As you may remember from a previous post, last year I took my first trip across Belize’s western border to Guatemala. And after having waited so long to finally go there, I immediately realised how beautiful (and cheap) the country is, and how much I wanted to go back. After taking advantage of one of the many Belizean public holidays to revisit the jungle-covered and ruin-filled Petén department back in March, now it’s the Easter weekend, and time for another trip – this time to another place I’ve already glimpsed, the Rio Dulce, in the tropical south of the country.
The Rio Dulce (Sweet River) drains the massive Lago de Izabal (Guatemala’s largest lake), and lazily winds 30 kilometres, from Rio Dulce town to its mouth at the Caribbean Sea, by the Garifuna town of Livingston. On my last visit, I stayed in Rio Dulce town (which I wouldn’t recommend to anyone), and then took a tourist boat downriver to Livingston. It was a lovely journey, but I was mildly vexed by the fact that the tourist boat, while slower than the public boat, did the trip in just two hours (and considering all the stopping, starting, and waiting, the actual journey time was probably more like one hour). And after seeing just how beautiful the river is, and discovering that there are several riverside lodges that you can stay in, it was always going be on my to-do list.
Good Friday finds me in PG, waiting for the boat to Livingston. According to all the information I’ve read online, there are boats only on Tuesdays and Fridays, with one in the morning and another in the afternoon (although they leave at wildly differing times, depending on which website you look at). But according to the sign outside the Immigration Office, there’s only one boat on Fridays and Tuesdays, and it goes in the morning. Except today, even the official information is incorrect – as it’s a holiday, the schedules have changed, and today’s boat is leaving in the afternoon (memo to self – from now on, forget the Internet, and just get to the right place early and ask a person who knows). But on the plus side, the holiday weekend means that there’s an unscheduled return boat on Easter Monday, making my trip back considerably easier.
After waiting for over an hour for the boat to finally arrive, and then loading on all the passengers and their voluminous luggage, we’re off. The Captain informs us that, as we’re over an hour late leaving, and as some of the passengers need to be in Livingston very soon to get their onward boats (and I know, I’m one of them), he’s going to have to drive a little faster than usual. Which must be nautical speak for “I’m going to hammer this bitch like a crazy mutha and slow down for no one”. Within minutes of leaving PG, we’re tearing across the water, as the Captain propels his craft with the devilish vigour of Satan driving his hellhounds into the flaming depths of the underworld. When the passengers realise what kind of journey it’s going to be, there’s a frantic scramble for the lifejackets, and then everyone just hangs on for dear life (particularly the poor sods at the front, where the bouncing motion is most pronounced; although we’re not immune from discomfort at the back, as we get an invigorating faceful of sea spray every few minutes).
We make it to Livingston in a speedy 30 minutes. And everyone’s still onboard and still in one piece. I’ve missed my scheduled boat to Rio Dulce town, but judging from all the activity on the dockside, it shouldn’t be too difficult to get another one today – Livingston is heaving with people, and the harbour is buzzing with lanchas. I’ve been to Livingston before (on a regular weekend, and in the slow tourist season), and back then it was very quiet. But today, all the restaurants are open (and full), and the streets are thronging with people. It’s the culmination of Semana Santa (Holy Week), and like the rest of Latin America, there are reenactments of the Easter story, religious processions through the town, and sawdust carpets on the streets – coloured sawdust is arranged into patterns and pictures on the ground (some of which are incredibly detailed and very beautiful, and must’ve taken hours to create), and then promptly walked over by the processions. Antigua has the most famous Holy Week celebrations in Guatemala, if not Latin America; but Livingston ain’t no slouch in that department either. The difference here is that the Garifuna locals give the festivities an Afro-Caribbean dimension not seen in other parts of Guatemala – most notably, in the form of a black Jesus! Sadly, I’ve missed him – in keeping with the original timings of the events being reenacted, he had his mock crucifixion this morning. Maybe I’ll see him on Monday?
By now, it’s time to get to my accommodation – I’m staying at the Hotelito Perdido (Lost Little Hotel), one of several places on the water between Livingston and Rio Dulce town. And after finding a lancha captain going to Rio Dulce who’s willing to drop me off, we journey upriver. The stretch of river closest to Livingston is the most spectacular – the river narrows and the land rises, and we pass through a series of gorges, the walls covered in tropical foliage that’s every shade of green. After about 30 minutes, we turn off into a small tributary, the Rio Lampara. As we travel along the quiet river through the darkening jungle, Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now spring to mind. And like Marlow/Willard being met by Kurtz, there’s a bearded, shirtless man at the hotel dock waiting for me – but it’s not a white-man-gone-native-in-the-jungle (well, not quite); it’s a Frenchman called Steve, who works at the hotel.
The lodge’s grounds seems to dissolve into the surrounding jungle, with winding gravel paths through the trees between the buildings. All the cabanas are two-storey wooden buildings, with a seating area downstairs and a sleeping area above. Constructed in tropical hardwoods like mahogany and sapodilla, and thatched with palm leaves, they’re also screened and mosquito netted (after all, we are in the jungle, with its myriad beasties). My cabana has a shared bathroom (and the shower water comes from the local river) – so, for a quick rinse, it’s easier to just jump in the river. Which is clean, warm, and (hopefully) crocodile-free.
Dinner is a communal affair, served in the restaurant/bar/lounge, and cooked by some local ladies from the surrounding villages, along with Steve and fellow volunteers Inga and Juan (who run the hotel on behalf of the owner, who’s away). The lodge is ‘off the grid’, and all its power comes from solar panels. So apart from the lights and a stereo, there’s no electrical equipment – including a fridge, meaning that food is made fresh every day (but mercifully, the beer stays surprisingly cool in the coolbox).
Despite the daytime heat, it actually gets quite cool at night, so a good night’s sleep isn’t hampered by the lack of a fan (all those beers probably helped). And the accompanying jungle sounds are far more relaxing to drift off to (and wake up to) than barking dogs and honking car horns. The only bump in the road to slumberland is having the world’s smallest and thinnest pillow, which is the size and thickness of an A4 sheet of paper, and which I have to repeatedly fold in half to give my head and neck any support.
After a breakfast of fresh fruit (the lodge grows its own tropical fruit, including bananas, papayas, and pineapples), it’s time to explore the local area. Which means getting in the kayak and paddling – there are no jungle trails to walk, and everywhere you’d want to go is on the water. At the end of the Rio Lampara is a waterfall, so that’s where we (my kayaking companion Ellen, whose fluent Spanish I will later come to heavily rely on) head towards.
The Heart of Darkness / Apocalypse Now comparisons continue as we paddle upriver. There are occasional homes on the water’s edge, and the odd person canoeing across the river or fishing. But mostly it’s just trees and water, and the noisy calls of various unseen birds. We pass several trees heavily laden with the large, dangling nests of the Oropendola bird, which makes an electronic-sounding noise like a synthesizer, and which builds nests that resemble giant’s testicles (I take great delight in explaining this to Spanish Ellen, along with using exaggerated sign language and crotch-pointing. She shakes her head and mutters something about the British).
At the end of the river, we have to secure the kayaks and walk to the waterfall. Except we didn’t bother to read the detailed instructions at the hotel, and end up wandering along a muddy path, aimlessly listening for the sound of rushing water. Eventually, we come to a village, large enough to have electricity and a shop. At the tienda, Ellen speaks to the owner while I sit outside, slowly accumulating a silent and curious audience of small brown children, one of whom is holding a chicken. A smile and a few words of my Spanish are enough to send them scampering back into their homes, leaving me with the chicken, and that doesn’t stick around for much longer (perhaps, like the children, it’s worried that I’m going to eat it?).
The shop owner, in a display of kindness that seems to be the norm in developing countries and the exception in developed ones, shows us around the village and then escorts us back down the path to where the waterfall actually is. It’s not Niagara Falls, but the water’s deep enough to swim in, and the powerful cascade allows for an enjoyably-pummelling shoulder massage.
Back at the hotel, and after another delicious home-cooked meal, the evening’s ‘entertainment’ consists of several glasses of wine (we may be in the jungle, but that’s no excuse to live like an animal), while relaxing on the dock and taking in the night sky. Being in the middle of nowhere, there’s no light pollution, and you can spend a relaxing time gazing up at the blanket of stars, trying to work out if that’s the Little Dipper or the Big Dipper or just a random group of stars that looks a bit like a dipper.
The next day, and more kayaking – this time to Ak’ Tenamit, a community development organisation that supports over 30 local villages. Yesterday’s friendly village guide mentioned that he studies English and tourism at the centre, and his description has piqued my interest. So it’s across the Rio Dulce and down the Rio Tatin we go – despite yesterday’s pathetic orienteering, and my inappropriate genital-based humour, Ellen has decided to accompany me again. The Rio Dulce is at least one hundred metres wide at this point, and as the main ‘highway’ between the towns of Rio Dulce and Livingston, it’s busy with boats. So we often have to pause for lanchas and yachts to zoom past, bouncing us up and down in their wakes, while herons, pelicans, and cormorants soar overhead. Like the Rio Lampara, the Rio Tatin is a small tributary of the Rio Dulce, and kayaking up it, we go past more small villages, old men paddling ancient-looking wooden canoes, women washing clothes, and naked children bathing. And bizarrely, a fat white man on a jet ski.
The centre is at the end of the river. And it’s far more impressive than I expected it to be – during our guided tour we see classrooms, a library, a restaurant, a health clinic, a gift shop, a kitchen, and most incredibly, a computer lab. Sadly, as it’s a holiday (Easter Sunday), most of the buildings are closed, and none of the students are here. But it’s still a very impressive operation, and looks new and well-cared-for. The computer lab has new desktop PCs, printers, and internet access, and is run by solar power. The kitchen is enormous, with some huge pots of corn bubbling away on the fire outside, and a group of Maya ladies inside making an endless stream of tortillas (I demonstrate my tortilla-making skills, which I learned at The Living Maya Experience in Belize, and which results in hoots of surprised delight from the women). The classrooms are clean and neat, the library is well-stocked with Spanish and English books, and the gift shop is huge, and full of locally-made crafts (from textile-weaving to wood-carving, the Maya are very artistic people). Ak’ Tenamit also owns two restaurants (one in Rio Dulce town and the other in Livingston), and runs classes in everything from organic farming to sustainable tourism. It even offers its own 3-year degrees (and if you don’t have enough money for the fees, you can pay in corn!).
On the paddle back, we stop at Finca Tatin, another rustic jungle lodge, but bigger and busier than El Hotelito. And finally, we pause at the hot springs (agua caliente) – sulphurous water bubbles up out of the base of a cliff into the Rio Dulce, mixing with the river water to give you a warm bath (or a hot or cold one, depending on where you’re bathing). It makes for a pleasant swim, but it would probably be more enjoyable if the day was cooler. And if I hadn’t worked myself up into a dripping sweat with all the kayaking.
That night, I’m reminded that we are in the jungle – as I walk to dinner, a bat flies in front of my face, close enough for me to feel its flapping wings and have a minor spazz attack as a result. One of the other guests tells us how there was a huge spider in their room. And the dining room is temporarily evacuated after an invasion of scorpions (I say “invasion” – there was three of ‘em, but that’s still three more scorpions than I’d like to see, especially as I’m walking around barefoot). But despite the rustic obstacles, it’s still a lovely place to relax for a few days – the lodge (and the whole river) are in the Parque Nacional Rio Dulce, one of Guatemala’s oldest protected areas, and a beautiful, natural part of the country.
The following day, as I take a lancha back through the verdant gorge to Livingston, the heavens open. And it continues all the way back to Belize. Livingston is under a downpour, and the boat trip back to PG (driven by the same insane Captain from Friday) is under continuous torrential rain, necessitating the use of a huge tarp to cover the passengers. It doesn’t work, and everyone alights the boat in various states of damp disarrangement. But it’s a small price to pay for another great weekend in Guatemala.