Around Río Dulce
On Wednesday morning we came to Río Dulce, a town next to Lake Izabal. This lake is connected to the Caribbean via the River Dulce. Supposedly, it is the safest place to dock a boat during the hurricane season.
Anyway, it felt like a haven to us too. Over the first few days we’d found Guatemala to be rainy, expensive, and short on parking options. But at Bruno’s Marina, there was a security guard, a decent restaurant with a happy hour, and best of all: strong, hot showers.
Río Dulce isn’t much of a town in itself; it’s built pretty much under a bridge. But there is a big expat community who take turns hosting parties on their boats or trivia nights at different marinas. Their life revolves around the lake.
For us landcruising folk, the town was in a nice location for day trips.
On Thursday we walked some kilometers to see the Castle San Felipe de Lara, a really small but handsome 16th century fort which the Spanish used to prevent pirate attacks. Now it’s part of a national park which Edd loved. We took a free tour of the castle, and then got a boat ride back to Río Dulce.
Early the next morning we got on a boat to Livingston, a city near the Carribean that you can only reach by water. The boat picked us up at the marina and cost 125 Quetzals (15 USD) per person each way for the hour-long journey down the river.
Livingston is special because of its Garífuna population, supposedly the descendants of shipwrecked slaves. Add to the small town the local Maya population, as well as your mestizo Spanish/Maya mix. It sounded fascinating.
When we arrived, we took a long walk. The town isn’t really wealthy, even with all the cruise ship tourists coming here on day trips.
There are no sidewalks, so you have to share the streets with impatient motorcycles and tuktuks, which means you have to step out of their path every few seconds, trying not to twist your ankle in the deep drainage ditches in the process, as I almost did. When the streets quiet down, dozens of starving dogs follow you in hopes of getting a meal.
Walking around, we were also the object of comments by Garífuna men. The first was prompted after Edd threw away his ice cream cone wrapper in the trash. A man sitting on the curb said, “I wish the Guatemalans would throw their trash away like that.” The second comment was in response to us petting one of the dogs on the street. Another man said, “The Guatemalans aren’t nice to animals like you are”.
It was interesting that these men referred to Guatemalans as if they themselves were not Guatemalan. And that there were differences between the two communities that they were dying to tell us about. Perhaps that’s why the town is sort of separated into two distinct “neighborhoods”. Unfortunately we never heard the “Guatemalan” perspective about these issues.
We made plans to stay in a hostel that Friday night, and went out for dinner at Bugamamas to try the famous local dish, Tapado, a coconut milk and fish curry! It went down very well with Coco Locos: coconuts with a liberal dose of rum inside!
A tall Garífuna man walked in and proposed to sing us two songs for 30 Quetzals. I agreed because I’d heard him tapping on his djembe and he sounded really good. But he was pretty bad.
To his credit, he croaked out Shaggy’s “It wasn’t me” in Spanish (“Yo no fui”), making up the lyrics to include seafood soup and basically everything that was on our table. To see the French women at the table next to us puff their faces roll their eyes the whole time he sang was worth every quetzal.
Our hostel had a Garífuna drumming demonstration, but after it finished, we went out to see some traditional music because it was Friday night and we had read that music would be pouring out of all the bars.
But at 11 pm, everything in town seemed dead. At one point, the electricity even went out and the world went black. Edd thought indeed he’d blacked out (nothing to do with the nearly ten Gallos we’d collectively drunk).
We ended up in a “disco” where it was only us and then Garífuna men and women. chilling and drinking bottles of Gallo (the only choice you had) and dancing.
But they weren’t dancing to Punta or the traditional Garífuna music the guides talked about. In fact, there was a digital jukebox programmed with Mexican ballads, and the patrons were slow-dancing together. I never expected to see black men in rasta hats and Nike sneakers chilling to Mexican cowboy music.
On Saturday morning, a more official cultural exchange was taking place. Mayan princesses from many different regions of the country had come to Livingston to meet members of the Garífuna community and take turns performing traditional dances and ceremonies. They all gathered in the town’s basketball court.
The Mayan women wore beautiful garments and big wooden headdresses carved with birds, virgins, and Mayan hieroglyphs. The “Queen of Petén” made a speech about importance of recognizing the different communities that belonged to Guatemala. Then the Garífuna men played music on the stage, while young Garífuna girls jumped and gyrated to the music below.
We contemplated staying another day, but in the end we took the boat back to Río Dulce. We missed sleeping in the van!
That afternoon, back at the happy hour at Bruno’s Marina in Río Dulce, a Garífuna woman was at the bar with her German boyfriend and was generously giving us advice. For example she said that only women who are pregnant and/or sexually active should eat okra (implying its slippery quality?). She was really funny.
The next morning, the expat boat-owning community was meeting right there at the marina for a sell/swap meet. Most of the expats are retired, but there were young couples like us, traveling by boat instead of by camper van! It got me thinking…
Anyway we bought a big mesh bag for our laundry, which was rising like a mountain out of our bathtub. We’ll get to it soon…
Las Cascadas Calientes
On Sunday we drove to hot springs in Agua Caliente, just a half an hour away. The highway there was horribly run-down, but the springs were so worth it!
These are so much more than your average hot springs! There are several natural hot pools you can sit in as well as a hot waterfall which gives you a pounding shoulder and neck massage! Below it all runs River Cahabón, where you can cool off.
The locals showed us where to get the yellow clay to lather on your body. We rubbed it everywhere, then let it dry. When we washed it off our skin felt amazing!
Are you surprised we stayed another day? As long as we live we’ll never get a spa day as good as this for 15 Quetzals ($2 USD).
The next day, a local guy showed Edd where you can duck underneath the waterfall to navigate some air chambers where the water is up to your neck. Edd said it was scary.
More tourists came on a day trip from Livingston and Río Dulce, but the wonderful spot never got too busy.
Back at the van though, the kids from the village were very persistent in requesting (er, demanding) Quetzals. We refused did eventually caved in and bought them a ball. They looked pretty desperate. One kid was playing with a broken phone charging cable.
In the tiny village built of sturdy wood planks and sticks, there were three shops and three churches. On Sunday night the churches all had services in the local Maya language, Kek’chi. The church was filled with candle lights and flowers. Someone played a keyboard and everyone sang along to something very bouncy. The women and men were dressed up. It did look like a lot of fun.
In the morning, I walked down to the river to wash out some underwear (we’re getting desperate). I wasn’t the only one; other women from the village were there. They sort of multitask, bathing topless in the river while soaping up their dirty clothes, scrubbing them out on a good rock, and rinsing everything downstream.
We had been so eager to swim the first day, that we’d left the van’s headlights on the first day so the battery was dead. We couldn’t find anyone with cables to give us a jump. So Edd took our house battery out from the back of the car and started the car battery with that! It was a last resort but Edd made it happen.
It’s amazing what a few hot showers and baths can do for your spirit (and of course your skin!) Already we were forgetting our first damp days here, and feeling much better about Guatemala.