Like straight out of the pages of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, we slowly motor up the country’s mightiest river and forge deep into the jungle on a little-known tributary searching for a man and a place.
The man would be Argentinian entrepreneur, Carlos Simonini. The place would be the one-of-a-kind Hotel Finca Tatin. Carlos has been tirelessly perfecting his masterpiece in the jungle for over a decade and Lori and I had never stayed at anything quite like Finca prior to our first visit late last year.
Journey Up the Sweet River
Our journey starts at Casa Rosada aboard a tiny, topless skiff captained by Guido, a German transplant with a passion for the Rio Dulce (Sweet River). Guido was very good with my mom’s injuries and knew just out to get her into the boat with minimum pain and fuss. He also provided an impromptu tour of the river (both upriver and on our return trip), pointing out the various features of interest through the canyon and along the rest of the route.
Heading farther upstream, the river narrows and the canyon walls climb precipitously. All vestiges of civilization have vanished, leaving the five of us with nothing but sheer limestone cliffs, dense jungle and the Rio.
Along the way, we spot a Great Egret standing elegantly at attention, waiting patiently for his next meal to swim on by.
A view skyward reveals steep cliffs covered in a sea of green against a deep blue sky. Captain Guido cuts the motor for a moment revealing nothing but the sound of a stiff breeze and birdsong.
The walls begin to part again. A look back reveals the cut through the cliffs on the river’s journey back to the Caribbean.
Occasionally, local boats packed with passengers motor on by at a distance.
While the above sailboat looks to be toast, Guido informs us that she’s actually quite solid and the interior is pristine. He also tells us that the proud owner is willing to let her go for a mere US $1,000. Any takers?
At last, we arrive at our destination for the next three days: Finca Tatin! Finca means estate or property in Spanish and Tatin is the name of the river (Rio Tatin). Again, my parents knew none of this — not even after they were ushered (or lowered down into) the boat. We could have been headed back out to sea or farther down the coast, but instead, we headed inland. As we motored deeper into the gorge, farther upstream, farther away from Livingston, they wondered where we must be headed, that is, until the boat arrived at the Finca dock and Lori and I hopped out. Surprise!
Finca Tatin is an impressive property, a mish mash of structures and areas connected by catwalks over time. Yet the place avoids the feeling of something ‘ad hoc’ or hastily thrown together. On the contrary, the property evokes a feeling of all being part of a master plan, whether the owner had one or not at the beginning. The sole exception, in my opinion is the four-story fun-tower erected right in the center of the property. Somehow, it manages to blend into the jungle when you’re not standing right in front of it, which is a testament to the good sense of the proprietor and the density of the jungle.
Sometimes, the Rio Tatin can appear as smooth as glass, as if it weren’t moving an inch. Other times of the day, it appears noticeably hurried. Regardless, there’s seemingly a postcard waiting in every direction from any one of Finca’s docks.
Don’t forget to check out the gym when you head to Finca (since everyone else for some reason seems to forget it’s there!)
(Above) Half of the property is actually built over a still section of the river, connected by a series of elevated boardwalks. Behind this patch of swamp lies the communal dining area.
Finca may be up a river and in the middle of the jungle, but that doesn’t mean that the food has to stink. Oh no, Finca’s talented kitchen staff whip up a mighty tasty variety of offerings you typically wouldn’t find in the jungle, such as pizzas, burgers and stuffed fruit crepes (above). Dinners are served family style and generally offer a European variation on a local plate.
Ma and Pa posing in front of our bungalow ‘Pelicano’ as taken from a kayak. The riverfront family bungalow had two levels with a twin bed and a bunk bed on the first floor, and a twin and double upstairs in the loft. The bungalow also had a spacious attached bathroom and large front porch over the river.
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Kayaking the Rio Tatin & Rio Dulce
Finca has an entire marina tucked back into the jungle full of kayaks with very reasonable rates. If you’re ever going to have easily accessible kayaks at low rates, this is the place to have them, as there a seemingly endless number of opportunities for kayaking up and down the Rio Tatin, to the outer reaches of the Rio Dulce, and up its remote tributaries. You paddle to small villages, hot springs, local restaurants and bars and other interesting places along the way. If you’ve got a couple of hours or more, you can even kayak back to Livingston and catch a motorboat back.
The above plank board restaurant near the source of the Rio Tatin sported a bright red Claro satellite and a sign announcing: “Watch the World Cup! Choose your team!” Apparently, there are few places on Earth you can’t watch the World Cup these days!
A common sight in the evenings is seeing small children in small wooden canoes paddling masterfully up and down the river. The boat above had three young girls (two paddling), intent on getting somewhere downriver.
Return to Livingston
On the third day in the jungle, and with a heavy heart, we returned to Livingston Town. But, the adventure didn’t end there. We were due to return to PG that same day at around 3pm, but it seemed our boat captain was having some engine trouble (…again). I’ll say with absolutely certainty that there’s nothing like seeing your ticket home limp sadly into port being towed by another boat. The fact that the motor had failed on us three times while crossing the Gulf of Honduras four days prior didn’t bode well for the journey home, either. By the time we learned of all of this, the winds had whipped up and the sea had turned foamy, particularly looking out in a northeast direction (the direction of PG). Some of the other boat captains were refusing to take their small skiffs out at all. No matter how you sliced it, looked like we were going to be in Livingston another night.
Figured we’d just have to head back to Casa Rosada for another night. Darn!
Our boatman did return in the morning (albeit an hour late), and while the 45-minute crossing wasn’t the smoothest ever (it was actually fairly rough, as we were running headlong into a rare northwesterly wind out of PG — just our luck), the motor never lost power and no one got sick. You really can’t ask for much more than that when crossing the open sea.