National Geographic Traveller (UK)




For an hour, I’m alone in the canyon. Steep cliffs of vegetation have risen around me; the river slows into viscous, glassy green.

The prow of my kayak makes little noise as it parts the water’s surface, interjecte­d by the occasional howler monkey and drowned out by the cries of swooping birds. A shaft of afternoon light settles on their flurried wings, catching the haze of the late day.

Few seem to reach these stretches of river, where Lago de Izabal narrows, and the Rio Dulce winds through the jungle of northeaste­rn Guatemala. There’s little engine noise up here. The yachts and lanchas sit moored in the town of Fronteras, and the daily boat bus to Livingston has already passed. People are replaced by birdlife, great grey pelicans and flitting egrets; the roads turn into waterways that bend around tangles of tree roots. Since leaving my riverside hostel, with my belongings squashed into a dry bag and a friendly “Adios!” waved to the young host, the straw-roofed cabanas and their rickety docksides have petered out. Any fellow tourists have long vanished.

Beads of sweat are washed down my arms by the trickle of water from my kayak’s paddles. From under the brim of my cap, I squint across to the far side of the canyon. As I hold still, floating gently downstream, a new noise breaks the stirrings of wildlife.

Two cayucos (small canoes) emerge from the shadow of a creek I hadn’t yet noticed, slipping across towards the middle of the river with a figure standing poised at each prow. Their boats are longer than mine, elegant and curved up from the surface, and laden with plastic bait-jugs. As I drift closer, I wave and call across the water in greeting. The sound echoes against the limestone cliffs.

The late sun is bright behind the two young men, and as one of them dives gracefully from his cayuco, it catches and holds the splashes in glittering amber. The seconds lengthen, and the other fisherman and I watch the water’s surface as it stills and throws the bouncing light back into our eyes. It seems like an age before the diver eventually bursts back up from the water surface, startling the birds from nearby branches. He clutches a snake-like shape in his hand, triumphant. It’s an anguilla, still used in Indigenous Mayan fishing as a bait for tarpon.

The river has already carried me far downstream; the divers busy themselves with their catch. I realise that without the quiet slowness of my kayak, I might not have encountere­d this way of life. Modern life, skimming past in motorboats, has not seemed to settle here.

The sun has passed this corner of the river now, the canyon walls casting me back into shade. As my paddles return to the water, the noise of wildlife rises to meet the settling dusk. Rio Dulce falls into slumber, and I’m alone in the canyon once more.

 ?? ?? Rio Dulce, Guatemala
Rio Dulce, Guatemala

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