advertisement

Flores is a town for walking, and the whole island is only about 5 blocks wide in any direction. At the center is a small central park or plaza, anchored by the town's Catholic church. Be sure to check out its beautiful stained-glass windows.

One of the most popular things to do in Flores is take a tour of the lake. You will be inundated with offers for boat tours. Ask at your hotel or one of the local tour agencies, or talk to the numerous freelancers approaching you on the street. Be sure to inspect the craft beforehand, if possible, and make sure you feel comfortable with its lake-worthiness. Also, make sure your guide is bilingual. These tours last anywhere from 1 to 3 hours, and usually include stops at La Guitarra Island (Guitar Island), which features a picnic and swimming area, as well as at the mostly unexcavated ruins of Tayasal. Here, be sure to climb El Mirador, a lakeside pyramid that offers a fabulous view of Flores. Many of these tours also stop at the small Petencito Zoo and ARCAS (www.arcasguatemala.com), a conservation organization and animal rehabilitation center, that has some interpretive trails and displays of rescued animals either in recuperation, or unable to be released. These tours cost between Q75 and Q188 ($10-$25/£5-£13) per person, depending on the length of the tour and the size of your group. Don't be afraid to bargain. Entrance to the zoo is an extra Q20 ($2.65/£1.35).

You can also explore the lake on your own in a kayak or canoe. While you can do this out of Flores, I find the lakeshore near El Remate a better place to take out a kayak or canoe. Rates run around Q15 ($2/£1) per hour. To find a worthy craft, ask at your hotel or at one of the local tour agencies. Be careful paddling around the lake; when the winds pick up, especially in the afternoons, it can get quite choppy and challenging.

If you're a spelunker, you might want to explore Aktun Kan (Cave of the Serpent), a large cavern just outside Santa Elena. The cave takes its name from a legend about a giant snake living there. (Don't worry, it's only a legend.) Yet another legend has it that this cave is connected to a cave beneath the church on Flores. To reach Aktun Kan, either walk south out of Santa Elena on the road that crosses the causeway from Flores, or ask a taxi to take you there. The fare should be around Q15 ($2/£1). Although there are lights in the cave, be sure to bring a flashlight. Admission is Q15 ($2/£1).

There are a host of local tour operators that can arrange any of the tours listed above, as well as guided tours to Tikal and the ruins listed below. The best of these are Martsam Travel (tel. 866/832-2776 in the U.S. and Canada, or 502/7867-5093 in Guatemala; www.martsam.com) and San Juan Travel (tel. 502/7926-0042; sanjuantravel@hotmail.com.gt).

Holy Bats . . . Man! -- Located some 24km (15 miles) west of Tikal is another small and relatively unexcavated Maya site, El Zotz. Zotz means "bat" in the local Mayan dialect, and that's exactly what you'll find here. Each night around sunset, tens of thousands of bats exit en masse from several caves, creating a spectacular sight. You might even see a bat falcon dive into the mass and pluck out dinner. Most of the tour agencies in Flores and Santa Elena can arrange trips to El Zotz, although these tend to be hardy overnight affairs with a fair amount of hiking involved. Rates run between Q750 and Q1,500 ($100-$200/£50-£100) per person for a 3-day, 2-night excursion.

Studying Spanish

Eco Escuela de Español (tel. 502/5940-1235; www.ecoescuelaespanol.org) runs a community-based language school program in the small village of San Andrés, on the shore of Lake Petén Itzá. The program costs just $150 (£75) per week, including lodging and three meals daily with a local family, as well as 4 hours of daily class time, usually one-on-one. The setting allows for intensive language instruction, as well as many chances to really interact with the local culture and natural surroundings.

If you want to stick closer to the action in town, check in with the Dos Mundos Spanish Academy (tel. 502/5830-2060; www.flores-spanish.com), which offers a wide range of course and accommodations options.

Other Nearby Ruins

If the Tikal ruins in El Petén piqued your interest in Maya history, visit some of the more remote ruins of the region, which will have you traveling through uninhabited jungles and encountering a great deal of wildlife including coatimundis, howler and spider monkeys, anteaters, tapirs, and possibly even jaguars. Martsam Travel (tel. 502/7867-5093; www.martsam.com) is my favorite local tour operator, and they run trips to all of the sites mentioned below.

Yaxhá -- Thanks to the publicity bestowed upon this site by the TV show Survivor: Guatemala, Yaxhá is now one of the prime archaeological sites to visit in Guatemala. In fact, this is the third-largest Maya ceremonial city in Guatemala -- behind Tikal and El Mirador. At one point, Yaxhá supported a population of more than 20,000, and more than 400 buildings, five acropolises, and three ball courts have been discovered here. Be sure to climb Temple 216, located in the East Acropolis. This is the tallest structure here, and provides excellent views of lakes Yaxhá and Sacnab, as well as the surrounding rainforests. The sunsets here rival those in Tikal. Yaxhá is one of the few Maya cities to retain its traditional Maya name, which translates as "green waters."

You can combine a visit to Yaxhá with a trip to the ruins of Topoxté, which are located on a small island in Lake Yaxhá. This small yet intriguing site is thought to have been a residential city for local elites. However, it was also a fortified city, where Maya warriors put up a valiant defense against Spanish forces. Note: You'll probably be warned and see the signs, but just in case, do not swim in Lake Yaxhá, as it is home to a robust population of crocodiles. Many organized tours here also include a stop at the nearby minor ruins of Nakum, which are currently being excavated. However, this makes for a long day. The turnoff for the 11km (7-mile) dirt road into the site is located about 32km (20 miles) east of Ixlú, or El Cruce. The Q80 ($11/£5.50) admission grants you access to Yaxhá, Topoxté, and Nakum. If you want to stay at Yaxhá, camping is allowed at a well-tended campsite down by the lakeshore.

If you want to stay right on the lake at Yaxhá and just a stone's throw away from the archaeological site, check out Campamento Ecológico El Sombrero (tel. 502/7861-1688; www.ecosombrero.com), which has comfortable but basic rooms in thatch-roof bungalows. About half of the bungalows come with private bathrooms, the rest with shared bathrooms. They also allow camping, and even rent out hammocks with mosquito netting under a common shelter. The park itself also has several very comfortable and well-located lakeside campsites.

El Ceibal -- This is another popular ruins site, and offers one of the most scenic routes along the way. To reach El Ceibal, head from Flores to Sayaxché (about 65km/40 miles), which is a good-size town with a few basic hotels. From Sayaxché, you must hire a boat to take you 18km (11 miles) up the Río de la Pasión. The Late Classic-era ruins here are known for having the only circular temple in all of El Petén. There are also several well-preserved stelae arranged around one small temple structure on the central plaza, as well as a ball court. Many of the designs at El Ceibal indicate that the city had extensive contact with cities in the Yucatán, but whether this contact was due to trade or warfare is unclear. Your best bet for visiting El Ceibal is to book an excursion with one of the tour agencies in Flores or Santa Elena. Full-day trips run around Q450 to Q675 ($60-$90/£30-£45). Overnight trips can also be arranged, combining a visit to El Ceibal to even more obscure Maya sites such as Aguateca and Petexbatún. These trips are around Q750 to Q1,500 ($100-$200/£50-£100).

If you get to Sayaxché on your own, look for Viajes Don Pedro (tel. 502/7928-6109). These folks run regular boats to El Ceibal and charge around Q300 ($40/£20) per person round-trip. However, if you have a group, be sure to try and negotiate a flat rate for the boat, which should carry anywhere from four to eight people. If you want to stay in the area, check out Chiminos Island Lodge (tel. 502/2471-0855; www.chiminosisland.com), which has six (almost) luxurious cabins in the rainforest on a small island in the waters of the Petexbatún Lagoon.

Uaxactún -- Uaxactún (pronounced "Wah-shahk-toon") is yet another Maya ceremonial center, located 24km (15 miles) north of Tikal. Though many of the pyramids and temples here have been uncovered, they have not been restored as extensively as those at Tikal. Uaxactún also hosts what is believed to be the oldest known astrological observatory yet discovered in the Maya world. Watch the sunset from the observatory temple, located in Group E on the eastern side of the ruins, and see the sun line up precisely with other temples on the equinoxes and solstices.

Your best bet for visiting Uaxactún is to book the excursion with one of the tour agencies in Flores or Santa Elena. Full-day trips cost about Q300 to Q600 ($40-$80/£20-£40), and can be combined with a stop at Tikal, although I think that's trying to cram too much into a single day. If you have your own 4WD vehicle, you can drive here yourself. The ruins at Uaxactún are open daily from 6am to 6pm, and no admission is charged. However, you must pass through Tikal National Park, therefore incurring the Tikal entrance fee of Q150 ($20/£10). Keep in mind that the dirt road to Uaxactún is sometimes not passable during the rainy season, so be sure to ask locally about current conditions before heading off.

El Mirador -- Finally, truly adventurous travelers can book a multiday jungle trek to El Mirador, the largest Maya ceremonial city in Guatemala. Barely excavated, El Mirador features the tallest pyramidal structure in the known Maya world, La Danta, which reaches some 79m (260 ft.) in height. The trip here involves at least 5 days of hiking and jungle camping. Martsam Travel is the best operator to contact for a trip to El Mirador.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.