While travelling from Mexico to Belize, we took the opportunity to stop in Guatemala to visit the ruins of Tikal. This archaeological site is one of the largest and most impressive discovered urban centres from the Mayan civilisation. We also took advantage of a few days to visit the island of Flores and its surroundings on the Lake Petén Itzá.
Visit of the archaeological site of Tikal
We visited many ruins from pre-Columbian civilisations during our travels to Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. All of these archaeological sites were interesting to visit but, for us, Tikal was the most incredible. First of all, thanks to the tropical forest surrounding it and the jungle animals inhabiting it, the atmosphere is really special and even mystical. Then, the pyramids are very tall and impressive. Finally, the style is really different in comparison to the other sites we visited. There are still many well-preserved items, such as offering and sacrifice stones.
At its peak, the city of Tikal dominated the Mayan civilisation from a political, military and economic point of view. Consequently, you will have a better understanding and a more global point of view by also visiting the sites of Teotihuacán, Caracol, Chichén Itzá and Palenque.
Visiting Tikal with a guide?
It is strongly recommended to visit the Tikal site with an organised tour. Inquire before booking your tour, we advise you to compare prices and to not book the first one. There are many “coyotes” who will try to sell you tours for which they receive a commission. However, by going directly through an agency or a tour operator the prices will be more reasonable.
After checking the offers in Flores, we chose a tour for 100 Quetzals per person with Marlin Espadas Tour Operator. We found our guide very interesting and enjoyed our tour. We must also count 150 Quetzals for the park entry which you have to pay on the spot. Be careful, it is necessary to present a photo ID (our French identity card was enough, no need to take your passport). The tour involved a lot of walking, but the environment is amazing to walk around.
Pay the supplement for the sunset or sunrise tour?
We hesitated for a long time to pay the supplement to access the ruins at sunrise or sunset. While doing research, we found mixed reviews on this. Finally, we decided on the very first tour of the day at the normal rate. We left Flores at 4:30 in the morning but it allowed us to arrive before the crowd. It was especially a great opportunity to cross the jungle early in the morning as the animals woke up. The screams of howler monkeys are as impressive as the ruins. We saw monkeys, toucans, wild turkeys and birds of all colours.
Finally, at the end of the guided tour we had the opportunity to continue the tour by ourselves and return with a later bus. We had a wonderful day we will always remember.
Flores and Lake Petén Itzá
Lake Petén Itzá is a very beautiful destination in northern Guatemala. Moreover, it is a good base to visit the ruins of Tikal. We spent 3 days there to visit the island of Flores and the village of San Miguel. We did not took the time to explore more around the lake but we have heard good things about the other villages which are also significantly less touristy.
First of all, going around the island of Flores is done very quickly. The different views on the lake are superb. Be sure to visit the Parque Central square and its church Nuestra Senora de Los Remedios. Our visit was in November and we were surprised by a giant Christmas tree in the middle of the square!
Also the atmosphere of the island and its bars and restaurants is enjoyable. Here is our selection:
- For local cuisine and a nice view the Restaurante Tipici Imperio (which is located in front of the hostel Yaxha, Google Maps lost us)
- For a drink in front of the sunset while listening to live music go to the Terrace Bar
- For vegetarian and vegan cuisine in an incredible setting you have to go to the restaurant Cool Beans (by taking a small alley leading to a street which was flooded when we were there). The roof terrace is a little piece of paradise well hidden, with a beautiful view and tons of animals (including beautiful hummingbirds).
- For decent wifi or to spend the evening we recommend Hostel Los Amigos. The food is not local but they offer diary-free / vegan pastries. In addition, turtles and birds wander between the seats.
Flores: a touristy place not representative of Guatemala?
Flores is undoubtedly a highly touristy place where establishments are tailored towards American tourists and backpackers. This is not a real experience of Guatemala and the prices are much higher than in the neighbouring city of San Benito.
To avoid this, we chose to stay in San Benito. Although Flores is very close and accessible on foot or tuk-tuk the contrast is really striking. In San Benito poverty is much more visible and we didn’t feel as safe as in Flores. Indeed, we crossed persons carrying weapons in public which we found disturbing. In the end, we had absolutely no issue but these are aspects to consider in your choice.
A nice trip to do on the lake from Flores is to go to San Miguel. Indeed, it is very close to Floes and (again) the experience seems more authentic. We have barely seen any other tourists! The journey is done in a small boat from Flores, you will find many people offering you to cross on their boat. We paid 5 Quetzals per person. Once there, go to the mirador del Rey Canek for a beautiful view from up high.
Moreover, there is a very nice beach, Playa Chechenal Petén. It is a private beach, access costs 5 Quetzals. However, be sure to follow the directions from a good travel guide! We got lost with ours. In the end, to go to the beach we followed a nice local with a very big machete (which was slightly disconcerting).
Border Crossings: Entry to and Exit from Guatemala
To get to Guatemala we booked online a shuttle from Palenque to Flores with Marvelus Travel. At the border post of El Ceibo we got off the vehicle. A Guatemalan driver and mini-bus was waiting for us on the other side of the border. Unlike Mexican customs, Guatemalan customs officers were very friendly and did not ask us any questions. Finally, last point to note for the only stop on this road: there are toilets only on the Mexican side so you have to go before crossing.
We had to pay an exit tax from the Mexican territory. Beware this tax is only payable in cash and there are no ways to withdraw for miles around. We had not planned this, but fortunately our emergency american dollars were accepted (we are glad we decided to have those inside our luggage). Moreover, the regulations are not very clear as we arrived by air and went out by the road. So, we are not sure we really had to pay. The tax is supposed to be paid at the entrance of the territory and checked at the exit. Sometimes the price of the visa is included your flight ticket. However, this is something we did not properly check and could not prove at the border. Finally, we had to pay again when crossing the border from Belize to Mexico. For the latest information on visas, it is best to consult your government website.
To get out of Guatemala we booked a bus between Flores and San Ignacio in Belize with Marin Espadas. We booked this one directly upon our arrival in Flores at their local agency (because their website only accepts Paypal payment and looked a bit dodgy). This border crossing at Melchor de Mencos was clearer and easier, we did not had to pay anything. However, do your research beforehand to assert your rights because some tourists we met later have been taxed out of Guatemala. In Belize, the tax is paid at the exit and not at the entrance.
Differences between Guatemala and its bordering countries Mexico and Belize
While crossing the borders by road, we could note the big differences between Guatemala and its neighbouring countries. The most unexpected difference, for us, was between Mexico and Guatemala. Indeed, we already knew Belize is a country apart and much more expensive than the rest of Central America. Moreover, we knew Guatemala to be poorer than Mexico. The border post on the Mexican side at El Ceibo is a set of modern buildings in a very official style. About twenty meters away, the Guatemalan post is an open wooden hut with pigs running around. The dwellings are more succinct and, as we have already mentioned, some Guatemalans are openly armed in the street. However, we were surprised to find the cost of living, housing and excursions higher in Guatemala than in Mexico.
Clémentine’s reading (and movie) list
- In terms of travel guides, we recommend Lonely Planet Guatemala travel guide.
- If you are planing to visit Belize as well, the Rough Guide to Belize includes a section on Flores and Tikal
- We found the movie La Jaulo de Oro, about Guatemalan teenagers trying to reach the United States through Mexico, very moving and interesting
To conclude, doing this small detour by Guatemala between Mexico and Belize to visit Tikal and Flores is a choice we do not regret at all. It was an incredible experience and the ruins of Tikal are the most impressive we have visited in Central America. Travelling from Palenque to San Ignacio is easy and not expensive.
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