Hot and sprawling, PUERTO BARRIOS is a pretty forlorn place, its wide, poorly lit streets badly potholed. Barrios’ once-fine legacy of old wooden Caribbean-style buildings is disappearing fast, only to be replaced by faceless concrete hotels and stores and an excess of hard-drinking bars. The only reason most travellers come here is to get somewhere else: to Lívingston or Belize by boat or south to Honduras via Corinto.
The town was founded in the 1880s by President Rufino Barrios, but its port facilities soon fell into the hands of the United Fruit Company, who used their control of the railways to ensure that the bulk of trade passed this way. Puerto Barrios was Guatemala’s main port for most of the twentieth century, and although the UFC was exempt from almost all tax, the users of its port were obliged to pay heavy duties. In the late twentieth century a decline set in as exporters used modern docks elsewhere.
In recent years Barrios has seen something of an upturn in its fortunes as key infrastructure – including the container port – have been modernized.
The main market, sprawling around disused railway lines at the corner of 9 Calle and 6 Avenida, is the town’s main focus and the best place to start to get a feel for Barrios’ modern identity. Lines of ladino vendors furiously whisk up lush fruit licuado drinks from a battery of blenders, while Garífuna women swat flies from piles of pan de coco.
West along 7 Calle from the market, it’s about 800m to the last surviving landmark to Barrios’ Caribbean architectural heritage, the elegant Hotel del Norte, its timber corridors warped by a century of storms and salty air – be sure to take a look inside at the colonial-style bar and dining room.