed the rear bench seat to make room for all the equipment needed to do these expeditions.
Above: Hotel Gucumatz, a quaint and quiet lodge nestled against the lake’s shore, is normally visited by bird watchers and eco-tourists. It became base camp for our unusual team of wayward underwater explorers.

right page: Erik Foreman displays one of our prized discoveries: a large ceramic bowl that was discovered while searching a sloping sand bank at a depth of 96 feet. The relic was almost completely covered, except for the very top of the neck.

Below bottom page: Sitting on a rocky section of the lake floor for possibly hundreds of years, this piece of pottery rests undisturbed and covered in plant growth.

Now the work starts

First, we rented eight 80-cu-ft aluminum scuba cylinders from the only dive shop in Guatemala City, filled with the only gas they offered — air. Tossed them in our rental van, draining four of them while en route to the local welding and gas supply company, Fabrigas. There we rented two large 280-cu-ft bank cylinders of oxygen. We rolled the oxygen cylinders out of the building and around the corner to a secluded side street where Erik waited with the van and the four empty scuba cylinders. Unpacking the trans-fill whip and Jetsam Baby Booster, we carefully topped off the four aluminum 80’s as well as Erik’s and my rebreather cylinders with as much oxygen as we could using the booster and the other four air cylinders as a drive gas. Curt never travels with rebreather cylinders because of his added weight in camera gear, but prefers to dive side-mount oxygen and diluent 80s with no back cylinders.

After filling, it was back to the dive shop to fill the now empty air drive cylinder 80’s with air to be used as diluent. Since traveling at night through the somewhat questionably safe areas was not recommended, we chose to get an early start in the morning for the ten-hour drive to the northeastern section and Lake Peten Itza.

The drive took us through many different zones from mountainous winding roads to lush river bottoms, parched desert regions and, finally, to the lower green lands flourishing around the lake. As the day’s sun set, we pulled up to the gates of Hotel Gucumatz, our selected base camp for the following eight days.
I have been coming to Guatemala since 1987, but have never made it to this lake nor to the ruins of Tikal. Lake Atitlan, with its great volcanic border and high altitude, was very different than this place. We were in a lowlands rainforest jungle — hot, humid, and in its own way, mystic.

Hotel Gucumatz is a small hotel with everything we needed for this expedition. The smiling face of Moya Stenton, owner of the hotel, greeted us at the gate before he escorted us to our bunkroom. Moya would provide three great home-cooked meals a day and the hotel’s boat for our private use. Years of exploration have taught me to always hire a local guide. The small amount of money paid is worth ten-fold when talking to the locals in the area. A well-placed word from one of their own gains so much more than a boat full of gringos with strange equipment. Our guide’s family dated back to the Mayans who settled here thousands of years ago. He would tell us family stories and anecdotes about the lake. Such “insider” information was invaluable with such a vast-sized body of water that we could not have covered in one trip or even in one year.

Mayan City of Tikal

A twenty-five-minute drive from the lake’s edge brings you to the entrance of Tikal - All Amazing Mayan City. This is a vast city of pyramids, giant structures, many which are six or seven building stories tall. The construction of the pyramids is mind-boggling, especially knowing that they were built thousands of years ago with no modern equipment. Hundreds of thousands of Maya lived for a thousand years within these walls. Generation after generation traveled from the ancient city in the mountains to the lakeside village of Flores, located on the shores of Lake Peten.

Exploration and discovery

Each day consisted of loading the small motorboat with our rebreathers and diving equipment. We then searched the shorelines for locations that the Maya might have gathered to fetch water, wash clothing, or fish.

After a few days we figured out the topography of the lake, with the southern side being thick, low-lying marsh filled with deep mud; and the northern mountainous side filled with giant landslide boulders and ancient underwater tree forests. The valleys between the mountain fingers are filled in with sand, smaller rocks, and mud.

We had to calculate just where under the water’s surface would be our best chance for discovery. The southern side with its marsh and deep mud obviously would have covered any relic in fathoms of debris. The northern side with its land slides and sand could have also covered any artifacts. But if some of these landslide areas were thousands of years old, artifacts might be sitting on mud clear rocky bottoms.

The search begins

Searching the shoreline, we quickly discover specific locations where the locals still come to the water’s edge to wash, collect water, and fish. Since many of these cultures have changed very little over the last few thousand years, we figured that the paths they follow today are more than likely the same paths followed for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It was in those same time-worn areas that we decided to concentrate our efforts.
The visibility in the lake seems to change from location to location, and depth from as far as twenty-five feet all the way down to the glass on your mask. The journey down the northern mountainous side quickly slopes over sand, boulders, old trees, and into the pitch-blackness of the lake’s depths. Since all we had was air for a diluent, exceeding 200 feet and maintaining a PO2 within a safe range was difficult.

After a few days of making discoveries, we determined that most of our findings ranged in depths from 40 to 110 feet. Only pottery shards and old boat rock anchors were discovered below. Most of the discoveries were located either in hard sand or
rock-covered bottom areas. A few artifacts were found in boulder areas, but they were usually broken into pieces.

After making numerous dives, we came to the conclusion that at one time in history the Mayans were doing their cleaning, cooking, etc., on Lake Peten Itza’s shoreline, but that the water had risen rapidly and the Mayans had simply abandoned all the items swallowed up by the great Lake Spirit. We also discovered a twenty-foot tall, temple-type pile of rocks, definitely built by man, at a depth of sixty-two feet, indicating that the lake had truly been many yards shallower than it is today.

The expedition was successful, and we actually discovered more items in this one trip than in our two prior expeditions to Lake Atitlan. As always, all items found were left in the country of origin with the people who once possessed them.
Left: Explorer Keith Ambrose proudly displays one of the relics he discovered below the emerald green lake waters.

Below: A few of the relics discovered within the depths of Lake Peten Itza. All artifacts recovered were donated to a local museum permitted for collection and are now on display.