My teenage daughter and I had just trekked up a rocky trail carved into a palm-enshrouded stairway along the Rio Dulce in Guatemala, just a few miles from the country’s Caribbean coast. Our guide that day was Carlo Caal, a wiry farmer turned eco-guide from nearby Barra Lampara, a Maya community that had banded together to protect the glimmering, mystical caves and hot springs that we were about to explore from construction workers hauling off rocks and wood.
For a $2 entry fee, Lulu and I were soon bonding over an unexpected eco-predicament in this tiny, impoverished Central American country that is increasingly turning to green tourism as a way to preserve one of the world’s most biodiverse zones. We were midway into our weeklong trip when we descended into a subterranean, mineral-fed lake rippling in the caves.
It’s easy to miss Guatemala’s Caribbean coast, a speck of about 90 miles on its eastern border, book-ended by Belize and Honduras. But its allure is not the white-sand beaches of its neighbors but the undulating rain forests dipping to the sea. After all, Guatemala’s name in the ancient Mayan-Tolpec language means the land of the many trees.
When my New York City-bred daughter and I arrived in February, we were on a mission to explore a network of ecotourism sites running along the Rio Dulce to the Caribbean and then along the country’s coastline. The area includes eight biologically rich protected areas where nonprofit groups and government officials are working to empower local residents to save one of the world’s richest ecosystems, threatened by bleaching coral reefs, overfishing, disappearing rain forests and climate change.
As a former foreign correspondent for newspapers, I have fond memories of discovering pristine locations, getting to know the cultures and spending money on locals who lived off very little. I was eager to show how the rest of the world lives to my Starbucks-loving, Instagramming daughter. For this one week, we would be part of the solution to preserve a fragile environment.
Our aquatic journey through Guatamala’s Izabal district was arranged at my request by the environmental groups Fundaeco and the Mesoamerican Reef Fund (MAR Fund) to ensure that our tourism money went directly into local hands.
We would be guided by locals and travel for two days with Claudio Gonzalez, the MAR Fund’s technical coordinator, and then Fundaeco staff members.
It was on Day 2 with Carlo when we were bent over in uncontrollable laughter, deep in a dark, dripping cave in a ridiculously desperate situation. We hadn’t expected to explore caves at the Agua Caliente hot springs, about 30 minutes by boat along the Rio Dulce from the Caribbean’s Gulf of Honduras. We had simply planned a soothing dip in warm spring-fed waters. So, our feet were clad in flip-flops when Carlo persuaded us to leave a thatched riverside bar and follow him up a dirt-carved stairway to check out some caves.
Dodging icicle-shaped rocks along eerie damp walls in the caves, Lulu had hopped off a final wooden stair when suddenly her foot was swallowed by quicksand-like mud.
This was no ordinary puddle, but a glopping abyss. She struggled, finally extracting her leg — barefoot.
“My shoe,” Lulu cried, both of us giggling as she plunged to her knees, her hands submerged in thick slime. “I can’t find it! The mud is really thick,” she said.
“Cuidado!” Carlo warned, a hovering shadow in the murky tunnel.
Lulu’s hands delved deep. Finally, the caked flip-flop was burped out.
My daughter swung it, a trophy in the cave’s shimmer. “Now, that was the real experience,” she said with a grin.
We had traveled to Guatemala’s Conservation Coast, as branded by Fundaeco, propelled by the idea that our money would help families afford the supplies to send their child to school and not feel driven to cut down mangrove trees to farm, overfish to eat, or emigrate north to make ends meet.
A prime example? Roberto Emilio Morales Supal, 42, a husky and mustached Guatemalan, was our barefoot, gregarious fisherman-turned-boatman-chauffeur. He immediately connected with Lulu, heeding her cries to speed his wooden motorboat so that she bounced at the helm, whipping past lush mangroves and stilted houses shadowed behind fanning leaves. His carefree spirit was infectious. It wasn’t long before Lulu became barefoot, too.
We had started our trip at Hotel Backpackers, in the area widely known as Rio Dulce. The hotel is located at the foot of Guatemala’s longest bridge across the river from the bustling town of Fronteras, a popular stop for international tourists. The bridge is a major crossroads for travelers headed to the pyramids of Tikal and Belize or Mexico.
Rumbling trucks drowned out the chirps of birds and the lapping water that we could see through cracks in the wood-planked floor of our room at the inn extending on stilts over the Rio Dulce.
Hotel Backpackers was built to fund Casa Guatemala, a nearby charity that encompasses a primary school, educational farm and a health clinic. It was founded by Angelina Goldamez, a Honduran entrepreneur who was driven 35 years ago to support indigent children after she saw a baby who had just died of severe malnutrition. Only one out of three children go to school in Guatemala, and most leave school before the sixth grade, said Heather Graham, the school’s director, because parents can’t afford the $150 annual cost of uniforms, shoes and supplies.
We planned our first day at the Casa Guatemala. At breakfast, its school-boat pulled in. About a dozen children from remote villages got on with bright blue and pink Disney backpacks to board for a week at the school, a gaggle of wooden structures and screened-porch classrooms. About half of the 250 students, ages 4 to 16, as well as volunteers, board on-site while others walk from nearby homes.
We saw children alongside adults, flattening tortillas and chopping vegetables. The children lavished attention on Lulu, a vocal major at La Guardia Performing Arts High School in New York. In return, Lulu belted out a cappella as hundreds of children crowded the concrete steps along a dirt-packed outdoor gym floor. As we motored that evening back to the inn, children splashed in their underwear, leaping off wood ledges and waving wildly.
The next morning, Claudio, our MAR Fund host, and Roberto met us at the hotel to begin our tour along the Rio Dulce.
We wove along mesmerizing blue-green waterways past a pastiche of green-hued foliage and coastlines lined with pines, Casa Maria trees and mangroves. Lone fishermen, rowing colorful wooden canoes called cayucos, tossed nets. We cut the motor at a spit of trees weighted with cormorants and egrets that was aptly named Bird Island. We scanned the shoreline’s deep green foliage for jaguars or manatees, now rare.
Our lunch destination was El Manglar, a restaurant run by the Cayo Quemado women’s cooperative.
As we headed into its small lagoon, two little girls paddled swiftly toward us in worn cayucos, slicing through white-flower lily pads. They pulled alongside, displaying their floating craft shops with shell bracelets, miniature baskets and wood canoes. We couldn’t resist, buying a half-dozen souvenirs. On a stilted, thatched deck, we devoured a lunch of pargo, or snapper, a local fish.
After lunch, Roberto steered us east to our last river port at Ak-Tenamit, or New Village in the Mayan indigenous Qeqchi dialect. The nonprofit run by local leaders provided secondary education for youth and also trained them in eco-tourism. Lulu spoke with teenage girls about the prevalence of child marriages, a haunting reality in rural Guatemala. Some girls wed as young as 12, they said. They felt lucky to go to school.
Back on our 16-seat motorboat, we entered a gorge of limestone cliffs. Birds alighted on tree branches, stacked like books off uneven, rugged canyon-like walls. The river opened to the Gulf of Honduras. We rumbled into Livingston, a lively port reached only by water and known for its Garifuna community, descendants of West African slaves who shipwrecked off the coast in the 17th century.
Roberto, a native of the village, docked at the locally owned Casa Rosada, a series of thatched huts along a palm-shaded boardwalk.
In our bungalow, Lulu plopped onto a thin mattress encased in a mosquito net. Electricity was sketchy, the blanket was threadbare and we had no private toilet. But my city-bred daughter was beaming, her smile framed by now-tangled hair. Behind her was a line of dripping clothes she had hand-washed.
The tranquil evening was punctuated by the chirps of geckos, a crowing rooster and seabirds taking refuge on long piers over deep waters. Brightly colored shrimp boats chugged past, the pinks and blues of the fading sunset veiling the trawlers’ badly chipped paint.
“Most went out all day and came back with nothing,” Claudio said, shaking his head. Shrimp nets from large trawlers have decimated several fish species, like endemic algae-eating parrot fish, which protect coral reefs. That’s why the MAR Fund finances local initiatives to create livelihoods in tourism, he said.
Hotel Casa Rosada was our base for the next two days to explore protected areas, first north to Rio Sarstun at the Belize border, then south to Las Escobas Tropical Rainforest Trail near Honduras.
The next morning, our third day, Claudio had to leave, but Roberto arrived at sunrise to motor us north toward Belize, passing majestic mist-covered mountains rising behind lush vegetation along the seashore.
An hour later, we turned west to Rio Sarstun, a marine refuge along the Belize border. Samuel Tiul, 48, a Fundaeco park guide, was there to lead us into the jungle. The former fisherman, short and muscled, was armed with a machete, which he wielded to clear an uneven path through the tangled brush into the tropical rain forest.
Gargantuan trees, rimmed by ferns and dropping Tarzan-like vines, towered above in a sun-speckled canopy, dotted by bright orchids. He stopped at a towering, ancient tree, its thick trunk twice his stocky girth, called chechem. Samuel slashed at the bark. A milky liquid trickled. “Poison,” he said.
After our hourlong trek, we climbed back on the boat, crossing the lagoon to dock at the restaurant run by the Sarstun women’s cooperative. A long table lined with white tablecloth and silver beckoned. As Samuel cracked coconuts for our beverage, our cook emerged in an apron covering a traditional white blouse edged by brightly threaded embroidery and a quilted skirt. She served bowls of delectable orange-tinted tapado, a spicy signature dish of fish, crabs and shrimp with fresh tortillas, cooked over a wood-burning stove.
We were soon back on the water, this time in search of a Sarstun native, Rafael Milian, who was building a wooden eco-hotel as an alternative to fishing. A planked pathway led to his site from the river, traversing marshes and grassland, and we found ourselves surrounded by farm animals — clucking chickens, roosters and calves. A grazing calf nuzzled Lulu.
The next morning, our fourth day, we headed south to the lush foliage and waterfalls of Las Escobas Tropical Rainforest Trail, gliding by cruise ships docked at San Tomas de Castillo near Puerto Barrios port. Just two miles from the port was our landing, where we met up with our next Fundaeco guide, Susi Mejia, who drove us by pickup truck up a winding mountain road.
The rain forest park entrance had an expansive exhibition area, with large, glass displays describing a plethora of tropical foliage. “Sniff,” Susi urged Lulu, holding out leaves that surprisingly smelled of pepper, cardamom and cinnamon. “They export them to McCormick,” she said, referring to the packaged spices found at stores in the United States. “I never knew where they came from,” Lulu said.
Our trail opened to the waterfalls, which cascaded down algae-covered rock into pools. We sat directly underneath the pounding water, massaged by what Lulu described as a natural hot tub.
It was late when we returned to the truck. As the clouds darkened, Susi quickly steered the truck back to our boat and Roberto launched again, slamming into waves in a race to our last stop in Punta Manabique, a peninsula across the Gulf of Honduras from Livingston. As the waves slapped the boat, we approached huge freighters and Roberto slowed down so Lulu could snap a mid-sea selfie with the freighters as the backdrop.
Rain pattered as we scoured the forested shore until we spotted the wood-planked beachfront inn, Eco-Albergue de Estero Lagarto, run by Gladis Ramirez, 64. Our demure hostess, her gray hair pulled back in a ponytail, welcomed us to her inn, a two-story wooden house with outdoor plumbing. She had arranged for a local guide the next morning to row us in a cayuco along a narrow water trail cutting deep into the rain forest. But rain pummeled the bamboo roofs as we sat with Gladis, sipping steaming instant coffee. We had to let it go.
As the sky cleared and we prepared to leave, she showed us the entrance of a stream, shrouded by palms and mangroves, another tantalizing natural amusement. But time had run out.
This was our last day. As we pushed out to sea, the remote inn and water trail vanished from sight. We shot off into the sea’s breeze, the swaying trees and coast teasing us to return. Lulu said it best: “Oh, Mom. This was so much better than a big cruise ship.”
IF YOU GO
The best times to visit Guatemala are from November to April, after the rainy season. Here are green travel destinations where tourism dollars go directly to locals. For more information on visits to protected areas, go to conservationcoast.com or email (email@example.com).
Where to Stay
Hotel Backpackers, Aldea El Relleno, Rio Dulce, Livingston, Izabal. For information for Hotel Backpackers and to visit Casa Guatemala: 502-4212-8223; hotelbackpackers.com.
Hotel Casa Rosada, Livingston (502-7947-0303; hotelcasarosada.com/e/home.htm).
Where to Eat
Rio Sarstun Women’s Cooperative, Sarstun (502-7947-0789).
Buga Mama, Livingston (bugamama.org).
Agua Caliente (turismocomunitarioguatemala.com/agua_caliente.html).
Las Escobas Tropical Rainforest Trail (riolasescobasizabal.com/travel.htm).
Rio Sarstun (502-7947-0789).
Estero Lagarto, Punta Manabique (turismocomunitarioguatemala.com/estero_lagarto.html).
A map last Sunday with an article about the Caribbean coast of Guatemala mislabeled the country that borders the Rio Dulce region on the north. It is Belize, not Mexico. A corrected map can be found at nytimes.com/travel. And an accompanying picture caption misspelled part of the name of a community in the region. As the article correctly noted, it is Estero Lagarto, not Estero Lagardo.