Flores, Guatemala to Tikal
Most tourists run in and out of Flores, Guatemala, an Island-town located in the northeastern Guatemalan state, El Petén. That they go from Flores, Guatemala to Tikal directly is respectable. No judgment here. (Though I’m going to make a case to stay a minute in Flores later.) I’m a big fan of pre-Colombian Mayan ruins and as far as they go, Tikal is spectacular. At 6 square miles / 16 square kilometers, it’s one of the largest sites in Mesoamerica. Adding to this ancient Mayan city’s appeal is its location in the rainforest amidst exotic wildlife.
Tikal, Light on the Tourists
Perhaps because it’s somewhat remote, Tikal’s not overrun by tourists like Chicken Pizza in Mexico. At Chichen Itza, you best arrive as the gates open and keep it moving. In the case of Tikal, tours maximize the experience with plenty of opportunity to explore on your own and climb ruins. When a site allows climbing, I know I’m in until the gates close. Tap into your inner explorer and climb the pyramids and temples searching for hidden carvings and secrets. I also suggest taking off your shoes to connect with the place and marvel in the realization that you could be standing where a Mayan stood 1000-2000 years ago.
Where to Stay in Tikal
There are three popular options: In Santa Elena, across the bridge from Santa Elena in Isla de Flores (Flores Island) or in Tikal’s park. When busing or flying into Tikal, you’ll arrive in Santa Elena. You can take transportation from there to an hotel in Santa Elena, Flores or Tikal. There are 3 or 4 options at the park, otherwise transportation to and from the park will be included in your tour. If you want to see more hostel and hotel options outside these three areas, go to google maps and search for Lake Peten Itza, Guatemala. Then clear out the search and type in hotels and voila, you’ll see there are budget-friendly to higher-end options surrounding the lake.
I stayed at a party hostel called Amigos Hostel on Flores Island. The hostel had a really cool design, friendly staff and lots of opportunities to make friends around the pool table or in the soundproof bar located behind the kitchen. They offer tour scheduling at a discount, have really tasty food if not slightly over-priced and budget dorms and beautiful private rooms. I stayed in both a dorm and a private room.
The downside to the hostel, rats. I’d imagine this is a problem all over the island. I live in NYC where you can keep the rats out of buildings but live there long enough and you’ll be dodging them on the sidewalks and subway platforms. That’s not to say I want to see them where I sleep. If this would have you running into the streets, I’d consider reaching out to the hostel or hotel prior to your trip.
Getting to Tikal
Wherever you’re traveling from you’re likely to arrive in Santa Elena. Santa Elena to Flores is a quick ride or even walk depending on where you arrive in Santa Elena. From Flores, Guatemala to Tikal is an hour drive to give you an idea of the distance. Tikal is remote. Due to this remote location, if you’re traveling from the well-known Guatemalan towns: Guatemala City, Antigua, Lake Atitlán and Xela, it will cost you an overnight bus trip. For those that have the budget, the flight from Guatemala City to Santa Elena is an hour. I took it. A frequent route is Semuc Champey, Guatemala to Tikal or vice versa. That trip varies but it’s around 8-9 hours by bus. Since many people who visit Tikal are backpacking or traveling more long-term, an even better option might be to visit from Belize, which is only a 4-hour bus ride from Belize City.
Flying into Santa Elena
I flew in from my cousin’s wedding in Mexico to Guatemala City and then took a connecting flight to Santa Elena, landing late enough that the money exchange was closed at Flores airport. The banks were also closed. To call myself out, I had spent a lot of time in Guatemala the previous 3 months so not having enough cash on me to get by was pretty basic. The driver and hostel only took cash. A French couple I met in the cab on the way to Isla de Flores gave me cash. I stopped by their hotel the following day to pay them back but they had already left.
This wasn’t my first time during this backpacking trip that someone bailed me out. I was in line in Xela, Guatemala to buy drugs when I was feverish due to a sinus infection. I was just short the cash needed to purchase the drugs and they didn’t accept cards. As I was discussing running out to get the cash before they closed a Guatemalan woman in line behind me gave me the money. She insisted it was a gift and to feel better. These are the moments I think about when a tourist approaches me in NYC. I will make calls and google map for them and ride the subway with them. We must all be ambassadors to our places in the world.
Sunrise or Sunset Tour at Tikal and Pricing
Tours will pick you up at various times but most are scheduled around watching sunrise or sunset from the top of Temple IV. A little pop culture trivia to add to the appeal is a well-known scene from Star Wars was shot from Temple IV. You’ll know it when you see it.
The sunset tour’s advantage is standing in the middle of ancient ruins in the jungle when it wakes up. The downsides are leaving your hostel/hotel at 3 am if you’re staying in Flores, it’s an additional $14 USD to enter the park at that hour and mornings are often cloudy. The below photos build a strong case for going at sunset.
From Flores, it’s about an hour each way. There’s a price for the tour, a surcharge for sunrise and a cost to enter the park. All said expect to pay around $50 USD.
Secret Tikal Tip
One traveler mentioned they paid the park’s guards $40 USD to enter the park at 11 pm to do yoga on top of a pyramid under the stars. I might be persuaded with a flask and conversation but yoga’s cool too.
Flores, Guatemala to Tikal back to Flores and Santa Elena
Flores is colorful with cobble-stone streets and small enough to walk the circumference. I recommend spending at least 24 hours in Flores to explore the island, visit Santa Elena across the bridge and participate in a few lake activities. Right across the bridge in Santa Elena, on the left-hand side is a modern shopping mall including restaurants and a second-level terrace with a view of the lake and Flores. Further down the bridge road on the right is a market to find produce, everyday items for those traveling long-term, and artisan items. If I could only visit one spot in a city it would be a market. You can learn a lot about a culture and its people there. In Santa Elena, I saw a couple pull up on a motorcycle in front of a stand to purchase a pineapple while the bike was still running.
Take a stroll along the Flores waterfront in the evening and have dinner at the nightly food market. It can be quite romantic with someone you met in the hostel (read between the lines). The waterfront has a sidewalk and ledge, think miniature Havana-style malecón to sit in the evening to sunset and people watch. It’s a great opportunity to slow down, soak in the culture and get inspired.
Lago Petén Itzá
Peten Itza is an active lake. You’ll see fisherman and “pleasure” boats (this is how a sign translated into English [snicker] but essentially tourist boat rides. The lake is rather big so a boat ride would be a solid way to learn about the lake and its towns. You’ll also see paddle boats for two and lots of kayaking. You can simply walk up to the waterfront (where the night market’s at) and rent one. When I first got in the kayak I was paddling in circles and my friend was rolling in his eyes. It only took a minute to get it together so if it’s your first time or it’s been awhile, don’t worry you’ll do great. Also, it’s a calm lake so a great place for a first timer.
Kayaking alone is a worthy activity but consider kayaking to a lookout point called El Mirador Del Rey Canek. You can park your kayaks, take a short hike to the top of the hill and then climb up into a sturdy tree house. We had picked up affordable and delicious grilled chicken lunches to-go at a spot my friend had scoped out. After the lookout point, we kayaked to a beach to go swimming. I saw plenty of people kayaking while the sun set, which undoubtedly made for a memorable sunset.