Back on the Rio Dulce, Guatemala

  • Santa Catalina Arch, Antigua

July 6, 2016: Fronteras (aka Rio Dulce), Guatemala; Amy

After a year hiatus from cruising, Kenny and I are back on our beloved Mary T, in Rio Dulce Guatemala for a six-week visit. Our initial plan was to sail her back to Bradenton, Florida, where we currently live with our two granddaughters. Unfortunately, a number of circumstances have conspired against us, so we shan’t be making the trip at this time.

First and foremost the weather has not been cooperating. Violent thunderstorms with biblical amounts of rain is the order of the day. On top of that, we are unable to hank on our new mainsail, because the slides are too tight to fit on the mainmast track. (It’s easily repairable, but we don’t have the right tools and the sail maker is back in Italy for the summer). Then we tested our instruments and the chart-plotter display looked like an old broken TV screen–all black, white and grey with vibrating horizontal and vertical lines and nothing resembling a map. We could probably make do with our iPad on that score, but we would miss having AIS (shows position, speed and direction of other vessels) and radar. At any rate we’ve decided to postpone bringing the boat back, and just try to enjoy this little summer vacation.

The folks at Captain John’s Marina did a bang up job looking after Mary T in our absence. The varnish job inside and out looks fabulous, and they managed to keep her mold free on the surface.  Of course they couldn’t control all the havoc the tropics wreak on a boat, so some things have just plain rotted out or rusted beyond repair. The rubber parts on the bottom of our dinghy fell off as soon as we pumped it up. Then of course the outboard died on our first trip out so we ended up rowing and then walking across the long bridge into town. Fortunately, Hugo, who works at our marina, was in town as well and led us to a fine outboard mechanic in a garbagey looking lot that resembled a junkyard complete with scrappy-looking dog.

It was the place where all the locals brought their outboards and Jonas, the mechanic, knew what he was doing. He said come back in an hour and a half. We went for lunch and came back to find the place empty and our motor with its cover off looking forlorn. We went and had another beer and when we returned we were relieved to find Jonas who explained there were three problems with the motor. It needed a new hose, a spark pluggy type thing and an oil change. It would be ready the following day at a cost of $75. He was true to his word. A dinghy is essential here, because our marina is not attached to any roads. The only way in an out is by boat.

We didn’t come straight to Mary T as soon as we arrived in Guatemala. Boat work was out of the question for the first two weeks we were here while Kenny recuperated from some minor surgery on his left wrist. The dermatologist called the day before our flight to Guatemala City and said Kenny’s recent biopsy had revealed a tiny melanoma, which if removed soon would not be problematic. Fortunately, she’d had a cancellation that afternoon and could do the operation immediately. She said it couldn’t wait until our return from Guatemala. After the procedure, the doctor explained to me the best way to remove the stitches using VERY clean instruments. For the next two weeks Kenny was not to lift anything heavy or put any strain on the wrist. This of course meant no boat work.

So we put on our tourist caps and explored the highlands of Guatemala, which are considerably cooler than the temperatures down at sea level. After one day in at a cheap hotel in Guatemala City, we moved further inland to the former capital, Antigua. A beautifully preserved colonial city with decaying cathedrals, hundreds of restaurants, Mayans selling colorful wares–it is host to many tourists and ex-pats. It’s in the most breathtaking surroundings, ringed by mountains and three volcanoes. Because it is a UNESCO heritage site, all the roads are bone rattling cobble stone and the rubble is kept in place.

Our second day there I started freaking out about Kenny’s left hand which had become swollen ever since his operation. I had a  meltdown over not being able to get in touch with his doctor. Trying to find a public phone, people had sent me in conflicting directions and I was loosing my marbles. Kenny on the other hand was not stressed or bothered by his hand at all, claiming it didn’t hurt and the incision looked okay. I had insisted he start taking antibiotics that morning and he finally relented.

Fortunately, the woman at the reception desk at our hotel was able to lead us to a phone, and we left a message at Kenny’s doctor’s office. She emailed shortly thereafter advising Kenny to keep his hand elevated and wrap it tightly. She didn’t seem terribly alarmed, so I was much relieved.

Tres padres

Tres padres

In Antigua, we met up with an old cruising acquaintance we’d met in the Bahamas several years ago. He and his wife had us over to their beautiful home, where we enjoyed wine and cheese in the courtyard. They still keep their boat in Rio Dulce and go home for the summer months to Hamburg. We were lucky to catch them in Antigua. Thanks again, Richard and Diana!

The number of Mayan vendors and their piles of wares is overwhelming. There are markets upon markets and at least 1,000 trinkets for every tourist. I feel horribly sorry for them, but don’t know what to do. I am reading Rigoberto Menchu’s biography, about the oppression and massacre of the Indians  here, which lasted for years. Thousands of peasants were tortured and killed simply for trying to hold onto their own land.

One evening, in a moment of desperation, I gave 100 quetzals ($13) to a family sitting on the street. I don’t know if I did it more for them or to make myself feel better. When we walked past them, I had an overwhelming feeling of wanting to help them. I told Kenny and he said I should do it. He waited while I went back with my offering. When I returned to where they sat on the curb, the woman was on her cell phone, which made me feel a little less sorry for them, but I couldn’t stop and handed the money to her husband. He said “Gracias.” I turned and disappeared into the night. I didn’t feel much better, but I hope they did.

After four lovely days eating our way through Antigua, we took a  2.5 hour, fairly hair-raising mini-bus ride to the town of Panajachel. It was a thrilling ride through verdant, mountain terrain with plenty of curves in the road requiring one to hold on or land in a neighboring passenger’s lap. We were happy to finally arrive on the shores of Lake Atitlán. It’s a crater lake surrounded by volcanoes and mountains. After a short walk through town we settled into a restaurant on the Lake where we remained for a long time soaking in the view.

una monja

Una monja

Being a tourist is grand, but underneath we were both feeling a bit lost and frustrated as our original mission was crumbling. We were sightseeing instead of working on the boat. The daily thunderstorms and potential storms building in the Gulf of Mexico made it look less and less likely that we would be able to sail back to Florida. And of course, the hurricane season had already started. An attitude adjustment and a fresh plan were in order. We needed to embrace the idea of cleaning up the boat, testing her systems and taking her for a little spin in Guatemala on Lago Izabal. Until the stitches came out we would eat our way through the countryside and grow fat.

From Panajachel we took a launch across Lake Atitlán where we visited three other villages. They were full of more vendors with more wares. I wished more tourists would come and buy it all. We visited a fancy hotel with beautiful gardens and were chased by a goose protecting its goslings. We saw charming churches and gorgeous vistas.

On the ride back to Antigua, our driver passed three trucks just as I was noticing a “no passing” sign. He was even faster than the driver who had brought us to Panajachal. Back in Antigua, in our hotel with origami swan towels, we both felt a bit delicate of stomach and decided to lay off food for a while. Our last day in Antigua, we visited a lovely 18th century Capuchin convent. It was supposedly one of the finest examples of that era’s rubble. A nun’s life was no picnic, but then they didn’t have a lot of choices in life, so their stress levels were probably low.

On my 53rd birthday we finally headed for Rio Dulce. A 4 a.m. mini van picked us up at the hotel, and we arrived at 9 a.m. We deliberately chose to travel on a Sunday, when there would be minimal traffic. Our driver was the gentlest we’d had so far–no crazy speeding or passing on blind curves.

Knowing it would be necessary to do some cleaning and organizing before moving aboard Mary T, we had reserved a room at the Kangaroo, an Aussie-owned hostel on the river. Gary, the owner picked us up in his launch shortly after our arrival. We drove past Mary T and she looked great from the outside. The crew at Captain John’s Marina had varnished more than we expected.

Nestled in a mangrove on the Rio Dulce, the Kangaroo had cool jungle ambiance, and we later discovered the restaurant served excellent Mexican food. We tossed our bags in our private cabana on stilts and changed into shorts. Our host, Gary, then dropped us back at Mary T. We went aboard and stepped down into the cabin. Apart from a mysterious spill in the galley, she looked great. No major mold and clean as a whistle on the surface. We couldn’t believe our eyes. I got out the ukulele and started playing my old tunes. It felt so good to be home.

Later, back at the Kangaroo, we discovered our accommodations were not terribly comfortable. The bottom sheet on the bed was so old and full of little balls that it felt like sandpaper and the bath towels were as old as Antigua. The shower curtain wasn’t long enough, so water got all over the floor whenever we bathed. Thunderstorms of Biblical proportions wracked the sky both nights we were there, and the pounding rain on the tin roof was deafening. There was a leak in the roof over my side of the bed. In the mornings it was like waking up in an aviary. I enjoyed all the different bird songs, but sleeping late was not an option.

All of this was not a bad thing, as it encouraged us to move aboard the boat sooner rather than later. After settling into Mary T, our initial delight at finding the boat looking so handsome was somewhat dampened as we discovered little by little all the things that needed fixing. So we work and we sweat and work and sweat and then we take a break, because it is just too hot to do anything more.

I didn’t think it was possible for it to rain so much. A few nights ago it came down in freighter sized containers. I got up in the night from our 85 degree v-berth to discover big drips coming in over the navigation table. I mopped up and put a large pot under the drip.  The following morning we found the dinghy full to the brim and the gas tank for the outboard had flipped over so we had to throw away all the fuel contaminated by water.

On July 4th we took the whole day off from boat chores to celebrate the birth of our nation. We went on a little adventure recommended by Kangaroo Gary. We visited a hot waterfall in the jungle which emptied into a cool pool. When it started getting busy there, we hopped on another “collectivo” bus to a river gorge, where an old man took us in his canoe upstream until the rapids became to strong against us. It all involved some rather colorful public transport which required extreme acts of contortion. At one point the already stuffed bus, took on three more Mayan women with baskets. When we stepped out to let them in, they pointed to the roof of the bus, suggesting Kenny ride up there. He shook his head, and I grabbed our bag, ready to bail and await the next “collectivo.” But another young man offered to go on top, so Kenny and I got back inside and resumed our positions of discomfort. We ended the day with a lovely meal of fresh river perch at a marina/hotel across the river from Captain John’s. It was delicious. In a few days, we plan to take an even longer break and go for a little mini-cruise in Mary T to explore the local waters and environs.

That’s the state of affairs here in Rio Dulce, Guatemala where avocados, papayas, and mangos are cheap, everything else is damp and broken and all the cruisers are drunk. But the crew of the Mary T is happier than ever.

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