Flores and Santa Elena

Flores is perched on a tiny island in Lake Petén Itzá. Red roofs and palm trees jostle for position as they spread up the small hill, which is topped by the white twin-towered cathedral. Some of the streets of the town are lined with houses and restaurants that have been given lashings of colourful paint, giving Flores a Caribbean flavour.
, drifting among the lilies and dragonflies, are pinned to the lake edges. Santa Elena is the dustier, less elegant and noisier twin town on the mainland where the cheapest hotels, banking services and bus terminal can be found.

Tourist information

, www.propeten.org
, associated with
Conservation International
Centro de Información sobre la Naturaleza, Cultura y Artesanía de Petén
), www.alianzaverde.org
, has free maps of Tikal, and other local information.


This jungle region was settled by the Maya Itzá Kanek in about AD 600, with their seat then known as La Isla de Tah Itzá (Tayasal in Spanish), now modern-day Flores. The Itzás were untouched by Spanish inroads into Guatemala until the Mexican conquistador Hernán Cortés and Spanish chronicler Bernal Díaz del Castillo dropped by in 1525 on their way from Mexico to Honduras. In 1697 Martín Urzua y Arismendi, the governor of the Yucatán, fought the first battle of the Itzás, crossing the lake in a galley killing 100 indigenous people in the ensuing battle, and capturing King Canek. He and his men destroyed the temples and palaces of Tayasal and so finished off the last independent Maya state.


, Nuestra Señora de los Remedios y San Pablo del Itzá, is plain inside, and houses a Cristo Negro, part of a chain of Black Christs that stretches across Central America, with the focus of worship at Esquipulas.
Paraíso Escondido
is home to the
. Near the zoo is
Asociación de Rescate y Conservación de Vida Silvestre
), www.arcasguatemala.com
, where they care for rescued animals and release them back into the wild. Volunteers are welcome. There is a centre and interactive trails at the site. Boat tours of the whole lakecall at the zoo and
El Mirador
on the Maya ruin of
Actún Kan caves
, are a fascinating labyrinth of tunnels where, legend has it, a large serpent lived. They are 3 km south of Santa Elena and a 30 to 45 minutes' walk. To get there take the 6 Avenida out of Santa Elena to its end, turn left at a small hill, then take the first road to the right where it is well marked. South of Santa Elena is
Parque Naturual Ixpanpajul
, www.ixpanpajul.com
, where Tarzan tours and more are on offer. Local fiestas
include 12-15 January, the Petén
, and 11-12 December in honour of the Virgen de Guadalupe.

Around Lake Petén Itzá

San Andrés
, 16 km by road from Santa Elena, enjoys sweeping views of Lake Petén Itzá, and its houses climb steeply down to the lake shore. There is a language school. Adonis, a villager, takes good-value tours to El Zotz and El Mirador and has been recommended. Ask around for him; his house is close to the shoreline. You can also volunteer in the village with
Volunteer Petén
, www.volunteerpeten.com
, a conservation and community project. The attractive village of
San José
, a traditional Maya Itzá village, where efforts are being made to preserve the Itzá language and revive old traditions, is 2 km further northeast on the lake from San Andrés. Its painted and thatched homes huddling steeply on the lake shore make it a much better day trip than San Andrés. Some 4 km beyond the village a signed track leads to the Classic period site of
, with 33 plazas, tall pyramids and some stelae depicting Maya kings. It takes 20 minutes to walk between the two villages. On 1 November San José hosts the
Holy Skull Procession

At the eastern side of Lake Petén Itzá is El Remate. The sunsets are superb and the lake is flecked with turquoise blue in the mornings. You can swim in the lake in certain places away from the local women washing their clothes and the horses taking a bath. There are many lovely places to stay. West of El Remate is the 700-ha Biotopo Cerro Cahuí. It is a lowland jungle area where three species of monkey, deer, jaguar, peccary, ocellated wild turkey and some 450 species of bird can be seen. If you do not wish to walk alone, you can hire a guide.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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