Usually a small quiet port town Rio Dulce is a means of travel from Guatemala through to Belize and vice versa. Its sleepy nature and easy access has led many an expat to leave the United States and settle in this quaint lakeside town. Full of fresh food markets the main reason to travel to Rio Dulce would be in transit or for the few excursions namely a waterfall trip. During the Christmas period however, things can become quite lively. At the end of November locals erect the Christmas tree. Quite different to western culture a band performs live whilst you can walk around the crowded streets the buttery smell of popcorn in the air. You can treat yourself to small delights from empanadas to cotton candy. The next day is no less busy. A loud procession fills the streets, many local groups come together; dancers, musicians and even expats dressed as santa claus offering sweets to the children.
If a trip to Rio Dulce happens to enter into your itinerary make sure to make the boat trip to Livingstone as its valley surrounded by steep mammoth tree covered cliffs makes you feel as if you are in a scene from Jurassic Park, a pterodactyl could appear at a moment’s notice.
Perhaps one of my favourite Latin towns this trendy, yet rustic town is definitely part of the tourist trail. Accommodation full to the brim you will definitely not be the only foreign individual. Although this influence can be at times unappealing Antiguans seem to have dealt with this rather expertly. Laws have prohibited the destruction of its cobbled roads, which, although means you will have a bumpy ride it keeps a nice rustic authentic feel to the town quite often taken for granted. If the citizens of Antigua were unable to rebuild their roads they have definitely focused their efforts elsewhere on the culinary side. Yes, you can purchase your typical Latin food; flavourful tortas, tortillas and burritos but you can also dine in Italy, Texas or even find Buddhist restaurants offering clean, organic eating (Sam Sara being my pick of the bunch).
When not admiring the old characteristic town, or indulging in the food one can test one’s abilities hiking a number of volcanic routes. For those that desire an easier one day only trail Pacaya is the option. A nice easy excursion just out of town. For those whom seek spraying lava, a 4am start and some treacherous slopes Acatenango is the trek for you. An 8am start in Antigua will see you head to the beginning of the trail between 11 and 12. You will be given some meals but these are limited so make sure to bring along more. Also ensure you are wrapped up warm. The climb itself is not cold but the evening and early morning start will see travellers huddled together around the warm smoky fire. Yet if fortune is in your favour it is all worth it. You could find yourself in the dark early hours of the morning looking directly at a frequently erupting volcano, the full moon and the rising glow of the sun. For those never to have witnessed a volcanic eruption the loud explosive rumble followed be illuminating orange fire is a surreal experience.
Acatenango is available on a one day hike but be prepared, you will not see the eruption at night and you run the chance of not seeing the volcano at all if nature is against you and clouds fill the sky.
The town of Monterrico was to be one of the highlights of my tour. A huge nesting site for the olive ridley turtle and, for me, the perfect time to see nesting leatherbacks one of my lifelong dreams. On arriving one of them first questions then, was obviously, what are the chances of leatherback sightings. The answer, not good. It seems due to poaching, pollution and other factors such as predators there is little leatherback presence in the region. On exploring a little more and witnessing it first hand I saw poachers driving up and down the beach at night on motorbikes and quad bikes seeking out nesting turtles. Once found they will ‘donate’ to the San Carlos University Center for Conservation Studies (CECON) but keep a majority for themselves. The reason for keeping eggs is to sell not for meat, turtle eggs are considered an aphrodisiac, a terrible excuse. Threatened species are facing troubling times and instead of actively trying to help poachers would rather adopt an urban legend, one that has no true benefit.
There are two conservation groups in Monterrico ARCAS and CECON. ARCAS is funded through volunteers staying for long periods of time and CECON is funded through tourists flocking to the site paying Q40 and later on at 5:30pm paying Q10 to release your own egg. You are given the bottom portion of a large drinks bottle; a guide then places a turtle into the container ready for you to ‘race’ the turtle to the ocean. Upon watching the commotion, I automatically was saddened. The guides seem to enforce no rules, people grab the turtles to take a selfie with them before releasing, I saw one child actually rubbing a hatchling across his face. I am unsure whether CECON is a conservation effort or a tourist trap (I will follow up on this and of ARCAS). It seems the option at present is have poachers eat all of the eggs or have tourists fondle and scream releasing hatchlings onto the beach. The Guatemalan government have a lot of work to do as turtle numbers will surely decline with these unethical practices. Efforts I have witnessed in Tortuguero, Costa Rica and Selingan Island, Borneo seem leaps and bounds more ethical and sustainable.
Aside from the turtle status the town has a slow relaxed vibe full with hotels and restaurants and long black sand beaches with fantastic sunrises and sunsets.