Flores is the traditional first stop for travellers on their way from western Belize into Guatemala, and it's easy to see why. It's a small island off the southern shore of Lake Petén Itzá that's joined to the mainland by a short causeway, and its winding cobbled streets and easy-going tourist vibe make it an excellent place to relax... so that's exactly what we did.
We came in by colectivo from the Belizean border, which was a rather more crushed affair than the posh colectivos in the Yucatán, with five people squashed onto our three-seat row in the traditional manner of developing countries the world over. After taking a taxi from the bus station onto the island – or should I say tuk-tuk, as the taxis round here are identical to Thailand's classic moped-taxi – we wandered around, looking for a place to stay. As we walked around the streets, cars drove past with terrible engine troubles; they kept backfiring in the most astonishing way, every few minutes. It was most odd.
But despite the noise, we soon found a room overlooking the lake in a pleasant hotel that was almost totally empty; we saw one set of guests in our entire four-night stay, and breakfast in the morning had a slightly eerie, post-apocalyptic feeling to it, as we sat alone in the large restaurant, wondering what the rest of the world knew that we didn't. The atmosphere wasn't helped by the breakfast itself, which was a typically tedious egg-and-tomato-salsa type affair, with black coffee and limp toast, and although the hotel had a swimming pool, it was full of so much chlorine that you'd only consider dipping your toes in it if you were trying to cure athlete's foot. Still, it had a nice terrace where absolutely nobody else was trying to hog the sun loungers, and our corner room had brilliant views across the lake to the small village of San Miguel, so we were happy enough.
For it's the lake setting that's the real attraction here. The island, which you can walk around in 20 minutes, has a pleasant promenade all the way round the shoreline, and although the water level in the lake is currently a bit higher than normal following the huge storms of late October, only a small part of the walkway is flooded (and that part is shallow enough to be a haven for thousands of madly wriggling tadpoles, so it's still an interesting part of the promenade experience).
Inland from the island shore, pretty cobbled streets rise steeply up to the hilltop centre of the island, which is dominated by a white church and a small park. Here the islanders have erected a massive Christmas tree, which looks slightly surreal next to the palm trees of the plaza, but it's a reminder that round here, the festive season is really important; we're now back into the ex-Spanish colonies after our brief visit to Belize, and the Catholic faith is strong round these parts.
But it isn't European Catholicism, it's distinctly Central American, and one of the best examples hit town a couple of days after we did. We'd assumed that the bangs on our arrival were down to badly tuned Central American engines, but it turned out we were wrong; it wasn't the traffic making the bangs, but the build-up to the Quema del Diablo festival (Spanish for 'Burning of the Devil'). This festival signals the beginning of preparations for the festive season, and starts with locals giving their homes a spring clean and piling the rubbish out in the street. Because they believe that the devil lurks in dark places like dirty corners of houses, behind the sofa and in piles of rubbish, this symbolises them cleaning the bad spirits out of their houses. As 6pm approaches on the 7th of December, they light the piles of rubbish, and often they'll throw an effigy of the devil on top, just to make sure that he's good and gone. There's also a lot of firework action, and Chinese firecrackers are all the rage. Sometimes the devil effigy is stuffed with the things and pretty much explodes the pile of rubbish, scattering it among the cobblestones, which is exactly what happened to one burning devil we saw in the Flores backstreets; they just kept throwing on more firecrackers until there was nothing left of the Prince of Darkness except a burning pair of shoes.
The festivities continue with street parties. Homes and restaurants set up stalls on the street, where they sell local favourites like pastel boracho (rum-soaked sponge cake), bollitos de platano (plantain dumplings) and tamalitos de elote (corn tamales). There's loud music from blaring speakers, dancing in the street and, down by the waterfront, an old-timer marimba band playing the most godawful music you have ever encountered; I swear that it was indistinguishable from plinky-plonky videogame music from the 1980s, and it went on for hours. Still, if what you need to banish the devil is the spiritual opposite of the Rolling Stones, then so be it.
But what I don't get is how the fireworks keep on going, and going, and going. These aren't fireworks in the western tradition, they're just about noise, and while I can understand the appeal of Chinese firecrackers, I'm less convinced by those that simply explode in a massive bang, with no discernable point to them other than to induce coronary arrest through sonic assault. We'd thought the cars were backfiring, but no, it seems that the devil can only be flushed out using noise terrorism, because that night, the bangs went on through dinner and all the way to midnight. At least they didn't go on all night... but they did start up again at 3.45am, when someone thought it would be fun to let off one of the loudest bangers every five minutes until 5am. And every time they did, they set off car alarms (yes, they were that loud), and then the local dogs took it as a personal attack and started barking at each other, and then the local cockerels started up, cock-a-doodle-doing insanely until eventually they sorted it all out between themselves, before the next bang kicked off the whole cacophony once more.
And this went on all through the wee hours, in a small village on a picturesque island in the middle of a lake, and that, I don't understand, because surely almost everyone was in bed by then. Every bang, I thought I heard a crowd clapping and cheering... but it just turned out to be the dogs starting up and the cockerels kicking off, and I realised that it must be a small group of firework nutters who were committed to making sure nobody got any sleep, including us poor devils.
Apart from jumping out of our skin every time the firecrackers went off, we did precious little, as Peta wasn't feeling too well and the weather was a bit hot to go far. We did manage to take a boat over to San Miguel where we visited Tayazal, an old Mayan ruin that had some good views over the lake; this was where the people of Chichén Itzá fled to after being forced out of Mexico in the mid-15th century, and they survived here until the Spanish conquered them in 1697, by which point they were the last remaining independent Mayan state. These days there's not a lot to see except some pyramid-shaped mounds of overgrown rubble and some rather weatherbeaten stelae, but the views are worth the sweaty climb through the mosquito-infested forest.
But we mostly lounged around, reading books and drinking beer in hippy-themed lakeside bars, enjoying watching the people swimming in the lake in front of us. At this time of year, the high water levels in the lake cover the main boating quays in a couple of inches of water, hiding them from view but giving the swimmers concrete pathways just under the waterline that they use to walk out into the lake, before diving off into nothingness; it makes it look like they can all walk on water, which presumably proves that the devil has indeed been flushed out of Flores.
Now if only they'd stop letting off those military-grade explosions, we can start enjoying the festive season without jumping out of our skin every five minutes...