On the cocaine highway

After our quetzal victory Saturday morning, Alfredo drove us for five hours south and then east to Rio Dulce. Rio Dulce doesn’t rank among Guatemala’s A List of touristic attractions, but given the extra time we gained from skipping Belize, it seemed worth a visit. It’s the starting point for a river trip that guidebooks gush over. As things turned out, we also loved our two-night Rio Dulce stop-over.

We didn’t stay in the sweltering town but rather in a lodge-cum-marina on the river. This whole area is reportedly a magnet for nomadic gringo boaters. People say during hurricane season it offers the safest berths on the western Caribbean. At the Tortugal Boutique River Lodge, the sterns of the sailboats and cruisers lined up along the docks bore place names like Oakland and Alameda, California and Houston, Texas.They looked like nice yachts, but I was happier ensconced in La Casita Elegante.Located at the farthest reach of the property, it was more rustico than elegante, but I loved the wild jungle surrounding the back of it. In the other direction, we enjoyed views of the river. And the dining room came equipped with two friendly young Guatemalan dogs.

For the river trip, my guidebook had reassured me that tour agencies as well as local sailors offered routine passage both downstream and up. Unfortunately, the pandemic has all but decimated tourism, and it wasn’t clear even the single public ferry of the day would be running from Rio Dulce that Sunday. So we opted for the alternative: hiring a private launch and pilot to take us down the river to the town of Livingston.

If pricy ($170), this was a luxury that felt like it was worth every penny. Baltazar, our pilot, was competent and informative, and we had his services for the whole day. He pointed out the egrets and cormorants perched in the dense trees on Bird Island. We cruised through an area filled with water lilies that he said bloomed year-round.A bit further downstream, we stopped at a bankside establishment that was part restaurant, part tourist attraction. Steve and I each paid 15 quetzals (about $2) to the 67-year-old proprietor, Felix,and he guided us up and down a plunging path to a creepy cave and natural sauna warmed by hot springs.

We saw this plump fellow in the cave, along with a ton of bats. I tried to photograph them, but failed.

I tested the water temperature in this bathing area (quite warm but not scalding). But I passed on a full-on soaking.

Downstream from Felix’s place, the river runs through towering limestone cliffs covered with some of the densest, greenest vegetation imaginable. The guidebook says a Tarzan movie was filmed here, and it’s easy to see why. A little later, about two hours after leaving Rio Dulce, we motored into the harbor at Livingston.

Everyone and everything that arrives in Livingston comes in by boat. No roads connect it to the rest of Guatemala. Adding to that exoticism is the fact it’s the home of the Garifuna, descendants of Afro-Caribbean people who moved to this coastline centuries ago. Because of their presence, Lonely Planet proclaims, “nowhere else in Guatemala will you find such a friendly, fun, and relaxed vibe.” People had also told us we couldn’t miss eating the Garifuna dish known as tapado, a mix of seafood stewed in spicy coconut milk that’s an emblem of Caribbean cooking.

We did see a dozen or so black folks hanging out around the pier. But walking up the seedy central thoroughfare, we detected few signs of the ethnic minority. The street ended at the beach, all but deserted shortly before noon on this particular Sunday morning. Because the breeze off the water tempered the sweltering heat, we decided to stroll along a scruffy waterfront pathway for a bit before searching for the restaurant recommended by our Rio Dulce hotel manager.

That’s how we met Philip Flores. He and another black guy were lounging on the concrete stoop of a derelict bungalow, and as we approached, Philip called out the universal street-hustler’s greeting: “Where’re you from?”

“California,” Steve answered amiably. “Where in California?” Philip pressed.

His next question was less orthodox. “What’s that mountain there [in San Diego] where you can see in all directions? I went up to the top when I played there as a musician.” We determined it was probably Mt Soledad, which somehow led to him reminiscing about fishing for tilapia at the Salton Sea. In another moment, he was telling us how rock legend Jerry Garcia had spent time in Garifuna and wound up inviting Philip, an accomplished guitarist, to return to the US with him and tour.

Philip claims that Jerry Garcia painted the colorful image on the wall.

Despite studying (at some point) at the University of Illinois’s campus in Chicago, Philip had returned to Livingston. Today he says he’s a well-recognized community leader. If this all sounds far-fetched, something made Steve and me trust him. His explanation of the sad plight of the Garifuna today had the ring of both truth and passionate indignation. He explained that during the 1980s, Mayans (as he called them) fleeing Guatemala’s civil war had moved into the town where the Garifuna had lived peacefully, in isolation, for so long. The Mayans had commandeered all the prime commercial real estate and forced the Garifuna into a ghetto on the shore. It was all but apartheid, according to Philip. And with local fish stocks decimated and little land for subsistence farming, the Garifuna were barely surviving, supported in large part by money sent back from relatives in the US.

When Philip offered to lead us on a little walk through the Garifuna enclave, we jumped at the opportunity. Steve and I have spent so much time in poor African villages in the last ten years, the Garifuna district almost felt like home. It was wretchedly poor. Most of the folks we passed looked tired.

We eventually wound up at a restaurant recommended by Philip, where we did gobble down delicious bowls of tapado.

Here’s Maria, owner of Restaurante Gamboa Place, and its chief cook.

Philip didn’t join us. He said he had to get to a gathering where he would be working with some of the local children. But before he left for that he sat with us and we talked a bit more. He mentioned offhand that the Rio Dulce is a huge highway for drugs. He implied that virtually all the cocaine grown in South America for eventual sale in America floats up it. The presence of the drug cartel lords and their enforcers adds to the edginess of his home town.

Steve and I left Livingstone shortly after lunch. On the ride back, we looked for signs of the drug runners, but all we saw were some waterside homes and marinas that looked suspiciously prosperous. They were like the fancy mansions we passed on our drive with Alfredo, conspicuous, almost arrogant, in their wealth.

We made one final stop. Just a few miles west of our lodge. In the opposite direction from Livingston, the Castillo de San Felipe commands a narrow point where the river meets the Lago de Izabel (Guatemala’s biggest lake). Baltazar told us the Spanish built this fort in the mid-1600s to fight the English pirates who roamed the Caribbean, plundering and marauding. It bristles with cannons that the locals employed to deter the bad guys of the day.

It made me reflect that the Garifuna people are probably worse off today than they were when the fort was new. On the other hand, life’s a lot better for the residents of Rio Dulce. Travel does provide constant reminders of the ups and downs of human fortunes.

One thought on “On the cocaine highway

  1. Judith Nicolaidis May 19, 2021 / 12:01 am

    Great story and pics, Jeannette! Judi


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