Mayan Coronas

Kool and the Gang
Sunday 15th March 2020 |
6 Imox |
 9 Kumk'u |

We were up and having breakfast at 8:00am this morning. For me it was the classic Mexican breakfast of huevos rancheros although this was served taco-like, by that I mean two fried eggs on refried beans on small tortillas, with a drizzle of salsa verde picante. Really tasty. I could certainly  get used to this style of breakfast and I may it carry on when I get home!

Julie on the other hand brought a bit of home to Guatemala and constructed herself a bacon butty by asking for toast, bacon and hash browns from the American breakfast. With both of us set up nicely for the day we waited for everyone to gather together ready for our big day out to Livingston.

We all got in the launch boat, without too much bother and this time life jackets were distributed, which reassured me (the only non-swimmer). Before we headed towards the Gulf of Honduras and the Caribbean coast we travelled in the opposite direction to the Castillo de San Felipe de Lara.

It looked rather impressive from the water. As the boat slowed down and skirted around it Gabo imparted some sketchy historical tales. He was clearly winging it, which made it far more charming than if he had just reeled off hard cold facts and figures. Apparently part of the defence was a chain that ran along the river bed which they would quickly raise up to stop any passing boats.

The boat turned around and the engine was cranked to full throttle as we hurtled back down river. I was smugly impressed with my improvised toggle using a shoe lace to keep my hat securely on my head!

We took a selfie and Julie remarked that my moustache was "coming along nicely".  I'd never grown one before, not even for charity. It really wasn't a good look but I was determined to visit Mexico sporting a fine moustache. I hope that doesn't come across as racist, as it's more of an homage.

Down the Rio Dulce we sped at some rate of knots, beneath the bridge and beyond. It wasn't long before we pulled to the shoreline, into an area known as Chocón Machacas, a proteted habitat or nature reserve teeming with wildlife.

They took us first to a small clump of mangrove trees and shrubs that were heaving with pelicans. There were too many to count. It was like a prehistoric scene, a remarkable sight. I'd never seen them perch on branches like that before.

They were also quite accustomed to people as the boat pulled up close and none of them flew off in a flap, even when Julie recited "A mighty fine bird is a pelican" She always says it, like she has a hypnosis trigger planted in her mind.

Moving on further into the mangrove forest the boat's captain, (if he could be called that?) spotted a huge iguana high in the trees. At first I couldn't see but then I caught a glimpse of its ringed tail hanging down. I then followed it up and there it was, a mighty fine specimen. It must have been over a metre long. The Green Iguana is often called gallina de palo or "chicken of the trees" and you could clearly see why with this bright orange crest running down its spine.

We continued our way through the nature reserve, out into the water, looking for what Gabo called "Bird Island". We soon found it, like a scene from a horror movie, a creepy sanctuary of a thousand birds.

We were being watched from up on high where a colony of Cormorants were nesting in the top branches. Cattle Egrets also shared the island as well as many other species. It was a bird-spotters paradise. 

From Bird Island we then sailed through a mesmerizing patch of flowering lillies, floating serenly on the still waters of an off shoot from the river. It was such an idyllic spot.

Today was Imox, either day of the crocodile or the water-lilly. I'm not too sure why the dual meaning, but I certainly prefered the latter as it was perfect for this moment, and thankfully there were no corcodiles in these waters!  .... or were there?

Further in we went, deeper into the mangroves, through a narrow passageway, with the trees forming a canopy above us. Strangely enough there were a couple of shacks in here with signs of life. Talk about being off grid!

Then we emerged from the tunnel of love and foilage into the wide open space of a lagoon, forested on all sides, then el capitan cut the engine. We bobbed along in total silence, well after a minute for all our camera clicks to stop. All we heard were bird calls in the distance. The serenity was beautiful.

Five minutes later and it was getting a little boring.

I think it was Suzie who cracked first and starting talking, then we all began to chatter. It was time to leave. Thankfully the engine spluttered back to life. There was an awkward moment when it struggled to catch but it then fired up. We all breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Before we left the lagoon we moved nearer the forest, towards the sound of the squaking birds. Someone soon pointed out a flash of yellow feathers in the trees. It was Montezuma Oropendola. I could see it but just couldn't find it with the zoom lens so I put the camera down. I'm glad I did otherwise I wouldn't have seen it take flight.

Its wings opened,  as it flew up and beyond the trees, it's golden tail feathers glowing with the sun behind it. I don't think I've ever been so excited at seeing a bird before.  It literally took my breath away. 

 (Obviously the image above is borrowed from wikipedia! But I think it's important enough for me to breach copyright law just so I have a reminder of the beautiful sight I experienced today.)

I'm pretty sure we left the way we came, but one mangrove tree looks pretty much like another! When we reached the lilly pond Alex shouted "look at those guys". The boat slowed down and the captain carefully reversed back up for us to have a closer look. Two red eared terrapins were walking along a floating log, mummy terrapin leading the way with baby terrapin following closely behind. They were absolutely adorable.

A little further along we saw daddy terrapin keeping a close eye on us. We hung around for a while but didn't outstay our welcome.

We said our good byes to the red eared terrapins and the other incredible wildlife of the Chocón Machacas. It had been an unexpected surprise. 

One creature we hadn't seen was the elusive manatu or sea cow which apparently was still breeding in these waters.

After a while the water opened out into a lake known as El Golfete.  To the South were the hills and mountains of Cerro San Gil  shrouded in grey clouds as we continued towards Livingston.

The waters soon narrowed again into the Rio Dulce snaking its way through a dramatic gorge of limestone cliffs. Tucked away on the shoreline was Hotel Agua Caliente, a resort with caves and hot springs, but also a waterside restaurant. It was too early for lunch but Gabo explained we were going to stop, make our lunch choices, and then return on our way back.  

With our orders made we were soon back in the boat heading for the Caribbean coast and in a flash (20 minutes) the river open out into the Gulf of Honduras. We had finally reached the Garifuna town of Livingston.

The boat pulled into the port and we were directed to dock by the pier. We were welcomed by a pair of kids with their t-shirts covering their nose and mouth. Then a guy wearing a protective surgical mask told us to report to a pop-up medical tent on the harbour.

Before we could enter we had to have our temperature checked. All of a sudden Julie had a hot flush, beads of sweat appeared on her brow. The more anxious she became, the hotter she felt.

We all stood in line on the pier, in the direct sun. One by one we all got tested and walked throught the gates into Livingston. 

We were up next. We had to write our names, contact details etc. but Julie couldn't write. Her hand was shaking so much with fear she couldn't hold the pen! I did the honours.

The laser thermometer was then pointed at our foreheads.  Julie registered 36.2C whilst I was surprisingly higher at 36.6C. She couldn't believe it!

They gave us a little slip of paper with our temperatures as our passport to enter Livingston.

Half the group were already through. We joined them and waited for everyone else. Gabo was last. We were all a little concerned about it him. He admitted to not feeling great. To our relief he passed the temperature check and came through. Afer a quick comparison of readings Julie turned out to be the coolest of the whole group! (along with Jordan) Being as cool as a cucumber really isn't her style! 

It was now almost 12pm, and we only had two hours here, so Gabo suggested we hired a local guide. We all agreed. Up popped Desmond, (or at least I think that was his name?) a local boy to show us around his home town.

We may still have been in Guatemala but there was a very lively Caribbean vibe, bolstered by the reggae beats that pumped out of every corner of the town. 

We followed Desmond up the hill towards the centre as he talked about Livingston's history.   He spoke English, with a curious blend of Spanish and Jamaican accent but he was out of earshot most of the time so I didn't hear much of what he said.

Livingston have certainly worked themselves a nice niche in Guatemala's tourist industry by appealing to those who want something a little different. There are no road links connecting Livingston to the rest of the country. It's not an island but it may as well be because it's only accesible by water. Because of this it had a very distinctive vibe,

Many of the small shops along Calle Principal were catering exclusively for the visitor and you don't blame them. Although it was sad to still see corals, starfish and turtle shells still being sold. I thought those days had gone.

A little further along stores were becoming more local, serving the community with their day to day essentials. They were far more interesting to look at, but of course I wouldn't be spending my tourist dollar.

With a population of around 18,000 people, it's a mix of indigenous Maya, Ladinos (those from Spanish descent) but mostly Garifuna. They are said to be descendants of either West African slaves who shipwrecked off the coast in the 17th century or  Hatians escaping the revolution at the end of the 18th century. Probably both are half truths.  

Desmond turned off Calle Principal, and we all followed him down a side street. There was a medical centre down here. Thankfully we walked straight past it and we weren't here for another temperature check!

To be fair you couldn't fault their repsonse to the pandemic. As of last night Guatemala had only the one case and no deaths however they already had these posters up on the walls displaying important educational information about the coronavirus COVID-19. Know, Prepare and Act.

At the end of the road we came to a view overlooking Playa Capitania, a beach of sorts. Not exactly the picture postcard of the Caribbean. There was some rough ground with a goal for football, and then a muddy strip of shoreline.      

He hadn't brought us down here to look at the mud flats but to show us a shiny plastic larger than life statue of  Marcos Sanchez Diaz. He is the celebrated founder of Livingston. The leader of a group  fleeing Haiti during a revolution, escaping to Honduras before settling here in 1802.

We returned to the main street which was now just homes and shacks and continued down hill towards the beach.

North Beach, (or Playa Barioue?) was a little more like the palm fringed beach you would expect of the Caribbean, with children playing in the surf, several huts and bars along the front, but as we followed Desmond through a shortcut it was clear those bars had been abandoned for quite some time. Unless they were intentionally going for the shabby look without the chic.

The town still keep the beach clean everyday, collecting all the plastic that washes up . They blame  Belize for this pollution and may have a point as there's no other Guatemalan town North of here.

Looking out over the Bay of Amatique we could see the moutains of Belize in the distance. In the foreground, just a stones throw away, on the smallest of islands was a statue of what I thought at first was Neptune, dressed in a toga, holding his strident but he is known as Salvador del Mundo, the saviour of the world. Although with an anchor on the end of his staff he was more "protector of the sea" or "Aquaman".

From the beach we returned up the hill through a residential area with a few local bars on street corners. It was a warm day and I was certainly working up a thirst for a cold beer. But onwards we marched, up the hill.

By now Desmond had run out of things to say and walked out in front. 


At the top we turned right down Calle de la Iglesia to the Nuestra Senora del Rosario, Livingston's largest Catholic church. We walked up to the door, popped our heads inside for a quick look. The Garifuna do practice catholicism whilst also combining traditional beliefs in gubida, (ancestral spirits) and buwiyes (shamans).

We returned towards the main street, and retraced our steps towards the harbour. You could see that at one time it was a prosperous town. Some of it's buidlings hinted at its faded glory. For much of the 20th century Livingston was Guatemala's only Eastern port before the purpose built Puerto Barros was constructed across the bay to the South which had the benefit of road links to the capital.

Our guided tour was at an end when we reached Happy Fish, a restaurant on Calle Principal but Desmond was not finished with us. He invited us inside for a performance of traditional Garifuna songs. He sang accompanied by his best mate and younger brother on drums and his sister out front shaking her booty (which I think is the correct terminology). Also I'm only supposing their family relationship.

"This is a song about the fishermen" he said shaking his maracas to set the rythm going. The bongo drums joined and then his sister wiggled into centre stage. She wore a big smile but you could see felt a tad awkward dancing in front of strangers.  

For the second song, which sounded exactly the same, she was looking for volunteers to share her embarrasment. Fortunately as far as Julie and I were concerned she singled out those who looked like they at least  possesed some latin rythm, first with Lucia and then Mari. 

For the third song, which again sounded the same to the untrained ear, Desmond (and the family) belted out another tale about fish. It was a really joyful end to our tour, and we very much appreciated his efforts to entertain us.

Gabo told us we had half an hour or so before we had to leave, so he suggested we could do a spot of souvenir shopping or alternatively just stay at the bar for another drink. Which is exactly what we did!

I was very much enjoying this beer called Moza which I hadn't come across before.

Shortly before 2pm we headed down to the harbour where our motorboat was waiting for us. Livingston had been interesting. On one hand it would have been nice to have spent longer here to explore more on our own but we had a long way back and we still had lunch, to which we were greatly looking forward.  

After twenty minutes of propelling ourselves upstream, back through the beautiful gorge, we returned to Agua Caliente an impressive two-storey thatched waterfront restaurant.

Its wonderful rustic charm extended to its kitchen which  isn't the best look for a  food preperation area!  "What if I get the squits?" asked a concerned Julie who had gone for the prawn dish. "I'm sure it'll be fine" were my only words of comfort, whilst crossing my fingers in hope. To be fair, everything looked clean and the food appeared fresh and delicious.

My vegetable rice dish was certainly very fresh and I had plenty of it. It may have needed lashings of chilli sauce to give it flavour but it worked. I also had a side dish of black beans which looked like a cow pat on a plate, but tasted great. Possibly because of lard or meat stock! So far I haven't struggled in finding non-meat dishes but I've sometimes had my doubts of hidden ingredients.

After we had all eaten Gabo told those who had brought their swimming costumes with them (he had mentioned) could go and swim in the natural hot springs or alternatively they had some caves you could explore.

Julie would like to have bobbed around in the warm waters but she couldn't. This morning we looked everywhere for her swimming costume but turns out she hadn't packed it.

And the alternative of going deep underground was Julie's idea of hell so we stayed behind at the restaurant, relaxed with a beer, looking out over the Rio Dulce.

There were some expensive yatchs around here which was a surprise.  This area has always had a reputation for being a shelter from a storm but its not like it's the Bahamas where I would expect the rich elite.

A small troop of fresh faced teenagers arrived, on a launch boat like ours. It seemed a little late to be heading towards Livingston, unless they were staying there tonight. Oh, to have such confidence at that age. Or perhaps its lack of fear that doesn't hold them back.  

Half an hour later the teenagers were leaving as our group we coming back from the hot springs. Helen had visited the caves. Apparently we hadn't missed much and "it was like a sauna down there".

Back in the boat we scooted through the remainder of the gorge, out into the lake of El Golfete where el capitan floored it. Holding on to our hats we bounced through the water in a straight line back to our hotel.

When we got to Tortugal Gabo called a group meeting for 6:45pm in the lounge. He had news. Looking at his expression, it wasn't good.

The two hours we had to wait dragged and we were all back anxious to hear what he had to say. 

He opened with "Well guys, it's not good news. Maybe Richard and Margaret would be ok, but we think no one else".  Much to Intrepid's credit Gabo did offer that they could continue the tour but Rich said "we're travelling as a group and we'll leave as a group".

So the next thing to discuss was the "what next?"

Personally I wanted to get into Mexico as soon as possible before they closed their borders. Once inside it would be easier for us and everyone else to find flights home.  Otherwise being stuck in Guatemala was a distinct possibility. That seemed to be the consensus of opinion.

Gabo then presented us with two options.

Leave for Guatemala City in the morning to the airport, for a flight out. 

Or we could continue with the tour tomorrow to Flores, stay the night on a beautiful "island" in Lake Peten Itza. Then in the morning catch an internal flight from Flores to Guatemala City and then on to Mexico.

The first option sounded like the quickest way out but it wasn't without risks. The public bus didn't leave until 9am from Fronteras, it could take ten hours and then getting across the city to the airport could potentially be horrendously gridlocked.  If you booked a flight for tomorrow evening there's no guarantee of making it.

(Someone asked if our driver for tomorrow could take us to the capital instead of Flores but no,  he was hired from a company in Flores.)

We all made our choices.

Julie and I went for the Flores option. It would be a nice way to end the tour. Flores looked stunning in the brochure, and then we could leave for Mexico on Tuesday. Most of the group came to the same conclusion, except for Irene, Christoph and Christian who decided on the first option. They wanted to get out as soon as possible, despite the risk of going through all the effort and still only fly out to Mexico on the same day as us.

With the decisions made we were all frantically on our phones booking our flights. Lucia said flights from Flores to Guatemala City were available from Expedia, then I then found an airline called Volaris who did the onward flight to Cancun. Booked.

 Julie and I had also made the decision to carry on regardless, not with the tour of course, Tikal was shutting to the public, and getting to Mexico was a priority. But once in Mexico we were determined to stay for the duration of our trip. We already had a direct flight home on Tuesday 24th March and had already pre-paid for two nights in Tulum. We just needed a further 5 nights accomodation.  Booked. Taxi transfer from Cancun to Tulum. Booked. It all came to an extra £1000 but it had to be done. It was a relief to have a plan and everything confirmed.

There was a nervous excitement amongst the group as we all settled down for some supper.  I actually can't remember what we had to eat. I think I had pasta but it all gets a bit sketchy.

Gabo had suggested we created a Whats App group at our initial welcome meeting, and sometime during the course of this evening Alex created one, calling us the Mayan Coronas. We all wanted to stay in touch once we went our seperate ways, if only to let each other know when we all get home safe.   

After we had eaten Julie and I stayed with a few others for a few more drinks. Gabo had brought his bluetooth speaker out with him so we listened to music. We got talking about our love for music. He shared with me his passion for Costa Rican bands Nino Koi and Florian Droids and I my devotion to The Black Crowes. I also introduced him to Welsh bands like Manic Street Preachers and Stereophonics.  

I can't remember when we left for bed, but whilst Julie went to sleep I packed our bags for the early start in the morning and then spent a few minutes checking today's pandemic developments. 

In the UK the death count has risen to 35 but the alarming statistic is that over a 1000 new cases  tested positive since yesterday. The government are advising those over 70 years of age to self-isolate, quarantine themselves wherever possible. Spain have gone into full lockdown, following Italy. Guatemala announced its first COVID-19 death today, an 85 year old man from San Pedro Sacatepequez who had returned from Madrid over a week earlier.

But at least no news from the Mexican border was good news.

  Next day >  

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