Flores is a small town located on an island in Lake Petén Itzá of Guatemala. It is connected by a causeway to the mainland, where the suburbs of Santa Elena and San Benito are situated. Flores is a quiet and peaceful town with a beautiful natural view of Lake Petén Itzá from all sides; the town looks as if it floats on the lake. Many of its tourists today are travelers looking to visit the famous Tikal Mayan ruins or explore Lake Petén Itzá and the El Petén region. However, Flores itself is a nice place to explore, with its narrow streets, thick-walled buildings, flower plants hanging from the balconies, and its signature red-roofs – all on an island surrounded by the pristine waters of Lake Petén Itzá.
Flores used to be the site of the ancient city of Tayasal, the capital of the Itzá Mayans who had left the Yucatán region in the 13th century to settle in Tayasal. These Itzá people were the same ethnic group responsible for building Mexico’s famous Chichen Itzá. This ancient city was the last unconquered outpost of the Maya civilization and held out until 1697. To conquer the city, the Spanish attacked by boat and destroyed it. Some of the Itzá people fled and hid in the jungle for years. Much of the historical structures of Tayasal were destroyed in the conquest, including the city’s huge pyramids. Very few of the ancient city’s ruins still remain. In the 1800s, Flores was called Devil’s Island because of a prison that stood on top of the town’s hill. A church replaced the prison in the 20th century, but in 1994 the building became a tourist center and a small museum.
The main attraction of Flores is the Ak’tun Kan (or Cave of the Serpent). This is a natural cave that is about a thirty minute walk from Flores. The cave has stalagmites and stalactites as well as many interesting formations that resemble various objects like animals and people.
Ixpanpajul Parque Natural is another major attraction, located about six miles south of Santa Elena. This is a private nature reserve sitting on a large stand of rain forest. You can hike the reserve’s many suspended bridges as well as get great views of the rainforest’s indigenous and bio-diverse flora and fauna. If you are more adventurous, you can go on the night-time ATV tours, mountain bike excursions, or horseback rides offered by the park.
The Petencito Zoo is another site of Flores. It is a small zoo that houses monkeys, raccoons, jaguars, and other animals that have been rescued by the ARCAS, which is a local center dedicated to the prevention of animal trafficking.
There are also a number of boat trips you can take with tour operators or boat owners who congregate at the local hotels. The boat rides on Lake Petén Itzá allow you to explore the different areas surrounding the lake, including a small mainland park called Paraíso Escondido.
In addition to boat rides, you can go on canopy tours to experience various adventures, including hanging on a harness and sliding down wires attached to trees or walking on cliff-hanging suspension bridges. Many tourists also enjoy camping, canoeing, and biking in and around Flores.
More recently, Lake Yaxhá has become a bit of an attraction. It is about 20 miles away from Flores and was the location of the filming of Survivor Guatemala.
A little further away from Flores, north of the lake, you’ll find the Maya Biosphere Reserve in the region of Petén; the reserve is Central America’s largest remaining tropical forest. It is home to rainforest-typical flora and fauna, fresh water wetlands, and scattered archaeological ruins from the ancient Mayans. The reserve today is protected from deforestation and looting by remote-sensing monitors.
Flores is known for its chicle, which is a chewing gum made from its tree saps. The restaurants in Flores range from American steak and seafood to mainstream Italian to traditional Mexican. You’ll also find many food vendors on the streets.
There are shops and stands in Flores that sell wood carvings, woven baskets, cornhusk dolls, and other various village souvenirs.
Flores is one of the safest places in northern Guatemala, which is known to be a generally unsafe region. This means you can let your guard down a little bit, but not a whole lot.