CITY GUIDE: Isla de Flores, Guatemala

The moment you arrive on the quaint, blossoming Isla de Flores, one thing is clear: life is lived on the water.

Plant-laden restaurants and cafes affront the tranquil Lake Petén Itzá, offering prime seating for watercolor sunset shows. During the day, lanchas (public transport boats), canoes and jet skis zip around the glistening expanse; beaches and docks are well frequented. And at night, it’s not uncommon to see kayakers linger beneath the moonlight, taking advantage of the round-the-clock stillness.

But if at first Isla de Flores strikes you as only a mindless aquatic draw for vacationers, think again. The tiny island, only 45 minutes from the grand historic Parque Tikal, is a mine of Mayan culture itself, built atop the ancient city of Nojpetén — the last independent Mayan state.

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In 1697, it was finally conquered by the Spanish, who immediately rebuilt it, making Flores the second oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the Americas. But these days, it’s still surrounded by reminders of its ancient past — from an un-excavated pyramid now functioning as the platform for a lookout tower, to a middle-of-the-lake, single-room museum boasting thousand-year-old artifacts.

Combine that history with ease of arrival (1-hour flights are plentiful from Guatemala City), safe, walkable streets boasting colorful housing, stately churches and sloping views, some of the best food found in Guatemala and a world of water opportunities and it’s not hard to see how Flores might be on the cusp of a boom.

Here’s what to do and where to eat when you arrive:

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Restaurante San Telmo

I practically lived here for two reasons: First, they have some of the best food on the island (including items not often found in Central America, such as falafel). Second, the ambience can’t be beat with a lower patio and upper roof deck that both overlook the lake and an overflow of plants and vines that lend a tropical vibe. Great happy hour specials, too.

Find San Telmo, here.

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El Mirador Del Rey Canek

This overlook, with stellar views of the island below, is built on top of an un-excavated Mayan pyramid (so be prepared to climb some steps). You can get here — a short jaunt across the lake — via lancha, but even this short trip can be fairly expensive. Kayaking is also a possibility but requires leaving the kayaks unattended at the shore. Otherwise, take the ferry for Q.5 (less than 1 USD) to San Miguel and make the 20-minute walk up the hill. 

Find El Mirador, here.

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Maracuya

A disclaimer here: the coffee is not the greatest and the food isn’t overly inspired despite the healthful, veggie-infused owner’s best intentions. But you’ll want to return over and over simply for the rooftop which is nothing short of magical with its abundance of succulents, hammocks and that unstoppable lake backdrop.

Find Maracuya, here.

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Jorge’s Rope Swing

The most popular watering hole on the lake, the glorious grounds built around Jorge’s home include beachfront lounge areas, inner tubes for floating, a high diving platform and of course, several of the namesake rope swings, affixed to the banked cliffs. You can also purchase beers for Q.15 (less than 2 USD) and a handful of homemade dishes from the casa. Access to the grounds is Q.10 (about $1.50).

Find Jorge’s, here.

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Terrazzo

Pastas, pizzas and steaks are among the dishes found at this Italian-inspired eatery, but the real must-get is the avocado salad, a gorgeous presentation of ultra-fresh vegetables stacked into a terrine of sorts, surrounded by a skirt of avocado ribbons and drizzled with oil and vinegar and cracked pepper.

Find Terrazzo, here.

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Kayak rentals at Hotel Casa Lacandon

A hostel and a restaurant (when they aren’t remodeling, like now), Lacandon also offers kayak rentals (Q.25 per hour or Q.100 per day) in a convenient location for slipping into the lake. Unlike Lake Atitlán in Central Guatemala, Lake Petén Itzá is incredibly calm all day and all night, making a sunset or after-dark paddle not just possible but recommended.

Find Hotel Casa Lacandon, here.

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Maple & Tocino

The go-to brunch spot on the island, the waterfront locale makes donuts and milkshakes; fried chicken-and-waffle sandwiches, as well as a variety of more local dishes, like the skillet of eggs, mushrooms, charred tomatoes, black beans and avocado. Bonus: they have cold brew coffee for hot mornings, of which there are many.

Find Maple & Tocino, here.

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Parque Concordia

Street food is not as plentiful on Isla de Flores as it is in other areas of Guatemala, but for an impressive one-stop shop, head directly to Parque Concordia in the middle of the bridge to the mainland. A hub for water views, playgrounds and romantic nooks during the day, at night the loaded stands offer everything from a variety of aqua frescas to taquitos, empanadas, tamales, rellenos and more. Don’t forget dessert: tiers of caramel, tres leches and almond cakes await.

Find Parque Concordia, here.

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Restaurante La Playa

One of the gems of Flores’ food scene is its pescado blanco — a flaky white fish pulled from the lake. Restaurante La Playa is among the spots in town handling this beauty well. Choose your method: grilled or fried, your preferred size (by the pound) and from among a hearty list of sides. Provecho!

Find La Playa, here.

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Museo Santa Barbara

Another worthy kayak venture? The surprising Museo Santa Barbara, a micro museum boasting ancient Mayan artifacts on a tiny island in the middle of the lake. Here you’ll find replicates of some sophisticated Mayan pottery as well as original tools made from shell, Jade and obsidian. Well worth a quick stop.

Find Santa Barbara here.

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