The eastern part of Guatemala is not as visited as the Western part, but there is no shortage of cool things to see and do here. From ancient Mayan sites, to pretty colonial towns, to hot springs, to pirate towns located on the Caribbean.
This area of Guatemala is easily reached by car from the capital, Guatemala City. There is a small airport at Tikal if you are making a quick day trip. Tikal is also a short drive from the border of Belize.
Currency and costs:
Guatemala uses the Quetzal. You may use US dollars, but I always recommend using local currency. There’s not as much of a chance of being ripped off, plus you can easily withdraw money from the ATM’s. I found pricing in Guatemala to be totally reasonable.
I did a tour with Intrepid, one of my favorite tour companies. I chose Maya Encounter, which was 17 days total.
There is also a tour called Guatemala Experience, that visits these sites plus a few in Western Guatemala. This one is a little pricier though, and lasts for 9 days. The maximum group size is 16 but the tour will still run with 1 person! The tours use local transport which can be quite the adventure, and sometimes they use private vehicles. The tour leaders will organize activities for the group, or you can go off on your own. Plenty of free time is offered. I think it’s a great way to explore, but also to meet new people. Plus, your transport and hotels are already booked so it’s a very hassle free and safe way to travel. Especially if you’re a woman or if it’s your first time traveling.
Where to Stay:
Jaguar Inn – Located in Tikal National Park, this super handy place is just a short walk from the entrance to Tikal. You have the choice to stay in the bungalows, or sleep in tents. We were in tents, which was fine for one night but you might want to upgrade for comfort. They have a decent restaurant and once you’re in the park there are not a lot of dining options so this is perfect. It’s family run, and the staff is super helpful and friendly.
Las Lagunas Boutique Hotel – while I did not stay in Flores, I want to give you couple of options as the town is a popular spot to base yourself when exploring Tikal. This is a high-end place and it’s the top-rated hotel in San Miguel, just across the lake from Flores.
Ciao Cacao Hostel and Café – right in the old town of Flores, it’s for those on a budget and it has a lot of charm. Dorms and private rooms are available.
Tortugal Hotel and Marina – the coolest and most convenient place to stay in Rio Dulce. You take a short boat ride from the town to get here. The rooms are spacious clean cabins in the back of the property. They have ducks and kitties and a dog called Hefe. The restaurant out front is a great place to have a meal or a beer while looking over the river. You can even swim from the docks.
What to see and do:
Tikal – the best site to explore in this region! And because of its more remote location, it’s not super crowded with tourists.
An ancient Mayan site dating back to 300 B.C., it is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Wander deep into the rainforest jungle and discover the many temples and palaces left behind so many years ago.
You can even climb some of the temple pyramids for sweeping views over the jungle treetops.
Expect to see (or hear) howler monkeys, coatis, spider monkeys, toucans, iguanas.
You can explore on your own, or hire a guide. You can choose to do a sunrise or sunset visit, or both if you’re staying nearby. Getting tickets can be tricky. You need to purchase them at the Banrural Bank in Flores…but if you have booked a tour this will be included. If you are staying in the nearby town of Flores, you’ll need to arrange bus tickets there and back..and don’t miss the last bus back or you’ll be sleeping in the jungle!
Tips: bring a lot of water, or money to buy water in the park. It’s seriously so damn hot. Also, dress appropriately for the heat. Wear your sunscreen, and luckily there are many shady areas to hide from the sun if you need to. Take a photo of the site map at the entrance so you don’t get lost!
Flores – this cute little place has the old town on its own island, surrounded by Lake Peten Itza and is connected to the mainland by one causeway.
The modern city of Flores is considered the second oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the Americas.
Flores is fun to explore by land, or by water. Hire a boat to drive around the island; the pretty colored houses shine in the bright sunlight. Once on the island you can wander around the cobblestone streets – it’s very chill and quiet.
Also check out the main church – Catedral Nuestra Senora de Los Remedios y San Pablo Itza.
Some travelers choose to stay here while exploring Tikal; or you can do a fun day trip to explore the town.
San Felipe Castle – located on the Rio Dulce, it is a colonial fort located at the narrowest part of the river; it was meant to stop pirates from entering into Lake Izabel.
Back in the day this area was an important shipping point. You can view it from a boat, or jump off and explore the castle by foot.
Boat ride down the Rio Dulce – one of the best experiences to be had in this area.
You’ll see an island packed full of cormorants and egrets, a sea of lily pads, stilted houses in the river, locals paddling canoes through the low hanging trees.
A very peaceful and beautiful ride! You may also end up in Livingston, a town located on the river near the Caribbean.
Livingston – this small town can only be reached by boat!
Just wander through the streets of this interesting place, taking in the atmosphere all around you.
Check out the beautiful murals on the walls, the ladies making tortillas in the street. Livingston has a prominent Garifuna population, an indigenous people from the island of St Vincent in the Caribbean.
Their language is so unique…it has no written component and is only spoken, making it a difficult one to learn! There are some cool restaurants to check out here. And don’t forget to go to the passport office to have yours stamped! They say you should, but we did not……
Quirigua – an ancient Mayan archeological site that dates as far back as 400 BC! It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s not a very large site; you can easily explore it in an hour or two.
The many stelae stand tall in the open field. They are protected by huts and each was made from one single slab of red sandstone.
They are elaborately carved with faces and dates in glyphic text; each stela tells its own story.
They record history, and predict the future. You can get up close and examine the details, some of the stelae are just massive!
There are large round boulders called zoomorphs which are carved into the shapes of animals, also with some text.
Near the back of the complex is the acropolis, palace and ballcourt for exploring.
Located 40 minutes away from Rio Dulce.
Finca Paraiso – hot springs located on top of a waterfall! You can stand under the waterfall and feel the hot and cool waters mix. Around a 45-minute drive from Rio Dulce.
Volunteer at Casa Guatemala – an orphanage that houses many impoverished children from this area. They educate to give them the skills to become empowered members of the community.
Swim in the Rio Dulce, relax in a hammock – you are on vacation, right?
Semuc Champey – this natural monument has a limestone bridge atop the Cahabon River, with many turquoise pools to swim in.
The pools are stepped, and you can swim in all of them. It’s a more remote location to reach but its popularity means more tours will operate here!
Where to Eat and Drink:
La Casa de Enrico – the top-rated place to eat in Flores, offering fusion and Italian cuisine with vegetarian options. It has a waterfront view, so come for dinner and stay for the sunset views.
El Tropico – one of the older bars in Flores; a great place for beers and relaxation…and then the DJ’s and parties start at sundown
Bugamama – located in Livingston, it’s owned and operated by a nearby school that teaches students Mayan culture in agriculture and hospitality. All proceeds of the restaurant are used to support the students, as they train in a community sustainable tourism development program for their own growth and skills to take home to their villages. One of the best places to eat in the town. Try the shrimp or the fajitas and make sure you have a Coco Loco, their famous rum and coconut drink!
Casa Nostra – waterfront seating, a great place to try tapado – a yummy local dish mentioned further down in this blog!
SunDog Café – one of the most popular places to go in Rio Dulce. Located in the town near the bridge over looking the river, you can get pizza, burgers and beers. Also, a place to check out some live music!
What to eat:
Chicken pepian – a traditional Guatemalan dish. It’s like a stew; flavored with pumpkin and sesame seeds, garlic and tomatoes. It is mixed with vegetables and served over rice or with tortillas. A must have while in Guatemala!
Tapado – a seafood soup with coconut milk featuring shrimp, crab and snook fish.
Rellenitos – fried plantain with a filling of sweet bean paste, topped with sugar. How can you say no to that?
Chiles rellenos – chili peppers stuffed with rice, cheese, meat, and veggies. With tomato sauce and tortillas.
What to drink:
Gallo beer – the most famous and oldest beer in the country, dating back to 1896. It’s a pale lager, and so refreshing in the central American heat.
Gifiti – a homemade rum based bitter, soaked in roots and herbs. It’s said to have medicinal qualities, but it’s also a popular drink for shots. But be careful…it will knock you off your feet pretty quickly.
Coco Loco– found at Bugamama in Livingston, it’s a giant coconut filled with rum. It mixes in with the coconut water to provide a refreshing drink in the crazy heat.
Coffee – Guatemala makes some of the best coffee in the entire world!!
Overall it is worth spending a few days in this area of Guatemala…you’ll see so many places that are not often seen by the average traveler!