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Cayuco Travel Up River in Guatemala

FINCA TATIN, Jungle near Livingston, Guatemala- A voice rang out from the docks in front of the Finca Tatin. It was an American voice. It was saying hello. My wife rushed out to the voice. “How did you get here?” I heard her ask. It was a worthy question, as no roads go to the [...]

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FINCA TATIN, Jungle near Livingston, Guatemala- A voice rang out from the docks in front of the Finca Tatin. It was an American voice. It was saying hello. My wife rushed out to the voice. “How did you get here?” I heard her ask. It was a worthy question, as no roads go to the Finca Tatin, the only way here is either by public boat, our boat, or your own boat. Most travelers don’t pack their own boat, but as my wife brought the mysterious new guest into the finca it became apparent that he did, in fact, have his own boat.

It was a small canoe, called a cayuco. This is the type of small boat that the indigenous people of this region use to fish, carry goods, and get around. A Cayuco is sort of a mix between a dugout canoe and a kayak that can carry one or two people and are paddled like canoes. The indigenous people here in the jungle use these boats to fish and for transportation — it is the only means of true locomotion for many of the people here, and, from observation, it is the most common way of getting around.

To my surprise, this young American traveler had his own cayuco. It was not a nice one — it was rather old and clunky — but it floated. Apparently, it floated all the way from Livingston to the Finca Tatin. The traveler said that he was traveling under his own steam up the Rio Dulce. I asked him for his story as I checked him into a room in the jungle of the finca.

His name was Alex, he was from Oregon, he said he had traveled for two and a half months in Guatemala and still had a year of traveling ahead of him. He planned to go all the way: from the north of Latin America to the south, from Guatemala to Ushuaia, Argentina — from the top of Central America to the bottom of Patagonia.

He rode a public boat as a passenger from Rio Dulce to Livingston a week before — paying the standard (read: extortionate) sum of 125 Quetzales, 15 USD. He said that he just rode the boat past a lot of cool looking places that he wanted to check out a little closer, so, upon arrival in Livingston, he set to work finding his own river boat. He bought an old cayuco and fixed it up himself. He then provisioned himself for camping, bought a liter and a half bottle of quemar alcohol for cooking, a bag of vegetables, and began paddling.

By the time he made it to the Finca Tatin his hands were bloodied from rowing, he had them wrapped in gauze that he had, apparently, brought for just such an occurrence. But Alex was smiling anyway.

I helped him dock his boat where the finca workers pull up their own Cayucos. Cayucos are vastly heavier than what they look. As I helped pull Alex’s small boat up on the muddy bank, I realized that the damn thing had to weigh a hundred pounds — easily. I then offered Alex a giant hamburger for lunch.

He laughed and declined my offer with a simple, somewhat rhetorically spoken, question: “How much?”

I sheepishly admitted that a hamburger and fries costs 40 quetzales ($5) here.

Alex then started talking money. He said he was going to make his cayuco trip up and down the Rio Dulce area with only 900 Quetzales. Our giant hamburgers clearly cost too much for this traveler — he said he was going to eat his own supply of half rotten vegetables instead. I, in turn, told him he is not allowed to cook here — the rules of the finca — he tried to finagle his way into getting permission. This kid was a traveler.

He reminded me of my family when we came to the Finca Tatin as a guest in April. We packed in bags and bags of our own food — cheap, crappy food — and we even walked twenty minutes through the jungle to find a slightly cheaper breakfast elsewhere. I am unsure if this hotel has ever seen guests as cheap as my wife and I. Now that we work here, there is no way that we can frown upon a guest who thinks five dollars is too much to pay for a good meal, for we thought the same.

Alex wanted to cook for himself, and, even though we told him that there was no way that we were going to allow him to cook at the finca, he did not give up: he found another way. He would sleep at the finca, pay 65 Quetzales a night for a private room, ride off on the river on his own cayuco, and find a place to cook his own meals on an old dock or in his boat itself.

Alex travels cheap, he knows how to get to Patagonia.

All travelers talk about money. We don’t talk about money in the terms of spending or enjoying it, but in the terms of letting as little of it leak as we can. We choose to plug up the holes in our boats — we curb our leaky bank accounts — rather than just pumping out the excess water. Most people traveling seem alright with pumping out money at every turn, they like living luxury and hiring the labor of others. Their funds leak away in torrents. They are leaky ships, they will sink far before they make it to Patagonia. Alex cooks for himself, he travels on a crappy slab of wood — but his leaks are slight, he takes the time to patch them, he is careful about how he spends money.

He will make it to the ends of the earth, and then keep going.

All travelers know that money is a direct representation of time: each dollar represents a length of time you can spend traveling, $10 equals one day of travel.

Money = Time

Time = Wealth

But money does not necessarily equal wealth.

Cheap ass Alex is far wealthier than most of the money laden guests who come through the finca daily. Most guests leak, they have the pumps turned on high as they hose their money right back out to the sea — they are sinking ships, they go home. Alex plugs up his leaks, he spends sparingly, he floats.

I have written before that adventure and money are often inversely proportional. The more money you are willing to spend, the less adventure you are going to have. Without true living pressures, without feeling the need to take care of yourself, by spending money each time you want something, your adventure is going to be slight — you are traveling the world just to engage in petty commerce. But by picking up your own boat to see parts of the world otherwise inaccessible to you, by cooking your own meals, by putting your own two hands to use to obtain your basic sustenance, you stand the chance of making your travels into an even to remember.

Nobody is going to sit around ten years from now and say how they rode the tourist boat down the Rio Dulce, but I can guarantee that Alex will have much to say when he tells the tale of the time he traveled up river to the interior of Guatemala on an indigenous cayuco.

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Filed under: Adventure, Budget Travel, Central America, Guatemala, Other Travelers, Travel Philosophy

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3691 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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8 comments… add one

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  • Viviana Lopez June 19, 2010, 10:09 pm

    Loved the story and love the man! 😉

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  • Paulo Martins June 19, 2010, 10:24 pm

    A few months ago, a cayuco with two Israelis passed by the finca on their way from Rio Dulce to Livingston.
    They didn’t stay as they wanted to get to Livingston ASAP, but they told me that it had taken them 5 days to get as far as the Finca.
    They were going downstream, your man is going upstream. Let’s see how he handles the (hard) trip.

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  • Viviana Lopez June 20, 2010, 3:02 am

    He already made it to Rio Dulce and left. He gave the cayuco to a family there and went back to Livingston on the ferry. He had some problems at the Golfete though when going to Rio Dulce. There was a storm and he had to find shelter between some trees (a very sketchy shelter and with the water level rising). I don’t know how I knew but I was very worried for him that night and wondered if he was at the Golfete. He made it to Rio Dulce the next day and told me about it. He is now in Honduras. Thank you for sharing this story. 🙂

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com June 21, 2010, 1:13 pm

      Thanks for sharing this part of the story. I had the privilege of meeting back up with Alex momentarily as his boat stopped back in at the finca on its way to Livingston. He basically told me the same thing that you wrote above. His night in El Golfete sounds pretty classic.

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  • Gabriel December 15, 2012, 5:25 pm

    Anyone know of a way to sail from Livingston to Rio Dulce apart from the 125 Q?

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    • Wade Shepard December 15, 2012, 9:31 pm

      Yeah, you can be Guatemalan. Failing that, the operators have the route pretty much locked down and the price is virtually set. In the months I’ve spent there I’ve never even heard of anyone getting a lower price — any many try. You could find a private boat driver to take you, but I don’t think the price would be any less.

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      • Gabriel December 16, 2012, 12:35 pm

        Thanks mate. Tried becoming Guatemalan and failed so my only option left is to pay the 125Q I guess.

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        • Wade Shepard December 16, 2012, 7:24 pm

          Right on. At least it’s a real beautiful ride.

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