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We made our way from Punta Gorda (Belize) to Livingston (Guatemala) by Water Taxi.
We got the St Charles at a discounted rate of BZ$95 / night (US$48).
We booked 2 nights because we were arriving on a Sunday and the internet says that boats to Livingston only leave on a Tuesday and Friday. We were targeting the Tuesday boat.
PUNTA GORDA TO LIVINGSTON:
We left on the Monday 1:00pm boat. The St Charles Inn was kind enough to not charge us for the 2nd (cancelled) night.
We arrived at the Boat Terminal at 12 noon. We bought our ticket for BZ$60 (US$30) each and we were instructed to return at 12:30pm for check in.
We paid BZ$60 Departure Tax each and passed through immigration.
Livingston is the name of a town in the Izabal Department, eastern Guatemala, at the mouth of the Río Dulce on the Gulf of Honduras. It was Guatemala’s main port on the Caribbean Sea before the construction of nearby Puerto Barrios.
Livingston is noted for its unusual mix of Garífuna, Afro-Caribbean, Maya and Ladino people and culture. In recent decades Livingston has developed a large tourist industry.
OUR LIVINGSTON ACCOMMODATION:
We booked 2 nights at a BELOW GRANDPAcking Standard hotel: the Hotel y Restaurante Casa Escondida. On paper, it looked like the best of a bad bunch. We pre-booked 2 nights at GTQ250 / night (US$33). Our intention, as usual, was to use it as a base to look around and find a better hotel to stay a further week.
It wasn’t easy to find. Many of the locals that I asked did not know where it was. But, I bought a Tigo SIMcard and data plan (see below) and got there in the end.
The Twin room was tiny … only just big enough for the 2 single beds. No furniture. The ensuite was OK but there was no hot water.
They did a reasonable breakfast for GTQ25.
The only way in and out of Livingston is by boat. The town, itself, has very few attractions: you can take a 5km walk to some stepped waterfalls (which are OK) or get down to the town beach (which is very average).
Other than that, you are paying for some over-priced boat excursions.
Guatemala is said to be one of the cheapest countries in Central America, but I didn’t find it particularly cheap. The cheapest meal in the cheapest local cafe (e.g. Gaby’s) will set you back about GTQ30 (US$4) for a chicken soup. It was tasty though and was full of goodies.
One of the best value for money meals is a Tapado which you can get for GTQ75. Tapado is a coconut based seafood soup. The one that we had contained prawns and a whole fish. It was big enough to share between 2 people.
Expect to pay GTQ15 for a 330ml beer. But if you are happy going to a local dive bar in the backstreets, you can get a 1L beer for GTQ10. We stopped by for a couple and had a bit of a dance (with the local hooker).
LAKE IZABAL & RIO DULCE OVERVIEW:
Lake Izabal, also known as the Golfo Dulce, is the largest lake in Guatemala. The Polochic River is the largest river that drains into the lake. The lake which is only a metre above sea level drains into the Gulf of Honduras through the smaller Golfete Dulce and the navigable Rio Dulce.
As a large lake and river system, it has become popular as a destination for the international boating community and as an economical retirement location for expatriates. It is a natural ‘safe haven’ for yachts touring the Carribean and a natural choice for exploring the southern interior of Guatemala.
To get around you need take a boat – these are readily available. Almost all homes and businesses on the Rio Dulce have a boat dock. Travelers arriving by land will have to hire a lancha (speedboat) or fishing dory to get around. Lanchas and dories work as fishing boats and water taxis and are an economical mode of transport.
THE BOAT FROM LIVINGSTON TO RIO DULCE:
It became quickly obvious that 2 nights in Livingston was enough. So my travel partner (Barbara) and I parted company … Barbara headed for Utila in Honduras to learn SCUBA Diving … and, I headed for Lake Izabal.
The Water Taxis from Livingston go to Rio Dulce. The price is GTQ125 and the trip takes about 1.5 hours. I targeted the 9:30am. You can either buy your ticket down at the Boat Terminal or (normally) back at your hotel for the same price.
RIO DULCE TO EL ESTOR:
I decided to ‘get off the beaten track’ and head for El Estor on the north western shores of the lake.
Those connecting to buses get off in Rio Dulce. Those who are doing a day trip stay on the boat and continue on to the Fort at San Felipe de Lara.
To connect to El Estor, I had to walk past the Bus Terminals to the main road T Junction.
There I found the Colectivo to El Estor. As usual with Colectivos, it left when it was full. I mean FULL. The price to El Estor was GTQ20. The trip took about 1 hour. We made many stops on the way to drop people off and pick people up.
MY EL ESTOR ACCOMMODATION:
There aren’t many GRANDPAcking accommodation option around Lake Izabal. I decided to get inventive … I started my search 1 day before my arrival.
I used the normal Hotel Search Engines to get a shortlist of hotels and, then, searched the internet to see if any of those hotels had a website. Luckily, my first choice hotel in El Estor did have a website: the Chalet Castillo.
The price on the search engines was GTQ250 / night (US$33). From their own website, I emailed them directly to enquire about a room. They emailed back to say that they had Fan Rooms for GTQ100 and Aircon Rooms for GTQ200. I told them that I would choose a room on arrival.
Using my Smartphone GPS, I found the hotel easily. Alas, the caretaker at the hotel said that the only rooms that they had were GTQ250 / night. I emailed the manager to express my disappointment. He emailed back to say that the problem was resolved and that, if I returned to the hotel, the rooms would be available at the agreed price.
The common upstairs deck had hammocks and was a pleasant place to while-away time during the day.
ABOUT EL ESTOR:
Not many foreign tourists come here. I saw no others whilst I was there.
That is both good and bad. No-one speaks English. The Spanish that I learnt in Tlaquepaque got me around Mexico but, for some reason, nobody seems to understand me in Guatemala. The locals sort-of just looked at me with blank looks on their faces.
The practical result was that I couldn’t find anything to do. There is nothing much to be found on the internet … there are no Tourist Booths around … and, no-one to talk to.
I talked to a boatman about a 3 hour trip to Bocas del Rio Polochic where there is a Nature Reserve but he wanted GTQ300 for up to 3 people and GTQ100 per person after that. I was alone and GTQ300 was too much for me.
I planned to take a day trip by Colectivo to the hot waterfalls at Finca el Paraiso (GTQ10 each way plus GTQ20 entry) but it rained all that day so I missed it.
There are some cheap eateries in town where you can get a ‘Desayuno’ breakfast (eggs, refried beans, and tacos) or noodle lunch for GTQ15.The waterfront restaurants are nothing flash but seem to want GTQ75 plus for their cheapest meals.
This is my first time in Guatemala. I don’t know what to expect yet.
I imagine that there will be free internet available in the big towns and main tourist areas; but, I intend to get off of the ‘beaten track’ now and again.
The main supplier in Guatemala is Tigo with one or two others close to it. For the widest coverage, I decided to go with Tigo.
On arrival in Livingston, I found a shop and bought a SIMcard. The owner loaded the SIMcard and tried to get it working. He failed saying that my Passport didn’t have the required 12 digit number. To register a new SIMcard in Guatemala you need to use official ID. I returned the SIMcard and moved on.
I didn’t give in. I tried another shop. This guy was a lot more helpful and called the Tigo help desk. They told him to use his own Guatemalan ID number. This enabled the registration process and my Passport Number was entered during that process with success. It took the poor chap over 30 minutes to do everything.
I bought a 1 month ‘Mes Social’ pre-paid plan with 1.5GBs of data. The total price including the SIMcard was GTQ166.
The data connection is slow to start up whenever you boot your phone and it gets its knickers in a twist sometimes as you alternate between Wifi connections and your own Data Plan. The latter requires a Smartphone reboot. Otherwise, I had a good signal in most places … but not when out on the open road in a Colectivo.
There are no decent beaches in Livingston.
Lake Izabal is normal lakelife.
WHERE TO STAY:
In El Estor, there are very few hotels listed on the internet but there are more to be found once you arrive.
Have a look yourself:
YOUR HEALTH & SAFETY:
There is no reason to feel unsafe here. But, as always, exercise normal levels of caution … don’t make yourself an obvious target.
Petty Theft is common. Both my Livingston and El Estor hotels were fenced and locked up at night. My El Estor hotel even had a caretaker who kept the gates to the property locked at all times … he had to let me in and out of the property.
Keep an eye on your things and lock up when you leave your hotel room.
MONEY / PRICES / SHOPPING:
There are at least 2 ATMs in Livingston. Withdrawal limits seemed to be GTQ2,000.
The best way to get your water is to buy a 5 Gallon container. You can see them everywhere. My El Estor hotel provided me with one for GTQ16.
El Estor was worth a try but proved unsuccessful.
With my poor Spanish, it seems that I need to get back onto the ‘beaten path’.
I will head back to Rio Dulce and stay around there for a few days.
I was unimpressed by Livingston. For me, it is just somewhere to go whilst you are in transit to somewhere else.
El Estor is OK if you just want to relax in a gated hotel on a lakefront.
As for the rest of Guatemala?