Rivers of Babylon in Rio Dulce

Published: April 26th 2016
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We woke early again, thanks to the overly enthusiastic rooster that had set himself off at 3am every morning since we had been in Antigua. We made our way out of the Antiguan valley at 5am in bright moonlight and descended into Guatemala City with a blood red sun rising over the sprawling city.

We were meant to be travelling to Semuc Champey, but political unrest in that part of the country had made it unsafe for travel, so we were venturing instead to Rio Dulce, close to the Caribbean coast. We had a six hour drive ahead of us, so we had stocked up on provisions. As I stared out the window of our minibus, the settlements on the outskirts of Guatemala City were a stark reminder of the extent of poverty that underpins Guatemalan life.

We spent a lot of time ascending and descending hills as we made our way northeast towards Rio Dulce. The countryside was arid and bare, and the reminders of poverty were as ubiquitous as the roadside litter. There were a lot of trucks on the road, and every so often a huge industrial factory compound would rise out of the desert with nothing else for miles around. We drove through small rural towns flanked by looming mountain ranges and the ever-present cactus plants. While this is meant to be the hottest part of Guatemala, it is a dry heat – not the humidity we were travelling towards.

So many of the roadside advertising banners had been defaced or deliberately painted over. At first I thought the main targets were political banners, but the activism seemed to extend further – maybe to foreign products that were monopolising and suffocating the local markets. It was hard to tell, but most of the banners advertising national products had not been touched.

The arid countryside gradually gave way to green fields, palm trees, kapok trees, rubber plantations and small houses with thatched rooves – but the entrenched poverty remained. After seven hours in the minibus we reached the Rio Dulce township at 11:30am. A long, tall bridge spans the Rio Dulce, and halfway across the bridge the driver stopped in the middle of the road for photos – right in the midst of heavy traffic. Apparently it’s what people do, and there was absolutely no road rage – drivers just navigated around us. With photos taken, we continued over the bridge and down to the dock under the bridge. We grabbed our bags from the bus, walked to the smallest of boats, loaded our bags and were ferried for barely five minutes to Tortugal – our riverside hotel. We jumped off the boat, checked in, dropped our bags and headed straight to the open riverside deck for lunch. We shared shrimp ceviche and chicken tacos. The ceviche was pure 1970’s – a large dessert glass filled with shrimp, avocado and tomato salsa. Despite its dated presentation, it was fantastic. The tacos were sensational, and even better with the Belizean Mary Sharp hot sauce on the table. I had a few Gallo beers, while Ren had a fresh watermelon juice with a little too much sugar.

After lunch we organised our laundry and then settled in at the riverside deck to sit in the warm air and catch up on our travel writing. I went for a kayak on the river around 4:30pm, and got back just in time for happy hour. I tried a traditional Guatemalan michelada (beer, tomato juice and tabasco sauce), but it was beyond my taste preference, so I reverted to normal Gallo beer. Ren had a couple of daiquiris, and we played cards in the open air on the riverside deck while we waited for dinner.

I ordered the house special for dinner (chicken fajitas with rice), while Ren opted for the robalo (local fish grilled with coconut sauce). The meals were a long time coming, but the atmosphere on the river bank in the warm dusk air was fantastic. The fajitas were great (although a little dry), due in part to the shortage of avocados in the region. Ren’s robalo was quite European in plating (especially the mashed potato), but the fish was still very tasty. We talked as the night wore on, but eventually crashed at 9:30pm. We had been up since 3am, so the day had been long, and we had a boat trip to Livingston the next day.

We woke early and headed to the riverside deck at 7am to use the only wifi available at the hotel. We helped ourselves to coffee and tea and snacked on the remaining pastries we had brought with us from Antigua. We clambered into our longboat at 9am, which was only just big enough to fit 12 people. We headed off to Livingston, with a stop along the way to pick up ice, drinks and snacks. As we made our way towards the Caribbean coast, we took a few side-trips to drift through mangroves and watch life on the banks of the Rio Dulce. As we got closer to the Caribbean coast, the riverbanks became more lush and sultry, with limestone cliffs jutting out of the water until they were overtaken by the jungle forest.

We powered our way along the river and finally docked at Livingston around 11am, a tiny seaside town located at the river mouth where the Rio Dulce meets the Caribbean Sea. We wandered the streets of this extremely laid back and slightly seedy town in the searing heat of the midday sun. We sampled coconut bread and coconut cake before ordering our lunch at the Happy Fish restaurant. We decided to share the house speciality – tapado Garifuna (fish soup), along with the caracol a la plancha con papas (charbroiled garlic conch with potatoes). With lunch planned for 12:30pm, we had an hour and a half to explore Livingston.

We made our way to the beach and settled in with a cold beer at the most basic of beachside bars, looking out over the Caribbean Sea. The breeze was cool, the music was great and we were relaxed. A few local musicians turned up and offered a basic but enjoyable performance with segunda drums, conch, maracas and singing. For someone not at all interested in ‘touristic’ music performances, this was very atmospheric, and the bar manager (who was also dancing) asked Ren to dance.

We made our way back to the Happy Fish restaurant, where another ‘touristic’ music performance was in store while we waited for our meals to be served. This time the music was much better, but the atmosphere was lacking – there’s nothing quite like sitting on a beach in the Caribbean. Our meals were fantastic – the conch was great, although there was a little too much garlic, and some of the flesh was a little rubbery. The fish soup was a different story altogether – it was simply amazing!

After lunch we made our way back to the jetty, clambered back into the longboat and powered back up the Rio Dulce towards our hotel. We stopped at a place on the riverbank where hot spring water flows into the river from a small fissure in the limestone. We dived off the longboat and frolicked in the water, trying not to venture too close the place where the spring water entered the river, as it was very hot. Ren waded into the shallow water and relaxed in the heat from the hot spring water.

We climbed back into the longboat and powered back to our riverside hotel, enjoying how the wind and water spray cooled us from the searing afternoon sun. We pulled into the hotel’s floating jetty around 3pm, showered and then headed to the riverside beck, enjoying the cool afternoon breeze as we uploaded our Antigua blog.

For dinner that night we shared street tostadas (refried beans, pico de gallo and cheese) and chicken tacos. Both were absolutely fantastic! We then sat on the open riverside deck and enjoyed the warm evening air before retiring to our room. It had been a great travel day. With a long bus trip to Flores the next day, we retired early at 10pm.

After our fabulous few days in Antigua, we caught a private minibus at the unsociable hour of 5am to Rio Dulce. The trip took seven hours. We descended from the hills of Antigua to Guatemala City for the first hour of the trip, and the kilometres of slums that covered the outskirts of Guatemala City was an eye opener. Sophie mentioned that the police don’t dare go into these shanty towns and that they are entirely run by gangs.

We crossed from the western Highlands, through Central Guatemala and into Eastern Guatemala. It certainly wasn’t an easy journey, but it was fascinating to see the changing landscape through the heart of Guatemala. We passed farms, desert landscapes and little villages. I’m sure we passed more, but I slept for 70% of the trip and missed most of it.

Initially we were to go to Semuc Champey instead of Rio Dulce. However, there was a hasty last minute change as there had been reported political unrest in the area, which by its very nature in Guatemala makes for volatile situations. So even though I was disappointed that we wouldn’t be seeing the amazing limestone pools of Samuc Champey, it certainly wasn’t worth the risk (or made for a relaxing stay).

After two toilet stops to break up the journey, we reached Rio Dulce at midday. Rio Dulce (meaning Sweet River) flows out of Lake Izabal and to the Caribbean Coast. The river is bookended by having one of the largest bridges in Central America spanning it on the lake end of the river, and a small Spanish colonial fort – the Castillo de San Felipe de Lara on the other – built to stop pirates entering the lake from the Caribbean when this part of Central America was an important shipping route. On one side of the bridge is the small town of Fronteras (often confusingly called Rio Dulce). Fronteras has a local vegetable market which is used by locals from small river villages who still use traditional dugout canoes.

We caught a little lancha (ferry) across to our hotel from the dock in town. The Tortugal River Lodge can only be accessed by boat, and we stayed in amazing little wooden bungalows that had the entire back wall open to the elements, shielded only by a double layer of fly screen. It was a fabulous spot to relax and enjoy happy hour cocktails. The other very welcoming feature of Tortugal was Jefe – a very large and gangly dog who quickly figured out who he could get pats from and who was most likely to sneak him a treat from the table (which explained his very chunky figure). Within a few hours he had assigned me the job of neck pats and ear rubs, and of course I was only too happy to oblige 😊

We had lunch in the restaurant – Purple Turtle – which was on stilts over the river. Andrew and I shared the shrimp ceviche and chicken taco dish with Gallo beers for Andrew and a giant watermelon juice for me. Although not originally native to Mexico, ceviche has been served in Mexico for centuries. This fresh dish has raw shrimp cured with lime in a mixture of tomato juice, white onions, chile and avocado – all served in a classic style 70’s style massive cocktail glass. Weirdly it also came with dry salada type biscuits and butter. Both dishes were very tasty.

After lunch we lounged in the very breezy deck area and caught up on notes. It was nice to have some down time chilling out after the very full schedule we gave ourselves in Antigua – partly to acclimatise ourselves to the new time zone and partly because we were so enamoured with the place and found so many things we wanted to see and do.

Andrew also made use of the free kayaks and took off for a paddle on the river. Happy hour started at 5pm, and at 5:01pm I ordered my first strawberry daiquiri, which turned out to be the best of the cocktails on the list. The game of cards (Arsehole) between Emma, Alex, Jess, Andrew and I predictably got louder as happy hour progressed and more daiquiris were ordered. We had dinner at the restaurant again (because frankly, catching a lancha into the slightly dodgy town at that time of night wasn’t a great option). Andrew had the blackboard special of chicken fajitas, and I had a local fish with coconut sauce, vegetables and mashed potatoes. Dinner wasn’t as tasty as lunch, but probably because we’d picked more westernised options.

Given the bed was only slightly softer than a concrete floor, we must have been very tired to sleep soundly… the musical cacophony of night creatures in the jungle that started just outside our bungalow and the whirling of the fan probably helped too. The only reason we woke at 5am was because of the chorus of birds outside our window (which wasn’t exactly gentle or sweet), with one bird in particular seeming very angry and agitated about something.

On our second day we had a boat trip booked. After a light breakfast of coffee and pastries, we boarded a local boat which carried us down the river to visit Livingston, a fascinating Garifuna town on the coast. The Garifuna are descended from African slaves and the indigenous inhabitants of the eastern Caribbean islands, and Livingston is the only Garifuna community in Guatemala (with Belize having a larger population). The Garifuna have fiercely maintained their very unique customs and traditions, which has set Livingston very much apart from the rest of Guatemala.

The boat ride took us past the old fort and castle of Castillo de San Felipe de Lara and into Lake Izabal, then under the bridge along the very large and wide Rio Dulce. It was an enjoyable and fast ride past mangroves in lagoons, thick jungled canyon walls, small riverside villages contrasted by millionaire mansions and massive yachts, and eventually into a tropical landscape with coconut trees. Traversing the water is a way of life for the locals, and we saw many fishermen in small traditional dugout canoes. We also saw quite a few smaller more modern motor boats.

There are no roads to Livingston, and the town can only be reached by boat. The dock was full of lanchas arriving and departing. After a quick toilet stop near the dock, we walked through the main street of the town. We came across an older woman selling coconut cakes which we had to try, and like most things in Guatemala, it was very, very sweet. However, the shredded and fried coconut was delicious.

We continued walking, and it was stiflingly hot until we reached a very small strip of beach. It wasn’t really much of a beachfront, and it also had all the smells of a tropical place with open drains. A little dog adopted our group and escorted us for our entire walk. She was not much more than a pup, but had recently had puppies herself, which was sad to see. We named her ‘Little One’ and she loved the attention from all of us.

We walked to a very idyllic looking bar on the beach and sat down for drinks, with Little One settling down in the sand under our table. Before long a group of guys showed up with two drums, a conch shell horn and maracas and gave us a Punta music show. They were quite adamant that people should dance and a few of us were pulled up to dance in the sand. It was seriously good fun, and I now have an appreciation of a type of music I had known nothing about.

We walked back to town and had lunch at the Happy Fish Restaurant. On Sophie’s recommendation we ordered the caracol a la plancha con papas (grilled garlic conch with plantain and potatoes) and tapado Garifuna (Garifuna fish soup). We had never had conch meat, and it was unexpectedly very good, but they’d been a little heavy handed with the garlic. The tapado broth was superb, but it was a messy, hands-on meal, as there was a whole fish, a crab in its shell and a handful of unshelled prawns. A side dish of dense but tasty local coconut bread was used to mop up the broth. I also ordered a fresh coconut to complete the tropical feel. It was a superb lunch and we loved tasting dishes that were unique to such a small community.

To us, the most visible difference in Livingston from what we’d experienced in Antigua was the food and music – it definitely had a more Caribbean feel than a Latin American vibe. After our massive lunch, we rolled ourselves down the hill and settled in for the boat ride to a small section of hot springs on the river. The boat pulled over to a small jetty and everyone jumped off the boat into the river, while I sat in the sulphur laden very hot spring water. It was a very comfortable and relaxing way to spend the afternoon. However, some of my silver jewellery was temporarily turned a lovely coppery colour by the minerals in the spring water!

Back at the hotel, we caught up on our writing and then settled into the evening chatting to Hoa, Gavin, Yen and Megan. Even though we were still full from lunch, we thought we’d order a small dinner – but it turned out that we’d underestimated (again) the portion sizes at the Purple Turtle. We ordered a chicken taco dish and a tostada dish to share, and yet again went to bed overly full and swearing off food forevermore. 😊

As we packed, we reflected on our time in Rio Dulce, and we decided it was a lovely destination, but a couple of days was a long enough period for a visit.

Next we travel northwest to Flores in El Peten, Northern Guatemala.


26th April 2016

Good Topic
Hi, Thanks for sharing this amazing post with us. Travel Agency in Bangalore I enjoyed the entire article and keep rocking!
28th April 2016

Re: Good Topic
Thanks for your comment Siva.
26th April 2016

Perhaps you'll find....
I grew up on a steady order of burritos and tacos at the local taquerias in California. Since travelling in Guatemala and Mexico my order has completely changed. I always get the the Shrimp Cocktail with crackers (Coctel de Camaron), ceviche tostada and Michelada order now because I love them so much. Practice ordering in Spanish so you don't sound like a gringo and it gets a shocked smile every time. More hot sauce please! I love Flores and Tikal. I look forward to following along.
28th April 2016

Re: Perhaps you'll find....
Thanks Nanci and David. We have left Guatemala now, but look forward to having LOTS more ceviche when we get to Mexico. The hot quality of hot sauces over here has been a revelation to us, no doubt our packs will be full of Mary Sharp's hot sauces when we head home :)
26th April 2016
rio dulce

From volcanoes to the Caribbean
What wonderful diversity of cultures and landscapes you've encountered so far! Your hotel with its screened-in wall sounds idyllic, as do the boat rides drifting through mangroves and seeing indigenous people in their dugouts. I love that you find dogs wherever you go--Hefe, spelled Jefe, means Boss, and he certainly had you all wrapped around his paws! As usual, the food looked amazing, though that fish soup a bit daunting. And then your next stop, magnificent!
28th April 2016
rio dulce

Re: From volcanoes to the Caribbean
We loved our jungle/river resort in Rio Dulce, and thanks for the spelling of Jefe, one of the staff had told me what it meant, but it had slipped my mind. He was an adorable boss. The Garifuna fish soup (especially combined with the coconut bread) was seriously delicious even though you had to work for it :)
27th April 2016
tortugal hotel

Caribbean Flowers
28th April 2016
tortugal hotel

Re: Caribbean Flowers
They were very eye catching flowers - a pop of colour in a river landscape full of green, blues and browns :)
27th April 2016
shrimp cerviche

Shrimp Cerviche
I make a pretty decent cerviche.
28th April 2016
shrimp cerviche

Re: Shrimp Cerviche
I'll have to get your recipe Merry! :)
27th April 2016

The flavors of Guatemala
Interesting drive through the country with all the lush green....ness. I'm glad life has slowed a bit and you are enjoyed beers and juices with some music and local foods. Every pup in the country will know you are a soft touch by the time you reach their town. Those pups have an active underground of communication. They spot you the minute you get off the bus.
28th April 2016

Re: The flavors of Guatemala
Haha Merry I think you might be right about the underground pup network :) I judge a place by how friendly their animals are, and the animals over here are just gorgeous!
28th April 2016

Water envy
Sitting out in the desert reading about kayaking and seeing all those amazing photos is sending us a bit crazy; I think we need to find an ocean soon. Good to see we are not the only ones that seem to pick up every stray dog in town. Shelley keeps telling me that one day she is going to bring one home.
28th April 2016

Re: Water envy
This has very much been a water trip so far... on an island at the moment :) And yes, have befriended a few dogs already, and if we could, we would take them all home with us too. Hope the desert is treating you guys well :)

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