by Sharon Kratz, Sailing Vessel Rose of Sharon
Guatemala! At last! When we began our cruising adventure in October 2004, we had no other objective than to sail our boat to Guatemala and up the Rio Dulce. As Joe said, “October was the beginning and April is the end. No matter what we do from here on out, we’ve accomplished our goal.”
We arrived at Livingston, Guatemala near dusk and it was too late to attempt a check-in. The warm harbor waters were practically boiling with activity; fishing boats and fast boats and tour boats and shrimp boats were dodging each other and us at breakneck speed.
As we dropped anchor, Joe and I were nervous, but not nervous enough to go to the nearby La Marina for dockage. I have to admit it – we were concerned about security too. The heat was very intense, the winds were down to nothing, and with our consternation about safety . . . well, we decided to sleep in the cockpit. It seems silly now, but at the time, it seemed like a good idea . Within minutes, I could hear Joe snoring. I fidgeted.
The bad guys could steal the dinghy, cut my throat, ransack the boat then have a couple of beers before heading home and Joe would never wake up, I thought. I left the cockpit and tugged my cushion to the bow of the boat, where it was cooler. The moon was full, yellow and distracting. I shut my eyes and tried to remember all the words to “Shine On, Harvest Moon.”
An unlit small boat motored slowly and as closely as possible past our boat and I opened my eyes to examine the men in the boat. This isn’t working, I decided, and once again towed my cushion back into the cockpit. Joe continued to snore as he rolled over onto his other side. I went down below and stretched out in the salon, my usual spot when we are underway.
It’s too hot!
So I wandered back to my bunk, turned on the fan, and alternated dozing and waking. When I awoke, I’d peek out of the master berth hatch to see if the dinghy was still attached to the boat. And to see if Joe was still attached to the boat, too. Both were having a better night’s rest than I was.
The next morning as I stumbled past Joe toward the head, he asked, “What happened? I thought we were going to sleep in the cockpit. It wasn’t much, but I had a little breeze. When I woke up ...”
“Exactly. I was gone, could have been kidnapped and sold into slavery, and you would have slept right through it!” I grumbled. Joe laughed. “I don’t think we have to worry about someone stealing you. Hey, wait! I’ve got an idea! Since we’re worried about someone stealing the dinghy, let’s put YOU in the dinghy every night and . . .”
The man likes to live dangerously.
That morning, Guatemalan officials boarded our boat just as two more sailboats entered the harbor; we could see an additional two sailboats in the distance. It was going to be a busy day for Livingston’s Customs and Immigration offices. I wasn’t sure in what capacity each official operated, so I gave all three a Rose of Sharon music CD, a mix of Hispanic and U.S. music. They seemed very pleased with the CDs, and I explained to them that I had made the music CDs myself, to give to other boaters and the people who have helped us along the way.
A contact person for cruisers entering Livingston is Raul, who works for Customs and Immigration and who monitors VHF 16. While Raul and Joe shuffled the papers and filled out the necessary forms for beginning the checking-in process, the port capitan and the other man conversed with me in “Spanglish.” Only Raul had a complete grasp of English, and he was busy, so the three of us chatted in broken sentences and with many gestures. They told me it was good that I was trying so hard to speak Spanish. “¡Es muy importante!” I exclaimed in what I hoped was good Spanish. “Many people come to the United States and they usually try to learn English. It’s what we from the U.S. should also do, when we visit other countries.”
Livingston is a diverse community and most of its population is a Mayo-African-Caribbean cultural blend. A very steep uphill road challenges walkers to the town of Livingston from the dinghy dock and anchorage below. In the extreme heat, that hill seemed almost insurmountable to me, but I made it, knowing that the path to the dock later would be downhill, a happy thought. Customs and Immigration are not in close proximity, so we certainly got a good tour of the city on foot. We seemed to have acquired a “guide,” but we didn’t want one. A very large man in a neon green t-shirt insisted on accompanying us along the way. We couldn’t shake the guy. Finally, Joe handed him our last Belizean bill and said, “Jeff will you take this to a money changer?” and he disappeared for the rest of the day. “I wish I’d thought of that sooner,” said Joe.
On this particular day, the electricity had gone out in Livingston, and the ATMs were down. I walked into an internet café, and the proprietor was extremely grumpy that she was temporarily out of business. However, the bank was more than happy to give us credit card money. “How much did you get?” I asked Joe, as he left the bank. “MORE than enough!” he exclaim ed. “That poor credit card,” I said. “No, the credit card is doing fine, we’re the poor ones,” Joe replied.
I was immediately confounded by the exchange rate and couldn’t pronounce the currency: quetzal (kayt-zal). Check-in costs were $120Q for Immigration, $250Q for Customs and $125Q for the Port Captain, which came to approximately $82.50 U.S.
And everywhere we paused or hesitated, I was besieged by women who wanted to braid my hair. Each time, the women would bring out a small photo album and flip to a photograph of beautifully braided hair. They would say, “I do her! I do you like this!” Each time, it was the same photograph. During lunch, I consulted my English/Spanish dictionary and put together these sentences: “No, thank you! I am sorry, but no! My hair is very dirty!” It was true, too; my hair was dusty and damp and the limp strands were hanging like a mop on my shoulders. The women would leave quickly as soon as I said my sentence. Later we discovered that I might have been telling the women that they were sorry and dirty. Got to get those pronouns straight, I fretted.
We had completed our trips throughout the town of Livingston, checking-in, and when we stopped for lunch at Bahia Azul restaurant, I requested a large bottle of water. Joe was not at all surprised to see me dump half the bottle of water over my head. It’s nothing he would ever do, of course, but completely in character for me. Maybe I haven’t emphasized this enough: It was HOT.
I watched as a very old, handicapped woman walked laboriously up the hill and when she saw diners at Bahia Azul, she stopped at each table and asked if they would like to buy some of her bread rolls. How could I say no ? I bought a bag. When the old woman had moved on, I asked our server if the rolls would be “all right,” and she shook her head no. “Do not eat,” she advised. “Throw away.”
We enjoyed lunch then went shopping for a few supplies, just enough for a couple of days. NOW we needed a guide, and the restaurant gave us a very old, toothless Guatemalan who spoke impeccable English. He took us to the place where I could get toilet paper, cheese and Pringles. Then he took me to the place where I could get vegetables. Next, I wanted fried corn tortillas and he knew the place for that. Joe wanted ice and a gallon of drinking water, so we walked to that site.
By this time, my face was fire engine-red and the sweat was stinging my eyes. Joe’s shirt was completely soaked with perspiration. The good news was, the dock was downhill, and we scurried back to our dinghy and boat as quickly as possible, looking forward to being underway so the wind would cool us down while we were moving.
There was no wind; there was smoke. We’d heard on that morning’s cruisers’ net that someone nearby was burning brush, and the haze extended for many miles. Never mind that! We were in Guatemala, motoring up the Rio Dulce, and we were in great spirits. I perched on the bow of the boat, studying the canyon walls intently. White egrets lazed along the shoreline and flew overhead. Fishing boats dotted the river and hungry pelicans floated near each boat, waiting for a handout.
In his book, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, Vol. 1, John Lloyd Stephens wrote this about the Rio Dulce:
On each side, rising perpendicularly from three to four hundred feet, was a wall of living green. Trees grew from the water's edge, with dense unbroken foliage, to the top; not a spot of barrenness was to be seen; and on both sides, from the tops of the highest trees, long tendrils descended to the water, as if to drink and carry life to the trunks that bore them. It was, as its name imports, a Rio Dulce, a fairy scene of Titan land, combining exquisite beauty with colossal grandeur. As we advanced the passage turned, and in a few minutes we lost sight of the sea, and were enclosed on all sides by a forest wall; but the river, although showing us no passage, still invited us onward.
It truly was a sweet river. It was my dream come true.15°45.23N, 088°50.54W, El Gofete Lake
As we entered El Golfete Lake, we debated which of the anchorages would be most comfortable and most secure. I recommend that when you enter El Golfete from the direction of Livingston, hang a left; all three of the tiny coves on that edge of the lake provide suitable anchorage. We decided to drop anchor in the third inlet shown on Cruising Guide to Belize and Mexico's Caribbean Coast, including Guatemala's Rio Dulce by Captain Freya Rauscher. It proved to be quiet and calm, but wind-less, more or less. Because it was don’t-touch-me hot and we were still nervous about Guatemala, Joe slept in the salon (with his trusty flare gun) and I slept in our berth. We slept peacefully; however, Joe and I had extremely animated dreams. The next morning, we shared our dreams with each other and then Joe told me he’d heard flute music in the night. “Omigosh!” I said. “I did too! What did you do?”
“Nothing,” he replied. “When I woke up completely, I couldn’t hear it anymore.”
Eerily, the same thing had happened to me at a different time during the night. I was asleep, but I heard the song of a flute echoing in my head, and when I awoke, the music was gone. I had climbed out the hatch over our bunk and looked around. There was a heavy haze enveloping the anchorage, but I could see the shoreline. Nothing moved and there was not a sound to be heard.
The next day, we continued up the Rio Dulce and into Catamaran Marina. Choosing a marina along the banks of Guatemala’s Rio Dulce is not an easy task. There are a few great marinas and several good marinas. As Joe and I debated at which marina we would call home during hurricane season, we consulted other cruisers and found that the well-known Mario’s Marina continues to be extremely popular among cruisers to Guatemala’s Rio Dulce. But one cruising ex-neighbor from Texas knew the type of marina Joe and I would prefer as liveaboards and told us, “If you liked Waterford Yacht Club in Kemah, you’ll be happiest at Catamaran.”
Most of the marinas accept reservations, but Catamaran Island Hotel and Marina would not. Because the hotel, not the marina, is the primary business at this site, cruisers are carefully scrutinized by the staff before being accepted as temporary residents of the Catamaran Marina. “Our boat is so shabby-looking,” I fussed. “What if they won’t accept us?”
“We’re going to put a shine on old Rose while we’re here,” Joe replied. Then he quoted a line from a movie about self-esteem: “We’re good enough, we’re smart enough, we’re pretty enough, and by golly, people like us!” I laughed.
As we approached the inlet to the marina, dockmaster Emy talked us in on VHF channel 11. And when we eased into our slip, we noticed three other Texas vessels nestled in the intimate jungle-lined cove. I sighed with pleasure when I saw a heron swoop low over the piers that were nestled along the jungle-covered banks. The docks were staggered in an interesting arrangement with separate wooden walkways leading into the jungle and out again to the property’s main paved path.
Emy joined us in the cockpit and welcomed us to Catamaran. A sprightly, cheerful woman, she runs the marina efficiently and effectively. She explained the water, electrical and internet systems and answered our questions. One of the nicest things about this marina is that you can pay your monthly bill with a personal check. You can also write a check for cash, eliminating the need for an ATM or credit card transaction. As soon as Emy left, I put on my bathing suit, grabbed a wad of quetzals and jumped off the boat. “It’s hotter than hammer hell,” I said over my shoulder to Joe. I need water every which way!”
I walked quickly up a path that led to the swimming pool and pool bar. That’s when I met Rosa and Kevin. With my hair plastered to my head like a damp rag, I climbed up on a bar stool and said, “Agua, por favor. Agua con gas, agua sin gas, mucho agua.” Rosa stared at me as I handed her some money, then she looked at a man on a stool nearby. He nodded and she began pouring my waters. “They call it ‘mineral water’ around here, not agua con gas,” he commented. “I don’t care if it’s swamp water, I’m so thirsty!” I laughed, and after a few large gulps, I left the pool bar and entered the swimming pool. Surrounded by stunning tropical lushness interspersed with manicured lawns, I finally took a deep breath and relaxed. This is IT, I thought. I’m home!
I swam back to the pool’s edge and walked, still dripping, back to the pool bar. “So, did you come here by boat?” the man asked casually. I said yes, and we chatted a bit, then I commented about how good the tap water tasted. “It’s from my well,” the man said. “It’s filtered and then run through an ultraviolet light.”
“You mean you own . . . this?” I asked, making a gesture that encompassed the area. He smiled. “Yes.” And that was Kevin. The reason Rosa had looked askance at him was because you don’t pay for drinks at the pool bar with real money. You pay with “Kevin Bucks.” A bottle of water is one Kevin Buck. A beer is two Kevin Bucks.
Then Rosa and I began a conversation that would last for months. She had been told by Kevin that she needed to learn more English. I was struggling valiantly to learn Spanish. Rosa began by teaching me the most necessary elements of the language: “Un vino blanco doble, por favor,” and “Pase me las manías” (“One white wine, double, please,” and “Pass me the nuts.”).
That evening, Joe and I met a well-dressed, somewhat exotic-looking woman from Brazil who was not happy with her stay in one of the charming Hotel Catamaran bungalows overlooking the Rio Dulce. “The monkeys!” she fretted. “They drive me crazy with their noise in the trees!” Her name was Christina and she’d had just enough facelifts to have a glossy and somewhat frightening frozen face. “My traveling companion, I think she tired of me!” Christina said, pointing to a woman who was sitting at the main bar, watching television. “But I do not like this place! It is too hot! I cannot climb that hill in Livingston and she wants to go there tomorrow!” Joe immediately retreated to join Christina’s friend at the bar.
Left alone with the fussy Christina, I asked her about her country. “Brazil is beautiful, wonderful, not hot like here!” she exclaimed. “You sail your boat there, you come during Carnival, you will see most wonderful thing in the world.” I asked her if Carnival was similar to our Mardi Gras and she replied, “Same thing only much, much better! Americans do not have Carnival!” Clearly, Christina was travel-challenged, and the next night, we bade her and her weary-looking companion farewell.
Several days later, I met a man in the swimming pool who wanted to fuss at me about my country and my president. I was getting familiar with this and usually handled it by nodding, smiling, and keeping my mouth shut. Those people weren’t looking for a conversation; they were looking for a lectern. “You go to America and if you do not do what the police say, ha! They throw you in jail!” the man declared. I had to agree yes, that was pretty-much the way it worked in the U.S. If Mr. Policeman tells you to do something and you argue too much, he will indeed throw you in jail.
“I take an apple into your country and they tell me I cannot bring my apple into America! An apple! Stupid! So, ha! I eat my apple right there. My apple come into your country anyway!” I explained to him that most countries have laws prohibiting walk-in produce, plants and animals from other countries. He seemed skeptical, so I told him how Australian Customs officials would allow boaters to bring a banana – but not its peel – into their country. At that point, his meek wife walked to the pool’s edge and handed him a ringing cellphone. He abruptly turned his back on me and began a clipped discussion on the phone in the water. I smiled at his wife before I swam away and she offered me a “What can you do?” smile in return. I had a couple of ideas about what I’d do with a man like that, but then Mr. Policeman would throw me in jail.
Meanwhile, Joe began working on the boat with Irwin, a local man who paddled over in his hollowed-out canoe and worked for $16/day U.S. Irwin swam under the boat to do a quick bottom scrub, washed the boat regularly, helped Joe with any two-man tasks, and began sanding our teak in preparation for refinishing.
Irwin’s English was nonexistent and he often requested money “in advance” for Monday, but might not show up until, say, Thursday. After this happened twice, I carefully put together sentences in Spanish with which to fuss at Irwin if he asked for payment in advance (“You want money for Monday and we give it to you, but come Monday, where’s Irwin? On Wednesday, where’s Irwin? Someday you not return! No more money in advance!”), but dockmaster Emy had already told Irwin not to ask for advance payments, so I didn’t need my string of Spanish sentences with which to scold Irwin. Emy was not the type of woman to mince words in any language.
How do I describe Fronteras? I could say crowded, dirty, hot, exhausting. Or I could say bustling, dusty, busy with street life. Each visit into Fronteras depended largely on my own perception: if I was tired and hot, I disliked it; if I was refreshed and energized, I enjoyed it immensely. The fruits and vegetables were amazing in their quality of freshness and abundance. I was in salad heaven! After several visits, I chose two stalls that were my favorites; one had the best romaine lettuce and one had the best cebollas y tomates (onions and tomatoes). Joe and I soon established our shopping routine: we would dinghy into Fronteras, walk from the dinghy dock (located at Bruno’s Restaurant) to the largest grocery store in town for canned goods and some frozen meats, then on to a couple of street markets for fruits and veggies. Two grocery sacks full of fruits and vegetables averaged $5.00 U.S. Backpacks and hands full, we would trek back to Bruno’s, where we enjoyed a hamburguesa and papas fritas (burger and fries) before returning to the boat.
During our shopping trips, Joe stood beside me while I gestured and spoke enthusiastically in my broken Spanish, requesting five limes, two onions, that bunch of carrots, this stalk of broccoli . . . but one day, Joe had to go to the market by himself. I consulted my Spanish & English dictionary and carefully wrote the shopping list in both languages. He came back with everything on the list, except when it came to the tomatoes, the vendor gave Joe five pounds of tomatoes instead of 5 tomatoes! “I didn’t want to deal with explaining it,” said Joe haplessly as I laughed and poured the large sack full of tomatoes on the galley countertop for washing. You know what? We ate every one of those tomatoes in 4 days! We had tomatoes and rice, tomatoes and beans, tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and kosher salt, tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes. They were quite good.
When buying fruits and vegetables in Central America, it’s important to remember to wash them in a bleach-water solution. I would fill my small sink half-full of water and add a small splash of bleach, then gently wash the produce in the bleach-water, following with a fresh water rinse. If I bought grains (rice, for example) or beans from an open barrel as opposed to pre-packaged, I washed them before cooking also.
Swimming is fine in many portions of the Rio Dulce and in Lake Izabal, but not recommended along the Fronteras stretch of the river. I missed my daily off-the-boat swims in the clear waters of the Caribbean, but the hotel swimming pool was clean and convenient. Most evenings I went for a swim in the pool. Later, Joe would join me for “happy hour” at the pool bar. Rosa and I would continue our disjointed Spanglish conversations, then Joe and I would return to the boat for supper or dine at the hotel’s restaurant. A typical evening meal for both of us at the restaurant averaged $15 U.S.
Here’s my answer to the question cruisers most often ask: “How much?” To live aboard comfortably in a marina along the Rio Dulce, $1,000/month is plenty. As always, your lifestyle influences how much money you need in your cruising kitty.
The hub of cruiser activity along the Rio Dulce seemed to be Mario’s Marina. An “American-style” chicken-fried steak and mashed potatoes meal was offered as a weekly special at the marina’s Cayuco Club restaurant. One of the biggest social events, a “swap meet” was held there every Saturday morning. Cruisers and locals visited the marina to sell, buy or trade items while enjoying a Bloody Mary or large slice of freshly baked pizza. The marina’s ownership seemed to be a partnership of several people, and I was able to meet three of its owners: Ron from Florida; Mac from Texas; and a cruiser we’d previously met in Isla Mujeres, Jerry Lombard of S/V Beyond Reason. Jerry had so fallen in love with the Rio Dulce, he joined the owner/partnership of Mario’s Marina.
The kindly Ron gently scolded me for not docking at Mario’s Marina, but admitted they were quickly becoming full for the hurricane season. Indeed, there did not appear to be a spare slip available by the end of May. At the swap meet, he even bought a copy of my book, All the Time in the World. The congeniality and boater-fellowship at Mario’s is why it continues to be the most popular marina along the Rio Dulce.
Sometimes we are travelers. Sometimes we are tourists. I enjoy being both, but we did not have time to begin our tourism of Guatemala before a return trip to the U.S. for a family wedding. So Joe and I made a preliminary list of sites to see upon our return: Castillo de San Felipe, the nearby hot waterfall Finca el Paraiso, the Mayan ruins of Tikal, Lake Izabal and something Joe was especially looking forward to – Spanish lessons at a language school in Antigua.
But first we had to make a trip to the States. We’d heard about the bus robberies and road crimes committed in Guatemala and were none too eager to travel to the Guatemala City airport by bus. As always, locals and other cruisers provided plenty of information. Litegua is considered one of the best bus lines in Guatemala, and we reserved seats on its “Especial” bus from Rio Dulce to Guatemala City. Air conditioning is promised on most of the buses but guaranteed on none.
The bus was very clean, air conditioned, and with the exception of a flat tire, we had no problem getting to Guatemala City. I had been warned that when we arrived at the bus station in Guatemala City near dusk we would be most vulnerable to the criminal element, especially if we carried a laptop. I was also told one of the current methods of robbery would be for a man or woman holding a soft drink to feign a trip in front of you, dumping much of the soda on your shirt or blouse. As soon as you let go of your bags to wipe your shirt, one or more people would swoop in and grab your luggage.
When Joe and I disembarked from the bus, we collected our luggage and were immediately swamped by men asking us if we needed a taxi. One planted himself in front of me, and when I stopped, I asked/gestured, Do you have a taxi sign on top of your car? He shook his head no, so I plowed past him with Joe hot on my trail, walking quickly as if we knew where we were going, but we didn’t. We thought it was important to look like we knew where we were going, at least until we got out of the confusion of the bus station.
So we walked briskly into a cafeteria, through it and out the opposite door onto a main street. I saw a cab with a taxi sign on top, raised my hand and yelled in my best New York City voice, “Taxi!” He immediately pulled over and we tossed our bags into the back seat before he could get out to open the trunk. That was part of our plan; luggage in the vehicle with us, not in the trunk. Joe got in the back of the taxi and I got in the front seat, another thing we do when we are traveling in potentially dangerous areas. Okay, maybe Joe and I are too paranoid, but I read Fielding’s guide to The World’s Most Dangerous Places and The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Travel. Both books offer tips for those of us who love to travel to exotic locales but don’t want to be victimized while doing it. Joe and I did not want to be over-zealous, but we refused to minimize the risks associated with travel in Guatemala.
We spent the night in a four-star Marriott that seemed to be a gathering place for U.S. citizens involved in adoption of Guatemalan children, and I enjoyed watching the families in the lobby and restaurants. Some couples quietly adopted their child and the threesome began the bonding process right there in the hotel; other families brought their entire clan: grandmas, grandpas, siblings . . . and had joyous celebrations of photo-taking and hugging as they welcomed the small new addition to their family.
I had booked our flights to Texas on a discount airfare website. We flew a Mexicana Airbus to Mexico City, then changed to an Aviacsa 737 for the trip from Mexico City to Houston, which made for a hard travel day. Continental offers non-stop flights to and from Guatemala City and Houston, but the airfare is usually $300-$400 per ticket higher.
Joe and I enjoyed our trip home and cherished our reunion with our family. We spent a great deal of time in conversation with our nephew Travis, who is a Peace Corps computer instructor in Samoa. The three of us admitted that the culture shock – returning to Houston from an extended stay in another country – was a surprise. I watched as Travis began stockpiling the difficult-to-find items he wanted to take back to Samoa, which included huge bags of beans and pasta meals. Our pile to take back to Guatemala included 8 bottles of contact lens solution, several bottles of vitamins and a box of grits!
Upon our return, we took advantage of our time in Guatemala City to explore several sights. Guatemala City is divided into zones, and after a quick consultation with the hotel concierge, we determined we needed to go to the central park in Zone 1.
Our first stop was the Catedral Metropolitana at the Parque Central. The construction of this large church with elaborate colonial architecture was begun in 1782, and a slow stroll up and down its aisles revealed a valuable collection of antique religious objects and art. As I walked quietly toward the exit, I saw two women studying a guidebook and whispering to each other; one of them looked very American. In fact, I was pretty sure I recognized a Midwesterner when I saw one, and sure enough, one of the women, Pam, was from Illinois. Pam’s trip to Guatemala was “the adventure of a lifetime” and a gift from her husband. Her friend was a language instructor in Guatemala City and gave us the names of two language schools in Antigua. Before we left the church, the women told me to remove my small hoop earrings and the plain bracelet I was wearing. “This is the most jewelry I ever wear,” I explained, and they assured me that although my inexpensive jewelry didn’t seem worth committing a crime for, it might be tempting to someone on the streets of the city.
We posed for photos together and separately outside the Mercado Central. The market is underground and had the best collection of handicrafts and collectibles I had seen in Guatemala, but we had been advised the quality of items for sale in Antigua was just as good and the prices would be better. Joe and I had no reason to be souvenir shopping, but I enjoyed examining some of the artistry in the handmade clothing and wall décor.
The must-see site in Guatemala City is the Palacio National. This beautiful, ornate palace that once housed the president and other governmental offices is now a museum and is open daily to the public. Visitors are provided with a personal guide who escorts them throughout the building, and our guide took us upstairs so we could view the courtyard below. Every morning at about 11:30, an honor guard changes a white rose resting atop a monument in the palace courtyard. The old white rose, representing 24 hours of peace completed, is presented to a guest of the country. The new white rose symbolizes the hope for another day of peace in Guatemala.
The green stone throughout the palace is native to Guatemala and the ornate architecture, lavish decor and stained glass windows are magnificent. Our guide told me that the huge reception hall and formal banquet room are still used to host state social events for foreign dignitaries. Sunlight from the stained glass windows caressed the rich cherry wood floors of the banquet room. Rectangular pools separated wings of the building and each shallow pool was lined with colorful patterned tiles.
We were honored when our guide introduced us to the official painter of the Republic of Guatemala, Maestro Adelso Rene Ramos. Adelso has created paintings given as gifts when the president visits and is visited by foreign governments for over 22 years. Two of his paintings are in the Vatican, one in the hall of the United Nations and another in the palace of China. In his small studio/office at the National Palace, he designs smaller paintings for sale to visitors.
Jetlagged and eager to return to the boat, we spent only one day in Guatemala City. After a sumptuous lunch at Arrin Cuan, one of the city’s best restaurants, we returned to the hotel for a power nap. The next day, it was back to the bus station and on to Fronteras! The local Guatemalans do not call the town of Fronteras “Fronteras,” they call it “Rio Dulce.” We discovered when booking buses or talking with native Guatemalans about where we “lived,” if we named the town of Fronteras we were met with blank stares. As soon as we said, “Rio Dulce,” they nodded and smiled. Oh, of course! We know where you live!
The 5-hour bus ride was without incident and actually very nice. The security at the bus station was great and they tagged our bags, just like the airlines do. The air conditioning worked too. Guatemala reminds me of Texas in its multi-faceted landscape: We left the city and climbed high into lush, rainforest mountains then back down toward the tropics and Rio Dulce. When we began seeing palm and banana trees, I knew we were getting closer to S/V Rose of Sharon.
The Catamaran hotel water taxi took us directly to our boat so we could load the baggage onto the dock. As soon as we were in the cockpit, a turtle swam toward us to inspect the goings-on. While we were watching the turtle, the resident caged macaws (whose vocabularies are limited more than most, I think) began a series of rowdy and fussy screeches interspersed with an occasional “hola!” We teetered on our land legs as we boarded the boat for the first time in a month.
Illini Pam suggested that we register with the State Department and I think it’s a good idea for out-of-country cruisers to do this.
To register your current and future travel outside the U.S., have your passport(s) handy and go to https://travelregistration.state.gov/ibrs/. Click on the “register my trip” tab, where you will be prompted to select Short-Term Traveler, New Short-Term Traveler, Long-Term Traveler, New Long-Term Traveler/Overseas Resident or Organizational User. You will then be required to create a userid and a password for future access to the site. After you provide personal information to the website, you select the countries about which you wish to receive travel updates. Meanwhile, if there is a current situation in or near your location that prompts the State Department to issue advisories or warnings, they will immediately notify you.
In Texas, when I said goodbye to my family and especially to granddaughter Hannah, I wondered if we were doing the right thing. I love her so much; how can I waste valuable time that could be spent with her to go traipsing off in a boat to who-knows-where for who-knows-how-long? I don’t know what’s driving Joe and me to do this, but I do know that we did not feel whole again until we were back in our boat on the Rio Dulce, Guatemala.
One-hundred percent Deet will remove nail polish in extreme heat. I contemplated that fact as I watched the paint on one of my fingernails become gummy. I wiped my finger on a tissue and wondered what in the world had made me think I should do my nails and wear makeup on a safari by water to a jungle site. My mascara formed raccoon-like rings under my eyes and one kind woman said, “Really – it’s not bad. It kind of makes your eyes look bluer against your sunburn!”
There were approximately ten cruising couples and one granddaughter on the Polynesia 42 catamaran, Gitane. The French sailing vessel was once docked at Bahia Marina in Ingleside, Texas but now makes her home at Mario’s Marina on the Rio Dulce. Owners Mike and Sherrie won’t be sailing her back to Texas anytime soon and may make the Rio Dulce their home for awhile.
We were motoring down the river to the opening of the Mayan Cultural Center Q’eqchi, and although it was early morning, the sun was blazing unmercifully on the boat. Some huddled under the bimini, seeking whatever shade was available, while others opted for the slight breeze available on deck. Sherrie scurried back and forth offering bottles of water and soft drinks during the short but scorching sail. The Rio Dulce was glass-smooth as the cruisers shared their stories about where they’d been and where they were going, but the chatter was momentarily interrupted when a manatee was spotted in the river. Everyone paused to watch the beautiful creature’s gentle roll out and back into the water, and when the ripples were gone, resumed their conversations.
Captain Mike made a slight veer to the left and entered a small waterway banked by lush tropical foliage, and Joe said, “This reminds me of The Ditch.” I nodded and another man responded, “It does! The Great Dismal Swamp!” but he was referring to the east coast version of our ICW, also called “The Ditch.”
The water depth stayed at six feet all the way to a new dock built especially to accommodate cruisers. We slowly passed three sailboats anchored in the lagoon and glided smoothly to a stop at the water’s edge. After securing the boat, we hurried to a large thatch-roofed pavilion and arrived just in time to see the Dance of the Deer.
The Mayan Dance of the Deer traditionally took three days to complete, but this shortened version demonstrated the colorful history of the Maya in costume and movement:
Long ago, as recorded by our Maya Q’eqchi ancestors . . . we lived in harmony with the deer, the tiger, the lion, the monkeys and the tropical forest . . . the Deer represent our ancestors at the time when the Conquistadores came to our land. . . . In a short time we realized that these men were looking for slaves and treasure. They wanted us for their slaves and our necklaces, bracelets and earrings of Gold and Jade for their treasure. The struggle to remain free began. We had help. Many times the Conquistadors, while walking in the jungle would be killed by the tiger and the lion. When some of us were captured and held as prisoners, the monkeys would come and play near our captors. While they captured the attention of Cortez’s men, we would escape and then our friends, the monkeys, would also run away. We would dance and dance in celebration of our freedom.
The villagers who live near the cultural center are now Christians, but they celebrate their ancient rituals today as they did hundreds of years ago in the jungles of Guatemala. Their language is the Q’eqchi, one of many dialects of the Maya people, and we discovered that sometimes the children did not understand the Spanish in which several of the cruisers were fluent. The dancers’ costumes were woven using bright threads, sequins and beads, and the patterns on their cloaks appeared to contain some of the cosmic art that is part of the mysterious history of the Mayans.
Joe and I wandered the cultural center grounds and bought a palm leaf fan at the small tienda. “Remember when you took that palm-leaf weaving class in Hawaii?” Joe asked as I fanned the air around us.
I remember. I was the first tourist to be almost thrown out of a palm-weaving class for complete ineptitude. The instructor scornfully finished my palm-leaf hair adornment for me, which is exactly what happened with my A-line skirt in the required-for-girls sewing class at Texas City’s Blocker Junior High School. I studied my fan’s intertwined leaves that were seamlessly held together by black yarn and knew that even this simple handmade fan would be far beyond my handicraft skills.
Inside a thatch hut was the cultural center’s restaurant. It had a small counter in front of an even smaller order window, tables, chairs, no lights, few windows, and no ceiling fans. Still, we crowded inside to get a sample of Tib́el y Wás. No one knew what it was, nor did anyone completely recognize the ingredients. It looked like a tiny soft shell taco. “There’s beans . . . and cheese?” murmured one woman, looking inside her small tortilla. “Do you have cilantro on yours?” one person asked the table. “No, no cilantro. What’s the white stuff?” asked another. Joe looked up from his examination of lunch and asked, “What white stuff?” Another cruiser replied, “Chicken. Looks like tiny shreds of chicken.” Everyone ate at least two. Ice-cold beer and water flowed freely, and after another stroll around the grounds, we slowly walked along the wooden walkway through the jungle and boarded Gitane.
Once on board, I posed a question to several others: “Did anyone go to the bathroom?” and no one had. I said, “Do you have any idea how much liquid we drank today and yet none of us peed?” Wiping perspiration from their faces, several people nodded and admitted that it had taken every ounce of liquid we could hold to keep our bodies hydrated that day.
The activity had been organized by Mario’s Marina, and the cruisers docked there mentioned several future activities, including a poker run. “Sounds like fun!” I exclaimed, and they promised to keep me apprised of summer happenings at or sponsored by Mario’s Marina. Even though I loved our slip at Catamaran Marina, I recognized that Mario’s Marina continues to be the flagship dockage for Rio Dulce cruisers.
Western Caribbean cruisers usually plan to spend hurricane season inland, on Guatemala’s Rio Dulce, and it’s a good bet they’ve all heard of Mario’s Marina. Located at 15°40.337N and 088°58.953W, the 70-slip marina is the primary business at this site, but there is also a private home with swimming pool and Jacuzzi that sleeps up to 12 as well as bungalows for 2-4 persons. Mario’s Cayuco Club Restaurant offers affordable meals and a varied menu (my favorite was the chicken-fried steak – you know there was a Texan in the kitchen that day!). Boaters will appreciate the dockside filtered and ultraviolet treated water and wireless internet onboard. A nearby community pavilion offers satellite television.
Charter tours and boat trips are available to cruisers, and Mario’s Marina is the gathering place for cruiser get-togethers. Their Saturday swap meet is attended by cruisers and locals, looking to buy, sell or trade information or miscellaneous items. Mario’s onsite gourmet grocery store stocks hard-to-find foods and a large selection of good breads and Joe and I found it to be a perfect place to run in and grab a last-minute menu item or the ever-essential liter carton of wine. Additional information is on Mario’s website, http://www.mariosmarina.com/.
Several days, later, Joe and I took a dinghy trip to tour the other marinas in that area of the river. We discovered there are more than ten working marinas and several smaller, semi-private marinas on the Rio Dulce near Fronteras. According to Ron of the Rio Dulce Marina Management Association, government regulatory agency SAT (Superintendencia de Administracion Tributaria), licensed marinas are Bruno’s, Catamaran, Mar Marina, Mario’s, Monkey Bay, Suzana’s, Tijax and Tortugal. Those marinas are also governed by INGUAT (Guatemalan Institute of Tourism); visiting boaters who are in fear of or are being threatened in any way can call VHF 16 to connect with INGUAT’s nearby protective services.
Most of the marinas charge between $100 - $200 U.S. per month. Laundry services are usually onsite, convenient and inexpensive (about $3 U.S. per washer/dryer load!) at the better marinas. Catamaran cruisers should verify the slip fee before committing to any marina; some of the Med-moor marinas charge double for cats because their width is considered to be two dockages.
The Rio Dulce marinas keep in touch with the officials who process check-ins and Livingston, and by July 1, the number of visiting cruisers was surpassing annual expectations; several of the marinas were in the process of adding dockage because the number of sailboats visiting the Rio Dulce was anticipated to be near 500 for the 2005 hurricane season. That’s a lot of cruisers!
Our first stop was Tortugal Marina at 15°39.0N and 089°00.0W. It was a lush, tropical paradise where the boats were Med-moored. This hotel/marina is accessible only by watercraft and offers bungalows and even a dorm (“Ranchito”) for Guatemalan travelers. The marina has wireless internet and a wide-screen satellite television in a common area. The grounds are clean and a Mayan motif adorns each dock; it was easy to see that Tortugal is one of the nicest marinas on the Rio. I went into the restaurant to get a bottle of water.
“Do you miss jumping off the boat and going for a swim?” asked a man seated near me. I admitted that it was my favorite part of Caribbean cruising and yes, I did miss the off-the-boat swims. “You can do it here!” he said. Richard Briggs was retired from the U.S. National Park Service, and he and his wife, Carol, are cruisers from Arizona. Their catamaran La Vida Feliz was docked at Tortugal and Richard claimed he loved the energy and positive atmosphere of Tortugal. The fact is, all the energy and positive atmosphere was radiating from Richard himself; his enthusiasm for the cruising life was contagious and the man had a smiley face tattoo on his left arm! His cruiser card had the usual internet and offshore email information printed around a large yellow smiley face, too. There’s no way anyone could not appreciate a cruiser like Richard Briggs.
“Look where we are,” he pointed. “There’s the opening into Lake Izabal; the river flows directly from there. There’s no pollution until the water reaches Fronteras, which is on the other side of the bridge. I go swimming off my boat every day!” Tortugal was starting to look very good to me. As Richard and I chatted, he revealed that they had begun their cruising in a Hunter 37 but like many West Caribbean cruisers, immediately discovered the advantages of a catamaran. He purchased his 33’ Dean, a South African catamaran, in Florida and sailed it to the Rio. He said he and his wife also sponsor over twenty needy children in Guatemala; this is an admirable cruising couple with an outreach agenda woven into their sail plan.
Richard extolled the management of the Tortugal property too. With the help of friends and international artists, Daphne Becker developed the Tortugal hotel/marina site and created a peaceful, internationally-minded retreat for sailors and travelers. Information about Tortugal marina can be found at www.tortugal.com.
Joe and I stopped briefly at marina Xalajá, where a cheerful Guatemalan woman and her son were eager to offer information – in Spanish, which Joe and I were still struggling to master. The marina manager was a bit brusque but clearly very busy moving hyacinth plants away from boats and towing the troublesome plants into the center of the river. He indicated he did not have time to chat, so we continued on to another marina.
In appearance, the Xalajá Marina offers about ten boat slips and amenities may be limited, but they host a Spanish language school there, which cruisers may want to investigate.
Suzana Laguna Hotel & Marina is nestled in a lagoon off the main river at 15°38.982N and 088°59.912W. It’s an intimate but large marina for cruisers seeking dockage off the main waterway, and Wendy at Suzana’s was eager to share information about the marina site, which has 75 boat slips. Internet access is available to cruisers at the marina office and she said electricity and potable water is available dockside. Suzana’s Restaurant was a popular stomping ground for cruisers in the ’90s.
I looked down a long dock and saw a “rustic” looking man lying in a hammock sipping his morning coffee and it was too good to pass up: I wanted a picture of this guy who was obviously a cruiser living the lazy life on the river. When I asked for permission, he was not only amenable, he put up with my attempts to pose him! “Turn your head this way . . . now, button your shirt; I want to hide your tummy. That’s nice!” This poor stranger I was bossing around for the sake of art turned out to be a fellow Texan and an ex-Seabrook Shipyard resident!
John Brannigan was recovering from a leg injury and when I introduced him to Joe, I said, “I verbally abused him every which way, and he was so polite to me!” John said he knew better than to argue with any woman from Texas. John’s boat is currently for sale and it is a beautiful, pristine Hans Christian 37, Shoshin. It turned out he has begun a “second family” in Guatemala and has an active 2-year old but wants his child to attend U.S. schools, so he’s going back to the landlife. He said the relative serenity of the Suzana Hotel Laguna & Marina was its best feature.
The Rio Dulce West Marine store is located onsite at Mar Marina, near the bridge on the Rio Dulce. We chatted with Lydia, who told us the marina had space for 100 boats but was nearly full. Mar Marina was bustling with activity as locals launched their powerboats and personal watercraft for a day of fun on the river. Do-it-yourself laundry room, parasailing rides, pedal boat rental and kayaks are available at this marina along with the usual scenic tours to nearby Castillo de San Felipe (located where Lake Izabal opens into the Rio Dulce) and the nearby waterfalls. Combined with the requisite trip to Tikal and a getaway anchorage on Lake Izabal, I felt an immediate need to begin sightseeing. “We need to get busy being tourists as soon as possible!” I reminded Joe, “Hurricane season will be over before we know it.” Joe looked at me as if I was crazy. “We just got here!” he exclaimed. I laughed. So many places, so little time!/p>
There is no internet available to liveaboards at Mar Marina and I could not find a website for the facility. However, when Joe needed to order a gallon of hard-to-find two-part urethane, he did obtain an email address for someone at Mar Marina’s West Marine store.
AAn attractive and busy restaurant, Ranchon Mary, separates Mar Marina from Vides Marina and Luby’s Marina. Joe and I were unable to acquire information about the Vides and Luby’s marinas, but they appeared to be full of boats and had limited space available. Some of the boats had that fuzzy, been-there-awhile appearance but some were high-gloss powerboats. I was told that occasional gunfire would shatter the evening quiet between the two marinas, as if a turf war was going on. “Are the marinas owned by Texans?” I asked, remembering some of the gunfire along the 610 Loop in Houston. Since Joe and I weren’t up for dodging bullets in an inflatable dinghy, we avoided that particular side of the lagoon and continued on our self-guided marina tour.
Near the town of Fronteras, Hacienda Tijax Jungle Lodge and Marina is another tropical paradise marina with a 40-boat capacity. Med-mooring is the standard there, but some dock slips are available to cruisers, along with wireless internet onboard.
We met petite and pretty Maria, daughter of owner Eugene Gobbato, and she took us on a brief tour of the property. Hacienda Tijax’s marina nestles on the edge of a 500-acre rubber tree plantation and nature reserve and offers its residents horseback riding, kayaking, and a Jungle Trail and Canopy Tour among other amenities. I loved the lagoon-style pool! A thatch-roofed pavilion where cruisers can watch cable networks on the large-screen television or simply relax with a good book overlooked the pool area. Tropical shade and three small waterfall structures cooled the pool water, which can get to almost uncomfortable warmth under the Guatemalan sun.
Joe and I thanked Maria for her time and reluctantly left the serenity of Hacienda Tijax. Additional information can be found at www.tijax.com.
There is one marina located in Fronteras, and that is Bruno’s Marina, which also has one of the busiest and best restaurants in town. Bruno’s is located at the water’s edge of Fronteras and hosts a floating dinghy dock for Rio Dulce sailors coming into town to shop or provision. Joe and I met the professional and courteous (and I might add, very handsome) Bruno Gaudet, the owner/manager of the facility, and he shared some information about his popular marina.
Bruno’s currently offers 22 slips and a 20-room hotel/apartments to Rio Dulce travelers with wireless internet and onboard cable television for cruisers. An internet café and welding shop are located on the walkway leading to Fronteras’ main street, plus one of the smallest and best grocery stores.
Several river tours are sponsored by and depart from Bruno’s Marina, plus assistance with visas and visa extensions, vehicle registration, car insurance, and even help with obtaining a Guatemalan driver’s license (which we heard is required for long-term drivers/visitors) can be found at Bruno’s, which is also the Canadian Embassy Representative for the Department of Izabal. “It’s not American, though,” Bruno apologized, as he explained the embassy contact offered at the facility. “That’s okay,” I laughed. “When Americans are in trouble, Canada is one of our best friends!” Additional information is available at Bruno’s website, http://www.mayaparadise.com/brunoe.htm.
Rose of Sharon was docked at the first marina to open on the Rio Dulce, Catamaran Island Hotel and Marina (15°40.217N, 088°59.551W), a beautiful jungle resort with 34 bungalows and a full-service restaurant. Over thirty years ago, Kevin and his wife Louisa bought a tiny Rio Dulce island and developed a hotel; soon they added boat slips for visiting cruisers. The word got around in the boating community, and that was the beginning of the development of the most popular hurricane hole in the world: the Rio Dulce near Fronteras.
The Catamaran Marina is well-maintained and has 26 slips with electricity and potable dockside water as well as onboard hard-wire internet. Sprightly Emy managed the marina and offered a wealth of information about where to go and what to see during hurricane season on the Rio. She usually joined cruisers at the poolside bar for happy hour, where she subtly made sure we were comfortable and kept us apprised of marina goings-on, introducing us to newcomers and bidding farewell to departing cruisers.
The Catamaran Hotel pool is one of the largest in the area and is nestled in a beautifully landscaped jungle clearing. Of course, Joe and I were frequent visitors to the pool and pool bar, where I was slowly learning Spanish from the patient Rosa, who would carefully pronounce words as I repeated them back to her while she mixed incredibly delicious margaritas and piña coladas. The two of us would read from my self-styled flash cards until marina manager Emy loaned me a very nice pre-printed Spanish language flash card kit.
“He’s not very smart,” said Rosa in Spanish and she pointed to Joe. I laughed. “He went to school many years!” I replied in Spanish. “I did not go to school many years. He is the smart one!” Rosa shook her head firmly and pointed to Joe’s beer. “It is cerveza!” She declared. “Maybe, he drink wine like you he get smart.”
The Catamaran property was established more than 32 years ago by owner Kevin, and continues to be a stopping place for international travelers who wish to enjoy the “barefoot elegance” of this well-known jungle resort. Sometimes the hotel registry reads like a page from “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Catamaran’s website is http://www.catamaranisland.com/.
Several days later, Joe and I visited Monkey Bay Marina and marina manager Darrell Simpson took us on a tour of the property. Okies Darrell and his wife Chrystal came to Guatemala in their Endeavor 37, Marcella, “. . . and we kind of stayed,” laughed Darrell. Marcella was docked at Waterford Yacht Club in Kemah, Texas in 2003.
The 20+ Med-moor dockage at Monkey Bay Marina was a bit rolly, but I could see why cruisers would find it a good place to visit: the docks are new, the grounds are exceptionally well maintained, attractive, and the marina itself is very serene. As we strolled the property with Darrell, he pointed to various plants and in particular a tree bearing a small orchid-like flower at the tip of its delicate branches. “Pretty soon vanilla beans will sprout here,” he said.
Owner Karl Jacobs was in the process of adding a large palapa for boaters’ get-togethers, with a raised dorm area for guests. Joe’s favorite spot at Monkey Bay was the workshop area for boaters, complete with several electrical outlets, extension cords, and some on-site power tools./p>
We asked Darrel how often the monkeys actually visit Monkey Bay. “Not as often as you’d think,” he replied. “Sometimes they come in for the morning then take off. Sometimes they come in, hang around all day, nose around a little bit, take a nap, and then go back into the jungle.” He promised to announce on the morning net the next time the Howler Monkeys put in an appearance at the marina. Monkey Bay Marina’s website comes complete with monkey sounds at http://www.monkeybaymarina.com/.
Cruisers and businesses monitor VHF channel 68 every day, but Monday through Saturday at 0730, boaters can tune into VHF channel 69 for the local net. This particular net offers advertising time to local restaurants, so their daily specials are announced in addition to other activities on the river. There is also a “jungle medic” husband/wife team that monitors VHF 68, available for emergency or general information questions. I often heard her responses to cruisers’ questions on the radio: “Well, you know there are some pretty weird things here in the jungle, so you need to cleanse it completely and . . .”
Marinas and businesses of interest to cruisers that monitor a frequency other than VHF 68 include:
The one-stop shopping website for Rio Dulce information is http://www.mayaparadise.com/. Shortly after our arrival, the website featured a large announcement, “Survivor is coming to Guatemala!” The show aired September 2005 on CBS and was filmed at Yaxha, north of the Rio Dulce. I’d never been much of a fan for “reality” television programs, but several family members had expressed excitement about the show, so I vowed to catch a couple of episodes if possible.
The Maya Paradise website offers Guatemala and Rio Dulce geographical and historical facts, a a href="http://www.jdoqocy.com/sk82gv30v2ILLQOSJSIKJOQPPOL" onmouseout="window.status=' ';return true;" onmouseover="window.status='http://www.skype.com';return true;" target="_blank">Skype directory (Skype is a free internet telephone and instant messaging service used by many cruisers), local and marine weather information, bus schedules, tide tables, ham radio and VHF marine net information, navigation and GPS information, sightseeing suggestions, local business index, environmental and educational information, maps and photos.
MMaya Paradise is hosted by Phillipe of Capt. Nemo’s Communications; the business is located on the walkway behind Bruno’s Marina and offers the largest and longest established internet café on the Rio Dulce with 11 computers, international telephone and fax services, computer rental, technical support, web page design and website hosting. Cruisers-slash-computer geeks will find their way to Capt. Nemo’s Communications at least once during their stay on the Rio Dulce.
In addition to “everything you ever wanted to know,” there is a forum for online communications between cruisers and one page that has tales of the Rio Dulce by area boaters. My favorite one tells the story of a British cruiser whose normally immaculate boat was frequently visited by Rio Dulce jungle spiders. In a fit of desperation, he went to a nearby tienda and told the shopkeeper he had tried flyswatters, insect sprays, a high-pressure water hose – nothing was working. The shopkeeper told the distressed boater that the store stocked the ultimate solution for Rio Dulce spiders, and solemnly reached under the counter and retrieved a hammer. With twinkling eyes, he placed it in the cruiser’s hand.
Our dinghy motor had been running petulantly, but Joe fine-tuned it and on the next market day (Saturdays and Wednesdays in Fronteras), I donned the largest backpack onboard and manned the helm of Flor Gris for the short trip into town.
Pull out the choke. Pull on the starter rope. Push in the choke and throttle down. Put it in gear. Go!
I motored happily along the Rio Dulce and the river gave me renewed life. How many times can you be “born again”? Why, as many times as you want to be. Mayans once believed the Rio Dulce is a vein in God’s body, and if you believe that once upon a time water was changed to wine and wine was changed to God’s blood, you would agree the Mayans’ concept of heaven on earth makes sense. The Rio Dulce’s flow of life-sustaining energy was clearly visible along the shoreline, where Indian women washed their clothes or tended their open-hearth fires, tossing tortillas in their round, shallow wok-shaped pans. Children splashed playfully along the river’s edge as children will do wherever there is water.
Expecting a compliment about my dinghy-piloting, I asked Joe how he thought I was doing. “Well, if you were plowing a field, you’d be in trouble,” he replied. “Why are you weaving so much?”/p>
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I see something, get to thinking . . .”
“Ah,” Joe nodded. “You’re losing your focus.” I waved at a group of women along the riverbank. “I don’t think so,” I smiled.
As July lazily moved into August 2005, hurricanes formed in the Atlantic and Caribbean, moved into the Gulf of Mexico, then threatened the U.S. Gulf Coast. Pensacola took the first hit and for over a week we watched one that tore through Cozumel and Cancun then rushed across the Gulf and found its final resting place just south of Brownsville. Joe and I watched them with interest but also with new feelings of detachment. For the first time since we became liveaboards, we were safe, snug in our hurricane hole up the Rio Dulce in Guatemala. For us, hurricane season was supposed to be a time of rest and relaxation . . .
““I can’t take the pressure,” Joe complained as I outlined a hell-bent-for-leather tourism and boat repair agenda. “What pressure?” I asked. “A waterfall, a castle, two weeks in Antigua and one Mayan ruin. One haulout and bottom job, rudder repair, refrigerator and stove repair, all the teak stained, and if possible complete re-upholstery in the salon. We’ve got until November, for heaven’s sake! How hard can it be?”
“Make that two Mayan ruins,” Joe grumbled. “There’s a smaller one I want to see before we go to Tikal.”/p>
WWe had lost our figurehead, Maggie the Mariner, when I hit the dock in Morgan City, Louisiana during high winds. We broke our bow light in Punta Maroma, Mexico. While our helper Irwin worked steadily at sanding and staining the exterior teak, Joe made necessary repairs, ordered treadmaster paint, and scheduled a haulout at Abel’s, the only haulout/boat repair facility on the Rio Dulce. Manfred, a handsome young Austrian, was the most reputable marine refrigeration repair go-to for the area, and he assured us that the $300 part we’d bought in the States with which to fix the refrigerator was not necessary. He said we needed a $5.00 part from a nearby town in Guatemala.
Joe moved the computer sensor for the stove to another location and the stove magically began working again, while I scouted for boaters traveling to and from the U.S. who might be able to bring our oven burner part, currently housed in Houston, to Guatemala. A local shop (called “The Shop”) would be able to process the part’s delivery out of Miami if we couldn’t find any boaters to bring it down. The Shop, provides shipping services and boat surveys; Joe consulted with owner Chris Wooley several times as he continued with our boat repairs because Chris is a knowledgeable go-to for just about any marine-related service need. His company will also take possession of packages at his Miami address and courier them safely to Guatemala, where flat mail flows nicely but packages are a problem.
Tired of my complaints about “no oven,” Joe cut and trimmed a Coca-Cola can and created a modified oven burner. The oven heated to almost 300 degrees and I was so happy that I sent an email to friends and family, announcing I finally had a working oven and ended it with Coca Cola’s slogan from 1963: “A chore’s best friend: Things go better with Coke.”/p>
SSaturdays and Wednesdays were market days, when the truckloads of fresh vegetables and fruits would arrive in Fronteras. I would wander the main street and the marketplace side street, choosing carrots from one vendor, tomatoes from another, fresh cauliflower and broccoli here, tiny round límons and sprigs of cilantro there. Plums, spinach, okra and yams would put in brief appearances and we took advantage of their availability as often as possible. In the middle of the main marketplace thoroughfare was Casa de Guatemala, the only air-conditioned shop in town. There we would purchase the best meats for the best price in town. Two slices of fresh pork tenderloin and one pound of hamburgesa might be our market day meat choices; a small block of cheese was a bi-weekly treat. Large wooden barrels offered beans and rice, and I searched for a tea strainer to help with the now-necessary rice-washing process prior to cooking.
Also in July, Catamaran Hotel and Marina staff and residents shared a Big Secret, so since it’s no longer July I will tell you about it and no one else: /p>
Some of the cast and crew of the Survivor television show visited Catamaran Hotel several times in July 2005. I took photos of them, but had no idea who the people were. I think the good-looking young guys were cast and the good-looking old guys were crew. “It’s a Big Secret,” I was told. “They don’t want anyone to know they’re here, so be cool!”
At the time, I did not tell any other boaters in the Rio Dulce that the Survivor people were filming in our area and staying at MY hotel/marina; most people in Guatemala assumed all the filming was taking place near the Mayan ruins at Tikal. Even though I didn’t recognize anyone affiliated with the television program, I was star struck for one whole day.
If they didn’t want to be recognized, I pondered, Why do they look and act like movie stars? Their clothes and everything about them is screaming ‘Look at me! Look at me!’
TThe majority of the Survivor people were Australian and aloof and spent their time at the pool bar drinking beer and talking on cellphones, but there was one American young man who chatted with me briefly. “It’s exciting, isn’t it?” I said, and he knew exactly what I meant.
“Yes!” he replied. “The whole thing is very exciting for me!”
I tried to “be cool” and had almost pulled it off until I stepped nimbly into the swimming pool and stumbled, then tumbled over backwards into the water! It was the splash heard ’round the world, and when I surfaced, the entire ensemble at the pool bar had turned to look at me! Smiling as if I usually entered the pool that wildly, I did a casual version of the Australian Crawl right over to the other side of the pool. Once there, I considered how best I could Australian Crawl myself into the pool filter.
When I returned to the boat I promptly sent an I’ve-Got-a-Secret email to anyone not in Guatemala, complete with photographs. The Survivor fans I emailed said they would eagerly await the show’s series premier in September so they could see if I had photographed “Someone.” If I did, I’ll let you know.
The day we decided to tour Castillo de San Felipe was also the first day for a migration of yellow butterflies from we-didn’t-know where to points south. As we dinghied up the Rio Dulce toward Lake Izabal, we were often swarmed by southbound butterflies, all busily flying past us without taking time for the usual distracted flittering and fluttering that butterflies do. Joe tried to catch one or two, but they were not so preoccupied with their travel that they couldn’t dodge his outstretched hand.
Our guide spoke English quite fluently and he demonstrated a national pride observable in many Guatemalans. His respect for the history of this national treasure was apparent as he carefully unfolded the story of Castillo de San Felipe de Lara./p>
In 1595, warehouses and storage facilities located along the banks of Lake Izabal were targeted by pirates, and Spain’s King Philip II ordered the construction of a tower, protected by twelve soldiers with 12 “pieces of artillery” to defend the entrance to Lake Izabal. When we had we approached the structure by dinghy, I could see stone pillars on the opposite bank, and assumed that was where the soldiers strung chains to and from the tower to prevent boat passage into the lake.
Castillo de San Felipe underwent several deconstructions and reconstructions over the years, so many that Joe wanted to discount its antiquity but as we made the short walk from our dinghy dockage to the small fort, I said, “I know that there’s at least one rock, probably more, from the original castle, and that’s good enough for me.”
It was 9:00 a.m., and already the Guatemalan sun was beating down mercilessly on our heads. Once we left the cool comfort of the water and began land-walking, we found ourselves drenched in perspiration, but as we climbed up and down and in and out of the fort’s recesses and ramparts, we discovered an efficient built-in cooling system effectively kept the fort’s interior at a tolerable temperature. Not exactly central air as we now know it, but large outlets, partially stone-covered so that the cannonballs would not roll from floor to floor, allowed air to flow freely throughout the castle. The lower areas were naturally cooler, and we used candles and flashlights to tour the underground recesses of the fort.
IIn 1604, the original tower was destroyed and a new one put in exactly the same spot and the fortress itself was enlarged. It seemed to me that the castle’s remodelings were more about naming the buildings after government officials than a real need for reconstruction; after the 1604 deconstruction and reconstruction by a Captain Bustamente, who named the tower after himself, a Judge Lara y Mogrovejo tore down and rebuilt and renamed the castle. San Felipe de Lara Castle would forever join his name with the King of Spain’s, not a bad idea when you’re stationed at a faraway outpost in Guatemala.
By 1655, pirate attacks in the area decreased and Spain converted the defense fort into a “prison and place of exile” because of Guatemala’s “harsh climate.” Five years later, two opportunistic brothers noticed the area was wide-open for pirating business, and began pillaging and looting along the Rio Dulce and Lake Izabal, so Spain converted the fort back to a defense facility./p>
In 1672, the Spanish government determined the fort was deteriorated and dysfunctional and effected repairs, only to lose the entire castle to pirates seven years later. After the pirates had taken as much as they could carry, Spain regained the fort and lost it again to Dutch pirates in 1684, who not only stole all the munitions and artillery, but also tried to destroy the castle by setting fire to it. This time, Spain decided to rebuild and substantially enlarge the fort, adding ramparts and 100 guard positions in 1688.
Guatemala gained its independence from Spain in 1821, and in 1955 the historical significance of the little fort along the Rio Dulce was examined. Old Spanish plans and documents for the fort were discovered and on-site excavations revealed the foundations and remains from earlier eras. San Felipe de Lara Castle is now a national monument, managed by the Guatemalan Tourism Institute (INGUAT).
OOne of the busiest businesses along the Rio Dulce is Astillero Magdalena. (Astillero means “boatyard” or “shipyard.”). However, nobody calls it Astillero Magdalena; it is known as “Abel’s Haulout.” Abel is pronounced AH-BELL, and the man himself is cheerful, chubby and handsome with beautiful silver hair and startling blue eyes. “Everyone hauls out at La Ceiba,” we were told, but we wanted to get our boat in good shape before visiting Honduras, plus we were feeling a sense of community; if we could support a Guatemalan business, we wanted to do just that. There is usually one or two boats anchored in the river near the facility and we went on a wait list for more than 3 weeks.
When we first visited the haulout facility, I had misgivings because it just didn’t look like Seabrook Shipyard or Kemah’s South Texas Yacht Services. There was a lot of debris in the work yard and there was no travelift: there were four rails leading from the shoreline into deeper water and it looked, quite frankly, scary. The first day we visited, there were three powerboats and one huge catamaran hauled out. “I don’t see any monohulls with fin keels like ours,” I worried. “Can they get a boat like ours on that railroad track and up safely?”
“They do it all the time,” Joe replied. And he was right. Abel’s Haulout was efficient, professional and his employees were conscientious in their work. He does not allow liveaboard to stay onboard while the boat is up on the rails, and I worried about security, but our boat was safe at his facility. Some of what I thought was yard debris was actually stuff used to balance the boat as it nestled on the railway. The railway has a capacity of up to 80 tons and 75 feet.
Abel’s is said to monitor VHF channel 73, but doesn’t; the best way to communicate with him is by telephone. He called Catamaran Hotel the day before he was ready for our haulout. We were told to be there by 8:00 a.m., but decided against anchoring in front of the facility because after a couple of months living at a marina, we were already in that state of un-readiness you find yourself when you’ve been tied to a dock for too long. It took us several hours to stow, secure, and organize the inside of the boat in order to make the short trip upriver to Abel’s.
When we arrived the next morning, there was one boat anchored and another boat circling and all the lifts were full. Since we knew Abel wouldn’t respond to VHF, Joe put Rose of Sharon in a “holding pattern” and I went to my bunk for a nap. With light winds and not a ripple on the river, it was no problem. After an hour or so (“give or take,” as Joe likes to say), boats began backing into the water and a tiny launcha approached us. The launcha driver told us to make our way toward the rail and for once, I didn’t ask Joe if I could “take her in” and Joe didn’t ask me if I wanted to. We didn’t know much about positioning our boat on any kind of a rail, but if it was tricky, we both wanted Joe behind the wheel, not me!
It was fascinating, this haulout.
We were motioned toward four poles facing each other, two-by-two in the water and told to put the boat between the poles. As we neared them, four divers swam out to our boat. Once the nose was in, two divers motioned Joe to put the boat in neutral, motioned me to raise the fenders I had put down, and indicated we needed to drop bow lines into the water. That done, two more divers swam toward the back of the boat and told us to put stern lines in the water. They didn’t speak English, but we communicated well enough, even when one of them began coughing and sputtering and I rushed to the port side to see if he was drowning. “Are you okay?” I asked, as I hung off the lifeline. He gave me the traditional thumbs-up gesture, and smiled, still spitting water.
It took about 20 minutes to crank us out of the River, and the entire time, our boat was surrounded by divers and workers. Abel stood by watchfully, hands on hips, to make sure everything went smoothly. As we neared the “end of the line,” I spotted a Belizean worker on the next boat and motioned him over; I suspected he spoke English and I was right. “Does everything look – you know, normal?” I asked nervously. He leaned over to look under our boat as we rose higher in the air. “Yeah, mon, you be OH-kay,” he replied. Senselessly (I mean, he had Rasta braids and a huge Caribbean knit cap for heaven’s sake!), I asked, “Are you from Belize?” He nodded and I continued, “Why are you here?” and he smiled. “Is good here for the boat work. Not that good in Belize.”
No sooner were we on the shore, propped up, and a ladder secured to our boat than the workers began bringing in another boat on another rail./p>
Joe and I grabbed our pre-packed backpacks and climbed down the ladder then waited while Abel finished the initial hookup of the next boat and checked the massive machine that did all the cranking. As machines go, it looked like an antique, but it got the job done.
JJoe and Abel walked around our boat and reviewed the repairs to be made: we needed our banged-up rudder repaired, our banged-up propeller was to be removed so they could grease the taper for easy removal when the soon-to-be-ordered propeller arrived, a new dripless seal was to be installed and the bottom cleaned, scraped and painted with antifouling paint. As we walked uphill to his office, Abel asked us about where our “slip” was and I didn’t understand what he meant. “Yo no se,” I responded, which means “I don’t know,” not “I don’t understand.”
“He’s saying ‘sleep,’ not ‘slip,’ ” said Joe. “He wants to know where we’re sleeping!”/p>
““Oh!” I laughed. “Well . . . ¡YO NO SE!” Abel looked alarmed and I hastened to assure him that we understood we needed to get a room somewhere. I showed him our backpacks and said, “We have our necessities here . . . We were just going to walk down the road until we found a hotel. Do you have any suggestions?” I could tell that Abel was surprised; Joe and I must look like the kind of people who make hotel reservations (and I once was), but we were finding that things have a way of working themselves out nicely in Guatemala when you “go with the flow.” Abel recommended two hotels and pointed in their direction, so Joe and I walked up to the road toward Fronteras. Within ten minutes we were drenched in perspiration and my scalp was feeling the sun’s heat. “I have got to remember to wear a hat,” I muttered.
The first hotel we came upon was named “Hotel Chang-Gri-La,” and as we approached, Joe said, “Do you want to see a room before we get it?” I could see a lovely swimming pool with royal blue ceramic tiles and sparklingly clean water. “No, not at all,” I replied. “If the price is right, we’re staying here!”
At the front desk, I spoke my odd mixture of Spanish and English that was effective only about 50 percent of the time and told the girl that Joe and I lived on the Rio Dulce; we were not visitors. (There are different pricing methods everywhere here on the River; one for locals, one for gringos, and probably another for fast-talking gringo locals; I just wanted the best one I could get.) I explained that “mi barco” was at Abel’s and she nodded as if she understood. The conversation pretty-much spun out of control at that point, but the bottom line was that we got a room for two nights for the equivalent of $58 U.S. total, payable in cash, with no receipt. That was $18 more than I wanted to pay and $22 less than the gringo rack rate, so I was happy.
The room was perfect: Two beds, clean private bath and a heavy-duty window air conditioning unit. Also in residence were two large spiders, a couple of ants and some unidentifiable bugs that were either scorpions or teeny roaches or a scorpion/roach marriage. You can’t say you’re “living in the jungle” if you don’t have a few interesting insects living with you, right? J oe eyeballed the spider near the ceiling and said, “I know we’ve got two beds, but you’re sleeping with me, okay?”
“Nope,” I replied as I struggled to get my sticky body into a bathing suit. “I’m going to soak myself in insect repellant and take my chances alone!” And I hurried out the door to the swimming pool and two bottles of mineral water at the pool bar that had my name on them.
Hotel Chang-Gri-La is a fine hotel, and the housekeeper was an artist at arranging towels and toilet paper into eye-pleasing shapes. The hotel restaurant specializes in fried rice and chow mein; other menu items were dependent on the cook’s supply and mood, but everything was well-prepared and tasty. We stayed there three nights and during that time I either read in my icy cold room or read in a covered swingchair by the swimming pool or swam in the swimming pool. That was it. By the time we left, I’d eaten enough fried rice to last a lifetime and nearly completed a novel the size of the Merck Medical Manual.
When Abel’s notified us that our boat was completed, we checked out of Chang-Gri-La and walked to the haulout facility just in time to see our boat already in the water and being cranked out and into the river! Once again, divers held lines in the water and guided her out, but I was still taken aback. “Ummm,” I said, “Shouldn’t someone be on the boat?”
While I hurried down the dock to grab a launcha to take us to the boat, Joe went to the office to settle-up with Abel. “Don’t leave without me!” he laughed over his shoulder as we parted. As it turned out, I did leave without him. Once again, there was a traffic jam of boats waiting for a haulout and boats leaving from their recent haulout, and my launcha driver said, “I have to take you now so I can get another boat ready,” and we took off!
I climbed into the boat just in time to see Joe arrive at the dock – with the boat keys – and ponder his situation. As luck would have it, Gary of S/V Bold Venture was also there, and motored Joe out to Rose of Sharon. Joe tossed me the keys, I unlocked the boat, then stuck the key in the ignition. “Can we start it this time without checking the oil?” I asked. Without responding to my question, Joe rushed downstairs, returned to the cockpit, started the engine and said, “Just hang around out here in the river while I’m gone.” He then jumped into the awaiting launcha and took off back to Abel’s Haulout! I shouted, “Do you want me to start moseying toward home, or – ”
“No!” Joe shouted over his shoulder. “Just keep her in a holding pattern!” Gary looked up at me from his dinghy and I looked down from the cockpit, then I glanced around. There was nothing near us and no wind and no current. “Well . . .” I said lamely.
“You’ve still got lines in the water,” Gary offered, so I pulled up the bow and stern lines that were trailing. Gary stayed with me, politely not admitting that he was keeping an eye on me alone behind the helm, but he was probably keeping an eye on me. We chatted, and when I drifted too close to shore or to an anchored boat, I’d ease Rose of Sharon into forward or reverse, but mostly we just bobbed around in the Rio Dulce in neutral.
Another boater dinghied Joe back out, and as he climbed aboard, I asked, “What was that all about?” and Joe said he’d needed to get the checkbook to pay Abel. “Oh,” I laughed, “How much was it?”
“Eleven hundred dollars,” he replied.
“Quetzals?” I gasped, but I already knew the answer, because Joe had $3,000 quetzals in his wallet.
“No, U.S.” he replied.
I practically swooned. “That’s a LOT more than I thought it would be! My gosh, are you SURE that’s correct?” In the water down below us, Gary offered his observation that it did seem “kind of high” for a haulout.
“I’m happy,” said Joe. “It’s two-thirds what we usually pay.”
Here’s some of our haulout itemization, as best we could understand:
|Work/Item||$ Quetzals||$ U.S.|
|3 tubes of 5200||280.00||36.00|
|1 gallon thinner||28.00||3.74|
|1 gallon resin||85.00||11.34|
|1 bottle resin catalyst||8.00||1.10|
|2 gallons Trinidad Petit antifouling paint||3136.00||418.13|
|4 yard days||400.00||53.00|
|Return to water||800.00||106.00|
I don’t know if the haul out was a bargain or not, but for peace of mind and quality of workmanship, I’d return to Abel’s again. My boat is my home, and it’s priceless.