The River that Swallows Gringos
R. I. Hanks
Nothing ever turns out like you think it will! I’ve gotten to the point that when something does, I get so uptight about the inevitable abyss that follows that I forget to revel in my short term satisfaction of having something go as planned. It’s true, I am in Guatemala, and I did plan to be, but all this other stuff needs a little explanation.
You’d think that something as simple as selling all your shit and bailing out of the system wouldn’t be that hard or that complicated; Wrong! First of all, nobody really wants any of your shit unless you give it to ‘em, and you’ll probably have to deliver it as well. Some of that stuff I’ve had ever since I came to the beach back in the mid-70’s. Now you’d think that the fact that I’ve stored, nurtured, coveted and generally taken good care of all this treasure I could at least get something for it; Wrong! I, of course, had figured to add months of cruising time to my adventure simply by being amply rewarded for my diligence and wisdom in procuring such a magnificent collection. Most of it went to the dump! I guess I shouldn’t be so negative when I think back: I did leave. I did get rid most of it and I’m here.
Just getting a boat turned out to be quite a major undertaking. I must have surveyed at least a dozen or so before finding THE boat: an Ingrid ketch, designed by William Atkin in 1934, built in 1940 of oak frames with oak planking fastened with Monel screws. I must admit Wood ‘n’ Magic has definitely been the high point of this endeavor. What a boat! Admittedly, there were some times in the beginning when it seemed like even this had been a trip up a one-way street, the wrong way, when I found rot in the stern post, standing rigging that needed replacement and the cabin top leaked like a sieve. But all that seems so minor and distant now sitting here on the Rio Dulce.
Thinking back, I guess its been almost a year since I left the Inlet headed to Appalach. It was cold and nasty that whole month the boat was on the hill. Fighting the weather and the time limit (the marina where it was hauled was planning to close for a while) should have been an obvious indication of what was to follow. But, as usual, my head was busy and unknowingly full of intentional enthusiasm.
After stripping the topsides down to bare wood, priming and two coats of Interlux "Bristol Beige", two coats "Trinidad Red" on the bottom, she started to look like something. In the few hours each day that work wasn’t proceeding, drinking and eating oysters at "The Boss Oyster" was. Now you must understand, Appalachacola is famous for it’s seafood and especially it’s oysters. Even the local radio station is called "Oyster Radio". But they really can’t compare to "Inlet" oysters. These boys are best eaten fried or raw on crackers with hot sauce. They really didn’t know about "roast". Everybody in Appalach is in a roundabout way employed by the seafood business and it’s got a lot of hard-working and hard-playing people there. I fit in just fine.
After about a month, it was launch time. This turned out to be a traumatic experience to say the least. I had to refinish the mast and standing rigging so I had to take it all down and store it on deck for the waterway trip to Shalimar (my mom’s house near Ft. Walton Beach) where I planned to do most of the outfitting for the trip. Pulling a 51 foot wooden stick with an antique drag-line is, without a doubt, a heart-stopping fiasco without equal. I’m sure there were times with more stress, but not many. We got the mast down and safely on deck - no splinters. Now I’m not real sure but my memory tells me that northwest Florida is not supposed to be this damned cold. I did spend the better part of the 50’s and 60’s here and I just don’t remember it being this cold.
After three exhilarating days of absolute chaos, two groundings, being lost in the fog most of the time and being run down by a Navy hovercraft, we made it to Shalimar. I now develop this feeling that the hard part is over and I can get down to some serious preparation for the big cruise; Ha! The guy who coined the famous phrase, "A boat is a hole in the water into which you pour money", left out a lot of shit! Money turns out to be one of the lesser dilemmas that plague the cruising minded aficionado. Spending money is probably the easiest part. The hard part is getting the stuff you need to where you are and having it turn out to be what you ordered. Then and only then does the real task begin. You’d think that in this day of high-tech, that something as simple as getting all the parts it takes to make your leading technology marine gadget work wouldn’t turn out to be a 30 day project. The positive side of this is that there’s so much work to do, you’re never really out of work (providing you still have room in your "things to do" notebook). The project really turns into a monster if you lose your perspective. I probably didn’t lose mine more’n twice a week unless you include those few times at the last where I really lost it for the better part of the month of April.
Now any sailor worth his grits who’s headed for the northwestern Caribbean knows its pretty damn important to cross the Gulf of Mexico at the right time, which is either late Spring or late Fall, namely May and November. The Gulf is one body of water that was not meant for cruising. Its geographic location makes for pretty severe and constantly changing conditions. The "Northers" in Winter are second only to the infamous hurricanes. My plan was, of course, to play along with the smart guys and leave Florida in mid-spring, giving me the month of May to get to Isla Mujeres on the Yucatan Peninsula without incident. Well, May of 1994 came along and guess what? My Balmar alternator and my headsails were still out there in Delivery-Land. This, coupled with the problems that come to any relationship that’s chest-deep in stress was right up there on my overload circuit.
Oh that’s right; I have neglected to mention how all this affects personal relationships. From the git-go, it becomes difficult, to say the least, to have your main squeeze constantly reminding you of all your shortcomings in the planning and execution department. In the beginning it was pretty easy to overlook and the making-up was worth the temporary insanity that was invariably brought forth. This soon changed into downright war with all stops out. Although it never got real serious (never any guns or knives) it did add to the problem of leaving on time. It also set a precedent that would later lead to serious complications.
Along about mid-May, the delivery fairy (no offense to Key west) came and soon it was time to get down to serious leaving. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in their infinite wisdom built most of the bridges on the Gulf coast with 50 ft. clearance. Some of these "50 ft" bridges were designed before the ice caps started melting and today barely measure 49 ft. at mean water. Since Wood ‘n’ Magic measures 51 plus ft from the water and Destin Bridge is one of the aforementioned monuments standing between us and the open ocean to paradise, it became necessary to take drastic measures. After doing a little geometry I figured if I could lean her over about 20 degrees, she’d make it. So on a Saturday afternoon, loaded down with an empty 55 gallon drum and appropriate tackle, off we went to wait for the tide to drop with hope and anticipation. As the ebb approached I began to rig my apparatus. It soon was apparent that one 55 gal. drum out on the end of the boom was just not enough to overcome the 10,550 lb. hanging on the bottom of this baby. Not to be outdone by a government agency, I proceeded to shore with my trusty rubber dink and procured (borrowed) another drum, returned, rigged it and was ready to try again with at least 30 minutes of ebb left. I must admit, I’ve had some anxious moments, but this was something I care not to repeat even though it lasted for only 50 yards and less than two minutes. I really felt totally drained as well as elated, all in the same moment.
We had won. We were on the ocean side of that damn bridge and boy did it feel good. Now, on to the pressing matter of getting out of there, into that ocean and across to Mexico ASAP. It took about three more weeks to procure and install the remaining "stuff" and, in the meantime, crew anxiety was mounting - to the tune of "I ain’t going without auxiliary crew members". Life’s full of memorable moments, ain’t it? Now I’m a pretty good judge of people and their general capabilities and I had already come to the conclusion that this was probably going to be a problem long before the ultimatum came. My plan all along had been to take one or more friends who had volunteered back when this exodus was first concocted. A few phone calls and I had my answer: nobody could possibly break loose for a week or so for such an endeavor, or so it seemed. I finally did procure a couple to help with the crossing and everything was all go. So far we had only sailed in Choctawhachee Bay, never in the ocean. We managed one trial at sea and two days later, Memorial Day, May 30th, we made the jump.
My original plan was to sail directly to Mexico so that’s exactly what I had in mind when I left the hill. Well, the first night out, the good ole Gulf showed us what she was made of: thunderstorms with severe wind and ocean conditions. This, coupled with the inexperience of my crew, left me on helm most of the night. In the morning when it calmed I cranked the engine with hopes of getting further out and into some open ocean weather, unaffected by landmass. About four or five hours later, the ole "iron mizzen" choked and started coughing and wheezing. The problem was apparent upon inspecting the fuel filter bowl and finding it full of unidentifiable crud stirred up by the violent sea the night before. The swell was still in place this morning. I must have replaced the filter at least six times in as many hours before finally coming to the realization that we must go in and get more filters and clean the lines or no motor. My fatigue along with a sizeable knot on my head from an encounter with the boom sometime during the night added to the urgency of the decision to put ashore.
Out location put us nearer to Cape San Blas than to our departure point so we headed NE hoping for favorable winds. Actually, any wind would do. It was pretty miserable for the next 24 hours with no wind to speak of and, of course, no motor. After sighting Cape San Blas our spirits were raised only to plunge again upon finding out that entering the bay to Appalach through the "Government Cut" was virtually impossible without auxiliary power. That left going the full length of George Island and around the end into Carrabell, a distance of approximately 26 miles, with no wind and no motor. So, what the hell, I hooked up the ole rubber duck and started pulling this 28,000 lb. beastie with my trusty new Force 5 H.P. As we neared the pass to Carrabell a little breeze blew up and we hoisted sail, glided in with great pride like we really had this thing under control the whole time. Who was to know? Four days later we were ready again, fully stocked with filters and clean fuel along with a newly acquired respect for preparation and thoroughness.
We finally made sea buoy about 2:00 June 3, had light winds until well off shore then found wind out of the WSW, fresh with all sails pulling strong. Fells good to be back under sail again. All intentions are to make straight-away to Isla Mujeres, trying to take advantage of the short period of so-called calms and favoring winds. I’m not sure, but everything I’ve read says May and June are the best months for this passage. There are two cruising races this time of year to Isla Mujeres: one from Pensacola and one from Tampa-St. Pete. The Pensacola one is sometime near the end of May and I’m not sure when the other one is. I had originally thought about getting in on one but got to thinking about all those boats going the same way in the same vicinity and figured my chances were much better by myself. At least there are not so many things to run into or have run into me. The crew seems to have new-found enthusiasm and it makes for good sailing. I wish the wind would cooperate. The second day out we hooked a huge "Mahi Mahi", dolphin, close to 50 lbs. He made a couple of magnificent jumps and was gone. It was probably a good thing; we could never have landed a fish like that anyway. Still no wind to speak of and when it comes it’s always right in front of us.
It calmed to a complete flat so we took a mid-ocean swim. Swimming in 2,000 to 3,000 feet of crystal clear water has always made me feel like a piece of bait. I just can’t get free of that terrible fear of becoming "lunch". I’ve seen the size of some of these fishes out here. We had a nice swim and the wind picked up a bit. That night was really bad. We had one t-storm after another all night. I stayed on watch all night as my crew are very inexperienced and dealing with wind shear and gusts to 50 knots can be very dangerous even in a substantial craft such as this one. The secret is to go the path of least resistance and not to worry about which way your bow is pointing.
Well its June 6th, so Happy Birthday to me. I wished for some favorable winds and pretended to blow out all my 51 candles. Wind, or lack of it and it’s direction has let us make westing only. Can’t seem to get much south and we’re running out of time; Time being relative to my two crew members who must return to jobs back in South Carolina. I’m being forced to change plans once again. After a little study of the chart it’s obvious we must go east to Key West. Winds are somewhat favorable and we make good easting until we’re near 90 miles from NW sea buoy. Of course, wind now drops and we motor-sail. Filter starts clogging, as usual, and we go through three or four filters in less than 12 hours. Had real bad night: 12 hours out, lots of lightning and plenty of rain. Must have passed 100 or more shrimpers this night. Real busy dodging them and contending with t-storms but made NW channel jetties about 10:00 AM, June 9. Pulled into Fleming Key and dropped anchor. Crew immediately abandoned ship for comfort of motel. It didn’t hurt my feelings at all.
I went to city docks looking for slip with electricity to cut top out of fuel tank to clean it. Can’t believe prices. Finally made a deal for ½ day at ½ rate. Cut top out of tank and can’t believe the gunk. I cleaned and re-sealed the tank and got out of the slip with minutes to spare. Moved back to Fleming Key on the hook. Started making calls to all those people back in SC who said they’d love to come give me a hand if I ever needed it. Seems my timing couldn’t possibly be any worse: Everybody can help me next week or last week but right now is just out of the question. Waiting any longer to leave is getting out of the question for me. Put out some 3 by 5 cards in all the local dives and waterfront hangouts looking for crew members. Must give it some time now.
Turned to more enjoyable stuff for a change: just hanging out and checking out the local color.
Now, Key West has one thing for sure and that’s plenty of local color. Seems everybody here is
right on the edge of being some sort of notorious character or, at least, hangs out with one. It’s
pretty damn obvious why Buffet chose this place for backdrop in most of his "calypso poetry".
Continued with provisioning and continued sea-readiness as best I can, moving deliberately and
slowly. Bought a Mark 25 sextant and some fishing tackle. Only lack crew member. Water and a
little food and I’m outa here. I’m becoming real concerned about my sailing companion’s mental
attitude and inability to deal with the stress inherent to blue-water sailing. I should have been able to
recognize this earlier and make some adjustments but sometimes you ignore the obvious for
My two temporary crew have left for SC and I’m getting antsy to get back to sea. Met Lee Myers this afternoon, 26, ex-Marine, quiet and physically fit for the crossing. Everything looks too good to be true and you know what they say about things that look too good to be true. We spent the rest of the evening talking and feeling each other out and made arrangements to meet up tomorrow and go over plans more thoroughly. Had a good discussion with Lee and decided to leave June 15th at the crack of dawn.
Up at crack of dawn as planned, off by 7 and cleared sea buoy about 9. Hallelujah, I’m sailing again! Wind is up and all sails are pulling and full. Things are going too good. Lots of ship traffic and plenty of t-storms but making real good time and distance. Crossed center axis of Gulf Stream about 0200 June 16, making 6 kts under reefed main. Made course adjustment to take us more out of Cuban coastal waters. Can’t be too careful with things the way they are. Picked up counter-current in close but lost most of it in effort to put distance between us and the Cuban Navy. Lost wind early on 17th and started motor-sailing until in sight of Cabo St. Antonio: Real desolate coast with beautiful rugged green mountains in background.
Started picking up Yucatan current as soon as we rounded the cape. Boy what a difference! Cut our progress in half. Speed through water sometimes up to 6.5 kts, speed over bottom 1.5 to 2.5 kts. Large swell from SE, winds light to moderate but I’ve never seen ocean current this strong. Makes the Gulf Stream seem insignificant. When crossing Arrowsmith Shoals, or rather, just to the lee of them, I had a difficult time just holding a course. It was like being in a raging river but impossible to see the swirls and eddies. We were steering 210 degrees to make good 270. Arrowsmith bank comes up to 8 to 16 meters in a 1500 meter deep ocean that moves along at up to 6 kts. Given this experience, I will avoid this bank in the future. Sighted land about 1800, June 18th; trying hard to make it across the reef before dark. Rounded point and lighthouse just at dark only to have the wits scared out of me when I looked over the side and concluded the water was 4 feet deep! Panicked. Threw out anchor and put on depth sounder: water is 22 feet deep! I could see crabs walking around on the bottom by the light of the moon! Water clarity is unbelievable. Anchored in 20 feet of water behind Isla Mujeres and SLEEP.
Up early and motor in to harbor at north end of island. Isla Mujeres, which translates as "Island of Women" is a beautiful island about 5 miles long and ½ mile wide, located about 8 miles across the bay from Cancun. The island enjoys a booming economy due to its proximity to Cancun which is a full-blown resort. No high-rise development here with a couple of exceptions, both of which seem to be in some sort of limbo as neither were open for business. Mostly it’s a quaint little village not unlike M.I., beautiful beaches and, like I said, fantastic water. Lots of shops for the tourist and wall-to-wall restaurants with reasonable prices and good food. There’s a fast ferry arriving and leaving for Cancun every 30 minutes during business hours and is usually full both ways. The locals take the tourists out for close snorkeling and plenty of water sports. The water even here in the harbor is teeming with life.
Remember the "too good to be true" thing I mentioned a while ago? Well here goes: I asked my new found crew member for his passport so I can go in and report to the Port Captain and the other officials and, you guessed it, he doesn’t have one! Seems he was involved in some sort of military scam and he’s afraid the "officials" will confiscate his passport and hold him for the U.S. guys or whatever, so he threw all his identification away. He, of course, tells me has been robbed but they didn’t get his ID. Anyway, I take him in to immigration thinking, like a gringo dumbass, that I can convince them to let him just apply for another passport at the Embassy. The immigration official spoke no English and in so many words told me I was in a lot of trouble and that we had to go to Cancun and see the big dog in the morning, pronto, on the first available ferry, at my expense. Just before I tuck my tail and start to back out of the office, a young man comes in the office and takes a seat. It turns out he will be going with us in the morning as they’re attempting to deport him for teaching a free communication class. The best part is that he speaks Spanish fluently and we hit it off immediately. After some backing up and explaining myself to the officer with Claudio interpreting, they still say I’ve got to face the head man in Cancun in the morning.
By this time, my crew member has regressed into a zombie-like state with very little hope for any cooperation or conciliation. About this time, I start to think that maybe my best interest is to play this down as probably that’s the only way I’m gonna get my boy here to go with me in the morning. So, we go out and have a big meal and a couple of drinks after which he informs me that he’s not going back to the boat but will meet us at the immigration office at 8 AM sharp. Sure he will. Things are really looking scary all of a sudden. I should have put it all together when my crewmember started talking about joining the French Foreign Legion and just trying to get to a country that had a French Embassy, but I just passed it all off. Being in the Marines, lots of these guys come out of the service with wild ideas. Nothing I can do now; got to ride the tide ‘til it bottoms out and hope for the best.
Me, Claudio, one other guy and the immigration officer are here at 8:00 AM, but no Lee. My worst fears are realized. He jumped, and I’m screwed. After explaining in my best gringo style that "mi amigo esta no se", we boarded the ferry for Cancun. The crossing only takes 30 minutes or so and was, gratefully, uneventful; or so I thought. Seems there is a young German girl with a travel group and she seems to be their guide with a name badge on her shirt. When we arrive, the immigration officer informs all the passengers to disembark with the exception of the German girl and, of course, us. The girl seems to be very confused as to the intentions of the officers and gives them a great deal of confrontation. Two very large officers enter the ferry and physically take this young lady to the waiting Chevy Blazer with the unmistakable blue light on top. We are all told to get in even though there is not enough room but somehow we manage. The driver decides to show us his best "chase scene" driving skills and we get to know each other quite well and up close for at least 15 minutes.
The anticipation is answered when we are all led single-file into an interrogation room. The man in charge is sitting at a bare-topped desk with no other furniture in the room save the straight backed chairs against the wall across the room in front of the desk. We take our seats as our passports are laid in a pile in front of "the man". Priority is immediately given to the newly found and most recent "bust", the German girl. The officer that gave us the thrill ride immediately takes her to a small table in the corner and dumps her purse onto it. He then goes through each and every article, menacingly handling each as though it were used in some crime against Mexico, inspecting her credit cards and running the edges across his fingertips, never taking his eyes off hers, looking for a reaction to his actions. Needless to say, I be doing some heavy sweating. The attention had been taken off my case but every few minutes "the man" would pick up my passport, open it, look at the info page, look at me, slap it back and forth along his palm and toss it back in the pile. Things were getting pretty tense and, to make matters worse, Claudio informs me that they weren’t going to let him interpret for me. They did say I would be assigned an officer that could speak English.
About this time, I’m starting to imagine what the Mexican jail really is like and one of the officers motions for us to follow him. He walks through the main office complex and out into the parking lot where he proceeds, in perfect English, to explain that they understood that I was a victim of circumstance and that the only crime I had committed was being irresponsible as the Captain by not getting all the appropriate papers in order before departure. Nevertheless, I had made a major error and they were going to let the immigration officer in Isla Mujeres handle it since it did not merit getting the "big dogs" involved. He then told me it would go in my favor if I could find our deserter.
Luck was with us as the U.S. Embassy was almost across the street. On checking we found, sure ‘nuf, he’d been there and received no help due to lack of ID. He had asked about the location of the French Embassy so we gave them a call: yep, he’d made an effort but still no help, no ID. We rode around Cancun the rest of the day but no luck. We caught the 5 o’clock ferry back only to find a message from the immigration officer to be in his office tomorrow at 10 AM, with an interpreter.
Needless to say, my personal life has reached what I mistakenly believed to be the lowest point possible. All systems are SNAFU with absolutely nothing positive other than that we’re not in jail. The next morning, Julio the immigration officer tells me that I will have to pay a "dos mil" fine. This computes to approximately $670 and I explain that I don’t have that much. So he says he’ll call back and see what he can do. After a few minutes on the phone, he looks at me with a hint of surprise and says that there was a mistake: my fine was dos mil U.S. or $2,000! I fall to my knees off the chair as both Claudio and Julio start laughing. It seems if I can’t pay, I have seven days to leave Mexico. All I can think of is "Adios M.F. (my friend)" and a big feeling of relief settles over me. Too bad Julio wasn’t able to hand out some relief in the personal relationship department ‘cuz my partner decided to abandon ship as well, adding the "perfect" ending to a "perfect" day.
Later that day, after putting her on a plane, as I sat an anchor looking at the setting sun, I thought to myself, "This ain’t exactly what I had in mind". Well, there wasn’t time to feel sorry for myself. I had to get the hell out of Mexico. I had no crew, no money and it’s three to four days to the next country: Belize. Claudio had expressed a desire to maybe go with me as far as Belize City and he’d always wanted to go sailing but never had the chance. Turns out Claudio can’t go but he has a friend that would like to. Her name is Onelia, she’s 25, just finished school at the University of Colorado and is a natural born Mexican with U.S. citizenship. Of course, she has absolutely no ocean experience. I guess it’s in the cards: I’m never to have anyone on board with any sailing experience whatsoever so as to keep my stress level at just below the breaking point, thus ensuring a memorable passage making.
Well, I got a crew and I’m outa here. Stocked up with food, water and fuel, left Isla at 10 AM on Saturday. No wind to speak of, takes most of the day to get south of Isla and on toward Cozumel. Now Cozumel has a bad reputation among cruisers so I just skirted the island and pulled up to San Francisco Reef on the south end, anchored and got about four hours of real sleep. Up and away before somebody discovers I’ve just been kicked out of this fine country.
Sailing this coast south is very difficult and dangerous due to the fierce north setting current. But if you can stay in close to the reef, there is a counter current that can add mucho miles in your favor. There is, of course, a risk to be taken here as the coast along this stretch is flat and dark which makes the reef virtually undetectable ‘til it’s almost too late, especially under adverse conditions. We were making good time "reef hugging". I had set up a number of offshore (2 to 3 miles) waypoints and, using my GPS, was making my way past Bahia de La Ascension, then Bahia Espiritu in the glow of a full moon. There were numerous t-storms everywhere and I had managed to avoid them up until now. My luck ran out as I approached Rocky Reef Point. A violent but short-lived t-storm waltzed me round and round for what must have been close to an hour. The moon came out bright as I was shaking out the reefs in the sails. Suddenly I saw white water in long undeniable curls on both sides of my bow. I jumped down, cranked the old iron mizzen, pulled the tiller and headed due east for what must have been an hour. I had come within 300 yards of the reef and it really sent a message to the brain: STAY ALERT OF YOUR POSITION. I use a Magellan 5000DX GPS for navigation and I use it like you should: just as if it were a sextant where all positions are "general vicinity" so you can get close enough to use visual means or a verified GPS positioned light or other navigational aid to find your true position in relation to the reef or other hazards. Using a GPS in any other capacity for coastal navigation is just asking for disaster.
We buzzed on down the coast approaching San Pedro on Ambergris Cay. The ocean was much too rough to make the entrance here as you must make an immediate right turn as soon as you get through the reef. This much swell could cause a disastrous broach and ruin your whole day. So we trucked on down to English Cay where the big ship channel led safely into Belize City harbor. I was looking forward to "chunking" the anchor and getting some sleep. Out of the last 76 hours, Onelia had stood maybe 6 to 8 hours. I was one tired puppy!
We dropped anchor off Ft. George Hotel dock at 2 PM. It was blowing like hell ENE, with a big swell and the water is filthy. I put the bicycle together and went ashore to find Customs as instructed in the Cruising Guide. I soon find out that Customs. I soon find out that Customs has moved out near Port Authority, 3 or 4 miles away on the other side of town. I made the Customs office about 3:30 or 4:00 PM only to be informed that no one was available until the next day. I picked up some ice and went back to the boat and slept. At 4:00 AM I was awakened by a jolt that immediately told me we were aground! I managed to power off in the dark and took the boat to the other side of the bay (about 2 miles away) where we anchored in a good bottom off North Drowned Cay. Customs finally show up about 10:30 AM after having to visit them again at 8:00 AM. It takes 2 hours and I’m out $20.00 and my shotgun is confiscated. I haul ass for Immigration only to find that in my haste I left my passport on board. I returned to the dock, chained the bike and motor over to the boat to get my passport, return to the dock: bicycle gone! Belize is really turning into a nightmare. So I took the dinghy up Haulover Creek and returned to Immigration to find they closed at 3:30 PM.
Frustrated, I found a Ramada Inn and got drunk. There were lots of Brits and Aussies in uniform having a party so I joined the festivities. The lady at Immigration went berserk when she found out we’d been there for 3 days without checking in. I tried to explain the problem with Customs and how we followed the procedure in the Cruising Guide. She claimed, "This book will get you into prison". She finally calmed down and reluctantly stamped our passports.
Belize City has very little to offer other than it has most anything you might need in the way of supplies and hardware, if you can find it. The city itself is home to 25 percent of the people in Belize. It is the dirtiest and most unsanitary place, for its size, that I’ve ever been in. You can still see the ghost of what it was like years ago: the architecture, the grand wide avenues and parks, but the majority of it looks like any third world ghetto anywhere. The beautiful flora and fauna tend you make you look away from the open sewage ditches but they are still there everywhere you go. It is unsafe to walk on the streets of Belize City after dark. You must take a cab door-to-door. Most of the people, especially the old, have an anguished look about them and the young, a hungry, fearful glare. There is quite a large fleet of sailing fishing smacks moored in Haulover Creek. These are some of the most graceful and powerful small sailing craft you’re likely to come across - very similar to the Bahama Sloops: real fast downwind, gaff-rigged with jib boom allowing oversized foresail. Most of these boats were built by the infamous Siemon Young or one of his relatives here in the Belizean cays. It’s amazing how much weight they can carry and still maintain their stability.
Met and made immediate friends with "Sunshine", a 46 ft Peterson sloop skippered by Bill and Wendy from Texas. They along with another new friend, "Goliath", a 36 ft Nauticat, are anchored near us at N. Drowned Cay. Like myself, they plan to "do" the cays (pronounced keys) of Belize and work our way down to the Rio Dulce in Guatemala by the later part of July so as to avoid the "tropical waves" that turn so often into hurricanes.
I convinced my on again, off again main squeeze to give it another try. Who knows? Maybe there’s life after 50 on the bounding main after all. Maybe not. Anyway, she’s arriving tomorrow and I’m not real sure what to expect. With Onelia on board, I’m sure it will be most interesting. Rented a couple of nights at "The Colton House", a real nice bed and breakfast near Ft. George Hotel. I really don’t want to be on board with two irate women at the same time.
Not to worry: Onelia left. It’s back to Isla for her. The next day after returning from the Drum Festival in Dangriga, she wasted little time or words. I can’t really blame her.
We decided to take the boat to Moho Cay, just the other side of point North of Belize City. Moho is a real first-class place with all the accouterments and a super restaurant. Moho is the place to leave your boat when traveling inland here in Belize.
We rented a 4 WD Chevy II and took off. When driving north from Belize City the flora and fauna are slow to change but the change becomes more apparent as the miles click off. The flat swampy mangroves gradually change to rolling hills with larger trees, growing into a more picturesque country with abundant rivers. We stopped first at the Guanacaste Park, guanacaste being the national tree of Belize. We had a very nice walk and I saw my first fer-de-lance, locally known as the two-step snake because if it bites you, you’ve got about two steps left. By dark, we made it to San Ignacio on the edge of the Great Pine Mountains. We stopped in at Eva’s, THE bar and information center for the upper highlands of Belize and for parts of Guatemala. There I talked with Bob who guided us to The Parrots Nest, a real laid-back place with tree houses and a river. It was cheap too. Got a wonderful night’s sleep with many new and exotic sounds. It was very comfortable.
We were up early and off to see El Pilar, a newly discovered Mayan city believed to be of major significance but not yet being excavated. Of course, we got lost in our search but saw lots of the countryside including the Mennonite settlement of Spanish Lookout. The Mennonites (a Quaker sect) grow most of the produce and poultry in Belize as well as make furniture. We finally found El Pilar and it is real large but totally grown over by vegetation. It is located both in Belize and Guatemala and a major dig is supposed to begin in the fall of ‘94.
We made plans with a German group at Eva’s to share a minibus for the trip to Tikal, the granddaddy of Mayan ruins. It turns out this is the roughest road in the known world for the whole 56 miles. It’s really quite unbelievable that these minivans can navigate this road more than once and survive.
Tikal is magical! I was really taken by this place and long to return as soon as I can. It’s hard to describe this magnificent collection of architecture and the surrounding jungle is awesome. I could spend weeks here. We soaked up as much as we could in two days and regretfully left for San Ignacio to continue our trek into the highlands of the Great Pine Mountains.
We spent a full day driving through the mountains, saw the thousand foot waterfull at Hidden Valley and, of course, couldn’t pass up the chance to get lost again. We made Moho Cay late and stayed in bed a couple days before setting out for the cays. Can’t wait to get away from Belize City - what a dump!
The Belizean cays are, without a doubt, the most interesting thing about Belize. They were for me. From Belize City, inside the reef becomes deeper and more navigable as you move to the south. It opens up and at one point near Placencia the reef is some twenty miles to seaward with cays at every point on the compass. Most of them are uninhabited save the for fishing huts and shacks the natives live in while they fish for lobster or conches. Very little has changed on these cays over time, nor will they change much in the near future as there are no facilities to enhance growth, thank God. The barrier reef along the coast of Mexico to the tip of Belize is second in length only to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. There are over 300 miles of pristine reef along with hundreds of cays and three very important offshore islands. Two of these islands are the only atolls outside of the Pacific Ocean. It’s a snorkelers paradise.
The first night out we stayed at Bluefield Range. The sky is amazing. Sailing, diving and just living out here is the best! We took it slow with no particular hurry to Colson Cay and Garbutt Cay where we saw a basking shark and a leopard ray and traded with some lobster fishermen for some tails. We had lobster for five or six meals in a row. Wow! Gently, we eased into Placencia to find both Sunshine and Goliath anchored in behind Placencia Cay. What a treat. Placencia is probably the prettiest place on mainland Belize. It’s a small village which boasts a sidewalk that runs the entire length of the settlement. There are a couple of restaurants and stores where locally made goods can be had. At most times it boasts a wonderful breeze that keeps it quite cool. We stayed for more than a week.
Then it was time to move on to the "crown jewels" of the cays: the Sapodillas. These seven cays make up the end of the barrier reef where it turns back in towards Guatemala leaving a 20 mile wide channel between them and Honduras. There are probably no prettier or more picturesque group of cays anywhere: Palm-lined beaches with pounding surf piling up on a perfect coral reef - an absolutely wonderful place. The sea life is most abundant and we ate a varied menu during our three days here. Next stop: Rio Dulce and Guatemala.
Before we get into Guatemala, let me expound a little about this particular area of Belize. The Sapodilla Cays consist of Tom Owens Cay, NE Sapodilla Cay, Frank’s Cay, Nicholas Cay, Hunting Cay, Lime Cay and Sapodilla Cay. You must check-in at Hunting Cay when you arrive and pay $10 U.S. per person on board. There is a Belizean police station here with usually only two men and a camp where tourists from Guatemala and Belize can come and pitch tents. Nicholas Cay is a private island with a low-key development ongoing. Lime Cay has a couple of houses. The rest of the cays are uninhabited. During their reign, the British had an outpost on Hunting Cay and installed the existing light tower and built the one or two existing buildings. The quality of the snorkeling here is a "ten". A diver can get anything he wants here including "coral gardens" from 8 to 40 feet and "walls" 30 to 60 feet with plenty of sea life. The eating is wonderful.
The Honduran coast lies SE and Guatemala SSW, each about 20 to 30 miles. Livingston is the check-in point coming into Guatemala, but first you must navigate "the bar" (the sand bar across the mouth of the Rio Dulce). The controlling depth is 5 ½ feet, making it passable for most cruising boats at or about high tide. If your timing is such that the nearest high tide is after dark it is best to anchor in the lee of Cabo Tres Puntas, a long point that extends out into the Gulf of Honduras, and cuts off the prevailing easterly winds and swell. You must have good visibility to cross this bar because there are no channel markers. There are only a sea buoy and a house with a pink roof for ranges.
Checking-in to Guatemala was absolutely painless and very professional. All the officials were polite and knew their job well. I was very impressed. It took less than two hours for all three boats! Livingston is different from all the other towns in Guatemala. It’s more like Belize due to the prevalent Black Caribs and its "reggae" feeling. You can only get there by boat or plane as there are no roads to Livingston. Before heading up the Rio Dulce, we visited Los Siete Altares (the seven altars): seven waterfalls that cascade, pool to pool, down the mountainside into the Gulf of Honduras just 3 miles north of Livingston.
The Rio Dulce Canyon cannot be adequately described. This is one of those places you just have to see. They filmed one of the early "Tarzan" movies here. Once here, you know why. It is, without a doubt, a tropical jungle paradise. Guatemala has declared the entire Rio Dulce a National Park, as it well deserves. As we make our way upriver, the canyon falls away to reveal many "palapas": pole built, palm frond roofed houses where much of the Indian population resides. The Indians fish the river in dugout canoes much like their Mayan ancestors and grow corn on hillsides so steep snakes can’t crawl up ‘em.
We settled in for the night behind Cayo Grande, an island in El Golfete, a 12 mile long stretch where the river widens into a lake. When night comes, so do the jungle sounds like an ancient symphony orchestra with many instruments you’ve never heard before. The exploring here is wonderful. You feel as though you’re IN one of those Tarzan movies. The flora and fauna here is endless in variety and beauty. Hot springs abound and there are birds of every description, parrots, toucans, herons, egrets, all sharing the same sky. This awesome magnificence is overshadowed now in my memory by unfortunate circumstances which led me to be here in paradise "solo". My arrival in Fronteras falls under this shadow as well but things soon mellow out to a workable solution.
The upper Rio Dulce (which means sweet river) has experienced a tremendous amount of growth in the last few years. Fronteras, lying on the west side of the big bridge is a thriving community with both Ladinos and Indians. There are agricultural and cattle fincas (farms) of all sizes. The real growth industry here has been tourism. The bridge over the Rio Dulce links the rest of Guatemala to Tikal and the Peten, the northernmost and least populated state in Guatemala. The tourist "backpackers" provide a steady stream of traffic through Fronteras where they can rent "Tiburoneras" (long skinny passenger speedboats with large outboard motors) to travel to Livingston or Lake Izabal.
Lake Izabal is the largest lake in Guatemala. It is 25 miles long, 10 miles wide and as much as 60 feet deep. It forms a wet valley between the Sierra de Santa Cruz and the Sierra de Las Minas mountains of which there are peaks over 7,000 feet. On a real clear day you can see forever. The two main tributaries lie at the west end of the lake but there are countless smaller ones feeding this magnificent lake. There are just a couple of larger towns but many villages, most of them on or near large fincas. One of these is Finca El Paraiso (paradise farm) where there is a hot waterfall fed by the hot sulphur springs from the nearby volcanic mountains. This place is really unique in that there is a cold mountain stream that comes from the mountain and passes under the hot falls. It’s nature’s own sauna-jacuzzi if you will. I have spent many hours here, reluctant to leave each and every time.
At the western end of the lake there’s El Estor with a long history. In recent times it was a boom town due to International Nickel Mine but the mine is now closed. From El Estor it is possible to take an excursion to the Boqueron Canyon where the Rio Sauce carves the limestone hills into a most dramatic small gorge and you can swim down it for a close encounter you won’t soon forget.
Across from El Estor is the Rio Polochic delta. This jungle river splits some two miles upstream forming a perfect deep water lake between the mouths which is accessible from the lake. The lake is rimmed with jungle growth and the wildlife is immediately evident. My first encounter with howler monkeys took place earlier in Tikal but here they’re everywhere. The sound is quite frightening if you don’t know that a little monkey is making it. It sounds more like a grizzly bear than a monkey.
Sailing on Lake Izabal is a blast but for one problem: It usually only blows from one direction and only in the afternoon. Sometimes it blows real good! There are not many safe anchorages when it blows so you have to keep abreast of the weather.
Back down at the entrance of the Rio Dulce you’ll find Castillo San Felipe, a small fort built way back to ward off the pirates that would often come up the river in search of plunder.
The area surrounding the bridge near Fronteras, up and down the river is home to a sizeable fleet of gringo cruisers. There are several marinas where you can tie up and get water, electricity, showers, etc. I would estimate there are near 200 boats here most of the time and as many as 300 at peaks. Many who come here fall under the spell of the Rio Dulce and never leave.
It’s no wonder they say, "The Rio Dulce is the river that swallows gringos".
November 9, 2012
© 1997-2012 Phillip Landmeier