Guatemala - Freight train ride to Puerto Barrios
September 4, 2004
(Continued from the previous day.) I wake up at about 5 am. We stand still at Quiriguá station. A few moments ago, we met an opposite train. I am glad that I did not oversleep, because Quiriguá used to be a fork. An alternative route to Bananera branched off here towards the South-East (view the area on a map). Nowadays, there are parked railcars on the track and the driver says that the line does not exist any more. It is not even shown on the official network map. We leave in a few moments. A wide unpaved road towards a famous archaeological site crosses our track. The ruins are however far away and covered with trees, so we cannot see anything. (I came back to visit them in January 2005). The landscape is different from the day before. There are wide meadows and plantations all around us - corn, sugar cane and bananas. Sometimes we pass around a small city or a farm. The condition of the track varies. At times, we run at a reasonable speed (10 - 15 mph), sometimes the train bounces from side to side. We stop at one place and the driver with the conductor go out to check the condition of a broken rail. It appears the fault is not serious and we continue. Sometimes, we can see villagers in a distance, who carry goods using their home-made "railroad vehicles" - push cars. They are popular and relatively safe, because trains run slowly and villagers have enough time to move them aside before a coming train.
We are coming to a big market place in Bananera. The situation from La Ermitia repeats - a salesman opened his stand right on the track. We pass through, honking all the time. Then we stop for a short while on the eastern suburb (Morales). Further on, in Entre Rios, I am looking for the former branch to Finca Chinoq, but cannot find anything. The driver points to an unpaved road and tells that it used to be here. This is probably how all lines in the area have ended.
We come closer to Puerto Barrios, so I go back to my backpack and look for phone numbers, which I got from my colleagues before departure. Suddenly the train bounces, I lose balance and fall with a camera in my hand. I get up, try the camera - and see that there won't be any further digital pictures on this trip. An unpleasant incident. Never mind, the trip goes on. We run through the last tunnel, waking up many bats. In a short while, there is a switch and the driver shows me a line branching off to the left towards Puerto Santo Tomás (about 1 - 2 miles). Trains operate here only on weekdays. At about 1 pm, we arrive at Puerto Barrios. There is no station building, just a small yard with branch lines to two warehouses (one straight on, another one backwards). I say good bye to the crew - I won't see any train in Guatemala for the rest of my vacation. But I am very happy that Ferrovias Guatemala gave me the opportunity to experience such a wonderful and unforgettable ride.
I get out of the station to the main road and look for a port, to get to the tourist resort of Lívingston. There is an old bus on the road side. I ask if it goes to the port, and when the driver confirms, I buy a ticket (1.25 Q = $0.16) and get on. Soon, it seems to me that we move in a wrong direction. I ask again - and people answer, that we do go to a port, but a different one. I have to get off and walk. After asking about three people, I find the right port and sign up for a boat. I need to wait until there are 15 people - minimum number to run a boat. We leave in about 20 minutes. The trip to Livingston along a long coast took about 45 minutes and cost 25 Q ($3.20). It would have not made sense to spend more time in Puerto Barrios - similar to most other Guatemalan cities, there is not much to see here.
Livingston is a pleasant resort at the Gulf of Honduras. You can get there only by boat from Puerto Barrios or Rio Dulce (we will see in two days). No roads go there from outside. The city is famous for its high proportion of Caribbean blacks, called Garifuna. Supposedly they came from Brasil. They are a majority in Belize or Jamaica. Lívingston is therefore considered to be a sort of "Caribbean island" within Guatemala.
I get off the boat and start looking for a hotel. Right in the port, one of the locals meets me and offers me a hotel for 40 Q ($5) a night. The price looks reasonable, so I agree and go with him. However, the reception clerk has a different opinion - 40 Q is no longer valid, I have to pay 50 Q. I turn back to the "guide" - we have not agreed this, I go elsewhere. He stops me and has another offer - if you do not have money, I there is a hotel nearby at 21 Q ($3). I agree, and am surprised that I have my own room with an electric socket and a dense net against mosquitos for this price. There is no air-conditioning, but I do not mind, because I do not like it anyway (it is unhealthy). I give the guide a tip of 5 Q ($0.60) and go in. Showers are common for the whole hotel, water is rather cold, but what would you like for such a price. I go to a city, which is a typical holiday resort with many stores and restaurants. I hesitate, whether to leave tomorrow or stay one more day. There are several places of interest in the area according to the map. In the port, they tell me that a boat trip to Siete Altares, a nearby protected area, would cost 90 Q ($12). I am thinking about it, but it seems too much. In the street, I meet a tourist from Switzerland. She tells me that she has just come back from Siete Altares and that it is about 3 miles one-way. She walked there both ways. This was a decisive moment - I must do it as well! It is getting dark, I go with the Swiss towards her hotel on the beach and then go back to the city. On the way back, two dogs run after me. There is no stone around to throw at them. Luckily, some Guatemalans helped me and called the dogs off. I would not like to be here again alone. But what to do then? Tomorrow will decide.
© Jan Peula, 2004-5