Fronteras, the small town at the western end of the Río Dulce river that joins Lake Izabal to the Caribbean Sea, is well named. We found this out one rainy afternoon, after jumping off the colectivo from our failed visit to the canyon at El Boquerón.
The Sun Dog is the place to go to get a lift to the Hotel Kangaroo; you just rock up to the bar and ask them to call the hotel, and after a short wait the Kangaroo boat zooms into view to whisk you off to your hut in the swamp. We figured we'd grab something to eat before calling for our lift, so we settled down at one end of the row of bar stools that look out onto the harbour, savouring the fact that there was finally a roof over our heads so we could at least try to get dry. At the other end of the row of bar stools was a black man with a laptop, a couple of grizzled-looking white guys with well-worn baseball caps, leathery skin and four-day stubble, and a stocky American with blue eyes and cropped hair.
That's when the old guy sauntered into the bar and sat down next to Peta, to a noisy greeting from the blue-eyed man. Straight away he fished out a bag of weed from his pocket and pulled a couple of generous pinches onto the table, where he started separating the grass from the dried stalks and breaking the buds up into smaller bits. Then out came the papers, and a few seconds later he'd sparked up and blown out a big cloud of grey smoke, instantly filling the bar with the astoundingly strong smell of powerful marijuana.
Passing the joint to his blue-eyed friend, he smiled over at us as we nursed our beers and tried to dry out. They seemed friendly enough as we wondered whether to say hello, but then a young man who'd been drinking nearby came over and asked the old guy whether there was anywhere round here that he could buy some weed, and the old guy replied, 'Sure, you can buy some off me if you like.'
'You picked the right guy to ask,' said the blue-eyed man as the old guy asked, 'How much do you want? This much?' And he piled up a few generous pinches of grass on the bar and pushed it towards the young man, who said, 'Yeah, that's great – how much is that?'
'Twenty quetzales should do', said the old man, and the deal was done with a wink and a smile for just over £1.50. And so it turned out that we'd accidentally sat next to the local drug dealer, and his chosen medium for advertising his services was smoke signals – great, big clouds of it.
It then started getting a lot weirder. The blue-eyed man soon struck up a conversation with us and tried to get us interested in taking a trip out to see the real locals, the Mayans, out in the jungle, as apparently their friend on the laptop was working for an NGO that ran expeditions to take medicine to the locals, and they all worked for him. For a fee they were taking tourists along to see how the locals really lived, as part of educating tourists and making a few bob for the NGO; amazingly, this turned out to be a genuine offer – we checked out their website later on, and yes, that's exactly what the NGO was all about – but at the time we just assumed it was some kind of scam, so we politely said that sounded interesting but, well, you know... and then our food arrived and they left us to eat as they turned back to their conversation.
After we'd finished eating, we met another of the Sun Dog's locals. He hobbled in, said hello to the old guy, and started going on about how his leg was really giving him gyp and that he really could do with a little help managing the pain. He then handed the old man some money in exchange for, well, something we couldn't see, and then he sat down next to Peta and instantly started talking straight at her like there was no time like the present. He'd apparently landed on his leg in a motorbike accident – while almost stationary, believe it or not – and he was down here recuperating because it was cheaper to live in Guatemala than in the USA. He'd just got back from Miami where he'd stocked up on his medicines, and he was just hanging out, waiting to get better.
The problem was, he wasn't right in the head, though quite how, we couldn't tell. He rabbited on, jumping from topic to topic, with slightly wild eyes and a strong element of fidgeting and nervousness. It seemed pretty obvious he was on something pretty strong, and he kept mentioning people stealing bags, having to watch your pockets round here, and various other things that started making us a bit paranoid. Perhaps the clouds of acrid smoke wafting across the bar were beginning to affect us, but it all started to feel a bit close for comfort, so we asked the barman to call the Hotel Kangaroo and kept an eye on our stuff.
And then, as if the characters couldn't get any stranger, a middle-aged man pulled up to the harbour in a speedboat, looking scarily like the bastard blonde child of a moustachioed Tom Selleck from Magnum PI, all dressed up in the flowery shirts of Hawaii Five-O; hell, he looked like Keith Lemon, and this without any hint of irony. Meanwhile his wife was blonde and busty, wearing tight, bright pink and looking like she was losing the war with gravity, and it suddenly felt like we had the whole set: the government boys, the drug dealer, the drug addict and now the exotic, fly-by-wire narcotic cops. And us, sitting in the middle, wondering what was going on.
Thank god the hotel boat pulled up a couple of minutes later, and we jumped on board and headed for the safety of the swamp. When the characters you meet in the bar are so clichéd that you can't tell what's real and what's wafting in on the local air, it's hard not to get a little paranoid. This is quite literally frontier-land, after all...