Stepping off the bus that I’d called home for the past ten hours, I stopped for a moment to stretch and reflect on my coast-to-coast journey. A few days before, I’d played in the black sand of a beach on the Southwest coast of Guatemala. After stops in both Antigua and Guatemala City, I hopped the country’s one and only overnight bus route to reach Flores, a town just a short drive from the Belizean border in the far Northeastern corner of the country.
Like many, I had come to Flores to visit the Mayan ruin of Tikal. However, with four days left before I’d meet my mom, sister, and cousin in Belize, I had plenty of laptop time to log before I could sign off for family time. Flores, I’d hoped, would be a charming and colorful base from which to hunker down.
It was indeed.
I knew Flores was tiny, but it didn’t matter how many maps I looked at — I didn’t really feel it until I was there, and I’d traversed the island town in about five minutes flat. Connected to the mainland by a long causeway, Flores floats serenely in Lago Petén Itzá. While Tikal is a massive draw and tourists are abound, it seemed to me the town is still more of a stopover than a final destination for most — every traveler I met was staying a night or two rather than a week or two. Hence, there’s just one true hostel, a few cute restaurants, and not a single yoga studio in sight. Laugh it up, but I found that yoga studios, along with Western gyms, were a strong indicator of a destination’s development in this region. Monterrico and Flores were the first two destinations I’d hit in my Central America tour that didn’t have one.
While I did miss having a place to roll out a mat (I’ve never been such a vinyasa fiend as I was on this trip — I was practicing a few times a week!) I stayed active by strolling around the town with my camera in hand.
I discovered San Telmo restaurant on my first afternoon stroll, and returned there every single day. They had a great menu of healthy meals and homemade treats — banana bread and Diet Coke became my regular afternoon treat — and a great atmosphere, with river views.
I also really enjoyed the food at my own hotel, Los Amigos. They had a fantastic array of salads, smoothies, and filling breakfasts.
I’d been a little nervous about getting in at Los Amigos as I showed up without a reservation, but I managed to snag a private room with a shared bathroom for $20 a night. Not the best deal I found in Guatemala by a long shot, but considering how much work I needed to get done, I was willing to invest in good sleep and a private space. (Note to others who require a strong internet connection: you aren’t going to find a great one in Flores. The wifi at Los Amigos ranged from decent to unusable, while San Telmo was reliably slow.)
But to balance out that splurge of a room, I found an insanely charming taco stand where a burrito or three tacos would set you back a mere $2. Yum! The perfect find for a sunset picnic around the edge of the island.
While it might take just fifteen minutes to circumnavigate the island of Flores, I was more than content to use this cheerful little town as a base for a few days. But people don’t come to this part of Guatemala for Flores. Nope.
They come for Tikal.
squinty selfie alert!
There are four main tours available to Tikal, based on what time you want to be there. I flip-flopped on which I wanted to take but eventually signed up for the Sunrise Tour, departing at 3am. Ouch. As we trekked through the jungle in a blanket of blackness — long time readers may recall I have a pesky phobia of the dark — I wondered what I’d gotten myself into. Our guide Luis, who I’d only seen through the beam of the flashlight he flashed on his face when he spoke, shone a light on a set of temple stairs, telling us to sit quietly at the top and wait for sunrise. Please don’t speak, he emphasized.
We obeyed, climbing the steps in silence and settling in on the cool stone steps at the top. We sat in the darkness for a while, a quiet cough or a slight seat shifting the only breaks in our meditative solitude.
Then another group arrived. They were noticeably noisy coming up the stairs, but surely they’d settle down in a moment — right? Wrong. Though there was now enough ambient light to see that there were dozens of others sitting in silence, a few choice tourists — a more crass blogger might refer to them as jackasses with Nikon starter kits, but I’m much more refined than that — couldn’t quite grasp that it was purposeful. Despite several sushings, many passionately issued by myself, a few small groups would simply not STFU. I felt myself getting hot with annoyance. I generally think of myself as a pretty easygoing person, but this is just one of those things that pushes my buttons. I just feel that if you are physically incapable of silencing yourself for like, half a hour while witnessing a beautiful wonder of nature atop a sacred Mayan site, then please spare us all your commentary and stay in bed.
Just as I was about to get up to issue this suggestion to the offenders, something magical happened. As if responding to a silent alarm, the jungle roared to life.
The worst kind of fellow tourists aside, it was a magical moment. The sound of howler monkeys filled the valley below, and the piercing call of a macaw seemed to announce the rise of hazy sunlight. In the far distance, the peak of another temple built centuries ago peeked through the lush canopy.
Despite the fog, the early morning wake up had been worth it.
That said, I really did want the fog to go away. It was kind of ruining my pictures! Our guide Luis noticed I wasn’t taking many photos and asked what was wrong. I sheepishly replied that unless conditions were perfect I couldn’t really be bothered. He laughed and told me I was like a tour guide — and he would know. Now forty, Luis has been guiding in Tikal since he was twelve — and selling water on the site to tourists since he was seven.
His experience helped us spot tons of wildlife. Though we were sad to hear we missed the jaguar he’d seen only a few days before (though I can’t really complain — I saw two in Peru last year!), we did spy a host of howler monkeys, plenty of beautiful birds, and even a baby wild cat.
Unfortunately I can’t remember exactly what this little guy was called (any ideas?) — but he sure was cute.
And there was one creature I have to admit I was fine with not seeing…
Finally, as we headed to the most famous temple complex, the sky began to clear. This, I winked to Luis, is what I was waiting for.
Of course I couldn’t visit a notorious Central American wonder without snapping a selfie! Actually there’s a funny story behind this one. As I was taking it, a guy came up and offered to take my photo. I gladly obliged, and he was just about to release the shutter as he asked, “So, are you Alex in Wanderland?”
The shocked look I had in that picture was less than flattering, but we had a laugh and a great chat. I ended up being approached by a total of six different readers in Central America — so fun! — but I have to admit that was the funniest encounter.
Just as the heat of the day began to settle in, it was almost time to return to Flores.
With the sky cleared, many in the group opted to use their remaining hour to return to the temple we’d watched the sun rise from. Surprisingly, as I’m normally never one to say no to a photo op, I decided to head back to the entrance and find a shady spot to read my Kindle.
However, two little kids — probably future little Luises! — had another idea. They caught my attention with a fairly strong jaguar impression and responded to my applause by turning me into a jungle gym. I’m not really a tiny human person normally, but these two were pretty irresistible. The hour I spent giggling with them is probably my favorite memory from all of Flores. It was a nice reminder that it’s not all about the big sights and the beautiful dSLR photography. Sometimes it’s about the little moments and the iPhone selfies.
And with that, my month in Guatemala had come to a close — for now. Eventually, I’d have to re-enter Guatemala in order to make it to my outbound flight from Honduras. But for now, I was Belize bound. And I couldn’t wait.
This was the first of three Mayan ruins I’d visit in Central America on this trip. Do you make a point to stop at cultural sites like this when you travel?