Easy-going FLORES is a delightfully sedate place with an old-fashioned atmosphere, quite unlike the rest of the region’s towns. A cluster of cobbled streets and ageing houses built around a twin-domed church, it sits beautifully on a small island in Lago de Petén Itzá, connected to the mainland by a short causeway. The modern emphasis lies across the water in the twin towns of SANTA ELENA and SAN BENITO, both of which are ugly, chaotic and sprawling places, dusty in the dry season and mud-bound during the rains. Santa Elena, opposite Flores at the other end of the causeway, is strung out between the airport and the market, and takes in a new shopping mall, a few hotels, banks and two bus terminals. San Benito, further west, has even less going for it. The three towns are often lumped together under the single name of Flores.
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Today, despite the steady flow of tourists passing through, Flores retains a genteel air, with residents greeting one another courteously in the streets. Though it has little to detain you in itself – a leisurely thirty-minute stroll around the lanes is enough to become entirely familiar with the place – Flores does offer an enjoyable, historic base and has an excellent selection of hotels, restaurants and tour operators.
The lake is a natural choice for settlement, and its shores were heavily populated in Maya times: the city of Tayasal, capital of the Itza, lay on the island that was to become modern Flores. Cortés passed through here in 1525 and left behind a sick horse. In 1618 two Franciscan friars arrived to find the people worshipping a statue of a horse called “Tzimin Chac”. Unable to persuade the Maya to renounce their religion, they smashed the image and left the city. The town was eventually destroyed by Martín de Ursúa and an army of 235 in 1697. For the entire colonial period (and indeed up to the 1960s), Flores languished in virtual isolation, having more contact with neighbouring Belize than with the capital.
Many travellers experience the hard sell on arrival in Flores from local ticket touts, known as coyotes. These guys try to get you to book hotel rooms, tours and transport with them, so they can earn a commission. Some lie about hotels being full and even sell fake tickets. Be especially wary on tourist shuttles arriving from Belize and Mexico, when you are likely to be travel-weary and new to the country. Book direct through reputable agencies and hotels.
Know your dinner
Some Flores restaurants serve wild game, often listed on menus as comida silvestre. Virtually all this has been taken illegally from reserves and national parks – avoid in particular ordering items such as tepescuintle (paca, a large relation of the guinea pig), venado (deer) and coche de monte (peccary, or wild pig).