Friday, December 14, 2018

A Recap of November 2018 - Part IV

I’m starting this post where I left off the last one which is the final week of November.

On Saturday, November 24th, I arrived in Livingston, Guatemala after traveling by small boat from Punta Gorda, Belize. Livingston sits at the mouth of the Rio Dulce where it flows into the Amatique Bay in the Gulf of Honduras. There is no road linking Livingston to the rest of Guatemala; it is only accessible by boat.
This is the boat I took from Punta Gorda, Belize to Livingston, Guatemala.
I had reserved a bed at La Casa Rosada, which is the best-rated accommodation in town, and I walked straight there after getting off the boat. I was a bit shocked to discover that my single bed, complete with mosquito net, was actually on the upstairs porch with no fan, no place to hang clothes or a towel, no reading light or shelf, and nowhere to stow my luggage securely (although there are lockboxes, they are only large enough for electronics). I also discovered there was only one en-suite bath (the sink, toilet and shower were all in the same room) upstairs for what I counted as more than 16 possible dorm occupants. The dorm area was not secured either, meaning you didn’t need a key to access the property or the upstairs sleeping area. I tried to put my initial concerns aside and focused on the positives, primarily the beautiful waterfront location.
View of La Casa Rosada from their private dock.
After having a look around the property, I set out to explore the town of Livingston and to get my passport stamped. This is a necessary task which would be totally easy to forget since the immigration office is not at the dock but instead a few blocks up a hill. It’s a tiny building adjacent to some shops and restaurants and it is basically unmarked. I walked right by it at first and a traffic guard (a necessity for directing the tuk-tuks at the blind corners and steep hills) pointed it out to me when she asked where I was going as I crossed the intersection.
The immigration building (left, with women in front of it) in Livingston, Guatemala.
Border formalities complete, I then explored the streets of the relatively small town center, only turning around when I reached water and could go no further. The one exception was to the west, which I saved for another day knowing that it would require more time and energy. I returned to the hostel and sat out on the dock watching the almost-full moon rise. I went to bed and slept fitfully, with the constant feeling that small bugs were crawling on me even though I was under the mosquito net.
This photo of moonrise was taken with my Samsung Galaxy S7 phone.
The next morning while eating breakfast at the hostel, I was joined by Henri, who had traveled from Punta Gorda on the same boat I took yesterday. Henri was born in Cameroon, in Central Africa, but now lives in Montreal, Canada. However Henri’s work with an NGO has him based out of PG for the past few months. After some chit-chat about not having specific plans for the day, we decided to go to the Siete Altares waterfalls together.
Walking along the beach to Siete Altares. Sometimes you have to walk in the water.
After a 10 minute tuk-tuk ride we reached the end of the road at the beach near the Quehueche River. From there it was a 30 minute walk along the sandy, garbage-strewn beach to the park entrance. The fastest and easiest (but far more expensive) option is to take a boat. We paid the 20Q (~$2.50) admission fee and then started hiking up the rocky path. In fact, the only place there is a paved path is at the very beginning where it is steepest; after that you either have to walk through the water or along the side on uneven rocks. Thankfully the rocks are not slippery.
Walking through Siete Altares to get to the final waterfall.
When we reached the final (seventh) waterfall, Henri decided to follow the lead of some local kids and climbed up to the top to jump into the natural pool below. I opted to wade around in the shallow part of the pool and take pictures. Later, as we relaxed on some of the larger rocks surrounding the pool, I happened to look down and saw something moving. I couldn’t believe it; there was a very large snake swimming in the water! I pointed it out to Henri as it swam under a rock and that was the end of our time in that pool.
Henri climbs to the top of the final waterfall.
We took our time hiking back down the path, enjoying the beautiful scenery. While there were plenty of tourists like us, there were even more locals and Spanish-speaking tourists from other parts of Guatemala. When we got back to the main entrance, I asked the older guy who was handling the money if he ever saw any snakes in the area. He said that there used to be snakes many years ago when there were fewer people around but that he hadn’t seen one in a long time and didn’t think they lived there anymore. When I told him we had seen one in the water and asked what kind it might have been, he didn’t have a clue!
Me looking for birds at Siete Altares.
As we walked back along the beach we were joined by Linda, a girl from the Netherlands who has been working in Toronto for the past year. Farther along, we also ran into another girl from our hostel, Agnes, who is from Edmonton. After taking a tuk-tuk back into town, Henri, Linda and I decided to eat lunch at a tiny unmarked restaurant away from the more touristy places on the main street. It was comical because, although they had printed menus, when we tried to order a variety of dishes, every time we would name one the woman would say “we don’t have that.” Linda and I ended up with fried chicken, rice and pasta salad, while Henri (a vegetarian) got a big bowl of steamed vegetables. The food was actually pretty good, but the best part was the cook’s daughter, Dulce, a precocious eight-year-old who kept us entertained with random questions and comments (in Spanish, of course!).
This is Dulce, a Livingston resident.
While we were waiting for our lunch to be prepared, I asked Linda why she had so many huge red welts on her back and arms. I assumed that she was sensitive to mosquito bites but the truth was far worse. On her first night at La Casa Rosada, she woke up in the middle of the night feeling itchy. She turned on her flashlight and could see the bedbugs crawling on her! She immediately went down to reception but they only offered to give her another bed and did nothing else, even the next day, to resolve the issue other than to change the sheets on the bed she had been sleeping on. As the hostel was booked full the next night, a new unsuspecting victim had been assigned to that bed.
The public laundry area in Livingston, Guatemala.
After lunch, we returned to the hostel to relax for a few hours, then met up again that evening. We had heard there would be a street party leading up to tomorrow morning’s Garifuna Settlement Day celebration. While plenty of people were out eating and drinking, there was actually very little in the way of festivities. After walking around for more than 30 minutes, we only found a DJ playing for a crowd of none in one large tented area and some young drummers prepping for a performance on a stage in the main plaza. We decided to eat dinner at a very popular pupuseria where we had to wait more than 30 minutes to get a table and our food. While we were hanging out people-watching across the street, a huge elephant beetle crashed to the ground near us. A local man captured it and then spent the remainder of the evening showing it off to anyone who walked by.
Male elephant beetle in Livingston, Guatemala.
After our delicious meal we returned to the main plaza hoping to see some drumming and dancing, but when we got there at 9:00 p.m. the main entertainment was already over. The girls and I returned to the hostel and went to bed, setting our alarms for 4:30 a.m.
The pupuseria where we ate dinner.
The next morning we all met up as planned at 4:45 to walk to the beach together for the Garifuna Settlement Day reenactment. Interestingly, this holiday is also celebrated by the Garifuna community in Belize on November 19th. But in Livingston it is celebrated one week later. We walked through the empty streets of Livingston in the dark and we all thought it was strange that no one else was stirring. Of course, we soon discovered that the start time was 6:00 a.m. not 5:00, so we sat alone on the hill overlooking the beach, waiting for the sun to come up.
Sunrise on the beach in Livingston as people gather for Garifuna Settlement Day.
Slowly a crowd of people began to gather and then, just before 6:00 as promised, we spotted a boat pulling the bamboo raft farther out in the bay. It took another 45 minutes for the boat to reach the shore and by then there were around two hundred people watching on the beach or from the cliff.
One of the boats arrives at the beach in Livingston, Guatemala
on Garifuna Settlement Day. The bamboo raft is in the background.
After the landing celebration which featured singing and imitation gifts of food and drink, the Garifuna paraded on foot up the hill and around town, singing and dancing. We followed for a while but they were going very slowly so we ultimately split off and walked back to the hostel around 7:30 a.m. We did get to taste the special liquor called guifiti, which is made by steeping roots and herbs in rum. It is potent and, considering the early hour and our empty stomachs, we each only had about an ounce.
The Garifuna walk up the hill from the beach to parade around Livingston.
Linda, Agnes and I spent most of the day reading and relaxing in the hammocks on the dock while Henri’s boat left for Punta Gorda at 11:00 a.m. In the early evening I went for a walk and bought some empanadas from a street vendor. Then I packed and went to bed early since I had to wake up early again to catch the boat to Puerto Barrios.
Us with our guifiti samples on Garifuna Settlement Day. L to R: Me, Henri, Linda, Agnes
On Tuesday morning I took a tuk-tuk to the dock and made it just in time to avoid a heavy downpour. Even though I arrived at 6:15 a.m., the 6:45 boat was already booked full (20 people max). I had tried to secure my spot yesterday but you can’t buy tickets in advance. Thankfully there was enough demand and they added another boat shortly after the first one left. This was the same size boat as I had taken from Punta Gorda a few days before, but there was much less luggage to load and we left quickly after everyone boarded. This time they didn’t even bother to take the life jackets out of the large cloth bag they were stowed in.
Departing from Livingston. The life jackets are in the white cloth bag in the bow.
The trip across the bay took about 30 minutes and the water was as calm as an empty bathtub. We reached bustling Puerto Barrios, a true container port where all of the ships I saw docked were being loaded with containers marked "Chiquita."
The Chiquita banana ships docked in Puerto Barrios, Guatemala.
After I got off the boat, I took a taxi to the McDonald's a couple of kilometers away. This was the rendezvous point with my pre-reserved Roneey Shuttle to go to Copan Ruinas, Honduras. From there it was only a 20 minute drive to the border crossing at Corinto.
Changing money at the Guatemala / Honduras border.
We reached the border at Corinto at 9:30 and didn’t have to wait in line to get stamped out of Guatemala (Line/Window 1) and into Honduras (Windows 2-4). After changing money (buying lempira) at a 23:1 rate for U.S. dollars or 3:1 rate for quetzales (a fair rate for a non-bank transaction), we were on the road again by 9:45. We stopped again briefly for a toilet break and to use an ATM machine at a gas station/convenience store a couple of hours later and then stopped again at a gas station in El Progreso at 12:30. This time we all changed to different vans, for ones going to La Ceiba, Copan, Puerto Barrios and even Nicaragua. We had to wait more than 20 minutes for a late inbound van, so we had time to order a pizza from the Little Caesars across the street; there was also a Popeyes Chicken, Baskin Robbins, and Dunkin Donuts in the same shopping center. Four of us (a couple from Slovenia and a girl from Zurich) shared a large supreme pizza.
They are completely rebuilding the road from Santa Rosa to Copan Ruinas.
Now in a van with four “new” travelers and the driver, who had brought along his wife and two young children, we set off for Copan. It was pretty slow going the entire way as the road had lots of speed bumps and there was a fair amount of slow-moving traffic. Soon we were winding through the mountains and there we encountered major road construction. They had completely graded down the old road to only dirt and rocks and were gradually pouring concrete for a new road. The speed limit was only 15 kph and we had to stop in several places to wait for oncoming traffic because only one lane (of two) was open. We also got behind big trucks that were barely moving up the hills and we couldn’t pass them because of the one-lane road, so we were going only 5 kph for many stretches. We finally arrived in Copan at around 6:15 p.m. (making it a 11.5 hour travel day for me), where the other passengers were dropped off at a hotel, and I was taken to a gas station where my Spanish school instructor Dunia was waiting with her family to take me to my home for the next two weeks.

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