After over a week in Caye Caulker, the weather started to switch from occasional afternoon showers to heavy downpours for most of the day. I was ready to head east and finally get to my 26th country – Guatemala!
After a ferry, a taxi ride, a local Belizian bus, two days spent waiting in San Ignacio, Belize for the rain to clear (it didn’t), I finally crossed the border last week with a smile on my face. I’d heard so much about the magic of Guatemala from other travelers, I couldn’t wait to see it for myself. And I was 100% ready to get back to a cheaper country where I can get a beer for a $1.
Me and a few new friends hopped in a colectivo after going through Guatemalan immigration and started making our way towards Flores, the island town in the middle of Lake Petén Itzá where I was going to base myself for the next five days.
Colectivos are kind of like informal busses, but smaller, and they will stop for anyone that flags them down for a ride. Along the way, we picked up other travelers, local farmers, kids under 10 going from their village school to their countryside homes, and a lady with a machete. At one point, I’m almost positive there were over 30 people crammed into a van built for 12.
When we made it to Santa Elena, just outside of Isla de Flores, we then had to get in a tuk tuk to take us to the island. A tuk tuk! I love tuk tuks. They were a blast to ride around in back in Southeast Asia, but I wouldn’t recommend it for three exhausted travelers with three large backpacks. It was a bit cramped.
But what a gorgeous place Flores is! It’s a tiny island filled with colorful buildings, cobblestone streets, and super friendly locals. It’s small enough that you could walk around the perimeter in less than 20 minutes, but there are enough food and nightlife options that you could stay there a month and never have the same restaurant for dinner twice.
When I wasn’t exploring the nearby Mayan ruins (more coming in a later post!) I was wandering the streets, eating yummy street food from the ladies down by the docks, and drinking Gallo beer. It’s definitely a quiet little town, but as picture perfect as it gets!
The best part of Flores was easily the sunsets. Having just come from Caye Caulker, I was almost sunset-ed out when I arrived, but I didn’t count on the ones in Flores being even better. I spent every evening sitting on the water, admiring the gorgeous colors dancing off the lake as the sun dipped in the sky towards the horizon.
I mean it doesn’t get any better than this!
Where: Flores is smack dab in the middle of northern Guatemala. The isla is in the middle of Lago Petén Itzá and is reached by a causeway from the nearby town of Santa Elena.
Getting There: I crossed the border from Belize with relative ease. A taxi from San Ignacio to the border, then a walk across and a quick jaunt through immigration before boarding the colectivo (40 quetzales a person, around $5.50 USD) just over the bridge. It is only a two hour ride to Santa Elena, where you can easily catch get a tuk tuk to the island (around $2 USD).
If you are doing the crossing from Belize, make sure you don’t take the colectivos right outside the immigration office. They charge twice as much. If you walk just over the bridge and make a left you’ll see the dozens of colectivos there that will take you to Flores for 40 quetzales a head.
If you’re coming from the south of Guatemala or Chiapas in Mexico, you can also take buses to Flores, but since I didn’t come from those places, I’d rather you get info on them elsewhere on the interwebs!
Where To Stay:
There are a number of budget hotels on the island and a few hostel options. Here’s what I know.
- Los Amigos Hostel – I didn’t stay here but my two friends did and I spent some time with them hanging out in the lounge and drinking in the bar upstairs. It is one of my favorite hostels I’ve been in here in Central America! I can’t speak about the rooms, but it has a great atmosphere, fabulous common areas and good inexpensive food. They also have a great travel agency – I booked my tour to Tikal and my transportation back to Mexico with them.
- Hotel Villa Margarita – I booked a double room with an en suite bathroom in this small hotel on booking.com for under $17 a night. It was a basic but comfortable room with AC and had a balcony. The only issue I had was with the occasional street noise and the cleaning lady, who started cleaning the nearby rooms while blasting music on her phone around 7am. Oh, and the suicide shower I had was an issue, but more on that later in the week…
What to Eat: Overall, I didn’t find fantastic food in Guatemala, compared to all the amazing things I ate in Mexico and Belize. I’m hoping it is because I didn’t look in the right places! I’m going back to Guatemala next week so I’ll have more time to seek out better representations of the cuisine. Here is what I did like:
- Street Food – After 3pm, several local ladies sell tacos, burritos, empanadas, cakes and other goodies down by the lake on the west side of the island, across the street from Captain Tortugas. It’s the cheapest meal you can get on the island – I got a big burrito and a taco for 8 quetzales, or just over $1 USD. The cakes are also great!
- Captain Tortuga’s – The food isn’t fantastic but this place has good drink specials and is a nice place to watch the sunset.
- Cool Beans – This was my go-to coffee place. It has a great lake front location and tasty coffee, and their breakfasts were pretty solid and cheap too.
- Restaurante Doña Goya – An even better breakfast spot right on the lake, this place gives you so much food for under $5 USD. Check out this breakfast – eggs, cheese, beans, toast, oatmeal, fruit, coffee and juice!
- In general, people spoke less English here than in Mexico. I appreciated it because it gave me a chance to practice my Spanish, but if you haven’t brushed up lately, it’s time to.
- If you have time and want a more “Guatemalan” experience (so I’m told) walk across the bridge and wander around Santa Elena. I went in search of sunglasses but couldn’t find any, but I did find some yummy ice cream and a cheap grocery store. It is obviously less touristy than Flores and the people were friendly.
- Obviously, if you go to Flores, you’re likely to be visiting Tikal and/or the other nearby Mayan ruins. My next post will deal with my day in Tikal (it was epic, by the way) but if you’re worried about booking a tour before you get here, don’t. There are several tour operators in town that will walk through all their tour options with you so you have your pick. I booked mine with Los Amigos Hostel. Just be careful when booking – there are apparently a lot of shady individuals that will offer you tours, take your money then never show up to get you the day of. We allowed one couple to join our tour because their guy never showed and our guide felt bad for them.