Flores – Lake Bud in Tropical Heat: A Quickie Stop to Guatemala’s Remotest Touristy Island-Town
Within the simmering lake of Peten Itza, deep in the hot jungle of northern Guatemala is a cool bobbing blob island-town of Flores. In the wilderness of this vast geopolitical zone, Flores comes oasis-like, accessed by a one-kilometer causeway from the mainland town of Santa Elena.
Just slightly a half square kilometer in area, it is a cross between a busy last frontier outpost and a sleepy forgotten town in exuberant thematic village architecture get-up with houses blooming like multi-colored tropical flowers in perpetual springtime.
Modified Caribbean breezy balconies with prominent roofs and Andalusian doors and windows combined into a uniquely evolved style very much differently from those of surrounding Yucatan peninsula and highland Guatemala while showing more a tropical character of its own.
Separated by a lake and dense jungle from the mainstream civilization until just a few decades ago when steady and reliable transportation inroads made progress, Flores’ blissful isolation was a blessing in disguise.
Incidentally, its the capital of this farthest northern frontier department of Peten, the largest political unit in Guatemala, Flores’ pre-colonial existence was as a seat of a tribal kingdom, hard to conquer and last to be assimilated by the colonizing Spaniards.It had a stint as a penitentiary.
A budding bright future for this town is hinged on stopgap filler for visitors stuck in between the Santa Elena International Airport or the bus terminal and the main destination of Tikal.
Santa Elena is definitely the first town outsiders will encounter – air or land – on their way to Tikal, but its public facilities are nowhere near the minimum decent standard. Unpaved gravelly and dusty streets blanketed in pitch darkness at night define Santa Elena, the “Bedroom of Peten”, saved for the function of hosting the airport and an array of accommodations for visitors who would rather not cross the causeway and are dying to dive for a much sought after rest.
Flores answers Santa Elena’s inadequacy. Lake reflections of colorful houses by day and nightlife lights by night are an irresistible teaser for visitors before or after their trip to Tikal. In a perspective, Flores can serve, as either an appetizer, or a dessert.
This island of tranquil setting is surrounded by lazy waterside walks especially in the northern, eastern, and western sides overlooking the palm-fringed edges of the lake that will definitely stimulate simple rustic relaxation. All roads seem to lead to the steep mound-shaped center not evidently visible from the profile projected from the causeway but the steepness can be felt as the approach gets near the center. The center top is crowned by the Plaza, the basketball court, and the usual white painted church undistinguished in its mediocrity with nary a trace of history or unique beauty, encouraging no any further second look. The Plaza bandstand kiosk or Kiosco is more interesting. Its stylized estipite fretwork balustrade is an iconic ubiquitous figure. Around the Plaza can be located the seat of government, museum, tourist information center, and a souvenir shop in barn-like stucco or limestone plastered structures.
The museum displays a narrative description of the town history and its fiesta featuring an exhibit of a bull mask with an attached stiff back and four legs. I’m impressed how this squeaky little town can dedicate an effort to tell its story to tourists in its own little way albeit in Spanish only.
Plaza nightlife is not dull, more a hangout for locals than the swinging foreign guests who prefer the pubs. Children play around adults who were out to catch the lake breeze or gossip after church service while enjoying the street food offered by stalls.
The flamboyant houses are very much of a treat, more as eye candy as one goes around and explore. They are eye catching in their ice cream colors and there seemed to be no chromatic combination restrictions under the tropical sun.
Second-storey wooden balconies coast the front, some the whole stretch of it, with balustrades done in simple fretwork. Native cutout decorations spare no place, starting from the balcony ledges to the posts and brackets up the eaves bringing softness and delight to the composition.
Steep tin roofs with comparatively more extended eaves than those in the highlands are universally painted in red for some reason.
Doors and windows have varied interpretations but never deviating on their Andalusian theme and verticality.
In this region of hot humid climate and no earthquake occurrence, thick concrete walls are cool.
A unique decorative feature appearing in the houses of Flores is a scooped out arched top on doors and windows etched with a stylized creepy symbol that has legs gradually increasing from top to bottom, outstretching more and more as it gets to the hind, and a body mark with different star patterns – Christian, Jewish, or Islamic. Is it just me or my imagination? Will it ward off the lake monster that lurks under the lakebed and crawls up at night to raid the houses? I wonder what it symbolizes.
Bars line up the south waterfront with live bands beckoning everyone to party and be merry even at the start of the sleepy morning. Many more hangouts are waiting uphill. Restaurants are cheap and decent. T-shirt and kitschy souvenir shops are also worth a good browsing and bargaining.