First stop... Rio Dulce (12-14 Dec)
Trip Start Dec 11, 2004
7Trip End Jan 11, 2005
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Navigating the bus through narrow streets is no easy task. The driver has a 'spotter' who, as the bus makes its way, is all over the bus, at times even hanging from the outside of the bus. Their teamwork is like an expertly choreographed dance. You may think I'm being overly dramatic. I'm not. It is a thing of beauty. We navigate impossibly tight corners, cover dozens of city blocks in reverse at speed and challenge rival companies' buses for position. The guys who dock the space shuttle can't do what these guys do.
Our Fuente del Norte bus is an 'express' yet we make random stops. There doesn't seem to be a pattern since some wishing to board are passed by. I conclude 'express' means 'we don't stop for everyone, just for some'. The efficiency of the loosely organized system impresses me. Several passengers are picked up and delivered before we even leave the city. By the time we do leave city limits the bus has collected several additional fares and is now packed for maximum revenue.
At each stop vendors offering trinkets, snacks, and drinks (papas fritas (fried potatoes), helado (ice cream), and sodas) board the bus. I am reminded of my college marketing professor's claim that Latin America has the most efficient distribution system in the world. Product comes to you instead of you going to the product.
Rio Dulce: 11:00PM
After a long bus ride we cross Rio Dulce via a span bridge that we are told is the tallest man made structure in Central America.
On the North side of the bridge is Rio Dulce (sometimes called Fronteras). The town on the South side of the bridge is known as El Relleno. If you accidentally get off the bus in El Relleno you have a long walk over the bridge to Rio Dulce. No, we didn't make this mistake (Thank you Lonely Planet!)
Guide books warn of locals who earn referral fees from hotels. Sometimes their advice is good. Sometimes it's not. You just never know. On cue, a local boy (William) of 8 or 9 greets us. We realize it is late and our choices may be limited. Not wanting to make a hasty decision, we ask William if he knows where we can get a cerveza. He grabs our bags, which nearly outweigh him, and totes them to a nearby market/cafe. William is a worker bee. He's polite, smart, and, best of all, not too pushy. He waits patiently while we discuss our options.
We decide to try a place on the river called "Bruno's".
Rio Dulce, because it's a short sail from the southern Carribean islands, is a place where a lot of 'yachties' (yacht people) collect. Bruno's seems to be its nerve center. Steve (Manager) knows the comings and goings of every boat and the gossip on most people though he never leaves the Cantina. He's also a great source for travel information.
The gate is locked. We quietly whisper "Hello?" into the darkness. A guard (Mario) approaches carrying an AK 47. We ask if there are beds available, there are, so we negotiate a price. For 80 quetzals we get two bare bulb rooms con ventilador (fan). The fan is important. It helps keep flying insects away. (I later learn Mario overcharges us by double. I don't really care because it's only $5 US and I don't want to piss off the guy who walks around at night with a machine gun. I'm more than a little surprised that I get a refund from Steve, the Manager, the next day.)
Happy Birthday Jim
We've been on the road for well over 24 hours. It's now December 13th, Jim's Birthday. I'm exhausted but I try to rally. Though closed, there are three people partying under the corrugated awning that serves as Bruno's restaurant/cantina (see picture above). Garth (a kiwi), Jesse (US ex-pat), and Bruce (Canadian ex-pat).
Garth had left New Zealand to drive from Mexico to... South? On his way South his van hit and killed a farmers cow that had strayed onto the road. This cost him a month in jail and $3,000 in attorney fees. He's now just another broke expatriate trapped in Central America. He is working on securing $10,000 to buy a boat and sail home. Jesse, it turns out, is a psychotic blonde hottie with a tendency towards rage and violence. Bruce works for a honduran mining company and is in Rio Dulce on business.
The discussion turns to politics and Jesse has had enough of Garth's opinions. She tells him to shut up several times. Garth begins to apologize. She cuts him off by breaking a beer bottle and threatening him with the jagged bottle neck. Bruce settles things down and it becomes apparent that Jesse's problem is not Garth's political views. Jesse is an attention whore. I've never met such a person. Whenever the conversation diverts she has some sort of outburst to regain center stage. It's not even subtle. Later in the night she cuts her hand shattering an ashtray. I get tired of her and turn in at 1:30AM (not much of a rally). Jim continues until 5:00AM. Jim's resources are impressive when there's the chance of a good time to be had.
13 December: Recovery Day
We don't do much during the day. We sleep late and make a trip to the bank, that's about it. Laying on hammocks we meet two nurses, Doenja and Sarah, that are also staying at Bruno's. They are Dutch. Jim and I plan to leave for Flores the next day but Doenja and Sarah mention a boat trip down river a few kilometers to a town on the Carribean coast called Livingston. We decide to spend another day at Bruno's and join them tomorrow.
Bruce tells us the Hotel Backpackers makes an amazing pineapple mango shrimp dish; so that night, we walk across the bridge with him, to El Relleno to try it out. He's right. It's outstanding. Even more outstanding is the long legged blonde from France that turns out to be our cook. Our waitress, also very cute, is French Canadian.
Hotel Backpackers is run by volunteers from all over. The money the hotel/hostel makes supports an orphanage located on an inland farm (finca). The orphans work the farm, which supplies food to the hotel, a great example of vertical integration.
14 December: Livingston
We hire a 'lancha' (launch) to take us down river. Rio Dulce (the river not the town) is warm, wide, shallow and slow moving. A small cluster of islands a little down river have been set aside as a bird sanctuary. We circle the sanctuary and continue on to a hot spring.
After a quick swim in the spring waters we have ticked off all of the tourist "to do's" and head for Livingston. The boat ride is almost the best part of the trip. We glide along smoothly as steep banks of lush growth rise above us on both sides.
Only a few miles of Guatemalan coast separate Belize and Honduras on the Carribean side. This is Guatemala's access to the Atlantic. Livingston is small town along this stretch and has more of a carribean, rather than latin, feel. The buildings are brightly painted and the residents are colorful as well. Some local women convince the girls to get their hair braided. Jim and I decide to hunt down some mojitos. We come across Tilinga Linga, a small restaurant run by Maria. Maria says she used her 15 minutes of fame when she lived in the US by turning in a fugitive she had seen on America's Most Wanted. Her real claim to fame is she makes a damn good mojito. I'd like to find out if her cooking is as good as she boasts. I suspect it is, but our boat drivers/guides recommend highly a stop at El Viajero (the traveler), a restaurant, on our return trip upriver.
El Viajero is built right on the riverbank. A large deck resting on piers over the water serves as the dining area. I order Pescado Entero (Whole Fish) and it's good. The recommended dish is ordered by Sarah. It is a fish soup served in an enormous bowl. The fish's head and tail protrude over the sides, which gives Sarah some pause. Appearances aside this is definitely the way to go for both quantity and quality.
After our late lunch the nurses decide they want to swim for a bit in the river. We explain to our guides and apparently this is a request no one has made before because they react as if they have not heard correctly. We assure them they have. They look at each other and I'm pretty sure they're both thinking, "Loco Gringos". The four of us dive off the deck into the river and the boat waits for us upstream. I haven't swam since I separated my shoulder and I wonder how it will react. Jim hasn't swum in a while either and the girls are kicking our asses. Everytime we get close to the boat it seems to edge away ever so slightly. The driver may have just been gunning the engine to compensate for the river's current but I think a teeny little part of him enjoyed making our swim just a little longer. Climbing back into the boat is not easy but we all manage.
Rio Dulce is an outlet of Lake Izabal. At a narrow spot in the river, just before the lake entrance sits Castillo de San Phillipe.
It is an old fortress built to guard the lake from (yeah, I'm gonna say it) Pirates of the Carribean. We take a few snapshots of the castle, a few more of a fantastic sunset, and it's back to Bruno's for dinner and cervezas.