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Published: April 28th 2016
We were leaving Rio Dulce today and heading northwest to Flores
, with an estimated drive time of three hours. We woke early at 5:30am, the fresh air breezing through our open air bungalow (with the ever present concern of mosquito bites keeping us on our feet with DEET-based repellent). We headed to the riverside deck at 6am to make use of the free wifi and relax in the still morning air. Our breakfast burrito (ixchel
) came out of the kitchen at 7:30am, and it was fantastic – refried beans, egg, cheese and salsa.
It was a shame to be leaving our El Tortuga bungalow, as our stay had been so relaxing. We loaded our bags onto the hotel’s longboat and made the five minute trip to a tiny dock under the imposing concrete bridge spanning the Rio Dulce. We off-loaded our bags, re-loaded them into a minibus and left the township of Rio Dulce at 8:30am, making our way northwest through El Peten, Guatemala’s northernmost state (often termed the jungle state). We navigated undulating roads through the lush green countryside, and at one stage we came within 500 metres of the country’s eastern border with Belize. Once again,
ubiquitous poverty clouded the rural landscape. We passed endless fields of cows, palm trees and corn, and tiny villages disappeared within seconds of us driving through.
We arrived at Santa Elena around 11:30am, where we were greeted by a refreshing glass of fresh papaya juice at Hotel Maya Internacional. Our rooms weren’t ready, so we decided to walk over the causeway to the tiny island of Flores in the searing heat of the midday sun. We struggled up the narrow cobblestone streets to the Parque Central in the middle of the island, took a few pictures of the church and then retreated into the nearest open building to get some shade.
We then made our way down to the water’s edge and walked half-way around the island before again having to retreat from the sun. We were standing outside San Templo Bar and Restaurant, so it seemed as good a bet as any for a rejuvenating drink. I ordered a beer and Ren ordered a watermelon juice with lemon and ginger. The beer was warm and the watermelon juice was sour, but the atmosphere and surrounds were fantastic. We slumped into a comfy old couch in front of
an open window overlooking the lake (Lago de Peten Itza) with the breeze in our face. It was perfect.
Suitably recovered, we ventured out into the intense heat and continued our circumnavigation of Flores before heading back across the causeway to our hotel. Our rooms were still not ready, so we slid into the hotel’s pool on the lake’s edge to cool down. It was intensely hot by this stage (2pm), so this was the perfect way to relax while our room was being prepared. We finally got our room key at 3pm, and it was worth the wait. The room had a great view over the lake, and the air conditioning was extremely welcome. I walked to a nearby shopping centre and picked up some beer, soft drinks and snacks for the afternoon.
We were sitting at one of the hotel’s lakeside tables just on dusk, and the howling breeze off the lake was only just managing to cool us down. We jumped into a taxi around 8pm and headed back over the causeway to Flores. It was easily walkable, but the chance of being mugged increases exponentially of a night, so a taxi was the safer
option. We were heading out for street food, and we were seriously looking forward to it. We drove to one side of the island and suddenly found ourselves standing in front of a few brightly lit stalls selling all manner of Guatemalan street food. Locals and non-locals were sitting behind the stalls on a rock wall that separates the island from the lake, and everyone was clearly enjoying this incredible food. We shared burritos, tostadas and empanadas, and then cooled down with ice cold agua de jamaica
(iced tea made with hibiscus flower) and agua de horchata
(milky drink of rice, nuts and cinnamon). Ren finished the night with a flan. The food was fantastic, although some of the dishes could have done with a bit more chilli.
Having tried as many dishes as we possibly could, we reluctantly caught a taxi back to the hotel around 9:30pm and sat on the lakeside tables to upload the Rio Dulce blog (as there was no wifi in our room). Exhausted from gruelling travel and great food, we eventually crashed at 10:30pm. We had a 6am start to Tikal the following day, and we were crossing into Belize in the afternoon,
so we needed a good night’s sleep. SHE SAID...
We were woken up yet again by the loud bird life at our hotel on the Rio Dulce. After eating the most fabulous breakfast burrito I have ever eaten (with refried beans, red salsa, eggs and cheese), we left at 8am for the island of Flores
. We caught the hotel ferry to a dock where we transferred to our minibus and journeyed further northwest. The trip took about four hours. The further north we travelled, the more I felt like I was in Southeast Asia… the road was lined with coconut, banana and mango trees, small herds of skinny cows in a field of palm trees, and hibiscus bushes. However, the rows of corn, kapok trees, churches and Spanish signage reminded me that I really was in Central America. We were heading towards the major agricultural region of Guatemala, and we passed through a customs area where all fruit and vegetables had to be declared and assessed to minimise the danger of fruit fly in the area.
We entered the hot lowlands in El Peten and travelled to the little island of Flores floating in Lago de
Peten Itza. This lake is within the Maya Biosphere Reserve, which is one of the largest tropical forests remaining in Central America. It is about 50m below sea level and is thought to have held water during arid glacial periods. The locals in the area rely on subsistence farming of corn and beans, and they also trade in timber and harvest chicle (the gum used in chewing gum). More recently, they have begun to rely on tourism.
We were only here to explore the ruins at Tikal the next day. However, as far as jumping-off places go, this one was one of the best overnight stops we’ve had (in comparison to the horrid tourist towns that exist next to most tourist sites). We arrived at 1pm and left at 6am.
Even though I say we were in Flores, technically our fabulous Maya Internacional Hotel was in the sister city of Santa Elena on the lakeshore. Our rooms weren’t ready when we checked in, so we walked over the causeway to explore Flores. Set on a small island, Flores is a beautiful little sleepy town with a Caribbean feel, quiet people and a slow pace of life. Flores was
once a Maya ceremonial center, and it is now the capital of El Peten province.
Many of the locals still get about on the lake in the traditional way – by dugout canoe – but there are also many modern three-wheeler rickshaws zooming around the island. I think some of the old customs have mainly survived because it has been so isolated and off the local and foreign tourist trails for so long. However, that was before it became a gateway to Tikal National Park.
We walked to the church on top of the hill in the middle of Flores town and strolled past the pastel-coloured wooden buildings on small cobblestone streets. The centre of the island was very local and quiet, while the lake front was more expat and tourist focused. A leisurely and enjoyable, but stiflingly hot walk around the cafe-lined lake took under 20 minutes. What I’ve just written makes the island town seem much bigger than it is! It really is quite tiny.
It was a very, very hot and sweaty walk, and by the time we were half way around the island we had to stop and rehydrate ourselves. We sat on
a couch at San Templo Bar and Restaurant and watched the activity on the lake as Andrew sipped a Gallo beer and I had a watermelon, lime and ginger slushie. Suitably sustained, we walked back to the hotel, seeking shade whenever we could. However, as our rooms still weren’t ready, we decided to lie in the pool overlooking the lake with Emma for an hour. It was exactly the tonic for our overheated bodies and tired feet. 😊
Our room was worth the wait – it was in the part of the complex right on the water. We blasted the air conditioning and cooled down while trying out new flavours of snacks. So far the winning snack is the jalapeno
flavoured corn chips.
That evening we re-crossed the lake to Flores for dinner. Dinner was street food by the water’s edge from local vendors on the western side of the lake – the food was fantastic. We went a bit crazy trying to taste everything, and in the end we had three small chicken burritos, a chicken empanada and three tostada with simple flavour toppings of guacamole and cheese, potato in mayonnaise and mince with vegetables. The guacamole
tostada was a winner, as was the dollop of guacamole that was slathered on the top of the chicken empanada. We also tried two agua frescas
– agua de jamaica
(iced tea made with hibiscus flower) and agua de horchata
(milky drink of rice, nuts and cinnamon). The only real disappointment of all the food was the flan
(a set caramel custard) I had for dessert – it had a gluggy texture and there were large bits of cinnamon through it.
We went back to the hotel and packed for another early start. I initially thought I would have liked to have spent another day exploring Flores, but it’s a super small place with not much to do but relax.
Next we travel northeast to Tikal in El Peten, Northern Guatemala.
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