I’m writing this entry about the eastern and northern regions of Guatemala on the comfort of a Swedish train, bound for the Arctic Circle. The autumnal Nordic scenery, relative luxuriousness of the train carriages and freezing weather are certainly not improving my memories of Guatemalan experiences from a full two months ago. I suppose my memory will further deplete as time transpires, so now I must preserve what recollections I still have. Other people inspired by my writing have dabbled with starting a travel blog, only to abandon their projects when the gaps become excessively and painfully long. However, I will not replicate their lesser spirits and instead persevere with the utmost determination to eradicate this monumental deficit!
The interminable flatness of the eastern and northern regions of Guatemala was quite a shock after seven weeks in mountainous areas (aside from a brief stint on the Pacific coast of Mexico). Consequently, I was hit by a wave of humidity, forcing me to dispense my jumper entirely for the duration of my travels (very unusual). I spent three nights on Rio Dulce, Guatemala’s most prominent river connecting a large lake to the country’s slither of Caribbean coastline. I then travelled to El Peten, a sparsely populated region in the north that is home to most of the country’s ancient Mayan ruins.
The wide Rio Dulce and the connecting Lago de Izabal together create a watery landscape that seems incompatible with Guatemala. Rio Dulce is also the name of the river’s most important town, which sprawls around the northern terminus of Central America’s longest bridge (which is not terribly awe-inspiring). The crowds, clutter, noise and incessant traffic of Rio Dulce contrasts it with the (surprising) placidness and orderliness of every other town I travelled to in Central America, making it more reminiscent of Southeast Asia. Away from the main highway though, the serene allure of the river can be appreciated properly. Rio Dulce is a haven for expats, particularly wealthy North American retirees and sailors. This gives the area an international, though not ultra-touristy, atmosphere. After arriving in Rio Rulce, I lunched on the deck of the Western-owned SunDog Café and watched the boat traffic pass by. The SunDog seems to be the primary distribution point for travellers to access their hotels on the river (transport in the area is predominantly by boat). For some reason, the SunDog conjures pleasant memories of Tonga’s eclectic guesthouses and restaurants. Places that feel like a “home” for travellers in off-the-beaten path destinations, where trustworthy advice can be obtained from expats that must have intriguing life stories. Perhaps my Tongan travel buddies can relate to this description.
About 45 minutes from Rio Dulce town is a hot-water waterfall that plunges into a cold pool (apparently the only example of this phenomenon in the world). I visited the site with British-Australian Helen, who kept reappearing on my Guatemalan trip. We were stalked by a group of children eager to sell us coconuts and subsequently beg for their return so they could drink the water themselves! I didn’t display the same level of generosity as Helen. Aside from the pungent sulphur smell, it was a (kind of) pleasant experience to stand under the waterfall to have my upper body scolded while my legs froze and were bitten by irritating fish (and for the record Sean, there was no squirming: I just tried to claim my revenge). We also visited a canyon nearby and hired a boatman to take us up river. The narrow canyon featured sheer grey cliffs that were tinged with a hue of green and plunged into a clear river. We disembarked the boat to swim in the cool water, despite fears the boatman would ditch us and claim our belongings. Fortunately though, he was an honest man and patiently waited for our return.
Probably my favourite accommodation experience of this trip occurred in Rio Dulce as I stayed at the Australian-owned Hotel Kangaroo. Unfortunately I never met the Australian owner as he was on vacation, but there was a Canadian-Mexican couple that managed the establishment in a very friendly manner (remembering and addressing everyone by their first names was a nice gesture). Hotel Kangaroo is situated within a swamp just off Lago de Izabal and is accessible only by boat. The guesthouse is built entirely on stilts and consists of a main building, several smaller cabins, decks and a spa that are connected by boardwalks. The guesthouse is completely surrounded by tropical vegetation, including trees with beard-like vines, palms and lily-pads. The main building reminded me of a big wooden holiday house by the Victorian coast, especially because of its unpretentiousness and homely furniture. Hotel Kangaroo features its own Mexican restaurant, bar, two resident fat dogs (they have nowhere to roam) and a crocodile that pays nightly visits to feed. The crocodile is supposedly harmless, so swimming is encouraged in the surrounding waters. I thoroughly enjoyed swimming through the surreally still waters, around river-plants and clusters of algae, although I was fearful of the plethora of tropical diseases I was exposing myself to. Because of its isolation and small size, Hotel Kangaroo had a strong community feel as all the guests hanged out together. I met a Swedish couple, Jakub and Kristin, who were just the second and third Swedes I had ever encountered travelling (I find that statistic quite stupefying). This encounter was of course rather handy in preparing me somewhat for the adjustment to Swedish culture while on exchange in Stockholm.
The serenity of the guesthouse was slightly compromised by the arrival of a group of 12-14 year olds on summer camp from the United States. I had never stayed in a backpacker guesthouse with a large group of children before and needless to say, I was hardly excited about this new experience. In fairness, the children were extremely respectful and quiet, especially the five that joined the ill Helen and I in the dormitory (anyone else surprised by their presence in a dorm?!). But in typical American spirit, they just babbled on about their own amazing adventure and neglected to reciprocate questions, which avid readers would know is a pet hate of mine. I thought their youthful leaders could at least have set the example and directed a few questions our way… the children missed out on a great deal of traveller wisdom from yours truly!!!
The constituent reason I travelled to Rio Dulce was to take a river “tour” downstream to Livingston. I was picked up directly from Hotel Kangaroo’s dock; one of the benefits of staying at a guesthouse literally on the water. The tour was essentially just transportation on a cramped and rather uncomfortable wooden longboat, precariously low in the water and overloaded with tourists and backpacks. The trip enabled glimpses of multi-million dollar yachts and plush stilted residences hidden within the swamps bordering Lago de Izabal and Rio Dulce. The boat cruised around the corners of a historic fort that was used to protect the river trade from marauding pirates. After passing beneath the long bridge and away from Rio Dulce town, the river became exceptionally broad and studded with islands. The boat approached a village built on stilts on the river banks and children paddled out on canoes to sell souvenirs. The last stretch of Rio Dulce was narrow, windy and bordered by steep slopes draped in rainforest. We eventually anchored at Livingston on the Caribbean Sea, but the stereotypical palm-fringed beaches with turquoise waters was sadly lacking. Livingston is only accessible by boat and consequently it retains a distinct culture and character to the rest of Guatemala. Livingston is home to the majority of Guatemala’s Garifuna people, the descendants of African slaves that fled the British colony of St Kitts and settled on the Caribbean coast of Central America in the nineteenth century. Rastafarian music, religion, fashion and colours are thus characteristic elements of Livingston. The Garifuna speak their own language, a mix of West African, Carib and French influences, as well as Spanish and English (a welcome change in Central America). There isn’t much to see in Livingston, its mainly just visited for the vibe or connections to Belize. The highlight of my very brief visit was sampling a large bowl of Livingston’s signature dish, tapado. Tapado is a seafood soup with a broth made from coconut milk and curry powder. I was served crab, fish, shrimp and small shell things similar to mussels.
I was stricken with my second cold in six weeks when I departed Rio Dulce, which was rather inconvenient timing considering the bus ordeal I was about to endure. Generally in Guatemala, the transportation options between towns are the aforementioned chicken buses (converted American school buses: very very crowded) or tourist shuttles (much more expensive, but also much more comfortable and potentially safer). With no tourist shuttles available between Rio Dulce and Flores, I was forced to travel by public bus. I was pleasantly surprised when the bus arrived in Rio Dulce, because it appeared to be a regular and legitimate long-distance coach. My contentment immediately deteriorated when I climbed into the bus. Almost all the seats were taken and the aisle was crowded with passengers standing up. I quickly realised that I was probably condemned to spending the five hour bus trip on my feet, with a temperature, heavy backpack and in oppressive humidity. I was puzzled why a few empty seats existed while the aisle was crammed with people, so I enquired to an American girl behind me whether she thought they were available. She responded that she didn’t know, so I proceeded down the aisle as I assumed an old Guatemalan man standing next to the two seats in question was saving them. I soon turned around to discover that the sly American girl and her partner had slipped into the seats, leaving me stranded and standing! To pass the next four hours and keep my mind distracted from the prospect of fainting, I continuously hurled a range of expletives at that American turd (in my head). I had never really appreciated how agonisingly slow time can pass when you are absolutely desperate for it to end. I was finally able to collapse into a seat for the last hour of the journey. The lesson of the story is that standing on buses for long-distance trips is very painful. Don’t try it.
The entire northern third of Guatemala forms one vast department of Guatemala, El Peten. The region was formerly inhabited by 6 million people during the height of Mayan civilisation, but that number has since depleted to 450,000. Therefore El Peten is surely one of the few regions in the world where the contemporary population is dwarfed by ancient populations. El Peten predominately consists of untamed jungle that is brimming with wildlife, including elusive jaguars, tapirs and countless monkeys. The twin towns of Flores and Santa Elena form El Peten’s constituent urban area, beside the docile shores of Lake Lago Peten Itza. Flores actually occupies an island within the lake that is connected to Santa Elena by a causeway. The small, highly touristic island is quite aesthetical with is colourful, terracotta-roofed buildings (often described as “Mediterranean”), but also quite boring. Nevertheless, Flores is not a destination unto itself but rather a base to visit the innumerable Mayan ruins nearby, including world famous Tikal.
El Peten was formerly the bastion of Mayan civilisation in the Classical period (2nd-10th centuries AD). The Mayan world was divided into dozens of city-states instead of one unifying kingdom, analogous perhaps with the political division of Ancient Greece. The city-states were generally organised into two alliances led by arch-rivals Tikal and Calakmul (in modern-day Mexico). An estimated 100,000 people lived in Tikal during its epoch and the ruins of this vast ancient city are arguably the most impressive of the Mayan world. After its collapse, Tikal was totally reclaimed by the jungle and hidden from Western awareness until the late nineteenth century. The process of excavating and restoring the myriad of temples in Tikal is ongoing, with most of the structures still lying below the rainforest. The pyramids at Tikal emphasise verticality, which contrasts with the bulbous pyramids of Giza and Teotihuacan. The pyramids poke above the rainforest canopy to provide magnificent views at sunset. My experience at Tikal was compromised by foolishly enlisting in a tour, which had more than fifty patrons. The guide herded us around the sprawling site, provided unintelligible commentary and remarks such as, “this cluster of temples is boring [in comparison to the Gran Plaza] but we have to come here because its part of the tour”. Fortunately though, I decided to join a tour of another Mayan city near Flores, Yaxha. Our guide provided excellent information about the city and spotted howler monkeys, spider monkeys, coatis, toucans and tarantulas for us. Yaxha is smaller than Tikal, but still features numerous pyramidal temples including my favourite in Central America (see below). The penetration of the jungle into Tikal and Yaxha and the picturesque decay of the structures make both sites reminiscent of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
After three weeks in Guatemala, I was satisfied that I had visited pretty much everywhere I was particularly interested in: one of the very few countries I can say that about. If anything, I would like to have hiked up a volcano in the southern highlands but weather conditions conspired against that opportunity. Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Semuc Champuy and Tikal are promoted as the country’s highlights, but interestingly I enjoyed my experiences in Quetzaltenango, Chichicastengo, the hike with Queztaltrekkers and Rio Dulce more.
That’s all for now,