Guatemala’s Caribbean Treasure

The Castillo de San Felipe de Lara, a Spanish colonial fort that sits at the entrance to eastern Guatemala's Lake Izabal. Photo courtesy of Enjoy Guatemala
The Castillo de San Felipe de Lara, a Spanish colonial fort that sits at the entrance to eastern Guatemala’s Lake Izabal. Photo courtesy of Enjoy Guatemala

Seeing Snakes Make You Stronger

By Kent E St. John
Senior Travel Editor

If you think Playa de Carmen is played out and Belize has bottomed, head a little further south to Guatemala. You can find more thrills and chills to check up on. Hedonist and history buff will both find plenty to please.

It is a fact that there are more Mayan people living in Guatemala than anywhere else. From beach resorts to Caribbean villages to jungle treks the Izabal area has a lot of options.

One of the most unusual aspects of my visit to the area was the encounter with wildlife. At times that meant facing down a lifelong phobia of snakes.

I will never forget e-mailing editor Max Hartshorne from a remote computer link at the Hacienda Tijax while above me on the beams slithered a bright yellow snake.

Later that night I returned to my bungalow greeted by a frog as large as a dinner plate. The sound of Howler Monkeys in the morning will forever be on my top twenty lists of sounds. The sight of parrots and toucans zipping by was astounding and magical. I truly was “Where The Wild Things Are.”

By the Lighthouse

Knowing I had some rough travel ahead my first stop was the Punta de Manabique and the Manabique Resort. The place is big and very self-contained; pool, beach, restaurants, and rooms with full kitchens.

A marina is a part of the complex as is a faux church modeled after one in Antigua. Really the kind of place to hide away. The Punta though offers some terrific wetlands to explore via boat. Crocs and mangroves, as well as lagoons, are the features.

Road to nowhere in Livingston
Road to nowhere in Livingston

The nearby Puerto Barrios is a working port straight from the United Fruit Company days. It has long wide streets filled with Caribbean style wooden houses, most long in the tooth, but that is its charm. It is here where you can get boat transportation to Belize, Livingston or to the Punta itself. For info on Amatique Bay.


Livingston used to be raucous, lively and a wee bit scary. Now, these days leave out the scary and replace with fun. Increased police presence tamed the wilder aspects.

Though technically not an island, it is boat bound. It is also the base for Black Guatemalans, descendants of escaped slaves and privateers called Garifuna with a language of the same name.

Sailing boats, fishermen and local Mayans make for a lively mix. A typical night would be cheap and great seafood with small bar and music scene afterward. Lest you fall into a rut, by day Livingston offers boats heading everywhere you want to be.

While many head to nearby white beaches on short trips to Belize I headed up the Rio Dulce to what is just popping up on the traveler’s radar screen. The best hotel is the Villa Caribe. It still has a laid back style and the East German manager is a treat. The Happy Fish offers good food and lively nightlife.

Exotic Travel can arrange a lot of expeditions from Livingston at ExoticTravelAgency another is

Mayan people on Rio Tatin
Mayan people on Rio Tatin

Up the River with a Paddle

From Livingston my guide Ivania and I loaded up a small boat and headed up the Rio Dulce through a spectacular gorge. The La Cueva de la Vaca walls were covered with great tangles of jungle foliage and the sounds of tropical birds.

It also had multiple small shrimping boats with two men hauling nets into rowboat-sized vessels. Along the shore were places where hot springs bubbled. Before long we came to the entry to the Rio Tatin. This small tributary offers the chance to head through thick jungle and incredible scenery.

Near the entrance is the Finca Tatin, a small jungle B&B that is smack dab in the middle of the rain forest. They offer dormitories as well as bungalows.

By far the biggest thrill of the Rio Titan is the Asociation Ak TenamitSchool. This NGO facility is a school that works with the Q’eqchi Mayan villages. The students spend 90 days on and 15 off learning about farming and tourism.

I got to go beyond the craft store and into the main school; it was so worth the walk. If you are interested in helping e-mail

Forgive not Forget

Mayan Boy in Dugout on Rio Tatin
Mayan Boy in Dugout on Rio Tatin

I usually like Lonely Planet’s take on destinations. I recently stayed at Hacienda Tijax and, however, found their take not the way it was during my visit. As I checked in I saw a French couple fleeing. While the property could be great the staff was not.

The location near the Fronteras, Izabel, is great, its concept perfect, and its delivery poor. In theory you can explore a rubber plantation and canopy walk as well as get jungle info. Best I can say was adequate if you do not need any interaction or assistance.

It is only reached by boat. Some plusses were the bats, crocs and view from the small restaurant /bar area lakeside. A better choice perhaps is Catamaran Island Hotel.  It is pricier but well run with its cabins built over the water and on its own island.

The Grand Izabel

Images of the Bocas del Polochic wildlife reserve are forever etched in my mind. The reserve is one of the few wetlands left in the country. Thank goodness for that. Its creeks, jungles and farm pastures combined with its wildlife are awe-inspiring.

At the confluence of the lake and Rio Dulce is the San Felipe de Lara Castle. The construction of the Spanish Colonial fortress dates from 1595 and was built to protect Spanish ships from pirates.

Today it is a museum that offers good insight to those conquest days. Nearby Quirigua takes you back even farther, to pre-Hispanic Mayan days. This is a relative newcomer on the Mayan Trail.

One of its outstanding virtues is the massive stelaes, or carved stone columns, telling the ancient stories of its past glory. Today the jungle is kept back and its wide-open look is the same as it was centuries ago.

If weary from the day’s exploration a soak in the hot sulfurous springs at Finca Paraiso. ( Paradise farm) Waterfalls run hot and mix with cold running water. This is a working farm so glimpses into local life are intimate.

There are cabañas for rent so it does make a great chill out spot. The Finca is about an hour bus ride from Rio at a cost of around 90 cents. Its cabañas rent at around $25 a night…pure primitive paradise.

Living Mayan Style

Mayan Camp near Finca Paraiso
Mayan Camp near Finca Paraiso

The highlight of my outside the usual Guatemala Caribe carouse was a unique and special place. One where life among the Mayan people is still possible. It is not for casual trendies. It is real and honest and requires dedication.

I have never been so proud to see a signpost stating, “Sponsored by the people of the US Aid,” as I did hiking to Camp Mucbila’I. The camp is a project where you stay in one of three dorm style huts.

They are wonderfully constructed and well equipped with solar lighting and mosquito netting. The simple but ample meals are cooked over a fire and served in a small hut. The hut also has a display about the caves and the ancient Mayans.

Deep in the Caves of Candearia, you step back into a time forgotten. The Mayans’ belief was that life began underground. Caves represented a connection to that world. A guide will take you throughout the labyrinth of rooms. Many still have pottery pieces strewn about.

In the afternoon head with inner tube and flashlight down the river and through another set of caves; the float is amazing. Sun filters down through some limestone holes worn through the emerald green trees. It is a mind-altering moment!

On your hike back to camp you pass through the local village and a lifestyle that dates far back in time. It made a fitting end to a Guatemala that is seldom visited but surely will take its rightful place soon.

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