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?
I really like ur website. It is so nice and easy to follow. You travels are so nice and i feel like i am with u.
I am a mexican boy who lives 11 years ago in guatemala. In fact i know all the places that i post of Guatemala.
Are you still here?
i would be nice to meet u and tell you about the places i recommend u.
Hey Bernardo, thank you for the offer but I am back in the USA now! Thanks for reading — you have a lovely adopted home!
Props on your patience, I’m a shusher when I feel like someone is taking away a moment like that. Probably even let a STFU go.
I searched Guatemala jungle fox and it looks like it could be that little guy but a picture of the predator alien came up too. *shrug* You never can be too careful.
This comment made me laugh out loud. Never too careful, indeed. But UGH yes with people who aren’t self aware. I wish I could have released a Guatemalan jungle fox/alien predator on them.
How annoying that those tourists were so disrespectful. I’d have been frustrated too! That little fox/cat animal is adorable – though I have no idea what it is either ha. P.S. what on earth do you use on your skin? Your face is absolutely glowing! Maybe it’s something in the Guatemalan water…
Hm, I think that might just be sweat. Ha. I have a really basic (read: almost nonexistent) skincare routine. I use whatever cleanser is on sale when I’m in the shower (and never wash my face before bed, oops) and use Jergens Natural Glow SPF Face Lotion when I get out of it. That’s it! When I’m wearing makeup I do a concealer/powder combo but never any foundation, which I find too heavy. Other than blackheads I pick obsessively and the occasional breakout, I’m pretty lucky with my skin.
Long time reader, first time commenter (huge animal nerd, so trust a question about animals to bring me out!) It looks like it’s a grey fox cub!
YESSSS flushed another one out. I mean, er, hi! 🙂 I thought it might be some sort of fox. He was so little! I was definitely grateful to have my zoom lens that day.
We ALMOST went to Tikal this year (flight prices turned our sights on the Philippines instead). I’m surprised that with such an early tour there were so many other people, and that they were so irritating (an understatement, I’m sure). Either way it looks gorgeous! Love those photos with the little girl, what a cutie!!
I think the sunrise tour is actually one of the more popular ones — it gets super hot during the day so I think everyone wants to be back snoozing by then!
I loved your photos from Flores! I didn’t get to spend as much time there as I wanted during the day, and so don’t have any great photos of the brilliant colors and restaurants. But yours are amazing!
Thanks Liil! The benefit of being on my computer all day means that when I need a break I normally get some really nice pictures out a little stroll around town 🙂
I think this is my favourite of all your posts! Im not usually a child person either but that little girl is so cute! 🙂
Aw, thanks Laura! There is something hilarious about trying to speak Spanglish with a five year old… (I mean, I’m just guessing she looks five-ish. I’m not great with ages, ha.)
I would have pretended to be talking to someone near me and let out a couple of passive aggresive comments loud enough for them to hear. 😉 Good thing the jungle took things into its own hands.
There was a lot of dramatic sighing and quite a few sushes and muttered “seriously?” statements. But yeah, in retrospect I wish I’d just firmly but politely asked them to be quiet. I’m sure their guide did they same way ours did, though, so clearly they aren’t great listeners.
Hey now, what’s wrong a Nikon starter kit? 😉
Great photos as always, love the colorful buildings!
Haha, nothing wrong with the camera — just the people holding it, in this case 🙂 And I might have fixated on the camera as one of the topics one group couldn’t shut about what why their photos weren’t turning out… in the near black darkness. Eyeroll.
THAT CUTE LITTLE FLUFFY FOX-LIKE GUY. I WANT HIM.
Also, I love how colorful these towns are! So charming (Wi-Fi issues aside…and you KNOW how I feel about that!).
Central America really tested me on the WIFI front. Some days were just so painful!
I loved Tikal! We didn’t see any wildlife there except for some crazy birds and a couple of coatis but luckily we had witnessed Howler Monkeys at Palenque or I would have been gutted (I wish I had seen that tiny fox-like creature you saw – so cute!). We randomly ended up visiting on 12th Dec 2012, or 121212 so there were a lot of ceremonies happening when we were there and then it started absolutely pouring with rain. It ended up being a very memorable day 🙂
Wow, that sounds really cool! I met other backpackers who had a guide pull a tarantula out of its hole for them to hold… I’m not sad that our guide didn’t do the same. But I did love all of our other sightings!
I can’t get over all these colors. So beautiful. The little girl looks well cheeky. I can just imagine how much fun you had with her. Are you writing a post about Guatemala City too by the way? I am so curious what the city is like.
I am indeed! I spent the bulk of time there after I got back from Belize, so that post is still on the docket. I’m excited to write about a city I haven’t seen other bloggers cover (if anyone else has seen posts about it, I’d love to read them!)
A burrito or three tacos for $2…. BARGAIN!
The monkey, what a darling!
Not really a kid person either, but no…. So cute!
Amazing photos, its fun to adventure with you.
Happy weekend to you.
Cheers from Australia. 🙂
Thank you Anna! Happy weekend to you too, girl. Love sharing my adventures with everyone!
I love all the bright colors of the town! So adorable. Your trip looks like so fun! I’d love to visit someday. Thanks for sharing your experience!
You are so welcome Paige. It’s double the fun for me to relive it all over again here!
I’m not so much with the kids either, but there were two little boys in the Panama airport on our way to Brazil who got such a kick out of my dog and spent our entire layover with us and I couldn’t get enough of them.
Tikal looks amazing and Flores sounds very quaint. I love the sound of that taco stand.
That’s sweet! Kids can definitely always win me over by fawning over my dog Tucker.
These pictures are fantastic! I love your commentary about the chit chatting newbs… sometimes it’s ok to give in to your tourist whims, and sometimes it is NOT. Thank goodness the Universe took things into its own hands! 😉
Thanks Maddy! I had a lot of fun photographing Flores. I think I’m finally feeling ready to write some of the photo tip posts everyone keeps asking for!
SOOOO cute!! you and that little girl are seriously adorable…. and the pics looks GORGEOUS and colorful.
Oh man, she was such a cutie. Wish I had a video of that jaguar impression!
Lucky you that the fog disappeared in the end. I was there last week and the sun didn’t come out at all. This place is so stunning anyway. I especially loved to see the pyramid they are currently recovering and is still devouring in rain forest. That was so interesting to see. I mean you hear those stories before how they discover those places but to see how much it’s hidden was crazy.
I would also recommend anyone to book the 3 AM tour as I found the humidity unbearable from 9 AM onwards.
And you should definitely visit San Telmo, I loved this place!
Good to know, Stef. I heard the same from other travelers. I recently read Adventurous Kate’s review of her sunset tour, though, and that sounded pretty fantastic too — and the lighting was great for photos!
Ugh, I’m annoyed just reading about those assholes who wouldn’t STFU. But it still sounds like a pretty incredible experience! Early mornings are rough but with an outcome like that, totally worth it!
Yeah, it really pushed my buttons. I hate when people are so unaware! And yeah, I love days like this because they equal guilt-free naps.
Love all your posts – looks like your still having such a great time!! I forgot how much I love Mayan ruins so will be adding this destination to the list!
I have two more Mayan ruins coming up from this trip too, so you’re in luck 🙂
Was the noisy group on a tour as well? If so, how annoying that their guide didn’t tell them to shut up! I’m REALLY not a morning person but I made an exception to watch the sunrise in Bagan, and I think I would for Tikal as well after seeing this! Also, the little cat-fox: awwwwwwwww 🙂
For some reason the guides were not at the top with us… they waited below. I’m guessing their guide told them to be quiet and respectful just like ours did. Shame they didn’t listen!
I love this! It looks like such an incredible experience. One of my favorite aspects of getting to go to South Africa was spending time with local kids, so I totally understand where you’re coming from. It’s nice to connect.
Thanks Marni! It was a really lovely little town and I enjoyed my time there as my final stop in Guatemala (at least round one!)
These photos are amazing I love how you caputred the colors of Flores.
Thank you John! I can’t believe how colorful Central America is!
Such a wonderful story ! I love all the colourful photos, so beautiful
Thank you Kaley! It was the perfect place to hang out for a few days.
I love your photos! I’m planning to head to Flores next year and now I’m even more excited – I’m going to say that’s because of the temples , but really it’s totally because of the $2 burritos.
Haha, enjoy, Clare! It’s a really cool little mini-city!
Oh how I loved Tikal! Unfortunately I lost all of my pictures from my visit there (an issue with my memory card) but this post brought back all those memories – that sound of the howler monkeys in the dark, incredible!
I’m so sorry to hear that Rebecca! I’ve had two memory cards fail (one literally fell apart in my hand) but knock on wood I haven’t lost photos either time. I always splurge on the most expensive ones to try to stave off heartbreak.
I just love Ciudad de Flores. Is quiet weird as I live in Central America but I’ve never seen anything as beautiful as Flores. It is just breathtaking. I consider it one of the “must see” before you die. Along with Tikal I consider Flores just perfect. Did you get to go to the hanging bridges?
I didn’t get to the hanging bridges… in fact I’m not sure what they are!
Im headed to Guatamala in a few months and found your blog looking for posts – I cannot wait! These picture are incredible!
Welcome, Nikki! Glad these posts helped you get excited about your upcoming trip to Guatemala — it’s such a colorful country! Enjoy x
You are a fantastic storyteller and I loved reading about your adventures in Tikal and the sunrise experience. It sounds so incredible! I have a trip booked to Guatemala in November and I am so beyond excited to see Tikal in person, after reading so much about it online.
I have a few questions for you though about booking shuttles to the ruins from Flores:
Are there specific times when the shuttles depart Flores and return to Tikal? How much time do you have in Tikal when you book round trip shuttle transportation? Do you have to book the return shuttle to Flores or can you play it by ear when you get to the ruins and just choose to return when you are finished exploring?
Thanks so much!
Hi Brittany! I believe that you have to book round trip. However you should chat to the travel agent when you get there, there may be options to get on a later shuttle though I believe it would have to be pre-arranged. I can’t be 100% sure though. Good luck! You’ll have an amazing time!
Thanks so much for the info, Alex!
I can’t wait to go there and am sure it will be pretty amazing.
I just left Tikal a few days ago , (I came across your blog while searching for a yoga studio in Flores..lol) but anyway I had the same experience with the people on top of temple 4 for sunrise hike. Literally, lack of self awareness is my number one issue with out tourists! STFU- they are most always not American as well- and usually we get the bad rap! Smh 🙂
Ugh, sorry to hear this is a regular occurrence! I was so annoyed! Hope you had a great trip otherwise — did you find a yoga studio?