Tuesday, January 10, 2006

RÍO DULCE AND LAGO IZABAL - Guatemala's "Riviera"

The town of Río Dulce ("Sweet River" in English) was described to us by a local ex-pat as the Riviera of Guatemala. Well we’re not sure if it’s all that, but it is certainly an interesting spot, great for meeting other travelers, “yachties”, and other assorted ex-pats, in addition to the usual locals.

Basically Río Dulce is the junction where of one of Guatemala’s major highways crosses its principal river highway – the Río Dulce. The two thoroughfares come together in a jumble of marinas, hotels, boats of all shapes and sizes, and a giant concrete bridge that carries the highway overhead.

Looking down from the highway on to one of the marinas. We never did figure out if there's really a Starbucks down there - though if there was, it would be the only one we know of in Guatemala.

In Río Dulce, you can catch lanchas (motorboats) to go up-river to Lake Izabal or down-river to the Caribbean town of Livingston. You can also catch a yacht that’ll take you right on out into the Caribbean and up to some of the smaller cayes (islands) of Belize.

Another thing you can do in Río Dulce is chill out by the pool at Bruno’s...which is exactly what we did. Bruno is a French-Canadian ex-pat who owns a hotel/restaurant on a prime waterfront location. His business partner Steve, an ex-pat American, is a really nice, out-going guy with a wealth of information about the area.

Hot-Spring Waterfall at Finca Paraíso
On the north shore of Lake Izabal, about a 40-minute drive from the town of Río Dulce, is a spectacular natural phenomenon – a steaming hot waterfall that is hotter than you’d ever want your shower to be, plunging from a hot spring above into a cool stream below, with a fantastic swimming hole at the bottom.

The view that greeted us when we arrived at the hot spring waterfall. The cool stream flows in from the left, under the hot waterfall, and downstream to the right.

Carley in the sweet spot, where the piping hot water from the waterfall mixes from the cool water from the stream.

The girls enjoy the best hot shower in Guatemala.

Looking downstream.

Finca Paraíso also has a hotel and restaurant, and they were happy to let us camp on their beach, right on the shore of the huge Lake Izabal.

Our campsite at Finca Paraíso, on the shore of Lake Izabal.

Looking across the vast Lake Izabal.

Our traveling partners for this part of the trip were Noa (left, from Israel), Cassidy (from Washington state), and Jessica (in the tree, also from Washington state).

Boat Ride to Livingston
From the town of Río Dulce, we paid around $10 for a 2-hour motorboat ride down the river to the Caribbean town of Livingston.

The motorboat is designed to carry about 15 people, but (typical of Guatemalan transportation) we've seen these things carry almost twice that many! Fortunately business was a little slow on this particular day, and we had plenty of room.

Another boat just like the one we were in, headed upriver.

Some of the local indigenous fisherman, in boats considerably smaller than the one we were in.

From our boat we got a nice view of Castillo de San Felipe (Saint Philip's Castle). It's actually a fort that was built by the Spanish hundreds of years ago in an effort to prevent English pirates from coming upriver and raiding the nearby villages. However, the fort was never completely successful at stopping the audacious pirates, who repeatedly destroyed it. At one point the Spanish went so far as to string a chain across the river in an attempt to deny access to the pirates. Today the fort has been nicely restored and is surrounded by a park which is perfect for picnics.

Typical riverside residences.

Our boat pulled up next to Isla de Pájaros (Island of Birds). Uninhabited by people, the island is home to tens of thousands of egrets, herons, pelicans and cormorants (which you may or may not be able to see all over the tree branches).


Finally we can see the Caribbean Sea ahead. We're almost to...LIVINGSTON!