The Carribean, Guatemala-style

Trip Start Nov 15, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
Hotel Casa Perico

Flag of Guatemala  ,
Friday, March 23, 2007

Had to farewell Isabelle in Guatemala City this morning and it was naturally a sad occasion, only made easier by the fact that we know it won´t be as long as 18 months until we meet again.

She is a great travel companion and we´d travel with her again in a flash. She was given strict instructions to get her couch ready for us in London and her famous Gratin Dauphinois in the oven.

We spent all day on a non air-con bus on dusty roads and are shattered by the time we arrive in tropical Puerto Barrios on the north coast of Guatemala. It is a typical port town, trucks thundering past at all hours, everyone seems in a hurry to get somewhere else.

We ate at a simple cafe and got talking to Victor, a waif-like man with a wrinkled nut-brown face, grey hair and beard. His lack of teeth made his Spanish a tad difficult for us to understand, but he was a patient speaker and we soon understood that he was 54 years old (we had silently guessed 75), a shoe cleaner and a devout Christian. Alone in the world except for El Señor (Jesus) and Santa Maria (the Virgin Mary).

Meeting people like this is all at once very interesting and really distressing. You feel that life is horribly unfair when you have a comparitive life of ease tripping around the world, never knowing poverty and hunger when other people like Victor really struggle. Despite our feelings of sadness we enjoyed the conversation, paid for his Nescafés and agreed to meet him at the cafe the next day so he could clean our shoes for us.

Next morning we bought a decent breakfast for Victor and he made a great job of cleaning our shoes. Walked to the wharf to catch the boat to Livingstone and a guy from the hotel biked up to us questioning us about the hotel towels. He thought we might have taken them by accident and we needed to use our developing Spanish to explain that the cleaner had them. Stay in cheap hotels like we do and a missing towel can seriously hammer their profit margins!

The trip across the lagoon was scenic, reminding us of our time on the Caribbean coast of Honduras due to the lush jungle down to the white sand, turquoise blue water and patterned cloudy sky.

Livingstone town itself is cute and clean. It has a mix of cobbled and dirt streets, wooden buildings, white-washed tourist establishments and others with weather-worn bare boards. The predominant culture here is the Garifuna black culture with their Caribbean reggae-like rhythms and their love for the sea. It is friendly and laid-back, no one seems in a hurry. We noticed only two or three taxis in town but this seems plenty given they only have two or three kilometres of roads here.

The Garifuna feel quite separate from the rest of Guatemala, but seem proud of their different culture and the fact that other Guatemalans will travel from far and wide to see their special corner of the country.

Interesting food there too. Predominantly seafood.based, platano and coconut milk feature in soups and stews.

The next morning we headed off in a boat with a handful of other people to Rio Dulce, down (you guessed-it) the Rio Dulce. A truly beautiful trip, the river had high jungle-clad cliffs on each side. We passed large grey pelicans looking for a feast on the nearby fishing boats joined by cormorants and egrets hoping for some scraps.

At one point, the cliffs lowered and the river widened to a pretty area where local indigenous people fished among the lily pads and flowers. A little stop on the side of the river and we were able to jump into some mini hot-springs bubbling up through the cold river water.

We had the usual tourist stop to buy souvenirs, but rather than some over-priced concrete gift shop on a dusty road we floated up a tributary to a jungle area with beautiful wooden and palm covered buildings. The Quiché tribes here sell high-quality crafts to make a living and despite having no intention to purchase souvenirs we leave with a brightly-painted, varnished bowl made from a coconut husk and several handmade gift cards made from corn husks and typical Guatemalan woven cloth. A special place.

Rio Dulce itself is nothing special, really a service town for the surrounding area. We choose to stay at Casa Perico a jungle-set budget lodge three minutes by boat from the town. I think the mosquito net draped over our bed looks kind of romantic, luckily it is the dry season and there are very few mosquitos - because from experience they are anything but romantic!

Visit El Castillo, a restored fort down river and for one of the first times see "rich" Guatemalans on holiday visiting their own country. They´re pretty loud and the children tend to be on the chubby side with conspicuously-labelled clothes. Much like children in the Western world, really!

Still, a nice-enough place and great to see Guatemala caring for it´s historic places so well.
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