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Voyages - Settling into life on the Rio Dulce

Cruising couple venture far upriver to visit spectacular (and secluded) anchorages of inland Guatemala

Cruising couple venture far upriver to visit spectacular (and secluded) anchorages of inland Guatemala

Cruising is not really a fitting description of what most boaters do once they reach this beautiful country of Guatemala. The area near the mouth of the Rio Dulce is one of the most popular and safest areas in the Western Caribbean during the hurricane season.

In our research, we had heard some disturbing accounts of security problems on the river. There were tales of theft, intrigue, drugs and even murder in the idyllic setting. Later, we would uncover the true nature of those reports.

Most boaters arriving here immediately head for the Marina District. By doing so, they bypass some great opportunities to enjoy the lower part of the river and experience some of the native settlements.

We did an unscientific survey of the marinas when we arrived, and found to our surprise that around 80 percent of the boats were unattended and basically in storage for the upcoming hurricane season. Their owners had returned home or gone off for extended traveling elsewhere; as cruising sailors, we found this sad.

Even the owners that stay aboard during the “season” rarely went anywhere on the boat. Yes, many did the typical inland exploration — as did we — since there is much to see in this beautiful country and we could have spent a lot more time doing just that if we in fact had the time.

Inland travel is fairly easy since there is a bus terminal in Fronteras, the main town here, to anywhere in the country you choose to go. We visited Guatemala City several times, the Lake Atitlan area, Antigua and the black sand beaches of the Pacific coast.

But we have always enjoyed exploring new places on Sea Trek and that is why we have lived aboard and cruised her for almost 14 years. So coming to a perfect and protected cruising grounds such as this and just parking the boat seemed almost sacrilegious.

Caution and common sense

When traveling inland for extended periods of time cruisers should leave the boat in one of the dozen or so marinas for security reasons. Petty theft can be a problem. Some marinas are not as secure as others, so be sure to ask around and get some first-hand advice; we found that unsubstantiated rumors do move up and down the river.

It is, in part, those rumors that keep many from exploring any farther on their own. When we first arrived, we were warned not to go anywhere outside the marina area unless we buddy boated.

Even our outdated guidebook, which everyone uses, warns that anchoring in the Gorge or anywhere on the lower river can result in midnight boardings — banditos swinging from the trees down onto your boat from the jungle. In retrospect, we think they saw too many Tarzan movies as children. (Some of the Tarzan movies with Johnny Weissmuller were actually filmed here.) Over and over again we heard about the security issues of traveling alone here. We had to wonder then why so many cruisers came here after all.

From what we determined, no serious crimes have been reported here for years. However, incidents from years back are still retold as if they happened last week. The murder we had heard about was more than eight years ago. Even our embassy warned us about a “non-resident” being killed and a woman being raped. When we pressed, they admitted that it happened five years ago and in Guatemala City, far from the river. We were also told of boats being boarded and things stolen in the middle of the night when anchored off alone.

But then we discovered — after being here for four months — that there was not one incident of a boat being boarded or anything being stolen off any of the few boats that did cruise the river, including ourselves.

The people that live here seem basically happy and hard-working, but they are very poor.

Simply put: you need to use a certain amount of common sense and caution. Lock the boat when you leave and don’t leave things just lying about, especially at night. Boat traffic is heavy on the river day and night and the locals are curious about us, so they often come right alongside the boat as they travel up and down the river. Once we determined that things were pretty safe we began to spend more time exploring and cruising.

Exploring the beauty

Every anchorage on the river — as well as El Golfete and Lago Izabal — is spectacular. Lago Izabal is 15 miles wide and 30 miles long. The average depth is about 20 feet but as deep as 59 feet. El Golfete is a 10-mile-long beautiful bay surrounded by mountains that are covered with jungle.

The waters are deep almost right up to the shoreline and you are surrounded by breathtaking vistas. If you are anchored in the right places the jungle sounds at night are fascinating.

This whole area is unlike any cruising grounds we have visited. And because most other boaters don’t leave the marinas we had the entire river system to ourselves, with peaceful anchorages wherever we went. There is one village on the Lago Izabal called El Estor that should not be used as an overnight anchorage. This is a former mining town that has fallen to hard times. Here we suspect you might experience some theft problems, so a daytime visit only is recommended.

There are rivers running in to the entire watershed from the mountains almost everywhere. These are wonderful for dinghy exploration, but be sure and use lots of bug repellent and always keep in mind that you are in the jungle.

Of course there is much to do if you hang around the main marina area. Each morning the day starts off with the local VHF net on channel 68. New arrivals introduce themselves and folks leaving on their boats say goodbye. It is an opportunity to locate hard-to-find parts or sell something you want to get rid of.

The local restaurants announce their daily specials and any upcoming social events. Every Saturday morning The Cayuco Club sponsors a swap meet on the grounds of Mario’s Marina – just in case you didn’t sell your stuff over the VHF. Even local handicrafts are sold by local indigenous people.

This is a good opportunity to catch up on river gossip as well as socialize. On almost every holiday some event is going on at one of the marinas, including Fourth of July celebrations and huge Thanksgiving dinners, plus everything from pot luck dinners with everyone invited, including the locals, to Hawaiian Luaus.

Guatemala City is a five-hour bus ride and at some time everyone makes the trip at least once. We made the trip two times and can’t tell you how much we enjoyed ourselves. A private van with a driver can be arranged that will take you to the Mayan ruins in Copan, Honduras or Tikal in Northern Guatemala. Trips to any of the country’s fabulous tourist destinations can be arranged in Fronteras. It does not surprise us that some boaters came here for a visit and have stayed, in a few cases for more than 10 years. Many more come back here year after year and say they never do the same things twice.

We are not sure if or when we might return, but we know that if there is a next time we will spend a great deal more time on the water than tied to a dock. If your plans bring you to Guatemala in the future, consider a long, slow cruise along the Rio Dulce.