The next leg of our Guatemalan adventure landed us in Flores, an almost impossibly tiny and charming island on Lake Petén and a base for visiting the Mayan ruins of Tikal.
Our arrival was far from ideal. Leaving at 9.30 from Panajachel we knew it would be a long day but did at least expect to arrive before nightfall. We arrived at 1.30am, a mere 16 hours later as we had to change bus in Guatamala City and then made glacially slow progress up the country.
Too tired to even think about Tikal on the first day, we instead just explored Flores. Which doesn’t take very long as the island is around 500 metres wide. It is very pretty though, and we found a couple of good places for decent food and drinks.
I had wanted to go kayaking over to a rope swing but the girls weren’t too keen and no-one seemed to know for sure how to get to the swing so sadly that never happened. I did brave a swim in the lake though, it was refreshing!
When the water level is high, which it was when we visited, the outer ring road of Flores is pretty much totally submerged by water. Getting around the outside by foot involves walking on walls and planks.
The next day we woke up at the ridiculous time of 3.30am for our 4am departure to Tikal. We avoid early starts like this at all costs (whereas some people seem to embrace them) but here it did seem like the best option – Tikal is in the jungle so it gets progressively hotter throughout the day. Remembering how tired we got exploring Angkor Wat during the day, we thought it wise to go for the early start.
After an hour of sleep on the bus we arrived, paid and had to wait until 6am for the gate to open so woke ourselves up with bananas and tamales.
And onto the temples. Tikal is a large complex, and while there is a map as you go in, it is in dense jungle and it’s possible to get lost. That said plenty of people did do it alone, and I had a GPS map so we shouldn’t have got lost. However the guide who was assigned to our group seemed like a nice guy and charged a fair price, so we decided to go with him.
It turned out to be a great decision, not just for his knowledge of the temples but also for the abundant wildlife he spotted for us.
Straight away he pointed out a racoon sized mammal but I have no idea of the name. Next he coaxed a tarantula out of a hole in the ground although it was a bit shy and didn’t stay out for long.
We moved onto the first temples. It’s worth pointing out that although we enjoy seeing temples and learning about them, we remember almost nothing afterwards. So I have little idea of the route we took, nor the names of each temple.
But they were impressive. We started small, moving up to bigger and bigger temples. We spent a lot of time at a large cluster which was full of things to climb and explore. Luckily the high temples have wooden steps built up to them to make it safer and avoid damage.
We saw plenty more animals too. Tons of spider and howler monkeys, plus an unusual white nosed coati. We also saw a toucan and this bird, which I’m not sure of the name of. Had we not taken the early tour, we probably would not have seen much of this wildlife, the monkeys especially, as they are not active during the hottest parts of the day.
Being in the jungle, Tikal was ‘lost’ for many years and indeed many of the temples are either under excavation or still totally consumed by nature. It’s a work in progress site.
Eventually we found our way to the imaginatively named Temple IV, the tallest in the park, accessible by a huge adjoining staircase. The view from the top was pretty impressive, miles of jungle with temples poking above the treetops – like a proper lost world (incidentally, there is a section of Tikal called ‘Lost World’)
Afterwards we parted ways with our guide and were left to our own devices. We took a different route back, checking out a few more temples. As the guide himself even admitted, some of the outer temples are not impressive enough to be worth the long walk so there were quite a few we didn’t see – it’s a huge site.
Back to the entrance we managed to get on a 11.30am bus and arrived back in Flores for lunch, shattered but happy.
Getting to Flores from Panajachel involved a minivan to Guatemala City, then a pullman bus from the City up to Santa Elena, the large town a few km from Flores. We had done the latter journey in reverse the week before, over 2 days, which only took a combined 10 hours so we assumed it would be quicker this time. However the bus took over an hour to get out of Guatemala City alone, then was in no rush to make it to the halfway point of Rio Dulce.
The tickets for this nightmare journey cost us 162.50Q (£14.44) per person from a travel agent on Pana dock. We’d advise not going directly from Pana and instead from Antigua or ideally direct from Guatemala City.
On our first night (what was left of it) we stayed at the shabby Green World Hotel which cost 250Q (£22.26) for a triple room. It was ok but tatty and was only available for one more night so we decided to try for Los Amigos, the main hostel. This is a huge hostel and usually everything I hate, however we got a triple room for 360Q (£32.05) which had AC and was huge and comfy. We wouldn’t recommend eating there though, the food was mediocre at best. Unusually for a hostel, drinks were quite reasonably priced.
The best place we ate was ‘Cool Beans’, undoubtably a tourist spot but it did well priced tasty food with a good selection of drinks, all with a view across the lake.
Our tour to Tikal cost 100Q (£8.90) each and then on top of that there was an entrance fee of 150Q (£13.35). The guide cost 50Q (£4.45) per person though for the tour price we paid we really should have got that included. You can leave at 2.45am for a ‘sunrise’ tour but be warned, entering before 6am costs 250Q and you still aren’t guaranteed to get there in time for sunrise (as we heard from a group who did it and didn’t see it).
You can choose to return at various different times, the guide assigned to your bus can tell you. We were lucky to make it back for 11am departure as we would have had to wait for 12.30pm otherwise. I’d say the 4.5 hours we spent in the complex, including the long walks between temples, was more than enough for us.