Rio Dulce mixes modern with Mayan

After American explorer John Lloyd Stephens sailed up Guatemala's tranquil Rio Dulce in 1839, he wrote: "On each side, rising perpendicularly from 300 to 400 feet, was a wall of living green. Trees grew from the water's edge, with dense, unbroken foliage.... Here all is luxuriant, romantic, and beautiful."

Fortunately, little has changed since Stephens's day, and the Rio Dulce continues to attract dreamers and adventurers. Travelers usually begin trips up the Rio Dulce at Livingston, a fishing community of about 3,000 people on Guatemala's east coast.

Livingston is an easygoing Caribbean town with brightly painted wooden buildings and colorful street life. Its people have managed to preserve their language and much of their cultural identity.

From Livingston, high-powered launches leave regularly for the town of Rio Dulce and Lago de Izabal (Lake Izabal) about 20 miles upriver. They follow in the wake of ancient Mayan traders who used to ply this route in canoes.

With each gentle curve, the river's sinuous splendor unfolds. Snowy white egrets perch like lanterns in trees overhanging the riverbanks, and long-necked herons peer out curiously from the shallows. Pelicans glide overhead, while kingfishers swoop down from almost vertical cliffs, snatching fish from the glassy waters.

Exposed layers of cream-colored sedimentary rock on the cliffs attest to the fact that this area was once the bottom of a prehistoric sea. At one spot, steam curls upward from sulfur springs bubbling beneath the river.

Before long, the thatched-roof huts and tidy corn fields of the Kekchi Maya appear in clearings along the shore, and fishermen wave from dugout canoes called cayucos.

The Kekchi live in small communities bordering the Rio Dulce. Like their ancestors, they depend on the river for food and transportation. Fancy vacation homes and boat docks also begin to punctuate the jungly embankments as the river widens to form El Golfete, a lake-sized expanse of water flanked by Rio Dulce National Park and the Biotopo Chocón Machacas.

Located on El Golfete's north shore, the Biotopo Chocón Machacas (also known as the Manatee Reserve) covers 18,000 acres of land plus all the waters of El Golfete. The reserve was established mainly to protect Caribbean manatees, the largest mammals in Guatemala. These docile creatures inhabit the Biotopo's mangrove swamps, lakes, and lagoons. Hunting and habitat destruction have greatly decreased their numbers. They are considered endangered throughout Central America.

Aquatic trails that can be explored in flat-bottomed boats meander through the reserve's swamps and rivers. Manatees must surface to breathe and sometimes to feed, but they are extremely shy and difficult to spot.

Displays in an interpretative center near the reserve's boat dock provide information on local fauna and flora, which include some 180 species of birds, 60 types of trees, jungle cats, tapirs, peccaries, monkeys, anteaters, deer, frogs, and iguanas.

A self-guided nature walk winds through the forest, past mahogany trees laden with rootless "air plants," huge red ants' nests, and outcrops of ancient seabed.

The sweaty silence is broken by mysterious rustlings in the dense underbrush and the raspy cries of toucans or other exotic jungle inhabitants.

At the western edge of El Golfete, the river narrows once more. Soon marinas filled with expensive yachts and the sprawling town of Rio Dulce come into sight. A modern concrete bridge arches high above the river, part of a newly paved highway stretching northward to the Petén and the spectacular Mayan ruins at Tikal.

A few miles beyond the Rio Dulce bridge, on a finger of land jutting into vast Lago de Izabal, sits an old Spanish fortress called El Castillo de San Felipe. This relic from Guatemala's colonial past dates back to 1595, when pirates terrorized the Caribbean.

The Spanish constructed El Castillo de San Felipe to protect the entrance to Lago de Izabal. During the 17th century, the fort also served as a prison and place of exile. It has been extensively restored. Much of the work was done according to original plans, incorporating architectural additions from different eras.

With its drawbridge entranceway, ramparts, towers, and rusty cannons, El Castillo resembles a compact medieval castle that has been transplanted to the tropics. It offers fine vistas of Lago de Izabal, which is more than 12 miles long and up to 10 miles wide. Hidden coves and estuaries, rich in wildlife, punctuate the lake shore, beckoning the adventurous to continue following their dreams.

If you go

Several bus companies in Guatemala City have express service to Puerto Barrios (192 miles, about five hours).

From Puerto Barrios, high-speed launches leave throughout the day for the 1-1/2-hour ride to Livingston. Tour operators and hotels in Livingston offer organized trips up the Rio Dulce.

You can also hire a local boatman on the town pier to take you upriver. Make sure that his launch has life preservers before negotiating a price.

For more information, call the Guatemalan Tourism Commission at 888-464-8281 or e-mail inguat@guate.net.

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