Guatemalan Legacy As Told by the Rio Polochic River

Young Explorer Will Meadows is building traditional canoes throughout the world’s ecosystems and indigenous communities, using the vessel as a lens into culture, identity, art, environment, and innovation.


On my way, WAY, down to Tierra Del Fuego, I made a quick jaunt in Guatemala with Trent Herbst, educator, musher, and paddler from Idaho. You may know him from our resurrection of the Snake River Reed Boat. A new project has been brewing for us called the Source to Sea Storytellers. Connecting our love for rivers and the cultures that depend on them, we make source to sea journeys of rivers to understand the complex stories of conservation and cultural survival. For a week, we journeyed from the source of the Rio Polochic in Eastern Guatemala, across the country’s largest lake, Lago De Izabal, down its outpour, the incredible Rio Dulce, to a happy New Years with Garifuna friends in the Carribean.

Foreign Animosity 

Starting at the headwaters in the convergence of two different mountain ranges, we danced and sang late into the night in the town of Tamuhu. Many of the people we met told us of common animosity to foreign powers and the plight of indigenous people in the region. The Polochic Valley, largely Qeq’chi’ communities, have been fighting for rights to their land in culture since the arrival of outsiders. Other issues, from pollution, to agriculture, to mining, showed us these realities starkly on our journey. We entered the river’s source near Tamahu with curiosity and deep respect.

As we moved down river, we were able to see incredible sections of white water, meet diverse communities, all the while attempting to understand a complicated story of river protection. While some section of this important river remain sound, such as a class V section upriver from La Tinta, much of the river, even with people afar, has been ingloriously decorated with trash and sediments.

At the town of Panzos, notorious place of the 1978 civil war massacre, we took a quick “portage” in a tuktuk. Cramming ourselves in over the three wheels, we held dearly to our deflated rafts as well as a motor and fuel for the next vessel to take us through the lower section of the Polochic, the national parque, and the river’s mouth at Lago de Izabal.

Mining and Agriculture 

Moving through a crocodile inhabited meandering river, which was born as a thrashing stream of white, we had learned a bit about a new conflict that has risen in this part of the Polochic Valley. To make room for new agricultural developments nearly 800 people were kicked off their land valley in May of 2011. Such drastic measures taken by the government and private companies created strong animosity and exacerbated a growing hunger problem in the region. While it remains unclear what will happen to these families and other families who depend on this fertile valley, it is clear that the Polochic and its watershed are crucial to many diverse people.

When we arrived at Lake Izabal, Guatemala’s largest standing body of water, our first image was a shocking contract. The beauty of the lake and its surrounding mountains, with a huge nickel mine placed right in the middle of it. The views and needs of the local communities views were similar in such contrast. Many of the indigenous friends we made in the town of El Estor talked about the mine’s destructive forces, yet it was also one of the few sources for jobs in the region. Foreign workers from Eastern Europe, they told us, almost never made it into the town, and many opportunities didn’t even trickle into Guatemala hands.

Green Paradise 

From El Estor we took a quick jaunt of the Rio Bocaron. Seeing monkeys and a diversity of other wildlife, this oasis canyon is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. Tucked away just miles from the lake, a green paradise with rugged terrain harbors biodiversity and serenity for both wildlife and people alike. Of course, our inflatable rafts came in handy there too. Our friend who paddled us up in his dugout canoe was confused when we told him to leave us there, suddenly surprised by the rafts that emerged from our small bags.

From the town of Rio Dulce we took a tourist, most of whom were Guatemala, boat half-way down the river. A complete contrast to our experience paddling in the remote Polochic and spending time with mostly indigenous, suddenly we were put right in the middle of vacationers. Yet the economic inflow of these visitors is perhaps the single biggest boost to local economies along the Rio Dulce, whose incredibly beauty of jungle and mangroves deserves to be kept as pristine as possible.

As the sun was setting, we emerged at the Carribean, in the Garifuna town of Livingston. The Garifuna are an eclectic people of African descent who welcomed us warmly into their community and kept our ears ringing on New Years with both fireworks and music. We sat in the New Year without current, taking in the sea breeze and the warm drift of a New Day. Soon enough we’re ready to hike back up against gravity and follow a river’s tale yet again.

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Meet the Author
Storyteller. Designer. Environmental Advocate. Many roles allow me to follow my passions and interests in our vast world of wonderful people and places. I am a National Geographic Young Explorer and 2012-2013 Watson Fellow, where through my work entitled Humanity's Vessel, I build traditional canoes around the world's ecosystems and indigenous communities, using the vessel as a lens to culture, identity, art, environment, and innovation.