Little Compass RoseCaribbean Compass August 2008

A Little Off the Rhumb Line
in Guatemala

by Chuck Cherry

You've heard about it. You've thought about it. You may have read about it. You've probably wondered why so many people go out of their way to get to the Rio Dulce - a river all the way over on the left side of the Caribbean Sea - for hurricane season. I'm here to tell you that if you haven't, you should. It's far enough away from the Eastern Caribbean to weed out the faint of heart and cruisers with a schedule. You might think the seasoned hard core would check this box off and move on. But the truth is the return traffic is over 50 percent.
The big deal is that the Rio Dulce is a double-header. It is a really good hurricane hole AND it's in Guatemala.
With over ten marinas, five haul-outs and a smattering of resorts and little hotels, it's a haven for marina types. Even the most driven multi-taskers will have difficulty keeping up with the variety of radio nets, potluck dinners, volleyball games and sewing bees. The returnees and year-rounders welcome newcomers with generosity and enthusiasm.

Some marinas are big, some are small. Some specialize in repairs, some in parties, some in seclusion. The towns of Livingston, at the mouth of the river, and Rio Dulce, six miles up, provide tourists and cruisers with the usual assortment of bars, restaurants and vendors. Livingston is the larger; Rio town is primarily a bus stop with connections to everywhere. The water-taxi ride between the two is a "must do" with its mandatory stop at the conveniently located Indian co-op midway. The river has a little something for everyone.

I personally like the Rio Dulce for a different reason (with all due respect to Bounos Bar): the river is a great place to leave the boat and venture into the greater Guatemala by "chicken bus".
Despite being one of the poorest countries in the world, and certainly the least developed in Central America, the people in this variety adventure-land are always smiling and willing to help travelers get what they want. The political strife apparently fizzled out at the beginning of the new millennium and the different races, classes and religious seem to have settled into a kind of casual existence with low expectations.

The lack of government and infrastructure has created a vacuum for volunteers. There are so many NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that the whole place looks like a Peace Corp training camp. Quite a few cruisers find the hurricane season is a good time to light one candle instead of cruising the darkness. So if you find yourself in that do-gooder mood just ask one of the gringos without a camera where to sign up. They are everywhere and they can tell you where to get off the chicken bus and get involved.

The really big adventure here for Monica and me was climbing the active volcano without getting toasted. But along the way there were several significant stops.
The first is almost always the city of Antigua. The former capital of Guatemala is still the quintessential colonial mountain town. Perched between three volcanoes it is cool, charming and charismatic. Bring a jacket and get started here.
There are over 60 Spanish-language schools featuring immersion classes in the morning, field trips in the afternoon, and rooming in private homes (meals included) all for about US$75 per week. It's a great way to brush up on those useful phrases, see the sights and mix with the locals all at the same time for a week or three.
Brush up on your religion by visiting some of the restored and unrestored churches dating back to the 16th century. If you're not feeling well, get in line at St. Anthony's, rub old St. Pedro's casket and throw away those pills. He is the only saint interred (or I should say on exhibit) in the western hemisphere.
Enjoy the festivals, bistros and cobblestone streets, horses, coffee farms, hiking and street food. See at least some of the museums and spend a day with a volunteer to see what that's about. Then plan your excursions from here.
Go to Lake Atitlan. Try to make arrangements to spend the rest of your life there. This is the most beautiful lake in the world, marred only by the multitude of street vendors. Get off the beaten path by hiking to the next town and catching a sunset.

Go to Tikal, the largest of the ancient ruined cities of the Mayan civilization. You can do it in a two-day excursion from Antigua. On the way, read Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed, Jared Diamond's book about the rise and fall of certain civilizations. Tikal was the Paris of the ancient Mayan world, and when you see it you will know why.
Go spelunking. Guatemala sits on top of three different tectonic plates - hence the nearly 40 volcanoes, frequent earthquakes and copious quantities of caves. Read up on where to go spelunking as there are several different types of caves. Take a chicken bus and a flashlight.
Last but far from least, get up close and personal with a volcano: Pacaya to be exact. Where else in the world can you walk right up and jump into a volcano? No walls, no ropes, no rules.
It's a night thing. For about US$25 you catch the bus at 6:00PM in Antigua for a two-hour ride to the bottom of the mountain. Fortified with a jacket, water and very good shoes, you begin the hour-long climb with a guide and 24 others in your group. For about 20 dollars more, you can rent a horse.

The climb is about medium difficulty, generally following a trail sometimes a pasture. Bandits, once a danger, are no longer much of a problem.
At the top there is a butte or ledge where you are about 200 yards from the fiery, glowing and flowing lava. It is considered mature and prudent to remain here and take photos.

Or you can join the young and foolish and cross the wickedly uneven, razor-sharp dried lava bed over to the actual flow itself, hoping as you go that if you make it without slipping and shredding or breaking your leg there won't be a sudden course change. Every year there are a couple of tourists who lose that gamble.
Here you can see the lava flowing almost under your feet as you inch along. Where your shoes don't melt, they get cut up by the sharp lava. Intense heat replaces the chill of the climb. The last 20 yards are loose, charred gravel, making it almost impossible to keep your balance as you approach the flames. But there are always four or five blithe spirits (or blithering idiots) who make that final climb to be photographed by a girlfriend who halted a more respectful 20 feet back. A little too much fun for me.

You get home a little after midnight, tired and short one pair of tennis shoes, but happy in the knowledge that you are the only one on your dock to have kissed a volcano flow.
As you sail away from the Rio Dulce, you'll be planning your return trip.

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