The day after Thanksgiving, when my fellows in the homeland were mowing each other down for Black Friday deals, three friends and I visited Livingston, Guatemala and the Rio Dulce canyon. Livingston is an hour ferry ride away from PG – a theoretically painless journey, except that the boats rarely take off on time and the captains have little to no concern for the health and wellbeing of their passengers.
We arrived at immigration twenty minutes before departure. Unsurprisingly, the boats didn’t leave until over an hour later. (This, in general, is on time by Belizean standards. I’m not complaining—I fit in here.)
The water was choppy, but this didn’t deter the driver from plowing towards Livingston against the waves at top speed. My back and joints quickly began to complain, wondering whether I had somehow fallen into an industrial clothes dryer. The most painful boat ride of my life was crowned off when it started to rain, whipping us in the faces as we sat huddled together. I could not have been happier to step off that damned boat.
Part 1: Livingston
It was immediately worth the painful trip. Livingston is charmingly chaotic: the streets are narrow and winding, abuzz with tuk-tuks, bicycles, pedestrians, street art, and market stalls. The Caribbean feel of Belize had given way to a distinctly more Latin American atmosphere.
Sadly, it rained approximately 100% of the time we were in Livingston. That didn’t deter us from trekking back and forth along the busy streets, shopping, eating, and exploring. The second day we even witnessed the celebrations for Guatemala’s National Garifuna Settlement Day!
That’s right – Guatemala’s Garifuna Settlement Day is slightly later than Belize’s, so one week after the sunrise ceremony in PG we experienced our second celebration in Livingston. This time we didn’t stay up all night, which meant we were actually awake for the daytime activities. It was awesome to watch the people parading up and down the street, handing out traditional food, dancing, and drumming.
We topped it all off by having lunch at a Garifuna restaurant for lunch. We tried out the local dish tapado, a coconut milk stew of fish, crab, shrimp, and plantains. AKA heaven.
Part 2: Rio Dulce
After our tapado, we caught a boat down the Rio Dulce to our next destination. The Rio Dulce is a famously beautiful river that runs inland from Livingston. The boat ride traverses a stunning canyon, complete with swooping shore birds, steep rocky cliffs, and local villagers paddling by in their hand-made wooden canoes.
Most tourists only see the canyon during their boat ride between Livingston and the town of Rio Dulce, but along the way there are a handful of remote hotels and lodges where you can stay to enjoy the scenery. That’s where we were heading: a small jungle lodge called Hotelito Perdido that can only be reached by boat. The Hotelito consisted of a few beautiful wood and thatch roof cabins, a dock with kayaks for hire, a big central communal thatch building, and a friendly dog named Rasta.
The first evening, we took the kayaks out and explored some of the surrounding mangrove swamps. Adorably, Rasta loves boats and sat in the kayak with us as we paddled. In fact, if any hotel guests dared to kayak without him, he would run frantically down the river banks after them, barking to be allowed into the boat.
The exceedingly interesting thing about staying at Hotelito Perdido was the nightly dinner. Every night, a delicious “family style” vegetarian dinner was served for all the guests and staff. Our dinner companions included: a loveably quirky girl who admitted to being a “stereotypical obsessive” German; a stunning but moody Portuguese man who was bicycling from Mexico to Peru; and a very wealthy Californian going through an identity crisis and toying with the idea of ditching his real life to stay in Central American (soundbite: “I have to get back to my horses”).
Add in our ragtag group of conservation volunteers and the end result was a whole room of characters bumping up against each other for several hours every night. Being a lover of meeting new people myself, I thoroughly enjoyed this forced social interaction. I can’t quite say the same of all my friends, though – we left with mixed opinions of the dinner tradition at Hotelito.
Regardless of whether we were down with family style dinners with strangers, we all loved our days at the Hotelito. The second day, we arose and visited the Seven Altars, a series of seven waterfalls outside of Livingston. It’s a gorgeous site that peaks at the final waterfall, from which you can take a fifteen foot leap into the water below.
I have an unholy love of leaping from waterfalls.
That evening, we kayaked across the river again to bathe in the nearby natural hot springs. They were slightly disappointing – it was crowded and very difficult to find a spot that wasn’t freezing cold or scalding hot. The highlight of the adventure occurred on our way back to the hotel: while climbing into my kayak, I performed a stylish but unintentional jig and somehow found myself in the river. The Mayan man helping us into the boat managed to hold a straight face as I sputtered and splashed around in confusion; my kayaking partner Sophie did not.
Part 3: Caitlin Makes a Decision
The next morning, we headed back to Livingston. We had about half an hour in town before our next boat left for PG, during which time I managed to work myself into a classic Caitlin predicament. I had been debating all weekend which Livingston souvenir to buy myself, bouncing back and forth between shops to compare the finer details of their mass produced items. I had finally settled on buying a bowl and was trying to pick the exact one when the boat captain approached and politely asked us to get our asses in gear.
Naturally, I went into full-on panic. “Go on!” I said. “I’ll catch up!”
My mind exploded as I looked at the bowls. Which should I choose? This one has a turtle carved into it, but that one has some nice flowers! What if I made the wrong choice of five dollar souvenirs and regretted it for the rest of my life?!
And in that moment of sheer confusion and alarm, I did it: I bought this wallet.
Yes, I went to the boat a proud owner of a faux-leather patchwork wallet featuring a fish on the front and a longhorn bull cutout inside. And from Livingston, Guatemala, at that!
Lesson: Don’t ever trust me with decisions under pressure.