Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Guatemalan Getaway

September 7th to 10th

Returning to Guatemala, the boats are met at the Livingston docks by local Garifuna 'guides'. You can practically see them lining up the passengers and assigning themselves to their targets like marksmen homing in on their prey. Normally we would just walk on by, but Cesar, a larger than life character with a gold plated smile to match is hard to resist. We know there will be money involved, but it's probably worth it for the entertainment as he rattles through his spiel and helps us through the immigration system. He then shows us to 'The Hotel Africa' which would have been a sight to see in days gone by - rooms are huge and outside there are hanging stairways and arched courtyards.....

It's all set in beautiful flower gardens, but is starting to look a bit threadbare round the edges now....

Cesar then proceeds to give me the tour of the town, explaining how the system works and about keeping the money amongst friends and away from the Gautemaltecos. He points out all the best restaurants - best commission for him or best food - I'm not sure, but we do try 'Tapado' a rich stew of coconut milk, plantain (similar to banana, but less sweet) coriander and snapper fish. It's one of the tastiest meals I've ever had and Cesar Joins invites himself in for a beer. Money eventually makes him go away and he melts back into the crowds around the docks looking for new friends.

Livingston is unusual in that it is like a little island of a town completely cut off from the rest of Guatemala by the jungle. There are no roads leading in or out and the only access is by boat. It's remote and just a little bit edgy so far from civilisation and you need to keep your wits about you; Cesar is not the only one looking for ready cash. It's also a staging post for the drug trafficking business as boats make deliveries up and down the coast and inland on the vast river network running inland.

It's also a staging post for river tours up the Rio Dulce along a narrow canyon. We ride down to the docks, find a boat captain, load the bikes aboard and set out in search of a road....

It's a nice ride up the canyon, but nothing like the scale of The Sumidero Gorge in Mexico. The air is filled with bird calls and massive herons flap their languorous way between perches. Jungle vines tumble the valley sides which are covered in Bromeliads - tropical flowering plants and there is a hot spring to stop at and swim.

Our boat captain has fish on his mind though.

There are a number of Mayan fishermen plying their trade in dug out canoes and we make frequent stops to examine the quantity and the quality of the day's catch. Some bring their entire family along - I guess child care is hard to find in the jungle....

After several purchases I get curious and apparently his wife runs a restaurant while he runs tourists up river past the endless lily fields....

Eventually the river gorge widens out as we reach El Golfete, the first and smallest of the river's 2 lakes. Pelicans compete with the Mayan fishermen for the day's feed whilst ancient fishing boats slowly fall into ruin....

Eventually we reach the town of Rio Dulce, just as the river widens again, this time on to the vast Lago de Izabal - Guatamala's largest lake at around 230 square miles. We dock under a huge road bridge - Central Americas longest apparently....

Rio Dulce just looks horrible as we ride out from the boat docks. The main road is choked with vendors of a thousand different kinds all noisily shouting to attract their customer's attention. The bridge pours a never ending stream of traffic into this congested chaos and horns blare as both engines and drivers overheat. It's just mayhem as we try to formulate a plan of action in this seething maelstrom.

A quick U-turn and we are looking for another boat; our fourth in three days - this time to a jungle hideaway we've heard about a couple of miles up river. We bump into Uli, a Belgian motorcyclists we met in Semuc Champey who is now traveling with his girlfriend Mareka. We decide to share a boat....

It really is a jungle hideaway - wooden huts reached on boardwalks above the swamp and this is the view from the hammock and it's just wonderful....

It's run by Jonatan, a Swiss expat, about as far away from a European mountain village as it's possible to get and there's a cozy restaurant and common area with candles in the evening. It's slightly odd being served Italian spagetti, by a Swiss waiter listening to English music in a Guatemalan swamp with a Belgian couple.....

There are boats you can borrow and we paddle back to the lake for swimming and sunning on the pontoon....

There's a big American community here now lured south by cheap property and good sailing. Much of the lake is surrounded by boat mooring in this sheltered spot far enough up river to be beyond hurricane damage. I can see why they might be interested in this small slice of the good life....


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