With my two weeks in Belize up and over, it suddenly felt like I was in the home stretch of my Central America trip. With exactly three weeks left before my flight from Roatán to the Cayman Islands, it was time to sit down and plot a route that would eventually get me to that departure gate. While Point A (Ambergis Caye, Belize) and Point B (Roatan, Honduras), are technically close on a map, it’s either easy or cheap to get between them — the combination of the two doesn’t exist. The simplest and most cost effective route involved going through Guatemala. Having not reached the Eastern side of the country during my previous month there, I was happy to return.
Two commuter flights (the second twelve person plane stopped three times to let passengers off in tiny coastal Belizean cities), one taxi ride, one boat trip, and one sweaty slog later, I arrived in Livingston, Guatemala. Livingston is the main tourist hub of Guatemala’s teeny Caribbean coastline, though that’s not saying much. This part of the country still has a frontier-town feel and doesn’t make it onto too many itineraries, despite being the country’s epicenter for Garifuna culture and a connection point for boats to Belize, Honduras, and beyond.
Arriving back in Guatemala by boat meant that I needed to take the initiative to wander into town, find the immigration office, and get an entry stamp in my passport. Apparently some travelers either forget to do this or don’t realize that they need to, as there’s no immigration checkpoint that you need to pass through in order to get off the dock. As I’m sure you can imagine, this leads to trouble for some travelers!
After making sure I was an officially documented visitor to the nation of Guatemala, I checked into a $20 per night private room at the area’s one true hostel, Casa del La Iguana. However, I quickly realized it wasn’t the right fit for my current needs — catching up on work after two weeks of playing in Belize with the fam — and was also overpriced for what it was. Had I not been feeling a slight budget pinch I may have splurged at the $100 per night Villa Caribe, the area’s one true luxury accommodation choice, complete with a pool you could fill with a backpacker’s grateful tears. Instead, I switched to waterfront and well-reviewed Casa Nostra, where I had a room to myself for less than $10 per night. With just a few beds and a friendly atmosphere, I felt like I was the personal guest of Stuart, the charming owner.
Even if you don’t stay at Casa Nostra, you should eat there — the pizzas are fantastic, as are the hearty salads. Due to the meat quality being pretty uniformly low everywhere I went, I ate mostly vegetarian in Livingston — one exception being at Buga Mama, a waterfront restaurant that enticed me in with promises of Thai food and delivered on a delicious yellow curry.
Livingston doesn’t have much in terms of tourist activities. The vast majority of travelers pass through on their way to or from the famous boat ride down the Dulce River to Rio Dulce town. Once you’re in Livingston, attractions are more or less limited to a beach accessed by boat and a waterfall accessed by long trek. I hadn’t heard raves about the beach and was warned that the waterfall was completely dried up at the moment. Hence, I was content just to sit on the water’s edge with my laptop catching up on work in the morning, stroll through the town with camera in hand in the afternoon, and go jogging through the scenic hills at dusk (the startled expressions of those I passed hinted that a white girl huffing past in spandex is not an everyday sight ’round these parts.)
I ended up staying in Livingston for three nights, which was enough to get a feel for this tiny town. Had I been traveling with someone or less bogged down by backlogged work I might have been a bit more adventurous, but I try to remind myself that I don’t have to do every thing in every place every time.
And as far as offices go, this wasn’t a bad one for a few days.
a gecko on my screen!
My next move was to Rio Dulce, which was to make for a gorgeous journey. Rio Dulce and Livingston are connected by the Rio Dulce river, and the scenic boat ride between the two is the major draw bringing travelers to this area. Within a few moments in the wooden seat of my lancha, slowly following the languid curves of the river, one word came to mind: cinematic.
These photos don’t do justice to the experience, which I mostly put my camera down in order to quietly enjoy.
We stopped a few times, once at a hot springs that we could only stand to stick our toes in, and other times to take photos. But my favorite parts were when we were moving, and I could rest my chin on the side of the boat and watch another world go by, the humid breeze blowing my hair in the wind.
I could tell we’d arrived in Rio Dulce when I lost count the number of sails in front of me. The sheltered waters around this Wild West-feeling town are lauded by the US Coast Guard as one of the safest places to dock through the hurricane season, and such, they are filled with boats of every kind from all over the world. There’s a crusty old yachtie feel to the place, and several of the older Western captains who’d approached me in Livingston waved me over again in Rio Dulce (two had offered me rides on their boat within moments of meeting, which seemed to me like the kind of adventure a man could embrace but a single young woman ought to steer clear of).
After lunch and a serious internet session at Sundog Cafe (one of the best wifi connections and menus I found in all of Guatemala), I called Hotel Kangaroo and asked for a ride — by boat. My eyes widened as we approached the hostel’s private dock — tucked down a quiet estuary, Kangaroo is reachable only by boat. The thatch roof of the building pierced a thick jungle, and a welcoming menagerie of dogs barked to signal our arrival. I loved it. The charm wore off somewhat when I was assaulted by mosquitoes and other unknown insects while I slept that evening — the hole-ridden mosquito nets did little to protect us from the unpaying inhabitants of the top-floor, open-air $8-per-night dorm — but that initial Robinson Crusoe impression is a lasting one.
The owner of the hostel is Gary, an Australian expat straight out of a Paul Theroux novel. Each evening, he holds court over the guests of the hostel and gives a painfully detailed, monotonously delivered speech on the activity options in the area, which he has compiled into one day’s tight itinerary. Upon arrival, I had hoped to leave the next afternoon — the small, quiet towns of East Guatemala had me feeling isolated after the hustle and bustle of family time in Belize, and I was ready to move on. But Gary’s encyclopedic knowledge of the area is impressive, and also convinced me to tack on another day in Rio Dulce.
I couldn’t help but wonder why Gary didn’t simply print up a PDF of his DIY tour of Rio Dulce, but I suppose if he had I might not have formed a group that agreed to tackle the itinerary the next day. We were a group of six — a honeymooning couple from London, a hilariously mismatched Guatemalan Canadian couple, a Swiss girl traveling alone, and myself.
The next day, our morning began with a brief spin past the Spanish Fort Felipe, which I had been tempted to kayak out to and explore the previous afternoon but didn’t follow through. The best views, it seemed, were from the water anyway.
We had quite the journey ahead, anyway. After the hostel’s boat driver dropped us in town, we obediently began following Gary’s lengthy instructions — first, gathering supplies at the local grocery, second, waiting for a collectivo to take us to Finca Paraiso. This is the only part of Guatemala that does not feature the country’s famous chicken buses — brightly painted decommissioned American school buses — but rather, their smaller, squater, and much less colorful cousin the collectivo.
Eventually, enough passengers were assembled to begin driving the road ringing Lago Izabal (in this map, Finca Paraiso is marked by a black plane halfway to El Estor). When the collectivo driver hollered at us to get out, we jumped, following homemade signs for las cascadas.
This was the stop that had sold me on staying. A hot waterfall, Gary had promised, the only one in the world — at least as far as he knew. At the entrance to the path we paid a fee that included the services of a guide. He led us to the waterfalls,which at first glance looked like dozens — more? — that I’ve seen around the world. Then I saw the steam curling off the surface of the still water the cascades were flowing into.
We dipped our toes into the cool, flat waters of the stream and swam towards the waterfall. As we got closer, we could feel it — heat was radiating from where the two waters met. Treading water and inching closer, I could barely stand to keep my hand under the pounding falls for a moment. The water was boiling. It was incredible.
It’s hard to describe what a surreal sensation it was, swimming in a cool stream and feeling nature’s pressure jet shower head pounding boiling water down next to me. What’s easier to describe is how it happens. Below sits a stream that feeds into Lago Izabal, above sits a hot spring from which searing waters escape. Where we swam is where they meet.
When we’d had our fill, our guide led us across the stream and up atop the waterfall, where we saw water bubbling over and boiling at the source. In a slightly cooler stream, he scooped up handfuls of clay and indicated we should rub them on our skin. Without realizing everyone else in the group was going for their arms, I plopped some right on my face. Whoops.
I quickly recruited some other soft skin enthusiasts.
We knew a pretty good spot to clean up, after all.
Back on the road, we waited for another collectivo to pass and bring us to El Estor. This time, when the driver stopped he indicated the van was full — and we were to hop up top. We were pretty giddy with this development.
I was almost disappointed when we arrived at our next destination, the Boqueron Canyon outside El Estor. I was a little confused about what was going to happen here (frankly, I was confused about the whole day, but that made it pretty fun). Thankfully we had a native Spanish speaker in the group who spared us from hacking apart her language and negotiated a price for us to take a boat up the canyon.
Settling into the wooden canoe, we marveled at the beauty in every direction. Monkeys howled in the distance, the only sound apart from the paddle hitting the water. But the ride didn’t last long — water levels were low, and we soon reached an impassable set of boulders.
What happened next was one of my favorite memories from Guatemala, and I don’t have a single photo of it. Arranging with the boat driver to return in an hour, we climbed out and clamored over the boulders, stripping down to our swim suits and leaving everything we had into cracks in the rocks. And then, we swam. We swam hard against a tough current, buckling down and laughing and fighting against the rushing waters. Though I ached for my camera, I also felt in some way like this memory belonged just to us who had been there — it was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. With no watches or cell phones or cameras we lost track of time, and only finally turned around out of fear that we’d miss our ride. The way back was easy as the waters carried us downstream, occasionally leading to a less-than-graceful collision with a boulder below. But no matter. It was well worth the bruises.
We breathed a sigh of relief when we made our way back and found our things still intact, and a few moments later, our smiling boat captain returning. En route back to Kangaroo, crammed into another tiny collectivo, I totaled the day’s expenses — including buses, guides and boatmen, tips, snacks, lunch, and entrance fees, I’d spent a whopping $19 US dollars.
It couldn’t have been a better note to end this chapter of the trip on. I hadn’t read about Finca Paraiso or Boqueron Canyon in any guidebook, seen them on anyone’s instagram, or heard anyone raving about them on the backpacking circuit. Yet there they were, making up one of my most memorable and adventurous days in Guatemala. It was a poignant reminder that some of the most beautiful moments in travel simply can’t be planned and can’t be captured — they just have to be lived.
Tell me about a beautiful travel moment that you stumbled onto and embraced!