Rio Dulce

Livingston, Guatemala

The photographs are thumbnails.

Took a bus back to Chiquimula from Esquipulas and caught another four-hour ride to Puerto Barrios. Coming here was another spontaneous decision made the night before last after speaking with a woman from Switzerland named Andrea and another, Janne ("Yenna"), who is from Denmark. They said that Puerto Barrios is like a dead end and, well, they were not too far off the mark. It is not pretty, it is dusty and, so far, the people seem, at least, very listless. I read that the town fell into tropical torpor after the United Fruit Company moved its headquarters out of here in the 1960's. And it looks like it. However, the countryside coming here was brilliant green with beech (for gum) and cocoa farms. It is 90° and humid.

I came to Puerto Barrios to take a launch across the bay to Livingston, which can only be reached by boat. It should be arriving in two hours. I had heard of a boat tour out of Livingston up a river named Rio Dulce ("Sweet River") which others, including Andrea and Janne, have said is really magnificent.

*    *    *

After a slow hour and one half on a tugboat-sized ship packed almost to overflowing with people and costing Q3.50 (70¢ US), we arrived in Livingston. It is tropical, hilly and different than any place I've been so far. Even its name is strange in light of the names of other cities in Guatemala like Quetzaltenango, Huehuetenango, Totonicapán, etc. I think the name comes from the British who colonized Belize, the country just to the north. The locals are a mix of descendants of African (Garifuna) slaves, Mayan and European blood. They say the Garifunas escaped from boats passing through here a couple hundred years ago, settled in and, in some cases, intermarried with the local Mayan people. I'm sure many also escaped the wrath of the plantations in Belize. It looks like a great place for photographs.

*    *    *

Took a boat tour up the Rio Dulce yesterday. The trip lasted about 8 hours and cost Q40. People I had spoken with previously said the ride stretched anywhere from 4 to 6 hours and cost Q60. We definitely got a good deal. Went with 5 other people. Allison, Susan and Lee are from the Yukon in Canada; Tony and Rachel are from England. I had met Allison and Susan last week in Esquipulas. They are pretty tough customers when it comes to purchasing anything and were responsible for getting the price for each person down from Q60 to Q40. Ceasár, the captain, feigned the commonly accepted displeasure throughout the bargaining process, but finally agreed and we set out.

The boat is about 25 feet long and four feet wide. It has 6 benches, which seat two each and an arched canvas canopy that covers the benches. Sitting very low in the water, it is powered by an outboard motor at the rear. We often drug our hands through the river as we moved along on our adventure.

Rio Dulce is over a quarter of a mile wide. Over the millennia it has carved a spectacular gorge in the mountains at the end of El Golfete and empties into Bahia Amatique on the Gulf of Honduras. El Golfete is a long, huge lake-like body of water between Rio Dulce and Lake Izabel to the southwest, which is the largest lake in Guatemala. The river is only 12 km long and is breath-taking, lined with lush tropical vegetation, cliffs and awe-inspiring scenery. The thick jungle on its banks is full of the voices of monkeys and many species of birds. White egrets perch in trees along its shores searching for fish. Parrots, pelicans and other water birds are everywhere. Narrow tributaries off the river twist and turn, leading to secluded lagoons. Dwellings sprinkled along el Rio are constructed with walls made of wooden planks or slender tree trunks and roofs of palm thatch. I was told many crocodiles used to inhabit this complex ecosystem, but most have been hunted off now. Water lilies grow in gigantic clusters here and there and mangroves send their roots into the water at the shore.

As we pulled in the mooring ropes and headed out onto the river, Ceasár told us our first stop was to swim at some soothing sulfuric springs. When we arrived, he turned the launch towards shore and shut off the engine. We looked to where he pointed and we could see hot water bubbling up from the riverbed between rocks near the shore. We immediately dove out of the boat and basked in a simmering, refreshing bath beneath the overhanging shoreline trees. After a while, I swam far out into the river as Allison kept laughing and calling that a crocodile would surely find me and enjoy a tasty meal.

We then went to the Biotopo Chocón-Machacas, which is a nature reserve at the end of El Golfete. It is simply a huge piece of land with a fence around it. Other than trails meandering through it and a small boat house, it is untouched jungle. It is the kind of setting Henri Rousseau could have used as inspiration for his world-renowned paintings: deep, loud, vivid colors, impossible sizes of leaves; intoxicating surprises in colors of the flowers; everything exploding with an incredible vibrancy. We were dwarfs - miniatures - ambling beneath a huge kaleidoscopic umbrella. We were also the only visitors, wandering in fascination with a new-found friend - Pancho - a delightful black spider monkey with one lame hand, who sat on my shoulders the whole way.

At one point Rachel wanted to carry Pancho but was afraid because monkeys have been known to bite. She nervously reached for him and he gladly jumped on her. She became agitated and tried to put him down, but Poncho held tightly and, in the skirmish, scratched her neck. I yanked him from her and threw him to the ground, calling him maldito ("bad little one") and scolding him. We walked away, leaving him sitting in the middle of the trail. After about a hundred feet, I turned around. He just sat there looking at me with a posture that said he had no idea why I had become so upset. I smiled, stretched out my hand saying, "ven aqui" ("come here"), and he came running. In one movement he flew up, and, in mid flight, I caught his outstretched good hand, flipped him up over my back and onto my shoulders. I turned to join Rachel and Toby. Pancho was content and happy again as we continued on. I have met a few other monkeys during my travels and have come to the conclusion that they mirror the energy with which they come in contact.

The ride across El Golfete took twenty minutes or so and brought us to the Castillo de San Felipe, which the Spaniards first built in 1595 and was later destroyed and rebuilt after attacks by pirates. The Castillo sits in a pristine park of manicured lawns and palm trees. Compared to the habitats we had seen along the way, it was easy to imagine rich patrones, grand and isolated in their reign over the local people. After touring San Felipe, we stopped at a rickety shack-like restaurant on stilts over the water on the shore of El Golfete for lunch and then began our journey back to Livingston. On the way, Ceasár took us through a really beautiful, narrow waterway where the vegetation was almost a roof over our heads. Caesár turned off the motor and we listened in silence to the life of the jungle as we drifted along. Later, we took another swim at the hot springs and made it back to Livingston just as the sun was going down.

*    *    *

It was an amazing day and a wondrous adventure. The power of nature (and Pancho) to bring us through a threshold to a place of peaceful splendor is unfathomable. All of us had changed dramatically and were grateful for the experience. Even blond Yukon Allison, the tough, hard bargainer, softened. She gave Caesár an extra Q10 for the enchanted tour.


Thresholds Contents email