One of the highlights in Guatemala is the Mayan ruins of Tikal. The ruins are surrounded by a mysterious jungle, where you can run into monkeys, reptiles, jaguars and coatis. Tikal was declared a national park in 1955 and is today an UNESCO World Heritage Site. When visiting Tikal, most travellers also stop by the tiny island Flores as most accommodations in the area can be found here. But is Flores more than just a place to stay? I found the little island very charming, and it is worth spending a few hours checking it out.
Tikal is said to have been the biggest of the Maya cities in the region. It is estimated that around seven million Mayas lived in the region (including certain parts of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras) around 700 A.D., and the number of inhabitants in Tikal alone is estimated to have been as high as 100.000. Tikal is located in the middle of nowhere – far from proper water sources, in the middle of the jungle, and in general – both today and hundreds of years ago – quite hard to reach. So why did the Mayas choose to settle down in Tikal, an area that does not seem suitable for an entire civilization? Our guide told us two possible reasons. There have been found traces of the Mayas dating back to 1000 B.C. in other parts of the region (closer to the coast), and scientists think that the Mayas moved to Tikal after a while because of frequent earth quakes where they used to live. Another reason for the location of Tikal may be that the Mayas wanted to build their temples in the high lands because the temples should be closer to the Gods – and this was the highest point in the area.
Tikal National Park is huge, and it is believed that around 80% of the Maya city still is not excavated. Our guide told us that by using modern technology, archeologists have recently discovered more that 4000 temples that have yet to be excavated. All the temples are built the same way, in a triangular form and the sides facing east, west, north and south. After visiting three Mayan ruins in Central America (Tikal, Chichen Itza and Copan), I have learned a lot about the Mayan culture and find it very interesting. Everything seems to have a meaning. Can you believe that all the temples in Tikal are totally compact, that there is no room inside of them? They are all built to please the Gods. The Mayan culture is still an important part of the culture in Guatemala, as about 70% of the Guatemalan people are of Mayan descent. Read more about the culture here – the part about the ball game is particularly interesting!
Something that was very different when we visited Tikal, compared to our visit to Chichen Itza, was that we could climb the temples in Tikal. During our visit we climbed hundreds of stairs, which were quite exhausting as the steps are very high compared to normal stairs. The best part about being able to climb the temples was the magnificent view we got to see, of the other temples and the lush rainforest. The fog came and went away every other minute, which made it all quite amazing!
The national park is not only a ruin area and an archeological site; it is also a lush rainforest. Five species of felids can be found here (like jaguars and pumas), but these are very rare to see. The monkeys may be easier to spot. Of the three monkey species living in Tikal, we only saw the howler monkey. The howler monkeys are characterized by their loud and scary calls that can be heard 6km away, but they are actually quite small and cute! We also saw several coatis, a raccoon-like animal that is quite common in Central and South America. Crocs, reptiles (as snakes) and more than 300 bird species can also be found in the national park.
As mentioned, when visiting Tikal, most travellers tend to stay in Flores. The island of Flores is located one hour from Tikal and is the starting point for most tours to the national park. Even though most people stop by just to have a place to stay, the town is actually a charming place. The island is connected to the main land by a causeway. The lake surrounding the island, Lake Petén Itzá, is the second largest lake in Guatemala. You should take a trip on the lake, either by renting a kayak or rent a boat for an hour or two. The prices range from 100 to 250GTQ depending on the length and your negotiation skills. The lake is also a nice spot to swim in on a hot day. Apart from lake activities, it is not a lot to do in Flores. You only need a couple of hours to see the entire town. Walk around and see the colorful streets, check out the church and the viewpoint on the top of the hill and enjoy the stunning sunsets. Flores is a place to relax, and you will find dozens of nice restaurants and bars around the island – several of them with a stunning views over the lake.
Where to eat and drink in Flores:
♥ Legumbres Mayas is a cool breakfast and lunch restaurant with a “hipster look”. They only have vegetarian food as well as great smoothies and juices. You can hangout here, play a game or surf on their good Wi-Fi.
♥ La Galeria del Zotz Restaurant is probably the island’s cheapest restaurant, with Mexican food ranging from 25-40Q. The food is tasty and the place seems to be loved by the locals.
♥ Cool Beans Cafe has special deals every day, giving you loads of food (meat, chicken, pasta etc) and a drink for about 40Q.
♥ The Sky Bar is the main spot for drinking and hanging out in the evening. It is also by far the best place to enjoy the beautiful sunset.
How to get to Flores and Tikal:
♥ We took the bus from Belize City, which was very comfortable (we even had Wi-Fi!). The bus departs two times a day (if I remember correctly) and the ride takes about 5 hours. I think the price was about 25-30 USD.
♥ When leaving Flores, we were going to Antigua. To get there, you first need to get from Flores to Guatemala City, either by a night bus or a flight. We chose to fly, as the tickets were about 100USD and saved us a lot of time and energy. From Guatemala City Airport we took a shuttle bus to Antigua, which I think was about 10USD.
♥ Tikal National Park is located about one hour from Flores. I guess you could drive yourself, but most people go on group tours that include transport and a guide. This usually costs around 110Q (in addition, you need to pay the entrance fee, which is 150Q).
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