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Rio Dulce
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Guatemala Journal
Wanderings

 

 rio dulce

3 abril
Guatemala is a land of vastly different environments - high volcanoes and mountains defined by deep valleys and dramatic crevices, black sand beaches with pounding and pulling surf, thick hot rain forest in which ancient stone temples lie hidden. And then there is Rio Dulce (sweet river) - a wide slow moving swath cutting through lush green growth, alive with birds and fishermen, making its way to the Atlantic Ocean. Sherry and her visiting cousin and friend, looking for a last trip before the two left the country, decided to take the 5 hour drive, 10 hours round trip, in a weekend. I was thrilled to be able to join them.

We stayed at a hacienda on a rubber plantation, fronting the river, in a two story thatched roof bungalow for 4 which could easily have slept 8. The entrance, a stone gated wall, led to a winding dirt road, which ended in a small parking area. Grabbing our bags, we balanced our way across a maze of swaying rope bridges over small river tributaries, and before long happily found ourselves at a quiet cafe table at the river's edge. Boats tethered along connected wooden docks opened to a view of the wide river. After a long drive, it was the perfect time for a midday meal. I ordered soup with fish, crab and shrimp. Little did I suspect that each item had to be pealed, cracked, boned or otherwise extracted - quite a bit of work for soup, but quite tasty. Walking around the grounds after dinner, we found a stone stairway down to a round, tiered natural pool. Back at our cafe table, we sipped exotic drinks while the blue of the sky and river slowly deepened. Loud crickets sang for us as we tucked ourselves into our mosquito nets for the night.

The boat ride to Livingston left at 9am. We picked up passengers around the neighboring river docks, stopping at the gas pumps sitting on docks to fill up. First we headed upriver to see the dark stone walls of the castle of San Felipe, constructed by the Spanish to guard against English pirates, and damaged by an earthquake in recent times. We puttered along spotting solitary white egrets posing gracefully among the branches and vines hanging over the water, and black cormorants congregating on tiny islands. We drifted close to the bank to discover a hidden treasure - polished white rock, steam emanating from under the rock - a hot spring pool. I was the first in, having been advised to wear a swimsuit. It was so inviting, some of the passengers dipped in with their clothes on!

My favorite diversion on this voyage was a cruise through water lilies. Countless round green lily pads covered the surface of the water, with yellow centered white blossoms reaching up at irregular intervals. We were in Monet country! A few birds hopped about on the pads looking for something interesting to eat. One of the little houses along the bank advertised coco frio - cold cocoanut. We docked for a break and watched while the woman in the sparse hut chopped open cocoanuts for our drinks with her machete, her two babies nearby. A coatimundi in a small wooden structure behind the house appeared to be a pet, a dugout canoe drifted under the porch stilts.

The boat sped up to cross the wide lake area until we approached the coastal town of Livingston, a poor village at the mouth of the Caribbean Sea. The black skinned inhabitants, known as Garifuna, have a markedly different culture than the rest of Guatemala, more similar to the Caribbean islands and Belize, although they speak Spanish. A band entertained us with a lively Garifuna beat. Its instruments were all percussion, including drums of different constructions, one a large turtle shell. A boy, with sandals wrapped around his hands like bracelets, danced as if he had ants in his pants. Our friend, an English teacher planning to teach Lord of the Flies, bought a large conch shell after the vendor taught her how to blow it. On the way back, a boy in a dugout canoe rowed out to deliver a couple of passengers to us. We returned to Rio Dulce at 3pm and made it back to the capital in good time.

Just the week before, I had another river trek, albeit a small one. This semester I have had a roommate for a few months, a young student teacher at one of the other American schools. It has been an enjoyable change to have some company in my lonely apartment. Her friend, a student teacher at my school, is rooming with my neighbor, the music teacher. I took the girls for a weekend to Monterrico, a beach town on the Pacific side I have visited before. We took a little river trek there, and although there were many similarities among the flora and fauna, most notably the birds, there were also some interesting differences. Our early morning eco-tour started as the sky began to lighten. The two hour ride accompanied the sunrise, so the colors were always changing.

Our Monterrico boatman, Elias, was very knowledgeable about the environment of his river world. We explored narrow channels through the dense tropical foliage. The large rooted mangrove trees in the area are protected. Desirable for building furniture because they are very pliable, local companies must apply for permission to cut them. For each 50 trees cut, they must plant 100.

Strange dark fish, pez de cuatro ojos (fish of four eyes), skimmed the surface in small groups with two eyes on top visible - two for above water and two used for below. At times, they seemed to leap along the top of the water. One island was the nesting ground for iguanas. They bury their eggs two meters deep. Birds would wait until the iguanitos hatch and eat them as they emerge, threatening the existence of these creatures. The local ecological conservation group now digs up the eggs to be raised in hatcheries and returned to the island once they are too big to be prey for the birds.

The river here alternates between "agua dulce, agua salado" - sweet and salty - at different times of year. Normally fresh water, the river opens to the ocean, and ocean water enters to make the river salty. During time of agua dulce, plants flower on the surface in many colors, but do not grow in salty water. This was the salty time and so we missed the blooms. Drifting back to shore, emerging from the shadows of the narrow waterways to the morning light, we were greeted by fisherman getting their painted boats ready for the day.

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