The River Less Traveled: Drifting through the jungle in Guatemala's Caribbean
I woke to a high-pitched shimmering sound emanating from the jungle. Surely some kind of indigenous insect's mating call, the otherworldly sound rolled off the brilliant green hills in waves.
My husband Larry, 13-year-old son Erik and I were beginning our second day at Rancho Corozal. Tucked away along the Rio Tatin near Guatemala's mysterious sliver of Caribbean coast, Rancho Corozal is an eco retreat that's almost Costa Rican in style, except that here, we're just south of Belize and west of Honduras.
With the entire region surrounded by impenetrable jungle, travel through these sparsely populated waters is exclusively by small boat. Whether your jungle river fantasies are rooted in Tarzan, Heart of Darkness or even The Rainforest Cafe, this region is the real deal.
Rancho Corozal was conceived and created by John Heaton, a Frenchman whose refined aesthetic is directed to all things Guatemalan. Artfully set along a small tributary off the larger Rio Dulce, the 20-acre compound can house up to ten, but is home to only one group at a time. Prices are $250 a night for one or two, with extra costs for each additional guest.
Luxuriously, we three had the entire place to ourselves — along with soaring birds, passing boats and the ranch's authentic Indo-Maya beauty. Several acres of lush tropical gardens with huge flowers and exotic varieties of palm trees surround the living areas. We slept in double beds draped in romantic safari netting and had the run of indoor and outdoor living rooms, a dining room, kitchen and spacious hammock house with a sky high thatched roof.
No screens, no windows, just open air and views. No electricity, just oil lanterns and torches lit by the caretaker Sabino's wife and daughter as darkness begins to fall. And in the beautiful majolica tile baths, it's rainwater only.
I don't think I've ever been much of anywhere where I didn't feel like reading, but Rancho Corozal was such a mesmerizing environment, I mostly just sat there, looking and listening.
Breakfast at the house was fresh fruit, handmade corn tortillas and scrambled eggs with fresh tomatoes. Dinner was at restaurants along the river. The first night Sabino took us in his skiff to Restaurante Remanso, where the proprietor seemed surprised to have sudden evening customers. She summoned a friend whose boat soon pulled in and before long, the kitchen was up and running. Over Gallo beers, we watched the nighttime traffic along the moonlit water. Eventually, cilantro-spiked ceviche arrived, followed by grilled shrimp and local white fish with plantains and a pile of fries.
On our second night, after lamplighters left, we stayed at Corozal to bask in the atmosphere until darkness fully descended. Later on, Sabino buzzed us across the river to Finca Tatin, a rustic backpacker's hotel where $8 a person bought us a superb home cooked dinner at a big communal table.
Sabino's skiff rents for $125 a day, plus the cost of gas — and he knows these waters well. Rancho Corozal is centrally located for easy day trips to the candy-colored port of Livingston — a funky, get-there-by-boat-only village on the Caribbean that's home to the Garifunas, African descendents with their own language and musical tradition. A hot sulphur spring and Playa Blanca, a pretty, white sand beach, offer other alternatives.
After two nights at Corozal, Sabino dropped us at Tortugal, a casual hotel and marina with inexpensive rooms, close to the town of Rio Dulce (also known as Fronteras) where we'd catch the Litegua bus for the five-hour ride to Guatemala City.
At Tortugal, we swam in the warm water. I took out a kayak and just missed a huge rainstorm that blew in behind my back. Darkness came and a delicious dinner passed. We hung out with the boaters, drinking Zacapa rum.
After midnight, I walked out to the porch and found the night watchman patrolling — a reminder that Guatemala has its dangers. The area experienced several violent incidents this summer, mostly involving sailboat robberies. (At Rancho Corozal, the caretaker lives next door — and a night watchman also protects the property.) In ten days and half as many locations, we never felt threatened or even worried — but visitors should definitely beware.
I looked into the kitchen, ready for the coming morning with its hanging nets of pineapples and avocados. A huge flock of seabirds flew over the open water. The house cats sidled up to me and the glow of a few headlights could be seen as a few cars crossed the Rio Dulce Bridge. With just hours left in this compelling corner of the world, I was in no rush for morning.
STAY: Rancho Corozal starts at $250/night for 1–2 people with additional costs per person, breakfast included. Boat rental, $125 a day, plus the cost of gas (quintamaconda.com) GET THERE: Transport within Guatemala is by public bus, shared or private vans. The refurbished school buses commonly known as chicken buses are considered risky for tourists. Litegua Buses are safer, reliable and inexpensive, yet only leave for Rio Dulce from Guatemala City. One-way fare to Rio Dulce/Fronteras, from $9. The trip takes five hours with a mid-trip stop. There is a Litegua office in Rio Dulce and it is easy to arrange from the airport or in town. Information can be found at litegua.com. Most visitors to Guatemala begin their stay in the colonial city of Antigua, as opposed to grim Guatemala City. Rather than backtracking into Guatemala City to get to Rio Dulce, private transport is available through many local agencies.