Rio Dulce, San Agustín Lanquín
14.12.2014 - 20.12.2014
The next place on my To Do list, and the first in Guatemala, was Rio Dulce, which was two boat trips away from Punta Gorda via Livingston.
I made a new friend in Livingston, whether I liked it or not, as upon disembarking my boat a local called Francisco approached me and insisted on providing (initially) unwarranted assistance. I had no local currency - quetzals - and for no apparent reason the cashpoints weren't accepting my cards, so my new best mate carried my backpack around for me on a series of wild goose chases looking for someone to exchange my leftover Belizean dollars.
At one point, a beautiful purple hummingbird with a curved beak flew over and hovered by a bush next to me for a few seconds, not long enough unfortunately for me to get a photo. Francisco came up trumps eventually meaning I could get my connecting boat, so he earned his tip.
Boat #2 from Livingston to Rio Dulce took me through the Dulce River and Lake El Golfete, and very picturesque it was too, with jungle on either side and a lot of birds to observe. As an added bonus once in Rio Dulce, the skipper sailed up to show us the castle there (Castillo de San Felipe), before turning round and dropping us off at one side of the big bridge that spans the lake.
My hostel was on stilts by the riverside, and looks OK from the photo, but in fact was one of the worst I've been in since I came away, if not the worst. The mattresses were shrivelled and falling to bits, the bedclothes filthy and there was loud music blaring out from the restaurant next door. On top of that, a Lithuanian girl told me she had seen a rat rummaging around in her backpack. The following morning I noticed my biscuits were missing and the packaging strewn across the floor. On the plus side, by some miracle the showers had hot water so I was able to have my first hot shower for a week or so.
Finally the next day I managed to find a cashpoint that took my card (all my fault - I'd put the wrong PINs in the ones in Livingston) and got my hands on some money. I splashed out (about £15) and treated myself to a plush hotel to compensate for the previous hovel and had a lazy day.
The town itself consisted of a polluted thoroughfare tightly surrounded on both sides by market stalls and was not worth more than a quick squiz. In fact, I had seen the main sights on the boat here (the river and the castle) so the next day I was off again. Not, however, before I had the opportunity to use my recently-learnt Spanish phrase in the hotel restaurant. Unfortunately for them and whoever does their cleaning, they were not in possession of an émbolo.
After a meal and a licuado (similar to a smoothie) at the riverside Sun Dog Cafe I took a bus to Lanquín. This was a shuttle rather than a public bus and I was grateful for the extra room to spread out, especially as the second half of the journey took us down an extremely bumpy road making it impossible to read, drink or sleep - for 2½ hours! I was very glad when we finally arrived.
I had been recommended a hostel called El Retiro by my mate Damian who had been here a few years back. Just as he'd described, it was a very laid-back place next to a river with thatched cabanas and a great bar with a convivial atmosphere. It is from there that I write this, while swinging in a hammock and swigging a beer.
Most people here eat together in the evening as the hostel provides tasty food with the added bonus of it being all you can eat, so it was a very sociable place. I had signed up for a tour to a bat cave, but no-one else did so it was cancelled. Instead, I played a game with a few others called Cards Against Humanity. It was a daft game involving finishing off sentences in amusing fashion - very American and a subjectively-decided winner (me, as it happened) but it was good fun for a couple of hours or so.
I think it was the comedian Dominic Holland who said that he hates to see women breast-feeding because the baby's head gets in the way. The woman who ran the local launderette had not taken heed of Nigel Farage's advice and I unwittingly glimpsed a saggy tit as a special 'bonus' whilst handing her a bag full of my underpants. Having forked out about £2 for the 'privilege', it represented worse value for money than The Griffin on Clerkenwell Road, but at least here I got my clothes cleaned.
The principal attraction around these parts (apart from washerwomen bosom), and the main reason I was here, was a beautiful series of turquoise pools situated above the Cahabón river called Semuc Champey. Six of us from the hostel went there on a tour; myself and a German had to stand in the back of a pickup for 45 minutes down another extremely bumpy road - interesting at first as we waved at the villagers like the Pope, but the novelty quickly wore off.
The tour consisted of several different activities. First off was a cave tour. As with the ATM cave in Belize, we had to swim and wade through it, although this time with no ancient pottery or bones to see. Whereas in Belize we were issued helmets with headlamps and instructed not to touch the stalactites, here we were just given a candle and told to get on with it. Needless to say I dropped my candle almost immediately as I floundered in the water, but managed to keep up with the others and our minuscule guide Hector. As part of this I jumped off a precarious ledge 3m high into a pool, and also climbed a rope up a waterfall - at the second attempt. To the amusement of the rest of the group, the first ended in me slipping off and my trunks coming down.
We were then back in the pickup and taken to the river, where we were met by a throng of persistent small children competing against each other to flog us cans of beer and packs of locally-made chocolate. For the next few minutes it was "only Juan", "no no, only Ronaldo", "pay later", "only Maria", "no, only Alex"...
At the river there was a big swing that we took turns to jump off in somewhat inelegant fashion, like this bloke:
We then were handed inner tubes and floated down the river for a couple of kilometres. As we drifted, the entrepreneurial boys reappeared at the riverbank to offer us beer, hurling the cans at us if we accepted. Later on I couldn't resist buying some chocolate off Maria because she was simply far too cute to turn down.
After lunch and a short hike we swam in the pools and walked down through the river, negotiating very slippery rocks as we went. After an hour of banging my shin, stubbing my toe and falling over I had had enough and, as beautiful as the place was, I was looking forward to the tour ending and getting back to the hostel for a nice tepid shower. However, after miraculously emerging relatively unscathed from the tour, I promptly fell down the steps at the hostel and sprained my ankle.
Sadly my camera got moisture in its lens so I didn't get many decent pictures. A few people from the tour said they'd forward any on so I'll upload them if that happens.
The next day I caught a shuttle bus to Antigua Guatemala - a town the small matter of 10 hours away. Our bus driver was very grumpy as an Irish girl in our hostel called Bronagh was half an hour late after a heavy night. He also kicked up a stink each time a fellow passenger who clearly had a regular need to 'release the chocolate hostages' asked to stop the bus (though not as much of a stink as she would have caused had he not).
I only had one night in Antigua as I was returning there for Christmas & New Year, so after a quiet night out with Bronagh and a morning booking a Spanish course and catching up on The Apprentice, I was off again, this time to San Pedro La Laguna, a small town on the edge of Lake Atitlan in southwestern Guatemala.
Periodically as we drove to San Pedro, small children waved at us from the side of the road; apparently they do this at Christmas time in the hope that drivers will stop and hand over a gift. Even if we had anything suitable, the chance of persuading Captain Miserable to stop was minimal.
OK, it's Christmas Eve here now (I'm back in Antigua) so I need to begin tarting myself up for a night out. You can't polish a turd, as they say, but you can give it a good wash and spray it with deodorant. I will describe San Pedro - one of my favourite places on the entire trip - in the next exciting episode.
Have a good Christmas everyone - I hope Santa is kind to you all and empties his bulging sack generously all over your respective living room floors. Ho ho ho.