Most people go to Flores to see Tikal. We did too but we were pleasantly surprised by the town once we got there.
Flores is an island which is connected to the much larger town of Santa Elena by a causeway. We traveled to and from Flores by collective from San Ignacio, Belize. You can take a tuk-tuk to the Island for 10Q.
Flores is full of charming colonial red roofed buildings, colourful houses and narrow streets. Generally peaceful, touristy and safe. Although as in many places there are lots of official looking guards/ police/ military with big guns.
We stayed at the Green World Hotel which oddly enough is green. The room was pretty basic but the hotel has a roof top area with a great view and free coffee most of the time. The staff only spoke Spanish but the hotel took Visa which was great because we were low on cash and we could not get the bank machines to work.
We had issues with the bank machines in San Ignacio before we left Belize and none of the bank machines in Flores would work for us either. We actually contacted our bank to make sure they had not turned the cards off because of our location but they confirmed that the cards were working. As we are Canadian we generally bring some emergency Canadian cash and a smaller amount of emergency US cash. We were unable to get anyone to exchange the Canadian cash (it’s easy to exchange in Asia). At this point cash was becoming an issue so we took our emergency cash and went to an actual bank at the modern mall across the bridge in Santa Elena. It had a Burger King and a lot of official looking people with guns. There was even a raised guard station behind the Burger King with a guy with a sawed off shot gun.
Getting into the bank is a process. There is a guy with a big gun who buzzes you through the first door. You then wait while a second guard with a big gun lets you through a second door. Then you begin a rather long and complex process. Harold was sent to sit in a row of chairs, people were called up to see someone but the actual order was unclear. When he did get to see someone they got out a form, filled it out signed it, had him sign it and stamped it. They then had it authorized by someone else, gave it to Harold and sent him to another line. When he reached the front of that line they took the form and started typing things from the first form onto a second form. It was stamped a few times, torn in half using a ruler and they gave Harold one half along with his money. It took about an hour and they would not exchange Canadian but we did get $50 US exchanged at 7.22. We were later able to exchange US at 7.00 at a local convenience store by paying with US cash.
We celebrated our new found cash by buying a few buns, a bottle of rum and some pineapple tang (cheaper than beer when you have no cash!). We also bought food from the local stalls along the edge of the Island. The stalls were run by local women and have lots of salads, tacos and burritos plus big vats of Lemonade, pineapple and mango drinks for 5Q each. The lime drink was awesome. And yes we were eating street food and no we did not get sick.
We spent our last day in Flores checking out the local sights. We had a long, lazy, more touristy breakfast at Cool Beans which serves coffee by day and beer by night. A nice laid back kind of spot and the breakfast was good.
We took a Lanchas, small motorboat, from one of the many taking people across Lake Pten to the small village of San Miguel. Total cost 5Q. The guide books suggested there was a small trail there through the jungle to El Mirador where you can find, ruins and a treehouse with a look out.
The town is very small and has no street signs. Our guidebook was a bit low on details. We started up what we thought was the right road only to be stopped by a local who told us in Spanish (we think) that we were going the wrong way. He waved his arms in a different direction and off we went. Obviously all tourists in San Miguel are going toEl Mirador and we were obviously tourists. In fact we were the only tourists.
We got lost again and once again the locals pointed us in the correct direction. We followed a path up between houses we found pigs but no signs. There really only was one way to go but we were all alone in the jungle in Guatemala which is not considered entirely safe. We passed a house under construction with a big angry looking guard dog. We were about to turn around and go back but a guy jumped out tied up the dog and pointed us the right way. We eventually found the tree house and the view.
Overall despite the warnings about Guatemala, the large presence of men with guns and the pick-up trucks driving around town full of armed police or maybe because of them we never felt unsafe. We did stick to touristy areas and we highly recommend Flores particularly during the mystery festival from January 5th to 15th.