A Journey through Sweet Waters

Río Dulce, Guatemala (photo: Scott Drennan)

Río Dulce, Guatemala (photo: Scott Drennan)

Written by Gregory Kipling photo: Scott Drennan

Exploring Río Dulce Past and Present

Measuring a mere 42 kilometers from source to mouth, Río Dulce is hardly one of Central America’s great waterways. However, despite its small size the river has attracted a great deal of attention over the past 500 years. Conquistadors, scientists, pirates and adventurers have all passed through in search of riches and glory, followed in more recent times by banana tycoons and other entrepreneurs eager to exploit Guatemala’s lush tropical lowlands.

Although the Q’eqchi’ Maya have a long history of settlement in the Río Dulce region, the river only makes its debut in history books in 1524 when Gil González Dávila became the first European to venture upstream as far as Lake Izabal. Turning back once it became clear the route did not provide a shortcut to the Pacific Ocean as he had hoped, González nonetheless established a small colony near the river mouth called San Gil de Buena Vista. Poorly planned and conceived, the settlement was a disappointment from the start, with tropical disease and attacks by indigenous raiding parties quickly decimating its population. Faced with the prospect of an early death, colonists abandoned San Gil at the first opportunity, ending. Spain’s only attempt to settle the lower reaches of Río Dulce during the colonial period.

However, Spanish authorities in Guatemala were not prepared to let the river slip into obscurity. Unhappy with existing trade routes which forced merchants to ship Europe-bound goods through ports in Honduras, they decided to establish a new terminus on the southern shore of Lake Izabal. Given its location relatively close to the resource-rich highlands, the port soon attracted a growing number of ocean-going vessels.

Unfortunately, these in turn aroused the interest of English, French and Dutch pirates, who would regularly lie in wait at the mouth of Río Dulce to ambush passing ships.

So began two centuries of mayhem and violence in which Spain suffered a string of losses, including the capture of its fortress at San Felipe and torching of its Lake Izabal port facilities. However, the Spaniards re-built and strengthened their defenses after each attack, and by the late 18th century piracy on Río Dulce had largely ceased. Still, bandits continued to lurk on the river’s tributaries well into the 1800s, occasionally venturing forth to make mischief or leave graffiti on Río Dulce’s famous piedra pintada rock escarpment.

Notwithstanding the presence of such troublemakers, Guatemala’s post-inde-pendence government was determined to exploit the Caribbean lowlands’ economic potential. Settlement of the region was encouraged, as was the cultivation of bananas, sugar cane and other crops. This in turn was good news for the mostly Garífuna residents of Lívingston, a small town that had sprung up on a promontory overlooking the mouth of Río Dulce. With sand bars and other obstacles making river navigation hazardous for large steamships, the town became the main Caribbean trans-shipment point for agricultural products bound for overseas markets.

In its heyday in the early 20th century, Lívingston enjoyed a booming economy, ample job opportunities and a growing population. However, the good times did not last long. Competition from nearby Puerto Barrios was fierce, and there was little the town could do once major banana producers decided to relocate their shipping operations farther down the coast. In the end, local people adjusted to the loss of freight traffic on the river the best they could. Some left in search of a better life elsewhere, while others went back to fishing and subsistence agriculture.

Almost a century later, life remains remarkably unchanged along the banks of Río Dulce. Despite the intrusion of cell phones and outboard motors, dugout canoes are still very much in evidence, as is the traditional culture of the local indigenous population. At the same time, the government has taken steps to safeguard the region’s unique flora and fauna by creating the Biotopo Chocón Machacas nature reserve. Located on the river’s north shore in an area known as El Golfete, the 7,600-hectare reserve is home to over 50 types of trees, 180 bird species as well as deer, manatees and jungle cats.

Río Dulce, Guatemala (photo: Scott Drennan)

While the ecotourism opportunities afforded by the Chocón Machacas reserve and other nearby parks are a big draw for Guatemalan and foreign visitors alike, perhaps the best introduction to what the region has to offer is a Río Dulce cruise. Such trips can easily be arranged dockside in Lívingston, where boatmen charge per person for a six- to seven-hour tour.

Even if the weather is not always cooperative, the trip is sure to be memorable, with great views and photo opportunities the moment one enters the Cueva de la Vaca gorge just outside Lívingston. As the boat passes between towering cliffs draped with hanging vines, it is easy to imagine the awe that must have filled Spanish explorers when they sailed upriver for the first time. Soon, however, the topography begins to soften, and the thatched homes of the region’s Q’eqchi’ inhabitants become visible among the trees. This is an area where boatmen like to make several stops, giving passengers an opportunity to bathe in a thermal spring or observe wildlife in mangrove-lined lagoons.

The final leg of the excursion takes one through the wide but shallow Golfete and onward to San Felipe, where Río Dulce ends and the expansive waters of Lake Izabal begin. Guarding the lake entrance is Castillo de San Felipe de Lara, a restored colonial fortress complete with drawbridge, chapel and watchtower. After visitors take a leisurely stroll around the fort’s grounds and walls, the boat is ready to leave once more, this time to make the long trip back to Lívingston.

Stepping onto the pier after a day spent exploring Río Dulce from mouth to headwater, one begins to understand what drove the German adventurer Baron Alexander von Humboldt to proclaim the river to be the most beautiful in the Americas. Even if one does not share the baron’s penchant for bold statements, there is no question that he has chosen a worthy recipient on which to bestow such an honor.

This article was first printed in July 2003 (REVUE yr.12 #4)

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