Moon Guatemala (Moon Handbooks) - Al Argueta (2015)
El Oriente and Izabal
colorful scene from a street in Lívingston.
These two very different geographical regions comprise the part of Guatemala east of Guatemala City all the way to the Honduran border and the Caribbean Sea.
Izabal is a sweltering jungle coastland with rainforests and beaches sharing some similarities with Belize to its north. The region known as El Oriente, meanwhile, is a mix of temperate mountains and semiarid plains. As you head east from Guatemala City on the Carretera al Atlántico (CA-9), the road descends into this region of dusty plains and cactus-studded hills. Farther along, in the department of Izabal, the terrain becomes lush and green before ending at Puerto Barrios, on the Caribbean Sea, just about 300 kilometers from the capital.
The Izabal region features a unique kind of Caribbean experience not at all like Cancún or the West Indies but nonetheless beautiful. Tourism promoters have labeled this, “A different Caribbean.” Cruise ships regularly dock at Puerto Santo Tomás de Castilla, just across the bay from Puerto Barrios. Its new cruise-ship terminal is fast becoming a motor for the tourism development of this long-overlooked Caribbean coastal region. Cruise-ship day-trippers can explore a rainforest and pristine jungle river with waterfalls and pools in the lush green mountains looming over the port. From Puerto Barrios, it’s just a quick hop to the intriguing Caribbean town of Lívingston or the exotic jungle canyon of the Río Dulce.
Lívingston is a standout for its unique Garífuna culture brought to coastal Guatemala from the Caribbean island of St. Vincent by way of Roatán, Honduras. This Black Carib influence provides a fascinating contrast to Guatemala’s largely Mayan heritage with rhythmic dancing and musical customs that complete the Caribbean experience. The Río Dulce canyon connects Lívingston (and the Caribbean Sea) to Lake Izabal, Guatemala’s largest lake. Along the Río Dulce, you’ll find lush jungle canyons, hot springs, and side streams offering unique options for jungle accommodations. In the town of Río Dulce, at the mouth of Lake Izabal, you’ll find a variety of tourist services and boat marinas, as it’s become a popular shelter for boats sailing the Western Caribbean.
Look for S to find recommended sights, activities, dining, and lodging.
S The Ruins of Copán: This wonderful Mayan city just across the border in Honduras is home to some of the finest carved stelae in the Mayan world (click here).
S The Ruins of Quiriguá: Harboring beautifully carved stelae set amid luxuriant banana plantations and jungle, this small Mayan site is one of only three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Guatemala (click here).
S Cerro San Gil and Río Las Escobas: This fantastic rainforest preserve harbors waterfalls and pristine pools—just minutes away from the cruise-ship terminal at Puerto Santo Tomás de Castilla (click here).
S Playa Blanca: My favorite beach on Guatemala’s Caribbean Coast makes a pleasant day trip from Lívingston. Relax on its clean, palm-fringed, white sands and bathe in clear, cool water (click here).
S Río Tatín: This jungle-clad tributary of the larger Río Dulce makes a fine base for enjoying and exploring the area’s tropical terrain (click here).
Back on Highway CA-9 closer to Guatemala City, a branch road heads southeast to El Oriente, partially occupied by Guatemala’s Eastern Highlands. The road continues east to Honduras, where you can visit the incredible ruins of Copán, just 12 kilometers across the border. Along with the nearby Mayan site of Quiriguá (Guatemala), Copán showcases some of the Mayan world’s finest stelae, carved monuments depicting historical events in the life of Mayan dynasties. Copán’s museum is among the finest attractions in the Mayan world, along with its restored temple pyramids, palaces, hieroglyphic stairway, and ball court. The surrounding mountainous countryside is also becoming increasingly popular with travelers exploring coffee farms, a jungle bird park, and hot springs. Radically different from the department of Izabal, Guatemala’s other eastern departments comprising the region of El Oriente are semiarid and populated largely by ladino cowboys. It attracts few international travelers, but if you’re traveling by land to Izabal, you’ll pass through this part of Guatemala. It’s not entirely without its charms.
The overall climate in these parts is warm, even in the Eastern Highlands, which lack the dramatic altitude of their western counterparts. The Motagua Valley is arid, whereas the Izabal region is warm and humid year-round. During the warmest months of April and May, the temperature and humidity can seem unbearable, though coastal regions get a lightly refreshing sea breeze that helps alleviate some of the tropical swelter. Temperatures can hover round 100°F during this time of year. At other times, it hovers somewhere between 85°F and 95°F. Izabal is particularly rainy and sometimes battered by storms or the occasional hurricane.
PLANNING YOUR TIME
Copán can be done in a day or two, while Quiriguá requires only a couple of hours at most. It makes a good stop on the way to Puerto Barrios. There is plenty to see and do on the Caribbean Coast. Puerto Barrios is not the most pleasant town, but there’s no need to stay here as there are now better alternatives for exploring the Cerro San Gil Reserve and Río Las Escobas across Bahía de Amatique in Santo Tomás de Castilla. Puerto Barrios merits an hour or two at best as a transit point to Lívingston or Río Dulce.
A few days in Lívingston will allow you time to explore nearby waterfalls, beaches, and rainforests. From Lívingston, you can also explore the Río Dulce canyon in a few hours while traveling to Río Dulce town, but it’s also possible to stop over midway and spend a night or two at some comfortable lodgings on the Río Tatín tributary. Río Dulce will probably captivate you with its tropical charm and location at the mouth of Lake Izabal. It makes a great place to chill out for a few days before heading north to Petén or before or after some exploring on the coast.
The eastern department of El Progreso is dominated by the presence of the Motagua River Valley, a region of cactus-studded plains lying between the rain-soaked Sierra de las Minas to the north and the Sierra del Espíritu Santo, along the Honduran border to the east. The Carretera al Atlántico passes through much of this terrain. South of here, the low-lying departments of Jalapa and Jutiapa have some green hills and a volcano or two, though they are not of the dramatic, conical kind found in the Western Highlands. East of here, the areas along the Honduran border near Copán have some pretty mountain scenery where coffee is grown.
The department of Izabal is one of Guatemala’s most attractive for those who enjoy coastal environments. There are still large expanses of tropical rainforests, which receive ample rainfall when warm, moist air from the Caribbean Sea rises on mountain slopes. The Montañas del Mico stand as silent sentinels dominating a biological corridor between the Bahía de Amatique and the lazy Río Dulce to the north, which empties into the Caribbean. Guatemala’s Caribbean coastline lacks the aquamarine beaches of Cancún and Belize, but there is at least one white-sand beach worthy of mention near Lívingston. Farther out to sea are the tail end of the Belize Barrier Reef and some easily accessible cayes. Inland, Lake Izabal is a huge body of water harboring some impressive wetlands.
Río Hondo to Zacapa
The town of Río Hondo is an oasis of fun, featuring excellent restaurants, refreshing swimming pools, and even a water park. Many travelers heading between Guatemala City and Puerto Barrios like to break up their journey here. Heading south from the Río Hondo Junction, the road passes through the hot lowland towns of Zacapa and Chiquimula.
RÍO HONDO JUNCTION
The hotels and restaurants lining CA-9 (the road to the Atlantic Coast) at Río Hondo are popular places to stop and eat for travelers heading to or from faraway Puerto Barrios. The dry, warm climate lends itself marvelously to swimming and other water-centered activities.
Accommodations and Food
All of the options listed here are found at Km. 126 and offer comfortable air-conditioned rooms with private bathroom and cable TV. All have swimming pools. Among the options is old standby Hotel Longarone (tel. 7933-0488, www.hotel-longarone.com, $59-81 d). Its large swimming pool has diving boards and a waterslide. Some of the rooms are more dimly lit than others. The restaurant and bar serves international food ($6-20) with excellent service and cleanliness. In addition to a large, attractive palm-trimmed swimming pool, Hotel El Atlantico (tel. 7933-0598, www.hotelatlanticoguate.com, $65 d) boasts lovely gardens, a gym, and children’s play areas.
Valle Dorado Water Park
Another 23 kilometers east from Río Hondo along CA-9 is Valle Dorado Water Park (Km. 149, tel. 7790-2121, www.hotelvalledorado.com, 6am-6pm Tues.-Sun., $7 adults, $5 children), well worth the wait if you can curb your appetite, as there are a variety of food options inside the park and tons of fun stuff for the kids (or the kid in you). The large theme park has a variety of pools and waterslides as well as a very comfortable hotel with room rates starting at $70 (d).
Continuing southeast about six kilometers from Río Hondo along Highway CA-10 (the junction is at Km. 135), the first town you’ll come across is Estanzuela. The terrain here is decidedly dry, resembling parts of Arizona, making for an excellent environment for the preservation of fossils. Sure enough, you can see some dinosaur bones, including the skeleton of a 50,000-year-old mastodon and that of a prehistoric whale at Museo de Paleontología Robert Woolfolk Saravia (tel. 7941-4981, 9am-5pm daily, free). To get here, go through the town and follow the blue signs to the museo.
The next stop along CA-10 is the departmental capital of Zacapa. Its redeeming quality is the award-winning Ron Zacapa Centenario, sold in a festive woven-straw bottle holder. You don’t have to go all the way to Zacapa to pick up a bottle, as it’s available from its own duty-free shop at Guatemala City’s international airport. You can pick up a bottle (or two) before your flight home.
Copán Archaeological Site (Honduras)
The Mayan site of Copán, just 13 kilometers across the border in Honduras, features some of the Mayan world’s greatest artistic treasures, including numerous stelae and a hieroglyphic stairway that is the longest known Mayan inscription. Whereas Tikal has been likened to the Manhattan of Mayan cities for its grand scale and a population once thought to have numbered 100,000, Copán is likened to Paris for the exquisite quality of its artwork, unmatched in the Mayan world. It is thought to have harbored 25,000 inhabitants in its heyday.
Archaeologists are still busy excavating and restoring this site in addition to deciphering the jumbled mess of a hieroglyphic stairway (found tumbled and out of order). In recent years, they have undertaken the ambitious enterprise of digging tunnels beneath existing structures to uncover previous constructions. Among the magnificent finds are the well-preserved Rosalila (Rose-lilac) Temple and the tombs of several of Copán’s rulers. You can see a wonderful reconstruction of the temple in all its Technicolor glory at Copán’s excellent Sculpture Museum, in addition to several of the original finely carved stelae and monuments found in situ.
In addition to the ruins, the nearby town of Copán Ruinas has become increasingly popular as a destination unto itself for its excellent restaurants and accommodations. From here, you can explore the ruins and the surrounding countryside with ease.
CROSSING THE BORDER
The bare-bones border crossing at El Florido (open 6am-6pm) includes some basic services but little else. There are some snack and soda stands and a Banrural which changes dollars and travelers checks. Ubiquitous money changers are also on hand to help you change your quetzales for Honduran lempiras. However, note that many tourist places in Copán take quetzales.
Crossing the border is fairly straightforward. If you’re driving a rental car, you’ll need to present a written letter from your rental-car agency allowing you to take the vehicle into Honduras. Otherwise, you’ll have to leave it at the border. Most Western nationalities, including U.S. citizens, need only a passport to get into Honduras; no visas are required. You can either get a three-day permit to enter and visit Copán and vicinity only or request a 30-day or 90-day entry permit by filling out an official request form. It all depends on your nationality what length of stay you’re allowed. If on a three-day permit, you can still use your original entry stamp into Guatemala upon your return to continue traveling for the rest of your stay in the country. On the Guatemalan side, there is a $1.25 (Q10) exit tax. There is a $3 customs fee on the Honduran side (for entry only).
As this guide was being researched, Guatemala and Honduras were embarking on a process of customs integration similar to agreements Guatemala has with El Salvador. If it’s anything like the latter, border procedures and red tape should be greatly reduced. The new measures were set to take effect on January 1, 2016, but details at writing were still sketchy. Check locally for the latest.
Once in Honduras, there are onward buses from the border to Copán Ruinas every 30 minutes or so ($2). Heading back, the last bus from El Florido to Chiquimula leaves at 4:30pm, but you are exhorted to cross the border much earlier in the day. To call Honduras, the country code is 504. Phone numbers are eight digits long. As in Guatemala, there are no area codes or city codes.
Although the fertile Copán Valley is thought to have been inhabited as early as 1400 BC, archaeological evidence points to its not having been occupied by the Maya until around AD 100. Recorded history at the site does not begin until AD 426 with the establishment of Copán’s royal dynasty. The site’s early history was unearthed as recently as 1989, when excavations under the Hieroglyphic Stairway revealed a chamber subsequently nicknamed the Founder’s Room. The chamber is thought to have been built by Copán’s second ruler, Mat Head (after the odd-looking headdress with which he is depicted on stelae) in honor of his father, Copán’s first ruler, in power AD 426-435. Subsequent kings appear to have revered this king, Yax K’uk’Mo’, and thought him to be semidivine. Archaeological evidence has found that he was indeed a great shaman. The tomb of Yax K’uk’Mo’ was discovered in 1993 under the East Court of the Acropolis, and the findings have yet to be fully revealed.
Little is known about the next several leaders in the dynastic line established by Yax K’uk’Mo’, which ruled Copán throughout the entirety of its Classic Mayan history. It appears this dynasty was consolidating its rule at this time and establishing trade routes within the Mayan world and farther afield to powerful cities such as Teotihuacán. We know some of the names of Copán’s leaders before AD 628: Cu Ix, the fourth king; Waterlily Jaguar, the seventh; Moon Jaguar, the 10th; and Butz’ Chan, the 11th.
The Height of Power
The height of Copán’s power came with the ascension to the throne of Moon Jaguar on May 26, 553. Moon Jaguar is credited with the construction of the Rosalila Temple, found buried beneath Structure 16 in 1993. Ruling AD 628-695 was one of Copán’s greatest kings, Smoke Imix, the city’s 12th ruler, who consolidated Copán into a regional commercial and military power. A stela at the nearby site of Quiriguá bears his name and image, attesting to his probable takeover of the site. A prolific monument builder, Smoke Imix left behind the most inscribed monuments and temples out of all of Copán’s rulers. His successor, 18 Rabbit (AD 695-738), was also a prolific builder and pursued further military conquest. He came to a very unfortunate end, however, being captured and beheaded in a war with Quiriguá by its ruler, Cauac Sky.
one of Copán’s magnificently carved stelae
Next in line was Smoke Monkey (AD 738-749), the 14th ruler of Copán, who built only one temple and erected no self-promoting stelae. The crushing blow suffered against Quiriguá may have resulted in the king’s sharing power with a council composed of the city’s nobility. Smoke Monkey’s successor, Smoke Shell (AD 749-763), commissioned the creation of Copán’s magnificent Hieroglyphic Stairway, containing 2,500 glyphs narrating the city’s glorious past in an attempt to recapture the brilliance of the dynasty’s heyday. By this time, however, it was evident that the city was in decline, a fact attested to by the subpar construction of the monument, which was later found collapsed, its narrative left scattered and out of order like a messy game of Jenga.
Yax Pac (AD 763-820) was Copán’s 16th ruler, who continued along the same lines of beautifying the city. He left behind a fantastic monument known as Altar Q, depicting the city’s 16 kings carved around a four-sided square monument with Copán’s first king, Yax K’uk’Mo’, passing the baton of leadership on to Yax Pac, thus legitimating his rule.
Copán’s 17th and final leader was U Cit Tok’, assuming the throne in AD 822. His only legacy is the unfinished Altar L, of rather lackluster quality. Some believe this to be evidence of a sudden abandonment of Copán rather than a gradual collapse. As elsewhere in the Mayan world, Copán’s collapse is thought to have been at least partially the result of exhausting the local ecosystem’s carrying capacity, with a population thought to have reached 25,000 at its zenith. Agricultural areas were forced from the central part of the valley by urban expansion and the surrounding, less fertile hillsides eventually came under heavy cultivation. Soil erosion, droughts, deforestation, and rainy season flooding became the inevitable result. Though the city’s core was abandoned, the valley was still somewhat heavily populated after this time. Archaeological evidence suggests another drop in population around 1200, after which the settlement patterns reverted to the small villages found by the Spanish in 1524. The ruins were left to be reclaimed by the jungle.
The first known European to lay eyes on the ruined city was Diego García de Palacios, a representative of Spanish King Felipe II living in Guatemala and traveling through the Copán Valley. He described the ruins in a letter written to the king on March 8, 1576, and related that there were only five families living in the valley at the time, knowing nothing of the ruins’ history or the people who built them. A Spanish colonel by the name of Juan Galindo would be the first to map the ruins almost 300 years later. Inspired by Galindo’s report, John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood included a stop in Copán in 1839 during their famous journey to Mayan lands chronicled in Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán, published two years later. Inspired by this book, British archaeologist Alfred P. Maudslay would make his way down to Copán in 1881. He returned four years later to fully map, excavate, photograph, and reconstruct the site off and on until 1902. Other scholars, among them Sylvanus Morley and J. Eric Thompson, would follow on his heels.
In 1975, Harvard’s Peabody Museum continued the investigations it had previously supported through Maudsley. Among its goals was the excavation of temples lying beneath existing structures, a product of the customary manner in which the Mayans built atop existing temples and pyramids. They embarked on a project to tunnel through Copán’s numerous layers of construction and so have a glimpse into the city’s history. Among the fascinating discoveries was the 1989 unearthing of the Rosalila Temple by Honduran archaeologist Ricardo Agurcia. An even earlier temple, Margarita, lies beneath it. Rosalila was found with its vivid ocher paint still visible. You can visit the excavation tunnel nowadays and see a replica of Rosalila in the Sculpture Museum.
Tunneling farther into the East Court, archaeologists came across a glyph panel paying homage to Copán’s original ruler, Yax K’uk’Mo’. His tomb was found buried far below the East Court in 1993 by a team led by Robert Sharer of the University of Pennsylvania. This area remains closed to the public. Teams from Harvard, Tulane, and the University of Pennsylvania continue to work in different areas of the site.
EXPLORING THE PARK
The ruins of Copán lie about 1.5 kilometers from the town of Copán Ruinas, a 20-minute walk along a footpath running parallel to the highway. The visitors center houses the ticket office, where you pay a $15 admission fee for entry to the park (8am-4pm daily), including entry to the neighboring site of Las Sepulturas. Another $15 gets you admission to two underground tunnels where, among other attractions, you can see the Rosalila Temple in its original context. The tunnels are recommended for serious Mayan archaeology buffs, but not so much for the casual visitor. You can also buy your $7 ticket for admission to Copán’s excellent Sculpture Museum which is well worth the price of admission. There’s a small exhibit placing Copán’s importance in the context of the larger Mayan world at the visitors center.
A carved head lies among the ruins of Copán.
Also at the visitors center are registered guides for hire, costing about $40 for a two-hour tour. There are English-speaking guides, though their skill levels vary, so be sure to assess their mastery of the English language before sealing the deal. Across the parking lot in front of the visitors center is a small eatery serving drinks and basic meals. There’s also a small gift shop.
It’s a few hundred meters’ walk from the visitors center to the ticket checkpoint where you enter the ruins. A short nature trail winding its way through the surrounding forest diverts from the main path just before this checkpoint. A few semidomesticated scarlet macaws sometimes hang out in this area. Try to visit the site right at opening time, as the crowds tend to get larger as the day goes on, especially on weekends. You’ll also have better-angled light for photography.
S THE RUINS OF COPÁN
Enthusiasts of Mayan archaeology will find some of the best hieroglyphic carvings in the whole of the Mayan world along with well-restored structures, including palaces, temple pyramids, and a ball court. The Hieroglyphic Stairway alone is worth the price of admission, not to mention the chance to see the buried section of temple pyramids from tunnels (Rosalila and Los Jaguares) originally used by archaeologists excavating the ruins.
The first place you’ll come to as you walk along the forest path from the main entrance to the park is the Great Plaza. You’ll see a variety of stelae in a spacious grassy area, which was once paved. Traces of red paint (created by mixing mercury sulfate and tree resins) can still be seen on Stela C, which dates to AD 730. Most of the stelae date to the rule of Smoke Imix (AD 628-695) and 18 Rabbit (AD 695-738). The latter ruler is depicted on Stelae 1, 2, 3, 10, 12, 13, and 19. The plaza’s standout is Stela A (AD 731). Among its 52 glyphs are the emblem glyphs of Palenque, Tikal, Calakmul, and Copán, establishing Copán’s position as one of the great cities of the Mayan world. As with many other important monuments, the original now resides in the Sculpture Museum. Another beautifully carved monument is Stela H, depicting what looks to be a woman wearing a skirt with a leopard skin underneath, wrists weighed down with jewelry, and an intricate headdress. This may be an image of 18 Rabbit’s wife.
Copán’s ball court is south of the Great Plaza after you cross what is known as the Central Plaza (Plaza Central). Completed in AD 738, it was the third ball court to have been erected at the site. There are three elaborate macaw heads on each side. It is one of the most often-photographed buildings in Copán.
Farther south from the Great Plaza is the Hieroglyphic Stairway, which rises up the southeast corner of the plaza up the side of the neighboring Acropolis. The impressive structure, now covered with a roof for protection from the elements, contains 2,500 glyphs on its 72 steps and is the longest known hieroglyphic inscription found anywhere in the Mayan world. Commissioned in AD 753 by Smoke Shell, its substandard construction was evident in that it collapsed and was found by archaeologists as a jumbled mess, which they reassembled in 1940. Only about 15 steps, primarily on the bottom section, are thought to be in the correct order. Archaeologists are working on getting the correct order and deciphering the long message encoded on the steps. Its construction came at a time when Copán’s rulers were attempting to once again instill confidence in their city’s power and glorious history after the gruesome death of 18 Rabbit at the hands of neighboring Quiriguá.
At the base of the Hieroglyphic Stairway is Stela M (AD 756), with a figure presumed to be Smoke Shell dressed in a feathered cloak along with glyphs telling of a solar eclipse in that year. An altar in front depicts a feathered serpent with a human head emanating from its jaws.
A tomb thought to belong to a royal scribe and possibly one of the sons of Smoke Imix was discovered underneath the Hieroglyphic Stairway in 1989. It was laden with painted pottery and well-carved jade objects. Digging ever deeper below the stairway, in 1993 archaeologists uncovered an earlier temple called Papagayo, erected by Mat Head. Farther below was a chamber dedicated to Yax K’uk’Mo’, the city’s original king. Archaeologists called it the Founder’s Room and believe it was used as a place of reverence for the shaman king believed by subsequent kings to have been semidivine.
Copán’s dominating architectural feature is the massive Acropolis, which rises about 30 meters above the ground south of the Great Plaza. It is here that some of the more interesting archaeological finds have been unearthed in recent years by digging tunnels under existing structures to reveal what was originally beneath them.
South of the Hieroglyphic Stairway is a flight of steps running along the Temple of the Inscriptions. Walls atop the stairway are carved with various glyphs. Toward the top of the Hieroglyphic Stairway is a temple curiously adorned with engravings resembling woven mats and appropriately named the Mat House, also known as Structure 22A. It was built in AD 746 by Smoke Monkey shortly after the death of his predecessor, 18 Rabbit, and provides further evidence of the new power-sharing arrangement with the city’s nobility after the shocking defeat at the hands of Quiriguá. It was thought to have operated as a council house, the mats being a symbol for authority and community. South of here is the East Court, the city’s original plaza, underneath which were found the tombs of Yax K’uk’Mo’ and his wife. It is also known as the “Patio de los Jaguares.” Also buried in the East Court, below Structure 18, was Yax Pac, though it was unfortunately discovered and looted long before the arrival of archaeologists.
Between the East Court and nearby West Court lies Structure 16, which was dedicated to the themes of death, war, and veneration of past rulers. The well-preserved Rosalila Temple was found buried here in 1989.
In the West Court at the base of Structure 16 is a replica of the magnificently carved square monument known as Altar Q, depicting Yax Pac receiving the baton of rulership from Yax K’uk’Mo’ himself. The altar is adorned with four kings on each side, giving us a complete line of succession for Copán’s ruling dynasty of 16 kings from Yax K’uk’Mo’ to Yax Pac, who commissioned its carving in AD 776. It was once thought to have portrayed a gathering of astronomers, but recent advances in glyph decipherment have shed light on its true meaning. The original can be seen in the Sculpture Museum. Behind the altar is a sacrificial vault, which contained the remains of 15 jaguars and several macaws sacrificed in honor of Yax Pac and his royal lineage.
Túnel Rosalila and Túnel de los Jaguares
Opened in 1999 to much fanfare, the original excavation tunnels used by archaeologists to discover the hidden gems of Copán are available for visitors to explore. The first of these, Túnel Rosalila, brings you to the Rosalila Temple found buried under Structure 16, still with some of its original brilliant hues. Only about 25 meters of the tunnel are open to visitors. Sheltered behind windows to protect it from the elements and human touch, you’ll find small patches of the temple peeking out from underneath the outer layers of newer structures. Considered by some to be the best-preserved stucco structure in the Mayan world, the carvings are surprisingly crisp. To fully appreciate the scale, magnificence, and brilliant hue of this temple, you’ll have to go to the Sculpture Museum, where it dominates the edifice and is beautifully lit from above by opaque sunlight.
The second tunnel, Túnel de los Jaguares, brings you to the Tumba Galindo beneath Structure 17 in the southern part of the East Plaza. About 95 meters of this tunnel, fully comprising 700 meters, are open to visitors. It is somewhat less dramatic than the Rosalila Tunnel, comprising burial tombs and niches for offerings, though there is also a nice macaw mask to be seen. The tomb’s discovery dates to 1834.
At $15, admission to the tunnels is a bit on the pricey side and is recommended for serious enthusiasts of archaeology but less so for the casual visitor.
This smaller residential complex is connected to the main group by a sacbe, or elevated causeway, running through the forest. This path is closed to visitors, and so you must exit the archaeological site and head up the main road for two kilometers toward San Pedro Sula. You’ll see a sign on the right (bring your admission ticket, as you’ll need it to get in).
Las Sepulturas was ignored by archaeologists earlier in Copán’s history but recent work here has revealed some information about the daily lives of the city’s ancient inhabitants. Meaning “the tombs,” the complex was named by local farmers who uncovered the remains of long-departed Mayan nobles who had been buried here.
This area is not of much interest to the casual visitor, though you might like walking along the quiet forest trails. Little remains of the original structures. An exception is the Hieroglyphic Wall found on Structure 83, comprising a group of 16 glyphs telling about events in the rule of Yax Pac and dating to AD 786. This site contains the remains of the Palacio de los Bacabs (Palace of the Officials), which is thought to have once housed 250 nobles. Only 18 of about 40 residential compounds have been excavated. In Las Sepulturas’s Plaza A, archaeologists uncovered the tomb of a shaman from about AD 450, which can be seen in the town’s Museo Regional de Arqueología. Traces of human settlement have been found here dating to 1000 BC, long before the Copán dynasty’s rise to power.
An outlying part of Copán even farther away is Los Sapos, in the hills opposite the main site. A rock outcrop carved in the form of a frog gives it its name, though the years have worn it down considerably. An even more badly degraded carving is thought to depict a woman with her legs spread and possibly giving birth. The site is believed to have been a birthing center. The hillside setting overlooking the valley is more dramatic than the carvings, which are set on the grounds of the fabulous Hacienda San Lucas. The property harbors a fantastic upscale farmhouse lodge, and the owner has built a network of trails through the farm leading to the site. Admission is $2. If you’re worn out from the walk, stop in for a drink or lunch at the friendly hacienda or, better yet, spend the night.
THE SCULPTURE MUSEUM
Copán’s on-site Sculpture Museum (8am-3:45pm daily, $7) is surely the best museum of its kind in the Mayan world. Other sites would do well to follow its lead for the sheer variety of original monuments well presented in a spacious and airy environment. Dominating the large, two-story building is a full-scale replica of the outrageously colorful Rosalila Temple, decorated in hues of red, green, and yellow, and offering the visitor a rare opportunity to admire the full grandeur of what the ancient Mayan temples may have looked like during the fullness of the civilization’s splendor.
Copán’s wonderful Sculpture Museum
Entrance to the museum is via the mouth of a serpent. Winding through a dark cavelike tunnel, you are greeted at once as you emerge from the darkness by the arresting view of the Rosalila Temple lit from above by a giant opaque skylight. On the first floor are various sculptures of skulls, bats, and assorted images of death and violence. Also found here is the splendidly carved Altar Q, showing Yax Pac receiving the ceremonial ruler’s baton from the highly revered first king of the Copán dynasty Yax K’uk’Mo’. The second floor contains original building facades, stelae, and other carved monuments. A reconstruction of Structure 22A, with its curious woven mat facade, should be open by the time you read this.
Copán Ruinas Town (Honduras)
Set amid the lush hills of the Río Copán Valley, this pleasant town of cobblestone streets serves as the perfect gateway for exploring the nearby archaeological site and some natural attractions, which include hot springs, a bird park, and coffee farms. The range of accommodations and places to eat here is excellent.
The Copán Valley is also the site of tobacco plantations, some of which supply the well-known Flor de Copán factory in Santa Rosa de Copán, east of here. The hillsides surrounding the Copán Valley grow good-quality coffee and cardamom. If you’re visiting the ruins of Copán, try to spend at least one night in Copán Ruinas.
As elsewhere in Central America, the town is built around its parque central, recently remodeled in questionable pseudo-Mayan architectural style, but with a pretty colonial church. Museo Casa K’inich (up the hill north of town in the old fort, 8am-noon and 1pm-5pm Mon.-Sat., adults $1) is an interactive children’s museum on Mayan subjects such as music and the Mayan number system. Few museums in the Mayan world live up to Copán’s on-site museum, though the Museo Regional de Arqueología (tel. 651-4437, 8am-noon and 1pm-4pm daily, $3), on the southwest corner of the plaza, is worth a look. There are exhibits of carved jade, painted pottery, and figurines. The museum’s highlight is the Tumba del Brujo, the tomb of a Mayan shaman said to have died around AD 700 and found buried under the Plaza de los Jaguares.
The town hall is the site of a wonderful photographic exhibit, titled “Fragile Memories,” gleaned from a series of 19th-century glass plate negatives belonging to the Peabody Museum archives. The photos show the early days of Copán’s excavation and restoration and provide new insights into Copán’s history. The exhibit is open during normal business hours. Ask to see the exhibit (usually locked) at the information center.
A popular watering hole is Twisted Tanya’s (tel. 2651-4182, www.twistedtanyas.com), with its happy hour 4pm-6pm. A popular after-dark option is Café Via Via (tel. 2651-4652), where you’ll find plenty of fellow travelers.
For weekend movies, head to Hacienda El Jaral (tel. 2656-7091), a few kilometers outside of town on the road to San Pedro Sula. You’ll see signs around town with current shows and schedules.
Locally owned Yaragua Tours (inside Hotel Yaragua, tel. 2651-4147, www.yaragua.com), under the same ownership of its namesake hotel, offers a variety of active tours, including caving, visits to hot springs, horseback riding, river tubing, waterfall hikes, and coffee farm visits at prices ranging $15-45 per person with a two-person minimum. Another option is Basecamp Outdoor Adventures (tel. 2651-4695, www.basecamphonduras.com), which is under the same management as the Via Via across the street and offers a variety of alternative recreational options, including 2- to 6-hour hikes in and around the hills surrounding Copán Ruinas, motorcycle riding, and three- or five-hour horseback rides. It also runs daily shuttle buses to Antigua ($12) and Río Dulce ($20) with a 40-minute stop in Quiriguá along the way to the latter.
You’ll have to walk a few blocks southwest of the plaza to find the S Iguana Azul (tel. 2651-4620, www.iguanaazulcopan.com, $8 dorm bed, $18 d in private room), but it will be well worth it. There are excellent-value dorm beds and private rooms sharing a hot-water bathroom. The same Honduran American owners run the beautiful La Casa de Café next door. Another decent budget option is Hotel Via Via (tel. 2651-4652, www.viaviacafe.com/en/copan, $16 d), two blocks southwest of the park. Housed in the café and traveler hot spot of the same name, the hotel has spotless rooms with private hot-water baths and fans. There’s a thatched-roof lounge on the second floor where movies are shown amid tropical foliage.
A block south of the park, Hotel Popol-Nah (tel. 2651-4095, $25-45) is a comfortable and modern 12-room hotel that has double rooms with fans and cable TV for $25 or double upstairs rooms with balcony views and air-conditioning for $45. All rooms have good mattresses and private hot-water bathrooms.
My favorite of the boutique hotels in Copán is S Terramaya (2.5 blocks north of the park, tel. 2651-4623, www.terramayacopan.com, $90-110 d). It’s stylish and contemporary, with a beautiful outdoor patio and tables to enjoy the free breakfast and excellent coffee. A lovely garden overlooks a wonderful view of the Copán Valley. There are six rooms, all beautifully decorated. Rooms on the ground floor are slightly noisier on account of their fronting a busy street. The four upstairs rooms feature high ceilings that make the rooms feel even more spacious. They also have ceiling fans, air-conditioning, cable TV, and DVD player. All rooms have private patios or balconies; the two most expensive rooms have balconies overlooking the rear of the property and the best view.
The enchanting La Casa de Café (tel. 2651-4620, www.casadecafecopan.com, $58 d, breakfast included) is Copán Ruinas’s premiere bed-and-breakfast inn, set in a quiet neighborhood a few blocks southwest of the plaza. The rooms are well furnished and tastefully decorated. You can enjoy fantastic views of the Copán Valley and Guatemala, farther west, from your patio hammock in a wonderful garden setting. The friendly Honduran American owners also rent out fully furnished private villas across the street, including the Casa Jaguar (www.casajaguarcopan.com, $90 per night) and Casa de Don Santiago (www.casadedonsantiagocopan.com, $110 per night).
Lovely Yat B’alam Boutique Hotel (tel. 2651-4338, www.yatbalam.com, $75 d) is housed on the second floor of a small shopping complex. The ground floor features a coffee shop and handicrafts store. Rooms are on the second floor, some with pleasant street views, and feature nice extras like DVD players, minifridges, and high ceilings in addition to ceiling fans, air-conditioning, cable TV, and plenty of hot water. There’s also a nice little sitting area fronting the street from the second floor. Decorative knickknacks give it that boutique hotel feel. The town’s fanciest accommodations are found at Hotel Marina Copán (tel. 2651-4070/71, 877/893-9131 toll-free U.S., www.hotelmarinacopan.com, $95-150 d, including breakfast), built in the old family home of Doña Marina Welchez about 65 years ago. There are standard rooms and suites; all rooms have cable TV, ceiling fans, air-conditioning, and telephones. Amenities include a sauna, gym, swimming pool, bar, and the excellent Glifo’s restaurant. S Hotel Don Udo’s (tel. 2651-4533, www.donudos.com, $40-80 d) scores major points for atmosphere with comfortable tiled-floor rooms tastefully decorated with Guatemalan furnishings and accents centered around a delightful garden courtyard. There are rooms with or without air-conditioning and TV; all have fans and private hot-water baths. Some bathrooms have a tub. There’s a lobby lounge where you can watch DVDs. Alternatively, you can relax in a sauna or the whirlpool tub. There’s also a decent restaurant.
Outside of Town
On the outskirts of Copán Ruinas are a variety of excellent lodging options. You may hear about S Hacienda San Lucas (tel. 2651-4495, www.haciendasanlucas.com, $100 d) even before your arrival in town, as it has a well-earned reputation for excellent service. The beautiful accommodations are set on a renovated 100-year-old hacienda oozing with atmosphere, the brainchild of Honduran Flavia Cueva. The lodge’s eight rooms, spread about the beautifully landscaped grounds, manage to be comfortable and yet stylishly rustic at the same time, with adobe walls, wooden furniture, and Guatemalan fabrics. At night, candles provide additional atmosphere. Enjoy a drink and watch the sunset over the Copán Valley before settling down to a delicious five-course dinner ($35) served in a gorgeous garden patio.
Hacienda San Lucas overlooks the Copán Valley.
Cafés and Light Meals
Avoid drinking beverages with ice cubes while in Copán’s restaurants, as they seem to be of dubious origin.
S Café San Rafael (Avenida Centroamerica, across from Carnitas Nia Lola, www.cafesanrafael.com, tel. 2651-4546, 7:30am-8pm daily, $5-15) is more a delicatessen than a simple café, with a fine selection of artisanal cheeses, coffee from the family farm (they roast their own), and tasty food you can wash down with beer and wine. It enjoys a pleasant garden setting with nice mountain views. La Casa de Todo (tel. 2651-4185, www.casadetodo.com, 7am-9pm daily, $4-10) serves delicious snacks all day, including tasty baleadas, flour tortillas filled with beans and cheese, or scrumptious homemade yogurt with granola and fruit. The breakfasts here are excellent with good, potent coffee. Enjoy your meal in the sunny garden courtyard. Right on the plaza next to the Hotel Marina Copán, Café Welchez (7am-9pm daily) serves up espresso drinks and delicious cakes, pastries, and assorted other baked goods.
Jim’s Pizza (tel. 2651-4381, 11am-9pm daily), a block south of the plaza, makes tasty pizzas ($6-10) and pasta.
Popular with locals is Restaurant Llama del Bosque (tel. 2651-4431, 6am-10pm), across from the Via Via, where the varied menu includes steak and seafood entrées for around $7. Go here for traditional breakfasts of eggs and beans or fondue cooked in a clay pot with beans and sausage ($5).
There are a variety of good choices for international fare. S Twisted Tanya’s (tel. 2651-4182, www.twistedtanyas.com, 3pm-10pm Mon.-Sat.) manages to be classy yet casual in a pleasant, second-story balcony setting overlooking the street. For $20, you get a soup or salad starter, main course, and dessert. Typical dishes include such creations as curry shrimp, Chinese dumplings with wasabi, fish fillet with sautéed vegetables, and seafood pasta with crab. The desserts are equally creative and appetizing. It’s a block west and then half a block south of the plaza. Stop in for happy hour 4pm-6pm.
Café Via Via (tel. 2651-4652, 7am-midnight daily) is a popular watering hole with travelers that doubles as a hip and trendy café. You can substitute vegetarian options for many of its dishes, including veggie burgers ($6). It also makes a good stab at Thai curry ($8). There are tables overlooking the street where you can enjoy the wonderful organically grown coffee.
One of the finest restaurants in town can be found inside the Hotel Marina Copán. S Glifo’s (tel. 2651-4070, www.hotelmarinacopan.com, 6:30am-9:30pm daily, $8-16) serves a variety of international dishes with a distinctly Mayan slant in a pleasing blue and yellow dining room. For a local treat, try the Pollo al Loroco, cooked in a savory sauce of pungent edible flowers. The house specialty is Glifo’s Traditional Chicken, cooked in a sauce of roasted, ground sesame and squash seeds flavorfully seasoned with Mayan herbs. International dishes include curry chicken, steak in mushroom wine sauce, and tarragon fish. Don Udo’s (tel. 2651-4533, www.donudos.com, $6-13) has a stylish restaurant to accompany the hotel’s tasteful atmosphere. Among the excellent dishes are steak and seafood dishes, homemade pastas, and Mayan cuisine. Outside of town, the delightful restaurant at S Hacienda San Lucas (tel. 2651-4106, www.haciendasanlucas.com) is the perfect place to catch the sunset from a perch overlooking the Copán Valley before digging into a scrumptious five-course dinner ($35). Much of the produce used in preparing the meals comes right from the farm. Typical dishes include cream of corn soup, tamales, chicken in adobo sauce, and flan for dessert. Reservations are required for dinner, though you can drop in for breakfast or lunch anytime. Even if you’re not staying here, you should aim to eat at least one meal (preferably dinner) at Hacienda San Lucas during your visit to Copán. It’s that good.
INFORMATION AND SERVICES
Copán Ruinas’s tourist office (tel. 2651-4394, 8am-7pm daily) is just east of the plaza on the same street as La Casa de Todo.
The post office (8am-noon and 1pm-5pm Mon.-Fri., 8am-noon Sat.) is half a block west of the plaza.
For Internet, the most popular spot is Maya Connections (tel. 2651-4077, 8am-8pm daily, $1.75 for one hour) at La Casa de Todo a block east of the park and near Jim’s Pizza a block south of the park. Another option is Copán Net (one block south and one block west of the park, tel. 2651-4460, 9am-9pm), where a lightning-fast connection costs $1.50 an hour.
For phone calls, Hondutel (7am-9pm Mon.-Fri., 7am-noon and 2pm-5pm weekends) can be found just south of the square but you can also make phone calls from the Internet hotspots.
On the south side of the park, Banco Atlántida and BAC both have Visa ATMs and cash travelers checks, dollars, and quetzales. Banco de Occidente, on the park’s northeast corner, exchanges dollars and quetzales as well as cashing travelers checks and issuing cash advances on Visa cards. Many hotels and restaurants accept Guatemalan quetzales as payment.
For laundry, head to Casa de Todo (tel. 2651-4185, www.casadetodo.com), where a load costs about $1.
Spanish instruction is slightly more expensive here than in Guatemala, with two schools to choose from. Ixbalanque Spanish School (tel. 2651-4432, www.ixbalanque.com) offers five days of one-on-one instruction for $125 or $185 including homestay with a local family. The other option is Guacamaya Spanish Academy (tel. 2651-4360, www.guacamaya.com), where a week’s worth of instruction costs $130 alone or $200 including room and board with a local family.
Minibuses to the El Florido border leave town from the corner next to the market about every half hour for the 20-minute, 12-kilometer trip. There are hourly onward buses from there to Chiquimula, taking about an hour. A much more comfortable and increasingly popular option is to book a shuttle bus. Hedman Alas (tel. 2651-4037, www.hedmanalas.com) operates twice daily direct first-class bus service to Guatemala City ($35, four hours) and Antigua ($41, five hours) from its terminal on the road south of town heading toward the river. There are also onward buses to Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula. Shuttle buses to Guatemala City ($20), La Antigua ($20), and further into Honduras can be booked from Café Via Via (tel. 2651-4652).
If driving a rental car to Copán from Guatemala, be aware that you’ll need written permission from your car-rental agency.
In March of 2015 authorities inaugurated Copán’s new airport, located 18 miles along the road to San Pedro Sula. Although scheduled service has not yet been announced, flights will probably begin to arrive from Tegucigalpa and Roatán, Honduras, in the near future. It’s entirely possible to see direct service from Guatemala City (GUA) and Flores/Tikal (FRS) further down the line.
NEAR COPÁN RUINAS
Macaw Mountain Bird Park
A few kilometers outside of town in the surrounding hillsides, Macaw Mountain Bird Park (tel. 2651-4245, www.macawmountain.org, 9am-5pm daily, $10 pp) has a phenomenal collection of birds, including macaws, parrots, and toucans, housed mostly in large cages found alongside a trail with wooden walkways winding through the park’s splendidly sylvan riverside setting. In one area, you can interact freely with domesticated birds outside of their cages. There’s a restaurant at the main entrance serving mostly meat and seafood dishes ($5-8) as well as a café along the trail. There’s also a gift shop.
Luna Jaguar Hot Springs
About 22 kilometers from town along this same road are a series of pleasant hot springs known as Luna Jaguar Hot Springs ($3), where you can soak in a synthetic pool or take a series of trails to several hot springs that get cooler as you go downhill. A nice mix of cool river water blends with boiling hot water from the springs to make the water perfect for a soak. The jungle setting is also very relaxing. It’s not quite as nice as Costa Rica’s Tabacón hot springs, but it’s certainly worth a visit. You can catch a pickup here from town, but a better way to get here is to combine a visit to the springs with a trip out to Finca El Cisne, preferably overnight, when you can use the springs after they have closed to other visitors.
Finca El Cisne
Farther along this same road and a 45-minute drive from Copán Ruinas is Finca El Cisne (www.fincaelcisne.com), a century-old, 1,000-hectare coffee farm where you can ride horseback, tour the coffee and cardamom plantations, and bathe in warm jungle hot springs. Cowboy Carlos Castejón, whose family owns the farm, leads most trips and speaks good English. He can show you around the farm and show you everything you ever wanted to know about coffee cultivation. The farm also produces breadfruit, beans, avocados, corn, plantains, and oranges, among other crops. Riding on horseback through the extensive plantation affords the opportunity to really appreciate the surrounding countryside.
horseback riding at Finca El Cisne
Day trips (leaving at 8am and returning at 6pm, $82) include horseback riding, visits to the cardamom and coffee fields, a home-cooked lunch, and a visit to the nearby hot springs. You can also stay overnight in a cozy solar-powered cabin with all of the above plus breakfast and dinner for $95. The booking and information office is inside the Via Via in a shared office with Basecamp Outdoor Adventures (tel. 2651-4695, www.basecamphonduras.com, 8am-noon and 4pm-8pm Mon.-Sat.).
Quiriguá to Puerto Barrios
Quiriguá, a Mayan site that once rivaled Copán (in present-day Honduras) as the regional center of power, is still home to the region’s tallest stelae. It makes a good excursion on the way to Puerto Barrios when traveling along CA-9.
Set amid banana plantations, the Mayan site of Quiriguá is smaller but somewhat similar to Copán, particularly in regard to its inhabitants’ skill and propensity in the carving of stelae. It’s just 50 kilometers from Copán as the macaw flies, back on the Guatemalan side, though getting here from Copán is a bit more complicated than it looks on a map because the roads are structured so as to make you loop west, north, and then finally east on the highway leading to the Caribbean Coast (CA-9). Coming from Guatemala City, it’s just a few kilometers down a dirt road turnoff from the main highway (CA-9), making it a worthy side trip along the road to Puerto Barrios or Río Dulce. Restoration of the site was conducted by the University of Pennsylvania in the 1930s, and in 1981 Quiriguá was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The only other sites of this kind in Guatemala are Tikal and Antigua. It boasts the tallest known Mayan stela.
Quiriguá’s history largely mirrors that of Copán, of which it was a vassal state for much of its history. In AD 653, for example, Copán’s very own king Smoke Jaguar erected Altar L in Quiriguá’s Great Plaza in his own honor after installing the city’s new ruler. Quiriguá’s stelae were carved with help from Copán’s artisans using beds of brown sandstone brought from the nearby Río Motagua. The sandstone was soft when first cut, allowing the artisans to create the excellent-quality carvings, which hardened through time and can still be seen today.
Quiriguá’s subservient status changed dramatically under the leadership of its king Cauac Sky with the capture and subsequent beheading of Copán’s ruler 18 Rabbit in AD 737, an event which would mark the beginning of Copán’s gradual downward slide. Cauac Sky quickly embarked on his own plan to expand the greatness of Quiriguá, carving most of the stelae in evidence there today. He can be seen on Stelae A, C, D, E, F, H, and J. Cauac Sky was succeeded by his son, Sky Xul (784-800), who lost his throne to Jade Sky, Quiriguá’s last great king, who embarked on his own grand-scale reconstruction of the city’s Acropolis. Quiriguá managed to remain independent of Copán for the remainder of its history until its own silent and mysterious demise in the middle of the 9th century.
Like Copán, Quiriguá captured the attention and fascination of John L. Stephens, who compared it to “the rock-built city of Edom, unvisited, unsought and utterly unknown.” Stephens even attempted to buy the site in 1840 and cart it off to New York City via the Río Motagua and out to sea. Assuming that Stephens was negotiating on behalf of the U.S. government, the landowner quoted an exorbitant price and the deal was never made. The noted archaeologist Alfred Maudsley followed up with his own visit and excavations between 1881 and 1894, making some fine illustrations of the site’s stelae and zoomorphic rock figures. In the early 1900s, the site and surrounding lands became the property of the United Fruit Company, which preserved the ruins and the area in its vicinity. The rest of the land was converted to banana plantations, miles and miles of them.
S The Ruins of Quiriguá
What is left of Quiriguá is limited to its ceremonial center. As you enter the park from the main entrance, you’ll see the Acropolis straight ahead and the various stelae and zoomorphs (stone sculptures depicting animals and hybrid human-animal forms) in the Great Plaza to your left. The stelae are housed under thatched-roof structures to protect them from further deterioration from the elements. It can be somewhat difficult to view the carvings and even more difficult to get a good photograph. The most impressive is Stela E, standing almost 11 meters high, making it the tallest known Mayan stela. Noteworthy features in the carvings include their bearded subjects with elaborate headdresses, the staffs of authority clutched in their hands, and glyphs running up and down the monuments’ sides. The various zoomorphs can also be seen here, depicting turtles, jaguars, frogs, and serpents. Near the Acropolis, Altar P depicts a figure seated in a strange, Buddhalike pose. The Acropolis itself is rather unimpressive, failing to rise in height above the treetops of the surrounding jungle, though it is somewhat spread out. There’s a small ball court on its western side.
one of the carvings at the ruins of Quiriguá
The park is open 7:30am-5pm daily. Admission is $4. There’s a small museum housing displays on the site’s significance in relation to Mayan history and geopolitics along with a model showing the extent of the site’s boundaries and unexcavated sections.
The site lies four kilometers from the main road with frequent transport heading up and down thanks to the activities of the nearby banana plantations. At the entrance to the site are a ticket office, the museum, and a few simple soda stands as well as some folks selling coconuts. The turnoff to the park from the main road (CA-9) is between Km. 204 and Km. 205, about 70 kilometers northeast of the Río Hondo Junction. Any bus heading along CA-9 can drop you off at the junction to the road leading to the park.
JARDÍN BOTÁNICO Y RESTAURANTE ECOLÓGICO EL HIBISCUS
Near Puerto Barrios, at Km. 284 of CA-9, is the Jardín Botánico y Restaurante Ecológico El Hibiscus (tel. 5294-0397 or 5514-9525, 6am-5:30pm Mon.-Sat.), a pleasant restaurant tastefully furnished with tropical wicker furniture and Mayan textiles that serves excellent breakfasts ($3-4), seafood, steaks, sandwiches, salads, and Guatemalan dishes. A tasty caldo de gallina criolla (chicken soup) is served on Saturdays. You can enjoy your meal in a pleasant wooden dining room or outside on one of two patios. Visitors can also enjoy a stroll through the botanical gardens housing a wide variety of flowers and tropical plants. It makes a pleasant stop on the way to Puerto Barrios or a good place to eat outside of town if you’re staying there. The restaurant also serves as an information center for the Cerro San Gil and Punta de Manabique protected areas.
Puerto Barrios and Vicinity
This hot, humid port city holds little of interest for travelers except as a jumping-off point to surrounding attractions such as Lívingston and resorts across the Bahía de Amatique. It was once Guatemala’s main Caribbean shipping port but has been replaced by Puerto Santo Tomás de Castilla across the bay. It may be one of the main beneficiaries of a new $7 billion “dry canal” due to begin construction in 2012 but which still hasn’t taken off. The project is a joint venture between the public and private sectors and encompasses the construction of two new ports, a railroad, a four-lane highway, and a gas pipeline that will supposedly someday link Guatemala’s Caribbean and Pacific Coasts.
Construction of the port that now bears his name was initiated by reformist president Justo Rufino Barrios in the 1880s and was linked to Guatemala City via a railroad completed in 1908. Puerto Barrios was important during the long-past glory days of the United Fruit Company. The company financed much of the railroad’s completion and linked its banana plantations to Puerto Barrios, which served as the company-controlled shipping center for produce bound for New Orleans and New York. United Fruit was sold to Del Monte in the 1970s, and Puerto Barrios sank into a tropical slumber.
Many of the ultra-low-budget accommodations in this town are used for prostitution, which is rampant in this sweltering coastal town, so backpackers beware. For Caribbean atmosphere and antique charm, you can’t beat the 100-year-old Hotel del Norte (7a Calle and 1a Avenida, tel. 7948-2116, $25-35 d). Its quaint, crooked wooden floors evoke another time and have a certain dilapidated charm. Double-occupancy rooms in the original building cost $25 and have cold water, fans, and fluorescent lighting. Newer double rooms in a separate building cost $35 and have hot water, ceiling fans, warmer tungsten lighting, air-conditioning, and hot water. The restaurant, housed in a pleasant open-air thatched-roof building overlooking the hotel pool and sea, serves seafood, grilled meats, pasta, and other international dishes for $5-10.
On the outskirts of town are some pricier options that are conveniently near the main highway should you not want to stay in the heart of town. Hotel Marbrissa (25 Calle y 20 Avenida, Colonia Virginia, tel. 7948-1450, www.marbrissa.com, $85-140 d) has comfortable rooms centered around the hotel’s large swimming pool with all the amenities you would expect in this price range, including air-conditioning and minifridge. There are also larger suites with kitchenettes and living and dining rooms. The open-air palapa-style restaurant here is one of the nicest in town for its tranquil atmosphere overlooking the swimming pool.
Outside of town just past the airstrip on tropical grounds bordering the sea is the sprawling S Amatique Bay Resort and Marina (tel. 7931-0000, www.amatiquebay.net, $120-250 per room), where comfortable accommodations are housed in neocolonial villas. There are standard rooms and larger suites with full kitchens; the largest of these have additional sofa beds and a living room. All have air-conditioning and the usual amenities. There’s an artificially constructed white-sand beach on the tranquil waters of the Bahía de Amatique and a swimming pool complete with a Spanish galleon, though at last visit the tile looked like it needed some work. Three restaurants keep vacationers happy, including one that’s right beside the swimming pool, serving lighter fare and sandwiches. The other two are more formal and serve a variety of international dishes. All in all, this complex is a self-contained leisure city built in colonial style somewhat resembling a seaside version of Antigua, complete with a whitewashed church. It is a popular day trip amongst cruise-ship passengers docking at nearby Puerto Santo Tomás de Castilla. Activities include a zipline with multiple platforms, kayaking, and horseback riding. The hotel is affiliated with Interval International.
Amatique Bay Resort and Marina
Local dishes include tapado, a seafood stew made from prawns, fish, and shellfish, seasoned with plantains, yucca, and coriander, and cooked in coconut milk. Tortillas de harina are flour tortillas stuffed with cheese, or anything else for that matter.
As for restaurants, S Safari (5a Avenida and 1a Calle, tel. 7948-0563, 10am-9pm, $4-10) is popular with locals for its large portions of excellent seafood dishes served in style on an open air, thatched-roofed platform over the sea. It also does excellent chicken and meat dishes. The best steakhouse in town is the Rincón Uruguayo (7a Avenida and 16 Calle, closed Mon.), serving excellent parrilladas (grilled meats South American-style), papas asadas, and cebollines (grilled spring onions). If you’re staying at the Hotel Marbrissa (25 Calle y 20 Avenida, Colonia Virginia, tel. 7948-1450, www.marbrissa.com) or nearby, try its excellent restaurant and bar set on the second floor of a large palapa-style building above the hotel lobby and overlooking the swimming pool. Parrots roam the premises while you dine on excellent seafood, grilled steaks, pasta, and other international dishes. You can also enjoy use of a pool table and a large flat-screen TV.
The post office is on the corner of 8a Avenida and 6a Calle. Telgua is at 8a Avenida and 10a Calle.
Banco Industrial (7a Avenida Norte #73) has a Visa ATM and changes U.S. cash dollars and travelers checks. Banrural (8a Avenida and 9a Calle) has a MasterCard ATM and also changes dollars and travelers checks. Just outside of town at the junction of the roads leading to Guatemala City and Puerto Santo Tomás is La Pradera Puerto Barrios shopping mall, with various ATMs.
The offices of migración are on the corner of 12 Calle and 3a Avenida, a block from the municipal docks. This is where you get your entry or exit stamp when arriving from or heading to Belize. There is a $10 departure tax. The offices are open 7am-8pm.
Puerto Barrios’s long, paved runway has been inaugurated several times and even supported frequent flights to Guatemala City at one time. That service is suspended for the moment, but the airport remains one of the main landing strips in a nascent network of domestic airports. The runway is equipped to receive jet aircraft, including Boeing 737s.
Most of the transport in and out of Puerto Barrios is via the excellent Transportes Litegua (6a Avenida and 9a Calle, tel. 7948-1172, www.litegua.com), which operates comfortable, modern buses departing every half hour to and from Guatemala City. Some buses stop in Morales en route, where you get off for Río Dulce.
Boats leave from the municipal dock at the end of 12 Calle. There is ferry service to Lívingston ($1.50, 1.5 hours) Monday-Saturday at 10am and 5pm. Try to get there at least 30 minutes prior to departure time to secure your seat. Lanchas, taking 30 minutes to make the journey, depart when they have a dozen people or so and cost about $5 one-way. Most of the traffic heading to Lívingston is in the morning hours.
There are also departures to Punta Gorda, Belize ($20 one-way), via Transportes El Chato (1a Avenida between 10a and 11a Calles, tel. 7948-5525 or 7948-8787) leaving Puerto Barrios at 10am daily and taking about an hour. You’ll need to stop by the immigration office to get your passport stamped prior to getting on the boat.
PUERTO SANTO TOMÁS DE CASTILLA
Cruise ships dock in Santo Tomás de Castilla, just across the bay from Puerto Barrios, where those wishing to go ashore will find some of the country’s best bird-watching, lush tropical rainforests, and refreshing jungle rivers. Local tourism authorities in nearby Lívingston and Río Dulce are improving the quality of their services to cater to arriving visitors.
The history of Santo Tomás de Castilla actually dates to 1604, when it was founded as the coast’s original colonial port. It was abandoned within a few years but later became the site of an ill-fated Belgian colony in 1843 after Guatemala’s independence from Spain.
A paved road from Puerto Barrios leads to the main shipping center. From there, a dirt road continues along the coast to some of the area’s natural attractions. For cruise ship day-trippers, a recommended travel company is Go with Gus (tel. 7947-0694, www.gowithgus.com), which runs tours of the Río Dulce canyon with stops at area attractions along the way.
S Cerro San Gil and Río Las Escobas
This idyllic park, centered around the Cerro San Gil mountain, comprises more than 7,700 hectares (19,000 acres) of lush rainforest. Bathed in rainfall throughout most of the year (averaging 255 inches) as warm, humid air rises over the mountains from the sea to elevations in excess of 1,100 meters (3,900 feet), the preserve harbors an astounding level of biodiversity. Among the wildlife protected here are 56 species of mammals, including tapir and jaguars, 50 species of reptiles and amphibians, and more than 350 species of birds, including toucans, black-and-white hawk-eagles, and keel-billed motmots. More than 90 neotropical migrants winter in the area and include the blue-winged warbler and wood thrush.
Río Las Escobas
The park also protects the important watershed of the Río Las Escobas, which supplies water to Puerto Barrios. Part of the watershed is open to visitors ($10, including guided tour), who can bathe in Las Escobas’s cool, clear waters and hike a series of nature trails winding through the park. The park is administered by the private conservation group FUNDAECO (tel. 2314-1900, www.fundaeco.org.gt), which in partnership with The Nature Conservancy has been able to buy large tracts of this rainforest ecosystem for preservation.
Facilities for visitors are found at Las Pozas (tel. 5708-0744 and 5004-1143, http://riolasescobasizabal.com, 9am-6pm daily) and include a visitors center, tropical gardens, a snack bar (open on weekends and when cruise ships are in town), and picnic areas. An excellent system of trails winds through the river and waterfalls and includes wooden bridges with stops along the way for swimming in stunning turquoise pools.
The Guatemala-Belize Border Dispute
During your travels, you might be surprised to find the neighboring country of Belize included as part of Guatemala on many maps produced in-country. It would seem that Belize is just another Guatemalan departamento despite its status as an independent nation since 1981. Guatemala did not in fact recognize its neighbor’s independence until 10 years later in a highly criticized and unconstitutional move by then-president Jorge Serrano Elías. Guatemala’s constitution clearly states that any decision regarding the independence or territorial integrity of Belize must be submitted to a public referendum. And so the debate continues over the “Belize question.” It seems to be one of those issues that just won’t go away, with succeeding governments always promising a final solution to this centuries-old problem.
Several governments have used the issue as a diversionary tactic during times of civil unrest, particularly during the military regimes of the 1970s. Matters came to a head in 1977 when Great Britain sent 6,000 troops to the border in anticipation of an invasion by Guatemalan troops during the presidency of military strongman Romeo Lucas García. Today, there are occasional reports of incidents along the northern Petén region’s eastern border with Belize when Guatemalan peasants are forcefully evicted from the “no-man’s land” along the border in clashes with Belizean security forces. The border is often referred to as a zona de adyacencia, or “imaginary border” area. Guatemalan newspapers love to publicize these incidents of supposed injustice against unarmed peasants, calling for a final solution to the long-standing problem.
The dispute dates to colonial times, when Spain officially claimed all of the Central American coast but was unable in practice to enforce its claim. English privateers and traders established a beachhead along the southern coast of Belize and extracted valuable timber products, including mahogany. The English presence was officially recognized by Spain in 1763, granting the British the right to extract forest products but refusing them the right of permanent settlement. The first permanent settlements came soon after Central American independence from Spain, the British clearly taking advantage of the power vacuum created in the aftermath of Spanish rule. The weakness of Guatemala’s early governments was evident in an 1859 treaty, which officially recognized the British presence and “lent” the Belize territory to them for further resource extraction in exchange for a payment of £50,000 and the construction of a road from Belize to Guatemala City. Great Britain never held up its end of the bargain on either point and so the treaty was rendered null and void. British occupation of the lands continued, however, and the land eventually became known as the colony of British Honduras, which was granted its independence from England in 1981.
In recent years, Guatemala has limited its claims to the southern half of Belize, from the Río Sibún to the Río Sarstún, arguing that historical documents support its claims and include this territory as part of the region of “Las Verapaces.” Some Guatemalan analysts believe there might be a case here, though the reasons for Guatemala’s insistence in this matter remain a mystery. The current government has expressed its interest in getting its case settled once and for all by international arbitration, which would mean bringing it to the International Court in The Hague if all other avenues fail. Belize has tried to get the matter resolved in the Organization of American States (OAS), so far unsuccessfully, and has repeatedly stated that it will not cede “a single inch of its territory.”
It’s doubtful Guatemala will ever be able to recover its full claim, though the possibility for comanagement of the Sapodilla Cayes Marine Park (also claimed by Honduras) as a trinational park might be the most realistic outcome of any internationally mediated settlement on this matter. It would give Guatemala the one thing its geography and tourist offerings lack: white-sand Caribbean beaches with clear, turquoise waters. A referendum to decide whether the case goes to arbitration at the International Court in The Hague was to be celebrated simultaneously in both countries on October 6, 2013, but never came to pass.
The park is an increasingly popular day trip with cruise-ship passengers, many of whom reportedly state this to be their favorite stop after the crass commercialism of places such as Cancún and beaches that all pretty much look the same. The park lies just off the road, hugging the coastline from Puerto Santo Tomás de Castilla to the beach of Punta de Palma.
Green Bay Hotel
Farther along this same road is the 50-room Green Bay Hotel (tel. 7948-2361 or 2410-5000, $80 d room-only or $150 d all-inclusive), which was built far ahead of its time in the early 1990s but now seems perfectly situated to cater to cruise-ship day-trippers. The comfortable thatched-roof duplex bungalows are built into the side of a beautifully forested hillside near the water’s edge and have all the comforts, including air-conditioning, TV, private hot-water bathroom, and bay windows that look out to the jungle. Although the exteriors are thatched-roof, it’s really only for show, as the room interiors pretty much look like any standard modern hotel room. There is an airy, thatched-roof restaurant and bar overlooking the swimming pool and Bahía de Amatique. In addition to seafood, the restaurant serves international dishes including pasta, sandwiches, and grilled steaks. It’s a bit overpriced at about $8 for a basic pasta dish.
Out front is a dock from where you can book a tour of the bay or a motorboat transfer to Punta de Palma, Punta de Manabique, Lívingston, or Río Dulce. Otherwise, you can catch some rays on the lagoon-front beach or explore the waters in a kayak. Two small mangrove islets, known as the Cayos del Diablo, lie just off the coast. Mountain bikes are also available for rent and there’s a sandy beach volleyball court. As at most of Guatemala’s Caribbean beaches, the water here is not clear like that along the Yucatán Peninsula, but more emerald in color. It’s what the tourism promoters have called “a different Caribbean.”
Punta de Palma Beach
The road continues north from here to the beaches of Punta de Palma, a popular weekend getaway for folks from Puerto Barrios and where a sliver of sand meets the Caribbean Sea. There are some refreshment stands but little else here. Although locals might try to talk it up, you’ll probably be very disappointed, as the Riviera Maya this is not. If you really want to hit the beach, there are some better options near Lívingston and across the bay at Punta de Manabique.
On the up side, there are some new accommodations in this neck of the woods that now actually make this place worth a visit (and a stay). Darangilaü (www.darangilau.com) is a glamping hideaway tucked into the hills overlooking the beach and the Caribbean Sea that is somewhat reminiscent of the early days of ecotourism in Costa Rica. There are large, airy safari tents on raised wooden platforms with thatch roof, a/c, and wooden deck for $55 d. Simpler accommodations include smaller tents with a shaded sitting area for $40 d with a/c or $25 d without a/c but with fan (and minus the shaded sitting area). All of the tents are on a shared-bath basis. Amenities on the eight-acre-property include a swimming pool overlooking the ocean, hiking and mountain biking trails, and the quaint wood-and-stone main lodge with cool spaces for lounging. The main lodge also has a restaurant and bar. It makes a good base for trips to nearby Río Las Escobas. Day trips to Playa Blanca, Lívingston, and other area attractions can be organized. Access is via boat from Puerto Barrios or a decent dirt road that continues 14 kilometers from Puerto Santo Tomás de Castilla.
A bit of an anomaly in Mayan and ladino Guatemala, Lívingston is an interesting Caribbean enclave of Garífuna culture and completes Guatemala’s list of offerings with the authentic feel of a West Indian coastal town. This characteristic is made even more poignant by the fact that it’s accessible only by boat. The town’s setting is as exotic as its culture, splendidly situated at the mouth of the Río Dulce on the shores of the Bahía de Amatique. It makes a great base for upstream explorations of the Río Dulce canyon as well as nearby beaches, waterfalls, and pools, or the outlying Zapotillo cayes. The sounds of punta rock and reggae drifting out from the town’s numerous restaurants and bars complete the Caribbean atmosphere. You can find some useful information on the town at www.livingston.com.gt.
As for orientation, it’s hard to get lost here. The main street, known as Calle Principal, goes up the hill from the boat dock all the way to the shoreline at the other end of town. The other main street, Calle Marcos Sánchez Díaz, veers left from the dock.
Museo Multicultural de Lívingston
The Museo Multicultural de Lívingston (tel. 7947-0944, 9am-5pm Tues.-Sun., $2) is just to the left of the municipal docks on a second story and features displays on the local Garífuna, Q’eqchi’, Hindu, and Cagey cultures in addition to the local flora and fauna. There are some interesting old fishing nets as well as some old and new photographs on display. It’s worth a quick stop, and the friendly staff will be happy to answer your questions.
Los Siete Altares
A side stream forms this series of seven waterfalls and emerald-green pools known as Los Siete Altares (Seven Altars, $2.60) lying five kilometers northwest of town. You’ll likely be disappointed if you visit here after visiting Rio Las Escobas. The water’s flow at Siete Altares has declined in recent years due to increased consumption upstream and there’s now very little water actually making it into the pools. Robberies have also been reported here in the past. I’d skip it, as there are better options for exploration.
Lívingston has some acceptable beaches nearby, though the ones adjacent to town are generally not the cleanest and have had some security issues in the past. Locals insist the group perpetrating past robberies has been caught, with at least one of them having met an unfortunate end. The nicest beach close to town is that of Playa Quehueche, about two kilometers northwest along Bahía de Amatique. There are a couple of comfortable hotels here, allowing you the opportunity to stay right on the beach. Both have nice wooden docks for swimming in the placid Caribbean waters. Playa Quehueche becomes Playa Bariques as you get closer to town. A standout among the beaches bordering Lívingston is Playa Capitanía, on the town’s southeast fringes.
Lívingston’s Garífuna Culture
Lívingston is one of Guatemala’s most culturally diverse regions, with Garífuna, Hindu, Q’eqchi’, and ladino cultures peacefully coexisting here. Of these, the Garífuna and Hindu influences are particularly interesting because they are not found elsewhere in Guatemala, giving this region a unique flavor. Guatemalans are often surprised to see Afro-Caribbean people when they visit the Atlantic Coast, as they are not readily in evidence elsewhere in the country, looking upon them with a certain sense of wonder simultaneously fueled by a form of racism familiar to the country’s Mayan people. A number of far-fetched myths have been affixed to the Garífuna, including the belief that seeing an Afro-Caribbean person on the street (outside of Lívingston) means you will soon come in contact with a long-lost acquaintance. Also common is the general suspicion of widespread practice of voodoo and cannibalism by Garífuna peoples.
Guatemala’s Garífuna population numbers about 4,000 and traces its history to the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. Ethnically, they are a mix of Amerindian and African peoples, and their language comes from the Brazilian Arawakan language family. These Arawak-speaking peoples migrated from northern Brazil long before the arrival of Europeans in the New World and lived peacefully on the island until they were subdued by Carib speakers from the South American mainland. The African element of their bloodline came about after intermingling with the survivors from the wreck of a Spanish ship carrying Nigerian slaves just off the coast of St. Vincent. These people eventually became known to the British as Black Caribs—in their own language, Garinagu. Garífuna is the Spanish translation of this word. In the 1760s, the British tried to take St. Vincent but were driven off by the Caribs with help from the French. The Caribs would continue to oppose the British on and off for several years until finally being defeated in 1796, when they surrendered. The Garífuna were subsequently captured and imprisoned by the British before being shipped off to the island of Roatán, off the coast of Honduras. One of the ships transporting the prisoners was captured by Spanish forces and sent to the Honduran mainland. Only 2,000 Garífuna made it to Roatán, as many died during their imprisonment on St. Vincent or along the subsequent journey.
Pleas for help from the Garífuna stranded on the tiny island of Roatán were answered by the Spanish forces who arrived some time later to take survivors to Trujillo (Honduras), where they were conscripted to serve in the armed forces or work in agricultural fields. The Garífuna continued to move along the coast, eventually settling other parts of Honduras as well as Nicaragua. Some were taken to southern Belize to work in logging operations, from where they spread to Guatemala, establishing Lívingston in 1806. Today, the largest population of Garífuna can be found along the coast of Honduras (100,000), but there are also sizable populations in New York (50,000), New Orleans, and Los Angeles. Like other ethnic groups in Central America, they have been emigrating to the United States in increasing numbers since the 1970s.
Modern Garífuna speak Spanish, English, and the Garífuna language, which melds French, Arawak, Yuroba, Swahili, and Banti. Central to their culture are music and dance, namely punta, a form of musical expression with obvious West African influences incorporating ritual chanting, mesmerizing drumbeats, and rhythmic dancing. A traditional Garífuna band consists of three large drums, a turtle shell, a large conch shell, and maracas. You will probably hear live punta music at least once during your visit to Lívingston. Also common is punta rock, a more modern version of popular Garífuna music. Another fascinating traditional dance is the yancunu New Year’s dance, similar to those of indigenous South American rainforest peoples with distinctly West African musical origins. Lívingston’s annual Garífuna festival is a weeklong event held during the third week of November.
The beaches in and around Lívingston are of white or grayish brown sand, unlike the volcanic sands on the Pacific Coast. It’s not the talcum-powder white typically found on Caribbean shores elsewhere, and the water is not turquoise as in the Belize cayes, mostly because silt from the surrounding jungle rivers flowing into the bay conspires to keep the waters a greenish-brown color. But they’re still perfectly nice for lounging. A boat ride from Lívingston to Playa Quehueche costs about $5.
If you’re the kind of person who likes to spike the punch at the party, you might want to try a coco loco, a rather fun concoction consisting of a coconut with the top chopped off and enhanced with a generous helping of rum. The bars along Calle Principal as you come up the street from the municipal docks, including La Buga and McTropic, can usually satiate your thirst should the fancy take you.
Lívingston has a fairly vibrant nightlife scene befitting of its tropical location by the sea. Down by the beach on the northern end of town (Playa Bariques) is Bar Beluba Neruba with a small dance floor and tables right on the sand. It can be reached by heading west along the beach at the end of Calle Principal.
The classiest place in town is part of the Villa Caribe hotel. Dugu Bar (5pm-midnight daily) is housed in a cheerful, yellow wooden house on the town’s main street opposite the Immigration office. The interior is decorated with tons of old pictures, and there’s a full bar. The poolside bar at Vecchia Toscana (Barrio París, tel. 7947-0883 or 7947-0884, www.livingston-vecchiatoscana.com) is also a good bet.
Hotel Casa Rosada (tel. 7947-0303, www.hotelcasarosada.com), Happy Fish (tel. 7947-0661 or 7947-0268, www.happyfishtravel.com, $5-25), and Hotel Río Dulce (tel. 7947-0764) do trips to Siete Altares ($13) or Playa Blanca ($15), stopping at Siete Altares along the way, with a minimum of six people. Hotel Posada El Delfín (tel. 7947-0056, www.posadaeldelfin.com) offers a number of adventurous itineraries, including a full day of deep-sea fishing, an overnight scuba-diving trip to San Nicolás caye (in the Belize cayes), and a hike up a nearby mountain for an overnight stay in a jungle villa.
Despite its location right on the Caribbean Sea, Lívingston lacks beachside resort properties, as the beaches in the immediate vicinity are somewhat lacking. There are, however, some midrange accommodations on a serviceable beach just north of town. Most of the listed accommodations are found in the heart of town.
a coco loco in Lívingston
The most pleasant budget accommodations are found at the rustically charming S Casa de la Iguana B&B (tel. 7947-0064, www.casadelaiguana.com, $8-20 per person), about one kilometer from the center of town along Calle Marcos Sánchez Díaz, where you can choose between staying in the dorm, private room with shared bath, or a spacious bungalow with private bathroom. Breakfast ($4) is served 7am-10am in a thatched-roof dining room overlooking a pleasant tropical garden and includes a choice of scrambled eggs, pancakes, or cereal. There’s also a book exchange. Budget travelers can camp or sleep in a hammock for $3.50.
Along Calle Marcos Sánchez Díaz, about 400 meters west of the boat docks, is S Hotel Casa Rosada (tel. 7947-0303, www.hotelcasarosada.com, $20 s/d), a delightful place to stay with 10 rooms housed in attractive wood-and-thatch bungalows, all with shared bath and two single beds, centered around a pretty pink wooden house on the shores of the Río Dulce. The rooms have nice furnishings and hand-painted accents. Amenities include ceiling fans and mosquito netting. Some rooms are brighter than others. There is a dock leading out to the river where you can get dropped off. The restaurant here is also highly recommended.
Out of town northwest toward Siete Altares is Playa Quehueche, a sliver of a beach that holds a few comfortable lodgings. The first of these is Hotel Ecológico Salvador Gaviota (tel. 7947-0874 or 4011-9722, www.hotelsalvadorgaviota.com), which has simple rooms in thatched-roof cabins, including shared-bath doubles ($20), rooms with private bath ($13 pp), and bungalows sleeping up to five for $60. There is a simple seaside café serving local fare and there’s a pier out front over the ocean where you can swim or lounge in a hammock. A boat ride into town costs about $5.
Right at the entrance to town near the main dock, Hotel Villa Caribe (tel. 7947-0072 or 2223-5000, www.villasdeguatemala.com, $79-110 d) is a large white building with a commanding presence over the waterfront. Standard rooms have tile floors, fan, and private hot-water bath, while three attractively furnished suites housed in separate bungalows come with air-conditioning, TV, minibar, and lovely sea views. There’s a large swimming pool and a restaurant that serves bland international fare. Splurge for the suite.
Hotel Villa Caribe
About 500 meters west of town along Calle Marcos Sánchez Díaz is the S Posada El Delfín (tel. 7947-0694 or 7947-0056, www.posadaeldelfin.com, $75-150 d), where the modern, comfortable rooms have air-conditioning, private bath, ceiling fan, phone, and wooden furniture. All upstairs rooms have carpeting. There are also larger suites, including the wonderful honeymoon suite on the end of the two-story dock with a balcony overlooking the river below. It comes equipped with fridge, TV, and a CD player. Guests can relax in a lounge on the second floor, in the small swimming pool, or in hammocks on the dock over the river. For overall comfort and relaxing riverside ambience amid refreshing breezes, this place can’t be beat.
On the street parallel to Playa Capitanía is Gil Resort (tel. 7947-0039 or 5206-8124, $60 d), housed in an airy, two-floor wooden building. The comfortable rooms have wood paneling, TV, and a/c. There’s a nice sitting area with sea views and a Jacuzzi. The most atmospheric of the town’s accommodations is S Vecchia Toscana (Barrio París, tel. 7947-0883 or 7947-0884, www.livingston-vecchiatoscana.com, $61 d to $183 for six-person bungalow). The tastefully decorated rooms feature mosquito netting and a fan or a/c and are built on well-manicured grounds surrounding a swimming pool. The star attraction is the beachfront bungalow, with a private roof terrace, Jacuzzi, minibar, and comfortable lounge chairs.
The specialty here and elsewhere in Izabal is a dish known as tapado, a seafood stew prepared using coconut milk and bananas.
On par with the wonderful accommodations at Hotel Casa Rosada (tel. 7947-0303, www.hotelcasarosada.com, 6:30am-9pm daily) is its excellent restaurant, where delicious meals are served on charming hand-painted tables in a thatched-roof covered patio overlooking the Río Dulce. Dinner is a three-course set menu, including fresh salad and coconut bread, main course, and dessert costing about $13. Typical entrées include lobster, shrimp, filet mignon, Thai curry, and fish. Lunch and breakfast are served à la carte and include sandwiches, fruit salads, and quesadillas. Try the banana pancakes for breakfast. Excellent coffee and espresso drinks are also served here.
A few doors down Calle Marcos Sánchez Díaz, heading west, S Malena’s (inside the Hotel Posada El Delfín, tel. 7947-0694, www.posadaeldelfin.com, 6am-9:30pm daily) is one of Lívingston’s finest restaurants, serving a varied menu of international dishes at reasonable prices, including vegetarian nachos with Provençal sauce, chicken, burgers, and veggie burgers. Seafood entrées include tapado, ceviche, fish chowder, and sea bass. There are delicious homemade desserts, coffee, and espresso beverages to top off your meal. The restaurant is on the second floor of a two-story dock jutting over the Río Dulce with pleasant modern decor, sea breezes, and the unmistakable feel of the tropics.
Along this same street close to the municipal dock, S Restaurant Buga Mama (tel. 7947-0891, www.bugamama.org, noon-10pm Mon., 10am-10pm Tues.-Sun., $5-25) is a good place for reasonably priced fish, shrimp, and pasta dishes. The restaurant, housed in a bright-blue wooden building, is wonderfully staffed by tourism industry students from a local school run by grassroots development organization Ak’ Tenamit. On the riverbank, S Casa Nostra (Calle Marcos Sánchez Díaz, tel. 7947-0842, www.casanostralivingston.com, $5-15) is highly recommended for its delicious pizzas and excellent service. Its friendly owner, Stuart, is also a wealth of information on local attractions and transport logistics. Other menu items include yummy smoothies, chai tea, Spanish tapas, seafood and meat dishes, pasta, and quesadillas. There are rooms for rent and more are being built.
Calle Principal has a number of eateries. One of the first places you’ll see as you come up the hill from the main dock is Happy Fish (tel. 7947-0661 or 7947-0268, www.happyfishtravel.com, 7am-10pm daily), serving reliable seafood and salads in a pleasant patio setting just off the street. It’s a good bet for breakfast. Across the street is Restaurante McTropic (tel. 5558-5656, 7am-10pm daily, $4-15), where the specialty is Cantonese food, including chop suey and fried rice. A few doors down and across the street is the popular Restaurante Bahía Azul (tel. 7947-0151, 7am-10pm daily), where meals are also served on a patio overlooking the street. The creative menu includes curry, sweet and sour or soy sauce chicken. There is live music some nights. It’s also a good bet for breakfast. Try the “Gangster” breakfast sandwich with ham, cheese, hotcakes, and honey—a bit like a McGriddle. If you crave authentic Italian cuisine, head to S Vecchia Toscana (tel. 7947-0883/84, www.livingston-vecchiatoscana.com, 8am-1am daily, $4-9), in Barrio París on the beach north of town toward Playa Quehueche. There are delicious pastas and wood-fired-oven pizzas.
For money, Banrural is on Calle Principal, just past Villa Caribe, with an ATM. Farther up the street is Banco Reformador, also with an ATM.
The immigration office (tel. 7947-0081, 6am-7pm daily) is also on Calle Principal across the street from the Villa Caribe. You’ll need to stop here first if heading out to or arriving from Belize. Telgua and the post office are right next to each other just up the street on the right side.
The only access to and from Lívingston is by water, either from the Caribbean Sea to Puerto Barrios, Belize, or Honduras or via the Río Dulce. There is Monday-Saturday ferry service to Puerto Barrios at 5am and 2pm (1.5 hours, $1.50), along with motorboats ($5) leaving all day when they have a full load of people. From Puerto Barrios, there are departures to Lívingston Monday to Saturday at 11am and 5pm. There is also service to Punta Gorda, Belize, Monday through Friday at 7am (one hour, $26). Any of the town’s travel agencies can book tickets for you, but you must have the confirmed ticket the night before, along with your exit stamp from the immigration office. There’s a $10 departure tax when leaving Guatemala by sea. From Punta Gorda to Lívingston, the boat leaves weekdays at 12:30pm. Exotic Travel also runs shuttle transport directly to Placencia for $50 per person with a six-person minimum. If you’re heading to Honduras and have at least four people, it can also take you to La Ceiba for $75 per person, including boat to Puerto Barrios and then a minibus for the rest of the way.
ASOCOLMORAN, the water taxi association, runs transfers to Río Dulce (2.5 hours, $13 one-way or $24 round-trip) leaving at 9am and 1:30pm, but these stop along the way at the Río Dulce hot springs. Boat transfers to Río Dulce are also available from Ríos Tropicales (tel. 7947-0158, www.mctropic.com, $16).
S Playa Blanca
About 13 kilometers along the coast northwest from Lívingston is my favorite Guatemalan beach, Playa Blanca ($2.60), with a pretty stretch of white sand and palm trees on the tranquil Caribbean Sea. The private beach is under the same ownership as the Villa Caribe. It’s becoming increasingly popular as a day trip from Lívingston. There is now a little restaurant and small palapas fronting the quiet beach. New, rustic beachside accommodations are in the works. There are also bathrooms and showers here.
Several outfitters including La Casa Rosada, Happy Fish, and Exotic Travel do trips to Playa Blanca for $13 per person with a six-person minimum and including a box lunch. The Exotic Travel tour stops at the waterfalls of Siete Altares and the Río Cocolí along the way. The river is a pleasant side stream suitable for swimming with a small sliver of beach along the bay. Trips leave around 9am and return in the afternoon around 5pm. If you’re looking to hook up with a group, try Exotic Travel first, as it seems to be the popular favorite and might have a group already going out. Most of the outfitters provide beach chairs, beach umbrellas, and hammocks for people going on the trip.
As you continue northwest along the Caribbean Coast past the beaches of Playa Blanca, the last stop along the Guatemalan Caribbean shores is the Río Sarstún, which forms the border between Belize and Guatemala. This beautiful jungle river has just recently become a viable option for exploration now that it is fully protected as a park administered by conservation group FUNDAECO (www.fundaeco.org.gt). The park ($20) protects 2,000 hectares of tropical rainforest, flooded forest, wetlands, and mangroves. You can kayak and explore wetland canals, see the recently discovered Cerro Sarstún cenote, swim in the emerald-green waters of a small lagoon, or hike along well-maintained nature trails, all of which are included in the price of admission.
Accommodations are in the Eco-Albergue Lagunita Creek (tel. 2253-4991 and 5241-9342, www.fundaeco.org.gt), a modern facility with clean, shared-bath dormitories with bunk beds for $10 and double rooms with private baths, queen-size beds, and balconies overlooking the river for $35. You can buy meals from the local community for $7-10. There’s also a biological station here.
Río Dulce National Park
One of Guatemala’s oldest parks, the waterway connecting the Caribbean Sea with Lake Izabal is protected as Río Dulce National Park, covering 7,200 hectares along the river’s 30 kilometer (19-mile) course. Much of the riverbank is shrouded in dense tropical forest punctuated at its most dramatic point by a large jungle canyon with hundred-meter rock faces known as La Cueva de la Vaca. The canyon is a 15-minute boat ride upstream from Lívingston. Along this route you’ll also come across a graffiti-covered rock escarpment known as La Pintada with the earliest painting in evidence dating to the 1950s.
Just after the canyon (heading upstream from Lívingston), you’ll come across the first of Río Dulce’s many accommodations. The Round House (tel. 4294-9730, www.roundhouseguatemala.com, $7 pp in dorm, $15 d in shared-bath private room) is a well-run, fun sort of place with dorms and private rooms. There’s a swimming pool and a Sunday afternoon pool volleyball game that includes lunch and drink specials. Kayaks are available for rent. Meals are served family-style in the open-sided dining room.
S RÍO TATÍN
This small tributary diverts north from the Río Dulce just upstream from the canyon. Along its course, you’ll find some excellent accommodations built into the surrounding jungle and in complete harmony with their environment. It showcases the region’s wonderful seclusion while at the same time providing a comfortable base from which to explore the area.
S Finca Tatín (tel. 4148-3332 www.fincatatin.com, $7-52) is a wonderfully secluded jungle camp and backpackers’ haven about half a kilometer up the river where you’ll find a variety of accommodations, including shared-bath dormitory beds for $7 per person, shared-bath doubles for $17, and bungalows for $26-52. Some of the bungalows are in the jungle area to the rear of the property, but the nicest ones are riverside and have patios. All rooms have mosquito netting and fan. The lodge gets major props for ecological consciousness. Water for the showers comes from the river, while water for the bathroom sinks is collected rainwater. All the bungalows have their own septic tanks with all waste material being buried.
Excellent meals are served in the lodge’s open-air restaurant housed under a thatched roof. Dinner is a family-style affair, allowing for opportunities to meet fellow travelers. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner cost $5, $7, and $10. The menu is a varied palette of creative vegetarian, Guatemalan, and international dishes.
Activities include bird-watching in the surrounding forests, hikes lasting from 30 minutes to four hours all the way to Lívingston, day and overnight trips to the Belize cayes, and kayaking in the Biotopo Chocón Machacas or down the Río Dulce to Lívingston. A two-person kayak rental costs $10 per day. The lodge is run by a friendly Argentine. Italian, English, and French are spoken.
Río Dulce canyon
A little farther down the Río Tatín is S Rancho Corozal (tel. 5309-1423 in Guatemala, 866/621-4032 toll-free U.S., www.quintamaconda.com/rio_dulce.htm), an absolutely astounding private villa that can be yours for $250 per night for the entire villa for 2 people, or $82 per person per night for 9-10 people, including breakfast. The owners are quick to point out that it’s not a hotel but rather a private hideaway. It can sleep up to 10 people in five double beds with stylish safari netting. The beautiful house, designed with soaring thatched roofs and attractive ceramic and stucco accents, is set right beside the river on its own 20-acre forest reserve. There are tastefully landscaped tropical gardens, a short nature trail, open-air living and dining rooms, and a hammock patio. The house is wonderfully watched over by its live-in caretaker, Sabino, who can show you around and take you to area attractions aboard the house skiff ($125 per day). At night, the villa is lit by the warm glow of gas lamps and torches. There is no electricity, but you won’t even miss it. Food can be arranged at the house or at one of a few local eateries. Try the freshwater crab cooked in coconut milk at neighboring Doña Lola’s.
Rancho Corozal, a private hideaway on the Río Tatín
Heading back downstream toward the Río Tatín’s confluence with the Río Dulce, you’ll find Ak’ Tenamit (tel. 5908-3392 or 5908-4358, www.aktenamit.org), a grassroots health and development organization helping to provide a better living for the local Q’eqchi’ Maya who inhabit the area in several villages. Thanks to this organization’s efforts, these extremely impoverished communities now have access to health care and education, among other basic necessities. There is a women’s handicraft cooperative, a 24-hour clinic, primary and secondary schools (including curricula in tourism and social welfare), and an ecotourism center. At the visitors center you can buy locally made crafts and enjoy light meals in a pleasant palapa-style café, which is open 7am-4:30pm. Volunteer doctors, dentists, and nurses who can commit for at least one month are always welcome.
Continuing upstream, on the south bank of the Río Dulce, is another tributary known as the Río Lámpara. You’ll see a small island known as Cayo Quemado at the mouth of this small river. This area is seldom explored, though a new jungle camp has put this remote area on the map.
The exquisite little jungle lodge El Hotelito Perdido (tel. 5725-1576 or 5785-5022, www.hotelitoperdido.com, dorm beds $7-8 pp, rooms with shared bath $20 d, bungalows with private bath $27-33 d) lies on the quiet banks of the Río Lámpara hidden away (as its name implies) from civilization. If you’re looking for an exotic, affordable escape to the outer limits of civilization, El Hotelito Perdido might just do the trick. The accommodations are built in typical thatched-roof jungle style and include a dorm and shared or private bath bungalows with typical Guatemalan fabric accents. The two-story bungalows have sleeping areas upstairs and a living area on the ground floor. Solar panels provide electricity, while rainwater is collected for showers. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner ($3-9) are available at the hotel’s restaurant and include a variety of dishes including vegetarian fare. There’s a nearby waterfall for exploring in addition to gorgeous views of the Río Dulce canyon from the grounds, kayaks for rent, hammocks for lounging and a swimming dock. Other activities include full-moon kayaking trips to nearby hot springs, jungle hikes, and bird-watching.
To get here, hitch a ride on any of the boats heading in either direction between Río Dulce town and Lívingston. They should have no problem dropping you off here. The lodge also offers a pickup service for $7 per person (two-person minimum) from the Lívingston municipal dock.
Back along the Río Dulce, another kilometer or so upstream, is a spot where warm sulfurous waters bubble from the base of a cliff, providing a pleasant place to swim. The local community has banded together to provide quality tourism infrastructure for visitors in the form of Centro Turístico Agua Caliente (tel. 5375-0496, www.turismocomunitarioguatemala.com, $1.50). Among the facilities are a thatched-roof bar and snack stand, a gift shop selling locally made handicrafts, and a dock from which to swim in the river or soak in the warm waters. Heading inland, you’ll find a series of caves with an interesting array of rock formations and even a large central chamber.
the hot springs on the Río Dulce at Centro Turístico Agua Caliente
Shortly after the hot springs, the river widens into a lake known as El Golfete. The lake is home to a dwindling population of manatees protected on its northern shore by the Biotopo Chocón Machacas (7am-4pm daily, $5). The large, slow-moving aquatic mammals (also known as sea cows) are extremely elusive creatures, and fewer than 100 are thought to inhabit these waters. The walrus-like animals are threatened throughout their range by long reproductive cycles (they reach sexual maturity late in life) and collisions with motorboats. The 186-square-kilometer (72-square-mile) park is run by CECON, and there are aquatic routes through several jungle lagoons as well as a nature trail running through the park and its protected forests.
A comfortable base for exploring the area is the community tourism project at Lagunita Salvador and its Hotel Q’ana Itz’am (tel. 5992-1843 or 4059-3836, www.lagunitasalvador.com). There are rustic but clean and comfortable accommodations in thatched-roof structures fronting jungle wetlands. There are dormitory-style rooms with shared bathrooms ($10 pp) or bungalows with private bathrooms ($37 for up to six people). The restaurant serves tasty seafood dishes, fried chicken, fruit plates, and cold beer and soda. There are guided tours to the reserve and surrounding areas (including several lush, little-known lagoons) in addition to kayaks for rent. You can even witness a traditional Dance of the Deer performance.
Heading west from here, the river continues its course upstream past the expensive villas of Guatemala’s oligarchy to the town of Río Dulce, at the confluence of the river and Lake Izabal. A long bridge connects both shores along Highway CA-13, which continues north to Petén.
Río Dulce Town (Fronteras)
The town of Río Dulce is the community centered around a long bridge crossing over the river near its meeting point with Lake Izabal. You’ll find most of the town’s accommodations on the north side of the bridge, also known as Fronteras.
SIGHTS AND RECREATION
Although the river and jungle are all around you, exploring this area may not be so easy on your own. It’s always possible to hire a lanchero to take you around. Bargain hard. A more viable alternative is to stay at one of the more ecologically oriented lodges, which usually offer a full range of options for exploring. The two best places to stay in this regard are Hacienda Tijax (tel. 7930-5505, 7930-5506, VHF channel 09, www.tijax.com) and Tortugal (tel. 5306-6432, VHF channel 68, www.tortugal.com), which both do an excellent job of providing engaging nature hikes as well as supplying equipment (kayaks, for example) to explore on your own.
Castillo de San Felipe de Lara
More commonly known as “El Castillo de San Felipe,” Castillo de San Felipe de Lara (8am-5pm, $1.50) also gives its name to a small community on the northern shores of Lake Izabal. The castle was originally built by the Spanish in 1652 in an attempt to deter the activities of pirates, who would come up the Río Dulce to raid supplies. It would later serve as a prison but was finally abandoned and left to deteriorate. The present fortress was reconstructed in 1956. It’s worth a look around for its thick walls enclosing a maze of small rooms as well as its old cannons. There are some nice lake views, a picnic area, and green grounds. Castillo de San Felipe is three kilometers along the lakeshore from Río Dulce or four kilometers by road, which you can walk in about an hour. Heading north out of town on the main road, turn left after the Banco Industrial. After a few kilometers, you’ll pass the turnoff for El Estor on the right. Continue straight on the main road for another kilometer or so from here to the castle. Minivans ($0.50) leave every 30 minutes from the north end of the bridge, or you can hire a water taxi ($5).
Castillo de San Felipe de Lara
Finca El Paraíso
On Lake Izabal’s northern shore, between El Estor and Río Dulce, is the wonderful waterfall hot springs of Finca El Paraíso (tel. 7949-7122), a working farm easily accessible from either town. Here a wide, 12-meter-high warm-water fall plunges into a clear pool cooled by flows from surrounding streams. If you think soaking in warm water in a tropical climate wouldn’t be inviting, think again. Above the falls are some caves worth exploring, for which you’ll need to bring a flashlight. Two kilometers west from the falls is a comfortable lodge and restaurant. The wooden bungalows have private bathrooms, and you can catch the cool lake breezes from a hammock on your very own patio. The restaurant is housed in a bamboo-and-thatch open-air structure with a menu that includes pasta and meat dishes.
The farm lies along the Río Dulce-El Estor bus route, about an hour from Río Dulce and 40 minutes from El Estor. Buses and pickups go by about every hour in both directions, with the last of these around 4:30pm. Hacienda Tijax and Tortugal, in Río Dulce, can also bring you here on a tour.
Sailing to the Belize Cayes
Aventuras Vacacionales (tel. 7832-6056, www.sailing-diving-guatemala.com, $200-440 pp) offers year-round sailing trips up the Río Dulce and out to the Belize cayes on a 46-foot Polynesian sailboat. You can see set departure dates on a calendar through their website.
Most of Río Dulce’s accommodations can be found on the north side of the bridge, starting from there and spreading east and west a few kilometers along the riverbank. Directly underneath the bridge is Bruno’s Hotel and Marina (tel. 7930-5174, www.mayaparadise.com/brunoe), a popular establishment with the sailing set containing rooms in shared-bathroom dormitories for $7 per bed, double rooms with shared bath for $25; or double rooms with air-conditioning, hot-water private baths, and porches overlooking the gardens and river for $50. There’s a small swimming pool next to the river, which makes a great place to hang out.
About one kilometer farther east along the river is S Hacienda Tijax (tel. 7930-5505, 7930-5506, VHF channel 09, www.tijax.com, $29-88), one of Guatemala’s most enjoyable places to stay. The quaint little A-frame cabins on the riverfront are what this place is all about. Double-occupancy cabins with shared baths go for $29, or $49 d with private bathroom. There are six private-bath cabins with air-conditioning available for $73 d. Spacious bungalows cost $88 d. All rooms have comfortable beds with mosquito netting and fan. There is an excellent restaurant housed under a large palapa structure, an inviting swimming pool, and Internet access. Activities include a guided tour around the hacienda’s working rubber plantation to a lookout tower with gorgeous views of the river and El Golfete, passing a hanging bridge over the forest along the way, two-hour horseback riding tours around the farm, kayaking, and sailing. Tours cost $10-25 per person. There’s a boat marina here.
one of the hanging bridges at Hacienda Tijax
Farther east along the river, the next place over is the fancier, 35-room S Catamaran Island Hotel (tel. 7930-5494, www.catamaranisland.com), set on a splendid private island. Rooms are housed in comfortable wooden cabins with ceiling fan, air-conditioning, and private bath. There are double rooms on land for $85 including breakfast or set over the water for $91 d, also including breakfast. There’s a fancy restaurant serving seafood and international dishes, a tennis court, and a poolside bar with a happy hour 4pm-7pm. There are sports on its DirecTV-equipped units. There’s also a marina here.
Casa Perico (tel. 7930-5666 or 5909-0721, www.casa-perico.com, VHF channel 68) lies another few kilometers farther east. Situated beside the Río Bravo, a small tributary of the Río Dulce, the lodge offers rooms in a dormitory above the restaurant and bar for $8 per person, private rooms for $18 d, or wooden cabins with private baths for $26. It’s a bit out of the way, which is precisely what brings most guests here. The Swiss owners cook good meals (dinner is about $5-6) and will pick you up from Río Dulce for free and drop you off at the end of your stay.
Back near the bridge, on its south side, is Hotel Backpackers (tel. 7930-5480, www.hotelbackpackers.com). Another budget travelers’ hideout, it has rooms in shared-bath dorms for $7 per person, double rooms with shared bath for $20, or doubles with private bath for $20-35. Air-conditioned rooms are priced between $39 and $70 d. It’s run by Casa Guatemala, a nonprofit that manages a center on El Golfete for abandoned and malnourished children. There’s a restaurant and bar here serving inexpensive international dishes, beers, sodas, and cocktails. Services include laundry, phone, fax, and email. You can inquire here about volunteer opportunities with Casa Guatemala. If arriving on the bus from Guatemala City, get off before crossing the bridge so as to avoid a long walk back from its other end.
On the right side of the bridge, southwest about one kilometer from the bridge toward Castillo de San Felipe is S Tortugal (tel. 5306-6432, VHF channel 68, www.tortugal.com, $10 pp to $50 d), where a splendid setting, beautiful accommodations, and attention to details make this one of the best places to stay in Río Dulce. You’ll fall in love with this place as soon as you step off the boat and onto its private dock. Spacious rooms with lovely terraces and shared bath go for $44 d. My favorite accommodation is La Casita Elegante ($56 d), with a king-sized bed, antique furnishings, private bath, and airy terrace overlooking the jungle. There’s an excellent restaurant serving vegetarian fare and Guatemalan takes on international dishes in a soaring thatched-roof structure built on a platform over the water. Activities include catching some rays on the docks, kayaking (free for guests), sailing, and Rover tours to the jungle hot springs of nearby Finca El Paraíso.
Bruno’s Hotel and Marina (tel. 7930-5174, www.mayaparadise.com/brunoe, 7am-10pm daily) is especially popular with boaters for its varied menu of international dishes and snacks in the $5-10 range as well as its TV news and sports in an open-air dining room right beside the water. There are pancakes, omelets, and hash browns for breakfast; burgers and ribs for lunch and dinner. Just up the street, S Sundog Café (tel. 5529-0829, $3-9) has a nice riverside location and serves delicious hot sandwiches, including an avocado melt, baguettes, and pastrami sandwiches. They also do decent pizzas. It’s lively at night.
Serving authentic Mexican food is Las Mexicanas (at Hotel Kangaroo, tel. 5363-6716, www.hotelkangaroo.com, 8am-8pm daily, $5-8), which has quickly become a town favorite with locals and visitors alike. There’s an airy screened-in dining room next to the water and a full bar. It’s on the opposite side of the river across from Castillo de San Felipe. You can call them for a pickup. Also near Castillo de San Felipe, Restaurante Rosita (tel. 4812-2114 or 5902-0275, 9am-9:30pm daily, $5-15) serves large portions of amazingly tasty seafood in an airy open-sided dining room next to the river. Try the out-of-this-world vodka melon sangria.
Whether or not you’re staying at Hacienda Tijax (tel. 7930-5505, 7930-5506, VHF channel 09, www.tijax.com), it makes a great place to eat for its rugged jungle ambience and delicious sandwiches, seafood, salads, pasta, and steak dishes in the $5-13 range served in an airy high-ceilinged palapa structure. It brews excellent coffee and has a full bar. Farther out this way, about two kilometers downstream from Río Dulce, is Mario’s Marina (tel. 7930-5560, www.mariosontherio.com), which has a restaurant and bar that is popular with the sailing crowd and serves a variety of seafood and international dishes. Bar patrons can browse the book exchange or enjoy a game of darts.
the marina at Hacienda Tijax
West from the Río Dulce bridge toward the Castillo de San Felipe, the restaurant at S Tortugal (tel. 5306-6432, VHF channel 68, www.tortugal.com, 7am-10pm) is worth a stop for its deliciously prepared, creative menu options and superb location right on the water away from the noise and traffic closer to town. Prepared using fresh ingredients, the menu harmoniously blends authentic Guatemalan cuisine with American and European flourishes. Dinner options range $5-12 for items varying from a quarter-pound barbecue burger to seafood stew. It’s also a great place for breakfast ($3-6) or lunch ($4-7). The bar here serves some excellent cocktails that you can enjoy along with the gorgeous jungle river scenery. There’s always something on special for $2.50, served in a large cocktail glass.
INFORMATION AND SERVICES
An excellent source of information on all things Río Dulce is the Río Dulce Chisme-Vindicator (http://riodulcechisme.com).
All of the banks are on the main road on the north side of the bridge. Banco Industrial has a visa ATM and Banrural has Visa and MasterCard ATMs.
You can book shuttle buses, sailing trips, and boat transfers from three very similar travel agencies on a small alleyway just north of Bruno’s along the main road. These are Otitours (tel. 7930-7674), Atitrans (tel. 7832-0644 or 5218-5950), and Tijax Express/Gray Line Tours (tel. 7930-5196/97, www.graylineguatemala.com).
The north end of the bridge, also known as Fronteras, is a hub for transport heading out in several directions from here. Buses heading north to Petén all stop here before continuing to Poptún and Flores ($7, four hours). The same is true for the return trip south from Flores to Guatemala City ($6, six hours). Bus lines covering this route include Línea Dorada and Fuente del Norte. Both companies also have some more expensive luxury coaches plying this route. Litegua buses can take you to and from Puerto Barrios directly or by changing buses at La Ruidosa Junction near Morales. From there you can catch a westbound bus to Guatemala City or east to Puerto Barrios. All of these companies have offices in Río Dulce. There are shuttle buses to Guatemala City ($30), Antigua ($37), and Copán Ruinas ($37) that can be booked through the local travel agencies.
Boats to Lívingston leave from underneath the north side of the bridge via ASOCOLMORAN (tel. 5561-9657), the local water taxi association, at 9am and 1:30pm, taking about 90 minutes and costing $13 one-way or $24 round-trip.
Several of the aforementioned hotels and restaurants also operate full-service marinas. Among these are Tijax, Tortugal, Bruno’s, Catamaran Island Hotel, and Mario’s Marina. Other options include Monkey Bay Marina (www.monkeybaymarina.com) and Mar Marine (www.marmarine.com.gt). A full listing of other available options can be found online at http://riodulcechisme.com.
Sailing vessels should take care to anchor in protected private marinas and not out in the middle of the open water where they may fall prey to local pirates. In June 2008, an American citizen was murdered while attempting to resist an armed robbery aboard his yacht anchored in the waters near Río Dulce town. In the aftermath, several of the town’s marinas and local tourism authorities contracted the services of an overnight boat patrol to make the rounds at several of the better-known marinas. These include Hacienda Tijax, Bruno’s, and Tortugal, among others.
the Río Cahabón