There are places travellers head to just to go somewhere else. One of those is Flores, Guatemala, an island outpost that’s famous as the jumping-off point for trips to Tikal, the classic lost city of the Mayans. But once you get there, you might find Flores just as much of an attraction as the ruins themselves.
Make no mistake, this pretty community at the end of Lago de Peten Itza is a tourist town. But it’s a tourist town with a difference. There are no American fast food restaurants, no tacky beach shops blaring loud music, and on the whole island there is only one big, modern hotel, set right by the causeway that joins Flores to nearby Santa Elena.
Instead, there are small hotels with names like Casa Amelia and Green World, lining streets filled with charming, pastel-painted houses and shops where you can buy native crafts. Look quickly as you pass and you might see a woman inside, weaving one of the distinctively patterned Guatemalan blankets on a traditional hand loom.
There are restaurants where you can get everything from lasagna to native dishes like chicken in chaya sauce and yucca scrambled with local herbs. You can eat cheaply here, too, in funky little places with local art on the walls and jazz on the sound system. And the coffee is superb — why can’t we get Guatemalan coffee this good at home?
At night, the in crowd gathers down by the lakeshore, to dine on the open-air patios and have a few Gallo beers, or just to sit on the sea wall and watch the scene around the little food stalls set up by the Mayan ladies. Try the roasted corn laced with salt and lime.
But watch your step: the lake waters are two metres above their normal level, and in some places the coastal road that circles Flores is ankle deep in water. Nobody seems to mind, though — after all, the town is sitting in water anyway. It’s just another of the unexpected charms of Flores, Guatemala.