Belize it or not, we finally exited Rio Dulce

May 2019, Belize

by Amy

It is hard to stop sweating when it gets to be this time of year down here, especially when you’re at a marina inside a lagoon. I currently have two fans pointing at me. Last night we used three in the v-berth. We came into the Marina at the Reserve in Sapodilla lagoon, aka You-Don’-Wanna-Marina yesterday morning after hearing rave reviews from cruisers in Rio Dulce. We had dreams of high speed WiFi, fuel, an ATM…None of the above are here not to mention it’s in the middle of nowhere with no way out except with Delaney who takes you to the Beach Club free of charge.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not all bad. They have cheap laundry facilities, showers, power and water at the dock, and the dockage is cheap at $50 Belize ($25 US) per day. They used to have all of the amenities plus an operating bar and restaurant under construction when the whole operation went into “receivership.” The marina was slated to have 250 slips and Americans are building multi-million dollar homes dotted around the “reserve” – 4000 acres have been carved out of a wildlife reserve for development. Then things came to a screeching halt a few months ago. The back story “is deep and dark and goes all the way to Dean Barrow (the Prime Minister)” according to one resident we met at the luxurious beach club who talked non-stop. She told us the developer was selling the same lots over and over. The nearly empty marina and surrounding engineered landscape area has a desolate feeling, like rich folks clinging to the edge of nuclear winter.

We will belly up to the beach club bar later this afternoon to escape the stifling heat and enjoy the luxurious pool. Our new, young British friend may join us, as he needs breaks from his shipmates. He signed on as crew, never having met the people. He said that on-line, “it felt like a perfect fit, but the trip has not been as advertised.” In the laundromat, he filled my ears with stories about a temperamental captain and his poor sweet wife, who is not really interested in sailing or scuba diving. The captain plans to circumnavigate the globe, but has yet to cross a major ocean, and makes frequent blunders when it comes to seamanship. Our friend, a licensed captain and certified dive instructor, who is teaching the wife to dive, signed on to go as far as Europe with them and may stay on for the whole voyage. The plans change, daily however, and instead of sailing to England, they’re now going to Spain….or maybe Rio Dulce. The wife is flying home from Belize. Our friend is no longer sure how long he will last as crew.

This is our first marina experience, since we left Mar Marine nearly a month ago. After solving our auto pilot issues, we checked out of Guatemala at Livingston where the brown Rio Dulce meets the sparkling blue waters of the Caribbean. While waiting for some paperwork to be completed by our “fixer” we went to a little hostel down the street for coffee. Casa Nostra, owned by a gregarious American, sits on the river’s bank providing a nice view of the anchored boats. As we sat outside, sipping on our coffees, Kenny suddenly let out a loud “Owwww!” A coconut had fallen out of the tree, smacking him squarely between the shoulders. Fortunately, it was a rather small one and did not hit him on the head, which could have proved fatal. The owner said it had happened to him once, and he was nearly knocked out cold.

Our exit papers in hand, we got back in the dinghy and were heading out to Mary T, when Kenny spotted a familiar boat, Seraphim. It was our Rio Dulce friends, Philippa and Tim, returning from Roatan. We veered off to say hello. They invited us aboard for morning beers. How could we refuse? Well, it was after 10 am.! They told us a bit about their sojourn in the Bay Islands of Honduras. Their trip got off to a rough start as Phillippa slipped on the deck of their boat when they arrived and cracked her head open. The wound required several stitches. Being a faller downer myself, I could certainly sympathize. They highly recommend going to Utila, which they much preferred to Roatan. They kindly offered us way-points for entering the islands to avoid hitting bottom. Always helpful.

Beers consumed, we hopped back aboard Mary T, and pulled up the dinghy’s engine. It looked calm enough to tow the dinghy so we left her in the water. It was time to head out and cross the notorious “bar” at the mouth of the river. It drops to under five feet of water at low tide, but it was high tide, so we were looking at six feet or more if we stayed in the deepest waters. We narrowly avoided a head on collision with another sailboat being healed over and towed across the bar into Livingston. My last minute choice to leave them to starboard, was a good one or Mary T’s mast would’ve been strangled by the tow rope. I had to leave the deeper water to avoid hitting them, causing us to touch bottom, but it was just a gentle kiss.

Within an hour we were in bright blue sparkling waters. The wind picked up, so we raised the main and unfurled the genoa (head-sail), tacking into the wind toward New Haven, a well protected deserted bay where we’d anchored four years previously. On our last tack toward our destination our aging genoa tore. Not just a small hole, but a 12-foot gash! We rolled it up quickly lest it get any larger. We motored under the mainsail over choppy water for the remainder of the trip. I was going below for refills of tap water when the boat lurched and I took a misstep down the companionway steps, wrenching my knee. I yelped in agony as I had not flexed my knee that hard in a long time. I took to icing it, sitting glumly in the cockpit, Kenny at the helm. We both pondered in silence how we’d manage for the rest of the trip with a damaged genoa. In the calm anchorage, resting on emerald waters, we toasted our arrival in Belize and let all troubles melt away with the setting sun.

The next morning we got underway early so we could arrive in Placencia with enough time to check-in with the Port Authority, Customs, Immigration, and Agriculture Department. Motor sailing into the wind we were approaching the anchorage when the motor surged, then died. Great. We limped into Placencia on the mainsail alone and dropped the anchor. What else could break? Anxious to get the paperwork out of the way, we resolved to put off dealing with our broken boat ’til the following day.

All of the government officials we needed to see are in a nearby town called Independence. The best way to get there is via the Hokey Pokey launch service. It is the fastest boat ride we’ve ever experienced. You can’t even talk in transit due to the wind noise and immense G-forces on your lips pushing them away from your teeth. Getting on the launch we met another cruising couple on the same mission to check-in. We agreed to share a taxi to visit all the different government officials. They were on a catamaran we’d seen on the water called Take Two. “You guys have a big boat,” I said. “We need one,” said the woman. “We have five kids, aged 8 to 17.” “Whaaaaaat?” They became my instant heroes. I was hoping to meet the kids, but they took off the next day. They’re headed for Clearwater Florida, not far from us in Bradenton, so maybe we’ll hook up with them there.

It took about two hours and $300 US to get through all of the bureaucracy. At the Agriculture Office, I asked if it was necessary to visit the health department and the official there told me, “yes.” Back at the taxi, I told the other couple we were supposed to go to the health department, too. Nelson, our cab driver, said, “No you don’t. Nobody does that. You’re finished.” Taking Nelson’s word over the official’s, we headed back to the Hokey Pokey for the return speed trial to Placencia.

The next day Kenny managed to get the motor working by putting in new filters and bleeding the air bubbles out of the system. I stood by to step and fetch. We’ve often had trouble bleeding the engine by ourselves, but our friend, Diesel Don in Marathon, FL, gave Kenny some tips via Facebook Messenger, and his method worked! We didn’t have to hire anyone. Woohoo!

Working the tape

Working the tape

After much discussion about what to do with our torn genoa, including the possibility of donating it to local fishermen, we decided to patch it ourselves. Paying a professional for a proper repair job is expensive, and the 19 year-old sail just wasn’t worth it. We employed a combination of sail tape, duct tape, and shrink wrap tape. If our hodgepodge of tape holds until July, we’re golden. We have a storm jib we can hank on to an inner fore-stay for heavy winds, if necessary. In the fall we’ll have a new sail made by Luigi who comes each autumn to Rio Dulce from Italy. He made us a fine mainsail a couple of years ago.

Repaired genny in action

Repaired genny in action

It was hot as hell as we worked away at anchor on the fore-deck with our collection of tapes. I was wearing jogging shorts and a sports bra, leaving my midriff exposed; something I rarely do. I paid for my exposure with a spotty sun burn where I’d missed with the sunblock. I forgot how much a good sunburn hurts, then blisters, itches and peels.

We poked around Placencia, aka the “Key West of Belize” for a few days before we ventured out to nearby South Long Cocoa Caye to test our systems and enjoy some snorkeling. It was a successful mission on all fronts and we were the only boat anchored there, which was a nice change of pace. The Caye only had a couple of buildings and appeared deserted, so we didn’t bother to go ashore. We just took our dinghy to the nearby coral heads and explored the underwater topography. There were some pretty coral, sponges and purple fans, but not a whole lot of fish. I couldn’t get a good seal on my mask so a ton of salt water crept up my nose. Kenny was having the same issue. I solved the problem by holding my nose, but a new mask would be nice. That night there was a phosphorescence show that looked like fireflies dancing on the water. We regaled the sea and skies with our modest repertoire of original tunes and some pop favorites featuring Kenny K on guitar and yours truly on vocals and uke. We’ve played many anchorages up and down the east coast of the Americas and wonder sometimes if anybody’s ever heard us. That’s how we like it; being invisible, playing to an invisible audience.

After one day and night of solitude a couple of chartered catamarans, one loaded with people, approached the anchorage. One of them dropped their anchor amidst the coral heads where we’d been snorkeling. I tried to wave them off but they either didn’t see me or thought I was practicing tai-chi. We returned to Placencia as the winds were supposed to pick up that night and we wanted better protection from the north.

After setting the anchor back in Placencia, sun drenched, tired and achy, I said to Kenny, “Let’s take tomorrow off.” After a brief pause, Kenny started chuckling at my pronouncement. Then it turned into an uncontrollable belly laugh which became contagious. “Off from what?” he managed between snorts.

For a few days we sampled Placencia’s restaurants and strolled up and down the mile long sidewalk lined with bars, hostels, people hawking wares and a general feeling of lassitude engendered by the steamy climate. There are a fair number of expats in residence, some of whom have clearly fallen into the bottle. I would be easy to do with the infinite number of inviting watering holes and the party atmosphere that pervades this tropical vacation hotspot. The expats we’ve spoken with, rave about Belize as if they’re trying to sell the place like real estate agents. We learned that 40% of the population of Placencia is expats. There is some concern among locals about all their land being sold to foreign developers.

Belizeans are generally very laid back and come in all colors. English is the official language, but you also hear Creole, Spanish, and Garifuna. I have yet to detect an ounce of racism among the locals or the visitors. Many logos for governmental entities as well as the national flag depict a white and black person working together.

When the wind piped down a bit we headed out to Hideaway Caye about 20 miles northeast of Placencia. It is a tiny mangrove island owned by a young American couple, Kim and Dustin Ingersoll, who built their home, a restaurant, and guest cabana on it. ( They catch the fish, lobster and conch they serve in the restaurant and have started raising ducks and chickens. We visited four years ago, and they remembered us. The article I wrote for Cruising World magazine about their island life, is hanging in the restaurant bathroom. It made me feel like a rock star. They welcomed us like old friends, which was pretty sweet, because I didn’t think they’d remember us.

Their daughter Ama (short for Bayama) who was two when we met her is now a precocious six-year-old. I enjoyed her so much over dinner that I said, “Bayama, I think we should make a movie together. What do you think?” “Sure!” she said. “Think about what kind of movie you want to make, and I’ll think about it too, and tomorrow morning, we’ll have a meeting and decide.” “Okay,” she chirped enthusiastically.

The following morning, I called in on the VHF radio. Dustin told me to come in at 10:30 when she’d be finished with her home schooling with Mom. When I arrived in the dinghy, she was waiting for me down by the dock perched in a mangrove tree. “Have you thought about the movie?” I asked. “Yeah, but I don’t know what we should do.” “I have an idea. Tell me what you think. Why don’t you give me a tour of your island and show me everything like I’ve never seen it before.” “Okay, sure.” The kid couldn’t be more agreeable. And off we went. She gave me a tour like she’d been doing it all her life. A real natural in front of the camera. Later we went snorkeling and her Dad shot some underwater footage of her.

We ended up staying three nights at Hideaway and had the best time. Ama joined us for all our meals and kept us company while her Mom cooked and her Dad chatted with other guests. The morning we left they gave us a loaf of homemade bread to take with us. I really miss them, especially Ama. We hope to sail over and see them again before we leave Belize. When the movie is finished, I’ll put it up on YouTube.

Our next stop was Twin Cayes, a deserted national park caye with a very well protected anchorage. A storm was brewing, so it looked like a good choice. We were basically retracing our old path in reverse. In the wee hours of the morning a great thunderstorm erupted, but we felt safe and snug in our spot. By late morning it cleared so we moved over to South Water Caye, known for its snorkeling. The coral was indeed pretty healthy there and the water clarity good. The island has a weird vibe, though. Not terribly welcoming. We had the same feeling about it four years ago. Maybe they have too many visitors and are sick of it.

Next we took off for one of our favorite little islands, just 5 miles further north – Tobacco Caye. It’s the size of a button and even cuter than one. (Why are buttons supposed to be cute anyway?) It’s name comes from colonial times when the British tried to grow tobacco there. The island is 3 acres of palm trees, with a few guest houses and two bar/restaurants. It sits right on the barrier reef. There are only a handful of full-time residents, but plenty of visitors. The hub of activity is the Reef’s End Restaurant. They have great food and make all their drinks with natural ingredients. You can snorkel right from their dock and then sit down in your wet bathing suit and enjoy a meal. While you eat, sting rays cruise in the clear waters below; above frigate birds with 8-fool wingspans fight mid air over bits of fish tossed off by fishermen. Par (pronounced “Paaahhhr”), the Swedish owner, and Lilly, his American wife, couldn’t be nicer.

Two days later we headed for Sapodilla where this blog began. Now we’ve come full circle and are back in Placencia to provision, get some cash and cruise the restaurants. We discovered a new one: Rick’s Cafe. Excellent fresh, organic dishes. Sam wasn’t there though. Tomorrow we’ve decided to try some inland travel and are going on a private tour to the Jaguar Preserve. We won’t see jaguars during the day, but it’s supposed to be pretty and there are lots of birds. Then the guide will take us tubing and swimming at a waterfall. It sounds refreshing. It is so hot these days we can barely think and ambition has flown out the window.

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