Adventures in Guatemala – Clown Cars, Sweet Rivers and Trash Talk

After exploring the magnificent Maya ruins of Tikal I make my way down south. I arrive at the bus station in Santa Elena and before I know it several guys are yelling at me eagerly pointing at their respective Colectivo buses. Colectivos are Vans that take as many people as they can possibly fit. They are operated by a driver and a hustler, who stacks people in the bus and collects the money. I got about five of those surrounding me, all of them yelling at me “Where you go” and “Bus leaves in 5 minutes”, albeit non of them know where I am actually going. When I say I want to go to Poptun one of the hustlers remains and I ask him how much it costs. He quotes me a price that is triple of what I thought it should be. I don’t speak much Spanish but I get that he keeps telling me that the bus is going to leave any minute and repeats the word barato, which I later learn means cheap. His offer was not cheap. My limited ability to communicate frustrates me and so I start yelling at him in English, shake my fist, and take off. I do what I usually do when I feel hassled, I sit down and have an enjoyable beverage. I am sipping my coffee whilst watching the busy bus station, when the guy next to me starts talking to me in English. He is on holiday from Mexico and we chat for a little while. I tell him about the stupid bus man and ask him if he could just go over there and enquire how much it costs to get to Poptun, which he happily does. It is considerably less than I was told. So here is some valuable advice. Colectivos have fixed prices, as do most Taxis and Tuk Tuks. The locals never ask how much it is, they just know. All you have to do is pretend like you also know (It does help to inform yourself beforehand). If you don’t ask how much things cost there is no need for bargaining. The Central Americans don’t seem to enjoy it very much anyway.

“Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and celebrate the journey.” – Fitzhugh Mullan

I finally make it on the bus and I even have a nice seat, which is worth gold considering how many people the hustler is going to fit into the tiny Van. The Colectivo has about 16 seats and once they are full we drive off. The hustler though keeps hustling whilst we leave town. He is hanging out the open side door yelling “Poptun, Poptun, Poptuuuun…” We pick up some more people even though there is only standing room left. Luckily Guatemalans are small. Sometimes we drop people off in small towns or at the start of dusty backroads and we pick up others along the way. I have had my fair share of strange, cramped and outright scary public transport adventures. Once I boarded a bus in Laos that was full of Pumpkins. All the available floor space full of Pumpkins! Even the locals looked confused as they were climbing over the vegetables to find a seat. Still this Colectivo baffles me because at some point there is 24 people in the Van plus the driver and the hustler, who is hanging out the door. This is where clowns go to practice. I have somebody’s buttocks in my face and a toddler pulling my hair. It is hot, sweaty and stinky, but I am loving every minute of it.

Travelling down the Rio Dulce

Lily Pad on the Rio Dulce

Lily Pad on the Rio Dulce

I eventually make it to the city of Frontera, where Lago Izabele flows into the Rio Dolce, the sweet river. I take a boat to a riverside hostel that was recommended to me by fellow travellers (The Roundhouse). On the way we pass by little islands in the river bustling with birds and stops at a beautiful lily pad lagoon. The hostel is a great spot to relax and swing in the hammock on the dock overlooking the river. Me and a new friend go kayaking upstream to a place where a natural hot spring merges with the river. The water smells of sulphur and it is a strange sensation as patches of hot and cold water float along my body. Little fish are nibbling away on my dead skin. An old man guides us to a natural Sauna. A small cave that is filled with hot steam seeping through the rocks. Back at the Hostel I sit by the dock and watch the fishermen paddle by. There is something about living by the river. Like time stands still on its shores, whilst the water carries your worries down the stream. Life is sweet on the river. And when the sun goes down it puts on a spectacular display.

Sunset on the Rio Dulce

Sunset on the Rio Dulce

At night we hear music and singing from across the river and I think there is a party going on, but I am being told its coming from a church. It sounds so cheerful and there is clapping and laughing until late at night.The next morning I wake up early like the birds. Parrots, Herons, Pelicans, and other birds are flying down the river. Those birds are on their way to Livingston, where the river empties into the ocean. This is where I am going too. From the Hostel we take a boat and there is an eerie atmosphere as fog is rising like smoke from the river and shrouds our surrounding in mist. It is dead quiet and I feel like I landed in a horror movie. Suddenly we turn a corner and the sky is blue and I realize that we are travelling through an impressive canyon. All around us are steep slopes covered in lush jungle. The river winds its way down to Livingston where we are greeted by the Pelicans that are hanging out in the harbour of the small fishing village.

Livingston

Fish Drying on the Dock in Livingston

Fish Drying on the Dock in Livingston

Most people living in Livingston are Garifuna, black Caribbeans. Descendants of shipwrecked slaves from West Africa. The Guatemalans arrived during the civil war. It makes for a strange mix that isn’t without conflicts. An old drunk Garifuna in a seedy little bars tells me that the Guatemalans are stealing their town and their business. “They are selling our soup!” he tells me. He is referring to Tapado, a fish soup with coconut milk and plantain. Livingston is one of those towns that is not to everybody’s taste. There is no mayor attractions and there is no pristine white beaches, at least not close to town. Instead there is beaches full of trash and dead fish. The guy who owns the hostel I stay at (Casa Iguana) is having volunteers clean up the beach (Also read this interesting article about the cleaning effort). Trash, especially plastic is a big problem in Guatemala and the rest of Central America. It is frustrating to see little children throw plastic bags out of the window on the bus. Let’s not kid ourselves though, trash is a big problem in the whole world. Every time I frown about someone carelessly throwing their plastic trash into the beautiful nature I feel like a hypocrite. We people in the “first world” create just as much trash. We just found better ways to get it out of our sight. We export it to poorer countries and feel great about our recycling efforts. We like to travel to pristine beaches where we don’t have to think about the problems of the world. That is why I like going to places like Livingston. It has a dirty charm and seedy bars, and conflicts, possibly pirates and gangs that smuggle drugs up the sweet river. It is real, not paradise.

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