Fear and Loving in Guatemala

I'll never forget that day about l5 years ago when my girlfriend and I sailed past Castillo San Felipe and saw Lake Izabal stretching into the distance, looking like an inland sea. We had no idea that a lake of this immense size existed as we had no charts or maps of the area. Taking advantage of our good luck we opened a couple of beers, raised up the drifter, and ghosted out on the late-morning breeze. This had been an incredible trip up till now and we were sure another adventure lay just around the next point.

The trip had started in a funky little bar in Placencia, Belize about a week before. I had asked about the Rio Dulce and was informed by my boozy friends that nobody went there as we were likely to be shot. If we weren't shot then we might be lucky and only spend a few years behind bars eating mostly cockroaches and food scraps. Having recently watched Steve McQueen catch and gleefully eat a roach in "Papillon" I felt my stomach quiver in fear and decided to order another Belikin beer.

I've found that whenever my inborn cowardice surfaces, a few beers or rums usually will help. I'm sure the early explorers to the area were of the same mind. How else did they do it? I can imagine Hernan Cortez saying to his handfull of besotted conquistadores, "It's okay boys. There's only about fifty thousand of them. No problem. More wine anybody?" We decided to say the hell with it all and fortified ourselves for the voyage ahead.

My memory of the trip down the Belizean coast is a little foggy but I clearly remember the customs official's incredulous look as I informed him that the paperwork was to have Livingston, Guatemala as our destination. Nobody goes to Guatemala. Was I crazy? "No," I replied, "Only pleasantly pissed, just like Cortez."

The fear levels rose steadily during the 3-hour sail from Punta Gorda to Livingston. The Guatemalan coast was exotic to say the least. We held our breaths as we rounded the sea buoy for we had been told that the bar was anywhere from two to twenty feet deep. The Juliette's five-and-a-half foot draft caused us no problems and we arrived at the main pier in fine spirits. We had made it and hadn't been machine-gunned once.

Our new-gained confidence was short-lived though as four soldiers, armed to the teeth, greeted us and somehow made us understand that we were to wait. We were not to leave the boat for any reason. Two of the Rambo-like fellows hung around just to make sure. Maybe they were hoping to get lucky, I thought. One foot on the dock and WHAMO......50 rounds in the ass.

Needless to say, at this point our fear was at an all-time high. I told Judy that this is it. No more crimson sunsets. No more footprints on the overhead Sunday morning. It's all over baby. What was there to do?

A cocktail perhaps? Or how about 50 cocktails?

Three hours later when the seven well-dressed officials showed up to check us in we were out of our minds. Against my wishes the free-spirited Judy had taken off her bikini top and was babbling away to a rather large group of men. One fellow, the customs officer, said in a clear voice, "Welcome to Guatemala. How much time do you want? Six month? Wan yeer?" What a wonderful feeling to be in Guatemala. We were greeted like celebrities and had the paperwork finished in the time it takes to drink a six-pack. Once again we had skillfully averted another potential disaster with good old Canadian know-how.

The sail through the canyon on the next afternoon's breeze and the arrival at the Catamaran Hotel was a memorable day. We capped it off with a beautiful docking job at the Cat Club. Due to abnormally strong river currents I approached the dock closest to the bar a little bit too fast but luckily the forestay bumped the thatched corner, saving the maneuver, and making us look, no doubt, like a couple of pros.

What a welcome we got! We were one of the few foreign yachts to enter the country in almost ten years and another great party ensued. I saved Judy a great deal of embarassment when I escorted her back to the boat around midnight. The poor girl, bless her soul, had forgotten her clothing in the ladies room. Here was once again another example of how rewarding a cultural exchange can be.

In the morning I cleaned the thatch from the foredeck and we moved on upstream.

Now the afternoon breeze has risen and we decided to coast on down the eastern and southern shores to see what the lake was really like. Cruising close to shore, getting stuck couple of times as usual, and checking out lots of rounded, green-green mountains and sandy beaches. Hicacal, the beach given to the United Fruit Company many years before, Punta Brava with it's Half Moon Beach, and Mariscos, a sleepy little cattle town nestled at the foot of the Silver Mine Mountains. The old port of Izabal with its ruined fort and open-air schoolroom that share its lookout. This was where John Lloyd Stevens passed in the 1830's and described the mule ride to Copan and Guatemala City in his fascinating book, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan.

By about four o'clock we were in over 20 knots of wind and that poor old Stars 'n Stripes drifter was barely hanging in there. I was a little anxious, thinking that the end of the lake might not have a cozy little anchorage awaiting us but we continued on and sure enough found an excellent anchorage at El Refugio, a large bay in the south-west corner of the lake just as dark settled in.

The next day was once again bright and sunny and we explored the Rios Obscuro, Chapin and Zarquito by dinghy. Next we visited the Laguna de Las Lagaritos and the Polochic River delta. There's lots of wildlife to be seen in these waters. While visiting El Estor we were invited to join a family for a canoe trip to the Boqueron Canyon, about six kilometers from El Estor. We had a pleasant outdoor BBQ at the edge of the river in the shade of huge trees and listened to the howlers.

Finca Paraiso was a complete fluke. We had stopped to ask some fellows paddling a cayuco if they knew of any nice places to visit. I managed to note where they pointed and could make out something about "aguas calientes" which even I with my limited Spanish knew was worth investigating. We anchored and a small boy took us for a walk through corn fields and pastureland to the Rio de Las Aguas Calientes. I was a little disappointed in the days' exploration as I had seen a few small springs but nothing to write home about. Finally we arrived at a large pool of cold clear water with a waterfall at the far end. It wasn't until I swam near the waterfall that I realized it was quite hot. To this day, it's the only one I've ever heard of.

That was quite a trip. There were few outboard motors in those days. The Rio Dulce was incredibly beautiful with few buildings, and of course the canyon had no vacation homes at all. There was no need to lock the boat and our only worry was that the bar at the Cat Club had enough tomato juice to mix a good batch of Bloody Marys to tide us over until noon when the serious partying began.

Looking back I realize that Lake Izabal hasn't changed that much over the years. The one or two touristy places that have been built up use natural thatch roofs that blend in with the green mountainous backdrop. Natives still paddle out in the morning and evening to check their nets. Great schools of tarpon break the surface and churn the water to foam. The lake is still a beautiful and challenging place to visit and, as it turned out, a wonderful place to live.

And Judy? Well I haven't seen her in years. She was quite a gal and an excellent good-will ambassador for our country. Who knows, maybe I'll bump into her again one of these days and we might just take another spin out on the lake together. (Right...with my wife along. Guess not, huh?) I'm sure, however, that she treasures her memories of that day as much as I do.

--Dennis Gulck

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November 9, 2012
© 1997-2012 Phillip Landmeier