Saturday, October 30, 2010

October 30, 2010 Rio Dulce mass email

Sorry we haven't done any blog updates in so long! Please accept this excessively long mass email as our apology:


Lago Izabal, Guatemala

Dear friends and family,

While cruising this huge freshwater lake in Guatemala we realized it’s been two months since we emailed you about our travels. So here’s an update.

You’ll recall that we got married on Caye Caulker then spent two weeks at Turneffe and Lighthouse Reefs, the atolls furthest out. Then we sailed to Belize City where those awful boys threw rocks at us from the bridge. From there we navigated south through Belize’s southern waters.

First some basic geography. The coast runs north and south. The land is flat and mangrove-edged. Lying immediately offshore is a shallow open channel five to ten miles wide. Then there is band of similar width containing dozens of small, flat islands. Many are only mangrove trees rising from water, not real land. These islands terminate at the barrier reef, which is a band of dead and/or living coral, beyond which is the deep Caribbean Sea. The sharp coral heads rise right up to the surface and the ocean swells break on them. It is possible to exit the reef only at certain passes.

We are most interested in the area near the barrier reef because the water is more clear there, for better snorkeling. So we travelled south through the islands, sometimes coming right up to the barrier reef and swimming in the passes. These are the supreme dive spots because they have lots of sea life and grand underwater scenery.

We can carry enough food and water for only two weeks, and the fruit and vegetables give out much sooner since we don’t have refrigeration. So we returned to the mainland at three places to reprovision.. The first place was Dangriga, also known as Stann Creek for the creek which debouches there.

We last wrote you from Dangriga on August 20. The place is relaxed and funky, but it has some of the same aggressiveness you find in Belize City. For example, one day we were walking to the library when an elderly Creole man raised his arms to us in an embracing gesture and proclaimed, “My brethren! I have coconuts for you!” We told him no thanks, nonetheless he scurried around gathering up machete and coconuts while expressing great love for us and chasing us down the street. We entered the library, ready to do some research or other. As we were sitting down he grandly entered with an opened coconut and held it in front of Steve’s face, saying, “Take it, take it!” Steve’s resistance faltered. It did smell good. He took a sip of the cool, faintly sweet coco water. “I’m sorry, no food or drink in the library,” said the librarians. With some foreboding, Steve went out to the porch, finished the coconut, and offered the man fifty Belizean cents. “Two dollah U.S.! Two dollah U.S!” The vendor screamed, no longer fraternal. Steve refused to pay any more and went back inside. The guy remained outside, ranting against us for some time. We bring this up because Dangriga seems to be the southern limit of the hard hustle zone. Nobody has hassled us that like since!

Getting out the mouth of Stann Creek was tough. There was a strong onshore wind. The mouth is too narrow to tack out with our sails, so we kept the masts down to lessen wind resistance and rowed over the bar. It was hard to make any progress; the boat kept wanting to turn sideways to the waves. We anchored to keep from being blown back onshore while raising the masts. The sea was rough. A wave broke over the boat, filling the cockpit. Steve stood with his legs wide apart on the foredeck. Ginny got low and gripped his belt from behind, forming a tripod. Steve hoisted the mast vertically in a series of upward shifts and dropped it into its socket. We repeated with the mizzen. Then we sailed hard into the wind until we reached the chain of islands.

The islands from Dangriga to Placencia were somewhat familiar to us from our time in Belize two years ago. Among the many islands we visited was Wee Wee Caye where Paul and Mary Shave (who we had met two years prior) operate a marine research center. Unlike other island developers they have retained the fringe of mangrove trees and use boardwalks to connect the docks with the buildings in the center of the island. Because of this it is possibly the nicest inhabited island in the area. At the time of our visit there was a group of researchers from Boston University who were investigating the dispersal patterns of reef fish larvae.

Belize’s southern waters differ from its northern waters in that they are deeper, often around sixty feet, but contain numerous, steep-sided near-islands (underwater hills). Their flat tops are within a few feet of the surface so they appear as shoals. The locals call them faros. Our theory is that the islands are merely faros which are slightly above rather than slightly below sea level, and that all are of coral origin. In effect, each is a tiny atoll. The southern waters are also different in that live coral is found around many of the islands and faros, not just out at the barrier reef.

The winds died, as they sometimes do in late summer. We spent days rowing in excruciating heat with the tarp up to block the sun. Steve’s itchy bumps, which we later realized was heat rash, got worse. We reached the barrier reef at the Silk Cayes, and snorkeled our usual one to two hours per day. Then park rangers told us we were in a marine reserve and would have to pay daily fees, so we left.

Next we restocked at the mainland village of Placencia, where we made friends with an amiable couple who allowed us use of their dock and took us to a Town Council meeting. Turns out council meetings are mind-numbingly boring wherever you go! After three days we went back out and followed the islands to their conclusion. We sailed to Ranguana Caye, on the barrier reef, and south along it to its southern terminus at the Sapodilla Cayes, which is a widely dispersed group twenty miles from the mainland. These are real islands with sand and coconut trees, not just swamp, which is refreshing! The winds were light, and it was hot twenty-four hours a day. For weeks the temperature was in the 90s by day, and in the 80s by night with no breeze to cool our sweat-drenched bodies.

How to anchor at night was a quandary. We needed shelter because Thurston rocks uncomfortably in even small waves. The islands, often no larger than a football field, provide wave protection from only one direction. In the night the wind usually changed direction, and there were often violent thunderstorms. The boat would rock and we would roll around like ragdolls in our 3’ x 8’ bed (Ginny with her head forward, Steve with his head aft, our legs overlapping).

The bugs further complicated our anchoring. We wanted to sleep with the bow nudged right onto the sand to get the most protection from the island, but that put us closer to the mosquitoes. Even anchored several hundred yards away they would find us, meaning more time in the cabin, which is protected by a mosquito net but which is hotter than the cockpit. On Carey Caye we anchored on a seemingly bug-free shore. Then the nightly lightening storm hit. When the rain stopped the no-see-ums came out. They are small enough to crawl through the mosquito net, so we had to keep mosquito coils (aka poison incense) burning. Rocking, heat, or insects often kept us awake at night, making this the grouchiest leg of our tour so far..

Punta Gorda was our final stop. Our ninety days worth of visa in Belize were nearly over. PG is an orderly little place, at the end of the paved road that runs south through Belize. The Mayans in the surrounding villages grow cocoa beans. We saw sacks full of them in a little warehouse which Steve weaseled us into by the magic words “My wife wants to see some chocolate!” We were offered a handful of the germinated, dried beans. They are the size of a thumb, with the texture of a date the taste of raw chocolate. They sell their entire output to Cadbury’s, so next time you eat a delicious Caramello think of us pawing your chocolate beans thousands of miles away!

The Mayans are capable of mayhem as well. At a Catholic revival meeting in the town square we heard references to “the lost children.” We found the story in the local paper. Five days before a Mayan brother and sister, both under ten, had been sent into town to sell limes and had never been seen again. A woman purporting to have soothsaying powers said the American couple with the center for the rescue of endangered crocodiles a few miles from town had fed them to their crocodiles!. A busload of armed villagers hurried to the croc farm. No one was around, but they found limes! So their burned the place down and slaughtered crocodiles. The woman had subsequently been arrested for “pretending to be a fortune-teller.”

We completed the tedious exit procedures and rowed south across Bahia Amatrique seventeen miles to Livingston, Guatemala. The sun glared on the flat sea as we took turns rowing. The blue mountains of Honduras and Guatemala grew closer. We rounded a headland and entered a wide, tropical river mouth, on the right side of which is Livingston, a town which is only accessible by boat.

Livingston is steep and lush. The waterfront a jumble of docks and buildings. We tied to iron bars jutting out from an abandoned factory and completed our paperwork for a ninety-day visa. The cultural mix is Latinos (Spanish speakers), Mayans, and Garifunas, (blacks with their own language.) The restaurants were cheaper than in Belize, typically something like 20 quetzales, or $2.50 US, for a poor man’s meal of egg or a bit of beef with beans, rice, and maybe some sweet plantain. The women wash their clothes in a charming municipal facility that consists of a roofed, ankle-deep pool with a double row of concrete scrubbing surfaces. Here the ladies enjoy coolness and each others’ company while doing their laundry, without polluting the river (or their wash) which is how it is normally done.

Livingston is at the mouth of the Rio Dulce, a name we’d being hearing about since our exploratory trip through Belize in 2008. Though not generally well-known, it is famous among yachtsmen as a hurricane hole and good place to store boats. Most of the boaters we’d met since leaving the States had been here or were going here. It is a short river. About seven miles separate it from El Golfete, the first lake. Then there’s another couple miles of river, about which is Lago Izabal, a lake twenty miles long and ten miles wide.

It took a day to sail and row up to El Golfete, straining against the current. The river flows through a deep, winding canyon with sheer, forest-draped walls. We passed boys in dugout canoes tugging hand lines. Upon reaching El Golfete the shoreline became a low, swampy forest. The next day we continued to the section of river between El Golfete and Lago Izabal. Here a highway crosses the river via a long bridge. The town of Rio Dulce is on the right, or northwest side.

We walked the town. It is small yet crowded: one long narrow street packed with ramshackle stores, cattle trucks, motorbikes, and Mayan women in traditional garb selling street food. One has to squeeze through all this to make any headway. Meanwhile one’s nose it accosted by dust, diesel exhaust, and the smell of many braziers cooking chicken and other street food. At the end of town the highway continues north through the vast forests of eastern Guatemala, eventually reaching Flores and the ruins of Tikal. In the other direction the highway connects to Honduras and the higher, more populous regions of Guatemala.

The mainly North American and European yachts in the Rio Dulce are housed at a dozen or so marinas between El Golfete and Lago Izabal. Most of their owners leave them in storage there, some live aboard. We tried saving money by staying at a public dock under the bridge, but someone stole our anchor, chain, and 200 feet of good nylon braid.

Needing better security, we opted for La Joya del Rio Marina, on the southeast side of the bridge. It consists of rough plank docks and a large common area consisting of a roofed, wooden deck, wall-less except for bathrooms, kitchen, and a few shops and cubby holes. The place had once been a hotel, restaurant, and bar in addition to a marina. It is built entirely over water, the surrounding land being forested swamp. The family who runs the marina, the dozen or so live-aboards and the Guatemalans who work for the marina or hired themselves out for boat maintenance form a small community which was quick to welcome us. Steve set up a mosquito net over a chair in the common area and often had the place to himself for reading after dinner. Though the others got to town via their dinghys, we got there by wading through a swamp, crossing a field, cutting through a school yard, and walking across the half-mile long bridge. It was always a contrast to go from the semi-deserted marina to the over-crowded, noisy town.

The marina was a good place to get things done. We found a new anchor and related gear. We re-varnished and painted, including some new green enamel accents. The rowing seat broke, so we made a new one out of epoxy, fiberglass, and aluminum plate. The mosquito net that covers the cabin door tore. We made one of those too. We’ve lived aboard for ten months, and our boat work has slowly shifted from de-bugging to maintenance and minor improvements.

Steve decided to ship his accordion home and buy a guitar. The accordion was too hard to get in and out of its storage place and there was no comfortable position to play it onboard. He’d never played the guitar but didn’t mind learning. So we took a bus to Guatemala City. It took almost six hours yet cost only $7.50 each. We stayed at a good $14-a-night hotel in the historic district and walked and bussed all over the city checking shipping agencies and music stores. We also got new binoculars, T-shirts, and shoes.

We enjoyed Guatemala City. The weather was refreshingly cool. There is fine old architecture around the Plaza Mayor, which is like a smaller version of Mexico City’s Socalo. Vendors crowd the many market districts. There is a vast auto repair district, a jewelry district, even an extensive bridal gown district, with storefront after storefront of mannequins wearing gaudy nuptial clothing. It was so cheap we treated ourselves by going out to movies and drinking beer in a Chinese restaurant that doubles as a low-class sports bar. We were there a week, and felt we got to know the city fairly well.

Back at Rio Dulce we finished up some boat projects, then cruised Lago Izabal for ten days. There was little wind, so we rowed west along the north shore of the lake to the town of El Estor. Forested mountains ring the lake, yet the banks are often low and wet. We camped in little coves and creeks, and explored the mouths of the Rio Polochic, where howler monkeys were visible, and certainly audible, in the big trees along the swampy banks. We visited a Mayan village where the people live in plank-and-thatch houses. Everyone was at the soccer field by the church, where a match was underway. The players wore standard team uniforms. The women wore full, shoulder-strap blouses and long skirts of intricate hand-woven fabric. The disproportionately numerous toddlers wore nothing at all!

Now we’ve wrapped that up and are ready to proceed toward Honduras, whose coast runs for about four hundred miles east into the prevailing trade winds. In anticipation we shopped for motors and were even delivered a motor mount as a wedding present from Marine Concepts (the manufacturer of Sea Pearl boats!) Our emotional and mental block against the hassles of a motor has yet to crumble however, so we’ve spent a lot of time studying the maps to determine the longest distance we may have to go in a day. Turns out for the first half of the country at least there are plenty of little river mouths we can duck into for the night. So, we’ll continue on as we are! We look forward to exploring Honduras and the Bay Islands and plan to leave here on Monday, our four month anniversary and 12 days before our three year escapiversary!

There are lots of new pictures in our current photo album: plus some you haven’t seen yet in the prior Belize album: (starting with “mangrove madness.”)

Also, check out the Nov/Dec issue of Small Craft Advisor for the first in our series of articles! You can subscribe here: or view the electronic issue.

Hope you’re all doing splendidly and sorry about the length of this update. We sort of promise to try and do them more often with less length!


Ginny & Steve