A January 2004 trip
to Flores by lcampbell
Quote: In Part 1 of 7 of our month-long journey around Guatemala, we get our first introduction into a new country and a crash course in Spanish, land unexpectedly in the middle of a local festival in Flores, and explore the ultimate in Guatemalan archaeological sites at Tikal National Park.
After a border crossing and bus trip that left us feeling harried, unsure, and exhausted, we recovered to a state of awe and exhilaration at the new and unknown. We were in Guatemala! We rested up and frantically tried to recall long-forgotten Spanish words and grammar, then headed out to explore charming Flores.
Located on an island in Lake Petén Itzá, Flores is built on the site of an ancient Mayan city. Refugees from Chichen Itzá in Mexico settled on this island and lived there peacefully until conquered by the Spanish in 1697. While once the "last major functioning Mayan ceremonial centers" (according to Lonely Planet guidebook), the city was completely destroyed and no sign of it remains in present day Flores.
The modern city is filled with narrow stone-cobbled streets, a sometimes lively, sometimes tranquil town square, pretty red-roofed buildings, and plenty of hotels and restaurants. Somehow it is a tourist town that doesn’t feel touristy, at least not overly annoyingly so.
The most popular excursion in the Flores area, and rightfully so, is to Tikal National Park and archeological site. Other highlights included a large festival that we accidentally showed up in time for, a visit to a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center called ARCAS, and just the excitement of the first few days in a new country.
A good spot for internet access was Hotel Peten, which also rents kayaks for 20 quetzales (US.50) per hour.
There are no banks in Flores. Go to 4a Calle in Santa Elena (across the causeway) for banking and money exchange.
There are plenty of other activities in Flores that we did not try. There is a bicycle shop with reasonably-priced trips, or just bicycle rental. A company called EcoMaya had trips to remote archeological sites deep in the jungle of the Peten region.
Food: We thought that the burritos and tacos at La Unión were very good, accompanied by a great sunset that seemed to last forever, with the silhouettes of local kids playing on the nearby dock against the red glow of dusk. Cool Beans was a great café with fantastically helpful and friendly owners and yummy food. The absolute largest quantity of good food for a super low price was at Hotel and Restaurante Posada el Peregrino.
For more information on Guatemala and Belize, see my other journals:
Guatemala on per day (will post September/2004)
Great Guatemala Loop Parts 2-7 (some still in progress)
Belize on per day
San Ignacio, Belize to Flores, Guatemala:
*Bus San Ignacio to Benque Viejo del Carmen: US.75 per person
*Taxi to Guatemala border: US
*Belize Departure Tax: US
*Visit Guatemala check-in window (easy to miss). No charge to enter Guatemala.
*Exchange small amount of money either before or after check-in window. Best rates are in Santa Elena town.
*Minibus from border to Santa Elena: 20 quetzales/US.50pp (or there is a regular full-size bus running twice per day, which is cheaper)
*Walk 5-10 minutes from Santa Elena to Flores over the 500 meter causeway.
Flores to Cobán:
The bus companies in Santa Elena insisted that I needed to go via Rio Dulce and/or even to Guatemala City (both way out of the way and about 12 hours of traveling) to get to Cobán from Flores. This is the better way to go:
*Walk to 4a calle in Santa Elena – you will see minibuses gathered
*Take minibus Santa Elena to Sayaxche (pronounced sigh-ya-SHAY) – 10 quetzales/US.25pp. No schedule - minibuses leave when full – but early a.m. is best.
*Cross river on ferry – 1 quetzal pp
*Minibus Sayaxche to Raxuha (ra-shoe-HA) – 20 quetzales/US.50 pp.
*Minibus Raxuha to Coban – 20 quetzales/US.50pp.
Room #27 at Mirador del Lago II is the absolute best room available at the hotel. If at all possible, get this room. It is on third floor, with a lake view, and a small balcony. In addition, there is a tile-top table and chairs just outside the room, also with a fantastic lake view. As far as we could tell, ours was the only room in the building with the view. The room below us on second floor would have its view blocked by the buildings across the street. I had thought that our room would be more expensive because of the view, but all the rooms were the same price. This room was great for sunrise views as well. And very clean.
Private or Shared Bath?
Private bath, warm shower, towels provided. The bathroom was a bit well-worn, but clean.
The desk staff were all friendly, but not overly so. There was not really a common area for travelers to hang out at, which made it more difficult to meet people, although I did strike up some conversations in the "hallways" which were actually sort of open-air walkways.
Food and Other Amenities:
There are plenty of restaurants nearby, including one in the main part of the hotel across the street. Cold beverages are available in the lobby. Laundry service is available. Some travel agency services available.
Calle Union, on east side of island. The island is small, so all hotels seem to have an equally good location. This hotel is on the outermost street of the island, but is not on the lake side. The original Mirador del Lago is across the street on the lake side, but the rooms seemed dirtier and cost more. Plus our view in room #27 was better than the rooms we were shown on the lake side.
We were on third floor, and there were constantly cleaning staff around, so we felt the hotel was fairly secure.
80 quetzales (US$10 per night, double occupancy). I was curious if maybe we were paying more for our room because it was by far the best view and best room in the whole place, but in chatting with some other guests, I discovered that the price of our room was the same as the others.
The main part of the Mirador del Lago hotel, on the lake side of the street, had slightly more expensive rooms. The rooms we saw did not have lake views, and we far older and didn’t look as clean as our room at Mirador del Lago II. Ask to see rooms in each of the parts of the hotel, which the clerk will be happy to do for you, before deciding.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on August 4, 2004
Mirador del Lago II
The street was packed with people, a huge clump moving slowly forward together, almost shuffling. In the middle of the mob, a statue of Christ on the cross was carried by somber-looking men.
We dressed and followed the crowd to the town square, which was a small park just outside a grand white church. As night fell, mass was held to a packed park.
With worship concluded, there was a change to more of a party atmosphere. So much food! Fried and sugared and grilled – just like the festivals of home. But I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen glow lights and clowns and cotton candy at a religious event at home. And for sure not the fireworks! We’re talking a 4th of July caliber sparkly celebration – but instead of the blasts set off at a distance and seen high overhead, there were up close and personal. So close, in fact, that at one point we all had to run for it to get out of the way!
It was in burning sparks that I saw the name of the festival for the first time. It was a celebration of Cristo Negro de Esquipulas. Only after I returned home did I get a chance to look up the history of Cristo Negro. In 1595, it is said that artist Quirio Catano carved an image of crucified Christ. The commissioners of the piece wanted an image with dark skin like themselves, but without a very dark wood available, he made a light-skinned Christ instead. The piece was stored for many years, and it is said that when it was removed from storage, the skin of the Christ (but not his clothing) had turned dark brown.
Of course, other accounts claim that the statue has been colored dark over time due to candles and incense burning in the church where he is displayed.
Regardless of how he became dark-skinned, Cristo Negro became the object at the center of great pilgrimages starting in 1737. During this year, the Archbishop of Guatemala visited the statue in Esquipulas and left cured of a chronic ailment. People have been traveling great distances ever since to receive the healing powers of the statue.
This night, our first in Guatemala, was one of the best and most memorable times we had in our one month of travels in the country. It was spontaneous and fun, and we met local people willing to chat with us, tried great food, and were almost the only tourists in attendance.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on August 4, 2004
Festival – Cristo Negro de Esquipulas
After my long-tailed possibly-insane friend lost interest in me, I wandered to the nearby ancient stone wall to find my hubby. I was amazed where I found him. He was in the largest plaza area that we had seen since starting our day-long exploration of Tikal National Park. Temple (Pyramid) I (44 meters) and Temple II (38 meters) stood on opposite sides of the Great Plaza. The flat grassy area in the middle served to highlight the steepness of the temple sides. To one side of the plaza was a covered excavated hole. Looking in, I saw a huge carved stone head. Wild, for sure!
In additions to Temples I and II, Tikal has hundreds of other structures both large and small to explore and climb. I read that originally there were over 4000 structures in the 16 square kilometer area. To make a loop around the entire area means a 10km walk at least, although one day is sufficient to see most of the site.
It is thought that this area was attractive to the Mayan people due to its location on a hill (and out of the low swamps surrounding it) and also because of the abundance of flint. Tikal was inhabited from approximately 700BC to maybe 1200-1500 AD. The disappearance of the Mayan people from Tikal, like most other ancient Mayan sites, is a mystery.
The late 1800s brought renewed interest in exploring this long-forgotten site. Numerous international archaeologists worked on excavating the area over the years, inspiring the Guatemalan government to protect the area. The 576 square miles of jungle, including the archaeological site, make up Tikal National Park. It is also a World Heritage Site.
While the pyramids in the Great Plaza cannot be climbed – due to a couple tourists falling to their deaths in recent years – there are two other large pyramids that can be. Temple V (58 meters) was impressive for its size as well as for the nearby group of howler monkeys. Temple IV, I believe, is the most often climbed. There are vendors with cold drinks at the base. The view from the top, looking over the jungle with the tops of the other pyramids sticking out, will not be soon forgotten. Temple III is also huge, at 55 meters, but is yet uncovered.
While most people congregated around the main large temples, there are plenty of quiet corners of Tikal to find some peace and solitude. One place that I especially enjoyed was Mundo Perdido, or Lost World. This is a perfect spot for journal writing or for a quiet lunch break.
I have already mentioned my monkey experiences at Tikal, but there is plenty of other animal life to be seen. The park is a birders paradise. The critters we saw most often were wild turkeys, and some obviously tourist-fed coatamundis. Please keep wildlife wild, and don’t feed them! It only leads to their demise.
Tikal is larger than I thought. Be prepared with good walking shoes and plenty of drinking water.
I did not find the food to be very good (plus it was very expensive) at Tikal, so I recommend bringing a lunch and snacks.
Gifts and film were also very expensive at Tikal – bring plenty of film, and save the shopping for Flores or Santa Elena.
Licensed guides are available near the steps to the museum. We did not use a guide, but I think it would be a very good experience, and not too costly. I do not know the price, but the price is per group, not per person, so the best approach to hiring a guide is to get some other people to go in with you and split the cost.
If you go without a guide, Lonely Planet recommends the book "Tikal – A Handbook of the Ancient Mayan Ruins" by William Coe, which is available at Tikal and in Flores.
How to get there
It is very convenient to hire a minibus to pick you up at your hotel for round-trip transport to and from Tikal. We did this and the price was US$5 per person. Because of the hotel pickup and dropoff (vs. walking to Santa Elena for public bus), the extensive hours of operation (vs. public bus), and the reasonable cost for the 1.5 hour ride (each way), we felt that this was a good choice for transportation. Any hotel clerk can arrange this for you.
Fees and staying overnight
Entrance Fee to Tikal National Park is US$6.25 per person. We also bought a map from the ranger for US$0.75, but I think our guidebook map would have been sufficient. Overnight accommodations are available at Tikal, but they fill up very fast. Make advance reservations. Campers will usually not have a problem getting a spot.
ARCAS is located in San Miguel town, on Lago de Peten Itza, near Flores. We decided to visit after reading a short blurb in our guidebook, and discovered that this is a gem of an organization. ARCAS, founded in 1988, is a non-profit organization that focuses on animal rescue, forest and habitat conservation, research, and environmental education.
The animals at ARCAS are rescued from the illegal pet trade. Many are rehabilitated and released back into the wild. Some are injured or too tame and will live at ARCAS indefinitely (like the monkeys I mentioned above). There is a quarantine area for sick animals, a hospital, and a rehabilitation area.
From Flores, go to the boat launch by Hotel Guacamaya. Price is 1 quetzal to cross over to San Miguel town. At San Miguel, follow the path/road up to main road, turn right. Walk 20-30 minutes to a sign saying something about conservation (there is another sign facing backwards that says ARCAS). Turn right. Walk 10-15 minutes to ARCAS sign. This is the back entrance, so you will need to follow the path all the way down to the water where the education area is and an employee is available to give tours.
You can also reach ARCAS on the organization’s boat (contact them – cost 20 quetzales/US$2.50), by chartering a boat (same price), or by kayaking to the dock. There is a sign at the dock, so it should be easy to find by kayak. You can follow my above walking directions, but go by bike instead, but expect to pay 1Q for the bike to cross on the launcha.
Our tour guide was Alfredo, and I cannot recommend him enough. He was very friendly, but could only give the tour is Spanish, so be prepared to possibly have some communication problems if you don’t speak Spanish. First he showed us some interpretive areas, most explaining at an elementary-school level the need for conservation of the forests and protection of the environment. Next, we saw the monkeys and some other animals that are some of the permanent residents of ARCAS. The animals appeared to be well cared for, but unfortunately, the cages they lived in were far too small. Alfredo explained that they want to build a large enclosure in the woods, when they get enough money from donations.
Next, we had a long relaxing chat down by a wetland area with many birds. We talked with Alfredo about everything. He was the first Guatemalan person that we had an extended conversation with. It was really great to learn more about the people, their lifestyle, the area, and more about ARCAS work. The hospital, rehabilitation, and quarantine areas were shown to us briefly.
Our tour lasted 2 hours, and we had Alfredo’s undivided attention for the whole time. We really felt like honored guests. The requested donation is 10 quetzales/US$1.25 per person, but feel free to give more. After our tour, Alfredo said we could stay and swim off the dock if we wanted. Tempting – it is a really pretty and peaceful area, but we decided to head back.
Volunteers are welcome at any time at ARCAS Peten. Cost is $100 per week (minimum 1 week commitment) and includes all meals (they have their own café and cook) and lodging. The work is not glamorous – mainly feeding the animals, cleaning cages, chores, and construction projects. If your timing is right, you could possibly help with research or animal releases. I know that many folks think that if they are volunteering they shouldn’t also have to pay, but in this case I think it is essential to the organization. They need to have some income also, and this is just a way to earn some money for the good of the animals. Worth it, I think!
ARCAS – Project Hawaii
On the Pacific Coast, near the town of Monterrico, ARCAS has project Hawaii. This project protects sea turtles and other animals, and works on mangrove reforestation. There is a park for visitors, and volunteers are welcome for minimum one week commitment. Cost to volunteer is $50 per week to cover lodging (kitchen available). Volunteers primarily patrol at night during nesting season to collect turtle eggs or release hatchlings, but may also help with construction projects, research, environmental education, and planting mangroves. See website (listed below) for directions.
Volunteers for both projects can usually show up without prior contact.
Asociación de Recate y Conservación de Vida Sivilestre
ARCAS – Administration Office
Zona 8 Mixco
San Cristobal GUATEMALA
ARCAS – Peten Office
Barrio de la Ermita, San Benito
Port Angeles, Washington