Santa Elena and Flores, the base to explore Tikal, are twin cities. Yet, they couldn’t be more different.
The main bus station is in Santa Elena. It’s a huge, muddy ground from where chicken buses, minibuses, taxis and tuk-tuks leave. It’s packed with touts, tired drivers and helpers busy to retrieve luggage from the roofs of said buses.
That’s your first glimpse of Santa Elena.
Most people stay in Flores, five kilometres away, on the island linked to Santa Elena by a long bridge. Much like in Thailand, red tuk-tuks—and they probably went to the same driving school too—drive between the two cities for five Quetzales per person (less than US$1).
By comparison, Flores is an oasis of quietness. The small streets with colourful houses on both sides are picturesque. It feels like a maze but fear not, Flores is pretty safe but for the traffic—cars and tuk tuks negotiating sharp turns way too fast.
Santa Elena is a long and straight road, sporadically paved and often muddy, of local businesses and market stalls. The traffic is crazy too and people only pay attention to the red light when the police, cruising in a Hummer, is around. The rest of the time, streetlights are merely a suggestion.
Even though we’ve been there twice, Guatemala is always a bit of a culture shock. Belize is only an hour away and even Mexico isn’t far but don’t get fooled by short distances—the country, the countries in general, have very distinct flavours. Things that existed in Mexico or Belize may not be found in Guate. The cost of living is notably lower and you can tell most people barely get by. And even though tons of travellers make it to Guatemala every year, if you venture slightly off the beaten path, you are likely to be stared at the same way Westerners were stared at in China in the 1980s.
On our first day, we walked to Santa Elena and wandered in the local market, a maze of small streets, more or less covered by tin roofs and plastic covers. Locals were shopping, live chickens in their hands, picking fruits and veggies from the stalls on the ground. I managed to sneak a few pictures, quickly.
I love street photography but it’s a relatively difficult exercise in Central America. In Asia, in most places, you can walk around with your camera around your neck—most local travellers do anyway. People are not camera-shy and worst case scenario, your lens will be met with indifference. The same goes for Europe and North America.
But Latinos, although big on cellphones and various techy gadgets, aren’t shutterbugs. And there is the risk factor too—so far, I only take the camera out of my bag when I need it, I don’t have it slung across my shoulders.
I learned a lot about travel photography in the last few years. On this trip, I’m travelling with the Nikon D60 and two lenses, 18-55 mm and 55-200 mm. I left the macro prime lens at home, this isn’t the place for close-ups.
First of all, I try to smile and appear friendly when I take pictures. I avoid stumbling upon a place, click click click, and just leave. I observe first. Then I get the camera out after composing the shots in my head.
Because I don’t want to spend hours on editing pics (I made that mistake last time I was in Latin America!), I want to get the shots right. So I take my time to get the balance, focus and composition right. If I need to get closer, I do, so that I won’t need to crop later. I’m fairly happy with this new approach. I barely edited 90% of the shots so far.