Part Four: A journey along the Sweet River
A few hours further south from Poptún, Guatemala was pinched on either side by its neighbours, Belize and Honduras. Rio Dulce, a bustling town that stretched along the final kilometres of the eastern highway, also gave way to a huge river of the same name.
A journey by boat along this Sweet River to Guatemala’s only spot of eastern coastline was my final adventure before leaving the country.
The seaside port of Livingston, the only enclave of the Garifuna people in Guatemala, has hit travellers’ radar in recent years due to its unique culture and abundant wildlife. Like the old cliché, at least half the pleasure of my visit would be the journey.
I paid for a lancha (a small boat) and the guidance of its captain, Frederico. As we entered the widest part of the river, we could have been at sea. We bounced hard against the choppy current for a while before Frederico chugged to a stop alongside Isla de Aves: The Island of Birds. Countless cormorants extended their wings towards the sky on slender branches. Their perch was hard-won against white Ibis, blue herons and the odd pelican. Never an island more aptly named, I thought, as the trees bowed under the weight of the creatures.
As I snapped keenly with my camera, Fredrico laughed. “If you like this then you’ll love the canyon”. He referred to a stretch of the river that narrowed to less than fifty metres. Either side, animals nestled in lush cliffs of tropical dry rainforest. As we navigated the canyon he pulled over to each sighting, proudly explaining each species and their daily habits. We spied huge male iguanas absorbing the morning heat and rare kingfishers poised, silently waiting for breakfast.
The birds on the outskirts of Livingston knew where their bread was buttered. Greedy gulls and pelicans sat impatiently atop local fishing boats, waiting to pounce on any off-cuts of the daily catch. However the port’s birdlife wasn’t its only feature. Livingston was once Guatemala’s main seaport before Puerto Barrios was constructed and became home to the Garifuna people.
These descendants of African slaves, who were banished from Caribbean islands by the British – live alongside Guatemala’s indigenous Maya and relatives of early Spanish settlers. They’re renowned for their excellent cooking and fortunately the hungry birds hadn’t laid waste to all the sea’s delights. I tried the local crab soup, washed down with beer and a side of their famous sweet bread; pan de coco.
It was a filling lunch but with all that sea air, I was still thinking about food as Federico delivered me back to Rio Dulce. The town’s burgeoning tourist infrastructure meant that I had options for a hearty dinner. I chose Sun Dog Café, with stone-fired pizzas that wouldn’t be out of place on the Italian Riviera. The red wine though, was still comfortingly served with Guatemala’s signature frozen grape at the bottom.
After dark, the highway horns and hawker calls reached a crescendo in time with the melodic preaching of the local church. Its doors were open to the street opposite stalls selling tasty fried chicken and traditional milkshakes or batidos. From the roof terrace of my hostel, I was a happy spectator to all the hustle and bustle of the town, something that I realised I had missed in Poptún’s remote farmlands.
That’s what was so great about eastern Guatemala: It really did have something for everyone while not attracting the visitor numbers of Antigua or Lake Atitlán. Its Maya ruins, hard working towns, wilderness and wildlife were worth every day that I lingered.