By Aaron Smith, Contributing Reporter
GUATEMALA – “Goin’ up the country where water tastes like wine,” to quote 1970s musicians Canned Heat, sprung to mind as we headed up the sweet waters of Rio Dulce, Guatemala. Able to relax again after an edgy escape from Honduras and its current political unrest, we chilled out in the Garifuna town of Livingston.
Accessible only by boat, Livingston sits in the Gulf of Honduras at the mouth of the River Dulce. The Garifuna are a mix of mostly African slaves who revolted in 1795 against the British on the Island of St Vincent, and then migrated and mixed with shipwrecked sailors, indigenous Indians and even a few Hindus. They populate the Caribbean Coast from Nicaragua to Belize in small fishing villages, but in Guatemala they represent a minority almost exclusively found only in Livingston.
Decidedly off the Gringo Trail, Livingston has a very loose vibe, its shanty-town huts proudly painted in red, yellow and greens, representing sympathies to Rastafarian culture; not to mention the dreadlocked, toothy-grinning inhabitants who tout their homegrown with thick Caribbean accents.
Despite the poverty, this is a welcoming place for travelers. For some spare change, one the many local characters will carry your bag from the boat to a cheap hotel while giving you the low-down on the town.
As our guide disappeared down the beach and into the night he called out, “Welcome to the safest place in Guatemala.” Moments later gunshots rang out from his last seen direction, a sobering thought in a country considered the world’s perhaps most corrupt democracy.
It’s in the Garifuna dish of tapado that the ethnic mix excels. A spicy seafood soup with an Asian curry-laksa base, this fruta del mar, pièce de résistance was quite simply the best meal we’ve experienced to date. Topped off with a shot of the local liquor, Mamajuana, a heady mix of local herbs and moonshine that stripped the enamel off our teeth, was enough to park us in multi-colored hammocks for our afternoon siesta. Vivi described it as, “Macumba in a bottle.”
We were almost sorry to leave, as we putted away upriver in an open canoe, through untouched jungle and steep gorges, past sulphur-laden, geothermal hot-pools and indigenous communities for thirty-six kilometers to Rio Dulce Town and the 100 kilometer-wide Lago de Izabel.
A different world, this playground for the rich buzzed with jet-skis around the miniature San Felipe Castle. Built by the Spanish in 1604, it was continually plundered by pirates for nearly eighty years until finally being deserted. This natural harbor is also home to marinas full of yachts lying low in what the US coastguard considers the safest place for the hurricane season.
In our jungle hut we took cover from epic lightening storms while peering at Central America’s longest bridge, the Rio Dulce Bridge spanning the river (it paled in comparison to the Rio-Niteroi Bridge). It represented not only our imminent reconnection to civilization but also to the bitumen-blacktop of the Pan American highway and our ever northbound meandering migration.
Senhor and Senhora Smith are from different worlds; he, Aaron Smith, an Australian travel writer, still idolizes his childhood idol, Indiana Jones, and she, Viviane Silva, is a sassy Carioca ‘Sex in the City’ girl. They have decided to embark upon a trans-continental four-month honeymoon BEFORE they get married, from Bogota to New York, the Far East and Australia by bus, boat and donkey. Follow them along the Gringo Trail – it’s an epic Clash of the Titans journey to (hopefully) marital bliss at the end of the road.