Livingston: a mixture of cultures

Livingston is my last stop in Guatemala before I go to Honduras. It is the end of Rio Dulce and the beggining of the Carribean. The vibe is definitely Carribean. I got there on a boat from Rio Dulce. A scenic ride through the lake, the forest, and the local communities. My favourite bit of the ride was when we stopped at this waterside village and little kids in canoes surrounded us, showing us turtles and parrots, trying to make some money. I was amazed how well they navigated their canoes. They were only 5-6 years old.

Four different cultures live and mix here: the Garifuna (African decsendants), indigenous, meztitos (Spanish mixed with indigenous), and Hindu. Not much happened in Livingston – I wasn’t feeling well and I spent most of the time lying down. I went out for walks in town and spent time chatting to my also sick roommate. The one day I felt better and just before I left I went for a walk along the beach and the local garifuna community. The beach was pretty, but dirty. A sad fact and a repeating occurence. Here are a few thoughts that came to mind while there:

– I thought I’d seen it all but the arrial of a 60-year old female backpacker took me offguard. I will spare you the details, it was not pretty. The night before I had met a 40-year old lade traveller and I thought that was weird enough. She eventually became a good friend though. A great person!

– On a different note I have been thinking about the teeth of the locals. The majority of them were damaged and the front teeth were replaced by golen ones or at least fortified by gold. I spoke to a guy who even had his initials done in gold on his front teeth (as if the rest of the gold surrounding them wasn’t enough!).

Rio Dulce: crazy place

Here is where things changed for the better. They actually improved as soon as I got on the bus. A proper one instead of another minibus or chicken bus. I got to Rio Dulce at 10.30pm, had some delicious (but expensive!) tacos and got picked by a lancha and taken too a cool hostel near the river. A very nice tourist info guy helped me arranged it all at no cost!

Once at the hostel I just got ready for bed and went to sleep. The bed was tiny and had a mosquito net (very princessy). I woke up early the next day, had an overpriced, small breakfast and got back to town.I figured it was better to stay there instead of paying for water taxi rides back and forth from town. The hostel I stayed at was not so cool and I was worried about my bags as it was near the road where many (dodgy) people just walked in and out. I then went looking for a bus to Finca Paraiso which took a while as I got the name wrong. The name I used (Finca Tatin) got stuck in my mind from the numerous adverts at hostels. It was only reachable by lancha and cost a fortune to get there. I was surprised to find out because I knew there was a bus going there and that it was cheap (to Finca Paraiso at least!). After a while I decided to consult the guide book again only to find out I was wrong and everybody else was right. Da-a-h!

I got onto an especially run-down chicken bus (and this time there really were chickens inside) that looked like something taken from a scrap yard. I wondered how it still ran! It was all rusty, holes in the metal, and the front part covering the engine was missing. I then spent the day at a hot waterfall, soaking and floating.

This is where I wrote the following:

These are random thoughts and obsrevation from Rio Dulce. I saw/experienced most of it on the way to the waterfall.

– I can’t get enough of the local street food. It is all so deliciously deep-fried and attractive. Some of it I can’t even tell what it is. I know I will miss the fried chicken and rice and the little bags of fresh tropical fruit I have been buying.

– The local info guides have been very helpful, kind and enthusiastic. One helped me with the lancha last night and another one with the buses today.

– Deforestation is a fact. On the way to Finca Paraiso I saw large spaces cleared of vegetation and/or burning. It’s ironic that it’s being done by the very people who live off it and need it to survive. They clear spaces to plant corn or coffee. The problem is that the soil is so thin that it gets exhausted in only a few years. This means more space is needed and more deforestation.

– I get so annoyed with the local indigenous for throwing rubbish everywhere. I don’t even feel like calling them indigenous because in my mind that’s a good thing. Some of the people I have seen here are peasants with zero education on environmental protection. Not even common manners. They are not worthy of the indigenous title. They keep throwing plastic bags and bottles everywhere.
I wonder if it so difficult to just take them with you and throw them away where appropriate a bit later. I wonder what the cleaning services are like? if there are any? How is rubbish being disposed off? If there’s no facilities it doesn’t matter whether you throw it away on the road or in the jungle by your house.

– I wish you could see some of the places I visit. I can’t even begin to describe them. The streets, the shops, the people, the transport, the colors, the smells, the noises. It is dirty, rediculously colorful, cramped. There are no rules or manners. No signs. The streets are lined with small shops packed with goods (mainly foods and kitsch). People are standing in front of them, shouting, trying to lure you in. Then there’s a line of food stalls on each side of the street. Minibuses stop on corners, again shouting destinations and gently (or not so) pushing you in before you have had time to realise what’s going on. There are cars, bikes, trucks, pedestrians, animals crossing the street at the same time.

It is mad, insane, yet charming. Sometimes annoying and frustrating. The mixture of colors, smells, dust, people, noises is unbelievable.

Most people are rugged, sweaty, smelly. Yet they laugh heartily, or talk with sweet voices. Many (indigenous mainly) are not friendly, they don’t smile or wave, rarely greet. But that’s almost all indigenous I have come accross on the road.

I am amazed by how simple life is around here. I wonder what goes through people’s minds. What do they worry about? What they dream of? What makes them happy? It seems that a new blouse or a pair of high heels is enough. It is all about having a roof above your head and something to eat.

Not my day

After Semuc Champey and Lanquin I headed back to Coban where I was supposed to arrange a stay with an indigenous family in the nearby subtropical rain forest. Now I am writing this weeks after it had actually happened and I hope I don’t miss anything. I had kept a journal where I have written everything that has happened so far. It was necessary because I often don’t get access to the Inet where I can update my blog.

Back to the story. I spent the night in Coban, a boring place used only as a transportation hub. I only stayed there because of my eco-trip. I managed to arrange it and went there the next morning. Now here is where the trouble began. It was raining all morning. Hard when you are walking with two heavy bags on your shoulders. Once at the office I made myself comfortable waiting for the bus to pick me up and take me to the community. I waited for about an hour when the lady told me the bus was broken and the driver was trying to fix it before we left. I said it was fine and that I would wait. Later, she checked on progress and the guy assured her we were still going. Four hours later the bus was still not repaired and the lady suggested I better go. I decided to make my way to Rio Dulce, hoping I would get there on time. So I made my way down the street where the buses passed (advised by the lady). I couldn’t quite see where they’d stop so I asked a taxi driver where it was. He said they didn’t stop here and that the station was far. Apparently, I needed a taxi. I didn’t think much of it at the time as you often get misleading directions from people. I got into the taxi, paid the fee, only to find out later that the bus did indeed go through where I was standing and that the taxi driver was just tring to make money by lying to me.

I got on the bus while the helper boy was loading my bag on top of it. He then he decided to take it down and put it in the truck and made a whole in it while doing so. I was mad. I asked what he had done, and he just said: ‘Nada….’.

I then got to a place where I was supposed to change buses. I was starving and got some street food that’s usually pretty cheap. Not this time. I then had to wait for the bus. I killed time by walking around, eating fruit, and reading.

Semuc Champey and Kan´ba Water Caves

So, I have ben at El Retiro for way too long under the pretext of recovering from a cold. Well, I finally decided it was time to do something and subscribed for a tour to Semuc Champey and Kan´ba water caves.

The sun hadn´t been out in days, but it was up and shining this one day. How lucky we were! So, we all got into a pick up truck and drove off to the caves . There we were given a candle each and we were on our way. It was pitch black inside and surprisingly warm. We were all told that the caves were cold. Again, the sun made a huge difference. We walked or swam in the dark, climbing the occasional rock or ladder, squeezing through tight cracks in the rock or jumping off stuff.

The cave apparently was 11km long but we only did 300m as the rest was unexplored and too narrow a guide said. They also told us the story of some people who spent two days in the caves tryig to get as far down as possible. Eventually they had to come back.

The first challenge was climbing up a small waterfall. It was kinda strong, and it did look a lot harder to climb than it actually was. That was fun, we then swam (trying not to hit underwater rocks and cut ourselves) to a point where we could jump off a cliff. After that it was time to go back. Too bad we couldn´t take any cameras inside as the line of peole swimming in the dark, candle in hand made a great picture.

After some sliding and more swimming we got to another waterfall falling through a narrow crack in the rocks. It was the most unnverving passage of all as we had to squeeze through the crack (water coming over us) not knowing what was beneath us and how deep it was. It turned out to be a meter high an very calm once you were beyond the waterfall.

So, we were done with the caves. A fund experience, something that I hadn´t done before. It was time for the tubing and the giant swing. We each had a go (or a few) at the swing, landing in the middle of the river. It was fun, as it was very high up and one splashed into the river from aheight of 3-4m. The swing was fun, but only if you landed properly. I unfortunately landed on my ass which still hurts from the experience. Abit later we all grabbed a tube and floated down the river, enjoying the sun and relaxing.

Time to have some lunch before we went onto Semuc Champey.

The first thing we did was climb to a viewing point from where all of Semuc Champey could be seen in al its glory. It was indeed pretty, very blue. You may have notice how I am not too excited talking about this experience but that´s only because I had seen similar stuff (if not prettier) in Mexico. I am by no means dismissing the beauty and importance of Semuc Champey though.

We made our way down to the pools, where we had some time to ourselves. The water in the pools was slighlt warmer than the river as they were two separate things. Semuc Champey is a naturally formed limestone bridge, under which passes the Cahabon River. Apparently, three boys fell into the river an were never found.

We slowly made out way downto the last pool where a surprise awaited us – a 12m jump into the river under a powerful waterfall. Not everybody had to do it, it was voluntary. At first I though we all had to make our way down, either through jumping or through climbing down a rope our guide had prepared. I was pretty tired by this point and climbing down the rope seemed like too much work. So I jumped. Again, another unfortunate landing on my ass and that one hurt! It still does. I have indeed been very unkind to my bottom in the last few days. Previous to going to Semuc Champey I had done tubing nearby the hostel an hud bumped the very end of my back on an underwater stone. I couldn´t get to the middle of the river fast enough, and experienced the painful bump. It´s like falling down a staircase, and the last time it happened to me it hurt for weeks.

I haven´t had a single day since I have started travelling where I have been in perfect health. There´s always something – a cold, muscle ache, a sore bottom!

Anyhow, after the jump we all made our way back to the hostel where a gorgeous Mexican dinner awaited us.

Photos: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=343839&id=752200606&l=4321287c48

El Retiro: paradise on Earth

I got another minibus (a bit bigger and more spacious than the first one) to Lanquin, a small village in the middle of the cloud forest, famous for its caves.

I gotta say I love the approximate locations, directions, time tables (if any) in Guatemala. Everything is ‘over there’, ‘ a few blocks away’, or leaves ‘soon’.

We made it to Lanquin on another dirt road through the cloud forest. More amazing views, indigenous, mud houses snuggled in between palm trees or purched on a hill, touching the clouds.

I wasn’t too happy with the ride as I think I might have been ripped off with the bus fare. What followed though more than made up for it and erased all bad memories.

I walked to El Retiro – the most amazing hostel ever! It’s situated next to a fast running river in the middle of the cloud forest. The view from my hut is amazing. I wake up every morning to the view of the mountain tops covered in clouds.

There are hammocks all over the place, a sauna, and tons of activities. The place looks like one of thoe magical retreats in the middle of nowhere. We sleep in huts, purched on hills, hammocks dangling on the porch. All is green and flowery. It is beautiful, peaceful, relaxed. I am spending some time here before I continue my journey.

I haven’t done anything for 3 days now. Partly because I am a bit sick, but mostly because I’m just enjoying the setting, the views, lying in a hammock all day, reading, sleeping.

I read about this place in the Lonely Planet Guide and it did sound great. On the way here I imagined it beauitful, green. I was so happy to find out it looked exactly like I was picturing it!

Here’s how a typical day goes by:

– get up around 9am
– walk out of your hut to greet the cloud forest, hear the birds and the bees
– wash up and have a delicious breakfast. Bread is freshly baked round the corner, fruit comes from the surrounding forest.
– go back to hut, lie down in hammock
– read, write, listen to music, sleep, or all of the above. The sound of the rain, the birds, and the humming of the river help the sleeping.
– wake up for lunch. They serve the most amazing home cooked fries.
– walk a bit, enjoy the scenery and go back to hammock (alternatively use Inet or take up an activity – tubing, swimming, caving, hiking)
– talk to people, make friends, gather travel tips, share stories, watch movies
– get ready for a gorgeous buffet dinner at 7pm. It’s almost like a ritual. That’s when we all gather around long tables for our plate of amazing food (lots of it!). We look like a sect or a weird community. It reminds me of ‘The Beach’.
– have a few drinks after dinner, eat desert, chat with fun people.
– go to sleep

Wake up and repeat cycle 🙂