June 7, 2015: Fronteras (aka Rio Dulce), Guatemala; Amy
After skipping down the islands that dot the coast of Belize, we arrived at our final destination in Guatemala, up the Rio Dulce, at Captain John’s Marina. It is hot and jungly and mysterious. It is a place where many Caribbean cruisers store their boats for the hurricane season (June-October) because it is 20 miles inland and rarely gets hit. The people (mostly of Mayan descent) are very gentle and friendly and the insects are fierce. The Mayans have suffered much discrimination at the hands of corrupt governments. Government officials and the upper classes tend to be of Spanish or mixed descent. You get the picture. At the moment there are peaceful protests in Guatemala City. The people are demanding the resignation of the President. The Vice President has already resigned amidst allegations of corruption. She was giving government contracts (which were never realized) to friends. It also seems that several huge corporations have failed to pay taxes while the government turns a blind eye. Sound familiar?
Apart from those issues, the little we’ve seen of this country from the Rio Dulce is beautiful. The trip from Livingston, at the mouth of the river, into the interior of Guatemala, is a voyage of grand vistas. Mayans fishing in home-built canoes dot the river which winds through jungle cliffs. After the first six miles the river widens to reveal mountains in the distance. Mayan dwellings with beautiful thatched roofs are sprinkled along the banks.
We quickly cleared through customs/immigration at Livingston, with the help of Raul, the fixer. He had us on our way within two hours. While walking around Livingston, we passed another Gringo cruiser wearing a shirt proclaiming “Proud to be an American.” He asked us where we’d come from and where we were headed. After hearing our answers he gave us totally unsolicited advice on how to sail along the coast of Honduras. “You fill baggies full of gasoline and then, if any pirates approach posing as thirsty fishermen, you throw the baggies into their boat and shoot your flare gun towards the water. You’ll never see anyone jump faster out of their boat!”
Well, “Thanks,” we said and then moved on to Cayo Quemado about eight miles up river. We spent two nights anchored in the calm harbor there near a marina and restaurant owned by an American woman (Mavis) and Dutch man (Maurits). Maurits has sailed all over the world but likes this part of Guatemala best. His spot on a little hill overlooking the harbor is indeed a little slice of paradise.
Our current slip is at Captain John’s Marina across the river from the town of Fronteras. It is only accessible by boat. It’s an intimate, family marina with only seven slips. John married a Guatemalan woman and the workers here are all related to her. It is pretty comfortable, though we do have to endure the wakes of passing boats, some of which really set us to rocking and rolling. Two of the other boaters here are Russian. Dimitri is always rushing about and working on his boat. He owns two pairs of shorts. I’ve never scene him wear a shirt or shoes, but one doesn’t really need those things here anyway.
Fronteras is a dusty little town with very little space for pedestrians. You have to weave between the cattle trucks and vendors to make your way down the street. There are no sidewalks. Everything is cheap!
Our sail from Caye Caulker in the north of Belize to here was about the easiest sailing we’ve ever done. The trade winds blew strong from the east every day and we had two knots of current in our favor the whole time. The barrier reef breaks up the waves, so it’s really smooth sailing. We were in no great hurry so we didn’t bother to use the mainsail at all. We just rolled out the head sail each day and maintained a five knot average hopping from Caye to Caye. (It is pronounced “Key.”)
The only challenges were a few shallow places to navigate around and some poor holding ground where we could not get our anchor to bite. We learned to just put out loads of anchor chain and the sheer weight of it would hold us in place, so long as the winds didn’t pipe up over 25 knots. Of course there was one psychological hurdle to overcome concerning our personal safety.
Another cruiser in Mexico had told us some stories about lone cruising boats being violently boarded. In 2012, three people on a catamaran had been robbed and badly beaten in the Pelican chain. There was another violent incident concerning a fishing boat. We have always sought and enjoyed solitary anchorages, but these stories plagued us. We resolved to seek out places with other boats, but it being the end of the season, we found ourselves frequently alone. We often became suspicious of local fishing boats when they came nearby and we locked ourselves in the boat each night before going to sleep with the flare gun handy, just in case.
One fishing boat did approach us, but all they wanted was to trade some lobsters and stone crabs for soft drinks. That was a pretty good deal. Later we learned the lobster season hadn’t opened and we felt guilty for eating poached lobsters. Ignorance is bliss.
One of our favorite stops was Tobacco Caye off the southern coast of Belize. It was nice to be some place with some people around and a charter sail boat from Caye Caulker, called the Ragga Queen arrived shortly after us. This caye is only about 150 meters wide and ¼ of a mile long and it sits right on the barrier reef. Brightly colored dwellings are nestled among coconut palms. The Reef’s End Restaurant and Resort was where we hung out most of the time. We drank a beer with the Swedish owner, Pär (pronounced Paaaiirr), who explained he’d searched the world over before finding this spot and falling in love with it. His Belizean manager, Charlene, was delightful too so, we decided to have dinner there and stay the night even though the anchorage was pretty lumpy. The next day we snorkeled right off their dock.
Another Belizean highlight was our stay in the forbidden Pelican chain. We discovered a most delightful mini-resort built on a mangrove island named Hideaway Caye. Americans Dustin and Kim Ingersoll, bought the tiny island in 2004 and built a restaurant, residence and rental cabana. Apart from a little assitance from Mennonites who helped them with the framing and Mayans who made the thatched roof for the restaurant, they did all the work themselves. A raised wooden walkway connects all the structures. Step off it and you’re up to your knees in saltwater.
We had two excellent meals (caught by Dustin and prepared by Kim) at Hideaway Caye and nice long visits with the Ingersolls and their two-year-old daughter Bayama. I was so impressed with them that I wrote a piece about Hideaway Caye for Cruising World magazine. I don’t know yet, in which issue it will appear.
The Ingersolls told us that the incident involving the boat which was attacked really hurt their business for awhile. We could understand, because we had initially decided not to go to the Pelican chain for that very reason, even though it was an isolated incident which occurred three years ago. I’m so glad we changed our minds, because Hideaway Caye is really a little gem. We later learned that the perpetrators were from Honduras and local vigilantes allegedly “took care of them.” In retrospect our paranoia about lone anchorages in Belize was probably exaggerated, but it never hurts to take precautions if it makes you feel better.
After three weeks cruising the islands of Belize, we finally touched the mainland at Placencia in the south. It’s a pleasant beach town with lots of charm and restaurants. Unfortunately our time there was cut short due to the weather forecast, which was calling for thunderstorms. It was time to push on to Guatemala. So, here we are! In a few days, we leave Mary T and return to the states to see our families and friends. Looking forward to seeing old familiar faces!
More pix for the coffee table book. So many good ones! Love the biz man @ Caye Caulker and the seine fishing on Rio Dulce. BEAUTIFUL. And your adventures blow me away. THese are the best ever. Can’t wait to read the articles.
What Mary said!!
Thanks so much for the great descriptions — like Dmitri with 2 pairs of shorts! — and tales. Seems like lots of Europeans and gringos have opened amazing little spots down there in paradise. Maybe the compound will be next?