Rio Dulce and Livingston

We awoke at 9, packed and ready. After a quick trip to the local store for some chocomilk and chilled cappuccinos, we waited for our 9.30am bus to Rio Dulce.

At 10am, we began to worry.

We called the guy who had sorted the bus out for us, no answer.

A couple of locals were inquisitive about what I was doing and gladly looked at the ticket. Speculating that it was a fake, they meant well, but didn’t help the situation. So I returned to our hotel and asked the help of the manager. She tried calling him and explained that he probably was out of signal but would definitely be available after 12. So I calmed myself down and we waited.

Deciding to use the time to have breakfast, we went to a joint we knew overlooking the lake and had these wonderful crispy tortillas, layered with refried beans, egg, salsa and guacamole.

Returning to the hotel at 12, I made the fateful phone call.

Cesar, the managers husband handed me the phone and made the gesture to talk. We were through! After a conversation with the very apologetic agent, we were booked onto another bus leaving the neighbouring town of Santa Elena at 2. He arranged for a lift out of town to the bus and before we knew it, we were away.

Dramatic clouds roll into view over Santa Elena as we leave.

The left earpiece of my headphones had stopped working. An annoyance, with the constant din of the bus engine beneath us, but I whiled away the 4 hours in my book, that was getting rather heated, matching the fanless temperature in the bus.

We arrived in Rio Dulce and finally felt like we had hit the real Guatemala. A bustling little village on the edge of the largest lake in the country. It’s streets were paved with local stalls selling fresh fruit through to industrial rolls of plastic sheeting. The sounds of the trucks rolling by and the smells of the freshly fried chicken made it a real experience and wandered between the tightly packed markets, soaking it all it.

The bustling street.

I replaced my headphones with a very cheap pair of fake/mid 70’s Sony’s and we checked into what I can only describe as a room. No frills. No views. A means to an end.

Later we heard it was a stop off and tranfer point for a local drug cartel. This might have explained all the brand new DMC pickup trucks parked in the forecourt……

The late bus meant we had missed the last boat to Livingston. So we rested and hoped the good weather would continue into the next morning, for the exhilarating boat ride into the carribean town of Livingston.

The morning came after a night of rain, but the skies had cleared. We made our way down to the dock and bought tickets for the next small launchas, boat, into Livingston.

A launchas. Not ours but a launchas none-the-less.

The ride began with a detour upstream into the largest lake in Guatemala. Lago Izabel. It was stunning, the calm waters, surrounded by a ring of lush green vegetation and the odd thatched house here or there.

We had a brief sail-by of Castello San Felipe, which was an old fort on the cusp of the lake, originally used to fend off invading pirates, later claimed by pirates and more recently used as a prison. It now stood dormant.

You can almost picture crazy little pirates on the battlements....

The rest of the boat ride was exhilarating. The spray from the boat along with a steady breeze kept us cool, whilst the clear views of the jungle along side the Rio Dulce, kept us wandering what lived in the thicket.

As we went through bend after bend in the river, I found it reminiscent of Jurassic Park, the theme tune whirling through my mind, a blast back to my childhood and the first whim of homesickness!

It was nipped in the bud as we stopped at an island inhabited by birds and then a longer stop at a hot spring and some caves, which I didn’t dare to enter.

As we journeyed along at a slower pace, a few kids in wooden canoes managed to paddle up beside us, trying to sell us local necklaces and trinkets.

One of the canoe hustlers.

Soon they couldn’t keep up as we raced toward the final destination, Livingston.

We turned the last bend and the town revealed itself. Rusty boats lulled by piers and the dusty old fishing town came into full view. Our gaze was torn away from the old rustic feel, as a twister raged off the coast.

The twister!

We managed to get a glimpse of it before it receded slowly back into the clouds as if it had never existed. A serpent of air, meeting with the sea, creating a bending torrent of water. It was amazing, the first real natural disaster in the making that I had seen with my own eyes.

I joked with the launchas driver to take us closer. I don’t think he quite understood me. In hindsight, I don’t quite know what I would have done if he had agreed and ventured closer.

We docked, got off, surrounded by local Garifuna people trying to take people to hotels. A very high mumbling local seemed to had unfortunately latched onto us and we ended up walking around town with him to find a place to stay. He just wanted a tip from a hotel. Or us.

After managing to strike an actual conversation with him, we found out he knew one of the hustlers from Caye Caulker, High Life and we gossiped about how he was arrested while we were there. Apparently he had heard of it already. News travels faster than us I guess.

We finally rested upon a quiet set of cabañas by the rivers edge, a good 5 mins walk out of town. Mosquito nets, check. Good view, check. Hammocks, check. It ticked all the right boxes.
Rucksacks were dumped, time to explore.

Livingston, what more can I say.

After eating we headed down a street where we saw a local Garifuna handing out flyers to a local eatery along with a couple of Auzzies we had come on the launchas with. We were about to head back into town but the local, Prince Phillip of Livingston, or so he called himself, decided to take us on a tour of the real town. North of the tourist hub Livingston had become.

The Garifuna village, in all its secretive glory.

Through small gaps between rudimentary houses and up a small hill, we entered an area of haphazard half builds and settlements that made up the Garifuna village. An old hotel was now their hospital, aid workers and volunteers were busy at work. The local school which they had built theirselves.

Phillip was very proud of the little outcrop and even spoke about wanting a Garifuna representative in the Guatemalan government. The walk back through what I can only describe as the slum, showed us the real Livingston. Stray dogs wandering around, fat bellied pigs snoozing by the side of the road and a whole bunch of locals propped up against half built concrete buildings.

The Prince of Livingston, with his fuzzy white beard.

The tour ended as quickly as it began and we found ourselves back on Calle Principale. We waved good by to the fuzzy haired old rasta, Prince Phillip and walked back for a snooze.

We had been invited back at 9, to watch a local Garifuna music night, so we met up with the Auzzies and heading back toward the Garifuna part of town. We heard it a mile off. A lot of drumming, whaling and marracas, but the atmosphere was worth it.

We politely left after the second set ended and decided to call it a day.

Finally a good night sleep.

Nothing planned for the next day

We awoke later than usual and had a relaxed breakfast. There were plenty of tours we could have taken, for around 100 Quetzales, around $12 but budgets are budgets. Instead we braved the trip up the coast to find a beach the owner of our hotel had told us about. It was about 45mins in the heat, up a winding lane and them along a dirt track with a final stint along a refuse littered beach.

We finally arrived at what could not have been called a beach and so decided to go on. There were apparently some waterfalls another 45 mins up the coast. So we journeyed on. Trawling our way through odd flip-flops, empty water bottles, plastic bags and scraps of polystyrene, the junk washed up from seemed like whole eastern seaboard of Central America.

A nicer view of the coastline.

We finally arrived at the waterfalls. After paying an entrance of 15 Quetzales, a random little kid decided to lead us up the river through the waterfalls. We walked across the torrent of water, transversing one small waterfall after another. Watching my footing was my main focus, but the rocks provided a healthy amount of friction and the water rushing past our feet didn’t really stream past with any real power.

We made it up to the top waterfall and took a dip, Fawaz taking a plunge from the top. My risk calculation centre of the brain put up to much of a fight and I succumbed to it’s alarm bells and refrained from climbing the slippery rocks.

We returned to the entrance, the kid still leading the way.

It was time to head home. The kid was still there. We soon realised he was also returning to Livingston. Strange little lad, he refused to tell us his name and often stropped about something or other in Spanish, but still remained on the path with us, pointing out crabs and spiders and lizards along the way. So we named him pequenio amigo and journeyed back through the trash.

Me, the kid and the trash.

Half way back, the kid ran up ahead to a boat that was anchored on the beach. A couple of local lads were piling crates of soda and other goods onto the beach for a Garifuna family on the shore. They were returning to Livingston so we negotiated for them to take us, including the kid, back to town for 10 Quetzales each.

The little scruff, content with his free ride back into town!

We helped take a few crates into the Garifuna’s huts, receiving thanks, we boarded the boat and set off down the choppy coast. The young drivers of the boat seemed to be trying to get as much ‘air’ off of each wave, which made for more than just a bumpy ride. But a fun one at that. the coast glistened in the dying hours of the afternoon and we saw the path we had taken earlier in the day. The Garifuna township slid by and we made the final bumpy bend into the mouth of the Rio Dulce and the Livingston dock.

On shore the kid said his adios and ran off to play football.

We never saw that little scruff again.

Dinner took place by the Atlantic at a small Garifuna restaurant. We were recommended and taken there by an Austrian chap who was staying next to us.

Local fish, rice and beans, as usual. A healthy portion with a much needed cold Pepsi.

We were at the heart of the local community as the sun set. Kids were chasing each other around the street, a dog chased a pig up the road at one point and my chase for these types of experiences had come to an end.

Satisfied by a good days adventuring, sleep came quick and fast.

The sun shone through many cracks in the cabaña.

We woke late, as this lazy town permitted. Breakfast was fruit and toast with a strong coffee. After gathering energy in the hammocks like lizards bathing on the warmth of sun drenched rocks, we finally decided on a walk out of town to a local Quechi Maya village.

Javier, the own of our residence, told us it was an hours walk west of town.

The trek took twice as long. Through jungle and fields, all the while the sun tore down on. Sweat was dripping off my body in droves and after the first hour I was positively drenched.

The jungle around us kept a constant beat. Every now and again a bird would chirp, or a condor would screech from a great height. All along the insects of the jungle kept up a high pitched din, like the drone of a circular saw, slowly edging it’s way through a plank of MDF.

By this time it was baking and we needed to rest every 15 minutes.

The view from the desert road.

We finally made it to the small collection of thatched buildings and managed to find a very understocked store which sold us small bags of mineral water. Along with a few biscuits of course.

It was 2pm and the next collectivo back into town was at 4. We spent that time exploring, delving deeper into the village via a very empty hotel, also a collection of small thatched houses. The village was littered with livestock. Chickens, turkeys, geese, pigs and dogs. Although I don’t think they ate the dogs. Unlike my previous experiences with the Vietnamese.

They lived a very simple life. Local children were coming in and out of the village with an assortment of good in the bowls on their heads. Fruit and buns were the most common import. Fires burned by the huts and the locals were all busy clearing land around their houses or simply preparing food. We refrained to taking pictures as we had been advised that some Maya take offence, believing the act of capturing them on film, took a part of their soul.

I’m not in the same line of business as the grim reaper, so the canon stayed firmly in the daysack.

The truck ride back into town cost only 5 Quetzales and was bumpy to say the least. It wasn’t a road but more like a series of haphazard rocks and stones.

But we made it, exhausted yet satisfied at another days successful exploration.

We ate a healthy Mexican meal and crashed out on the hammocks.

Later, hunger filled us again and we ate on a small concrete pier behind a whole host of buildings, deep in the centre of Livingston’s docks. A small plastic table was presented to us, along with chairs and Pepsi’s. We were surrounded by wooden slat piers, rusty boats and the smell of gasoline from the boat fuel depot just next to us.

It looked like a scene from a James Bond movie. Expecting sparks and explosions to fly out of a nearby boat at any moment, we returned, to sleep.

As I lay in the hammock before I sleep, I realise my moustache has become a calendar to the days I have been away from home. I begin to miss my loved ones. My family. My friends. That sinking feeling you get in the pit of your stomach. A knot.
A stone dragging your emotions downward.

The knot unravels as I look out at the Rio Dulce estuary, at the stars and the waving palms. I am drowning in a wealthy of experience and it shall carry me over those homesick moments and safely back into the company of those that I miss.

Tomorrow it’s on to Antigua and the next chapter of the journey.

Buenas tardes mes amigos!