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From the Atlantic to the Pacific, GT


June 3rd


Friday morning, we finally decided which direction to head (oh such decisions we have!).

As mentioned earlier, we had planned to go to El Salvador for about ten days but were concerned about whether we’d have to cancel our vehicle permit and then not be allowed back into GT. This would be a big problem as our flights home are out of Guatemala City in a few weeks. So after trying to do some research, including reaching out to other travelers, we could not get a definitive enough answer so rather than chance it, we are going to stay in GT. This is not really a problem as there is still a lot we want to see here but route wise, it made more sense to go into El Salvador before heading east but no biggie. The next day we learned we could have had our permit “suspended” at the border rather cancelled, but we are okay with our decision.

We ended up driving east towards the Caribbean Sea (Atlantic Ocean they say here) to the small town of Rio Dulce which is situated between two large lakes: Lago Izabal and El Golfete.  Here is where you can take a lovely boat ride to the Caribbean coastal town of Livingston (this town cannot be reached by land). The main road to Rio Dulce (Dulce means sweet as in fresh water) is the “Atlantic Highway” which actually terminates in Puerto Barrios – GT’s only eastern port which is, naturally, right on the coast. We met many, many tractor trailer trucks travelling the same direction and this made the going somewhat slow. It is only a two lane highway and we were happy that although it was not as good as the Pan AM out of Atitlan, the road was in pretty good shape with few tumulos. It is rather windy which makes passing the trucks somewhat difficult but we quickly learned that when you pass one, there’s always another just up ahead.

We turned off the Atlantic highway for Rio Dulce and found a marina/hotel/bar/campground with electricity and a pool for the same price that we’d paid the last couple of nights.  We went for a walk into town to book a boat for the next day. A local named Sergio, who had helped us maneuver our way to the campground and works for the boat companies (of course) helped us and we decided to take a private boat for a slightly higher price than the public one that allowed us a longer ride with as much time as we wanted in Livingston. This was cheaper than overnighting there. If we took the public boat, we would only be an hour or so in town or we’d have to stay overnight. We could pick what time we wanted to leave and return and where we wanted him to stop enroute. We went for a bite to eat and a beer at what turned out to be a gringo bar and met a Welshman who’s lived here six years.   We learned there are many Canadians here and as it’s on a lake that leads to the ocean, there are lots of marinas with lots of boats of many shapes and sizes and valuations.  Apparently many of the rich Guatemalans moor boats here or have lakeshore homes, as well.

toasting Rio DuleOn the drive here, we kept dropping in elevation and the temperature kept rising but by the time we were close to Rio Dulce, it had recently rained and the temperature had dropped from 40C (104F) to 29C (85F)! The terrain was flatter and dryer which  reminded us of Mexico and parts of Belize (which makes sense as we are very close to Belize now). Later it warmed up again but there is a lovely breeze off the lake. The town is bustling and the main drag/highway is chock-a-block shops, roadside eateries and traffic. We were glad we did not have to drive through that as the marina was just before it all.

Sidebar: We (meaning Fran) noticed that as we got closer to the coast, we stopped seeing women dressed in traditional clothing – must be a highlands thing as it’s way too hot down here to be wearing all those layers!

The power was out for a while when we arrived but came on before dinner and we had a good sleep running our AC. Another reason for running it besides the heat, was that as this marina is located practically under the bridge that is the main highway, you can hear Jake brakes all night long – btw the name of the bar here at the marina is the Jake Brake Bar. The pool is located right beside it and it was quite refreshing.

Saturday we walked out to the dock and our boat was waiting for us to head out. It was a lovely morning with a few clouds and of course, some of the usual haziness from fires etc. There are many, many marinas around here and lots and lots of lakeside homes, be they mansions or shacks with lots of boat houses. There is definitely a lot of money here.

heading out on the riverAbout a half hour into the ride, we stopped by a little island where there were many water birds then a cove full of lily pads with a couple of wooden canoes with girls trying to sell souvenirs.

cove full of lily pads

After crossing El Golfete, you enter a gorge and we stopped on the north side where there is a natural hot spring alongside the river with a restaurant and they take you on a little cave tour in the back with flashlights where we saw fossils of a manatee, a HUGE cave spider, a couple of cave geckos and some bats. Just outside the cave hike, there is a small separate cave above the hot springs that they call a sauna as it gets the steam from the springs but no water – it was HOT. Not what we needed here in this humidity but interesting to see and learn about. There is a local community that runs this little place. They charge a couple of dollars to do the tour and of course, you can buy a meal or drinks from the restaurant and the community shares the profits after maintaining the site.

formation in caveThe boat ride through the gorge was beautiful – high walls on one side (spoiled by some graffiti in places) but lots of vegetation and so green. The north side of the gorge is a protected biosphere and it was lovely to see such unspoiled nature in this country of deforestation. And to our surprise, there was very little garbage in the water around this whole area.

rock wall of gorge

Eventually the gorge widens and you see the Caribbean Sea. It kind of felt like “coming home” for us as we love the ocean, palm trees and frigate birds of which there were many here.

DSCN2595 Caribbean waterWe had Robinson (our “captain”) take us a little way past town before docking at the main dock in Livingston to a place called Los Siete Altars (the 7 altars). This was sadly, not a good time of year to go. There has not been a lot of rain here yet and six of the seven pools were empty. At the right time of year, they’d have water pouring down from the top one all the way down to the ocean. We did meet the nice Garifuna man who runs the place and chatted with him a bit – he was most unhappy about the politics of his country now and complained of much corruption. Said his Belizean friends and family had a much better life with better schools and infrastructure. He spoke good English and told us he’d been married to an archeologist from California for many years but they were now divorced and she was living in Ecuador.

looking up the pool

Robinson took us back to Livingston and it was pretty darn hot by this time and we were missing the breeze of travelling by boat. The town has some of the Garifuna flavour like the east coast of Belize did, but it is much more Spanish here. While we find the people of GT to be very friendly and loving to smile, it was not quite the same feeling here in Livingston.

Despite being on the ocean, the local beaches are not very nice although not full of garbage like many of the beaches in Belize and Mexico’s Yucatan. They are not white sand but the water is the the inviting turquoise blue. We walked around town, hit a bakery for some coconut bread and pineapple pie that our guide book recommended (we weren’t impressed).   As mentioned above, there are supposed to be no roads to this town but there are lots of cars, tuktuks and supply trucks so we are not sure how they get here – maybe there’s a back road from Puerto Barrios, south of here?  We met a fellow from Montreal who’s been traveling while making jewelry and he was headed to Rio Dulce to buy a small boat to live on.

We returned to Rio Dulce around 3 and went for a swim in the pool at the bar right away. After dinner, it began to rain and it rained hard and long and there was lots of thunder and lightning. Around eight, the power went out and stayed out all night long; this meant we had no AC and couldn’t leave the vents or all the windows open. The kitchen window is safe for a few inches as the exhaust fan stops water from coming in and we decided to put out the awning so we could open the main “living room” window. The rain stopped before we went to bed but it was rough, loud, hot night. We were able to put on the fantastic fan half open above the main bed and we plugged in a small fan into our inverter which did help but doesn’t decrease humidity.   We can’t really complain as we’ve had lots of good sleeps lately.

The power was still out the next morning and when it came back on, it didn’t stay on so we decided not to stay here another night. After seeing Livingston we opted not to venture out to Puerto Barrios right on the coast as it’s not described as a “tourist” place, just a big port. We did a little research based on some friends’ recommendations and decided to go back west and spend another couple of nights at the “horse” town before continuing on. The pool and the facilities were so nice there and it was very quiet.

Pool at resort in ChiquimulaAs it was Sunday, there were not as many trucks on the Atlantic highway and we made good time; we dumped the tanks, filled up with gasoline and stopped at McDonald’s in Chiquimula for some fountain drinks and internet. We arrived at the campground around 3:30 and settled in nicely finishing the afternoon with some Spanish lessons and relaxing.

Monday was a chores day: cleaning rig after being under some weird tree in Rio Dulce that left a lot of yellow residue, replacing the front fake license plate that had disappeared recently, defrosting the freezer and the like. Then we chilled by the pool for the rest of that day and the next.

Wednesday, we hit the road again, stopped for groceries and went about 50km south to the small city of Esquipulas where “Black Jesus” is located. When the Spanish arrived here, a church was built and an image of Christ of the cross was carved out of black wood. Pilgrims began flocking here and in 1737, the Archbishop visited and a new, much large church was built by 1738 – it only took a year! – and it became known as the Basilica of Esquipulas. The park out front of the Basilica is quite lovely with palm trees.  Thousands come here every year and you see how they manage the crowds by the organized queues – like lining up at Disneyland; some forethought went into this rebuild.   These pilgrimages now support the livelihood of the town.

BasilicalThe original is flanked by a couple of statues and in a glass case behind the main altar. While we were there, a mass was being said but you can enter from the side door and walk through the winding queues to walk in front of it. Upon exiting, you pass through a small building annex where a replica is located and there are tables and tables set up to place candles.

The Black JesusWe drove north again, past our “home” for the past few nights, and made our way past the village of Ipala to the volcano of the same name.  As it was midafternoon and it looked like rain, we decided to spend the night and hike in the morning.

Volcan IpalaIt rained on and off all night but we awoke to clearing skies and after breakfast hiked the trail to the lake in the crater of the volcano to check out the lake. It was a 2.5km hike pretty much uphill the entire route, over boulders, through mud and cow poop before we reached the entrance.   Hike up took 45 minutes not the 2 hours mentioned at the bottom. There is an entrance fee at the top, a hike around the lake (about an additional km) and a few look out points. As the sky was not blue, we did not see the lake wearing a lovely shade of blue but it was still very pretty; surrounded by pine trees and very peaceful.   We walked back down, paid for parking and left to head towards the Pacific Coast.

at lookoutAfter descending, we turned onto the Pan-American Highway – the first few kilometres were very very rough with potholes and such; another reminder that we are not in North America despite this being a main thoroughfare through the country. A few kilometres later we came upon four lanes with an actual median! However it only lasted for about 2kms, then it was back to the potholes. We actually got stopped twice by the police on this highway (first time in GT) and they just wanted to see our paperwork. Good highway returned a bit later and for a little longer distance but then we had to turn off to head to the coast. This road started out great but deteriorated quickly and kept getting worse. Further down that road, came a detour; this took us through a town that had horrible traffic and then once we got through town, we turned back in the direction we wanted to go before we hit a long line of trucks stopped. Doug got out and went to check it out what was going on. It turns out the main road was washed out after a storm, hence the detour but when he asked about getting to Montericco, they said that road was open and we could make a right turn just up the road on this side of the washout. We passed a bunch of trucks and found the turn.

The icing on the cake was the Garmin now told us we needed to board a ferry?!?!?; the atlas did NOT show this at all. We got to the little village to check it out as we had little to no info about this. The road ended at a marshy area with mangroves and a wide waterway. There were little passenger boats and then we saw what we figured had to be the vehicle “ferry”. It was like a large flat raft like boat – it looked rickety and we weren’t sure it would hold our little, very heavy, home. A captain approached us and we spoke about safety, timing and price. At this point on the road, it was the only option other than turning back the 30km down that horrible road and going way around to the coastal road.  The man said he wanted 300Q to go one way and we thought that was pricy especially considering how we thought we’d have to come back this way when we left. So now we had to decide is it worth hitting what is touted as the best beach in GT and paying this fee again to leave or do we skip it? We decided it was too costly to spend 600Q return so when Doug approached the captain again, he said, we wouldn’t have to return by ferry; there was a road along the coast going north to take us back into the central area of GT. He also dropped the price to 250Q and we decided to go for it but not without some trepidation concerning safety, of course.

they call this a vehicle ferry around hereSo Doug every so slowly drove Tigger onto the “ferry” with Fran watching and praying/crossing fingers – the boat dropped a little into the water but seemed to hold up. There was no room on either side of the RV and Fran boarded on back. Then, a motorcycle boarded with two more passengers; just what we needed: more weight! So the captain fired up the engine and we slowly pulled out. The ride was about 20 minutes and it was a little shaky when another boat passed us but we made it to Monterrico! Fran, the two other passengers and the motorcycle disembarked and Doug slowly backed off and then get out of Tigger and kissed the ground!

This drive to Monterrico was supposed to take us only until 12:30pm – we did make a hour and a half hour stop at a Wendy’s enroute as we needed internet and Doug had a work call. We arrived at 5:30 – that’s how slow the road was. We had learned of a couple of places here on iOverlander and stopped at the first one; they gave us power so we decided to try it out. Parque Eco Hawaii is a turtle sanctuary right on the beach but parking is not on the beach. Alex, the manager, set us up and later, Grace, (a young American woman) the Environmental & Volunteer Coordinator came over, introduced herself and spoke about the program. She advised that they hoped to see some turtles hatching in the next few days and we might be lucky enough to participate in the release. She is from New York and has been here nearly a year.

The beach here is CLEAN and has nice, not too large surf but we were warned of an undertow so not to go out too far. The sand is almost black and gets pretty darn hot during the day.

we're back on the Pacific!The power held out for us all night and we enjoyed not sleeping in the humidity of the coast – as much as we love the beach, humidity is part and parcel of that experience in this part of the world.

Friday, Doug volunteered to go into town (5 miles away) and find a place to get our laundry down. Fran blew her other flip flop yesterday and he wanted to see if he could find a shoemaker as well. Turns out there’s not much traffic on the main road here that goes into town so he gave up waiting for a tuktuk and hitchhiked. A man named Carlos, picked him up and turns out he spoke English and actually lives in Guatemala City and said he’d call us the next day to invite us to a party (we never heard from him though). Doug found laundry after a bit of a struggle but was unable to get the flip flop repaired.

The day was quite nice weather-wise, somewhat hot and humid but taking breaks in the AC of Tigger made the day nice. We did our Spanish, walked, went for a swim in the afternoon and Doug helped out Grace with the kids in the later afternoon by making them balloon animals. Her boyfriend, Brian, came over after a bit and they played soccer with all the kids on the beach.

Grace came over to see us that afternoon and asked if we’d move Tigger back a few feet in order for a vehicle to come in later. Apparently a seal had been rescued and they were going to bring it here to help it get stronger. It actually arrived sometime during the night and Fran asked Grace what the story was. Seals do not usually frequent the waters of Guatemala and it had been spotted a couple of months ago and was being monitored and it was now very weak. They want to bring it back to health and they plan to fundraise to get it to Ecuador. They figure that it got separated from his herd during some El Nino currents and got lost. They have it in a special pen near the beach that has a little pool in it as well. We went to see it this morning and were asked to only stay a moment as it was pretty stressed. It was actually very sad looking, just lying there. We sure hope they can nurse it back to health.

There is no Wi-Fi here but our hot spot is working well. Coverage is better here than in Mexico. There’s only been one place where we’ve been where we had no reception and that was only for during the day; signal came through in the evening.

Saturday we unhooked and drove into “town” to pick up our laundry and stroll. There’s not much here but they do have a nice arched walkway to the beach with a couple of restaurants facing the beach with tables and umbrellas on the sand as well. The beach here is not as clean as where we are camped (probably due to the number of people) and the nice thing about our walk was we were not harassed by vendors although there were quite a few.

downtown M0ntericcoWe then drove back past out site to check out the other spot that had been mentioned in iOverlander at a hotel/resort with pools & Wi-Fi. The paved road ends and turns to mostly hardpack sand. There were a couple of resorts down here but the Maya Jade has three pools and a lovely beach front. Unfortunately, the camping area is across the road with no beach view. The young man there showed us where we’d park if we stayed and said we could get power to run lights (so not sure about AC) but he was not sure of price. We asked him to show us the pools and view and thought we might stay for lunch at least. We sat at a beach view table but after looking at menu, decided not to stay – a tad pricey for us.

We returned to Parque Hawaii and asked Grace about a nice place to have lunch; she suggested going back into town which we didn’t want to do but a young boy who was hanging at the sanctuary that day told us he knew place with “gringo” food and he walked us over there. It was the Hotel Honolulu in the nearby village of Hawaii! We had a nice, reasonably priced lunch before heading back to Tigger.

Early in the evening, a baby turtle hatched and we watched them take it to the ocean and release it.

So we left Montericco on Sunday morning and took the coastal highway which while not superb, was in good shape most of the way.

We headed inland towards the city of Santa Lucia to see the museum where there are lots of stone heads on display (called El Baul). Now one of the “perks” of travelling full time and not working (mostly), you forget what day of the week it is a lot of the time. This happened today, Sunday – we did not fully realize it until we got to Santa Lucia and re-read the blurb about the museum only to discover it was closed on Sundays! But – there was a small village nearby called La Democracia, that has a number of them in their village square – so we backtracked slightly and went there. These are huge stones that have been carved into heads or in some cases, large round bodies with small heads on top. These were not very intricate so we have no idea if the ones in the museum are but it was interesting to see.

DSCN2796 stone head 2From here we drove straight to the city of Antigua. Until next entry…… hope you are all doing great.

Remember to check out the galleries for many more pictures.