Cruising World - - Contents - By Amy Flan­nery

Gu­atemala’s Rio Dulce is well-known for its storm pro­tec­tion, but th­ese sailors find that it has so much more to of­fer.

Fish­er­men cast hand-wo­ven nets from a wooden cayuco on the Rio Dulce.

A cruis­ing cou­ple fol­lowed the crowd to Gu­atemala’s Rio Dulce to hide from storms, and dis­cov­ered a ver­dant jun­gle teem­ing with cul­ture.

Slowly glid­ing up a creek in a laun­cha (a small, open power­boat), we spot­ted howler mon­keys over­head in the branches of a bread­nut tree. Usu­ally, their haunt­ing cries were fright­en­ing enough to scare the dead, but that day the howlers were qui­etly loung­ing on limbs, snack­ing on fruit. Far­ther up the creek, we en­coun­tered a fa­ther-and-son team skim­ming silently across the wa­ter in a cayuco, or ca­noe.

My hus­band, Ken, and I were visit­ing Gu­atemala’s Rio Dulce, or “sweet river.” It winds through cliffs and thick jun­gle for 20 miles, from its mouth in the Caribbean to the town of Fron­teras, also known as Rio Dulce. It is a busy fresh­wa­ter high­way, and the fo­cal point of life for those who live on its banks. The most com­mon modes of trans­porta­tion are cayu­cos and laun­chas. We saw lo­cals wash­ing clothes, bathing, and swim­ming in the river to cool off in the heat of the day, and young chil­dren pad­dling and fish­ing. Just be­yond the town of Rio Dulce, the river opens up into the en­chant­ing Lago de Iz­a­bal. Sur­rounded by ver­dant moun­tains, it is Gu­atemala’s largest lake.

When we made the de­ci­sion to sail to Rio Dulce, I was most con­cerned about our safety; cruis­ers were killed there by rob­bers as re­cently as 2008. I also won­dered about find­ing a ma­rina where Mary T, our Mor­gan 38, would be looked af­ter prop­erly in our ab­sence dur­ing the hur­ri­cane sea­son. And then there was the bus ride from the ma­rina to the air­port in Gu­atemala City, be­cause I’d heard hor­ror sto­ries of at­tacks on pub­lic trans­porta­tion by armed ban­dits.

In my pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with th­ese con­cerns, I had failed to deeply con­sider the ge­og­ra­phy or the cul­ture. I was blown away by what I found: a rich his­tory; lush, ma­jes­tic land­scape; gen­tle peo­ple; tasty food; and ev­ery­thing ul­ti­mately af­ford­able. And as it turned out, all my wor­ries were for naught. The au­thor­i­ties have taken care of the high­way­men, and there are plenty of ex­cel­lent mari­nas from which to choose.

De­part­ing Liv­ingston, on the Caribbean coast, and head­ing up the river feels like a trip back in time. Lo­cals in cayu­cos tossed their hand­wo­ven fish­ing nets in high arcs so they de­scended grace­fully to the wa­ter to catch mo­jarra and robalo, which were of­fered at most restau­rants. We fol­lowed the river as it wound through a jun­gle-cloaked canyon that was fea­tured in a 1935 Tarzan movie. Even­tu­ally, the cliffs gave way to gen­tler slopes. Dwellings of all sizes, with el­e­gantly crafted thatched roofs, dot­ted the river banks, blend­ing grace­fully into the lush back­drop. There were no mega ho­tels of glass and steel mar­ring the land­scape here.

Con­tin­u­ing up­river to­ward the town of Rio Dulce, the wa­ters widened into an area called El Golfete. I was as­tounded by the vis­tas of moun­tain ranges to the north and south. On the south side of El Golfete, we an­chored at Cayo Que­mado, or Burnt Key. Many re­fer to it as Texan Bay be­cause a cruiser named Mike, from Texas, used to run the ma­rina and res­tau­rant on the hill. Now Burnt Key Ma­rina is op­er­ated by a Dutch mer­chant-marine cap­tain named Mau­rits, while Mike man­ages the res­tau­rant, Manglar, next door. Mau­rits told us he had trav­eled the world over by boat and de­cided to set­tle in Cayo Que­mado be­cause he’d fi­nally found par­adise. We ex­plored the well-pro­tected an­chor­age’s lit­tle creeks by kayak and dinghy. We fre­quently saw men and women of diminu­tive stature and ad­vanced age car­ry­ing tremen­dous loads of corn or rice on their backs and heads. Lo­cals liv­ing on the banks ap­proached Mary T, sell­ing hand­crafted wares and co­conut bread from their cayu­cos. They came with pre­cious lit­tle chil­dren who looked up at us with dark, soul­ful eyes, mak­ing it nearly im­pos­si­ble not to buy some­thing.

A short dinghy ride from Cayo Que­mado, we vis­ited a cave; au­gas calientes, or hot springs; and a nat­u­ral sauna. At the res­tau­rant on-site, we had de­li­cious fresh fish and lo­cal fare. Felix, our cave guide, was a spritely man of 70 who skipped up the steep stone path to the cave like a man a third his age.

Twelve miles up­river from Cayo Que­mado, we came to Puente Rio Dulce, the long­est bridge in Cen­tral Amer­ica, which crosses the river from the town of Rio Dulce to Rel­leno on the other bank. We had ar­rived at the heart of the re­gion, where hun­dreds of cruis­ers en­joy­ing the west­ern Caribbean flock to store their ves­sels for hur­ri­cane sea­son. It is 20 miles in­land and rarely touched by those ocean storms. Ev­ery­where we looked, there were masts.

Rio Dulce is a small, dusty, bustling town with stores and ven­dors’ stalls go­ing right up to the edge of the road. Squeez­ing be­tween cat­tle trucks and fruit stands in the heavy traf­fic re­quired a cer­tain amount of agility, but shop­ping was a plea­sure be­cause the pro­duce was so af­ford­able and fresh. Man­goes, pa­payas, av­o­ca­dos and other lo­cal fruits cost less than half of what we were used to pay­ing in the States. There were dozens of restau­rants, and ven­dors grilling meat right on the street. We ate the tra­di­tional lunch, which in­cluded corn tor­tillas, beans, rice and meat for around 30 quet­za­les ($4 USD).

When we wanted to avoid the noise and heat of down­town, we bought food right on the river. Folks from Casa Gu­atemala, a lo­cal or­phan­age, came twice a week by laun­cha to the mari­nas and an­chored their boats to hawk fresh pro­duce, meats and cheeses. We could reach dozens of restau­rants by dinghy. Most served fresh lo­cal fare with a west­ern twist. Our fa­vorites were the Sun­dog Cafe, for its ex­cel­lent drinks and piz­zas, and Bruno’s Ma­rina. One cruiser cooked and sold lunch right from her boat for 25 quet­za­les a plate. We


lis­tened to the morn­ing cruis­ers net for an­nounce­ments of the daily lunch spe­cials at a num­ber of restau­rants.

We found plenty of places to ex­plore in and around Rio Dulce. One of th­ese ex­cur­sions was to the his­toric Castillo San Felipe, a well-pre­served fort lo­cated at the bend in the river where the Rio Dulce meets Lago de Iz­a­bal. The 17th-cen­tury ed­i­fice was built by the Span­ish to pro­tect their ter­ri­tory from the Bri­tish and pi­rates. We rode laun­chas to sites up and down the river that were too far to go by dinghy or kayak. Lago de Iz­a­bal was a fine place to see. We took

Mary T, but we also could have seen it by

laun­cha. There were a few restau­rants and pro­tected spots to an­chor on its shores. We en­joyed in­ves­ti­gat­ing the many creeks off the river in search of howler mon­keys, rare birds and restau­rants. We dis­cov­ered two eco-ho­tels hid­den up creeks in the man­groves: Casa Perico and Kan­ga­roo. Both were great stops for lunch and bev­er­ages.

One day, Ken and I ven­tured out of town on a col­lec­tivo bus to Finca El Paraiso, where we swam un­der a near scald­ing-hot wa­ter­fall that emp­tied into a cool pool. When it started get­ting busy there, we hopped on an­other col­lec­tivo to El Bo­queron, where an old man took us for a ride in his cayuco up an en­chant­ing river canyon. The re­turn col­lec­tivo trip to Rio Dulce in­volved some acts of con­tor­tion as we were obliged to stand hunched over the other pas­sen­gers un­til seats be­came avail­able.

More com­fort­able, air-con­di­tioned buses were avail­able for travel far­ther afield. An­tigua Gu­atemala, the beau­ti­fully pre­served for­mer cap­i­tal of the King­dom of Gu­atemala and a UNESCO World Her­itage site, was def­i­nitely worth the visit. Vol­ca­noes pro­vided the back­drop to brightly painted colo­nial build­ings and grand cathe­drals in var­i­ous stages of de­cay. The town of Pana­jachel on Lake Ati­t­lan was an­other must-see. This breath­tak­ing crater lake is sur­rounded by moun­tains and three vol­ca­noes. In both places, ven­dors plied the streets with brightly col­ored hand-wo­ven fab­rics and trin­kets.

Boat main­te­nance in Rio Dulce cost a frac­tion of what we’ve paid in the United States. There were a num­ber of skilled lo­cals and ex­pats who did ev­ery kind of boat work imag­in­able. We had a new main­sail sewn by an Ital­ian ex­pat named Luigi, and folks at Cap­tain John’s var­nished our Mor­gan 38 in­side and out, and had it look­ing bet­ter than ever upon our re­turn from the States.

We found Rio Dulce’s cruis­ing com­mu­nity to be very ac­tive and gen­er­ous. I was most im­pressed by the vol­un­teer work be­ing un­der­taken in re­mote vil­lages, in­clud­ing a vol­un­teer or­ga­ni­za­tion called Pass It On Gu­atemala that brings so­lar pan­els and boat bat­ter­ies to pro­vide light to clin­ics and schools (see cruis­ing­world .com/cruis­ers-bring-light). The smiles on the faces of the vil­lagers when the lights go on is the pay­off for vol­un­teers.

The cruis­ers in Rio Dulce set an in­spir­ing ex­am­ple. We sailors can only go so long treat­ing our­selves with new vis­tas, ad­ven­tures and lo­cal cui­sine, right? At some point we need to do some­thing for some­one else. Pass it on. Amy Flan­nery is a film­maker and lives aboard the Mor­gan 38 Mary T with her hus­band, Ken Kurly­chek.


We took our dinghy to see the Castillo San Felipe at the en­trance to Lago de Iz­a­bal (above). Down­town Rio Dulce is busy, and traf­fic can some­times be in­tense, but the pro­duce is fresh and af­ford­able (be­low). We an­chored Mary T in Cayo Que­mado and went ex­plor­ing by kayak (op­po­site).

The Sun­dog Cafe is a pop­u­lar cruiser hang­out in Fron­teras (above). There are a bunch of mari­nas where you can do main­te­nance or leave your boat for the sea­son. Mon­key Bay Ma­rina (be­low) is down­river from the bus­tle of down­town Rio Dulce, and a good choice if you’re look­ing for a qui­eter vibe.

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