Since we wanted to avoid some of the Central American countries that were less stable, we booked a flight from Flores, Guatemala to Panama City, Panama using our United airline miles. In order to avoid paying a $75 close in booking fee, we had to book our flights at least 3 weeks out. This meant that we had to plan out our trip timing before we left the states.
While we can typically see the sites of a city in 2-3 days, we decided since we were on an extended trip that we should stay more time in each place. I gave us 6 days to see Flores, including time to visit Tikal, the main reason that we decided to visit Flores in the first place.
Getting to Flores
Getting from Belize City to Flores was our first adventure on a bus during this trip. We wrote a dedicated blog post about our bus trip to Flores if you want to read more about our adventures in border crossing/bus riding.
When looking for places to stay, I found Hospedaje Yaxha a highly rated hotel which had great reviews. While there was no air conditioning, we decided that we would save some money where we could, especially since we know that we will go over budget during other parts of our trip.
While there was no kitchen or mini fridge in our room, there was a grocery store, just over the bridge to the mainland. It was quite nice to be able to go and pick up essentials like toiletries, water and a few snacks at reasonable prices compared to the convenience stores located on the island.
Once we arrived in Flores, the first word that came to mind when thinking of how to describe it was cute. It is a very small island with narrow alleys and buildings painted in all sorts of bright colors. It was the perfect mix of Central America and Europe.
When you look at the city, you can see that the water level has risen since it was built. There are docks, stairs, and on one side of the island, an entire street under water. It’s almost ironic that in the rest of the world there are water shortages, but in rural Guatemala, there is an overabundance of fresh water in lake Peten Itza.
Being on the water, we expected many bugs like we experienced in Belize but were pleasantly surprised when there were not many mosquitos at all. That being said, we did have our fair share of ants, a common problem in all countries with tropical climates.
The taxis were in the form of a tuk tuk, similar to what we rode in when we were on our honeymoon in Southeast Asia. It was a small 3 wheel vehicle and much to our surprise, it was mostly locals who were taking them, a far cry from Asia where the only people who took the tuk tuks were foreigners.
Our shuttle from Santa Elena to Flores stopped at an ATM so everyone could get out money. We were told that there was only 1 ATM on the island and that service was spotty at best, often with the machine running out of money. Andy tried to use the ATM in Santa Elena but was unsuccessful.
We started to get somewhat nervous about getting cash for the trip, but when we arrived in Flores we found 3 ATM machines on the island and another just over the bridge on the mainland. The first one that we used, in a convenience store, processed our request but no cash or money spit out. Thinking that it didn’t go through, we tried again, still with no success. After that we learned that there was another, more reliable ATM near the Ramada hotel. We tried that and were successful. Once we got back to our hotel, we logged into our bank account to see if the transactions which did not give us cash had posted. We were annoyed to learn that they did in fact post and had to contact our bank to dispute the charges which have since been reversed.
Our biggest adjustment in Flores was that there were very few people who spoke English. Typically in tourist towns, English is a very common language, but that was not the case in Flores. We embraced the challenge as we were both forced to pull out our high school Spanish to communicate. The best part of not many people speaking English was that it forced us to use our Spanish. So often non-native speakers are too scared to practice with native speakers fearing that they will sound dumb. I absolutely had that fear, but overcame it, feeling a sense of accomplishment when I was able to communicate my point using only Spanish. As we continue to travel, we know that we’ll have the chance to continue practicing our Spanish. We are seriously considering enrolling in a multi-day class during our trip with the goal of bettering our Spanish.
There were 2 times we were walking around the island where we found extreme cultural differences from the US.
- We were walking and I heard a constant clicking noise. I knew that it was a somewhat familiar sound but couldn’t quite place it. As we walked down the street, it got louder and louder. Once we were at the door, we realized that it was a sort of typing school, with 20 or more students at typewriters. It was so bizarre as I haven’t seen a typewriter in operation since my childhood.
- When we walked around the streets in the evenings, we would often look into people’s homes to see how they lived. Over and over again, we would see large rooms that were extremely bare with a few chairs, a table and a refrigerator. I am not sure if it was the living room and if so, why the refrigerator was there instead of the kitchen, but it threw both of us off quite a bit.
Dining in Flores
Coming from Belize, where relatively speaking dining was quite expensive, Flores was extremely cheap. For as little as 40Q or $5 you could buy dinner for 2. Even our fancier meals, including the prettiest salad that I have eaten in my life, only cost us 90Q or $11.50 for both of us, including 2 bottles of water.
One of the best parts of Flores was the happy hour specials. The happy hour boards listed the specials as 2x “drink name” for a set price. We didn’t know if the price was for 2 drinks or if you bought 2 drinks that was the price for each drink. We tested it out one evening and were delighted to learn that the pricing was for 2 drinks.
We went to happy hours quite a bit during our time in Flores. I think it was because the sun set just before 6, making for a boring evening before dinner. Even though the drinks were cheap, they killed our dining budget a little bit. It was one of those things where you say it’s only $2, lets do it, but when you say that 10 times, your $2 expense suddenly becomes a $20 expense.
A visit to Tikal was one of the main reasons that we wanted to visit Flores, Guatemala. I had previously been to Chichen Itza with my family but was curious how Tikal, a much larger ruin site, would compare.
There are several different trips to Tikal:
- Sunrise tour where you arrive in time to watch the sunrise over Tikal
- Day trip where you arrive at 6am when the park opens
- Sunset tour where you watch the sunset over Tikal
Both the sunrise and sunset tours are more expensive as they are outside of the park hours. Since sunrises and sunsets can be so hit or miss, we decided to not blow the extra money on them, especially since we would be super annoyed if it were not a good sunrise.
Another service that the tour company offers was guided tours. While I am sure that we would have learned a lot, we like to go at our own pace and take lots of fun pictures together at the sites. We opted to save those few dollars and go on a self guided tour instead.
The trip to Tikal is a 1.5 hour drive from Flores. We left our hotel at 4:30am to catch our shuttle to Tikal for the 6am park opening. When the shuttle arrived, we noticed that a few of the backpackers on our bus from Belize were on the same shuttle. As we rode around town, picking up additional people, we were amazed just how many people the tour bus company crammed into the shuttle. The shuttle itself was the size of a church van but they managed to fit 15 people in the 3 rows and front seat. True to backpacker fashion, everyone except Andy and I were asleep just a few minutes after we were on the road.
We paid the 80Q or $10 per person shuttle fee during our booking. Once we arrived at the park, we paid our 150Q or about $20 per person entry fee and waited for the gates to open at 6am.
Once we got to the park, our driver gave us a briefing of the park layout. We ended up heading the same direction as another backpacker on our van and introduced ourselves. We all got along quite well and ended up spending the day with our new friend Koen from Amsterdam which was really fun. The best part about our visit to Tikal was that the ruins were not very crowded, something that Andy and I both loved since we could get great pictures.
We had read that the area can get excruciatingly hot, the walks can be quite long and bugs can be quite intense. Fortunately, all of these warnings were unfounded. Even in pants, which I wore to keep bugs off my legs, I was not too hot during our time at Tikal. There was quite a bit of shade on the paths with a breeze which made walking the distances between the temples quite pleasant. Most surprising to me was the fact that I left the park with no bug bites, a rarity for me, even when I apply insect repellant.
Tikal was very interesting as there were quite a few different ruins. Naturally some were more interesting than others, with the most interesting being the grand plaza area which had several large temples which were restored to their original state.
If it was less expensive to go to Tikal, we would have gone for a second day. Even though we had a great time and saw everything that we wanted to see, we were both ready to get back to Flores where we could get off of our feet for a while and relax.
Rope Swing and Pseudo Homestay
When we were in Flores, we began to get bored since we had a long time to stay in a small town. We went online to see what other things there were to do in the area. We found a place called Jorge’s rope swing and were interested.
Before we got a boat to the other side of the lake, we discussed with our hotel what the cost should be for the ride. They told us between 60-100Q or $7.75 to $13. Our first boat quoted us 100Q so I decided to walk away, before I was too far, they called me back and offered to take us round trip for 80Q or just over $10. We agreed and they took us over and set a time 2 hours later that they would pick us up.
Once we arrived we paid the 10Q or $1.25 entry fee per person and got ready to play. I decided I would jump off the diving board first, then get the rope to the shore so we could use the rope swing. My first thought when I got out on the diving board was “holy shit this is really high”. While I am not normally scared of anything, I was a little bit nervous. I made the leap and it was super fun. Once I had the rope in hand, I climbed out of the water up the ledge and got ready to swing. I was even more nervous for the rope swing as I was scared that I would lose grip of the rope and fall to the rocks below me. Andy convinced me that it would be fine and I got the courage to swing. While my swings were not nearly as graceful as Andy’s swings, I know that my arm strength has always been quite weak.
After jumping and swinging for quite a while, we took a break to relax in the hammocks. I noticed a sign with a menu of pricing for food and drinks that the family sold as a revenue source as well as another sign that showcased a boat ride around the island. Since our agenda in Flores was still quite light, we discussed going on a boat ride, then doing a traditional dinner at the family’s home afterwards. We discussed our plans with Jorge who said he would take us the next day, weather contingent, and gave us his phone number. The next day the weather looked promising and we had our hotel call him to discuss the logistics. He was due to meet us at the hotel at 3pm which would allow us to be on the water for the sunset.
A little after 3pm the next day, Jorge and his son picked us up in their boat. After dropping off his son with some groceries that he had picked up on the mainland, he took us out on a boat ride of the lake. While it wasn’t the most interesting boat ride that I have ever been on, it was nice to be on the water and the absolute perfect temperature.
When we returned, we relaxed for a bit while Jorge’s wife prepared our dinner. Since there is limited electricity where they live, our lighting was in the form of candlelight. When our dinner arrived we were blown away. We had BBQ chicken, corn, squash, mashed potatoes and broccoli. Everything looked, smelled and tasted amazing. For 80Q or $10 for both of our meals, I can’t imagine that we could have had anything better at any restaurant on the island.
After dinner Jorge’s 9 year old daughter Amelia dropped off some apples for dessert. You could tell that she was super interested in us and wanted to talk with us. Even though she has English in school, you could tell that she was too nervous to use it with us. We asked her as many questions as we could in Spanish and typical of all kids, got back 1 word answers.
The more we travel, the more we learn that music is a sort of international language. It was no exception at Jorge’s house with the girls playing their few favorite songs over and over again. Ironically the songs were nothing too current – “Imagine” by the Beatles, “Don’t Let Me Down” by the Beatles and Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”. “My Heart Will Go On” was the kids’ favorite song and they even sang it for us which was really cute.
Later the entire family – Jorge, Jorge’s wife and 4 children, joined and we had a great time talking with them. Jorge served as the translator when needed as he spoke the best English of the family. The topic that we talked about the most, which completely intrigued the entire family were stories of winter in Chicago. Since it is always summer in Guatemala, they were fascinated by stories of the snow, especially the kids who had recently seen the movie Frozen. Amelia discussed her desire to one day go north to experience the snow. We told everyone that winter was not as interesting as it seems on TV or pictures, but hopefully they are able experience it someday.
Higher than expected:
- Food – we would have been under budget on this if we had not gone out to so many happy hours during the week
Lower than expected:
- Transportation – since the island was so small, we walked everywhere, only taking a taxi to the airport
- Lodging – we found a great deal which was well under budget and in the middle of the city
- Miscellaneous – with the island being small and not much to see or do, our excursions came in well under budget
Overall we only spent about 2/3 of our budgeted money in Flores. This is great as it gives us more money to play with during the rest of our trip, should we want to go to additional cities or do something fun that is more expensive.
We both had a great time in Flores. Our only regret was staying too many days which lead us to become quite bored. If we were to do it again, we would stay for 2-3 days.
The most memorable part of our trip was having dinner at Jorge’s house. Getting a glimpse of how people around the world live is fascinating for us. It reminded us of our homestay in Sapa, Vietnam where we stayed with a local tribe. During our trip, we hope to do additional homestays or at least spend more time with local people instead of staying on the tourist circuit.