Central America | Guatemala – Leaving the Nest
After seven weeks studying Spanish in Xela, it was time to hit the road on the way to meeting Mom in Cancun for Thanksgiving. I felt a little lump in my throat as the bus pulled away from Xela, not knowing exactly when I would return.
Within a day or two, I was feeling really re-energized though. After studying at the Spanish language school, and staying with a host family, I think I had been in a rut, and besides a few solo day trips and a salsa dance class, not branching out very much on my own. Once I was out on the road, meeting new people by my own efforts, I started getting my solo traveler’s confidence back again.
My first stop was Rio Dulce, Guatemala, on the eastern coast. My hostel was right on the river, across the bridge from the noisier town center. The next morning, I boarded a rickety old school bus with another traveler to head an hour away to Finca Paraiso, where the attraction is some naturally hot waterfalls. After a short walk through the woods, we came upon a large creek, with 20-foot waterfalls crashing down. The water in the pools was really chilly, and then turned burning hot as you swam under the falls. If you could take the heat and the force (which I could for about 5 minutes at a time), standing under the falls on the rocks was like a hot back massage. That night I relaxed at the hotel bar, eating the typical backpacker dinner (peanut butter spread on rolls with my Swiss Army Knife), gazing out on the river. It was a really peaceful scene, as dusk fell, and the different types of birds came swooping in to reunite at the end of the day. I became especially entranced with a type of slender, bright white egrit – as they flew in, they reminded me of ballerinas soaring in arabesque position, so graceful with outstretched legs.
The next morning, I hopped in a lancha bound for Livingston, Guatemala. The 2 1/2 hour boat ride was really pleasant, as we glided over the calm water in mild weather. At first, the waterway was wide open, and the water was like a mirror of the sky and clouds. At one point, we paused at an inlet where lilypads and flowers carpeted the water thickly enough to allow little birds to walk on the surface. After a while, the channel narrowed and we passed closer to the lush forests on the side. It seemed that every few yards, you could spot an egrit, posing like a marble statue on the branches.
Livingston was a different world than the other parts of Guatemala I had seen. It is largely populated by the Garifuna people, who are descendants of African slaves brought to the Caribbean, and therefore has a more reggae, island feel to it. I didn’t do much in Livingston, but enjoyed the simple things: some time alone, writing in my journal and eating pizza along the water; going to a local party on the beach; dancing the bachata at a dive bar; hiking into the forest to the tidepools at Los Siete Altares; and eating freshly cut watermelon off a knife in an alcove on the beach with fellow travelers.
Having extended my stay by a day or two in Rio Dulce and Livingston, it was time to hightail it through Belize to Cancun, to meet up with Mom in time. I endured a hellish boat ride in rainy weather from Guatemala to the tip of Belize – sitting on life jackets, and wearing them, covering ourselves with tarps, and being thrown around and splashed constantly. I only spent one night in Punta Gorda, enjoying some good conversation and an excellent vegetarian meal, before heading out the next morning to spend some time in Caye Caulker.
After an 8 hour bus ride through some of the most boring scenery I’ve experienced (think hot and flat, like Florida), I arrived in Belize City, and immediately hopped a water taxi to Caye Caulker.
Caye Caulker was a lot of fun, and in contrast to the Belizean countryside, resembled the brochure-version of Belize I had expected. I met a ton of other travelers and got to snorkle along the barrier reef that is the second largest in the world. Despite battling a little seasickness during the outing, it was really an amazing day. Since I don’t have very much snorkeling experience, I was completely amazed at the different world that is revealed as soon as you put your mask in the water. You feel a million miles away from the world right above the surface. One of the highlights was snorkeling in an area known as Stingray and Shark Alley. Before the trip, I thought the idea of friendly stingrays rubbing up against me for some TLC sounded cool, but as soon as I was a few inches away in the water, I changed my mind. Gentle creatures, they may be, but very big and pretty freakishly ugly, and I didn’t really want them touching me. I did get to pet a nurse shark, who had been grabbed by our guide, but was quite docile. We also spotted the breathtaking spotted eagle ray, which resembles a stingray, but has a three-dimensional face and chocolate spotted body. It was like an apparition gliding by us through the dark water.
My last night in Caye Caulker was a blast – drinking, dancing and hanging out on the beach with other travelers till 3:30 am, until I finally had to go to my room to pack and catch the 6 am water taxi. After the water taxi and two buses, I finally made it to Cancun by evening.
Thanksgiving Day in Cancun was a riot – a very untraditional celebration. We took a two hour boat ride out to beautiful Isla Contoy, a somewhat remote island which acts as a bird sanctuary. After the tour and lots of photography of the scenery and the nesting birds, we reboarded the boat for our return to mainland. Within minutes, the crew was coming around with tequila slammers, which in order to be culturally sensitive and polite, we HAD to accept. We wound up dancing and doing shots on the top deck for the entire ride back, serenading innocent bystanders on the way in with our rendition of the “Las Ketchup” song and dance. We capped off the exhilarating day with an intimate family dinner. I felt especially thankful for the opportunity to be with family on Thanksgiving, and for the opportunity to have this adventure in the first place. My next destination from Cancun: Havana, Cuba.