March 17th – 24th, 2015 (-6 on UTC)
Dear Friends and Family, (LOTS OF PHOTOS and a VIDEO at the end of this post)
Our trip to the entrance to the Rio Dulce of Guatemala from Placencia, Belize wasn’t particularly exciting until we arrived at the entrance to the “Rio”.
The charts show low tide depths as little as 3 1/2 feet for over a quarter mile! As such, it’s best to get there at higher tides and follow the track that the guide books give to avoid the shallow mud banks.
Being a “skinny water” boat, “Beach House” went over the bank – where we did see water depths as low as 5 1/2 feet – without even a touch of the bottom; at least none we could feel.
About an hour later (and with an even higher tide), “Windward” started to traverse the bar and we were able to radio back where the shallowest part was. The other news was that indeed, the shallows did run almost a quarter of a mile. Just when we radioed to Dennis that the bar was at it’s shallowest, “Windward” came to a grinding halt. Their draft is 6’4” and my guess was that they were probably trying to push a foot of mud and it just wasn’t going to work. The other good news was, that the sea was as flat as a board. I imagine in a big swell and wind, the bar would be breaking the entire width of the entrance channel.
We had already had the Guatemalan officials aboard and were with our agent, Raul of Servamar, when I radioed out to Dennis if he wanted Raul to arrange a “tip over”? A tip over is where a local fishing boat for a fee, comes out, ties a line off to the halyard on the top of your mast and tips you over – literally! This allows the keel to rise up sufficiently to sort of get dragged over while the vessels motor powers it over the top of the river bed.
As Raul was standing right next to me, he heard the conversation and Dennis’ “yes please” and was on the phone to his friend Hector of the small fishing boat, “Wally”. Within 10 minutes, “Wally” was on site, tied his drum reel off to “Windward’s” halyard and while tipping him over from the side, Dennis could then scoot along the bottom until deeper water was found.
This whole process looked quite amazing and took only about 10 minutes. The fee was $50.00 which in Guatemala, is a good days wage.
(SEE VIDEO AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS POST OF “WINDWARD” BEING TIPPED OVER ON THE WAY OUT OF THE RIO DULCE).
Once “Windward” was inside, we all went ashore to finish up our check in process Livingstone is a small quasi tourist town but has a not very good reputation. When we got to the public dock we were swarmed by locals who for about $3.00 would “watch” your dinghy. They almost got into a fist fight over who was going to get the “job”. Of course the issue here for us was, if we don’t pay to have our dinghy watched, the same guy who is getting the “job” might be the guy who steals your dinghy if you don’t contract with him!….
It’s always a bit creepy when being ashore and watching the locals sort of size you up. Frankly, I did feel a bit uncomfortable ashore and was glad that there was security around the ATM when we went to get local currency to pay our agent and our entry fees. The worst “feeling” I’d ever had like this was when Nikki and I were in Guyana two years ago up the Essequibo River. Must be something about rivers?….:-)
When we got back to the boats, it was getting dark and we did not want to go up the Rio Dulce Gorge, (which is beautiful) at night. First, we didn’t want to miss the scenery and second we were warned that it was not a good idea as to the possibility of opportunistic locals to turn temporary banditos. The other good news was that the conditions were very benign and despite that the Rio Dulce entrance is very open to the sea, it was quite calm. The current, which always comes out of the river, put our sterns directly into the wind coming into the river. When we anchored, this allowed us not feel much roll from the small swell coming in from the sea.
When we woke up the next morning, we saw dozens of small fishing boats who were working the mouth of the Rio Dulce just on the seaward side of the bar.
The conditions were calm, the light good and so together, we motored up the 7 mile long, very winding Rio Dulce Gorge. The Gorge is a mostly deep river that has high cliffs on either side with lots of bird life and thick vegetation. Not only was it gorgeous, but I actually got a glimpse of a Manatee when we were about 1/3rd of the way through. At first I thought it was an inner tube floating down the river, but then the inner tube had a tail and sounded toward the bottom. We’d heard stories of Drug Lords and Banditios up the Gorge but we’re happily pleased to just see nice locals waving as they went by in their Pangas. Some of the houses and resorts seemed quite lavish on the banks of the Gorge, but we weren’t going to stop and ask any questions….:-)
The full trip up the Rio Dulce is actually 20 miles where all the marinas are and the water is fresh (hence – Rio Dulce “Sweet River”). The “Bridge of the Americas” is a landmark where the Rio ends and Lago Izabel (Lake Isabel) begins. The bridge would be not quite high enough for us to pass under, but smaller boats could go upwards of another 10 miles further inland. We also heard that it took 30 years to complete the bridge which clearly could have been built in 6-12 months by any 1st world engineering company. Apparently, for the adventurously initiated, there were wildlife and Manatee trips up to the far west end of the lake. At the far western end of the lake, one has a better chance to see a Manatee. As such, I was lucky on my spot of one the day before.
We were headed toward RAM Marina which we heard was the most upmarket and full facilities marina in the Rio. Owned by an ex pat American named Rick (a complete character – in the nicest way), we found nice docks, friendly folks, good water and power and we could finally get a bit of mechanical assistance. Rick even let us use his USA phone line to take care of making our airplane reservations to go on a land trip to Columbia (planned for early May) and our trip back to LA for Skye’s wedding oat the end of May.
Of course one of the highlights of this trip would be a visit by long time friend, the lovely Ms. Carmina Robles! Carmina lives in Guatemala City and would be making the 5 1/2 hour drive to the Rio the next day. Cindy and I had a great time with Carmina in 2009 when we were on the Pacific side of Guatemala. “Beach House” had yet again, by coming to Guatemala made another “country to country” circumnavigation. This time, we were only 150 miles as the crow flies from Puerto Quetzal on the Pacific coast where Carmina last visited “Beach House” 6 years ago.
When Carmina arrived, we decided that we wanted to take a trip to one of the largest ancient ruin sites of the Mayan world at “Tikal”. Carmina’s car would have been a bit small for the 5 of us and as such, we hired a mini van with driver to the trip to Tikal. Another reason was, that it was a 4 hour drive each way!
We left the town of Frontera (Frontier), at 7 a.m. and were very glad we’d hired Jorge to do the driving. He knew the road very well and seemed to know where every pot hole and “tumelo” was.
A “tumelo” is a speed bump which are found all over Mexico and Central America as the most effective way to keep speeding vehicles from going too fast. The tumelo’s sometimes seem as big as a mountain! In fact, Jorge was so familiar with this road, he was waving to someone everywhere we went. As such, I told him that he was so popular, he should run for President….:-)
The Guatemalan elections are coming up soon and universally everyone says they’re corrupt. In fact, the political parties apparently go into the country villages and give away food and supplies to people to get their votes on or just before election day. It seems to be a national disgrace, but no one seems to have the political will to change the system. As Guatemalan Presidents can only stand for one 4 year term, it seems it’s just the well off folks trading who gets to be in charge of the graft and corruption for the next 4 years. We were taken aback a bit by the $2,000,000 US made sport fishers owned by politicians whose annual salaries were about $60,000 USD…..umm
Another rumor we’d heard was that there is a huge mine near the west end of Lago Izabel where about 250 semi trucks haul dirt (unprocessed) to Russian ships at Puerto Barrios near the mouth of the Rio Dulce. The rumor part was that officially, this was a nickel mine, but locals said they believed what was being mined was uranium. As such, Guatemala didn’t want it to be processed in country and off to Sevastopol it goes. Welcome to cruising and all the stuff that goes with it!….:-)
We arrived at Tikal around 10:45 a.m. and paid the entry fees and found an English speaking guide, Josh. It was a walking tour and we were able to go up on the largest temple – “Temple 4”. Josh showed us a scale model of Tikal where you could see this was the tallest of the Temple structures.
When Cindy and I did this in 1996, you could actually climb up the western steps. Today, the park has installed a wooden walk way to get to the top. It’s easier and safer too. These temples are very steep and I’m sure a fall would not be pleasant if not down right disastrous.
For all about Tikal, see the following links:
Tikal via Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tikal
Tikal National Park: http://www.tikalnationalpark.org
UNESCO World Heritage Site: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/64
The walk was long, it wasn’t as hot as it could have been, but still hot. We walked back to our ride and Jorge took us to the Katok Restaurant that was recommended and fortunately not full of tour busses which it often is. We took a quick trip through the small town of Flores on the lake and headed back to the Rio where we arrived around 8pm. It was a long day, thank you Jorge!
We were watching the weather carefully as the next leg of our voyage would be a bit daunting. Being in the Rio Dulce, we next had to get to the Bay Islands of Honduras which were 120 miles straight up wind. This would be a motor boat ride and we wanted to make it as comfortable as possible.
The day before we left, I was doing maintenance and I went to tighten a plumbing fitting on the generator. It broke off in my hand with the slightest touch. This did not bode well!
Carmina drove me into Frontera and with her wonderful bi-lingual skills we were able to finally find the plumbing fittings (which were US “NPT\”) and could at least then see how the system could be fixed. The problem was, that due to the compact nature of the generator’s design and it’s difficulty in accessing it, we had to take apart many pieces to finally get to the broken fitting, etc.
Essentially, this took 4 hours and the project became an entire days event. “Noye”, who was one of the marina’s mechanics, assisted me in the operation which made it easier and more pleasant. Thank you Noye!
We took the dinghy for a lunch about 3 miles up Lake Isabel at Rosida’s Lobster Bar that was best accessed by boat. It was a lovely outing. Despite the name of the restaurant, there was no lobster at the “Lobster Bar”….:-)
Many people chose to keep their boats in the Rio in the hurricane season and we could see why. There are several marinas, lots of services and frankly, the prices were unbelievably cheap!
I have never stayed at a dock for $10.00 US/day. The electricity was twice as expensive as the berth. The small, air conditioned marine store at RAM Marina is now working with West Marine and anything in their catalog can be delivered in three days from the US! They have a travellift and are putting in a new one for big catamarans. We were staying at “Zia’s” slip and could easily see keeping the boat here for the offseason as an option.
The next day with hugs and tears we said goodbye to Carmina and were off to make the afternoon tide and check out at Livingstone with a weather window for Utila Island, in the Bay of Islands, Honduras. We topped off our fuel and about an hour behind “Windward”, headed for Livingstone. Raul had all the paper work done ahead of our arrival and “Wally” was on call for “Windward”.
CLICK ON THE VIDEO LINK BELOW TO SEE: \”Windward\” being \”tipped over\” to get across the river bar at the Rio Dulce, Guatemala…..
VIDEO IS 39 SECONDS
Note \”Wally\” (small fishing boat) \”tipping over\” Dennis and Lisette\’s Norseman 44-7 \”Windward\”. The Rio Dulce River Bar was only about 4 1/2 feet deep at this point.
We made our exit with a plan to be off Cabo Tres Puntas (The Cape of Three Points), which was 10 miles along our route so we could pass near the infamous Puerto Cortez at night. Puerto Cortez is just inside the Guatemalan/Honduras border (Honduras side) and has recently had a few bandido fisherman hold up a yachtie. As such, we decided a tandem, night voyage without lights would be most prudent. As we had no lights on and could watch traffic with our radars on, we studiously avoided all the targets and kept occasional chatter up on the radio. One boat about midnight was in our direct path and I turned to go by him 3 miles closer to the beach. As such, we were only 5 miles offshore, but saw no further traffic.
Despite the wind being light for most of the night, the trip was awful! The seas were only a meter high, but very, very short period. We felt like we were in a washing machine and it was perhaps the worst I’ve felt on a trip in years. It was uneventful until the next morning when we approached Utila and the shallow reefs to it’s western side. Again, the charts were not particularly accurate.
“Windward” swung well to the South and we picked our way (easy enough) through the “weeds” (unmarked reefs).
We arrived early enough to just get anchored and checked in which was only $6.00 and very easy. The town was cute and the island was all about inexpensive diving and partying for 20 somethings.
“Windward” had some trouble getting anchored, so would have to wait to get the check in done.
Scott and Nikki (Still in Roatan – awaiting a weather window to get around “Thank God Point” (Punta Gracias a Dios) – more on this in our next blog!