Although Flores was an attractive destination in its own right, and my favorite town in Guatemala, the real reason tourists make their way to this jungle-shrouded corner of Guatemala is for the ruins of Tikal. The site is about an hour northeast of Flores, and transportation (via -- you guessed it -- a white tourist van) can be arranged via hostels around town, including Hostel Los Amigos.
The van picked us up outside our hotel at around 4:30am, while the town was still clouded in darkness, and drove us along the black road toward the ruins. We were surrounded by chattering 20-somethings unfazed by the lack of sleep -- the consequence of choosing cheap, shared transportation. The entry fee to Tikal is Q$150 (US$16), and an extra US$13 if you opt to take the "sunrise tour," which departs at an ungodly 3am and gets you to the top of Temple IV in time to see the sunrise. Its apparently unlikely to see the sunrise before the clouds have burned off in the morning anyway, so we opted to skip the 2am wake-up time.
We opted to tour Tikal with a phD trained archeologist named Roxy, who provided us with more information than we could even make sense of about the site and translated plaques from their original Mayan. We spent upwards of three hours with her for an extremely reasonable $75. When emailing her to set up your tour, she will ask your special interests, and since I mentioned wildlife she spent time pointing out howler and spider monkeys, coaxed a tarantula from its den in Yaxha (the other ruin site we visited), and even caught a small, brightly colored snake which slithered over my hands.
Tikal itself was impressive, second only to Coba in the Yucatan as my favorite ruins visited to date. We toured the main plaza, which is set on either side by impressive restored temples, and climbed Temple IV, which provided an amazing view across the jungle in the blazing heat of midday. To echo every other tour guide, I would highly recommend going in the early morning, as crowds teemed in and the temperature soared by around 11am.
The lesser -known site of Yaxha is a bit further from Flores, and much less touristed -- except for what appeared to be a school group visiting, we only ran across a handful of people while visiting. Roxy provided us with transportation to and from the site and another several-hour tour for US$150. I'm not sure that Yaxha is as worth the effort as Tikal, but it was definitely less crowded and still provided some impressive temples that we were able to climb.
Overall, we highly recommend Roxy if you are visiting the region and want a very experienced guide -- her wealth of knowledge was incredible and she was obviously very passionate about the subject. You can reach out to her via her website to book a tour.
Ending our Trip
Overall, our favorite spots in Guatemala were Antigua and Flores. Maybe it was due to high expectations or the unfortunate food poisoning episode, but I felt Lake Atitlan did not live up to its hype. The country is certainly unique in its high concentration of modern Maya, and on a repeat visit I would like to explore less well-known areas of the Western highlands. Lessons: do not wash your lettuce, do eat at Pollo Campero, and prepare to be surrounded by young backpackers!