Friday, April 4, 2008

Guatemala part 3: Rio Dulce

Fri. March 21
After the lancha ride from Casa del Mundo to Pana, we hopped into our private shuttle. Because it is about an 8 hour ride to Rio Dulce, our driver had his young wife and baby join him upfront for company. We left Pana at about 7:30am. We were headed directly eastward across the entire country of Guatemala to the Caribbean coast.

But first we had to get out of the mountainous Lago de Atitlan area. Our shuttle wound around an insanely twisty two lane road for about two hours. The switchbacks were somehow, impossibly, greater than 180 degree turns. If you ever needed a visual for hairpin turns this was the road. It did manage to have amazing views of the lake as we left and the farming countryside.

The snaky turns did not sit well with Reina or Christina. Both were grasping onto plastic bags and fighting the urge to get sick, sometimes unsuccessfully. At one point we stopped at a lookout and I eagerly hopped out of the car. When I turned around to see why they weren't joining me, it became immediately apparent... Christina's face was pale and green and Reina was hunched over her bag. Poor girls. But I took a photo of the view so they could enjoy it later.

We finally left behind the tortuous mountain roads, passed through a small town having some Semana Santa processions, and drove through Guatemala City. It was very colorful and extremely densely populated. Most of the housing seemed to be tin and wooden shacks built right next to each other (maybe for extra support) on steep hills. The sanitation situation was definitely iffy at best.

The ride across most of the country was brown, dead, and dry. I still can't understand how it can be so opposite it's lush green neighbor to the south (Honduras). After about 4 hours we stopped for lunch. As we approached the Caribbean coast, the scenery began getting much greener and lusher, to my relief.

We finally arrived in Rio Dulce at 3:00pm. Rio Dulce is a large, tropical, jungle lined river that opens into the Caribbean Sea at the town of Livingston. Rio Dulce is also a city along the river, but we weren't here for that. Upon exiting the shuttle we began bargaining with the men at the dock for the lancha price to our hotel.
Almost everything around Rio Dulce is reachable only by boat... no roads. We got the price down to $16.00 each for the hour ride to our hotel. The ride to the hotel was gorgeous. The river was very large and we rode past mangroves, local people in cayucos, huts, birds, and tropical life on both sides. We also stopped at a boat gas station. There was a fuel pump built right on the dock. Maybe this is the normal way boats fuel up (I don't know much about boats) but I thought it was interesting no less.After about 1 hour, we turned down a small tributary, the Rio Tatin, shortly down which we found our hotel, Finca Tatin. At the hotel, we pulled up to the dock, unloaded, and followed the wood plank path to the main cabin to check in. The hotel was situated right in the jungle. They certainly didn't cut down any more trees than were absolutely necessary as vegetation abutted every walkway and building. It was the perfect antidote to all the brown scenery along the drive. The main room was very welcoming with hammocks strung up all around, tables, games, books, a ping pong table, and all the friendly travelers relaxing. There were also adjacent bathrooms with flushable toilets (but not the toilet paper, of course) and open unscreened windows bringing the jungle in for you to enjoy. As we checked in, we were given our room key, shown a book about all the different things to do while here, and informed to mark down all our expenses in the log book under our names. I love the honesty policy... it actually does keep people more honest.

We had reserved a riverfront bungalow for three and it was exactly that. It was a wooden, thatched roof bungalow built on stilts with
windows all around with only screens... who needs glass when it never gets cold, princess style mosquito nets over the beds, and a private bathroom (only cold water here). We also had a private deck in front next to the lake with it's very own hammock, table, and chairs. We unpacked and relaxed for awhile until dinner, which was also served family style and you signed up by writing your name on a white board under vegetarian or not. I noticed anyplace where there was mud, there were crabs. They were so cute and there were a thousand of them just hanging out doing what appeared to be t'ai chi exercises. They wouldn't show up in photos but I caught one stealing a cracker.Going into the room for my book, I spotted a small scorpion on one of the curtains in our hut. I haven't had much experience with scorpions except once while camping on the beach in San Felipe, Mexico but I knew enough to stay away. I positioned myself as lookout while I sent Christina to get an employee. He gladly came and scooted it out of the room without even blinking.

At dinner we met a few other travelers from Oregon, Germany, England, and elsewhere. The meals were cheaper here than our last hotel, 50Q ($7), and almost as delicious. The room was cheaper too, $10 each per night. Getting ready for bed that night, we tucked in our mosquito nets around us, not so much for the mosquitoes as for the other creepy crawlies.
During the night I got up to use the restroom and spotted a large spider and a cockroach scurrying away. That is, the cockroach scurried away, the spider just sat there and I stared at it on the curtain praying it would not move until I finished. I can deal with a few bugs but later when I was going to go in the restroom again, the lights wouldn't turn on, and I figured I didn't want to push my luck in the dark so I just went back to sleep.

Sat. March 22
We awoke around 9:00am to frogs croaking and birds chirping. I showered in the cold, tiny shower, we ate breakfast, and decided to go kayaking. Deciding to do something and actually doing it are two very different things (as I have discovered in previous travels). Since Reina had done this before and Christina and I had not, we rented a single for her and a double for us. Our plan was to kayak 2 hours into Livingston (the nearby Caribbean town) where a boat would meet us to bring the kayaks and us back. Ha!
Once we got in the kayaks, we had the most hilarious time just trying to go straight in our calm, small, tributary. We quickly came to realization that maybe heading out into the big river, where boats and jet skis would fly past, might not be the safest idea for us yet. To try to gain more confidence and practice we paddled up and down our inlet. It took us maybe an hour to go down and back, which was a ridiculously long amount of time given the short length of it. Back at the hotel, our arms hurt and we still couldn't stay straight so we opted out of Livingston for the day and just hauled the kayaks back in.The rest of the day we relaxed on the dock: jumping off the rope swing into the river, swimming, reading, lying in the hammocks, and talking to other travelers. A Rasta-looking family lived in the house opposite us and the entertained us with their reggae music all day. Since my secret dream is to be Huck Finn, this was about as perfect as could be. Afterward, I took a nice cool shower (after gently encouraging a large spider to exit and fending off a moth and large ant), read a bit more, and then we went up to the main hangout room. We played scrabble and memory and then ate. During dinner I sat next to a family of four: two parents and their two boys, one 10 and one 14. They were from Canada and have traveled as a family all over the world, even when the boys were babies. The boys were smart and very entertaining. Afterward, everyone went out to the dock for an after dinner beverage to wind down. We sat around talking and just enjoying the stillness of the dark river and bright stars.

Sun. March 23
We woke up around 8:00am. It was very quiet outside. We got ready, ate breakfast, and signed up for a hike to a cave and village. We followed a path though the jungle marked with red flags on the trees to meet our guides across the river.
They first took us on a 1 hour hike to a small village. It was rather hot and humid that day and you could feel the sun baking you anytime you stepped out of the shade. The path led through jungles, dry riverbeds, cornfields (which were taller than me and I had to fight the urge to run into them and start playing Children of the Corn... I get to be Isaac, Reina can be Malachi, and Christina gets to be the adult woman (Linda Hamilton)... anyway, back to the story), a woman grinding corn, and many animals: pigs, turkeys, chickens, and horses.The village, one of the Q'eqchi' Maya, consisted of a small school and about 20 or so thatched huts with dirt floors. The school had three rooms, each colorfully painted with desks, chairs, a chalkboard, and students artwork. One was for grades 4 and 5, one was for grades 2 and 3, and the third was for grades K and 1. There were no kids as it was Sunday.In the village, our guides took us on tours of about 4 houses. Inside it was just one big room with hammocks or the dirt to sleep on, maybe a bench or chair, chickens pecking about, their scant belongings, and a cooking area. I didn't seem to see a any sort of latrine or wash facility. There was a spigot outside where the women did the laundry. One hut had a tiny B&W TV which plugged into an outlet on the wall but I am not sure where the electricity came from, maybe a solar powered battery. The people were all very friendly inviting us to take pictures, showing us how to make tortillas, cook, make some artesian crafts, and weave on a loom.On the way back, we stopped at a large cave, la Cueva del Tigre. First we had to climb down a tall, handmade, bamboo ladder, then over the rocky, slippery ground to the caves enormous dark entrance. This picture is looking out from the inside. A short distance into the cave was a large pool to swim in. You could either jump from the narrow slippery cliffs about 20 feet into the pool or climb down the slimy rope ladder the guides had brought while the small waterfall pounded down on you. Either way was a bit dangerous but we all made it safely in. The pool was chilly and black. It was a little creepy swimming in water where you didn't know how deep it was and could see absolutely nothing in it. The only light came from a few candles the guides had lit on the rocks. Very romantic. We climbed back deeper into the cave but it only led to more slippery rocks and smaller pools.When we decided we were done, we toweled off, climbed back out of the cave, and hiked down to the riverfront where a small restaurant and local artesian shop were located. Both were begun by an NGO, Association Ak' Tenamit, to support and improve the living conditions of the indigenous community.

We paid our guides, bought a souvenir (a painted calabash bowl), and enjoyed a refreshment by the river. We decided, being worn out from too much walking in the past 9 days, to take a 2 min. boat ride back to the hotel instead of the 20 min. uphill hike. That seems pretty lazy but I'm okay with it.

Back at the hotel, we relaxed for about an hour and then took a lancha into Livingston to check out the small city life. Since it was about 4:30pm and boats don't go very late, we made sure to arrange for a boat ride back at 8:30pm. The ride was about 25 min. (which reiterated for us we would have never made it on the kayaks, especially when we hit the crowded choppy mouth to the Caribbean Sea). The Garifuna town was very small with one long main street stuffed with restaurants, souvenir shops, and people.
The street ended at the beach which was rough, shallow very far out, and had a small island with a Jesus statue. We wandered around, used the ATM, and got dinner and drinks. At 8:30pm, we boarded our boat. It was amazing. It was pitch black out except for the stars and full moon. The only way our captain could see, and not run into the jungle, was with a small flashlight he shined on the jungle and his backhand knowledge of the river. The ride was dreamy. I wanted to just lie in the boat and float around all night. Once we got back to the hotel, the boat charged us 50Q ($7) each, rather pricey but our fault for not negotiating the price ahead of time, and we felt the danger and beauty justified it so we didn't argue.

Upon entering our room, we discovered a huge hairy spider on the wall. The girls kept watch as I got some help. Carlos, the hilarious, helpful, and very friendly owner from Argentina came and nonchalantly smashed it, laughing at our worried looks. Two minutes after he left, we spotted an even larger hairy spider and a big cockroach perched just above Reina's side of the bed. It was too high for anyone to reach, not that we would have tried, and we were too embarrassed to ask for help again so we just kept watch over it. Needless to say, we tossed and turned all night, fearing to use the restroom and paranoid of giant dinosaur-sized bugs attacking. Then it began raining. The huts are water proof but it was loud and we predicted it would cause more bugs to crawl inside. Obviously, not much sleep was to be had.

Ahh, the fun of staying in huts in the jungle. Besides the critters, it actually was very relaxing and beautiful. I wanted to stay for a week but, alas, we had to leave for Tela, Honduras tomorrow.

Mon. March 24
Our journey back to Tela. We woke up at 7:30am, ate breakfast, we each paid our tab based on what we had (truthfully) marked in the log book, and enjoyed our last views of the river.
Then we took the boat ride into Livingston. It rained a little on the boat ride so our captain had us pull a plastic tarp over us and our bags. In Livingston we switched boats for one going to Puerto Barrios. It was about a 30 min. ride along the Caribbean Coast. Luckily it didn't rain again until just before we pulled into the dock, when it immediately began pouring. Our bags would have been soaked. Good karma. Due to the rain, we decided to take a taxi to the Honduras/Guatemala border instead of trudging to the bus stop in the downpour. The taxi was 65Q ($9) each and took about 1 hour.

At the border we stopped, got our passports checked, paid the small exit fee, and then continued on 10 min. in the taxi to the first border town in Honduras, Corinto. There we ate some lunch at the roadside stands and got on a bus for Puerto Cortes about 1 hour away. Puerto Cortes is a large, no frills, impoverished, port city. From there we took a 1 1/2 hour shuttle to San Pedro Sula. Then we transferred onto a bus to Tela, another 2 hours away.

If there was a bus directly from Puerto Cortes to Tela, it would have saved us hours, but instead we had to go in a big U. We finally got to Tela at 5:00pm (only about 8 hours of continuous travel), walked down the road to our house, stopping to buy some corn being roasted next to the soccer field. Overall it was an amazing trip.

Then Reina got to spend 3 days checking out my town. She went to three beaches, on a short hike in the jungle, explored Lancetilla botanical garden, and tried out various restaurants in town. She even shopped in the market and cooked us a delicious mango curry dinner. I was very sad to see her leave but we got to share some great adventures.

And now I'm off to our science fair at school and my first weekend trip back in Honduras...


Anonymous said...

Mike's Dad - RAY
What an amazing trip and beautiful photos I might add. Sort of reminded me of times I had been in other countries where I saw how the impoverished got through each day of their lives and never knew they were considered that by us. It is just 'life' for them, and they adapt, going about the business of living day by day. We really are spoiled! But, as American tourists, we really are ambassadors of our country so I'm pleased at the way you travel and fit into the culture.

Geraldine said...

You do seem to travel as a resident would travel. You take in all the culture and explain it so well that it feels like we are there with you. I don't know about the bugs. Your sure have gotten better about them. Have some more fun Huck Fin.

Ed Miller said...

what would happen if you had a can of Raid? Is it even sold there? Fascinating trip, I followed along on the satellite maps.

Best Friend Garrett said...

Crabs = Poison!

Scorpions are, okay though.

Anonymous said...

Ay, dios mio! Scorpions, huge hairy spiders, cucarachas! Wow, you're a better man than me, Sara! Shannon