Guatemala to Belize
19 March 2010 | Placencia, Belize
The sail from Roatan, Honduras to Livingston, Guatemala started with fair sailing winds. Several boats departed about the same time. With only 6 knots of wind, we cruised past a Lagoon 46 cat as if it was standing still. Then the winds died. We ended up motoring through the night to Guatemala. A number a radar targets crossed our path, large freighters, and we had to change course several times to make sure we stay a few miles out of their way. A miles doesn't mean much, when the LOA of the freighter is 1/8 of a mile, they travel at high speed relative to us, and they cant and wont turn to avoid us.
Arriving in Livingston at dawn are several other yachts, including an Atlantic55 "Sephira", a sistership to aVida. In Livingston, the customs agent Raul is very efficient, and we have 5 officials on board within 30 minutes: navy, port captain, customs, immigration, and health department. They ask many questions about guns, drugs, pets... As usual, to keep things light I say that I am the only pet on board. They laugh.
We are required to pay the fees in Guatemalan "Quetzales", so we go to the bank, where there is a line 50 people long, and we spend an hour waiting to get our Q's (7.8Qs/USD).
We had seen Sephira in Panama, and also in Roatan, but never had the chance to meet the owners, Peter and Jennifer and their 2 kids- very nice people. Went through the customs process together, and even though we are all eager to get underway again, Peter asks to come aboard aVida as see what has changed in the several years since Sephira was built, so we give them the tour, and exchange ideas and experiences. Peter and I think very much alike regarding ship systems, and we both like to innovate with new systems. Peter added lithium batteries and synthetic shrouds to Sephira in a recent refit, something I researched extensively, decided against 2 years ago when the decisions had to be made for aVida- these were and still are both emerging promising technologies.
By 1PM both boats head off again, into the Rio Dulce river gorge.
This is a deep river gorge up to 300 foot walls in many places, 8NM long, covered in tropical jungle vegetation- very beautiful. The original Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller, swung through the trees here making movies. We have lunch and a bottle of vino blanco during the journey.
The river opens up into a large lake, "El Golfette" approx 8NM miles long. Sephira ahead of us sets a spinnaker for the ideal 15-18 knot aft winds, but we decide that after a bottle of wine we should stay in the cockpit and motor sail- it is less than a 1 hour sail across the lake, and a lot of work to set and douse the spi for such a short sail.
The lake turns into a river again, called the marina area. This is the hurricane hole where hundreds of yachtistas bring their boats to escape the hurricane season of the north.
There are probably 12 marina, and a town called Frontieras. It is a 3rd world frontier town deep in the the Guatemala jungle. The guide books warn us that people walk around with machetes, knives, and guns in town and on the roads. It is like the wild west all over. Well... some do, but once again it does not seem as bad as some guide books or sailors make it out to be. But what is true is that as in all of Central America, the primary economy is drug trafficking, and that drives everything. As long as we all stay out of their way, they are happy to have us around as a nice "cover" for their world. This applies to Panama (the drug banking center of the world), Colombia, etc.. did you know, Panama City is the biggest financial center in the Americas south of and including Miami, due to drug $$? Insane massive hi-rise construction projects going up with no tenants, just to launder $$.
And when some locals here in RioDulce rob and murder a yachtista (like last year), the local police are afraid to do anything about it because of reprisals from the families. But the drug lords dont want bad attention drawn to their world, so they "take care of it" in a fatal way- they kill them all. This has kept the crime against yachtistas down in the recent past, since several local banditos (pirates) were taken out by the drug lords last year. Yeah, we feel safe. Actually, we do.
The people are friendly, lots of other yachts around, but we must be careful to lock up the dinghy etc and be smart at all times.
We will be here for maybe 5 days, then on to Belize. We are presently quite tired, having sailed overnight from Roatan and spent the whole day getting to where we are. 4 hours of sleep each in 36 hours.
We found a med-moor dock (put an anchor out, and back the stern up to the dock) at Tijax Marina, a primitive but excellent marina nestled with jungle all around, and their own private jungle preserve, with canopy suspension bridge, trails, etc. We migrate to the marina restaurant deck overlooking the water, having wine, internet, and dinner. Its comfortable here, and amazing faster internet we have seen in 4 months.
Then we walk the dock back to aVida to get long overdue sleep. but not yet....
The boat next to us in the marina has been left here for 9 months while the French Canadian owners were away. They just returned today, and Remi looks totally despondent sitting on the dock next to his boat. The boat needs a lot of clean up, but right now his batteries are dead and nothing is working. So, tired as I am, I get out my clamp-on ammeter/voltmeter, and go aboard to help Remi track down the problem. His solar panels are putting out traces of energy from the fading evening light, but there is no charging current coming from the battery charger. I help him trace the AC power from the dock all the way to the battery charger, and then determine that the DC connection from the charger to the battery is missing- somebody stole the wire out of his boat!
Remi is now my best friend, he tries to return the kindness the rest of the time we are here.
20100304 Spent the day working. Rita hoisted me up to the masthead for an hour to replace the VHF antenna that fell off and broke the wind vane; glued a stiffener to fix the wind vane; and prepare to replace the hailer/horn that got ripped off by the spinnaker halyard. Tightened up all the screws and hardware while I was up there. Taxes, email, internet, etc... Rita worked on AVID forecasted sales opps, and did a lot of work for the coming AVID 25th anniversary event in July. We will take our employees, spouses, and key customers for a sail on 2 "tall ships" in Cleveland, and then have dinner and a band on the Cleveland harbour. Rita is prepping a photo slide show showcasing the long AVID history through prior Halloween events, company events, etc, showing our team in the most compromising and humorous positions possible. We have had a lot of history, memories, and fun, over the many years.
20100305 We wake at 5am for a kayak trip up a river into the mangroves, to hear the howler monkeys awake at dawn, and see the jungle intimately.
In the afternoon, we hike through the jungle to an observation tower on a high hill, then up into the jungle canopy where they have set up hanging bridges between the trees 100 feet up. There are a large number and variety of birds. Groves of rubber trees oozing their white natural latex into collection cups. Not many animals- we noticed this also in the Amazon jungle.
We are still keeping up quite a pace, and don't seem to find much downtime. After a day of internet and shopping in Frontieras, the next morning we catch a bus in Frontieras for a 1.5 hour ride inland to Rio Agua Caliente, literally river of hot water.
The bus is a cargo minivan overloaded with bench seats spaced too close, and it is full of people with a few hanging out the open cargo door. I offer to sit on top of the luggage rack on the roof to make room for a woman and her baby, and I climb up there, and they look at me very strange, because we had just arrived at our stop, and we get off here- lucky me.
As we hike into the jungle toward the river, Francisco, a local, offers to guide for us- good thing too, because the trail up the mountain is steep and winding and we would not have known how to find everything we saw. A 20 minute hike along the steaming hot river takes us to the source- several pools of water that are too hot to put your hand in, gurgling from holes in the ground. Source Rio Agua Caliente.
There is also a cold river here, Rio San Antonio, and we hike up the mountain to its source, from a cavern 75 feet high, in a deep river gorge. The cavern goes into the mountain at least 300 meters, and they say from there you can climb up the cascading waterfall inside the mountain much further. Rita and I swim into the cavern, around turns that cut off all light from the outside- (we brought dive flashlights with us). About 200 meters. We could hear the water cascading down from within the mountain ahead of us.
Hiking back down the mountain, we come to a place where the cool river forms a large swimming hole, with the hot river cascading over 50 foot cliffs creating a waterfall into the cool water below. We swim across the pool, until the hot water falls on us- even at this downstream point in the cold pool, it is too hot to stand for more than ½ second or so.
Large trees grow from the rock walls all around the pool, their impressive twisted branching roots tenaciously clinging to the cracks in the rock. Francisco serves as photographer as well, taking photos of us swimming at each location. I give Francisco 50Q for his services, and he says "Ciento". He wants 100. I happily give it to him.
The afternoon bus takes us back to Frontieras where we find a basic but good dinner and vino overlooking the river. The dinghy always seems to know how to get us back to aVida after such evenings. It was another excellent day.
We spend 1 more day in Frontieras, preparing for the next voyage.
At crack of dawn 6AM next day, as we prepare to depart, Remi and Jim (our friend on the other boat next to us, with whom we shared several late evening talks and indulgences), are on the dock helping to put away the pasarelle and throw off the dock lines for us. As we sail away, they remain standing and waving from the dock as the distance fades away.
Our plan is to go through the Rio Dulce gorge, clear customs in Livingston, get our papers, and sail to Punta Gorda, Belize, and clear customs, immigration, navy and inspection the same day. Punta Gorda is the southern-most port of entry into Belize, and it is only 20NM from Livingston. Once again the winds are light and on the nose, so we motor the entire way, and arrive there by 3PM.
Belize has the 2nd longest barrier reef in the world, and hundreds of islands to explore. Our plan is to work our way north over the coming 2 weeks, hopping between several ports and islands, to arrive in Belize City end of March, where we have 2 couples flying in to sail with us.
Punta Gorda has little to offer, and the whole town is shut down this Monday for a national holiday, so we depart early the next AM for Moho Cay, a tiny palm tree covered sand island with a small resort on it.
We arrive in time for a late lunch, and Breeze, the manager, comes out to the dock to greet us with a fish gaffe in hand- seems a bit threatening at first, but he quickly sees we are good potential customers, not drug runners or something, and welcomes us ashore for a very nice lunch and vino.
In this beautiful lodge with 12 private cabins, there is only 1 couple staying there- John and Amy- very nice people, and we spend the whole afternoon in conversation. We return to aVida for dinner aboard.
In the AM Breeze takes the 4 of us in their power boat out to Sapodillo Cays, the southern most part of the Belize barrier reef, for snorkeling and beach time. A very nice day indeed. We swim amongst quite a few large barracuda patrolling their territory; see a number of sting rays and eagle rays; nice corals and many fish. Another very nice day.
Dinner aboard, and depart in the AM for Placencia, Belize. This is a lively little village on the mainland. There are many yachts at anchor here, and it is a base for Moorings and other sailing charter companies. As a result, there are a lot of dive shop operators, restaurants, bars, and activities going on.
Since we arrived in Belize, we have still been in the habit of trying to speak our pig-Spanish to the locals. We do this here in Belize, and they look at us like we are crazy, because everybody speaks English. It takes us a few days to stop this habit, which we have built for almost 5 months now.
As usual, we don't yet know how to slow down for a minute. In the fading afternoon light, we explored most of the town, and then stumbled onto the best restaurant, Rumfish u Vino for a great dinner- these are US ex-patriots, John and Pam, with a great success on their hands, and now they want to open other cookie-cutter restaurants in other Central America locations- I warn John about the dangers of absentee ownership, and the fact that this restaurant succeeds so well because of their personal presence and charisma.
As we dinghy back to aVida, a rasta local on shore starts yelling to us repeatedly- Jah Mon. Hey Mon. They have some interest in us. Back on aVida, I get out my 24" military machete, mace, stun gun, and sit up for a while sharpening my machete so long as the rasta keeps calling to us. Finally I put my weapons at the bedside and sleep takes over. As I sleep, I imagine the ninja moves to use a machete to take out 2 attackers in a single thrust or rotary slice that does 2 for 1. I hope I never have to attempt these moves, but in my dreamstate, I can visualize it- maybe I could do it.
Early the next AM, we are on the dock for a 2-dive + snorkel trip to the outer wall of the barrier reef. It was quite good, but cant say it was spectacular- viz could have been better.
Then another day of internet and catchup work. We are now coordinating the next 3 months of our voyages, trying to predict distances, voyage times, departure and arrival times, safe anchorages and marinas, security, etc.. so that the many friends flying down to join us and help us with the major offshore passages can book airfare, etc.
The total passage is 3500NM, so we break it up into segments for breaks. We have Mexico to KeyWest. Miami to Bahamas. To Bermuda. To Azores. To Gibraltar. And to the Med. We now have different friends with sailing experience signed up for each of these voyage legs, and also for the non-stop 2800NM return leg from Canaries back to the Carib.
Sailing voyaging is not something you can schedule arbitrarily- the winds and weather can blow any schedule away. Our schedules are a bit tight, but all keyed into coordinating so many places and people- we shall see how our planning works out. The overriding factor is trying to get out of the southern Atlantic before early June when the probability of hurricanes becomes a major concern. So, once again, there is pressure and a timetable- which are at odds with sailing and not respected by King Titan, or the Sea Witch.
20100315 Another working day- at first. We do some work on the boat in the am, and go ashore to the Purple Space Monkey resto-bar for lunch and internet. As we complete our lunch plus several drinks, 2 older men sit at the table next to us, and we are quickly drawn into conversation. These guys have had a colorful and Hard life, with many stories to tell. Bob, 65, is a poet; Claude 84 is a sailor. Bob has so many poems in his head that speak of truth, objectivity, reality, insight, and wisdoms against a lost world that largely blindly follows fabricated mass-media, mass-delusions, mass-religions, and mass-insanity. His poems are complex, very carefully and perfectly chosen words, full of insight and awareness. It takes intense concentration and focus to just follow and digest the words as they stream from his mind across his lips- but I do, and they resonate. Bob delivers from memory at least 6 long poems. We buy them drinks; they buy us drinks. I would like to capture Bob's poetry, but he has never written them down. Bob did hard time for taking out the guys that killed his brother. Like I said- hard colorful lives.
Back on aVida, we are preparing to go to another boat for dinner- Jim and Jane, whom we first met in Roatan.
As we are getting ready to board our dinghy, we hear a holler from our stern- Hey Mark and Rita! It is Jim Lightheart, our friend from Rio Dulce. He has just sailed into Placencia, on sail only, because his motor stopped working (again). It must be a real challenge to navigate these reefs and shoals under only wind power, but he did it, alone.
After Jim leaves, we head off for dinner with Jim and Jane. She is a Brit who has been working on boats all her life- he is American, and has a business with several large charter catamarans in Jamaica doing tourist day cruises. Dinner and conversation are great, we play Jenga on the rolly monohull, and once again the dinghy autopilot finds our way back to aVida.
One of the most rewarding aspects of this sailing life is that the people we meet are invariably unusual and exceptional in their life and sailing experiences. And often a bit over the edge, in a number of ways. But that makes it fun and interesting.
20100316 Overcast, drizzling. A northern front is coming in tomorrow afternoon that will blow from the NW. Thanks friends up north for sharing your weather with us. This is the start of it. We work on the boat all day.
Jane comes over early AM to show Rita how she makes bread on a boat. JimL comes by with the local crew he has picked up, with his engine starter motor in a bag, heading to shore to get it repaired. Jim and Jane come by twice during the day, with gifts, requests for favors, etc.
We made arrangements for Thai massages in town tonight, and we will prob go back to RumFish y Vino for dinner after.
We also made arrangements to go to Belize City by taxi tomorrow, to see a dermatologist to take a look at some skin blotches to make sure they are not cancer, and to cut out whatever is in question. Just whack it all is what I say.
The trip to Belize City is a long drive on very bumpy roads. 60 miles takes over 3.5 hours. Dermatologist checkup is ok, no major concerns, but we do have some things that need treatment, and we are now converts to using SPF twice a day, using special skin creams, and sun avoidance. Before any major problems have started.
Another day of heavy internet. Taking care of AVID business, 2009 financial year end stuff, taxes. 2010 planning, comp plans, etc.
In the evening, we went to Robert Grove Inn, where they have a local Garifuna drum group performing. The Garifuna are descendants of Jamaican and Cuban sugar plantation slaves, and they fiercely defend and extend their culture, music and beliefs. The music is mostly African, with some carib and latin rhythms mixed in. Excellent.
We splurge on dinner. Rita has the Biggest crab legs we have ever seen, I have a NY strip steak. And good vino of course.
Saturday AM we depart for islands north. Northward to a few outer Cays on the barrier reef, then to Belize City to pick up our friends. Belize City is not a nice place. We don't intend to stay there- we will anchor off a Cay a few miles away. Will come in just to pick up our friends and then get away to the most pristine places in the western hemisphere- the Turneffe and Lighthouse Atolls, outside the outer barrier reef. The charter boat companies don't allow their charter boats to go here due to increased navigation hazards, but the appeal of 100 foot visibility, superb diving and snorkeling are what we and our friends are after.
There is the "Blue Hole", a perfectly round ¼ mile diameter very deep hole in the ocean rimmed by a living ring of coral, In 1972, Jacque Cousteau explored this geological phenomenon, where they discovered at 125 foot depth a forest of stalactites. The Blue Hole was once a cavern above the surface of the water, 12,000 years ago when ocean depth was almost 400 feet lower than it is today! Global warming or not, whether accelerated by man or not, the ocean levels will likely rise another several 100 feet more in the coming centuries. Don't buy that Florida swamp land.