Community tourism sounds so fluffy and harmless. We’d go on a boat, visit the Q’eqchi Mayans that live amongst the mangroves and go for a little walk through the forest to see a cave. A pleasant way to spend a few hours, that was the idea.
On eastern Guatemala’s Rio Dulce, Ak’Tenamit is a big community project aimed at bringing schooling, healthcare and income to the scores of swampy villages that line the river. It’s a spot for craft-making cooperatives to sell their wares, local Q’eqchi to get trained in tourism industries and guides to lead visitors on walks through the forest. It’s a spot with a good heart, even if it could work on the descriptions a little bit.
After schlepping 20 minutes along muddy forest tracks, the first sign that all might not be as seems comes at a natural pool in the river. Jump on in, have a swim, we’re encouraged. Even those of us who’ve not bought swimwear. The guide – Raul – strips down to his pants and ambles into the water, however, and it would seem churlish not to follow.
Post-dip, we continue on like an ill-judged underwear modelling procession to the cave. It’s the Cave of the Tiger, says Raul. Back in his grandfather’s day, chickens and pigs started going missing and the village wondered where they were going to. After clearing a track through the forest, grandfather Antonio found the huge cave – where the river disappears underground – and animal bones inside it. The villagers tried to find the tiger (realistically, a jaguar) and held ceremonial offerings to the Mayan god to pray it wouldn’t return.
It never did, and the circular altar is still used for ceremonies today. What’s not so clear, however, is what the ladder and large portable lighting strip that Raul’s friend is carrying are used for.
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We soon find out as the river reappears as a waterfall inside the cave. Raul takes the ladder and lowers it down to the bottom. Is he seriously expecting us to climb down into the dark?
No. He isn’t. “Now we jump!”
He catches us peering down into the narrow gap at the pool below, unconvinced. “It is OK. Is safe,” he cajoles.
And so the gentle nature walk turns into a canyoning adventure. Anywhere else, this would be conducted with abseiling gear, helmets, insurance waivers and a raft of health and safety measures. Here, we just have our pants and the lighting strip bearing down on us.
We jump down with almighty splashes, then inch along the river in the dark. Raul pulls out a torch, which is fine when it’s shined directly on the stone you’re about to step on, and less useful when shined elsewhere. Scuttling river lobsters with massive pincers move between the rocks. One false step could end up rather painful.
The nervous stumbling continues until we reach a cave within the cave. Overhead, things start to move. Lots of things. It’s like the scene from The Birds but with bats. There are hundreds of them down here, and we’ve disturbed them. They zip overhead in swarms.
Mercifully before the surprise animals get even more terrifying, Raul decides we’ve come far enough. The charming nature walk ends as a desperate scramble up rapids and hauling ourselves up a dangling ladder. No wonder the tiger decided to hang out somewhere else.
This story was originally written for Roundtheworldflights.com.
All content copyright David Whitley.