As easy-going and lovely as Flores is, it’s time to move on. Having already had trouble from the Coyotes, I decide to eschew the tour agencies and travel like a local (travel agents in virtually every Guatemalan tourist town can book private shuttle buses for tourists, but they’re more expensive than public buses; and some of the agents aren’t exactly legit, either). So I take a tuk-tuk from Flores to Santa Elena bus station, and jump on the first bus to Rio Dulce town. Simples.
Less than an hour outside Flores, and the bus makes a painful grinding sound, and slows to a stop. The driver and conductor get out, go round the back, and peer at the engine. After a while, most of the passengers get out too. Several of them go to the back of the bus and chat to the busmen (needless to say, I don’t join the conversation – my ignorance of Spanish is almost as great as my ignorance of mechanical vehicles). Eventually, everyone gets tired of the excuse to stretch their legs and void their bladders. But the bus isn’t moving. We even have a go at push-starting it, which is spectacularly unsuccessful and lasts for about one minute and ten metres.
After about an hour, an empty replacement bus arrives (other buses have gone by, but they’ve all been full, and have just tooted their horns cheerfully at us as they’ve roared past). We pile on, and continue our journey. The trip to Rio Dulce is scheduled to take about four hours, and we’re an hour behind already. But the journey is beautiful, as we twist and turn our way through the mountainous and jungle-covered Petén department. There’s a meal break mid-way, where I indulge in the classic Guatemalan roadside dish of Pollo con Papas (chicken and chips). And on we go, into the flat, tropical area of Izabal.
After about four hours, and just outside Rio Dulce, disaster strikes again – and it’s in the now-familiar form of a bus break-down. Again, the driver and conductor get out (only this time, they’re staring at a large oil stain on the ground, and examining a piece of the bus that has apparently fallen off). And again, we all get out and wait (except this time, it’s raining and getting dark, and it’s not quite as tolerable as before). Another hour is spent waiting for the bus to be fixed (which doesn’t happen), and then waiting for another replacement bus (the second of the journey). And then we’re on our way. Again. On the third bus of the day. I’m starting to wish I took the tourist minibus…
By the time we get to Rio Dulce, it’s after dark. The town seems to consist of one main street that’s bumper-to-bumper with noisy, smoke-belching lorries, all queuing up to drive over an enormous bridge. I’ve read (and been told) that the nicest places to stay are outside town, on the water. But it’s late, and I just want to eat, shower, and sleep. So I find a place that’s in town, but far enough away from the sound of large trucks revving their engines. My room even has a river view – if you go outside to the verandah and stand on a chair, that is.
Daylight allows me to see what an unappealing place Rio Dulce is – after the quiet quaintness of Flores, the noise, traffic, and dust is quite a shock. But its location, at the point where Lago de Izabal (Guatemala’s largest lake) empties into Rio Dulce, is perfect. Apparently, this is one of the safest places in the Caribbean for boats during hurricane season, which explains the large contingent of yachties in the hotel bar last night. Leaving the town centre, it’s a pleasant walk along the lake edge to the Castillo de San Felipe. The mini medieval castle was built by the Spanish to stop British pirates (needless to say, it didn’t work – if we want to get drunk, steal things, and smash stuff up, we will find a way). The fort isn’t architecturally stunning (certainly not if you’ve been to Tikal); but it has expansive views of the enormous lake, with its rusty cannons pointing towards the highlands in the distance.
Back in town, and after having a half-pidgin-English / half-pidgin-Spanish conversation with the staff at the dock, I manage to book myself a seat on a boat to Livingston tomorrow.
My main reason to come to this part of the country is to take the trip down the Rio Dulce, the sweet river, a 30 km journey that finishes at the river mouth in Livingston. You can go on public boats that do the journey non-stop in less than an hour, but I pick the tourist boat (more expensive, but slower, and with several stops along the way).
Confusingly, the very first thing we do is go in the opposite direction to Livingston, back into Lake Izabal – and the first stop on the tour is the very castle that I spent yesterday afternoon at! We also pick up some more passengers, from some lovely-looking hotels on the lakeside (places I would definitely stay in if I was ever here again, as opposed to bunking in a hotel under a bridge, like a holidaying troll). Then we head back out of the lake and into the river. And then immediately stop for fuel (why do so many drivers of public transport in developing countries do that? Why not just fill up the tank first, before the passengers get on?).
But once we’re on our way, the journey is beautiful. After about 10 km, the river widens again, into another lake, one that’s the home to rare manatees (although the chances of seeing the elusive ‘sea cows’ are as slim as the manatees are not). In the middle of the lake, we stop at several islands that are home to some of the thousands of birds that live in the surrounding national park. And as the main ‘highway’ between the two towns, the river is busy – boats range from wooden canoes paddled by local fishermen to luxury yachts full of white Americans.
Past the lake, and the last stretch of the river, closest to Livingston, is the most spectacular – the river narrows, and we pass through a series of gorges, the walls covered in tangled vines and tropical foliage. Then the river widens again, and we’re at the mouth, and the Garifuna town of Livingston.
Sitting where the Rio Dulce empties into the Amatique Bay (and still only accessible by boat), Livingston is a unique Guatemalan town, with both a Caribbean and a Central American culture, home to both the Garifuna and the local Maya. The Garifuna and their unique culture are one of the many ingredients in Belize’s melting pot, and their music and festivals are justly famous (and I’ve already written about them several times, so I won’t repeat myself here). As a result, Livingston feels like Garifuna towns in Belize (the Maya dimension makes it a bit like Punta Gorda).
The slow boat may be slower than the fast boat, but it still does the journey in less than three hours, rather than the entire day that I thought it would take. So I have the afternoon to enjoy the urban delights of Livingston. Admittedly, it’s not the prettiest town in Guatemala, but it’s nowhere near as shabby as my guidebooks suggest. The waterfront setting is lovely, with the river mouth on one side and the sea on the other; and like Flores, there are plenty of cafes and restaurants. And the local food is delicious – my lunch is the local specialty Tapado – a wok-sized bowl of spicy soup made with coconut milk and coriander, containing a whole fish, a whole crab, some huge shrimp, and some clam-like shellfish, along with plantains and rice. It takes me over an hour to eat it, and I have to spend the rest of the day lying down. No offense to tasty Belizean Garifuna dishes like Sere and Hudut (which are similar), but Tapado is one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten, and worth the trip to Livingston alone. I already know what I’m eating tomorrow…
I take a walk along the beach to Las Siete Altares, a set of seven stepped waterfalls, where you can swim in some very cool water and take a refreshing (ie, cold) shower under the falls. As it’s Sunday, there are several local families here. And as I’m a strange-looking white foreigner, I’m the centre of attention for everyone (which mostly means the adults unsuccessfully trying to teach me Spanish, and the kids wanting me to take part in their swimming races).
Livingston’s beaches aren’t exactly the stuff of Caribbean dreams (I’ve seen better in Belize and Mexico); but the water is clean, and on the way back I pass through several small villages (the Garifuna villages and the beach setting reminds me of Hopkins in Belize). And at the end of the walk, where the beach meets the town, I get chatting to one of the local characters in a bar over a Coco Loco (white rum poured into a green coconut). He tells me that San Francisco hippy Jerry Garcia (from 1960’s American psychedelic rock band The Grateful Dead) used to have a holiday home here, met him by chance, bought him a guitar (and taught him to play it), and then paid for him to go to college in the US. It’s a story of such outrageous implausibility that I actually believe him (plus, I’ve heard crazy-but-true stories like this before – there’s a Belize City taxi driver who claims he used to work for Muhammad Ali in the 1970s, and keeps an A4 photo of him and the boxer in a plastic bag in his cab at all times to prove it!). So maybe fact is stranger than fiction.
Time to leave Guatemala and head back to Belize. Depending on which source I consult (paper, electronic, or human), there’s a daily boat from Livingston to Punta Gorda. Or there’s a boat only on Tuesdays and Fridays. Or there are no scheduled boats at all, but one goes whenever there are enough passengers. In other words, I have no idea what the truth is. At the dock, I’m told that the Tuesday and Friday schedule is the correct one. Which is unfortunate, as it’s Monday. But there are daily runs to PG from the nearby Guatemalan port of Puerto Barrios, and regular boats from Livingston to Puerto Barrios. So I head 30 minutes in the opposite direction to where I want to go, in order to take a boat trip twice as long as the one I want to take.
But the journey across the bay is lovely, with a constant view of forested mountains and palm-fringed beaches, sandwiched between clear sky and blue sea. The tropical reverie ends as soon we get to Puerto Barrios, where the captain navigates the tiny boat between some gargantuan tankers, and around oil slicks and floating islands of rubbish.
Puerto Barrios isn’t somewhere I’d choose to linger. Historically, it’s an interesting place – having once been the property of America’s United Fruit Company, who used their control of the port, the railways, and the banana plantations to virtually run the country, becoming one of the richest companies in the world in the process, and doing everything from exploiting its workers and buying out its competitors to bribing governments and working with the CIA to sponsor coups. But aesthetically, the town has seen better days, with crumbling wooden buildings and potholed streets.
Thanks to a slightly dodgy-looking (but actually quite nice and honest) local guy, who approaches me as soon as I get off the boat, I’m able to buy my ticket to PG, get my passport stamped, and eat breakfast (my first authentic Guatemalan breakfast – it’s about time I left the granola and fruit and got back into the eggs, beans, and tortillas) with the minimum of fuss. And then it’s back on the boat, back across the bay, and over some very choppy Caribbean Sea to PG, more Belizean rain, and a six-hour bus ride back to Belize City. But at least I get plenty of time to think about all the other places I’d like to visit on my next trip to Guatemala.