Glorious In Guatemala – Rio Dulce

Leaving Flores in a private van, we drive for 3 hours to reach Rio Dulce. The name translates to Sweet River, and this river flows out of Lake Izabel and then empties into the Caribbean Sea. It is a popular spot for sailing or cruising. Our hotel requires a boat trip, because it’s located right on the riverbanks. How cool!

We pile into a small green powerboat and then chug along the river, the massive Rio Dulce Bridge spanning above us. Fun Fact: this is one of the largest bridges in all of Central America!

After a short ride we pull up to Tortugal Hotel…. it’s a really cute place…a large restaurant in the front, a dock if you want to take a swim, sailboats anchored off to the right.

We take our bags and head to the back area of the hotel where the cabin rooms are located. The room is really nice…spacious and clean (and seemingly bug-free) with a step-up bathroom.

There are adorable little ducks that wander the grounds, and friendly kitties.

We decide to stay at the hotel for dinner tonight, as there are huge storm clouds rolling in.

To start, I pop the cap off an ice-cold Gallo, the oldest and most popular beer in Guatemala. It’s been around since 1896!

We play cards in the restaurant…Dwain has taught us a new game but I end up losing pretty much every time so I don’t really like the game. Haha. There are these disgusting bugs that fly into the lights and then plop all over the table. Just eewwww. So, we take the card game to the boys’ cabin and I play(lose) a bit longer before heading to bed.

The next morning it’s back on a boat to explore the river and its surroundings. First, we head over to San Felipe castle, an important colonial fort located on the narrowest part of the river.

It was meant to stop pirates from entering into the lake. Back in the day this area was an important shipping point. We view it from the boat today, but you can also explore the castle by foot. We turn the boat around and head back in the other direction towards the Caribbean. Along the way we see a small island where there are tons of cormorants and egrets hanging out in the trees.

There are many neat houses and resorts located along the river.

Then we enter a narrower part of the river, through a sea of lily pads and low hanging trees.

It’s like a jungle cruise! There are stilted houses in the water, and a few locals paddling canoes through the calm river.

Eventually we pull up to a town called Livingston, one of Guatemala’s main ports on the Caribbean Sea.

Fun Fact: all access to the town is via watercraft as there are no roads leading here. As we pull up to the docks, the derelict Hotel Henry Berrisford is a haunting sight.

We get off the boat and start to wander through the streets of this interesting town.  Beautiful murals appear on the walls, ladies are making tortillas on the street, the schoolchildren in their uniforms hurry home, an older lady carries items in a bucket balancing on her head.

We walk to the beach where we can see an island that houses a giant statue, Salvador del Mundo.

Overlooking the beach is a statue of the town’s founder, Edward Livingston, an American politician whose codes were used as the basis for the laws of the liberal government in Central America.

As we walk back down the main road it starts to pour, we duck into a few shops along the way to escape the rain. 

Livingston has a prominent Garifuna population, an indigenous people from the island of St Vincent in the Caribbean. Their language is so unique…it has no written component and is only spoken, making it a difficult one to learn! The Garifuna make a super potent drink called Gifiti – a homemade rum based bitter, soaked in roots and herbs. We pick up a few bottles; it’s said to have medicinal qualities, but who are we kidding…we are going to do shots tonight! But not too will knock you off your feet pretty quickly. Before leaving Livingston we stop at a place called Bugamama and order some chips and salsa and the house speciality…Coco Loco. It’s a giant coconut with rum poured inside. The mix of rum and coconut water is refreshing and tasty!

Back on the boat to head to our lunch stop, a place that is located bedside a small hot spring along the riverfront. The boat becomes problematic and it seems as though we’re going to get stuck out here. We are hoping the boat doesn’t sink…for real. But our driver just goes really slow and we finally get there.

The menu is mostly seafood and I’m not feeling it so I order a burger. It’s ok, but everyone else orders tapado – a seafood soup with coconut milk featuring shrimp, crab and snook fish. It smells amazing but I can’t handle the visual. If I’m going to eat seafood, I don’t want it to look like seafood. Haha.

Back on the boat and it is raining again, so out comes the tarp and I huddle underneath to escape the rain blowing into my face. And then the boat breaks down again…. seriously! This leads to my favorite quote of the day from my travel buddy Aegean “I wish I was a f***ing cormorant right now, then I could just fly away”. Exactly!

We make it back to the hotel and Pedro organizes a Spanish lesson for us. We learn really important things, like “where is the fire”, “who has my eggs”, and my favorite word..manzanas(apples). Another really quiet evening at the hotel, playing more card games that I suck at. I’m saved by the power going out at 9pm…nothing left to do but go to bed and reflect on the amazing time spent in Rio Dulce….

A super early morning today, as we get ready to leave Rio Dulce for a short car ride to the ancient Mayan archeological site of Quirigua. This is another one that goes way back…as far as 400 BC! It’s not a very large site; we can easily explore it in an hour or two and the cool thing is..we have the place to ourselves!

As we walk down the path, many stelae stand tall in the open field. They are protected by huts and each was made from one single slab of red sandstone.

They are elaborately carved with faces and dates in glyphic text; each stela tells its own story. They record history, and predict the future.

There are large round boulders called zoomorphs which are carved into the shapes of animals, also with some text.

Near the back of the complex is the acropolis, palace and ballcourt. We climb the steps and structures, wondering what it was like to live here back in the day.

On the way back, we venture into the grassy area to get up close to examine the beautiful stelae. The detail is just amazing and I feel so small, especially standing in front of one of the largest ones here.

The grass is still wet and at some point, we all step in one of the many deep puddles in the grass…haha you can’t really see them so it’s a bit of a shocker.

Back into the van as we head west towards Guatemala City. The traffic is slow moving, and we see a sad and powerful sight. Thousands of Honduran refugees walking alongside the road. Carrying their only belongings in a backpack. Some trucks pick them up, others keep walking. One of those harsh reality moments.

We stop for lunch at a place called Sarita. It reminds me of a Denny’s. The menu offers American style food, as well as Guatemalan. I try the dessert called rellenitos – fried plantains with sweet bean paste inside, topped with sugar. Delicious!

Back on the road again and the traffic through Guatemala City is horrendous…it takes well over an hour. We will not be spending any time in Guatemala City…I’m sure there are some cool places to see but it can be dangerous here and the tour itinerary suggests there are better places for us to explore in Guatemala. We finally arrive into the colonial city of Antigua for the evening and check into the hotel. Tonight is the night to explore some of Antigua’s food and nightlife. I will talk more about Antigua in a future blog; this is just a taste of our first night here.

First stop is Puerto Once (Door Eleven), which features a fun happy hour of mixtas – they mix light and dark draft beer in one glass! We sit in the open courtyard, enjoying the laid-back atmosphere.

We then end up at Rainbow Café, for more drinks and a massive plate of nachos for dinner.

It is open mic night, and Pedro gets up to recite a poem he wrote.

And for the last drinks of the evening, we end up at Reilly’s Irish Pub. A super fun place but I am expecting to hear Irish music playing. Nope, it’s Spanish music and we dance the night away. We will be back in Antigua in a few days to explore more of this beautiful city.

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