Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Rio Dulce & Livingston: Sweet & Sour

Leaving Flores and St. Elena is not challenging; the St. Elena bus station can get you just about anywhere in the country, or beyond.  Guatemala City and Antigua also have really great connections.  However, if you're going to do a short stay Rio Dulce, I have to advise that you book your next connection immediately on arrival... unless you're planning to stay for a week or more.  Arriving buses in Rio Dulce drop their passengers off in Puerto Barrios, near the bridge (one of the largest in Central America) and ferry pick-up for Livingston.  Lago Izabal defines the region, and a massive market leads back through the harbor -- a favorite among ex-pat sailors and yachters during hurricane season.  In other words, there are lots of travelers coming in via road and water, and only a certain number of seats on the buses.  I booked my next leg, toward El Floridio and the Honduran border, and still found that the bus (again, not a Chicken Bus) was over-booked to standing room only.  However, many of the travellers were locals, and they got off at numerous villages on the way.  By the time we hit the border, I was the only one left... but that's a story for another day.

Arriving early in Puerto Barrios, I decided to push on to Livingston at the first opportunity. I had a few hours to kill, so I grabbed a Caribbean cocktail at one of the local bars, where I'm pleased to say they had live music playing at 8 o'clock in the morning.  Not too shabby! Then I hopped on board the 9:30 lancha (ferry) for the coast.  Livingston, a town on the Carribean accessible only by water, boasts a colorful Garifuna culture that makes it unique among Guatemala's more traditionally Mayan background.  The Garifuna are the descendants of African slaves whose transport ship crashed off the coast; their cultures mixed with the Mayans, and the area remains a largely blended culture to this day.  Of course, that also means that it's marketed to tourists as a one-of-a-kind stop on the way downt he Gringo Trail.

Well, I'm here to tell you: they may know how to party in Livingston, but that town is NASTY.  The beaches are filthy, the streets are full of garbage, and the local digs are both disgusting and expensive.  I'm sure that there are nicer places to stay than the one I found, but I just wasn't willing to spend more than $20 on a dormitory bed in Guatemala's biggest tourist trap. Yes, trap.  There are 2 lanchas in and out each day; other than that, you're S.O.L.

I got to try their most famous food, the seafood stew known as Tapado, and drink their trademark beverage, the Coco Loco, a coconut filled with rum.  I'm not sure what else was in there, actually.  Tasted just like coconut water and about 4 shots of liquor.  I also tried what the locals referred to as a "stronger" drink (though I'm not sure how much stronger than basically pure rum we're going to get) called Garifuti -- which is either distilled or infused right in the community. Either way, it tastes like a Pisco took a piss in a Vodka bottle, but at least it's unique.

 The Tapado was OK, but I think I could have just as easily skipped spending the night and popped by for a quick lunch.  There are a few famous sites in the area, namely the fishing beaches and the small series of waterfalls in the nearby jungle, but neither of these really impressed me.

Still, it's worth a ride if only for the lancha voyage down the Rio Dulce.  You'll pass through lily-pad encrusted lagoons, be shamelessly paraded past canoe markets that -- at a bare minimum -- seem to support the local culture, get a good look at El Castillo, and pass through a small canyon with pale, white cliffs.  There's also a stop along the way at a small hot spring and bar that is definitely worth a visit -- as long as you're in the mood for a soak and a drink sometime between 10AM and noon.

Once I got out of Livingston, I grabbed a bunk at the quintessential Rio Dulce hang-out, Hotel Backpackers, and simply enjoyed a day of luxuriating in the sun.  They have a waterfront bar and dock that allows for an excellent view of the passing vessels, and it's easy to flag down a lancha or rent a kayak if you want to get out and explore.  In retrospect, I really wish I'd taken both of my Rio Dulce days to simply relax over a good Discworld novel and some Gallo on the Sweet River.  It was definiely a trip highlight.

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