By Ernie Alderete
Guatemala’s short Caribbean Coast, from Puerto Barrios near the Honduran border to the south, to Livingston near the Belizean border at the north, is the country’s “back door.”
Forgotten, overlooked, bypassed and ignored for untold centuries. It was never heavily populated because of the constant pirate raids during the colonial era.
One of the greatest attractions on this lush tropical coast studded with towering coconut palms and sinuous mangroves is El Castillo de San Felipe, where two magnificent fresh water bodies intersect, Lakes El Golfete and Izabal.
Virtually everyone has the same covetous reaction at first sight of the largely unknown, perfectly preserved castle, one of only two in Central America. Americans want to buy it, dismantle it and ship it back home brick by brick! It is, perhaps, the smallest castle in the world. The entire cobblestone structure would fit into half a football field. And it is absolutely storybook charming. But San Felipe was never intended to be cute! It was built for a sound and functional purpose, to defend the back door from the marauding pirates and privateers that assaulted the whole Caribbean Coast of Spanish Central America.
Sir Francis Drake was known as El Drago, virtually the boogeyman, by the local populace who fled the coast at the mere rumor of his approach. The Caribbean Coast and adjacent lake beds are littered with as yet undiscovered Spanish Galleons sunk by buccaneers, awaiting scuba divers to salvage their gold, silver, emerald and pearl treasures. After a storm old silver doubloons sometimes wash ashore.
Livingston is the center of the Garifuna community in Guatemala. The Garifuna are one of the most interesting ethnic groups in the Americas. Their African ancestors were enslaved aboard a ship that wrecked on shoals off St. Vincent in the West Indies in the 16th century. Most of the suddenly liberated slaves swam ashore to the then un-colonized island where they lived peacefully with the native Indians. Over the years the two groups interbred to the point where they became a new melded race, the Garifuna, black Indians.
Eventually, the Brits of course coveted St. Vincent and dispossessed the Garifuna. They were deported en masse to the Bay Islands off of Honduras. From there they spread up the coast as far as Belize, and down as far as Nicaragua.
The Garifuna call Livingston “La Buga,” the mouth of the Rio Dulce, the sweet river. Here you can enjoy many dishes prepared with coconut oil, coconut milk and fresh shredded coconut, including sweet coconut bread and Tapado, a creamy seafood soup made with plantains, fish, shellfish and coconut milk.
The three most celebrated animals in Guatemala are also the most illusive. Guatemalans joke that the only place you see the quetzal is on their money, which is named after the bird with the resplendent multi-colored tail feathers that were once collected to make the feathered cloaks of Aztec and Maya emperors.
I spotted a magnificent quetzal at the Sunday market one day. It had iridescent red, blue and green tail feathers that trailed more than a foot in length. Unfortunately, it turned out to be an exotic but quite domestic rooster, rather than a quetzal!
Most Guatemalans will boast that the bird loves their country so much that it will die if taken outside of Guatemala. And efforts to keep the quetzal in captivity have failed. Although, I doubt if it strayed into neighboring Belize it would die right at the border!
The jaguar is another Mesoamerican animal that has achieved virtually mythical status. There are legends about were-jaguars, creatures that are half man, half feline. And of course one of the world’s most sought after vehicles is named in honor of the sleek cat. But the spotted creature is nocturnal, so you are unlikely to spot one.
The manatee is yet another animal that is virtually universally venerated. Why is the chubby, slow-moving manatee so beloved? I think it has little to do with it supposedly being the source of the mermaid legends. Perhaps it is its avuncular appeal. A manatee looks like your kindly old uncle, whiskered, pudgy and huggable!
The only places to observe the herbivorous manatee are at Amatique Bay, Lake Izabal and especially at the Manatee Biosphere at Tijax, between Izabal and El Golfete, virtually in the shadow of nearby San Felipe Castle.
Immense Lake Izabal drains into El Golfete, which drains into the Rio Dulce, which flows northeast into Amatique Bay and finally, the Caribbean, the entire watershed almost forming an arrow pointing toward Belize.
I saw hundreds of luxury yachts and more modest sailing ships flying the stars and stripes docked all along this entire water system. I soon learned that Americans leave their watercraft here year-round because the fresh water is less corrosive to their hulls, and their vessels are safe from the hurricanes that often batter the open sea around Florida and other gulf coast states.
One animal that is not in the least bit illusive, secretive nor endangered is the Howler Monkey.
As I was strolling between pyramids at El Ceibal I felt a light mist descending from the forest canopy. What at first I thought was a fresh morning rainfall turned out to be a bunch of monkeys pissing on me! Another time they pelted unsuspecting pedestrians with palm nuts.
Howler Monkeys are the alarm clock of the rain forest. They hoot and holler and otherwise make their presence known at many jungle lodges soon after sunrise.
The most fabulous resort in Central America is Amatique Bay Resort and Marina, just outside Puerto Barrios.
Two magnificent restaurants on the grounds cater to your every whim. Los Mangos is an exotic two-story thatch-roofed poolside restaurant where you can sip on a margarita by the free-form pool, or by the pristine fresh water crescent-shaped bay just a few feet away. Garifuna musicians and singers entertain on a beach bandstand most evenings.
Puerto Chico is a luxurious castle-like restaurant nestled on a hillside on the other end of the expansive, impeccably landscaped property. The huge pool not only looks like a Walt Disney creation, it and much of the property, was designed by Disney veterans. The pool features an actual size weathered pirate ship that tilts into the pool spilling a cascade of water from a gash in its side. Only when I got up close and touched it, did I realize that the ship was fashioned from high impact molded plastic.
Guests stay in tastefully decorated villas equipped with color cable TV and all the amenities Americans have come to expect. Golf carts whisk you about the property, around the marina and up to the butterfly enclosure. You can buy a four, or five-bedroom, three bath home within the gated community complete with your own swimming pool and Jacuzzi for about $250,000.
Shopping in Guatemala is as good as it gets. Each region contributes its particular skills, raw materials and traditions.
The area surrounding Tikal is renowned for its exquisite woodcarving. The finest pieces are crafted from native mahogany and from the national tree, the solid cedar. I bought several exquisite salad bowl sets crafted from rectangles of light cedar alternating with rectangles of dark mahogany.
Probably the cheapest gift you can pick up is an insulated tortilla holder, shaped like a cloth pita pocket in a variety of colors and patterns. At under two dollars they are a bargain that your friends back home will really appreciate. You can buy matching table clothes, oven mitts, potholders, napkins and place mats.
Why Guatemala’s Caribbean Coast?
Because it is an undiscovered destination, something to wow your friends with. The tropical scenery and superb, immaculate beaches rival those of Tahiti, or Hawaii at half the distance and a fraction of the cost. Because of the delicious and unique cuisine, different even from that in highland Guatemala. And last but not least, easy access to the three prime Maya archeological sites, the largest, Tikal, as well as the magnificent El Ceibal and Quirigua.