I’m getting to the age when I need to be careful about saying, “You should have been here when it was unspoiled; this used to be such an enchanting place!” No one wants to hear that they missed the boat, arrived too late, and their experiences will be a watered-down version of the past. If you’ve been in this business for long, you may have the same problem. It’s hard to send your eager, bright-eyed clients to popular “in” places that have lost their charm to t-shirt stands and time-share hawkers.
Luckily captivating, unspoiled destinations have not been obliterated from the planet. Travelers can find the natural beauty of a pristine environment, exciting activities, genuine cultural exchanges and unique experiences close to the USA. One such destination is the Rio Dulce-Lake Izabal area on the east coast of Guatemala.
Long known among international yachties who cruise from the Caribbean into the safety of Rio Dulce during hurricane season, this watery paradise has thus far escaped the notice of mainstream tourism. It remains sleepy, breathtakingly beautiful, sometimes funky, unchanged — in short, it’s still an enchanting place.
Three Guatemalan entrepreneurs recognized the potential of the Rio Dulce-Lake Izabal area as a world-class adventure travel destination. Their corporation is developing an upscale resort on the south shore of Lake Izabel in the tiny town of Mariscos.
“We see the possibility of every known water sport on a pristine lake, as well as opportunities for wildlife excursions, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, horseback riding, Mayan ruin visits as well as cultural exchanges such as touring local villages and plantations,” enthused Estuardo Riley, Corporate Marketing Director.
His corporate group recognized that existing lodging generally ranged from backpacker places to two or three star properties that could be a little past their primes. They envisioned offering the first upscale property where travelers could return from their adventures to a luxurious room or villa, a spa, a pool and first class restaurant. The name of this property is the G Boutique Hotel at Mariscos. It will be opening in late October this autumn (2013). This boutique hotel will be followed by two other resorts: one in northern Guatemala and one in Belize.
Though the hotel is situated in the village of Mariscos, it will be a private sanctuary with a separate reception building replete with a gym as well as a bar and restaurant overlooking the pool and beach. A spa will be located over the water at the end of a large dock. Eight villas have been placed close to the water, with 12 standard rooms–most with water views–in two nearby buildings.
The G Boutique Hotel will offer excursions and transportation using three boats. The smallest is a canopied excursion “barque” with seating for about 15 passengers; a well-equipped fishing vessel with head, galley, bunks and comfortable shaded cockpit will be guided by Captain Francisco Miranda Piano, an expert boat handler and fishing guide. Their largest vessel is a 33’ Bertram powerboat, the perfect means of voyaging in comfort and style.
Guests will explore Lake Izabal, Rio Dulce and beyond in these well-appointed vessels, but they can command their own small craft right outside the resort on the calm fresh waters of the lake. The hotel will offer the use of kayaks, SUPs and other “toys” in the water adjoining the resort.
All these boats are necessary in this watery destination. Clients who travel to this remote, magical area of Guatemala need to be “water people.” Complete landlubbers won’t be happy here.
Beginning at the mouth of the Rio Dulce, the small city of Livingston is one of relatively few in the world that is accessible only by boat. If you exited the river into the Caribbean, a short trip north would take you to the coral reefs along the coast of Belize; an hour south lie the Bay Islands of Honduras. Either of these famous dive spots could be day trips. Yachtsmen know that the bar across the entrance to Rio Dulce allows only boats that draw less than seven feet (no chance huge cruise ships will be plying these waters in the near future).
The one to two hour voyage between Livingston and The G Boutique Hotel offers awesome scenery, interesting stops and numerous photo ops. Rock formations on both sides of the river form the “Rio Dulce Canyon” where many sailors from around the world have scribbled the names of their boats and the dates they arrived. One small watering hole named “Aqua Caliente” is next to a hot springs, where you can tie up your boat, order a cold one and take a dip in the natural hot springs. The Rio Dulce is as wide as the Mississippi in many places; jungle lines the shore, with occasional marinas filled with mostly sailboats from around the world. Each marina seems to have a bar and open air cafe where sailors gather to drink and spin tales.
A high bridge at the town of Fronteras marks the beginning of the lake and the end of Rio Dulce. The Castillo de San Felipe de Lara, ancient cannons lining the exterior, still guards the entrance to the lake. It’s a monument adjoining a park now, though it once was a Spanish defense against real pirates of the Caribbean.
Lake Izabal is Guatemala’s largest lake and the second largest in Central America. To compare it to an American body of water, it is larger than Lake Tahoe (191 square miles) in Nevada and California with its 235 square miles in area. Throughout the year the 50’ deep lake is the site of sailing events, fishing contests and other festivities. Mariscos is the largest village on the south side of the lake. All of the excursions offered by the G Boutique are located around the lake or on rivers that feed the lake or branch off of Rio Dulce.
You’ll find some of the excursions the G Boutique Hotel offers in the guidebooks. One popular trip is to the hot spring falls at Finca Paraiso, where nearly boiling hot water cascades from above into a cool jungle pool. This spa-like swim visit will be enhanced with some special touches by the G Boutique. Another favorite excursion is to the Quirigua Mayan Ruins and Park. Though small compared to more famous sites, these ruins are well preserved and presented in a clean, manicured park. The calendar that started the whole “end of the world” brouhaha in 2012 is located in Quirigua.
Two parks, the Bocas de Polochic Wild Life Preserve and the Rio Dulce National Park, provide opportunities for slow boat glides into areas where observers can catch sight of howler monkeys, flocks of parrots and numerous water and land animals from the comfort of a floating platform.
Excursions to a banana plantation and a huge African Palm plantation include demonstrations of harvesting as well as possible mountain biking under the shade of the trees. Another magical boat trip, this time in a shallow aluminum row boat, floats into a canyon of soaring stone cliffs, an adventure that is sure to make each participant feel like Indiana Jones on a quest for treasure.
These trips might be discovered by an industrious visitor to the area, but the G Boutique has arranged for exclusive adventures for its guests. The hotel’s developers are “local boys” and have arranged access to an enormous rubber and cattle ranch. Guests will be able to mountain bike, hike and eventually ride horses in this private paradise. At the top of one of the mountains, guests can climb down to a private pool at the bottom of a waterfall. The G Boutique group also know the best fishing guides, nature guides and tribal leaders, so they can provide unique opportunities for their guests.
“Our intention is to create magical experiences with our excursions,” explained Estuardo Riley. “We want our guests to remember their encounters on this trip forever.”
If your clients long for the busy streets of Playa del Carmen In Mexico, this destination is not the trip to recommend. If they are likely to lament what has happened to the sleepy town on Ambergris Caye in Belize, you might be able to provide them with some “I was there first” bragging rights with a trip to Lake Izabal.
One challenge is getting them there. If they are divers, you might combine a Bay Islands visit with the Rio Dulce-Lake Izabal trip via San Pedro Sula, Honduras. If they want to visit Antigua, the world-famous colonial city, Guatemala City would be their obvious gateway. The G Boutique Hotel rates include round trip ground transportation from Guatemala City to their hotel. They also offer a fascinating 45-minute helicopter flight to Mariscos with seats for five passengers for a reasonable rate, round trip.
Rack rates for the G Boutique range from $140 to $360. They will be offering a very special incentive to travel agents who book clients into the hotel for the first few months in late 2013 and early 2014. Be sure to ask about that incentive package.