Flores is in an interesting pocket of Guatemala, part of the Mayan heartland of Central America. A little island in the middle of Lake Peten Itza and once cut off from the mainland, it is now only accessible by tuk tuk across a narrow bridge. It is believed Isla de Flores (Flores Island) itself withstood the invasion of Spain’s forces for some time and was the last Mayan stronghold to fall, in around 1697. We based ourselves here so we could predominantly explore the wonders of Tikal ruins, about an hour north in the Guatemalan jungle.
As we had made a pit stop in San Ignacio (mainland Belize) on our way over from Caye Caulker, our route to Flores, Guatemala was not as direct as it could have been (compared to if we had booked a bus straight from Belize City all the way to Flores). For the record, San Ignacio was most definitely worth it, and the boarder crossing really wasn’t as bad as we had anticipated. For the full low down on our San Ignacio trip and how we got to the boarder, you can check out the previous post here. But in short, we took a bus with another two backpackers from hostel to boarder, exchanged our money at the Belizian boarder, passed through immigration, paid fees where requested and haggled our asses off for a mini bus to take us to Flores. You should be paying no more than $10UDS (20BZE absolute max) to go from San Ignacio to the boarder, and no more than 60 QZ (Guatemalan Quetzales), or $8USD/ £6 to take a minibus from the Guatemalan boarder to Flores. While some drivers will insist their fee includes the 5 Quetsales for the tuk tuk driver to take you over the bridge, rarely is this the case, haggle for 50 QZ and tell them you will pay the tuk tuk driver separately. Then when you get off the bus, stick to your guns on the original price you agreed when you first got on the bus, because now they will just change the price and start arguing with you. This will be annoying.
Los Amigos, despite many claims saying that this is too Gringofied (it is very gringo) is in fact a lovely hostel with designated quiet time, child friendly (during the day) and with a secret bar for the party animals after quiet time starts (aprox 1030 / 11pm). Our room was a double, affordable with air con for 300QZ per night, but sadly our air con didn’t work so we switched it to a fan and had all our days for 200QZ ($27 / £20 approx) each. Los Amigos is also home to a menajerie of animas, including; a giant black rabbit, several quails and a turtle.
Our activities and onwards shuttle bus we booked through the hostel itself. However, although booked through the hostel, we actually needed to pay for and collect our Tikal tickets at the bank in Santa Elena (the main-land part of Flores). They seem to really like their guns here, and it was a little intimidating being greeted by an army man with a sawn off shot gun who checked our bags at the door of the bank. As if that wasn’t enough, there was another one inside the bank organising the line to the bank clerks. We soon realised this was pretty normal in Guatemala and got strangely used to it after a while.
Tikal is reported to be some of the most well preserved and expansive ruin sites in all of Mayan America. Less touristy than Tulum (Mexico), and larger than Tulum, San Ignacio (Belize) and Cobán Ruinas (Honduras). The Tulum site is expansive, with large swatches of jungle reclaiming the noble pyramids. It was decided we do the sunrise tour for Tikal (which required a 230am wake up call to get a 3am bus from our hostel, plus an extra fee allowing us to enter the national park early). Yes, the stars are magical at that time of night, giant spiders come out to play and their eyes sparkle like diamonds in the light of the head torch (yes, it’s really weird and it will take you a couple of moments to work out why the hell the ground is sparkling, but pretty cool none-the-less!). Yes we did get to hear the jungle waking up – the sound of toucans (who sound like frogs) and howler monkeys filling the, surprisingly muggy, air. Sadly we also get to share this unique and precious moment with far too many other tourists who just couldn’t help themselves but talk the whole way through the performance. There is also, sadly, no guarantee of any actual sunrise, as visibility is often much poorer due to early morning fog, even despite a really clear night. Compared to sunsets, which are not only much more likely to be seen, but also cheaper as you don’t have to pay the pre-opening entrance fee to the park. Regardless, we easily spent the whole day at Tikal and still felt like we hadn’t seen everything this inspirational site has to offer. Either way, whether you choose the sunrise (super early), day time or afternoon (sunset) slot, this site is totally worth it and will blow your mind as you wander round and absorb the information of a (hopefully good) guide and try and wrap your brain around just how the Maya actually managed to build such an epic city! Our guide was fantastic, but we did hear other reports of guides being poor of knowledge and loosing people; just after sunset resting in said people having to wander around the jungles of Tikal on their own in the dark.
Jorge’s rope swing
A short boat ride away from Flores, to the other side of the mainland, we found Jorge’s Rope Swing; basically just a bar with drinks, some sort of food (snacks mainly), and a small entrance fee to come and use the swing. You are supposed to buy drinks there, but no one is really going to stop you if you bring your own and keep it on the low down. And given you’ve already paid them an ‘entrance fee’ to use the swing, not allowing personal drink, water or food is, I think, a bit sneaky. Anyway, the swing is fun – with two levels for the daring and then more daring among us, a nice lake to swim in, and an abundance of hammocks to swing in to your heart’s content as you watch the sunset.
On our first night we joined some friends for drinks and food at a local yet gringo rooftop bar El Tropico, before heading back to the hostel to party in the secret bar. The next night we tried the BBQ chicken place, just at the end of the little alleyway, down from the hostel towards the main road and the lake. This, considering the price we paid, was a massive disappointment as most of it was inedible – the outside of the chicken was completely charcoal and the inside still pink and bleeding. Now I hate to sound like a fussy gringo, but having just recovered from a questionable stomach in San Ignacio, I wasn’t prepared to be paying homage to the porcelain god again any time soon! Luckily, the next night we headed further afield, down the little bridge towards the mainland. Pretty much in the middle of the bridge are a whole range of family-run street food stalls selling all sorts; including mains, savouries, desserts and drinks. You can grab what you want, and then go eat it overlooking the lake. Just make sure to shower yourself in bug spray before you head over, the little buggers over here leave a nasty bite! We found the brand ‘Fly Off’ to be highly effective, and with the added bonus of no deet and no other nasties in it, it is not harmful to you, or the environment. #winning
If you’ve had a special moment like me and left your prised brand new hiking boots on a bus during an argument over bus fare with the driver, then a short walk over the bridge from Flores to Santa Elena you will find a large mall selling most things boot-related (and otherwise) you might possibly need. They have all the top brands for hiking and sports shoes, but, being a cheap traveller and realising it was quite likely I would be losing my shoes again, I opted for a local brand shoe shop, and purchased a pair of garishly coloured bright pink and black ‘Turbo’ shoes for £20, let’s see how long these last me. As well as shoes there are also a range of bakeries, including one with AMAZING doughnut type things, a supermarket selling all the essentials, and of course the bank, were (as mentioned above) you must go in order to buy your tickets to Tikal. However, when it comes to withdrawing cash, despite there being a good range of banks in this mall, and the mall further up the road towards the airport, none of them seem to accept MasterCard, or in our case Visa card or Maestro either (ok, fine, nowhere really accepts Maestro anymore). So we ended up having to go in person to one of the banks with my Visa card and passport and withdraw money the old fashioned way; by having a meeting and interview with a bank manager. Key Tip Here: Make sure you are travelling with more than one type of bank card – Visa seems to be more widely accepted for cash machines than Master Card, and factor in some time (and some form of ID, ideally passport) for the possibility you may have to sit down with a bank manager and draw money out physically.
Our next destination was, yup, you guessed it – another chocolate stop! Only this time we were heading into real Guatemalan jungle to meet with some Mayan cocoa farmers for Uncommon Cacao’s Guatemala Chocolate Week.