Utter and complete disrespect for the environment in Guatemala (Rio Dulce, Guatemala)

Published: June 19th 2010
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(Day 804 on the road)"Oh, the rubbish. See the landmass over there? That's Honduras. That's where all the rubbish here comes from". Yeah, right. The guy we had asked why kilometre upon kilometre of the beach we were walking along was absolutely littered in rubbish chose to ignore reality rather than to face the facts: Sure, some of the trash is probably from Honduras indeed, but most of the garbage (plastic bottles, flip-flops, shopping bags etc etc) lining the shore here in Livingston on the Rio Dulce in Guatemala is due to Guetemaltecan people simply throwing their rubbish into the rivers and oceans. Out of sight, out of mind. Or not. More on this appalling topic a little further down.

We had arrived back in Guatemala after our short nine-day stint in Belize and found ourselves in the relaxed coastal town of Livingston. Livingston cannot be accessed by road at all due to its location on the mouth of the Rio Dulce, but that doesn't stop 17.000 people from living here. We had come here via Puerto Barrios on one of the most fun boat rides I have ever made:

The 30-minute crossing on the small lancha that was carrying maybe 13 other people and us started out harmless enough. After a while, the waves were becoming a little higher and some sea spray was coming in. Another five minutes later, and the waves came crashing over the side of the boat. Within seconds, everyone was soaked. The captain started handing out some plastic sheets (too little, too late) but didn't think it necessary to slow down at all. The resulting crazy ride across the rough waters saw our boat crashing up and down at a mad speed, with every big wave greeted by either loud cheers and laughter (Tino and me) or loud moaning and cursing (everybody else). Hell, I haven't had this much fun for three Euros in a very long time!

The funniest part of it all was when one passenger was wanting to get off at a certain point of the journey. The sea was way too rough for our captain to approach the pier, so instead the poor man had to take off his shoes, shoulder his big suitcase and simply go over the side of the boat, way out in the ocean. The sea was just shallow enough at this point that he didn't have to swim (which would have been impossible anyway with this bag). Our captain sped away in an instant, and the last I saw of the guy was him standing in the middle of the ocean, far way from the shore, literally up to his neck in the rough ocean, his suitcase held up high above his head. A sight to behold - I am still laughing hard as I write this paragraph!

As for us, wet to the bone and after reviewing the accommodation options in Livingston, we decided to splash out a little for a nice room. Paying the same amount of money as for our ramshackle room in Belize the previous night bought us a wooden bungalow in a lovely posada, with a lush garden right by the banks of Rio Dulce, a pier out into the water, comfy sofas and free wifi.

The wifi unfortunately turned out to be the decisive factor in our stay, as the ignorant and simply unfriendly owner more often than not refused to switch it on for us. After being patient and understanding for two days (the router was apparently getting "too hot" so she couldn't switch it on) we finally felt compelled to set a sign and simply moved right across the street at 2100 o'clock on our third night, to a place that cost the third of the price (but had no wifi). Treating paying customers like dirt is not the level of customer service I expect from the most expensive hotel in town, and the place simply didn't deserve any more money from us. Shame though, as it was really lovely otherwise.

From Livingston, we made a day trip along the above-mentioned rubbish-littered shore to the Sietre Altares, a series of wonderful cascading waterfalls two hours walk away. Of the four kilometres of beach that we walked along, the entire stretch was completely and absolutely covered in rubbish of all kinds. It is hard to describe in words, but it was the saddest and most disappointing sight I have seen in a long time. The official sign that poked out of the rubbish near the end of our walk and which declared the area a nature protection zone didn't even make us smile, so appalling was the whole situation.

I have witnessed many a country where the people show little or no environmental awareness or concern, but what I have seen here in Guatemala easily tops it all. The common argument is that poor countries are logically concerned with economic development and less so with environmental protection, and that the environment has thus to take a back seat until the country is rich enough to afford such luxuries as environmental laws. On top, first-world countries account for the vast majorities of all carbon emissions and other environmental concerns anyway, so it is only fair that third-world countries should be allowed to catch up without worrying too much about the environmental impact.

True, yes, maybe, but if locals here in Guatemala simply throw their garbage into the rivers and oceans in their own backyard, hoping that the currents will take care of the rubbish (the coast of neighbouring Honduras sounds like a promising place, now doesn't it?), I have little sympathy when this plan completely backfires and the people here now have to literally live and work in their own dirt. Serves you right, you ignorant and lazy polluters! Nice fish for dinner tonight, yes? Yummy, from that fresh and tasty ocean...

We were walking over and across the filthy rubbish for hours, right along people's homes, settlements and even hotels and restaurants, at points by accident stepping into polluted rivers as the water was so thickly covered with rubbish that it appeared solid, completely hiding the fact that a river was running underneath. The Belgium manager of our posada had called the situation "a shame", but it was really nothing short of a disgrace and an absolute disaster.

Onwards from Livingston, we took a lancha up the lovely Rio Dulce on yet another collectiva boat (read: a cartel/ monopoly with no competition allowed, resulting in high prices at low quality). No rubbish here on the river however, only locals going about their lives in dug-out canoes, washing clothes in the river, and generally taking it easy. A swim in some hot pools and spotting a cormorant colony along the way complemented this great journey.

We spent the next couple of days in the remote village of El Estor on the north-western shore of Lake Izabal, enjoying life away from other tourists (there had been quite a few in Livingston). Swimming underneath a hot waterfall - at Finca El Paraiso -- that dropped into a cold pool below was great and very unusual - the waterfall was fed by a hot spring, whereas the cold pool below was fed by a different, "normal" river. Equally nice was a boat ride up the steep canyon of El Boqueron, where a boy of maybe eight years rowed us up the canyon and we then swam and floated back to where we started. I can't think of a better way to spend an afternoon in hot Guatemala. It almost made me forget all the rubbish. But only almost.

Let me finish this blog however by telling you something about Guatemala that you probably don't know: Guatemala has some of the toughest anti-smoking laws in the world. Quite unexpected, um? When you think of Guatemala, what does normally come to mind? Tikal, Lake Atitla, volcanoes, violent crime maybe? But certainly not that fines for smoking in public places or bars and restaurants in this poor nation come in at 65 US$ for the smoker and 650 US$ for the business where the violation occurs I assume. In a country with an average income of 135 US$ per month that is a hefty fine indeed. Nice one in my opinion, people only learn what's good for them if you hit them where it hurts! But the question remains: If tough laws are in place against smoking, why is there nothing that is being done for some environmental protection?

Next stop: Copan (Honduras).

To view my photos, have a look at pictures.beiske.com. And to read the full account of my journey, have a look at the complete book about my trip at Amazon (and most other online book shops).


19th June 2010

will you go to other countires in south africa?looking forward to your explorings...
19th June 2010

Oh Ben that story of the man in the ocean was so funny it had me laughing out loud! The poor man I can just picture it now! Such a shame about the rubbish. Like you we always struggled when we'd see people throw their bags of rubbish out the bus window but the problem here is just shocking and takes it to a new level. It's sad to say but it's one of the things we really appreciated when we came back home, I can't stand it when people litter here but at least there's a punishment for it when they do. I saw a funny incident the other day when a little boy threw a can in a bush and his mum stopped, shouted at him in front of everyone (it was in town on a Saturday) and made him go back and pick it up! He was totally embarassed and won't do that again so good on her!
21st June 2010

Hi Ben, Do you think its possible that the currents have caused the build up of plastic to appear here (along with of course local rubbish). I haven't had a chance to read your blog properly yet, just caught it at the end of my work day, but i know that Rubbish/plastic in the Pacific Ocean is a huge problem. Some of the Midway islands northwest of Hawaii are completely uninhabited and yet the beaches are littered with tons of plastic rubbish and sadly the bodies of bird species who have consumed the plastic and then died, and decomposed leaving a pile of plastic surrounded by bones and feathers. A very sad and pointless way to die. I'm wondering if this is a similar situation, but as you may have hinted to, the locals could take some time to actually clean some of this rubbish up.

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