by Marge Nichols 24-1-06 Photos by Marge Nichols © Copyright 2006 Marge Nichols

Even Guatemala's smallest maps are speckled with 3 intriguing blue blotches: Lago de (Lake) Atitlan in the west, Lago de Peten Itza up north and Rio Dulce in the east. I'd stare at them, willing those flat blue squiggles into three-dimensions.
Ostensibly, our goal was to reach the Belize barrier reef. My friend Gail, an avid student of coral reef ecology, had snorkeled at nearly every major reef in the world - but not Belize. And while we both like to travel, neither of us is rolling in dough. A catamaran trip out of Guatemala to the Belize reef was a third the price of a trip from Belize City. Dangling this carrot, I cajoled Gail to join me, but secretly wheels were turning in my head on paddling possibilities. And the catamaran's captain confirmed that my inflatable kayak (a Grabner Explorer 1) would fit on board.

Lancha drivers. Not-so-subtly I hinted to Gail, "Such a shame to go so far and not explore other regions of Guatamala." Our minuscule budgets would go a long way where inns cost around $12 each and restaurant meals average $3.00. So, with loaded backpack strapped on, I practiced schlepping my wheeled duffel full of rolled-up boat and paddle gear over the bumpy dirt roads of my neighborhood.

Escaping Guatemala City's barrio-clogged gulches and traffic-congested streets, we meandered by shuttle bus high into the western mountains past the cobblestones and pastel Spanish churches of old Antigua, until we glimpsed a circle of wet sapphire far below, edged by sharp peaks. We barely had time to "ooh and aah" before our bus tipped over the rim, and plunged down stomach-sloshing hairpin turns to the lakeside town of Panajachel, on the shore of Lake Atitlan.

The dusty main street in Panajachel was lined with booths selling Mayan handicrafts - embroidered bags, jewelry, carved masks, blankets striped in fuchsia, apricot, emerald, sky blue. Ubiquitous dark-haired tiny women and girls followed us, holding out straw dolls and hand-woven scarves, gently imploring, "This very pretty for you. I give good price for you."

Next morning I rolled the duffel down the street that ran straight to the lake. I thumped the pack down the stone steps to the beach, trailed by numerous young men each trying to convince me to take his outboard-motor lancha, at inflated prices. They were trying to sell rides to naive turistas for 100 quetzales (about $12.00), before the turistas discovered a ferry a few docks down was a mere 30. But when one guy tried to sweet talk me into parting with 300 quetzales, I smiled at him and said, "Tengo mi barco." (I have my boat).

Volcanoes overshadow the This piqued their interest. At the water's edge, a small crowd surrounded me as I unpacked and unrolled the inflatable kayak - lancha drivers, boys in jeans and Mayan girls in blue home-woven blouses and long skirts, their dark hair wound with headcloths. Laughter and chatter of curiosity followed as I pulled out gear - pump, pfd, rudder, 4-piece paddle, mesh gear bags, foot rudder controls, dry bag, etc.

The young guys had to help me pump up the boat and stow stuff inside, while I tripped over my limited Spanish: Es un timon (it's a rudder), mi asiento (my seat)...mas pequeno, por favor (smaller, please), as we tried to squish my daypack under the rear deck. They understood the rudder mechanism quickly and helped me adjust the tension on the cables. We slid the boat into the water.

Bobbing gently, I looked at the rim of fortress-like walls that surrounded this huge ancient caldera. Here I was on that first cartographic "speck", Lago di Atitlan, a lake roughly 25 miles by 10 and 1000 feet deep. Corn fields tilted on the most precipitous of slopes near the caldera rim, hundreds of vertical feet above the villages - ochre squares of dry cornstalks on 45-degree angles among the brown scrub and rock. I wondered how any soil stayed clinging or how rain could linger long enough to quench the roots of the corn. Or how the farmers hand-tilling the fields would not just fall off and crash into the villages.

A trio of blue volcanoes loomed on the far shore. Water was calm this morning. With a farewell "gracias" to my audience, I paddled southeast along the shore.

Mayan paddle boats I passed Panajachel's waterfront bristling with rough wooden docks and small white ferries. Pana (as locals call it) sits on a rare patch of flat real estate on the lake, a gravel alluvial outwash of the Panajachel River. Beyond the docks was the river's meager mouth, a trickle in this, the dry season. Mayan families, who'd come from other towns to sell handicrafts, were camped among trees beyond the river. Scattered cook-fire smoke lifted, kids splashed along shore and women carried blanket wrapped bundles on their heads across sun-burnt grass.

Steep sides rose up beside me as I paddled, water fringed by clumps of reeds, grasses, dry shrubs among boulders broken off from above. Solitary pescadors - Tz'utuhil Mayan fishermen - glided by, guiding boxy wooden boats with single bladed hand-carved paddles. Their ungainly flat-bottomed boats, of planks with sharp triangular bow, had the finesse of pointed shoe boxes.

High on the slope above me, I could barely see the twisting road to San Antonio Polopo. Villas ended as steep walls dropped from cliff-tops to the water. A deep throaty "awk" above alerted me to a great blue heron as it swooped down the lake, like a pteradactyl in some prehistoric volcanic landscape. A half dozen black ducks with white stubby beaks skirted nervously by.

I rounded a point and suddenly found myself hit by a strong southerly that seemed to have just dropped down the rim. It scudded across the water, whipping up white caps and pushed me into the reeds before I had time to recover. I leaned into the wind, pushed one blade forward, dug in, pulled back, pushing forward on the other blade. The rudder helped as I crept into the quartering wind.

I angled toward the town of San Antonio which hugged the sloping waterfront. Shoebox fishing boats lay on the dirt bank among weathered docks. Along shore half a dozen Mayan women were doing laundry. With heavy woven skirts hiked up to their knees and big blue headwraps, they stood calf-deep in water by flat- topped stones. Beside them were piles of laundry in plastic basins. The women slapped and squeezed wet clothing over the stones, milky soap fanning out into the bay. At a cracked, tilted cement dock near the women, I hauled the kayak up. I sat in some rare afternoon shade, gazing at the volcano triumvirate across the lake and eating what I had managed to scrounge: banana, cookie, cubes of oily, sun- melted cheese. The women chatted as they scrubbed, occasionally stealing a look at me and my funny rubber boat. The wind was picking up. It had shifted to southwest; the choppy cobalt water was stitched with white. A dark vulture soared from the cliffs above toward shredded clouds that drifted past the volcano tops across the dome of sky. Time to head back before the lake gods got me. Locals had warned that fierce afternoon gusts could whip the blue bowl into froth.

The beach at Panajachel was empty. I had no audience as I packed up, except for a ladino family with little kids, glancing shyly at me as they stood by the water's edge. Oh, and a young Mayan woman with big blanket-wrapped bundle on her head. She smiled sweetly and pulled out some weavings, saying, This very good for you. I give you good price.

Lake Peten Itza

In buses with cracked, dirty windows and salsa music blaring for hours, we headed up to the Peten, expansive flatlands bordering Belize and the Yucatan. Arriving at our connection, we were surrounded by a crowd of men trying to out- shout one another hawking rides. In the turmoil of noisy, pressing bodies, a wiry weathered-brown little man shoved a flier in English in front of my nose. The price looked good. I think I understood the gist of his urgent message: the bus was leaving in 5 minutes - just 2 blocks - we must hurry! In a snap decision, I said, "Si, bueno" and he grabbed my wheeled boat duffel and charged off down the street. I trotted after him lugging my other packs, Gail bringing up the rear, muttering, "You picked the seediest one of the lot."

We labored to keep up while my boat receded down the dusty street. He headed toward a beat-up old pick-up truck with caged bed, often used in Guatemala to transport people. Was he loading us onto that jouncing beast? But he passed the truck, turned left and led us straight to a travel office of good repute. Laid-back Guatemalan schedules were on our side. I gave a tip to the wiry go- fer, our heavy packs were hoisted to the bus roof and off we went.

Town of Flores We were in Flores, a small island town on Lake Peten Itza, Our hotel was in the perfect spot for a paddler, across the street from a fine put-in for my inflatable: a weedy lot with a listing weathered dock.

Next day I was on the water by 9:30. It was bright, hot, still, not a cloud in the sky. I turned back to view the white twin-towered Spanish church crowning the hill above the pink and pale yellow buildings of Flores, like a smug conquistador. Flores was perhaps the last major Mayan ceremonial center, full of pyramids, temples and idols before it was destroyed by the Spanish in 1697.

Surrounding terrain stretched almost as flat as the map itself. The church and the control tower of the rarely-used municipal airport vied for the wide sky. There was limestone everywhere: low white cliffs along shore behind Flores, bumpy limestone knobs across a distant horizon. I paddled from Flores Island across to a large peninsula that separates the south coves from the main body of the lake, then west along shore. The water was Kool-Aid green over the pure white of limestone sand below, broken only by dark patches of lake weed. Grasses, sedges, reeds and cattails lined the banks, while palm trees edged woods on a gentle slope. The water seemed barren of all but the tiniest slivers of fish, though one lone fisherman with a net was studying the shallows by the tip of the peninsula.

The small island of Islote Lepete ahead guarded the neck of water that leads to the upper part of the 30-mile lake. A copse of trees on the island shaded a house; a handful of horses and cows grazed in the sunlit pasture. I followed close in to shore, along a stand of reeds, when suddenly, on this hot January Guatemalan day I was transported to July meadows in my native Connecticut, by the familiar squeaky rasp of a red-winged blackbird. Summer inhabitants of our northern cattail marshes, they migrate to Central America for the winter. Would this very bird grace my own yard in a few months?

I crossed the neck and into a mile-long cove, lined with woods and the occasional papaya tree gone wild. Another fisherman in a skiff slowly inched along shore with a single-bladed paddle, his young son swimming nearby. "Buenos dias," I called. "Hay pescados?" (Any fish?) "Nada." Across the cove there were white herons and eight yellow-crowned night herons perched on stumps, 2 long white crest feathers drooping behind their dark heads. Seagulls wheeled and a flock of tern-like birds with yellow bills flashed overhead.

I took an afternoon break on the Santa Elena side. At a shallow beach where I landed were several flat square stones - the local laundry spot - and a thick patch of water hyacinth with fat lavender blossoms crowding the shore. As I sat in the shade across the road, 3 boys on bikes stopped to inspect my boat and later a family with 2 children and a black lab stood by the water, surveying the lake and the boat. Pushing off, I paddled back to Flores.

Rio Dulce

Our rendezvous with the Belize reef catamaran approached, in the eastern town of Rio Dulce, on the river of the same name. But first the river beckoned. Thoughts of the jungle gorge had pulsed my blood far more than any other blue droplet on the Guatemalan map. Rio Dulce was all I'd hoped for: road-less steamy tropical forest, mountainous, green, mysterious.

Carlos, co-owner of Finca Tatin, our jungle B & B, picked us up in town in his motorized lancha, piloted by El Capitan, his 3-year old son Enso. He sped us 20 miles downriver to the lodge. Beyond a manatee reserve, a river otter looped in the water. Small palm-thatched houses hugged the banks as we passed brown- skinned Q'echi' Mayans paddling cayucos (dug-out canoes). Only a dock gave away our lodge's location on a small tributary in the dense rainforest. Our tiny cabin, just 20 feet from the bank, was invisible. The lodge's other buildings emerged from behind gloomy, dripping foliage as we walked damp boardwalks over swamp.

I soon pumped up my Grabner, with the help of Enso, "Mr. Pump Man." I paddled up the short Rio Tatin until rocks and rapids forbade me enter. Q'eqchi' boys were swimming in the rushing water. A handful of thatched-roof wood houses sat along the river amid tall forest. Branches were furry with epiphytes and prickly with bromeliads. Long lianas hung down straight as pins, searching for the river. A black trogon (relative of the quetzal bird) perched on a low branch over the water and 3 oropendula birds spread their golden tails as they swooped through the trees.

Gail joined me in a rental sit-on-top and we paddled out to the wide main river. To the south, toward Honduras, ran a dark wall of jungle-clad mountains. Osprey, pelicans, cormorants, black ducks peppered the sky and river. Many narrow cayucos passed us. Paddled solo, or carrying 2, 3 people, even a family of 5, they all had no more than three inches of freeboard. No roads here - everyone travels by boat. Mid-river, long cayucos with pairs of net fishermen sat under the bright sky. One man in each dug-out hauled in a pale-blue net, bunched it up with four stone corner-weights hanging down. With a quick twist of body, he flung the net, the weights fanning it wide across the water, arcing into a square.

Gail with The rainforest lived up to its name next morning when a torrential downpour began after breakfast. In bathing suit I launched my Grabner in the warm downpour, while Gail followed, covered neck to ankles in what she wishfully called a "rain suit." The solid shush of the deluge muted all other sounds, the calm river speckled by millions of fat blips of rain. Mist hung over the river, the mountains were gone, the woods on the banks a ghostly grey-green.

A great day to soak in the hot springs. Upriver about 2 kilometers was the agua caliente - a faint seepage of hot water from a waterline hole in the limestone bank under overhanging trees. With boats tied to tree snags in the river, we relished the bath, wisps of steam rising around us.

The rain slowed, stopped, the sky brightened. A mile up another tributary we caught glimpses of river life until muddy rapids turned us back. Cook-fire smoke wafted up through the thatch roofs of small houses. Turkeys, chickens, a cat, a dog or two scratched about in muddy yards. Women washed clothes in the river alongside beached cayucos. Rain-soaked laundry hung limp near small children on porches who watched us pass. A rooster crowed. In a small lagoon, iridescent flashes of brilliant blue morpho butterflies flitted by.

My dream house on Rio Dulce Next morning, in mist and light rain, I left to paddle the 5-mile gorge to Livingston on the coast. Many men in cayucos were out line-fishing. As I entered the gorge, the river swept left around an acute bend of limestone cliffs. A fifty-foot wide waterfall cascaded down a rock face, partly hidden behind dense foliage. Chalky, striated walls hemmed in the banks for several miles. In the 1930's, this area temporarily became Africa, when a Hollywood crew filmed Johnny Weismuller as Tarzan jumping off the cliffs into the Rio Dulce.

A belted kingfisher followed me, swooping low, calling its raspy call, while two long-tailed frigate birds soared high above. Other water birds dotted the foliage and sky: white herons, osprey, a blue heron, the occasional seagull. The walls along the river grew higher into sharp-angled slopes of 300 or 400 feet, thick with trees, vines, palm fronds. Occasionally a motorized lancha growled past, but in between only a few bird squawks, whistles and chirps punctuated the stillness. Wisps of clouds flowed over the hilltops. Eventually the gorge widened out to the mouth at the protected waters of the Bahia de Amatique. A sauna sun came out.

Q'eqchi' Mayan woman The town of Livingston hugged a small hill at the mouth of the Rio Dulce - a sleepy collection of wood plank or pastel cement houses with corrugated metal or thatched roofs, small restaurants and a hotel or two along the waterfront, a Tourist office and a Texaco fuel pump on the dock. A derelict rusting boat wreck was listing offshore and weathered fishing boats, now pelican perches, were moored in the mouth of the river. It was benign looking today, but in centuries past, English, French and Dutch pirates lay in wait here for Spanish ships.

Livingston, with its English name and black Garifuna population, is an anomaly in Guatemala. I heard English spoken with a Belizean accent as often as Spanish. Originally West African slaves, the Garifunas had enjoyed some measure of independence in the Lesser Antilles and intermarried with Carib natives. But in the late 1700's, they were hauled away by the British and dumped on an island off Honduras. Thousands died, but of those that survived, many fanned out to settle up and down the Caribbean coast of Central America, now Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

A lancha came speeding toward me and for a moment I feared the driver would run me down. But it slowed and turned and our finca-owner, Carlos, shouted "Ola!" He'd come down to Livingston to pick up some guests for his B & B and couldn't help spotting my funny rubber boat.

Author in her own South along the coast was a long low peninsula - the Cabo de Tres Puntas, that poked up into the Gulf of Honduras. And to the north what appeared to be steep bumpy islands were the hills behind Punta Gorda, Belize. The huge Bahia di Amatique, protected by the peninsula and the barrier reef, was flat calm. Soon I would be crossing this in a catamaran sailboat.

I pointed my bow back up river. I paddled beside a young Q'eqchi' man, a pescador, in a cayuco. My poor Spanish limited our attempts at conversation, so smiling "adios" and crossing the river to the far shore, I aimed behind promontories for eddies, gentle backflows of current that made going upriver easy.

A buttery afternoon glow brushed a fisherman in a cayuco as he tossed his net wide out over the water. In the lowering sun, I headed back.

Belize Barrier Reef

At last we embarked for the Belize Reef. However, I was to enjoy one more night on the Rio Dulce. Our catamaran dropped anchor in El Golfete, a lake-like widening of the river, before heading out to open water. Across the still water lay a small island sagging under the weight of hundreds of birds - leggy white herons, egrets, pelicans, and a Wagnerian chorus of cormorants that burped and snorted like pigs.

Capt. Clark racing the local boys A quartet of Q'eqchi' Mayan boys, looking for diversion, came paddling out in patched and painted cayucos. We challenged the boys to a race, my inflatable against their cayucos - 3 runs around the catamaran, a Coke going to the winner. The boys stood in their boats and leaned their bodies into their paddles in a mad dash.

Our captain was not to be left out. Grinning, with vows that, "I cheat!" he next took my inflatable on a careening spin, splashing the boys with his paddle as they raced around the sailboat.

Next day, we sailed the gorge, passed Livingston, out into the Bahia di Amatique and beyond. For a week, stingrays, moray eels, four-eye butterfly fish, sergeant majors regaled us down below. Gail was happy. But although we had imagined a hedonistic week lolling in the sultry Caribbean sun, it was not to be. 25-knot winds rushing through the rigging for days put a damper on paddling my pillow of a boat. Overcast skies and chilly drizzle forced all passengers to don all the yellow rain slickers we could find to keep warm and dry. But memories of those blue swatches on the Guatemalan map kept me warm.