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.
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!
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."|
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.
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."|
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.
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 FAQThough 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 (www.aboutcruising.com).
The Long Way Back, Part Five by James Baldwin
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