Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Guatemala : Relaxing in the Rio Dulce

22nd May – 17th June 2014.

”Well who would have thought” ! That’s what we said to each while motoring up the Rio Dulce river from the sea entrance at the town of Livingston. Not long ago and I mean not long ago, neither of us had ever contemplated coming to this Central American country, let alone knew where it actually was. But that’s the great thing about this sailing life we lead, plans can change in the blink of an eye and not always for the worst.

As I mentioned in the previous posting, we were coming here for a just a couple of reasons. (a) it was only 16 miles further on from where we had been in Belize, (b) we’d been told that it was a cheap place to have the boat hauled-out and antifouled and (c) we could be done and dusted and on our way back to the USA in just under two weeks.


The 20 mile motor up the river was absolutely spectacular, in particular the initial half dozen miles. Once around the first bend a whole new world opened up in front of our eyes. Three hundred foot cliffs shrouded in dense vegetation of every imaginable shade of green stimulated our senses. The river and it’s surrounds were alive.The crisp smell of mother earth, the sweet song of unseen birds, the cascading wave of cicadas’ voices and at times the sheer sounds of jungle silence and tranquility had us totally spellbound.


Maya Indian fishermen paddled their dug-out canoes under the shade of overhanging trees and  many traditional thatch roofed houses lined the river edges. The beauty and lushness of Guatemala was something that we hadn’t seen since cruising Borneo back in 2006.


The river wound it’s way further inland opening up to El Golfete, a large lake backed by the imposing 1200 ft Mica mountains. As the lake spread further ahead masses of colourful waterliles grew along the shoreline and fisherman, again in dugouts, cast their nets. Before long the signs of civilization became more apparent.

The Rio Dulce is well known among the cruising fraternity as an excellent hurricane hole. Boasting fourteen marinas and three haul-out yards, it is a very popular spot to spend the season. Just how popular it was we had no idea until we neared the end of the lake and the marinas, complete with small forests of masts, began to appear. These are not the glitzy marinas that you would find in Europe or the US, most are family-run affairs. Some with swimming pools and shore-side accommodation, others with just a small restaurant and a few docks. It’s all very laid back.

We were headed to Nana Juan Marina, which  has a boatyard attached. This marina and yard is a haven for large catamarans. For haul-outs, the smaller cats seem to use Ram Marine, the next yard along. Within a day we’d spoken to our yards’ manager, a pony-tailed Frenchman named Jean Claude and organized a tentative date to be pulled out. Now all we needed was to buy a few tins of antifoul, paint trays and rollers and we’d be good to go.

IMG_1243There were a couple of other Aussie boats at Nana Juan, all of whom we’d met sailing the Caribbean over the past few years. There’s nothing like a bunch of Aussies to liven things up. As three of the boats were already tied up in the marina they made us honoury guests and invited to make use of the marina facilities ie the Wi Fi and the beautiful pool. With the marina facing west, it was a given that sundowners by the pool became a regular event. The rest of the pool set were mainly French with a dusting of Germans along with a whole gaggle of  cruising kids.

The first three weeks we spent at anchor, along with a growing number of other boats, just off the marina and the town of Fonteras just a five minute dinghy ride away. By the end of the second week our plans for the hurricane season began to change. Guatemala was growing on us. Despite the incredibly hot and humid weather, the place has a nice cozy feel to it. We did have quite a few  heated discussions as to whether we should stay put here or head back to the USA, as was the original plan and the one that I was in favour of.

However time was marching on and the weather patterns were already beginning to change. If we went back up to Jacksonville in Florida it would mean a 1200 mile passage and taking into account bad weather along the way the trip could take as long as two weeks or more. Finally we came to a compromise. I agreed to stay in the Rio provided we could get a berth at Nana Juana marina, the draw card being their wonderful pool. Liam spoke to the marina manager and after a couple of days Jean Claude came back to us with a yes. That made Liam a very happy chappy and strangely enough it was ditto for me.

So far it has turned out to be a good decision. We have saved a goodly amount of dollars by staying here. The marina in Florida would have cost over $ 900 per month where as down here it is only $250. Another plus are the labour charges, $26 per hour v’s $95 in the States. The cost of living here is also extremely affordable.


Meanwhile, it’s been a bad  few weeks for breakages and there’s been some real dooseies. On the urgent “must fix it” list, we’ve been able to have our engine parts air freighted in. The mounts ( feet) that we broke on the port engine back in Cuba have been replaced and the coolant leak in that engine also diagnosed and fixed.

A replacement  Vetus muffler and exhaust hose on the starboard engine, which had a terminal meltdown last week due to the sea cock inadvertently being left in the closed position after servicing a strainer filter, have also been replaced. That was achieved after a lot of cussing, blood, sweat and tears from you know who, well maybe not the  tears bit but definitely the cussing, blood and sweat part.

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The only thing left on the list now is to buy a replacement hot water tank that blew it’s water hoses to kingdom come after the pressure relief valve failed.

Liam, who was in the engine bay at the time, had his face only inches away from the hose when it blew and it went off like a bomb. It scared the bejesus out of me and I was sure I’d find him dead. The whole boat filled with thick steam with in seconds and I couldn’t see him or hear him yelling because of the steam exploding out through the now F*!%ed hose. Luckily where the hose failed the pressure sent the steam skywards instead of sideways. Had that not been the case he would now be  in a hospital somewhere in the USA recovering from 3rd degree burns to his head, shoulders, chest and back. So, as you can see it’s been a  busy couple of weeks here in Guatemala, with no time for sightseeing just yet.


We have been into Fronteras town several times and it’s a very bustling place.The main street has no footpaths so shoppers get to share the road with tankers, cattle trucks, buses and whatever else trundles down the main drag. We caught a local minivan bus to Morales which is the next town along, and it too was the same. Shops selling everything from  horse saddles to fresh meats front straight onto the busy streets, not a footpath within cooee. Maybe that’s just how it is in Guatemala.

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A few days ago we moved into our berth and have quickly slipped into the luxury of marina life. Each morning we head up to the pool for a good workout of laps.  I manage fifty to sixty, while Liam on the other hand has so far clocked up a staggering four. Sometimes he goes all out and does six! That aside, we are also enjoying endless free water and being connected to shore power to run our oven and our lifesaving  air conditioner. There’s quite a good social scene  here as well. The marinas take turns at hosting movie nights, dominos, and trivia quizzes.and they all offer various lunch and dinner specials. With everything that’s going on we sure won’t have time to get bored. 

A little inland travel  is in the pipeline for the coming week, so keep an eye out for the next blog post. But until then it’s adios amigos!


Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Belize: Beautiful but not Breathtaking

6th – 21st May 2014.


The combo of full main and screecher had us zipping along at speeds of 8-9 knots all day. Skimming over the flat water GWTW gobbled up the 63 miles from the Mexican border to San Pedro Belize in just under 9 hours. San Pedro, the first northern port of entry for Belize, is located on Ambergris Cay, a very touristy island where the main focus is all about scuba diving along the offshore reefs.

We’d heard from other cruisers that Belize was beautiful but a bit expensive in the fee department and they weren’t wrong. So we handed over the bucks to the officials and hoped that we’d like the place. After a little wander through the town we decided it was not for us, so later in the afternoon  we up anchored and sailed 12 miles further south to Caye Caulker which had a reputation of being quieter and much more laid back than San Pedro.

Swaying palm trees and sandy streets set the mood of this little island. With the tourist season winding down it was a very pleasant spot to spend a few days. We found a little place ashore for sundowners and along with friends from Munerra, another Aussie boat we’d met while in Mexico, we road-tested a couple of icy margaritas which I might say were excellent.

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The wind howled for the next couple of days and we were effectively boat-bound. The seas on the ocean side of the island were too rough for snorkeling which was a bit of a shame, as we were itching to get out and explore the clear waters and the reefs we’d heard and read so much about.

Once the weather improved we pushed on to Colson Cay, a mangrove island with a snug anchorage surrounded by reefs. Our guide book said that there were three blue holes here that were teeming with all kinds of fish and that the snorkeling on the nearby reefs was superb. With such a great wrap it was time to hit the water. Well the blue turned out to be just collapsed sections of the sea bed with a distinct lack of the colour blue. And as for the “teeming fish”  and the superb snorkeling, Ha!

Maybe we just couldn’t find the right spot, but what we saw was very poor.  Just a few isolated coral heads that supported only a few fish. We did take a two mile dinghy ride to the outer reef but even out there the coral was mostly brown and again very few fish. It was disappointing to say the least.


Next day we had another lovely sail in the calm waters behind the reef down to tiny Tobacco Cay. And when I say tiny, that’s what it was. Barely five minutes and you’ve circumnavigated the place. Chocka- block full of palm trees, a couple of small homes and a small beachfront bar this was another really laid back spot that also touted excellent snorkeling.

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A charter cat came in while we were there and it’s 21 guests set up their flimsy tents on the sand under the palms. We hoped they wouldn’t get rained on during the night. So far we’d had no luck with our in-water activities, but we were determined to keep trying, so once again we loaded up the dinghy with our gear and headed over to the reef. This one was a bit better. There were plenty of fish, including stingrays and a large shark but the coral colours just weren’t there. Maybe the effects of global warming  and the odd hurricane had taken their toll on these reefs.

By the time we got back to GWTW the wind had come up and the waters were quite choppy.Our anchor was well dug in but the forecast was for stronger northerly winds over the coming days. We’d have to move on again tomorrow and find a more secure anchorage.


Twin Cays was the pick of the bunch when it came to hiding from the north winds but before we got there we stopped at Carrie Bow Caye for some more “ superb snorkeling”. What a load of hogwash!! The reef was as dead as a dodo and the only  decent size fish we saw was a lone barracuda. Within ten minutes of getting wet we were back on board wondering why we had come to Belize at all. Oh well, maybe we’d do better at finding a restaurant for lunch over on South Water Cay. Nope, it just wasn’t our day.The resort that housed the restaurant had no guests booked until the following day so there was no food to be had. Ok, enough was enough so off we went to Twin Cays for the night. This was yet another mangrove cay but proved to be an excellent choice for the coming weather conditions. In the cooling afternoon breeze it was lovely and tranquil, surrounded on all sides by low green bushes.

Slowly a few other boats filtered in, in anticipation of the strong overnight winds. With the day drawing to a close we adjourned to the foredeck, glass of vino in hand and listened to the dulcet tones of the music from the movie Out of Africa. It was short lived bliss. Along with the sunset came some uninvited guests, the fiesty little no-see-ums, and there were squadrons of the buggers. We retreated to the safety of the saloon as did a lot of the bugs, obviously we were just too tasty for them to leave. A night of itching and scratching made us vow we wouldn’t come back to this anchorage again.

As predicted the northerly winds came in during the night, so come daylight we took the opportunity of a fast downhill ride and headed off to the town of Placencia, thirty miles away. Anchoring just south of the sand spit off the town, you would not have known that just a few miles out it was blowing dogs off chains. Lining the waterfront were a few thatched roof buildings and some low key resorts, and it looked kind of funky. A fellow cruiser had called us up on the radio to let us know of a local band playing that night at the bar in front of us. Sounded  like that could be a goer. By 5pm there was a good roll up of holiday makers and cruisers and the three man “mature aged” band belted out all the type of tunes the crowd loved…our kind of music. It was a fun night of meeting new faces, dancing and singing.


Next day we had a good walk around town. A shady timber footpath weaved it’s way past shops, souvenir stalls and brightly coloured elevated homes and eventually we decided to stop at the Barefoot beach bar for a bite to eat, catch up on the internet and chill for a bit while sipping some icy cold refreshments. As Liam says : man’s not a camel ! Along with Andrea and Nick off  Munerra we had  a nice relaxing, are there any other type, afternoon. The next day we would be going our separate ways.

It was now May 19th, only twelve days till the start of the hurricane season. We needed to get our butts into gear as there were still a couple more cays to stop at before turning around and heading back up to the USA. Tom Owens Cay got a good write up so we put our sights on there in the hope of finding that “ace” coral reef. The anchorage was pretty tight space-wise but with just one other boat there we fitted in nicely.The little cay was really cute with an equally cute dive resort on it.

IMG_1142We’d been told by our French anchorage buddies that the caretaker and his dog were very friendly and that he needed some gasoline to start his generator. So Liam hopped in the dinghy and went ashore to get the whole story.The resort took about 10 guests and they were due to arrive tomorrow, but he needed the gasoline today to fire up his small generator and charge the resort’s batteries. Of course we obliged and gave him a few gallons. The dive boat would bring the replacement fuel for us tomorrow, he said. He was most thankful for our generosity and invited us to come ashore and use his internet if we needed. He also pointed us to the best snorkeling places and viola he was right. Finally we had found some good reefs with colourful purple fans, turquoise brain coral AND heaps of fish. Needless to say we stayed here a couple of days.

Nicholas and Lime Cayes were next on our list and we figured we could do both in the same day and then start to head north again. We had just dropped the anchor when the park rangers came over and asked us to go pay our park fees, $10 per day per person. Liam thought it a bit steep and considering we’d spent a  couple of days  at Tom Owen’s Caye and didn’t realise that was also part of the park, the bill would have come to $80US. Given the lack of good coral we seen  so far we packed up and left and headed over to  the mainland town of Punta Gorda.

Over the last week Liam had been tabling, (aka strongly hinting) at the idea of spending the hurricane season in the Rio Dulce, Guatemala but I wasn’t buying into that at all. Eventually worn down by this discussion we finally came to a compromise. We’d clear out of Belize at Punta Gorda and head down to the Rio for a look see with the idea of a quick haul-out out to antifoul and then head back up to the USA. Other friends who were already in the Rio assured us that we would be able to get the bottom paint we needed and have the job done and dusted in just a few days. We emailed back and forth to the boatyard and was told yes, we could be hauled but not’ till the end of the week. Ok, we’d give it a go. After all, the Rio Dulce gets rave reviews and might as well have a look as it was just 16 miles further on. So with that, it was goodbye Belize, hello Guatemala.

Did we enjoy Belize? I’d have to say it was OK but not fabulous.. Everyones’ experiences are different but for us and from what we saw  it just didn’t live up to it’s reputation. Maybe it will be better next time we visit. 


Cruising Info : Formalities. San Pedro: Customs, Immigration and Agriculture are opposite the airport above the Scotia Bank. Port Captain is further out of town, we couldn’t find him but paid the fee on checkout in Punta Gorda. Fees: Immigration $B50 inc 30 day visa, Customs $B50, Agriculture $B70. Check-out : Punta Gorda, all officials are located in the ferry terminal: Immigration $B37.50 per person, Port Captain $B100 for first day and $B5 for each day there after. Park Fees, varies from $B5-20 per person per day depending which park you are in, there are many marine parks, so choose wisely!

Internet : Available in San Pedro, Caye Caulker, Tobacco Cay, South Water Cay, Placencia, Tom Owens Cay & Punta Gorda. With the exception of Punta Gorda we could pick up wi-fi from the boat using our booster antenna.

Supermarkets : Good variety in San Pedro, Caye Caulker, Placencia, also good produce, and Punta Gorda.

Guide Books : Belize and Mexico’s Caribbean Coast by Cpt Freya Rauscher 3rd edition. Excellent charts, waypoints and routes. Some land based info needs an update and make up your own mind about the snorkeling sites.