Six and a half months ago, when we arrived in-country, the idea of going to Belize to learn how to scuba dive for Christmas seemed like a distant dream. It’s hard to believe how fast half of a year has flown by, and the fact that we made it happen (minus the scuba diving part, because we actually are too poor for that).
December 27th, 2013, Patrick, Sybil and I set out for a two week long jungle adventure, exploring the Caribbean side of Guatemala and then up into Belize. Following is a recap of our exploits!
Fri, Dec. 27th. I was able to stop by my training host family near Antigua for lunch. My trip was off to a good start when I got flying hugs from the 3, 5, and 11 year old girls upon arrival. And there is no better way to spend an afternoon than hours chatting with Doña Jovita!
Happy Hour with fellow volunteers and then dinner with Sara and her parents at our favorite restaurant Saberico. You can always count on Antigua to provide you with delicious things to eat that aren’t available in site, like good red wine and mozzarella sticks!
Sat, Dec. 28th. 1.5 hour bus from Antigua to Guate. Three hour layover. Six hour bus to Fronteras, Río Dulce. We were not stoked to be arriving to our hostel after dark at 8pm at night, but Gary, the fabulous Australian owner, made it up to us by picking us up for free in his boat and keeping the restaurant open a little while longer so we could order some legit Mexican food- enchiladas de mole!
Sun, Dec. 29th. The real adventuring began with the first attraction of the trip- Finca Paraíso in Río Dulce. At Finca Paraíso, geothermal hot springs roll off a huge cave formation and meet up with the cold river, essentially forming a hot waterfall. I doubt there is any place else on Earth like this! While swimming in the river is freezing, you will quickly forget your discomfort as you stand under the waterfall, getting pelted with what feels like steamy shower water. We also hiked up to the source where we found our own private pool, soaked for a bit in the scalding water, and gave ourselves mineral mud masks. Pretty amazing.
Canyon El Boquerón. Have you ever heard the howl of the Howler Monkey? Paddling through this canyon was kind of an eerie experience. The monkeys howling back and forth and the echoing within the canyon made all of us feel like we were in Jurassic Park getting hunted down by some hungry sort of dinosaur. The dramatic limestone walls go about 820 feet high on either side, and the rocks have the wildest formations, like lizards, jaguars, and faces that the ancient Maya believed housed their spirits. There are certain spots in the canyon where Mayan ceremonies are still performed to this day.
Mon, Dec. 30th. This day started EARLY- leaving the hostel at 5:30am to boat into town (our hostel is right on the river, accessible only by boat), and then bus for an hour to the other side of Lake Izabal, to a town called El Estor. What we were hoping to see this day were manatees! Our guide was an indigenous man named Benjamín, Maya Q’eqchi’. He took us into the Bocas del Polochic Wildlife Refuge, and pointed out to us all of the iguanas, monkeys, birds, and other wildlife in the trees that we wouldn’t have noticed with our own eyes. Benjamín is a manatee whisperer! “Manatee… manatee…” became a running joke between the three of us for the rest of the trip. How he could spot a certain pattern of bubbles out of the corner of his eye and know that the manatee would pop up 20 feet ahead and to the left is beyond me. We spent probably a half an hour chasing manatees around, haha. We got a few glimpses of these sea cows, including a mother and her baby, but he said they didn’t really feel like showing themselves that day. All of the monkeys, turtles, and lizards certainly made up for it. We also saw a mangrove forest and had a while to chill out on a completely deserted beach.
After a nap from the morning’s exhausting activities, the afternoon consisted of a swim across the river to El Castillo San Felipe. The castle dates back to the Spanish occupation of Guatemala, and it was built to keep out English pirates. There actually used to be a chain going from the castle across the entire river to block entry into the lake. I kept trying to get Patrick and Sybil to watch “The Pirates of the Caribbean” with me back at the hostel, but they weren’t having it. I thought it would have been so appropriate!!
Two days in Río Dulce were delicious and relaxing. Even for all the natural wonders, the image that sticks with me best is sitting on the dock under the stars late one night chatting with some of the guests. You meet the most interesting people traveling! Nevertheless, I was ready to move on to more of an upbeat place.
Tues, Dec. 31st. The two hour boat ride through the Canyon Río Dulce to Livingston was pretty amazing as well. Such rugged jungle on either side, more iguanas, monkeys, and hot springs. All of the precarious-looking housing and lodging on the edge of the river fascinated me as well.
In Livingston, I definitely got what I was looking for! Guatemala is home to four main ethnicities: Ladino, Maya, Xinca, and Garifuna. Sometime in the 1700s, when a slave ship headed to the north shipwrecked, the Garifuna population in Livingston was born. After spending six months with mostly people of European or Maya descent, a town with a Garifuna and Afro-Caribbean population was a welcome change of scenery! This is right about where language started changing as well… we were now hearing less Spanish and more English, Garifuna, and Creole.
Culinary highlight of the trip: Garifuna tapado. This traditional seafood soup has a coconut milk base and my life is more complete for it having graced my taste buds. We ordered a giant bowl (plus ceviche!) for the three of us, and it came with a crab, and entire fried fish, clams, squid, snails, shrimp, veggies and green plantains. Served with hot buttery garlic toast (first atypical Guatemalan meal and I was already feeling the lack of corn tortillas in my life). So I ate snails for the first time. Sucking them out of the shell is pretty weird, but they’re not half bad!
Siete Altares. The main natural attraction in Livingston is Siete Altares, or Seven Altars. It is a series of 7 waterfalls that glide over smooth rocks and form pools of the clearest crystalline water. The river flows into the Caribbean sea. We hiked here late in the day, so we had the entire place to ourselves. The way the afternoon light shone through the trees and subtly illuminated the pools gave it an ethereal feeling. I was blown away by its beauty. And the icing on the cake? The last pool is deep enough to jump!
New Year’s Eve at Casa de la Iguana I wanted to be somewhere with a party for New Year’s Eve, and backpacker hostel Casa de la Iguana has just that reputation. The celebrating (and by celebrating, I mean drinking…) started around 6pm, when it was already 2014 in England. Staff and travelers at the hostel represented Italy, England, Canada, Australia, Norway, Finland, Argentina, and just us and one other from the States, if I remember correctly. The dinner served family-style got us all talking. Thanks largely in part to ridiculous drinking games, the party quickly escalated into one I won’t ever forget. I think at some point the bartender tried to shoot a firework out of his rear-end, leading to a semi-serious burn. Other shenanigans that took place would not be wise to mention on this blog.
A cool new experience for me was the European tradition of jumping into the New Year. At 11:59, everyone stood on a chair for the countdown, and then as the clock stuck 12, we jumped off.
We only allotted one day for Livingston, but I had no idea that I was going to love it so much. If I could have stayed longer, I would have taken a Garífuna cooking course, maybe gone to drum school, and I definitely would have gone out to one of the clubs along the beach. We ran into another volunteer the morning after, and he said that they went out to the local clubs and that it was the greatest, most authentic experience of Garífuna culture. The dancing, the drumming, the heat, the sweat, the music pumping all throughout the night. He said that although they left at 4am, it wasn’t anywhere near ending.
That is so different from the places I have been out in Panajachel, Antigua, and Quetzaltenango… they are always closed by 1:30am. It makes me think of Argentina, where the lights don’t come on until the sun comes up.
And so concludes Part I of our NYE adventure… On to Belize!