When you're heading south from Flores towards the highlands around Guatemala City and Antigua, you have a choice of two routes. The most popular choice is to head through the centre of the country to take in the picturesque swimming holes and caves of Semuc Champey, which is generally regarded as one of the most beautiful places in Guatemala; the other is to head down the eastern flank of the country to visit the Río Dulce, or 'Sweet River', where you can take a beautiful and oft-recommended boat trip out to the Caribbean coast and the Garifuna settlement of Lívingston. Here, the culture is unique in Guatemala as it doesn't have a road connection to the rest of the country, so although it was a bit of a toss-up between the two routes, in the end we figured we'd try out Río Dulce rather than Semuc Champey, as it feels like we've seen enough caves and swimming holes to last a lifetime.
It turned out to be a good choice, because the area around the Río Dulce is quite beautiful. Or, at least we think it's beautiful, because for most of our visit it was hidden behind vertical sheets of rain and low cloud, but even with the depressing weather that continues to dog our every move, the rainforest was delightful (and hey, it's a rainforest, so what did we expect?). We also lucked out on our choice of accommodation; we stayed at the Hotel Kangaroo, which is a short boat ride from the main settlement of Fronteras (which everyone calls Río Dulce rather than Fronteras, even though Río Dulce is the name of the river – confused yet?). Tucked away in the fringes of the rainforest on a quiet tributary of the main river, it's run by a proper Australian bloke called Gary (known to the locals as 'Kangaroo') who's a brilliant source of information on what you can do in the area. His other half, Graciela, who hails from Mexico, runs a mean kitchen making Mexican food that tastes fresh and enticing – which is a lot more than can be said for the Mexican food we failed to enjoy in Mexico – and all this is in a charming wooden hotel that Gary built himself after he moved to Guatemala some seven years ago. We were happy to let him tell us what we should be seeing in the area, and he did a great job; it was a relief to hand over the planning reins to someone else for a change.
Castles and hot waterfalls
On our first day we took a kayak across the river to an old colonial fort, El Castillo de San Felipe, from where you can see the expanse of Lake Izabal stretching out to the west. I love old colonial forts, and this one, which dates from 1652, is wonderfully atmospheric, despite being rebuilt in 1956 from ruins. With turrets, dungeons, battlements, cannons, faded white walls, red tile roofs and great views, it ticks all the boxes that I'm looking for in a colonial fort, and despite being a quick trip to get us in the mood, it was, for me, the highlight of our trip to Río Dulce, probably because it was the only time that the weather held off long enough for us to actually see anything.
The next day we took a colectivo along the northern shore of the lake to Finca El Paraíso, a ranch that's home to a hot waterfall flowing into a cool river in the rainforest. There are rock pools at the top of the waterfall containing steaming hot water, where you can relax under the canopy while rubbing volcanic mud into your pores, and there's even a small cave at the foot of the falls that you can duck into for a quick sauna, though as the roof is only about a foot above the waterline, it's less of a sauna and more of a steam-cleaner for your head; still, it's an enjoyable way to clear out the sinuses, while fish nip at your extremities in the eerily yellow water. The great thing about the waterfall is that it's even enjoyable in the rain, which is a good job because while we were there the heavens opened and the rain set in with a vengeance.
We should perhaps have taken a bit more notice, because our next colectivo stop along the road, El Boquerón, was a complete washout. This river canyon is apparently well worth exploring, so we happily paid the entrance fee and hired a man to take us upstream, but he stopped at the first set of rocks after about five minutes of paddling, pointing to a set of rapids and saying that the rain had made it impassable from this point. He pulled up to a rock and we clambered about ten feet further so we could see the rapids for ourselves, but the whole point of the boat trip is to reach a small beach a bit further on, where you can jump out of the boat and explore the canyon on foot; instead the trip was over before it started and was a total waste of time and money, and as if to rub it in, the rain suddenly switched from heavy to torrential, soaking us to the skin as we shivered in the front of the exposed canoe. The man rowed us back as the downpour continued, and although as soon as we jumped back onto the shore it lessened a bit, it still left us feeling cold, wet and fed up, which is pretty much how we felt all the way back to Fronteras on the colectivo.
Up the Río Dulce to Lívingston
That night the downpour didn't just settle in, it started applying for residency, which was a bit annoying as we'd saved the best trip until our last day; the guidebooks rave about the boat trip up the Río Dulce to Lívingston, and we simply had to give it a go now that we were here. The boats that take you downriver are actually colectivos that stop off at a few touristy spots on the way, though most of the people on our boat turned out to be tourists rather than locals. Most notably, one of the other passengers was a classic long-haired and bearded hippy, who had wonderfully colourful trousers, a sleeveless T-shirt sporting an amazing print of a native American, and the most astonishing body odour that I've ever sat downwind from. There were four rows of seats in the boat, with two or three people in each row, and we'd ended up at the back; the hippy was right in front of us, and every time he raised his arms to take a picture, the smell that hit us was so intense it made us cough. It was quite mind-blowing.
As a result, there was a silver lining to the dreadful set of clouds that rolled in as soon as we started out east towards the coast. As we entered the waters of El Golfete, the wide part of the Río Dulce to the east of Fronteras town, the rain started getting serious and the boat started picking up speed, blowing the stair rods under the boat's small tarpaulin roof and straight into our faces. This was a bit too much for the hippy, whose body was optimistically exposed to the elements, so he asked the driver if he could climb to the front of the boat to pull out a rug. As he clambered from row to row, each of the rows he passed collapsed in coughing fits until he reached the front, where he stood for ages trying to open up his pack, the scent of his armpits dousing the entire boat in noxious fumes. When he finally pulled out his rug and sat down at the front with his arms down by his sides, the whole boat gave out a collective sigh of relief. The poor girl on the front row must have wondered what had hit her.
Annoyingly, the weather continued to be appalling all the way to Lívingston, so we couldn't see the shores of the lake, and when we entered La Cueva de la Vaca, the steep-sided gorge just short of our destination, the sides were smothered in fog and the wildlife that is normally there for all the world to see was hiding from the onslaught. It was a damp way to reach the Caribbean coast, where we sat for ten minutes, drifting in the middle of the river, while the young boy who was driving our boat starting panicking because he'd run out of petrol; a quick phone call to his boss revealed that all he had to do was pull the engine hose out of one petrol can and stick it into the one on the other side of the cabin, so sheepishly he did just that and off we set again, disaster averted.
We had three hours to explore Lívingston before the return journey, so we plodded around town, making the most of a short break in the weather to check out the two streets that make up this small coastal town; I was surprised how touristy the main road was, because one of the appeals of Lívingston is its remote and cut-off nature, but I guess it's on the tourist trail, and you can't be both remote and popular. After a quick poke around, we jumped into a restaurant to avoid the next burst of rain and to sample the famous local dish tapado, which is a coconut and coriander soup with shrimps, a whole crab and a whole dried fish dropped unceremoniously into the top. It tasted all right, I suppose, but the soup was just like any other coconut curry soup I've tasted, and the seafood and fish elements took so much effort to dissect with our fingers and teeth that I rather failed to see the appeal. Still, this is what you're supposed to eat when you're in Lívingston, so eat it we did, and having ticked off the boxes while wondering what the fuss was all about, we jumped back into the boat as the clouds parted a little and some blue sky started to tentatively poke its way through the grey.
On the way back we at least got to see what we'd completely missed the first time round, and I have to say that this 'must-see' is probably only worth the effort in gorgeous weather, when it would indeed be a pleasant ride. The gorge has seemingly vertical walls of rainforest on either side, which is diverting for a while, and the lake has some enjoyable forested shores, but it's not that scintillating. It's a pleasant journey, but no more, and if you're already wet and the weather isn't beautiful, it can get pretty cold in the back of the boat. The lake is huge, too, and by the end we were wishing the journey away, particularly as we'd managed to pick up an eastern European woman who was travelling with her two daughters, and who started talking loudly to her kin the minute she joined the boat in Lívingston, and managed to talk continuously and without pausing for breath for the entire hour-and-a-half journey to Río Dulce. It was an astonishing feat, and the silence that enveloped us when she was finally dropped off at one of the marinas was pure bliss. I'm just thankful that I couldn't understand a word she said; her daughters looked long-suffering and just as bored as us.
It says a lot that my main memories of the boat trip were a smelly hippy and a chatterbox mother. Never mind, the Hotel Kangaroo was a great place to relax, and in the end the choice to visit Río Dolce over Semuc Champey was the right one. Even before our visit to the swamp, we were a bit tired of swimming in rock pools and wading through half-flooded caves, but after being rained on for so long, the thought of going through that again makes us shudder. It's clearly time to get out of the wetlands and head for dry land.