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The Sweet Life – Flores to Rio Dulce, Guatemala | We're Not There Yet

There was a slight miscommunication between R and I when we were packing for this little weekend getaway. I packed quite a bit, thinking that it was clear that we were not going to get a court date before the middle of the week, and so we had at least 5 days at our disposal- a much better situation than we had in Semuc Champey, when we had a 9 hour bus trip each way and only one day off to do all of our tourism in between.  He was under the impression that we would be doing a very quick turnaround, and so packed accordingly. In the end, he being a dirty male and me being a prissy female, we were both okay with just winging it when we found ourselves with not a heck of a lot to do the day after we visited Tikal. We were in the charming town of Flores, but it is just a small island and the whole thing can be circumvented in so little time that mall-walkers would scoff at it. Besides that, it was raining and I just kind of had the itch to move along. So, we checked out of our hotel, hopped in a tuk-tuk to the bus station where we were drafted onto the first bus we saw to Rio Dulce.

View from my bus seat

About 10km outside of town, the bus broke down. There was a kind of muffled explosion sound and the next thing we knew, the bus driver and his assistant were under the bus, hammering away at what I’m going to just make a blind guess and assume was the axle. Or something. We waited patiently for a while, until we saw the assistant crawl out from under the bus, go to the toolbox and grab a machete, which he handed to the driver, still under the bus doing repairs. That’s when we gave up all hope and decided to try to flag down another bus, which, we were assured by a local, happened all the time. Eventually, we figured out that we could take one of the dozen minibuses to Poptún that came by every hour, then transfer to Rio Dulce. We had even hoped that it might save us a bit of money, since we’d be traveling uber-locally. In the end, we flagged down the bus, paid nearly as much as we were have supposed to have paid on the initial bus that did the long haul to Rio Dulce, only to see our former bus scream by us about 15 minutes later. Our ride was definitely slower and we paid more than we would have on the big, broken bus, but we made it safe and sound to Rio Dulce and actually enjoyed the ride along the way.

We were dropped off on the main strip, which comprises the entire town of Rio Dulce. It is the northernmost town on Lake Izabel and the ‘gateway’ to Belize from Guatemala, so there is something of an artificial feeling to the place- not in the over-developed Antigua sense, but in the sense that the whole place simply existed as a thoroughfare for going somewhere else. We looked around, trying to find a simple comedor for a cheap meal, but all we saw were low quality Mexican-style restaurants (later, when we asked a local why, we were told that ‘tourists like Mexican food’). We fared alright with some chicken and rice and then made our way to the SandDog café, where we were to wait for our ride to the Kangaroo Hotel.

It’s called Bird Island

We first heard about the Kangaroo Hotel in our hostel in Flores only a night or two before. The guy who told us about the place was an Australian, and so we thought there was some kind of national nepotism going on, but after a bit of research online, I was sufficiently convinced that it was worth a stay- even at about 25% more than we have paid for a room in months. So we got to the SandDog and the bartender made a call on our behalf and next thing we knew, a little motorboat rumbled up and we tumbled in and we were off! Our captain was a Kiwi who was a bit of a ranch hand at the hotel, but without a specific position. He pointed out the sights as we zoomed by the lake, passing under the longest bridge in Central America (very underwhelming), and ultimately puling into a creek off the river, where we pulled into the small dock of the Kangaroo Hotel (boat access only- there are no roads here).

The way to the Kangaroo Hotel

We were charmed upon arrival. It was all wood poles and stilts swathed in mosquito nets. It was completely empty except for one other couple, a pair of Isrealis that we recognized from our misadventures on the machete bus earlier that day. They had waited it out, since they had already paid the fare, and ended up beating us to Rio Dulce by an hour. We stowed our stuff in our small but cozy room and spent the rest of the night hanging out, drinking beer, and swapping stories with Moran and Kfir, the Isrealis, and getting the lowdown on things to do from Gary, the owner of the hotel.

The ‘longest bridge in Central America’, at about 1 kilometer long has nothing on the Pontchartrain Causeway in Louisiana at 38.35 kilometers, which we saw earlier in the trip.

We passed out early, as we always do, but were up in the morning, ready for a long day of doing sweet FA. We decided against the boat tour, against the sailing tour, and decided that what we really wanted to do was nothing. We brought out our books and made for the lounge chairs on the front deck, where we were quickly joined by Kfir and Moran. We chatted, relaxed, hopped in the (unheated) Jacuzzi, and then decided to ask Gary for a ride to the castillo nearby, where we could just walk around and enjoy the lake.

The Castillo was a former Spanish fort, built to deal with the pirate problem. It was apparently burned down a number of times by pirates, later occupied by pirates, abandoned, and then destroyed in an earthquake. It didn’t seem to have so hot a track record for fortressing, but, when it was rebuilt in the 1950s as a tourist attraction, became a pretty choice picnic spot. The grounds were covered with built-in barbecues, shady trees, beautiful flowers and perfectly manicured lawns. R commented that it felt like being in Florida. The truth was, it didn’t feel like Guatemala- it was perfectly maintained and the (Guatemalan) people enjoying it were treating it well, not littering or trying to sell tourist junk. We got the sense that the whole lakeside area is almost exclusively used by wealthy Guatemalan families from the capital and the gringos who sail in from the Caribbean on their yachts. Not that it was super fancy- it is decidedly not, despite the flashes of wealth displayed by the river-front vacation home and the North American retirees who live year-round on their well-kept sailboats. In fact, the tone of the place was very understated and all of the yacht-folk that we met were so down to earth and so adventurous and young at heart as to be inspirational to us. So we just did like the locals did: toured the Castillo, splashed around in the lake, took pictures of the flowers, then headed back into town for a late lunch, before meeting the boat back to the hotel for the night.

The hot waterfall at Finca Paraiso is fed by a natural hotspring, flowing into cool river water.

The next morning, we decided to take one of the suggested day trips to Finca Paraiso, a little spot off the lake that features a hot spring that cascades into the cooler river below. It is touted as the only ‘hot waterfall’ in the world, which I think is a little hasty, but it is pretty neat. We went with Kfir and Moran and an Italian couple, Chiara and Mattia, who came to the hotel the night before. We were met by a local guide, who led us to the falls, then watched our bags while we frolicked in the water. He also showed us to the source of the hot springs, a short walk away, where he dredged up some clay and convinced us that it was a good idea to rub it all over our bodies and faces. We all bought in wholeheartedly and spent the next hour in various stages of muddiness. When we had out fill of the hotsprings, we made our way back to the road where the minibuses run and caught one to Boqueron, a little spot that Gary clued us into that has, thus far, eluded the guidebooks. We got off the bus at the appointed spot and were greeted by a young boy on a bicycle. He shepherded us to the riverside, where he called his older brother to come out. The two boys directed us to a large canoe and told us to pile in. We negotiated a price that came out to about $1.50 per person to be rowed by these boys into a beautiful river canyon. Because the water level was so high, it being the end of rainy season and all, there was quite a current for them to fight and we quickly came to a rocky outcrop that was impassable. In that short time, all of us were totally blown away by how incredibly spectacular the scenery was. The canyon walls were so high that they created a false dusk even in the middle of the afternoon. Vines and tree roots tumbled down the sheer walls and seemed anchored haphazardly but poetically. Little streams tricked over the high ledges above and rained on us as we passed by below. We were instructed to climb out onto the rocks that blocked our path and, after a few photo ops, the younger of the brothers told us that we were welcome to swim back, with him.

Boating into the gorge at Boqueron

The Italians

Our fearless (10 year-old) leader

R and Mattia agreed immediately and Moran and I, somewhat hesitantly, followed suit. The rest of our party and all of our gear safely stowed in the boat, we jumped off the rocks and into the swift, brown water. Our little leader clambered up rocks, into the trees, dove off of tiny platforms and showed off his well-practiced backflip routine. The rest of us were mostly content to swim from rock to rock, occasionally summiting a modest boulder sticking out of the water just enough for a simple dive/belly flop (our talents varied). It was exhilarating, beautiful, and we had it all to ourselves.

As we wrapped up the excursion, tipping the boys nicely, they pointed out that all of the trees surrounding us contained busy, black monkeys. We watched them swing around and tousle the branches, finding out that this was just another day in the northern Guatemalan jungle. The boys seemed to get a kick out of us getting a kick out of the monkeys- I guess in the same way I would have been tickled to see someone take photos of the stray dogs in my suburban California neighborhood.

The rest of the day was filled with more eating, drinking, and talking until we all dropped out and went to bed. Even as we started getting our things together that night, I tried to think of an angle to keep us there just one more day. There were more little lakeside towns, more undiscovered streams, and lots and lots more time to sit around and just do nothing. We went to bed again that night, listening to the water lapping on the dock below and frogs making their frog noises until we finally passed out and our little Rio Dulce dream came to a close.