Unreached Realities in Guatemalan Mangroves
Story and photos by Luke Maguire Armstrong

While appearing in a side role in a reality nature TV show that's far from natural, a singing travel writer reflects on what we leave out of our stories.

Guatemala travel

Caiman-wise, we have a problem. The producer and host stare at the man holding the sack containing a caiman they paid him to procure.

"We're going to look like assholes if we say that we are the ones who captured it," the producer says balancing himself on our 20 foot lancha boat. A murmur passes from cameraman to soundman. The caiman wriggles in his sack. Vida, the host of the Guatemalan travel show "Undiscovered Secrets of the World," has an idea, "Let's say we found it in a fisherman's net and we are freeing it."

Day of the Dead figurine

Our guide moves the boat in position. The cameraman frames the shot. The soundman positions the boom and the host arranges her hair. Herons fly overhead and everyone with six legs and wings fiddles for a mate.

The host practices looking surprised and then ACTION!—The caiman's captor opens the sack and Vida jumps back. She turns to the camera and explains how we rescued the caiman from a fisherman's net. "Now we will set it free," she turns to the man holding the reptile. The camera and the boom move to document the emancipation. But the man just stands there holding the crocodilian over the primordial green water.

"Cut," snaps the producer, "Why didn't you set it free?"

The captor looks constipated. "It will die if it is released in the mangroves," he says. "Caimans live in sweet water, and mangroves are half sweet water, half salt water."

The Last of the Mangroves

The longer I live as an expat in Guatemala, the more webs I find myself tangled in. Two days before filming, I'd been at home writing a novella about a hamster named Jerry when I'd gotten a call from a Guatemalan friend whose restaurant I used to gig at. "There is a reality TV show looking for a musician from the United States, can you do it?" A few phone calls later, without much explanation, here I am in Manchón Guamuchal, a 33,500-acre wetland preserve that protects some of the last healthy mangroves in Guatemala.

Situated on the southwest side of Guatemala's Pacific-washed black sand beaches, the remote preserve is a flooded forest of mangroves. The trees rise 50 feet in the air supported by 10-foot thrones of entangled roots.


Mangrove forests straddle the intersection of four worlds—water and land, freshwater and saltwater. What emerges is one of the most unique, productive, and biologically complicated ecosystems on our planet. The forest nourishes fish, which feed monkeys, who scurry next to tree-climbing crabs, who are shat on by a unique variety of birds who fly over turtles, who eat amphibians, who hide from various families of aquatic, frog-eating mammals and fish.

As is the case in many spots globally, so it is in Guatemala: the only thing keeping the last few mangrove forests in Guatemala from destruction is governmental protection. Most mangrove forests disappeared when they were cut down for lumber, cleared to make ports, leveled to create saltpans, hotels, golf courses, or farms. Even the ones under protection face decreasing fauna because of chemical pollution, agricultural runoff, and the various other things that people do to disrupt delicate salinity balances necessary for mangroves to thrive.

The Realities We Craft and The Realities We Avoid

The next day starts at dawn. We ride bicycles back and forth until the producer has the shot he wants. Then we kayak a few meters and circle back and kayak the same few meters a dozen times until the producer is satisfied. Our progress is slow—filled with elongated lags and problems with the gear. We will shoot retake after retake of what will be portrayed for viewers as unscripted moments.

I am referred to as "Luke Maguire Armstrong, a "famous musician from the United States." I am not famous. My musicianship consists of occasionally playing at bars in front of a few dozen drinkers. But the reality of who I actually am isn't important here. This is reality TV, fabricated narrative presented to viewers as real.

That afternoon, we drift past some fisherman who subsist off what they catch with deftly thrown and expertly retrieved nets. On a good day, both fishermen split earnings of $5 to support their families. A half dozen small fish litter the bottom of their wooden canoe. They remember as children a great abundance of fish and blame chemical runoff from agriculture as the reason why "now there's hardly any." In the modern world, growing food one place kills food elsewhere.

Fishermen in Guatemala

But none of this is filmed. These fisherman, who really understand the reality of the mangroves, don't fit the cut of "undiscovered secrets of the world." They are merely unknown men privy to environmental realities we collectively don't want to face.

In the evening, we are taken to see frogs. "Sapos!" a local man yells beneath a rock concert chorus of frogs calling out their I'm-a-horny-toad symphony. The local jumps into a ditch at the side of a gravel road and captures one of the amphibians to show the camera. I stand over him and look. "Corte!" the producer calls, "Can you act a little more excited about the frog?"

Night in Guatemala

In the second take, I shine, "¡Dios Mio! ¡¿Un Sapo?!" I rush with the host to form a semi-circle around the man and captured frog, brimming with made-for-TV enthusiasm.

Chico: The Mayans in the Mounds

Late afternoon of the second day, we embark for Chico, a village cut off from the roads that unite the rest of civilization. The only way to access it is by floating to it through the mangroves. Fernando, a composer from Guatemala City, and I will conduct a music workshop for a class of fifth and sixth graders in the village school. The plot is that the host of the show has taken us out of our comfortable world of city life to this village to teach these kids about music.

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