It’s easy enough to breeze through Flores, Guatemala’s laid-back island in the Peten province; it seems most travelers on the Guatemala circuit generally conclude that, other than the ‘must-see’ Mayan ruins of Tikal, there isn’t much else to do.
But stay a few nights, and you’ll quickly realise that it’s more than a mere gateway to Guatemala’s most famous ruins. Flores is a laid-back island, connected by a small bridge to neighbouring Santa Elena, where life is quite simple. There are markets filled with local crafts and great street food, a beautiful lake with a stomach-turning rope swing and a range of other tours worth checking out in the area.
How to get to Flores
On the map, Flores may seem as though it is deep in the heart of the Guatemalan jungle, but in fact it is very well linked to other tourist hotspots like Antigua, Semuc Champey, Palenque (Mexico) and Belize City.
You can take a private shuttle to and from Flores to any of these places. From Belize City there are only two buses per day – one at 10am, the other at 1pm – but the latter isn’t reliable as it only runs if enough people bought a ticket coming the other way in the morning. The cost of a private bus to Flores from Belize City is $25 USD. If you’re left with Belize dollars when you get to the border, it’s probably best to change them at the rate they offer (3 QTZ to $1 BZD) even though this isn’t quite enough. You could hold on to it and hope you meet other travellers going the way you came – this is usually pretty likely but obviously not guaranteed (personally, I take the risk and always get the proper rate).
From Antigua to Flores (16 hours) it’s something in the region of $40 USD, and from Semuc Champey (9 hours) about $15 USD.
The cheaper (and much longer) alternative is to take the legendary chicken bus, or rather, chicken buses, since you always have to change at least 2 or 3 times no matter where you are going. Chicken buses are, unsurprisingly, a lot less comfortable than the private buses and you have to keep your wits about you (best not to fall asleep). However, they’re lots of fun.
What to Do in Flores
If you’re keen to mingle with the locals, head to the outdoor markets to the right of the bridge where you can buy handmade products and awesome street food. You could also take a water taxi across to Lanchas, where there are more markets. Thsi costs around 25 QTZ for a return ticket.
If shopping’s not on your agenda, go for a dip in the lake by the bridge if it’s a hot day, or you could take a water taxi (30 QTZ return) out to the rope swing on the lake. The spot is actually private property, so there is a charge of 10 QTZ. A word of warning if, like me, you aren’t an experienced rope swinger: make sure you toss the rope to one side before you fall – should it get tangled between your legs, the consequences are very painful. I discovered this the hard way, and got whacked on the nuts about 4 times on the way down (there are big knots in the rope to grab hold of). Why do I have such bad luck with rope swings?
There are two rope swings a diving board and a decked area with picnic tables and hammocks. There is a puppy too.
Where to Stay in Flores
There is no shortage of accommodation options in Flores – hotels and hostels are aplenty – but the name on every backpacker’s lips is Los Amigos Hostel. This place has got the lot: budget dorm beds, beautiful private rooms, a lively bar tucked away in a soundproof area of the hostel, a restaurant which serves up amazing comfort food (I personally recommend the Crazy Mayan Burger) and a very pleasant, hard-working team of staff. It even has its own tour company (they will organise your visit to Tikal at a discounted price and any other tours you may be interested in) and… a steam room!
There is a very chilled feel about Los Amigos Hostel. You’re sure to meet other travellers and make plenty of friends there. You can check out their site and make a direct booking (amigoshostel.com) or check out their Facebook page.
Tikal Tours from Flores
There are literally hundreds of Mayan ruins scattered about Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras and Belize. Tikal ranks up there with the most impressive. With six temples, a large ruined village, exotic wildlife – toucans, ocelots, wild turkeys, tarantulas, pisotes and more monkeys than you can count – and over 1000 years of fascinating Mayan history, all surrounded by thick jungle, it’s hard to be anything but impressed.
There are other Mayan temples which offer a different sort of experience – Chichen Itza, for instance, is fantastic if you’re a crowd-lover, and the Tulum ruins has its own beach – but I felt that Tikal carried a distinctly more authentic feel when I visited. Unlike other ruins, Tikal is spread out over a massive area, so even if there happens to be droves of tourists there that day, you can still quite easily make a break and find yourself wandering around alone in the thick of the jungle, until suddenly, you emerge at the foot of a huge temple, with no-one else in sight.
The gates open at 04.30am for anyone who wants to avoid the crowds and – with a slice of luck – witness what would probably be the most amazing sunrise in a lifetime. This requires hauling your ass out of bed at an ungodly hour – 02.45am if you take the 3am bus from Los Amigos Hostel – walking through the grounds and climbing the ruins’ largest temple, Temple IIIV, in the dark.
Unfortunately for me, my sacrifice of a night’s sleep was not rewarded – instead of an unforgettable sunrise we got the cloud show, which didn’t go down so well. It was bad luck. However, to hear the jungle slowly wake was certainly something I’ll always remember. I’d never heard a howler monkey before, and since I didn’t want to interrupt my fellow, meditating group members, I spent a good half hour trying to figure out what the hell was making that admittedly pretty terrifying noise. At first I thought it was an old man with breathing problems. Then I thought it was one of those tat vendors blowing through some sort of annoying toy. Eventually I found out from the guide that it was coming from howler monkeys. The noise they make is not at all howl-like; it’s more glottal and raspy – quite dissimilar to the traditional sort of “ooh ooh ah ah” stuff you’re used to hearing in zoos. To give you a clearer idea, cast your mind back to Jurassic Park and the sound the velociraptors made – that’s actually the sound of howler monkeys!
After sunrise we had the whole place to ourselves, exploring each temple closely and listening intently to our guide’s excellent explanations of Mayan history, architecture, culture and rituals. We’d seen the lot by 9am, just as tiredness really was beginning to take its toll.
On the way out, we came across a group of spider monkeys, a giant tree filled with hummingbirds and a large family of pisotes, who seemed not to care one bit about humans poking cameras in their faces.
Getting to Tikal from Flores
Apart from the 3am sunrise tour, the other departure times from Flores to Tikal are 04.30 and 12.00, which will guarantee you crowds but also give you the opportunity to see the sunset (more reliable than the sunrise weather-wise, apparently).
The entrance fee for the sunrise tour is 200 QTZ ($25 USD) and after that 100 QTZ. The cost of a private shuttle return journey and a guide with Los Amigos Hostel is 100 QTZ. This does not include the entrance fee.
What to Take to Tikal
You’ll need a warm jumper or coat and some jeans or trousers. Walking shoes/boots are ideal but not strictly necessary. You’ll need plenty of water and maybe some snacks. There is a cheap and cheerful café/restaurant by the main entrance, where you can get a continental breakfast for about 30 QTZ.
Other Tours in Peten, Guatemala
There are plenty of ancient ruins to see in the area besides Tikal. El Mirador, a mysterious complex of Mayan pyramids, is a very remote spot right on the border between Guatemala and Mexico. It’s completely hidden in the jungle and – from what I’ve heard – requires a lot of physical strength to get there. The tour run by Los Amigos Hostel in Flores lasts 5-6 days and includes all meals, an expert (but Spanish-speaking only) guide, mules to carry your packs and camping equipment (tents, foam mattresses etc). If you choose the 6-day tour, you see more ruins via a different route back to the starting point of La Carmelita. The tour costs $250 USD.
If you’re headed to Belize from Flores, check out my post on snorkeling in Caye Caulker.