The Island-City of Flores in Guatemala

Flores - Guatemala

The city of Flores is an unusually picturesque city. Situated on a small island in the middle of lake Peten Itza, Flores is connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway.  The causeway connects Flores to the two surrounding towns which are home to most of the area’s population. The two neighboring towns are Santa Elena and San Benito both of which sit along the shores of Lake Peten Itza and service Flores.

Map of Flores from Los Amigos Hostel

The island of Flores is an odd oasis.  Still concretely Guatemalan, the island has evolved into a tourist oasis.  Cleaner, more secure, and significantly more upscale than Santa Elena and San Benito, Flores is home to a wealth of hotels, restaurants, small stores, internet cafe’s and nick-knack shops.  Roughly circular in nature, the island offers an incredible 360 degree view of the lake and surrounding towns, jungles and neighboring islands.

View from Flores, Guatemala

Unlike most small islands its size, Flores sits on top of a relatively tall hill.  The hill itself is mostly invisible, submerged under hundreds of years of development, modification and cultivation.  The city has a large outer loop road which wraps around the waterfront and then a series of internal rings in smaller circles which are bisected by cobble stone streets on a gentle incline which point towards the city park and Cathedral which rest on the flattened top of the hill in the center of the island.

Outdoor Market - Flores, Guatemala

The mainland is home to the airport as well as a large series of semi-permanent outdoor market streets.  The most interesting of which was a long market street which features a ramshackle collection of street side fruit and vegetable vendors.  The sheer amount of produce was incredible. The photo above showcases one stand and is representative of the 30-50 similar stands which were set up side-by-side along the street.

Outdoor Market - Flores, Guatemala

For those feeling inquisitive it’s possible to fork off of the main drag, which serves as the produce street, onto one of several smaller mixed goods streets.  These are a seething mass of humanity, clutter, smells and small motorcycle Taxi’s called Tuk-Tuks.  As an Argentinian girl from the hostel and I made our way through the market, we paused periodically to enjoy the vibrant pulse of the marketplace.

Though the market seemed safe enough, the always visible military and security personnel standing on every other street corner with automatic weapons or sawed off machine guns at the ready, were a vivid reminder of the economic and political turmoil currently plaguing the region.

Though the market itself had a fairly visible security presence, it paled in comparison to the amount of security, police and military personnel on the Island of Flores.  In many ways the police presence left me feeling as though I was in an island fortress in the midst of some sort of great turmoil.   Stores of any significant size and even some restaurants had armed security guards.  At night the police were out in force – some 10+ motorcycle officers, each heavily armed with extended clips clearly visible.

At one point I came across an armored truck making its rounds while replenishing the local ATMs.  Most of the places I’ve traveled in the past, armored truck guards are…lazy.  They meander in, meander out and while somewhat diligent are not overly concerned.  Not so in Flores.  The guards were out of the truck, shotguns in hand, eyes sharp as they hustled in to the ATM, re-filled it, then with a jump to their step made their way back out and back into their armored truck.

Despite the general sense of added vigilance and the silent threat of violence and crime – my experience was entirely positive.  The people were friendly and helpful.  The city safe. The weather beautiful.

As the Argentinian and I finished our exploration of the island we hopped in a Tuk Tuk and for less than $1 USD a piece were shuttled back out to the Island.  The Tuk Tuk was a fun adventure.  Though I barely fit, it offered a fun view of the city as we wound through traffic, small back streets, and then eventually made our way out to Flores.  All the while our driver was on his cellphone, driving one handed, except of course, when gesturing at other drivers or honking a horn in hello.

Los Amigos Hostel - Flores, Guatemala

Once back on the island it was time to relax, eat, and then settle in for a bit of socializing in the common area.  The hostel – Los Amigos – offered one of the most pleasant atmosphere’s Ive ever found in a hostel.  The entire common area was decorated with lush vegetation, hanging ornaments, or books.

Dog at Los Amigos Hostel

The hostel itself had as much space dedicated to the gardens and plant life as to beds and human comforts.  From swinging rope chairs and vegan food options to a TV documentary zone the place oozed a relaxed hippy culture. In addition to the local owners, the hostel was also home to two dogs, an Albino bunny rabbit and a parrot.  All of which had a free run of the hostel.

If you find yourself in Guatemala and are considering a trip to Tikal, Flores is a must!

My stay was entirely too short.  With new years fast approaching, I found a direct bus from Flores to Chetumal (the border between Belize and Mexico).  After confirming that the colectivo was a tourist bus, I booked my ticket and prepared for what promised to be a full day of travel.  You see, Guatemala and Mexico don’t connect directly in the north.  The only option was to back track from Flores to San Ignacio, then into Belize towards Belize City before turning north and striking up to Chetumal on the border. The trip took about 7 hours.  From Chetumal I had to wait an hour or two due to full buses (I was traveling on the 31st) before transferring to a 1st class bus to Playa del Carmen.  Nervous that I’d arrive late and lose my hostel/miss new years, I sent a hasty e-mail from the bus station, telling Hostel de lay Playa in Playa del Carmen that I was still coming and to save my new years reservation.  After three more hours on the bus I arrived – with only an hour and a half to spare – at 10:30PM.  I splashed some water on my face, checked in…and set out to welcome 2010….but that is a story for tomorrow!

Shipwrecked on the way to San Pedro

Shipwrecked in Belize

After a relatively early start I set off to catch the 11AM bus from Playa del Carmen, Mexico down to Chetumal, Mexico.  The plan was to cross the border into Belize, head to Corozal and then catch a water taxi or cheap inter island flight from there out to the famous barrier islands – most likely to San Pedro.

The truth is I didn’t have a hostel lined up, was a little anxious about the lack of a guide book and had no clue how the border/ferry/bus was going to work out.   After overshooting the bus station I backtracked and eventually found it, pausing only at a Walmart like superstore to pick up batteries, albondegas and a small thing of Spanish rice from the deli counter which I intended to eat as an early brunch.

Once at the bus station, however, I ended up spending about 25 minutes in line waiting to purchase my ticket.  Hungry but more concerned about missing my bus I left the food in my bag and watched the minutes tick by.  Just before 11, with ticket in hand I let out a resigned sigh and made my way from the ticket counter to the bus gate.  Seconds later I was on board a nice ADO bus located behind the only window in the bus that had the ADO logo painted across the glass (completely obscuring the view).  Slightly frustrated that I would be spending the next 5 hours crossing Mexico without a view I settled in, smiled at the elderly Hispanic woman sharing the row with me and pulled out my book.  My stomach roared from time to time but without a fork I dared not pull out the food and dive into it until I saw a sign that others were doing the same.

Three hours into the bus ride the bus stopped for 5 minutes, people rushed out and returned with tacos.  Wishing I had taken the opportunity to grab a taco i contented myself by finally diving into what had been intended to be a late morning snack.


The rest of the bus ride was uneventful.  I read the first book in C. Descry’s Spy Trilogy, watched an animated movie or two in Spanish and listened to music. At the Bus station in Chetumal all of the tourists on the bus were quickly approached by a large man who spoke excellent English.  He said there was a new direct ferry from Chetumal straight to San Pedro that cost $30.  Eager to bypass the border hassle, added expense of Corozal and headache most of us opted to give it a try.  As we disembarked I noticed two travelers, who I’d later learn were Canadian.  I introduced myself, asked if they were doing the ferry and if they were interested in sharing a cab to the harbor – as luck had it they were.   The ferry left at 4 we were told leaving us just 15 minutes to get our ticket, get a cab and get to the harbor.   The three of us (myself, another Alex and Jenna) quickly found ourselves in a cab racing across the streets of Chetumal. In typical form the cab also had another random passenger which he dropped off about halfway across town.  We took the brief 10 minute drive to get acquainted.

Fisherman at the Chetumal Pier

Once at the pier we anxiously watched our watches, wondering if we’d be forced to go through customs and miss our boat.  It was 4:00 on the dot.

The San Pedro Ferry
We shouldn’t have bothered worrying.  We stood in line for a good 20 minutes on the end of the pier.  Customs consisted of a small kiosk set up in front of the boat with 4 military personnel reclining lazily with automatic weapons and a desk clerk behind it.   By 4:30 we had our exit stamps and piled onto the ferry.  There was a storm blowing in from the ocean bringing with it stunning clouds with gorgeous rays of light piercing through to spotlight various pieces of the surrounding country side.

Sunset in Chetumal Mexico

Luckily, despite the weather on the horizon the water in the bay was flat and absolutely gorgeous.  Running pleasantly late we started what we expected to be a 1.5 hour high speed ferry trip on a relatively small boat to San Pedro.

We pushed off and began to get to know each other better.  Working through the usual questions about work, school, passions and trip duration.   About 15 minutes into the boat ride we all paused as one of the local ladies began making noise and running around going through her bags.  Unsure and with a little anxiety, we quickly spotted a boat approaching from the shore at high speed. The captain cut power as they approach and we quickly realized it was customs – not pirates.  They searched the boat quickly before sending us back on our way.

The first hour was delightful.  The sunset was incredible, the clouds continued to offer a stunning backdrop to beautiful scenery and the fresh scent of the open ocean was invigorating.  The sunset was spectacular.  Then there was a crunch.  A second louder crunch and then a smack, crunch, thump, thump, crunch.  The boat went from blasting across the smooth open waters inside the great barrier reef to a total standstill.

San Pedro Ferry

We’d run aground. In the dark.  In the middle of the channel. It was one of those things that takes a while to settle in.  How could a ferry line that runs the route twice daily run aground? We quickly learned that it was the first time they’d run the 4:00 route (after dark) and that we were only in the first throes of what would be an eventful adventure.

The 20 or so locals around us let out various cries of alarm and began throwing on life jackets while the young children in their group cried.  I looked at Alex and Jenna and talked through what was going on.  The boat was made out of fiberglass, much like a giant Pangaboat. I knew from past experience that they were almost indestructible.  We’d hit a number of rocks, but none that stopped us outright so the blow was glancing or only to the prop.  Whatever we’d hit was submerged…in a shallow area.  It was unlikely that the boat would actually be able to sink more than 4 or 5 feet even if the hull was punctured.

Once we talked it through we let out a slightly relieved laugh, opted to put on our life preservers just-in-case, and looked out the windows into the dark for a nearby island.  The barrier coast was about a mile away on the left.  A small group of islands was about the same distance away on the right.  The boat was poorly equipped for running at night…and by poorly equipped I mean it wasn’t.  There were no running lights, no flood light, no powerful on board lights. Leaving the crew to look into the murky water with small hand-held flashlights as they guessed how to get us off the rocks.

Before long a member of the crew appeared, it turned out the boat had an on board motor which meant it ran deeper than it’s outboard siblings.   They had us all move to the front of the boat which lifted the back up and off the rocks long enough to back the boat off of the submerged mount it had hit.  We then re-dispersed across the ship and were revealed, if a bit surprised, when they announced that we’d continue to make for San Pedro and wouldn’t be switching boats.

The impact itself had bent the prop which made for a rough ride and slow going.   As the hours stretched by and we slowly crawled the remaining leg of the trip we ran aground three more times.  Though luckily, these were on sandbars and not rocks.

Our faith in the captain shattered, with anxious but amused laughter driving around the cabin we waited as the boat grounded out a 4th and final time.  This time even re-locating passengers front to back wouldn’t dislodge us.  When I glanced over the side it quickly became apparent why: a glance over the side revealed a smooth, sandy bottom just a few feet under the surface.  We were in water so shallow that even at night we could see the bottom.  I’d place it at between 4-5 feet deep, max.

Finally at a loss for a solution the captain and crew called out a second boat, this one far smaller and with a set of 3 powerful outboard motors. We were told that customs had been a big issue and that they were unwilling to separate us from our bags.  Twenty minutes dragged by before the second boat arrived.  Our bags were transferred over first, then the 30 or 40 of us on the boat began to pile into the small cabin.  The end result was comical.  Sandwiched knee-to-knee, shoulder to shoulder and back to back in a dimly lit cabin cruiser it looked like a scene straight out of a news piece about illegal immigrants trying to boat from Cuba to the US in overloaded, cramped quarters.

Going through customs on the ferry

The customs agents carefully waded through the seated crowd with passport stamp and pen in hand filling out forms, stamping passports all the while moving people around to create small flat surfaces they could write on.  The cabin was so dim they had to use flashlights held by whomever was nearby to see what they were doing.

Boat 2 San Pedro Ferry Disaster

Some four hours later we arrived in San Pedro. A beautiful town situated on a large sandy area of the outer barrier reef.  The town is a resort town and picturesque with wood dock after wood dock jetting out from white sandy beaches into the crystal clear Caribbean water.  Even as we waited for our gear on the dock we were able to spot stingrays and baby barracuda in the crystal clear water below.

Tired. Relieved and eager to eat and find lodging I  got a few recommendations from Alex and Shannon’s Lonely Planet and struck off.  Before long I’d found an odd, but helpful guy who showed me where the hotel was and introduced me to the night-man who could set me up with a room.  $50 Belize dollars later or about $25 USD I had a private room with a bed, fan and shower.  From there it was for a $9 BZD ($4.5 USD) taco stand meal: The national dish.  Stewed chicken, beans and rice.  All served up with a coke to drink.  It was both delicious and a successful finale for what had ended up being an unexpected adventure.