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Flores is a picturesque town on a small island on Lake Peten Itza, Guatemala. Connected to the mainland by a short causeway, Flores island is tiny – you can walk around it in about 20 minutes – and comes complete with some seriously beautiful views. Due to its proximity to Tikal National Park, Flores has become a backpacker hotspot, but there’s more to this tiny town than meets the eye. Let’s take a look at the top 10 things to do here.
Pupusas are thick corn tortillas that are stuffed with a variety of fillings — usually refried beans and cheese and sometimes pork — and then fried until the surface is crisp and the inside squashy. Served with salsa and cabbage, pupusas are deceptively filling and very cheap. While they’re traditionally from El Salvador, pupusas are are everywhere in Guatemala now, and Flores is home to one of the country’s very best pupusa restaurants. Pupuseria Excelente is a modest café that’s popular with locals, and is the perfect place for travellers to fill up for a dollar.
Uaxactún is a Mayan ceremonial centre. While the pyramids and temples here have been uncovered, they haven’t been restored to the same extent as Tikal – more on that below – so it feels a little wild. This is the oldest astrological observatory from the Mayan world, and it’s designed so that, at sunrise on equinoxes and solstices, the sun appears to rise out of the central temple.
On the north shore of the lake is Jorge’s rope swing, which you can reach by public boat or kayak. It’s run by a local family and is a great place to hang out: you can jump into the lake from the rope swing and eat in the small restaurant, and if you don’t fancy heading back to town after, you can sleep in one of the hammocks outside.
Ixpanpajul is a natural park about 15 minutes from Flores. Here, you can hike through the dense jungle, swing through the forest on a zip-line, walk along the sky way and go horse riding. Don’t forget to keep an eye out for local wildlife! There’s a decent pick-up service from Flores, too.
Thanks to the clear local accent, Guatemala is one of the best places in the world to learn Spanish. If you want to brush up on your skills in Flores, Eco Escuela de Español is a community-based language school programme in the neighbouring village of San Andrés. If you’re serious about improving your Spanish, you can stay for a week with a local family: four daily hours of classes, lodging and three meals a day costs just $150.
Yaxhá is the third-largest Mayan ceremonial city in Guatemala, and was once home to a population of more than 20,000. Over 400 buildings, five acropolises and three ball courts have been discovered here, and you can spend hours wandering around the pretty area. From Temple 216 you can admire stunning views of Lake Yaxhá.
One of the best ways to explore the lake is by renting a canoe. You can easily do this out of Flores, but the shore by El Remate is also a great place to paddle. You’ll be able to hire a canoe for under $2 per hour. Be careful paddling in the afternoon, as the winds can pick up and it can become quite choppy.
If canoeing isn’t for you, why not hire a small covered boat to explore the lake? You can sail over to the town of San Jose in about 40 minutes while you enjoy the beautiful lakeside scenery. Take a few snacks and some drinks and make an afternoon of it. Lake Peten Itza is also great spot for a dip; if you don’t have a boat there are several public piers on the north side of the city that are perfect for jumping off. On a hot day, not much beats leaping in the lake for a refreshing swim.
Animal lovers should pop over to Petencito Zoo, a conservation organisation and animal rehabilitation centre. Here, you can stroll along some lovely trails and meet animals that are either recuperating after sickness or injury, or are unable to be released and live in the zoo.
And then, of course, there’s Tikal. Dating from the 1st century, Tikal flourished between 200 and 850 AD and is the largest excavated Mayan site in the world. It’s home to the tallest pre-Columbian structure in the Americas, Temple IV, from where you can enjoy incredible views of this jungle-swathed ancient kingdom.