Guatemala: Jungle sluice

By Tim Roxborogh

The Finca el Paraiso Falls near Rio Dulce are fed by a hot spring, providing wonderful pummelling massages for those who swim to its base. Photo / Thinkstock
The Finca el Paraiso Falls near Rio Dulce are fed by a hot spring, providing wonderful pummelling massages for those who swim to its base. Photo / Thinkstock

"We have the best showers in all Guatemala."

You wouldn't think this would be a hotel's biggest selling point, but as much as we loved this country, our enthusiasm for weak, cold showers was, if you'll forgive the pun, dampening.

"Plus the lake water is 100 per cent clean, you can hire the kayaks free of charge, take any books from the library you want to keep and I'll be damned if mine isn't one of the finest restaurants in the whole damn country."

Roy, you had us at the showers. The Yankee owner of Rio Dulce's El Tortugal floating resort could have saved his breath. Plus we'd heard stories of a nearby waterfall unlike any other and we knew this place would do fine as a base to explore.

And it was the first time I'd slept at what amounted to a floating hotel.

Perched above the warm waters of Lago de Izabal with jungle looming on the shore, El Tortugal is a series of open wooden dormitories with spiral staircases and thatched roofs.

Each dormitory is linked by wooden walkways that pass above the water, as well as marshland thick with tropical plants that sometimes form canopies.

The view from the top of our dorm of the masts of visiting American yachts (this is a calm spot during hurricane season), the postcard shimmer of the lake and the dark green of the trees on the shoreline reminded me of the island suburbs of Miami, minus the celebrity homes.

Make no mistake, this is not a poor corner of Guatemala. Indeed, after Mexico, Guatemala is the second-wealthiest country in Central America.

That doesn't mean there isn't poverty and that the average family doesn't get by every year on what we might make in a month, but it's not out of the ordinary to find the sort of setting we found in Rio Dulce. And that setting included luxury yachts, perfect weather, anchored sunbathing rafts, jungle holiday homes and controversial kayak races.

Taking advantage of Roy's free kayaks, my intrepid friends and I paddled out to a 15th-century Spanish castle and decided to race back to El Tortugal. Filled with the bravado of someone who used to beat his sisters in similar races in the Orewa estuary, I bragged that I'd go easy on whoever came after me. Fifty metres into the race, my paddle broke in two. I lost by a diabolical margin.

That afternoon, tail between the legs, we caught an hour-long jetboat down the lake towards the Finca Paraiso Falls. Beautiful waterfalls aren't unusual in this part of the world, but this was something different.

After the boat ride and a further 45-minute walk through farmland and jungle, we arrived at a modest-sized tumbling of water over rock. Hot from the walk and momentarily worried that this was all we'd come for, we jumped into the water and, to everyone's surprise, froze. Swimming over towards the waterfalls, the temperature turned slightly warmer, but this still didn't prepare us for being directly underneath the falling water.

The shock of the cold water in the pool was replaced with the shock of the hot water tumbling from above.

Any hotter and it would've been unpleasant, any heavier and it would've been bruising. Instead what we had was a wonderful pummelling massage of hot thermal water from an upper spring mixing with cool mountain river water.

The novelty was enough to keep us entertained for a couple of hours alongside the Guatemalans (doing their best to hide their rum bottles), whose local knowledge had probably brought them here time and time again.

Back at El Tortugal, we hit the showers ahead of another grand meal at Roy's open-air restaurant. Guatemala may be a fertile enough country to reportedly supply the United States with more than 10 per cent of its vegetables, but many local dishes are oddly devoid of greens.

Roy has figured out that tourists don't mind the occasional vege with their tortilla and pollo (chicken), and his claim to have one of the finest restaurants in the country didn't seem too extreme.

Or maybe we were just in a good mood after a shower that was almost as good as the waterfall.

TOP FIVE RIO DULCE ATTRACTIONS

Finca Paraiso Falls: Size isn't everything and the oddity of hot water falling into a cool pool made this a highlight.

Kayaking, swimming and diving at Lago de Izabal: Hectic holidays need a couple of afternoons like we had here - sunbathing on an anchored-raft with deckchairs in-between dive bombs and kayak races.

Livingstone: A historic town with some good architecture and decent beaches.

El Tortugal Resort: Jungle, warm water to swim in and good food. Plus the games room came with a pool table, library, satellite TV, free internet and two guitars.

El Tortugal's showers: Guatemala may be a hot country, but the reality of cold showers and toilet paper that goes in a rubbish bin can wear out even the most worldly of Westerners. Roy couldn't do anything about the toilet paper, but he spends extra on his hot, high-pressure showers and quite rightly brags about it.

Tim Roxborogh was assisted to Central America by Flight Centre.

- Herald on Sunday

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