We're unexpectedly greeted as we got off the boat in Livingston by Yusef, who would be our friendly rep for a 2 night stay at Casa de la Iguana. It's unclear if it was a happy coincidence that Yusef was at the dock, or if he'd been heading down there to meet each boat in the hope of finding us. After showing us to our room (a lovely airy wooden cabin on the second floor with a hammock and family of ants outside), he got to explaining what goes on at the Iguana over a beer (traditionally this is the way that all hostels should greet their guests!).
Figuring out the options for activities for the next couple of days, we opt to walk the couple of hours to "Las Siete Altares" (The Seven Altars), and tomorrow will be the Garifuna cooking class. First though, the important business of lunch, and Yusef recommends a restaurant down the road which is rated #1 on TripAdvisor for Topado, and which will also deal with our growing collection of dirty laundry.
Topado is a giant bowl of coconut cream soup, with a big selection of prawns, squid, fish, and crab cooked in it. Served with their speciality Mexican lemonade (apparently they don't just squeeze the lemons, they launch the whole thing into a blender and then strain it), it was the best meal we've had so far (possible exception is the lobster tails aboard the sailing boat in Belize...). We'll be trying to make both when we get home, but my suspicion is that neither will taste as good as this!
Suitably fuelled up for a walk, we set off for Las Siete Altares. We're told varying lengths of time for the walk, but as a positive, it's impossible to get lost on the way. Most of the walk is along the beach, through Garifuna country, where we see any number of small bars (shacks selling beer), a couple of tourist restaurants (toilet stop), pigs roaming around on the beach (see pics), and occasionally big groups of little fish that are dying on the shore. CP decides that we must save them from this fate, by picking them up one by one and throwing them back into the water.... where most are quickly eaten by the eagerly waiting herons. Cp reckons of the 40 odd fish we threw back in, we saved at least 33%, give or take... we tried!
It turned out to be a little under 2 hours of walking before we got to the pools, and Rich was definitely having a sense of humour failure by the time we had started clambering our way overly the slipperiest rocks to get to the waterfall, which, as it isn't wet season yet, was not flowing. CP on the other hand was loving the "adventure" and clambering over the rocks giggling...typical! See pics. The final pool was still decent enough to swim in - although having our swimwear in with the rest of our laundry, not relishing the though of a 2 hour walk back in wet undies, and figuring we were probably the last people to visit that day, we opted to go in 'au naturel'.
Which was fine, until as we were splashing around about to get out, 4 randoms came into view clambering over the pools and rocks. My first thought was to get back in and hide our state of undress, however CP quickly made the point that we couldn't wait in the water until they left, so I had to make a run for it. As it happens, when they got closer we realised they were French, so wouldn't have been even slightly fazed by the sight of our bare white bottoms exiting the pools.
As we left reached the entrance, there was a guy waiting with his boat - the pools officially close at 5pm, so this enterprising local seemingly turns up each day to see if any tourists don't fancy the 2 hour walk back to Livingston. CP is putting on a "we can walk it" face, with the original plan being to get to the restaurants about halfway along the beach, where taxis will pick you up. Since the boat guy was offering to take us all the way home for 20Q (£1.50) each, for me there was no hesitation - yes we will get in the boat!
On the short walk back from the dock to Casa Iguana, a local Garifuna starts chatting to us, and then shouting at us. Apparently us saying that Livingston is "a beautiful place" or that "the Garifuna population live a very simple life" were not the answers he wanted to the question involving our awareness of the garifuna way of life, and he implored us to take a walk to the "black country". The thing is, it is a very simple life. If we'd told him that they were living in shacks, and that an entire house was worth less than our phones, I doubt he'd have responded positively. He was still ranting when we walked away from him.
Anyway... we arrived back at our lodgings just in time to freshen up and head down for happy hour. There was also the usual "family dinner" which was a good option that evening as it was all you could eat tacos and meant we got to meet different people, before getting involved in a few games of "roll the dice". The premise is simple - someone decides they want a shot of tequila, and invites others to join them. Everyone then rolls a dice, and whoever scores lowest is buying the round. With about 8 people involved each time, the odds of a free drink are good, however Rich defied the odds and ended up losing 2 out of 3 times, and while he was keen to gamble on and place faith in the rules of probability, CP called a halt to our tequila based gambles.
Other games continued, classics such as Kings, and 5s. There was a memorable moment when having to bust-a-rhyme, CP tried to rhyme 'German' with 'woman'. The rest of us protested, and sought clarification from the German bartender who replied "GER and WO? Nooo!" - not sure he fully understands rhyming but either way, CP lost this one.
The next days activity was the Garifuna cooking class (back into black country, we should have told our new friend from yesterday...), and the first mistake was made before we left the Iguana. With Rich still in the bathroom, CP went to the reception to get directions, wrote the name of the place on a napkin, and then immediately lost it. (CP denies losing it, rather she says she placed it carefully with her bag, which did not come with us to the cooking class). We've now learnt that when Carly is given directions she must share them immediately, as what followed was a shambles. A 20 minute walk became 40 minutes, including walking along a dirt track which got progressively dirtier as it headed into the jungle. At least we got to see the "real" garifuna way of life...
We couldn't ask locals where it was as the napkin with the name of the restaurant was long gone, so the only detail we had was that it was somewhere near the cemetery, and the people we asked for guidance didn't even know where that was.
Somehow we made it to "Rasta Mesa" ("The Rasta Table", did that really need to be written on a napkin in the first place?!) in time for the cooking class, and it's lucky we did as we were the only participants. For a place that is kitchen, restaurant, and many other things combined, Rasta Mesa is tiny. One small table and a few plastic chairs in a room about as big as an average kitchen, and a stove in the corner that is either from the 1930's or perhaps fashioned by me from a gas bottle and an old wooden packing crate.
We get to work prepping a meal of fish, coconut rice, and some weird banana fritters. Check out the pics to see the process, but we basically grated the bananas, added salt, pepper and chicken stock cubes and made fritters. Then we extracted the flesh from fresh coconuts using vice and a medieval torture instrument and made coconut milk, then added it to the rice with salt, pepper and chicken stock cubes. We made the salsa with tomorrow, onion salt, pepper and chicken stock cubes. Then finally, we gutted and scaled the fish and covered them with, yep you guessed it, salt, pepper and chicken stock cubes. We then deep fried the fish and fritters and viola, lunch was ready! We offered our chefs family to sit and eat with us as we had plenty and enjoyed a hearty, if nothing particularly special, meal the local way.
We learnt a lot from our chef, who was a very pretty 27 year old mother of two - apparently CP can say that but if Rich comments on that sort of thing he'll be in big trouble. The house we were in, housed her entire extended family and most worked for the business. She told us how her bother in law was shot dead at his front door in the middle of the day about a week ago and how her sister was currently in hospital after also having been shot a couple of days later. She also mentioned how a tourist got beaten up and raped recently near one of those lovely little beach bars we saw on our walk to the Seven Altars... confirming our decision not to go there that night! We did get a very interesting insight into the locals world, the difficulties they experience, the early age that they become mothers, their indifference to marriage and commitment, the very simple life that they lead with limited opportunities for jobs and travel, but also love and loyalty they have for their family.
We spent the rest of the day exploring the lesser explored parts of Livingston and continued to eat mangos... and lots of them. They are so cheap and everywhere and Cp is addicted! We eventually ended up in another locals house for a bit of street foot for dinner. He happened to be an old rodeo and star football.player and had pictures and trophies up around his house which we discussed using a mix of Spanish and hand signals whilst we shared a massive plate of the standard meat, beans and rice on a massive tortilla.
We had unsuccessfully tried to find some of the local drink, "giffiti" that evening but without success. We did, however, find it at our coffee shop the next morning just before our boat to the Roundhouse. As the coffee machine was broken, we duly ordered two long shots of giffiti at 9:30am. As it's basically rum "marinated" in a bottle with a mixture of spices, plant roots, and what looks like twigs, it was a solid breakfast!
Our next stop was the Roundhouse, a hostel that Chris and Lucy had recommended to us, and it didn't disappoint. Dani picked us up from the dock at the giffiti coffee shop in the speed boat and we traversed down the river dolce for 20 minutes until we reached our home for the next two nights. As the name suggests it's a massive round house, built on the shores of the river dolce. We had a private room and had many a random conversation with the two owners, Dani and Chris, Chris in particular, who loved a good rant and as a former London geezer, was occasionally hilarious. He remembered Chris and Lucy... and I can imagine the debates they would have had with him!
We spent a lot of time swimming in the river and relaxing. We signed up for the Jungle trek with one of the locals and explored the surrounding jungle for a couple of hours. Each night was a family dinner style event which was always great fun. I tried to teach CP how to play chess at breakfast, but with limited success because whilst I knew the basic rules I have no idea of strategy, and we quickly reverted to playing shithead instead.
We hired the kayaks for the day and spent four hours paddling up, down, and around the river dolce. We must have explored every little laneway of water and saw some beautiful local people living very simply, fishing, washing, swimming, entirely self sufficient and always with a big smile and a wave for us. We hit the hot springs, or should we say "aqua caliente", which a little section of the river that was boiling hot on the surface, and we mean boiling, but 10cm down was cold. Very strange sensation being in there but fun to splash around (read, necessary to splash around because if you stopped moving the water around you, you started to burn in the water!). We also had a lovely old local man show us through the caves, where we explored underground labyrinths and saw bats, lots of bats, including tiny baby bats. The smell was...epic. We also got to sit in a naturally forming sauna under the ground, which when you think about it, is pretty amazing as the intense heat was all naturally occurring and created a sauna that westerners would pay a fortune for back home.
When we had tired of kayaking, and paddled back (somehow again against the current), we decided to try our luck fishing and see if we could catch us some dinner. After our successes on the sailing boat we were confident. However, with only bread and mango skin to use as bait, it was not to be, and after an hour or so of floating downstream in the kayak we called it a day and went in empty handed. Luckily, the family dinner was roast chicken, which one of the other guests was cooking up because the chef had decided that she couldn't be bothered coming in that day to work. CP was dishing out free employment advice to Chris about how to handle the issue of the belligerent chef, however it is a different world in Guatemala than Guernsey, where the practical impact of the law is almost debilitating on local businesses when things go wrong... CP would've liked to take on the case, but elected to drink Bloody Marys instead!
We left the next morning for Guatemala city and managed to get absolutely soaked during the one hour boat trip down the river dolce to the bus station at Rio Dolce. We were heading straight into the storm and it was amazing watching us become a part of nature in such fine form! Hilariously (for CP), Rich had his rain jacket in his little back pack and could have been significantly less soaked on the boat if he had realised!
We transitioned easily to a bus to Guatemala city, picking up the usual simple chicken and rice dish from the street and missing out on what we had heard was an epic avocado and chocolate soothie at the Sundog restaurant because they didn't serve anything until midday, but it has been added to the growing list of stuff to try out when we get home!
Once aboard the bus it's hard to tell which country we're in, as for the first time it's allocated seating, foot rests, cup holders, movie screens. air con on max so that we're regretting not grabbing some warm (or in Rich's case, even dry clothes from his bad). After an hour a film is put on, although admittedly it's an illegal copy, it's in Spanish, and there's no subtitles, but we could be cruising along on a National Express coach on the M25 - except this bus is nicer. Way nicer...
We made it into Guatemala city with no further ado, found our mega cheap hotel for the evening and settled in for the night...