The Rio Dulce Beckons - SailNet Community
  • 1 Post By Liza Copeland
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The Rio Dulce Beckons

Tikal, one of the grandest of all Central America's Mayan ruins, is just one of the many magical highlights accessible to cruisers on the Rio Dulce.
Squeezed between Honduras and Belize, Guatemala’s Caribbean coast is so short that traditionally sailors passed it by, unknowingly missing the most breathtaking of jungle river gorges and opportunities for exceptional travel inland. Although we knew it would be a struggle to cross the bar at the entrance of the Rio Dulce with our deep draft boat, we were determined to try, to experience firsthand why many who visit this region stay for months, even years.

We allowed plenty of time to get organized, planning to cross the bar just before the afternoon high tide when the trades are at their strongest and the sea piles up against the outpouring river. Over a foot of depth may be gained at this time, we had been told, with waves giving an additional lift over the hard sand. In preparation, we’d loaded Jerry cans of fuel into the dinghy for extra weight in case we’d have to haul Bagheera on her side to reduce draft. We also attached a pulley to the end of the boom for hoisting the weighted dinghy, and finally we prepared a halyard in case we’d need to heel the boat by way of the top of the mast.

Although our confidence had been boosted by information given on the radio that there was more than seven feet of clearance over the bar, our guides and other cruisers informed us otherwise. We learned that boats drawing six feet have crossed with the odd bump and those drawing six-and-a-half have to struggle. To reduce our seven-foot, two-inch draft by eight inches would require heeling Bagheera way over so that the toe rail was in the water, which is hard to accomplish with only a small inflatable dinghy loaded with Jerry jugs.

Before proceeding, we placed the coordinates for the bar from Captain Freya Rauscher’s cruising guide prominently on the chart table. We seemed prepared and conditions were perfect, but I still had a sense of foreboding as we motored west of the buoy and turned southwest, as instructed, to come in on 225-degree heading. Just as we were approaching the shallows a local boat roared up asking us if we would like a guide. I was keen to try this by ourselves, but uncharacteristically Andy jumped at the idea, negotiating the $30.00 fee down to $20.00. It made sense to bargain while we were still afloat!

The author's home assumes the position for getting across the bar guarding the entrance to the Rio Dulce.
Standing at the bow with Andy, our guide gave me constant directions, frequently insisting that I head left. This further worried me as everyone had told us, ‘If in doubt keep right.’ With a sense of helplessness I turned to port again at Juan’s urging and Bagheera went hard aground with an abrupt thud. We were in four feet of water. We tried everything to get free, heeling the boat with the dinghy, rocking it and spinning the wheel but to no avail. We then suggested that our guide’s boat take the halyard to pull us over. With the halyard secured, the driver opened throttle, but instead of pulling Bagheera on her side their boat swung forward and began pulling from ahead. We shouted desperately for the driver to stop. We were terrified that he would break the mast as the boat dipped forward, embedding Bagheera’s keel even more firmly in the bottom. Finally they heard us. In despair we agreed they should try to fetch a heavier towboat.

Then suddenly the promised waves began coming in, getting bigger by the minute. Although the keel was banging the bottom, it was not too jarring. So I gradually turned the boat back to our original GPS course, and accelerated slowly swinging the rudder back and forth as the depth increased to five feet eight inches and then six feet. Then Andy went out in the dinghy and pulled us over with the halyard and we started to move through the mud, and finally Bagheera leapt forward, free from the bottom at last!

"Thank goodness for a well-built boat, our cast-iron keel, and robust rig," Andy commented as we motored toward Livingston to clear in.

"Guatemalan officials came on board as soon as we had anchored....They were charming and, although it was now evening, all the paperwork was completed with no extra charges."
Guatemalan officials came on board as soon as we had anchored, giving us a decal and instructions to come ashore within the hour to pay fees and pick up the paperwork. Several boys lined the dock, each wanting to be chosen as our boat boy. We have learned from time spent in the eastern Caribbean that it is prudent to pick one and pay him a nominal fee to look after the dinghy. We chose Elmer; we recognized him from among those who had been helpful to us out at the bar. Unlike most kids he had fair curly hair and freckles. We noted many different ethnic groups in this primarily Garifuna town (descendents of the black Caribs from the Caribbean island of St. Vincent) as we walked up the main street with its attractive stores, restaurants, and lovely hotel. The officials were charming and, although it was now evening, all the paperwork was completed with no extra charges.

The mist was rising in tendrils when we lifted the anchor at dawn the following morning and entered a truly magical jungle gorge that twists and turns for over six miles. Dramatic 300-foot cliffs are highlighted by lush vegetation dotted with blooms of orchids, bromeliads, passionflowers, and the large red bottlebrush Zapotón. At this time of day, the trees were crowded with birds, their calls echoing as they swooped down the steep limestone walls.

Thatch-roofed dwellings straddled the water’s edge and young kids gazed as we passed, cute and curious, while their mothers slapped laundry on the rocks with great gusto. The river was a hive of activity this morning, with Mayan dugout cayucos everywhere, some fishing, others taking freshly baked goods to the market. As Livingston cannot be reached by land, water taxis crowded with people rushed by, dodging canoes carrying school children smartly clad in their uniforms.

Up and down the Rio Dulce miniature marinas like this one offer shoreside connections for a range of cruising amenities.
We anchored near some hot sulfur springs and after a steep climb to a stalactite cave in the cliff above had a soothing soak. Then, all too soon, the river opened into El Golfete, ‘the little gulf,’ which is the lake that would take us to our final destination. A side channel led us through carpets of water hyacinths to Salvador Laguna where we found a tranquil anchorage for the night and enjoyed the company of a number of local visitors.

An informative display at the Manatee Park was enjoyable next morning followed by an energetic walk along its lush rain-forest trail. There was a good breeze to sail the 10 miles up El Golfete and soon we were checking out marinas through the binoculars, trying to identify them from our cruising guides. In the distance stood the picturesque old Spanish fort of Castillo San Felipe, and Lago de Izabal that provides further cruising opportunities and dramatic hot waterfalls at Finca El Paraiso.

Having heard that Mario’s Marina is popular with those who like to stay aboard long term, we decided to visit for a drink at the bar. When we got ashore, we discovered fellow cruisers arriving exotically dressed for a masked ball! "Welcome to the Rio," was a frequent greeting we got after we had returned to the boat, dressed in vogue, and headed back ashore.

"For cruisers looking for a place to winter this is a nurturing, friendly yachting community."
For cruisers looking for a place to winter this is a nurturing, friendly yachting community. The active cruiser’s net held every morning at 7:30 on Channel 69 was informative about the many local events in the marinas and ashore. It was also useful for tips on inland travel, and our trip was easily arranged. We decided to leave Bagheera at Hacienda Tijax, a small marina with shoreside cabins that has an attractive international atmosphere and is conveniently close to the vibrant town of Fronteras with its excellent stores and market.

So began a week of spectacular touring. It is hard to express the magic of Tikál, the grandest of all the classic Mayan cities. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, Tikál is to Guatemala what the Pyramids are to Egypt, a grand national symbol and source of pride. We found the brilliant orange of dawn and cool of dusk the most rewarding times to climb these temples of kings and to see a profusion of wildlife, in particular howler monkeys, coatimundi, along with brilliant parrots and toucans.

The early colonial capital of Antigua is another jewel. Brightly painted old buildings line the cobbled streets and displays in their inner courtyards introduced us to the Mayans’ distinctive dress, with brilliant colors and varied designs. Because Antigua has become a tourist destination with elevated prices we saved our money for visits to the highland markets. Chichicastenango sounded intriguing and we loved every moment of the Sunday market, from the smoky fires and subdued atmosphere among the vendors the evening before to the amazing vibrancy of the market itself. Chichi’s main square was packed with vendors. Tourist-oriented outer stalls were laden with blankets, linens, carved masks, and clothing. In the busy center locals bargain good naturedly for lengths of cloth, exotic fruit and vegetables, hardware and notions.

In the hilly town of Chichicastenango, the Sunday market is alive with color, much of it visible in the traditional garb worn by these young entrepreneurs.
Laden with purchases, we were grateful that one of the tourist minibuses could pick us up at our hotel and take us to Panachel on Lake Atitlán. Surrounded by volcanoes, the sapphire blue lake was picture perfect as we descended the steep road lined with bougainvillea, passionflowers, and roses. Our visit across the Lake to Santiago by ferry turned out to be one of the most intriguing parts of our trip since much of the community keeps to the traditional lifestyle of the Tzutuhil Maya. Since the police accords were signed in 1996, and peace was restored after 36 years of civil war, the Mayan culture is blossoming once again and both men and women proudly wear their embroidered pantalons and blouses, and practice their ancient religions.

Peace has opened up this exotic country for easy and safe travel and Guatemala ranks high on our list after having cruised to over 100 countries. The Rio Dulce is the icing on the cake. Sweet River is the English translation, and considering that it provides a cruising sanctuary and ideal hurricane haven in which to winter or leave the boat, the name rings true. This jungle river gorge is one of the most enchanting cruising grounds to be found anywhere in the world—once you’ve crossed the bar.

Rio Dulce FAQ

Though most sectors of the Rio Dulce will give you that feeling of being off the beaten track, you’ll find most of the resources you need in the region. Here are some pointers for cruisers considering a trip up the famed river:

Weather    This is the best hurricane hole in Central America. For cruising guides, weather information, radio nets, etc.: check my previous article on "Cruising Beautiful Belize." As the Rio Dulce receives 60 to 100 inches of rain per year, most sailors visit during the dry season—November through April. Also, it is not advisable to cross El Golfete or Lake Izabel during high winds since ugly swells build rapidly.

Radio    Channel 68 should be used for hailing, distress calls, or general announcements to the fleet. After making contact, use other channels such as 66, 67, or 69. The National Police monitor Channel 16.

Night Time    Boating is not recommended at night because cayucos (small local craft) are often unlit. Always use an anchor light. A deck light is more effective in confined areas.

Safety    There’s no record of serious crime here, but petty theft does occur in isolated areas, so anchor along the river banks where there is activity or with other boats.

Marinas    There are several marinas up and down the river, and rates are reasonable US$80 to 150 per month) especially for long-term stays. Facilities vary from docks to finger piers, 120/240 AC power, pure water hook-ups, hot showers, cabins, laundry service, workshops, and restaurants. We stopped over at Suzanna’s Laguna, Hacienda Tijax, Marios, Bruno’s, Tortugal, and Mango’s.

Refueling    There is a Texaco fuel dock in Livingston and several brands on the south side of the bridge by Fronteras. Medical Both medical and dental facilities exist in the Rio Dulce area. More information on cruising the Rio Dulce and traveling Guatemala can be found in Liza Copeland’s latest book Comfortable Cruising, around North and Central America (

Suggested Reading:

International Relations by Randy Harman

Timing Caribbean Arrival by Beth Leonard

The Long Way Back, Part Five by James Baldwin

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