Guatemala Pt. 2 – Journey up the Rio Dulce

We take a night bus away from Flores and the jungle temples of Tikal and make south. Toward the coast and to the junction town of Rio Dulce. A old fort town sealed around the point at which the river turned into a large lake only 10 odd km from the ocean. A very safe harbour in fertile lands. Hence the giant fort filled with cannon protecting it on the far point.

Its a chicken bus, you know, the ones the let people and their chickens on. A locals bus. Don’t ever try to make sense of the Guatemalan bus system. You won’t make it. We get off starved and parched and head 20m down a muddy gully to the waterfront where theres a few odd eateries perched on stilts where the boats tie up. Order some plantain chips and cerveza and some bread and snacks to go. We hustle a boat and head up to the hostel a little ways up the river. Accessible only by boat and perched in swampy jungle up a creek, its a tranquil escape. We ease past a half sunken boat and tie into the deck. Its one main open two story hut with a few other huts with bunks scattered around.

Settle in and grab canoes for a paddle. Its a lush jungle with delicious blue and green waters under us. Eager to cool off, we pull up at floating wood platform on the main river to spend the afternoon sun baking, swimming, kayaking and reading – we came prepared after spotting this place on the way in.

Another day in the river jungle hostel to relax and we take a boat up the rio dulce. Its a crystal clear day with a crisp sunshine. The way is coated in green jungle of all types. We cruise up past the fort near the town at first them off up the river to the waiting sea. Our boat driver points out the hot spring waters where they float into the river. Theres a canoe and a few people milling around. We pass a rustic thatch hut in a sea of lilly pads with a small girl in a canoe. She’s selling seashells. its the most adorable thing to witness. I almost feel bad taking a picture to preserve it. We buy a trinket and pass by. Leaving her floating passively by the wake of the boat.

We pass an island in the middle of the river thats home to giant lizards – like big iguanas. You can spot them on the branches a mile off. Second last turn and we smell the sea and it reveals itself a moment later. First thing we spot is another half sunken ship. Then another. Then the pier of the settlement beyond. Welcome to Livingston.

Livingston is some type of old pirate town. Settled by a wild mix of Garífuna, Afro-Caribbean, Maya and Ladino people and culture its more recently developed a very raw tourist presence. A stream of kids hustle us the moment we part the boat. Everything is on offer. Chicks, canoe ride, cocaine, ganja, sister, donkey, the lot. We warily edge our way down to the hostel. Im sick like never before that night. crippling stomach pains and half the night on the toilet. Wont lie, the place was disgusting. Not much more than a drop toilet in a tin metal hut. Not the place you want gastro. ehhh…

Explore the town the next day and find a nicer place to recuperate. A lovely cottage style place by the beach for about 12 bucks a night. We venture that day to a place called the Siete Altares. The Seven Altars. We wander along the beach and my phone buzzes, we are back in Belize apparently. The beach is nice. not pristine and lovely like you image much of the Caribbean sea. Theres the odd bit of garbage. But theres not much civilisation in this corner. Jungle covered coasts stretch up out and to the right – Belize and back down behind is – Guatemala. They falls are a cascading bunch of pools nestled in a hundred mt behind the coast. We swim and enjoy the beauty of the natural setting at bliss in the Caribbean coast.

Theres not much else to do here as its mainly a half way town for travellers on their way to the Honduran Bay Islands – Utila. But we aren’t ready to go that way yet. First we head for the highlands so take the boat back up river, jump a chicken bus and end up in the hellhole of eL Rancho

Guatemala – Flores & The Lost City of Tikal

The van cruises on for several hours, through the border checkpoint and on to Flores. The scenery changes from sandy and palm trees to a red earth with lush greenery at every bend. Small fertile looking farms dot the landscape. Flores, is a small little town thats got a unique feature of a bridged island as the tourist section sitting in the middle of a scenic lake. We are here for its proximity to Tikal – the ancient Mayan city buried in the jungle in the nearby Biosfera Reserve.

It a beautiful little island, almost european in style of building and in how close its built. A few jetties stick out into the lake where we see local kids and the odd traveller swimming and sun baking. Its damn hot so we make this a priority for our afternoon. But first, find a hotel, negotiate for a room and get some food. Either way, before long we a swimming in the cool clean waters of Lago Peten Itza and sipping on slushied mojitos from a balcony as we watch the sun set over the lake to the west.

Flores Sunset
Flores Sunset

We’re up at 4am the next day standing under the overhang for shelter as a rainy wind gust around us on a dim lit street. We are waiting for our transport to pick us up and take us to Tikal.

Tikal is an ancient citadel and city that dates back as far as the 4th century BC and was inhabited up until around the 10th century AD. It was one of the largest most powerful kingdoms of the Maya and includes around 3000 structures over 16 square kms. Up to 100,000 people used to call this home at the height of its lifespan. Its also planet of the Ewoks from Star Wars – you know that scene where Darth Vader’s plane flies down in Return of the Jedi over a jungle clad plant with temples jutting through the canopies? Yep thats Tikal.

The rain abates somewhat, but it just makes it steamy and its still hanging around. We pass the entry point and start exploring the mud tracks. Tikal is huge and it IS a lost city in the jungle. Unlike Machu Pichu, or Chichen Iza, there are very few clear area’s with manicured lawns and theres maybe a few hundred tourists at the most vs the thousands that pass through those. There are dozens of 60m high temples climbing up at clearings through the jungle canopies, and some you can climb giving you this eerie mystical view across the tree tops to a dozen other temples through the rainy mist. Add in the screaming howler monkeys and this is the lost city experience Ive been longing for.

At many parts you see half buried structures, covered in moss and reclaimed by the slow ever-present growth of the jungle. Its awe inspiring to hear the stories of what went on here, and to see the type of structures these people lived in and then to see it corroded yet still surviving the march of time.