There is this one day in Guatemala that has a special place in my heart. As often when it comes to travelling, this has everything to do with a local experience. Freedom and nature are my main reasons to go travelling, but to experience the country like a local – that can really make an impact.
This particular morning my boyfriend and I walked into town to catch a minivan to a unique natural phenomenon: Agua Caliente, a steaming hot waterfall. Our hostel’s eccentric owner (I would call both his moustache and personality that) had promised us a one-of-a-kind, off-the-beaten-track day. I quote: “If you take the bus around 8 in the morning, you guys will be most definitely the first ones there. I would highly recommend visiting the nearby canyon too, but from the people I send there, plenty stay at the waterfall because it is such a peaceful place to relax. Even after the early morning, there hardly are any other tourists.”
Ready to relax… oh wait
So off we went, ready for a quiet day. However, things turned out a bit differently. The minivan we hopped into was – even for Central American standards – quite full to begin with, and got even fuller along the way. It was upon arrival at the waterfall we realized: this is not going to be a quiet day. Because what we saw literally was a swarm of people. Hundreds of families were gathered in and around the pools. At 9 in the morning. Wait… what?
To be fair, while wanting to trust in the hostel’s owner promise, we could have seen it coming. It was Semana Santa (Holy Week): one of the Catholic church’s most significant festivals in Central America. In fact, it was Good Friday – traditionally one of the busiest days. As we had spent the beginning of the week on the riverside of Río Dulce, where lush tropical vegetation and quiet lodges was all there was, we kind of forgot about the supposed huge festivities. But I admit, assuming that this part of Guatemala was not the Easter-celebrating kind based on lazy days in a remote lodge was… well, pretty naïve.
Stares and smiles
Reluctantly we changed into our swimming gear and walked down. Being the only foreigners there, we attracted quite some attention. I even felt a bit uncomfortable. So many people watching my every move! While trying to look graceful on slippery rocks! But soon I realized the gazes were mere curiosity rather than anything else. Every time I’d catch someone’s eye, I was greeted with a smile. Most people were too shy to start a conversation, though. We got in the water and became happy observers of the locals celebrating their day off.
Feeling a bit more at ease, I noticed some of the cool kids jump from the falls. And if you know me, you know what my next move would be… Exactly, I needed to jump too! Holding on to tree roots I climbed up and got in line. While nearing the edge I had to make sure to stand on rocks instead of in the water – it was simply too hot to touch. As I had been focusing on this, I hadn’t noticed what was going on down below. Apparently I had again attracted the attention. A girl that was about to give it a go?! Let’s see if she dares to! When I had finally overcome the slippery route to the edge, I looked down… and was greeted by a wide sea of eyes looking right back at me. Errr, hello there. As fast as I could I jumped in.
More people, a dancefloor and a pick-up truck
From there, the day got better and better. People showed us which rocks could be pulverized and mixed with water to make a clay mask. Other people showed us where to swim under the falls to reach dark little caves underneath. Again other people shared their sweet Easter treats with us. At the nearby canyon there was an even bigger crowd: eating at food stands, listening to music, taking family photos… The ambiance was great. So while the canyon itself was super pretty, the best part was that we got to mingle with locals on their Easter weekend. The real Guatemala, I would say.
When the afternoon came to an end, we walked along the road waiting for a minivan to pick us up. A bit further down we saw a bunch of people gathered around a tiny roadside shop. A band was playing live music and a handful of slightly tipsy people danced in front of the shop. We stopped to watch and had just bought a beer when a guy walked up to us. “Do I have permission to dance with your wife?”, he asked my boyfriend. Next thing I knew I was lead to the ‘dancefloor’. Of course bystanders were quick to get out their phones and film my clumsy dance moves. And you know what, I was happy to make them laugh. I might be a YouTube hit by now – who knows.
The day ended with a lift from a family that recognized us from the falls. In the back of their pick-up truck we chatted with their daughters, who were over the moon their parents picked us up. After taking selfies and exchanging Facebook details, we said goodbye to them and to a wonderful set of events. What can I say… it was a very Good Friday!
Río Dulce & Lago de Izabal tips
– Our favorite place to stay was by far the Round House. The family-style dinners were delicious, the mattresses thick and the staff super friendly. Also, it is a good place to get away from everything, as there is no wifi.
– For us, Livingston was OK. Not great. The melting pot culture was interesting, but the beaches are dirty and parts of town can be sketchy. However, there is a lively hippie community and party scene, if that’s your cup of tea.
– Taking any boat on Río Dulce is lovely. Especially the part between Livingston and the Round House hostel. The winding river is flanked by towering gorges and lush vegetation. Simply stunning!
– Most lodges on the riverside are eco-friendly. This part of Guatemala therefore makes a good place to reduce your carbon footprint.
– There is plenty to do if you like water, from boat trips to kayaking yourself. Some other activities include jungle (night) hikes and visiting caves.
– Stock up in either Livingston or Río Dulce town (also called Fronteras), since there are hardly any stores in between these towns. Most people eat three meals a day at their accommodation.
– The Agua Caliente falls are easily reached by minivan from Río Dulce town. The ride takes about 45 minutes. Boqueron canyon is about 15 minutes further down the road. Both are super pretty and there are hardly any other foreign travelers.