As it turns out, Rio Dulce is not all that sweet and Livingston has its own flavor.
Last weekend, an easy six-hour shuttle ride to Rio Dulce turned into a 14-hour mega adventure my mother considers “dangerous” and I consider “funny.” At the time it wasn’t all that humorous, but the drug dealers and drunks on boat docks, 37 mosquito bites, and competitive card games with a group of 10-year old boys (games I instigated in hopes to protect myself from the drug dealers and drunks on the boat dock) are at least a little bit funny in hindsight.
After the scenic route to Livingston, I found my friend Anne, as planned, swaying to tortoise shell drums and maracas amidst a mixed population of Garifuna, Guatemalan Mayans, and tourists.
This Garifuna music, called Punta, is a traditional style of drumming that is often accompanied by hips that gyrate in all kinds of unnatural ways (traditionally, and appropriately, considered a “fertility” dance). Lacking the joint flexibility necessary to fit in, we kept our hips out of the local discotechs and instead frequented a small bar al lado de la playa.
Next to the beach, I tasted my first “Coco Loco,”a concoction that is famous in the Caribbean. Made from a rum that is soaked in herbs then added to the coconut milk, the drink has a peculiar taste that grows on you by the end (much like most strong drinks). Originally, the herb-infused rum was used to alleviate stomach pains. With attention from tourists, however, its primary purpose eventually changed from medicinal to inebriant.
Lately, tourism has been slow in Livingston. After certain, ambiguous violent encounters between locals and tourists a few years past, the once ripe and lively Livingston is showing signs of decay. The hotels are crumbling, street dogs govern the alleyways, and most of the local bars are two people short of deserted.
This eerie, abandoned quality is augmented by the haunted blank looks of people sitting, dazed on porches while distant Garifuna chants and drums stir otherwise silent streets.
Presently, Livingston is only accessible via boat. The lancha business has supported local families for generations but may be facing its demise. Despite local protest, the Guatemalan government is building a road through the jungle that will connect Livingston to the rest of the country.
With this impending road, the lancha business will be wiped out, costing Livingston its one source of sustainable income, not to mention dire implications on the time-honored language and culture.
The Garifuna who reside in Livingston are descendants of West Africans, Caribs and Arawak. While delivering slaves from Spain to the Americas, two Hispanic slave ships ran off course and crashed near St. Vincent. The Africans that survived intermixed with the existing culture on the island and created a new African-Carib generation.
After the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the British violently took over St. Vincent and deported all of the African looking civilians to an island off of the coast of Honduras called Roatán. Eventually, the island became too small for the growing community and with Spanish permission, the Garifuna moved toward the mainland, spreading out across the Caribbean coast.
Some locals fear that this intermingling between the rest of Guatemala and Livingston will cause both the local business and local flavor to fade. Just looking around, noting how distinct Livingston is from Mayan Guatemala, it is hard to disagree. Livingston has a foreign feel, a Caribbean cool with an African accent that is unlike the rest of Guatemala. It will be interesting, and quite possibly tragic, to see what happens to this Garifuna community.
To invest in what’s left of the local economy as well as to work on our tans, Anne and I took a lancha to a remote beach called playa blanca.
We also went hiking around the Seven Altars, los siete altares. The Seven Altars are a group of waterfalls and swimming pools that run through jungle foliage. But thanks to the dry season that has denied the coast rain for the last two weeks, there were no waterfalls and only one pool deep enough to swim in. Despite its desiccation, the high trees and clear waters surrounding Seven Altars were a relaxing place to nurse my sunburn.
To start the trip back to Antigua, we took a boat tour up the river for which the area is famed: Rio Dulce. Along the river we stopped at various sites such as the Lago de Flores, or lake of flowers. Here, thousands of lily pads spot the coast while local kids paddle around in child-size canoes.
And then there were the hot hot hot springs, which were too hot to swim in. If you have ever absent-mindedly filled up a bathtub only to sit on the porcelain edge and probe the scalding water with a hesitant foot every 10 minutes until it reaches a tolerable temperature, then you can relate.
And the last stop was El Castillo de San Felipe, a castle alongside Rio Dulce that was built in the 1500s to ward off pirate attacks, not all that successfully.
After the tour, Anne and I were dropped off in Rio Dulce, the city. While the river is a majestic force of nature, the town absorbed little if any of this beauty. Rio Dulce is primarily a launching pad, where you grab a lancha and gtf out. It consists of a maniacal market street where Guatemalans bark out discounted prices and black smoke pumps out of passing buses.
Our little inn was pleasantly located across the bridge and far away from the market mania. We spent the night at this sweet refuge, books and tasty licuados nearby, before starting the surprisingly seamless ride back to Antigua.