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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!