Our first taste of Guatemala!

Jan. 26 to 28, 2020

Even before we returned home from South America in the spring of 2019, we were planning our next trip: Guatemala 2020.

We chose Guatemala for a number of reasons: cheap flights (because it’s closer to the US), it’s a smaller country so we will spend less time on buses, cheaper cost of living, amazing cultural experiences, great Spanish schools, excellent birds with some endemics, good food, and we have a few friends in Guatemala that we planned to meet with while there.

We started our trip on January 24th 2020 when we landed in Belize City, Belize. We spent the whole day of the 25th birding in Belize with some local friends – more on that in a later post! We left for Guatemala the morning of the 26th.

To get to Guatemala from Belize City, we took a chicken bus (old American school buses) to the border, a 3.5 hour ride for only $5 USD. Once at the border, we went through customs and caught a colectivo to Flores (100 Quetzales or $13 USD each) which was our first destination in Guatemala.


The hour and a half long drive to Flores was magical. The easy rolling hills went on as far as you can see, alternating between native forest to pasture land every 5 minutes. Don’t get me wrong, the amount of deforestation in the lowlands of Guatemala is saddening, but it makes for some great views of otherwise totally obstructed hills and valleys. We soaked in the golden sun as we made our way closer to the city.

Flores Island (Isla Flores) is the name of the small island in a big lake called Lago Petén Itza. “Flores” refers to the island, which is like a small city. The much larger city that Flores is attached to is called Santa Elena. Flores is the main hub for traveling to and from the famous Tikal Mayan ruins and to/from Belize.

Isla Flores and all its buildings seen from the shore of the lake in Santa Elena. The forest in the background is on the hill on the other side of the lake.

Once we hit the town, we got out some cash at the nearest ATM and found our hostel. The currency of Guatemala is called the Quetzal, which is pretty damn cool! Every bill has a quetzal on it!
Our hostel, La Terraza, was amazing! It has a large and comfortable terrace-like lounge area that stays cool all day, a full kitchen, and the dorms are clean and comfortable.
After checking in to the hostel, we walked around the island and found a restaurant on the water to have dinner and watch the sun set.

We talked about how much we liked Flores already, and how excited we were to finally be in Guatemala. The reality that we were about to spend the next 2 months exploring the country had finally started to set in. I could not have been any more excited!

The view over the lake at dinner, watching the sunset.

For the next two mornings, I woke up early and walked to some great birding spots just 15 minutes from our hostel. To keep this post shorter, I am going to talk about both mornings together.

Ruddy Crake, a small and cute marsh bird, was my first and primary target I hoped to find around Flores. These birds are often hard to see, staying hidden in the reeds on the edge of marshy lakes and ponds. Luckily after doing some research on eBird, I found that there is a marshy spot just a 15 minute walk from our hostel.

I walked down the causeway and reached my birding spot at about 6:30am. There was a large tree with hundreds of blooming flowers in its canopy. As you can imagine, it was full of birds. Scanning through the Baltimore and Orchard Orioles revealed some Blue-gray Tanagers and my first lifer of Guatemala, a Yellow-winged Tanager! In the early morning light, the bird activity was fantastic! White-fronted Parrots flew by, Brown Jays sat in the treetops, and Great Kiskadees and Social Flycatchers calling nonstop from the power lines and rooftops around the edge of the lake. It felt damn good to be back in the tropics!

My lifer Yellow-winged Tanager, world bird number 1,189. Not the best photo, but I always try to get a photo of my new birds.

I turned my attention to the reeds at the edge of the lake. Time to find a Ruddy Crake!
I turned on my bluetooth speaker and played a few calls. I watched the Purple Gallinules in the reeds and the Cattle Egrets flying by while I waited. Nothing.
Right as I started walking away, a Ruddy Crake called back! As typical for crakes, it was in the dense reeds, totally out of sight. I walked back and forth trying for an angle to see into the plants. I played a few more calls and the bird responded again.

“Oh shit there it is!” After another 15 minutes of looking, I finally spotted the bird perched up in a clump of reeds. I got the binoculars on it and it turned out to be a pair! 2 Ruddy Crakes right there!

The pair of Ruddy Crakes! Pretty bad photo; the low morning light and subtle mist made getting a clean shot of these birds difficult.

It’s really empowering to have a target bird that’s fairly difficult to see, like a crake, and put in the research and effort to find one on your own in a foreign place. The feeling of independence and freedom to explore a new place is so invigorating.

The following morning, I walked just past the abandoned playground area where I had the Ruddy Crakes and made it to a public water access called “playa del pueblo” on Google Maps and Maps.me.

Northern Jacanas were around the water’s edge, and groups of Mangrove and Northern Rough-winged Swallows flying above the lake. There is a large forest patch just to the side of the open “playa” but a cement wall appeared to block access. I was looking for a way around the wall when a local guy asked if I wanted to go there “to take photos”. I said yes of course and the told me to walk back up the road 100 meters and turn into the the old hotel-looking place and that there are trails through the forest.

Following his advice, I walked back 100 meters from the water up the road and at the first intersection, there is an entrance to the grounds of an old hotel. Walking in, I saw a trail that cut through the trees in the direction of the lake. It was my first taste of dense tropical rainforest. Although this small patch of forest is obviously young, maybe 50 years old, it still had the feel of a huge mature rainforest. I even spotted a Howler Monkey in one of the trees!

The forest at the “playa del pueblo” area. Easily accessible from Flores by a 15 minute walk and open to the public.

I walked the trails to a clearing, and then followed a trail out on a small dike to the lake shore. The marshy area on both sides of me was full of birds. Morelet’s Seedeaters, Common Yellowthroats, Purple Gallinules, and even a Least Bittern! Multiple Ruddy Crakes called from different areas of the marshy edge. In the forest, I came across some great tropical species like Spot-breasted Wren, Barred Antshrike, and Olive-throated Parakeet. Even a few wintering warbler species; a Hooded Warbler and a few Magnolia Warblers.

Olive-throated Parakeet

For the 1 hour and 45 minutes I spent birding the area, I left with 57 species! It is so exciting to have such a species-rich morning so close to town. It’s a spot that anyone can walk to and spend a few hours seeing a great sample of the lowland tropical species of Central America.

Here is bit of a map of where I went birding while in Flores:

Around town

In the few days we stayed in Flores, we had the chance to try a couple different restaurants and shops. Here are some notes on what we found!

Where to eat

Restaurante San Telmo: A dark and cozy restaurant with EXCELLENT lake views serving a wide range of dishes, from curry and rice to pizza to burgers to tacos and salads. Great bar with good cocktails, albeit a little expensive. With limited vegetarian options, I ordered the veggie panini and Stephanie got the veggie curry. Both were good, but we were looking to spend a little less than we did, with our dinner coming to $18.00 USD including two cheap beers. The sunset view is worth it, even if all you order is a cold beer!

Legumbres Mayas: A small vegetarian restaurant with excellent pasta! Priced a little better than other cafés catering to gringos (still about $6.00 USD for a plate), they do a good job creating unique pasta dishes! One can be enough for two people (if you aren’t terribly hungry), or you can take the rest “para llevar” (to-go) for easy leftovers at your hostel.

Restaurante Altamira: Stylish and hippie, this loft restaurant has a great view of the lake to go along with the more authentic Guatemalan menu. We didn’t find much for vegetarian options here, but did enjoy a hot sandwich (with lots of cheese) and a super good fresh smoothie to deal with the hot day. Our sandwich and smoothie only cost us about $11.00 USD.

STREET FOOD: By far and away the best way to eat dinner in Flores is wait until after sunset and score some cheap and delicious street tacos or burritos from one of the many vendors along the south side of the island. They fire up the grill once the sun sets and the whole place gets active with tourists and locals chowing down on the freshest and cheapest tacos in town. At one of the vendors, we found veggie tacos at the cost of $2.30 USD (18Q) for 4 tacos!

The grocery store closest to Flores is the La Torre in the small strip mall building directly across the causeway. Just walk from Flores across the bridge/causeway and its on your left. Big building. Can’t miss it!

eBird checklist for 1st morning with the Ruddy Crakes: https://ebird.org/checklist/S63838684

eBird checklist for 2nd morning in the old forest area: https://ebird.org/checklist/S63872418

Cost and logistics

Getting to and from Flores is fairly easy, as to get to Belize from the rest of Guatemala, or to get to Guatemala from Belize, you have to go through Flores. Also, Flores is the gateway to the magical Tikal National Park. Asking anyone for a bus to Flores will be pretty straightforward.

It took us 5 hours and $41.00 USD ($20.50 each) to get from Belize City to Flores.
Bus from Belize City to Benque – $5.00 USD per person
Taxi to the Guatemala border – $2.50 per person
Bus to Flores from the border – $13.00 per person
Getting to Flores from the GT border, we could have haggled the price or found someone else, but we we didn’t know what a reasonable price was for the 1.5 hour drive. Turns out, we overpaid.

Exiting Belize – there is an exit tax totally $20.00 USD, payable in USD or BZD, cash only.

There are a number of hostels in Flores, and we picked a great one. Not a party hostel and with a great vibe.
Hostel La Terraza only has dorm beds available, but at $12.00 USD per person per night, it was the best deal in town.

We spent about $35.00 USD on groceries in preparation to go camping in Tikal
and $33.00 USD on SIM cards for our phones. These two things really brought up our overall costs for Flores.

Our total for the few days we spent in Flores was about $188.00 USD which comes down to about $47.00 USD per person per the 2 days we were there before we left for Tikal.

If you would like to know more, please contact me here and I will help in any way I can!

Soon, I will have a BREAKDOWN post with all the gritty details of how to travel and bird around Tikal and Flores.
To find out when that posts, follow my blog to get updates!

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