Flores Travel Guide
[This is a brief excerpt from pages 342-350 of Eric Larson’s travel guide to Guatemala, published by Other Places Travel Guides.]
An idyllic island town on the shores of Lake Peten Itzá, Flores is a worthwhile stop in itself, not to mention its close proximity to Tikal, Guatemala’s most famous Mayan ruins. Within walking distance across a narrow causeway is its mainland sister city, Santa Elena, which serves as the area’s commercial center. Continuing west, the concrete jungle devolves into seedy San Benito. Many visitors spend just enough time in Flores to hop on a bus to Tikal. However, by staying a night or two you’ll be able to take a dip in the warm lake, enjoy a fantastic sunset at one of many lakefront happy hours, or peruse the Easter-egg colored houses lining Flores’ tranquil streets. The town’s main downside is that just about everything is more expensive here, but a quick walk to cheaper Santa Elena is an easy solution.
A Little History
The petén (island) of Flores was originally settled between the 13th and 15th centuries by the Itzá people, a renegade tribe from Chichén Itzá of the Yucatán peninsula. The Itzá called their new settlement Tayasal and for the next couple hundred years lived in relative isolation from the outside world. In 1525, Hernán Cortés paid Tayasal a peaceful visit and after chatting with King Canek left behind a horse, which, though lame, the Itzá saw as a representation of their rain deity Tzimin Chac. Their fascination with the creature makes sense, as locals had most likely never seen horses before. When the horse died, a replica was carved so that reverence to the idol could continue uninterrupted.
The Spanish returned in 1618 to find that their horse had evolved into a pagan religion, and thoroughly disgusted, they destroyed it and set off on their typical campaign of slaughter and destruction. They were not successful in conquering the fearsome inhabitants of Tayasal until 1697, making the Itzá the final Mayan people to fall to the conquistadors by over a century. When they were finally defeated, the Spaniards wasted no time in burning their city’s temples and pyramids. Today, the departmental seat of government sits on the city’s highest point, which once served as Tayasal’s plaza. Confusingly, across the narrow stretch of lake from Flores are the unrelated pre-Itzá ruins of Tayazal.
Getting There, Around, & Away
The Aeropuerto Internacional Mundo Maya is located on the eastern edge of Santa Elena three kilometers from the Flores causeway. Tuk-tuks make the short trip to Flores for Q15-25 depending on your haggling abilities. Three daily round-trip flights between Guatemala City and Flores (approx. $250, 45min) are offered by TAG (2360-3038; www.tag.com.gt) and TACA (2470-8222; www.taca.com), but keep in mind that you should book these flights well in advance. Tropic Air (7926-0348; www.tropicair.com) provides twice-daily international air transport to Belize City (approx. $225, 45min). Several car rental agencies are at the airport; the most reliable are Alamo and Hertz.
Three companies travel between Guatemala City and Flores (8-9hrs, 488km) through Poptún and Río Dulce town. The most reliable and comfortable is Línea Dorada, which has first-class buses at 10am and 9pm (Q230) and an economy class at 9:30pm (Q165). Another solid option is Autobuses del Norte, with daily departures at 11am, 9pm, and 10pm. Sketchiest and cheapest of the three are the hourly Fuente del Norte buses that run from 2am to 10pm (Q80-160). Buses drop passengers at the Terminal Nuevo one kilometer south of the causeway on 6a Avenida, though Línea Dorada continues to Flores. Regardless of the company, dress in layers – these buses are either freezing cold or unbearably hot.
Most buses throughout Petén leave from the Terminal Nuevo in Santa Elena, though buses to El Remate, Melchor de Mencos, Poptún, Sayaxché, Carmelita, San José, and San Andrés leave from the market on 4a or 5a Calle. See the table below for departure times.
San Juan Travel (6a Avenida, Santa Elena; 5847-4729) runs hourly micros (Q100) to Tikal from 5am to 10am with a last departure at 2pm. Daily shuttle buses from Flores can be arranged to Belize City, Cobán, Chetumal (Mexico), Lanquín, and Palenque, though schedules are constantly in flux – check with any of the tour operators (p349) in Flores.
See the Sights
The first word of advice for your time in Flores is to ignore the men that approach your bus upon arrival. While you may be disoriented, sleepy, and eager to find a hostel after a long bus ride, don’t listen to anything they say – these silver-tongued salesmen work on commission. They will often offer you a completely unnecessary ride to a hostel where they get the best rates – you may need to be quite insistent on walking for them to bug off. Once across the causeway, tiny Flores is easy to navigate; at its heart is the central plaza and municipality, around which concentric streets radiate outwards to the lakeside Calle 15 de Septiembre.
Other than its pastel homes and quiet cobblestone streets, there is little to see in Flores, though you’ll definitely want to take a stroll beside gorgeous Lake Petén Itzá along el malecón, a newly constructed walkway. Lake tours of an hour (Q150) or more can be set up with the boatmen at the docks opposite Hotel Petenchel, or you can hire a boat to take you directly to one of following spots. The Petencito Zoo in San Miguel has a small collection of wildlife including macaws, monkeys, and even jaguars. Up the hill from San Miguel are the tiny Mayan ruins of Tayazal. The ruins are not very impressive, but the views over Flores from the Mirador del Rey Canek certainly are. On an island to the west of Flores, the Museo Santa Barbara (admission Q10) offers a random assortment of Mayan artifacts, old radio broadcasting equipment, and other interesting trinkets.
Further west and much more interesting is the work being done by ARCAS (www.arcasguatemala.com), an NGO working to rehabilitate animals captured by poachers and promote environmental conservation and sustainability. ARCAS offers tours of its Environmental Education and Interpretation Center between 9am and 3pm for Q50. South of Santa Elena, the limestone caves of Ak’tun Kan are actually quite impressive. Known as the Cueva de la Serpiente, local legend has it that the cave once housed a massive serpent. Today, a 45-minute tour allows you to observe interesting stalagmites and stalactites. To get here it’s easiest to take a taxi from Flores – taxistas should charge around Q40 one way.
Sleeping in Flores
Flores is a much preferable place to stay over Santa Elena. Despite being very expensive for food, there are plenty of affordable, high-quality options for the backpackers out there.
Our pick for staying in Flores is Los Amigos Youth Hostel. The best overall value in Flores, this secure backpacker’s haven offers a restaurant-bar, hammocks, laundry, Internet, and good deals on tour packages for guests (Calle Central; 7867-5975; www.amigoshostel.com; dorms Q50; double Q100; private double w/aircon Q350).
Eating in Flores
Restaurants in Flores are quite expensive compared to other spots in Guatemala, though cheap comedores can be found near the causeway on the Playa Sur. There is a small grocery store in Flores, called La Colmena, on the corner of Calle 30 de Junio and Avenida 10 de Noviembre. There is a much larger La Torre chain in Santa Elena, as well as the Mundo Maya Internacional Mall just across the causeway, which has plenty of fast food joints.
We have a couple picks for places to eat in Flores. Il Terrazzo‘s gourmet Italian food is pricey but creative, and the gorgeous upstairs terrace offers beautiful sunset views over the lake (Calle La Unión; 7867-5479; mains Q40-90).
Café Arqueológico Yaxhá is a unique café combining pre-conquest ingredients like yuca and squash with more modern dishes. Its walls are covered with fascinating photos and the owners are extremely helpful for visitors (Calle 15 de Septiembre; 5830-2060; www.cafeyaxha.com).
Nightlife in Flores
Nightlife in Flores is low-key, but happy hour is taken very seriously. Most places along the lake will have sunset drink specials, but three of the best are Raíces, Café-Bar Las Puertas, and La Luna. During low season, most places will close much earlier than advertised. For more local-style cantinas, head to the Playa Sur area between Flores and the causeway.
Want more information and recommendations for Flores, Santa Elena, and traveling in Guatemala? This page is a small sample from our 398-page comprehensive travel guide for Guatemala. Written and researched by a long-time resident and Peace Corps Volunteer, the book is quickly becoming the go-to resource for travelers looking to get off the “Gringo Trail” and experience the real Guatemala. Click here to learn more about the book and what others are saying about this unique travel guide.