The lovely little island of Flores, ensconced in pristine Lake Petén, has been the heart, and capital, of Mesoamerica’s archaeologically richest region for thousands of years. Ehile you are probably here in this lush and quiet corner of the world to see the ancient Mayan city of Tikal, you’ll find much more hidden throughout the protected swath of tropical rainforest its builders once called home. Three days may not be quite enough.
If you’re arriving to Flores on one of the overnight bus from Guatemala City, rather than the plane, you may want to take it easy your first day on the island. Consider shifting around this itinerary and spending your first day and exploring the city and lake (Day 2) instead.
Day 1: Touring Tikal
You are probably here to see the ruins of Tikal, and you will not be disappointed. The magnificent Mayan city is an engineering marvel, its ancient temple pyramids and covered walkways through the jungle still evocative of a civilization more advanced than almost any in the world during its heyday, about 300 to 900AD.
Plan an entire day to explore the fantastic UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you don’t book a tour from Flores, 65km (40 miles) to the south, you can hire one of the freelance guides milling around the entrance. As this is one of the best preserved, best-documented of all Mayan cities, an expert will put this most memorable of experiences into illuminating historical context.
Adventurous travelers may want to visit the nearby city of Uaxactún, a much more ancient astronomical center where Tikal’s elites once went to learn writing, timekeeping, and other mysteries of the Mayan world. Independent travelers should plan on spending three days to see both ruins (public transportation is tricky), or book a tour to save time.
Day 2: Flores and Lake Petén
The lake island of Flores, in Lake Petén Itza, is much more than a comfortable base for exploring the ruins and natural attractions of the Petén. This scenic spot was the Itza Maya capital, known as Nojpetén (City Island), and the hub of Guatamala’s Mayan civilization for centuries. Ancient roads into the vast rainforests radiate out from the lake, marked by tiny towns that still welcome visitors.
Sure, you can walk around the small city of Flores in about 20 minutes, but stop on the north shore’s malecón and jump off one of the brightly colored docks into the lake for a refreshing swim. Hire a cayuco (small motorized boat) to Petencito Zoo or El Museo, both located on even smaller islands just offshore. Head across the causeway to Santa Elena to shop for less expensive handicrafts and souvenirs at the bustling market. Or, book a hike, zip-line tour, or other activity at awesome Ixpanpajul Nature Park, just 15 minutes away.
More ambitious adventurers could hire a cayuco (or catch a bus from Santa Elena) to other lakeside towns like El Remate, San José, and San Miguel, each with hotels, restaurants, Spanish schools, and attractions like caves, small ruins, and hiking destinations, including Cerro Cahuí Nature Reserve.
Day 3: Off the Beaten Track
While Tikal is one of the Mayan world’s most famous ruins for a reason, there are several, smaller cities hidden away in the rainforest. Most are difficult to reach on a day trip for independent travelers using public transportation, but you can book tours from Flores that can get you back to the Santa Elena airport in time for the 5pm plane back to Guatemala City.
Most convenient for travelers on a schedule is Yaxhá, Guatemala’s third-largest archaeological site, about 100km (62 miles) from Flores. Located atop a photogenic limestone ridge with views over Lake Yaxhá, its relative isolation offers a taste of what early adventurers and archaeologists must have enjoyed a century ago in the untouched Petén.
If you have two days, the ruins around Petexbatún Wildlife Refuge, including Aguateca and El Ceibal, are another popular option for travelers who want to escape the crowds at Tikal. Different operators offer tours to other, smaller ruins close to Flores, including some of the 27 cities surrounding Lake Petén.
Ask in advance if they will store your bags and drop you off at the airport after the tour; it’s a great way to make the most of your last moments in this remarkable region.