Rio Dulce, Guatemala: when the closest ATM is a boat ride away

Livingston, Guatemala. Our shaky feet just touched the land of a new country. I still trembled from the rough boat ride from Belize. 45 minutes on the sea and the setting changed drastically. Nobody spoke English anymore and our few Belize dollars were worthless. The streets of Livingston were narrow and hilly and you had to watch out not to be run over by speeding little tuk-tuks.

We had no room booked and all we could think about was a nice big meal. But first things first. Cash is king in Livingston. There are only a few more expensive hotels where you can pay by card. Same goes for restaurants. There’s no way you can go to a shop and pay for your Coca-Cola with your plastic. The city is like a big market. And the few card terminals add another 4-5% to your bill. If you wanted to do anything in Livingston – like eating the best empanadas in town or doing your laundry – you needed cash.

Bed and dinner had to wait. Our first trip in this new country was one to a cash machine. We didn’t know yet that it would not be a quick two minutes stolen from our lives. The first cash machine didn’t give us anything. The second ATM in town, in front of the same bank, refused our cards as well.

“Are there any other ATMs here?” Tom asked an older Dutch tourist.

“No,” he said and pedalled away.

Super Mario to the rescue

Here we were in a new country without a penny in our pockets. Our lack of Spanish skills didn’t make things easier as well. Somehow, I managed to get information about a hotel where we could pay by card. A volunteer at the hotel sold us some cash through PayPal. That sorted us out for the night, but the problem itself didn’t disappear.

From the same girl, we learned that problems with cash machines weren’t unheard of. Apparently, the ATMs in this country vastly prefer Visa over our MasterCard. One guy scanned the ATMs in two different nearby towns and found only one that worked for him, in a supermarket in a town called Rio Dulce. And here’s the thing: as Livingston is not connected by land to any other places, you need to take a boat to get to Rio Dulce. Yes, we had to go on a boat ride to visit the ATM.

We booked the cheapest trip to the nearest cash machine. Mario, who somewhat resembled Super Mario, explained to us what we’d be seeing during the trip. Honestly, we didn’t pay too much attention. A working cash machine was the only thing we really wanted to see.

Cruise on the Rio Dulce

Hot springs

In spite of the practical purpose of this little voyage, the trip itself was stunning. Green lush walls rose high up from both sides of the river and made me feel like we entered the deep jungle.

Canoe on the Rio Dulce

It was amazing how steep the canyon was and how tiny the local fishermen’s canoes were, paddling up and down the current. All of a sudden, our boat came to an abrupt stop.

“Here is the hot spring! You have 15 minutes!” said our captain.

Okay, it was not a total surprise for me. I’d read about the hot springs on the river before, I just wasn’t sure how this specific trip would look like. Luckily, I’d already learned to always wear my swimsuit just in case. We bounced towards the hot pool, laughing about all these things we had to do just to get some cash. And it was hot! Just like the captain said- hot on top, normal in the bottom. I felt like I was in an enormous bath, not in a river.

Houses on the Rio Dulce

Shopping on the Rio Dulce

We continued our trip with destination ATM. But the captain couldn’t let the boat engine go full on too long before we slowed down again. All of a sudden, we floated on a lake full of pink and white water flowers and leaves. A gracious long-limbed bird was walking on the leaves. “Like Jesus,” were the only words I understood from our Spanish-speaking captain. Jesus indeed!

Soon, we felt the slight rocking of the boat. Out of nowhere, locals had appeared. They had come by boat, stretched their arms and pulled their boats next to ours. We realised pretty quickly that these local women sold souvenirs in their little boat shops. Since no one seemed to be interested in shopping, the salesladies left, so we could do some more birdwatching.

wooden houses on the shores of the Rio Dulce

Finally, on the shores of Rio Dulce, the captain proposed to take us to the fort. We just shook our heads and asked where the one and only working ATM was.

Bottomless market

It’s funny to be in a different place for a practical reason, not to admire it and to suck in as much local life as possible. Still, on our way to the cash machine, we couldn’t help but notice how different this place was from Livingston and from Belize.

We were thrown on a big chaotic street full of cars, motorbikes, and people. There were no sidewalks. The traffic on the street was one constant flow that threatened to take you away if you were not being careful. But the street also functioned as a market. Women with colourful lace blouses and long, plaited skirts lined the streets, sat and sold everything you could imagine.

Turning my head, I saw how bottomless the market was. A narrow street between stalls ran deep into the town. I felt a strong urge to go and discover. But we had no time for that! We rushed into the green supermarket, into the narrow corridor that contained the only working ATM in Rio Dulce. Shop workers squeezed themselves past us while I was entering my pin code. The screen said that I had exceeded my limit, which was not possible. Tom got depressed and said that we should just try other machines.

“But maybe we can still use your card?” I offered.

But Tom, frustrated, was already moving out of the crammed supermarket.

Ka-ching!

We tried dozens of banks on the main road. A security guy guarded each bank with a huge gun. It made the uncomfortable situation even more nerve-wracking. At the end of the hopeless ATM hunt, I hinted to Tom, that maybe, just maybe, we could try the one in the supermarket once more. Tom’s face was covered in thunderclouds, but eventually, he agreed.

The familiar sound of money being counted made me shed a tear. We had no idea how we would survive the rest of the country and its ATMs, but we didn’t think about it now. Now we were just crazily happy about something that we hardly even think about back home.

Anete during the cruise on the Rio Dulce

3 Replies to “Rio Dulce, Guatemala: when the closest ATM is a boat ride away”

  1. Pingback: Notes From the Lake — part two – Volcano Love

  2. Toussaint Juliette

    Hi ! I just finished reading your article which tragically describes just perfectly what we’re living right at the moment! We’ll arrive in Rio Dulce tomorrow with only the rest of the few euros we managed to changed into Q and we’re desperately looking for a cash machine working with MasterCard.. Can you please save us by telling us where was this famous working ATM in rio dulce? Also for te rest of our trip, do you remember the places in which you were able to withdraw cash? Many thanks in advance ! Hopefully yours, Juliette

    Reply
    • Tom Peeters

      Hi Juliette! The golden cash machine is the one inside of Despensa Familiar, a supermarket on the main road in Rio Dulce. The good news is that things got easier for us afterwards, as most big towns in Guatemala have a Despensa Familiar and many had an ATM that worked for us (always ATMs from Banco Industrial, never 5B). The bad news is that still only one of our three cards ever worked. Be patient with the BI ATMs, sometimes you have to try multiple times before they work (so don’t give up hope straight away). In Despensa Familiar you can also pay with card, so you can save some cash. And more touristic places also often accept card payments. If you’re headed north from Rio Dulce, we’re staying right now in Poptun, halfway between Rio Dulce and Flores, so come and say hi 😉 Good luck and let us know if we can help you. Tom

      Reply

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