We arrived at the mouth of the mighty Rio Dulce at the port of Livingstone. This was where we had to check in and organise our internet. We were using an agent who sent out one of his guys within about 20 minutes of us dropping anchor. As we had prepared everything and sent through all the paperwork beforehand, all we had to do was sign a few things, give him our passports and wait for an hour or so. We walked around Livingstone for a while, bought some of their local bread and got some internet and then headed back to pick up our passports. Not only was it one of the easiest check-ins we have ever had but we were given a cap and a mug as a welcome gift. Think we are going to like this place!
We then had a long river journey before arriving at the marina so we laid back and enjoyed the stunning views. The cliffs towered over the river and there were lots of small bays and inlets where some boats were anchored. We could hear the monkeys and the birdlife, watch the locals in their dugouts paddle by and just enjoy the river life. Thick jungle came down to the riverbank giving us the feeling we were totally alone- it was a wonderful day and at about 3pm we arrived at Catamaran marina where we were spending the next month or so.
We were met by about 6 guys waiting to take our lines and were told we were just in time for happy hour round the pool – sounded good to us.
There are many marinas in the Rio Dulce – all nestled round a large section of river bordered by the very busy town of Fronteras. Many cruisers spend hurricane season here every year and Guatemala has become their second home. Also because of covid many cruisers had not been able to get home so they had been here for over 2 years. We chose Catamaran marina because it had a pool and friends had spent a few months here a while ago. It is also a resort with lots of little riverside cabins but while we were here they are empty. We had the place to ourselves!
We decided to hit the ground running with regards to seeing some of Guatemala as the weather was being very changeable. We arranged to have the plastic in our canvas outside area replaced and also to have the boom bag fixed up while we were away – a job we really wanted done as the plastic in some places was so discolored we couldn’t see through it. It was great having good internet again to arrange our travel itiniery, our boat jobs and talk to the kids – sitting on the sugar scoop at sunrise with the company of our visiting heron was just the medicine the doctor ordered to recharge our batteries ….
Every morning, all the cruisers at Catamaran meet up for coffee and to listen to the daily sched for the Rio Dulce. The majority of cruisers here are American and Canada with a couple of South Africans. We are the only Aussies.
The cruisers at catamaran marina spend a lot of time visiting and helping the local orphanage – Casa Guatemala. They fund teachers, take presents and have the kids over to the marina to swim in the pool. They also look after some of the disabled in the village, raising funds to buy wheelchairs and other aids. I went with them on one of their visits – stopping off at the shop beforehand to buy something for them and some biscuits to give out to the village kids. I was really impressed with the orphanage. I had visited a few on this trip in similar situations and Casa Guatemala was by far the best. These kids had been supported by the cruisers for many years and as a result they had a staff ratio of 1- 1.5 children, the latest play equipment, great grounds on the river, 3 good meals every day, new clothes and a high level of education. I would never have guessed it was an orphanage albeit a private one. The staff were having a safety briefing the day we went from the fire brigade which was impressive. The cruisers of the Rio Dulce have done an amazing job and they adore the kids – it was a highlight for me.
We decided to spend a week visiting the interior of Guatemala going to some of the most popular places. We took a local bus to Guatemala city arriving about 3pm. Unfortunately the hotel I had booked was now unavailable so we just jumped into a taxi and went to something nearby. Guatemala City is much more modern than I thought and not particularly safe – the hotel we found at the last minute was in a gated community but when we got there, it too was closed! The lady who was there took us to another one round the corner which was open – and so we grabbed the room there. It was enormous with a huge king size bed so we ended up being very content. Unfortunately being a gated community we couldn’t go out for a meal as it was a long walk to the restaurant area, so we bought some rolls and cheese, some chocolate cake and 2 bottles of beer and sat on a street bench and ate our dinner! Not quite what we had expected in Guatemala city but still good fun. That afternoon we had booked a shuttle to take us to Antigua – an old city a few hours away and so the next morning we sat outside our tiny hotel and waited…. We were happy to see this shuttle arrive on time and take us to our destination. Its a great way for tourists to travel, not having to rely on trains and public buses (here known as Chicken buses) as they have a network of these shuttle minibuses taking tourists all over the country, it’s cheap, all done on-line and very safe for women as they run hotel to hotel.
Antigua is a lovely old town surrounded by volcanoes. It is full of character, with brightly coloured buildings and only cobbled streets (flips flops are not the best footwear!) It has many small hotels, restaurants, bars and churches but still is a thriving working town. The main square is delightful with lots of ladies in traditional costume selling brightly coloured textiles, nuts, clothes and nik-naks. Every where you looked was a picture – so we spent days just wandering around. The only thing we were disappointed in was what we dubbed ‘the American corner’ where McDonalds, Wendy’s, Taco Bell and Burger king ruled and even though the outside of the buildings were still old traditional Antigua, the rubbish outside was definitely not local Antiguan fare….
We had noticed that they were selling many effigies of the devil on the streets and when we looked it up we discovered that on Dec 7th every year they had a ceremony that depicted a life size devil being carried round in a coffin, and then being burnt. It signified the end of the year when all evil things are burnt and the onset of the new year starting afresh with nothing evil in their houses. It was to be held the next day…. which was just a co-incidence but we didn’t want to miss it so the next day at 5pm we were positioned outside the gated court where this burning was to take place. The coffin with the devil inside was on display in the streets outside.
Around 6pm, there was lots of wailing and music and all these people came out of the gated court all dressed as devil’s. They went up to the coffin, put it on their shoulders and walked around the square, crying and making lots of noise. We got caught up in the mass, and ended up near the gates with about 150 other people. There was a German girl who spoke fluent Spanish and as we seemed to be the only non- Guatemalan people there she asked us where we came from. We told her Australia and thought nothing more about it. After the coffin had been taken inside they closed the gated and only about 30 people were allowed in. They were issuing coloured paper wristbands to the lucky few but the unlucky still outside were not happy. They were banging on the gates and asking to be allowed to see the ceremony. They opened the and told them no more people were to be allowed entry, but the German girl stepped forward and said that as an international tourist she would tell every one about this ceremony and how wonderful it was and how it would bring more tourists to Antigua…They unbelievably agreed with her and gave her a wristband at which point she grabbed my arm, pulled me through and started yelling ‘Australian!!’ I then grabbed Ian’s arm and pulled him through, and they gave us wristbands and slammed the gated shut behind us…. We couldn’t believe it! We actually felt bad for the locals outside who were still banging on the gates as they were not going to see it but it all happened so quickly we were a bit shocked.
The ceremony lasted for about 50 minutes. It was a play which depicted the old being replaced by the new, the satanic devil being eventually brought out of his coffin and being laid down on the lawn. Dancing, music and speeches – all done very theatrically and with much colour and wailing. Eventually the devil was set on fire and burnt to a crisp. It was very interesting and we felt honoured to have been a part of it.
We wandered home with our ears ringing, and stopped off for dinner on the way. We found a gorgeous little restaurant and had tacos – we haven’t been that impressed with the Honduran/Guatemalan food to date, it’s very stodgy and mostly fried with only black beans as a vegetable. The tacos were delicious though.
We were staying in a really nice little hotel which to my amazement and excitement had a bath! My first bath for years….. They also had a tiny little bar attached to it which only had two tables and a really friendly barman. We had a great night, even helping out behind the bar…
We spent the next few days wandering around Antigua. We found ourselves off the tourist trail in the backstreets which were all still cobbled but not in such good condition. We found better quality shops that all ran into each other forming a chain of shops all interconnected by long paved corridor- all lined with local art. It was fun to turn the corner and keep seeing a different scene – we loved it. One of our favourite places.
The other place we wanted to visit was Atitilan Lake so we organised for another shuttle to pick us up at the crack of dawn to arrive mid afternoon. It was interested going through the Guatemalan countryside which is beautiful and lush and not too overcrowded.. we stopped at the equivalent of a BP cafe and had the best meal yet in Guatemala. Local food, chicken in a tomato sauce, black beans and rice – about $6 each! We have been going to the wrong places to eat! We arrived at Panajachel – the largest town on the banks of the Atitilan Lake and found a hotel before setting off to explore. Headed away from the lake and found the markets. They had the best vegetables we had seen in Guatemala, mainly because they were higher up and had a cooler climate. We took note and decided we would take some back to the boat with us… There wasn’t a lot to see so we wandered down to the lake to watch the world go by and what a spectacular place to do it from. The boatboys were plying their trade, the pop up bars were setting up for the evening trade, the tourists were arriving back from other villages and tramping back exhausted to their hotels, and the local ladies were packing up their wares to head home and feed their families. We were very tired from the early morning and long journey so we didn’t stay too long and headed back to our hotel for an early night. Tomorrow we would go across the lake and explore some more villages.