This is a rather long post but we are so enthusiastic about Guatemala I just could not shut up. The photo's tell it better than I can.
We arrived in Livingston, Guatemala June 4th to clear in thru customs and immigration, then proceeded into the Rio Dulce. Less than a mile from Livingston you enter the "gorge", where the 400 foot tall canyon walls, lush with tropical vegetation, close to within a hundred yards of you. After a few miles of awesome scenery the river opens up where the surrounding mountains can be seen nudging the clouds. 17 miles up the river we found our summer home, Mario's Marina. Located about 15 minutes by boat from Fronteras , or 2 ½ hours by trail and road, , the closest town. According to other cruisers that come here every year this season is slower than usual, same number of boats on the river but more people left their boats in marinas and flew home for the summer. Each morning on the vhf/marine radio marinas announce any special meal deals, movie nights, swap meets, or other things of interest to keep you busy and out of trouble.
Mario's is a great little marina and has a good social group. The mix of people changes every few days as new arrivals appear and others take inland tours for days or weeks. A typical day for us is to get up @ 8am, sunrise is around 5am, no daylight savings time here. Piddle around the boat until late morning then probably take the dinghy into town to pick up fresh fruits and veggies, all which must be washed in bleach water to kill the germs that may cause dysentery or travelers diarrhea. You will see in the photo section what shopping is like in Fronteras, a true frontier town. Every day at 3pm is an hour of volley ball, which we usually attend, followed by happy hour drinks by the small pool. Around 6pm the bugs may start to feed on us and most head back to their boats for the evening. No such thing as cable TV here but the bar/restaurant has a big screen TV and satellite dish. Mondays are pot luck dinner in the restaurant and the marina supplies a dish also. My Swedish cardamom meatballs where a crowd pleaser with many requests for the recipe. Sundays we got hooked on the dominoes games, guess we will be ready for the nursing homes when we get back.
The country is beautiful with all the mountains, volcanoes, lush forests, waterfalls, Spanish colonial buildings, and the beautiful traditional dresses most of the women wear. Knowledgeable people can tell where a woman is from by the design of her dress. We spent 2 weeks in the city of Xela taking a total immersion Spanish class while living in the home of a Guatemalan family. I'm not sure how much I actually learned but I can now butcher the Spanish language at a higher level J. The family we stayed with were wonderful and welcoming and tried to help us as much as they could. We ate most of our meals with them and even learned to cook a few traditional meals. They eat very little meat, or fruits, Replaced with lots of beans, soups, and corn products. But we liked most of it and never went hungry. Most afternoons they would take us on a field trip to a museum or old church, hiking the hills, hot water springs, etc. It was a great experience and Xela has few tourists so we saw the way typical Guatemalan families live, work, and shop. Xela also happens to be the coldest city in Guatemala, which we discovered our first night there, with temperatures in the fifties. Most homes don't have heat so lots of heavy blankets are the norm. It is also the rainy season and the only 100% reliable weather forecast is "it will rain today".
Our oldest son and grandson flew down to spend a month with us and we have spent the last 10 days exploring the Western Highlands area with them. This is about 250 miles West of the Rio Dulce and our boat. Most women wear the traditional dresses and many of the men in smaller villages still dress in traditional garb. Antigua is a popular tourist city with numerous Spanish colonial buildings still in excellent condition. We spent 5 days here exploring the town and visiting the old ruins and exquisite churches, Even if you are not religious, the design and architecture of these old structures, many dating to the 1500's, are awesome.
We next spent a day going to Chichicastanaga to see the largest outdoor market, (mercado) in Guatemala. Except for the church it was a waste of time. Highly touted as a must see, it was mostly set up for tourists. The Sunday's mercado Democratica in Xela was almost as big and much better because it was authentic and where the people in town actually went to shop. You could find anything from dragon fruit (excellent) to cow eyeballs (did not try) for sale. The church is Catholic but is still a place of worship for the Mayans, which often intermingle Christian and Mayan deities and worship practices.
Our next stop was Lake Atitlan, deepest lake in Guatemala. Surrounded by volcanoes and dotted with small towns and villages it is truly breath taking. Many of the towns are accessible only by boat and the "launcha" business on the lake is booming. We stayed in a village named Santa Cruz at a hostel called La Inagua Perdida and cannot speak highly enough about the place. Situated on the waterfront and originally a simple backpacker hostel, they slowly expanded and added electricity 4 years ago to most rooms. We had the "deluxe" rooms with a private bath and small balcony for $37/day. They have rooms as low as $15/day, and beds for $3/day. If you are willing to volunteer for a least 3 weeks you can get a free dorm bed, free meals, and half priced drinks. It seemed like half the staff were on the volunteer program. But it was the staff that made it a special place. They were all very laid back and casual, warm and welcoming. We felt like part of the group from day one and we got lots of hugs when we left. Mostly a younger crowd in their 20's and 30's , along with an occasional family, passed through while we were there. Food was excellent, inexpensive, and dinners were served family style. Surprising was how many British accents we heard, by far the majority. Three of the staff are planning to be in Columbia and Panama around the same time we are and with luck we will run into them.
Each village and town around the lake is different and easily reached by launcha. With all the trails , waterfalls, and volcanoes to be hiked you could spend a month here and not see it all. The photo's will show you what a magical place this can be.
As I sit here typing this we are in Panajachel, still on the lake, until morning. We will be catching a 6am shuttle to Guatemala city to connect to a bus that will take us back to the Rio Dulce and our boat, probably 8-10 hours of adventure on the highways of Guatemala. Michelle and I will have been away from the boat for a month by the time we get back and despite the great time we have had it will feel good to be "back home".
Our trip from Jamaica to San Pedro, Belize was 700 miles and took just under 5 days. This is the longest offshore passage we have done by ourselves and it was uneventful. As I write this we have sailed over 3000 miles since leaving Baltimore. The route map in the photo section shows our general course. San Pedro is a major tourist area and scuba diving center with the worlds second largest barrier reef less than a mile off the coast. The town population is @ 12-15000, all very friendly and accommodating. The streets are small and can be congested and most people use bikes or golf carts to get around. Carts outnumber autos at least 5 to 1. Eating at local places can be very cheap, fish dinner for 2 with 2 soft drinks for $10 or less, best way to find them is ask a local where he eats. The beaches are clean, water clear, and the diving and snorkeling excellent. We arrived the first week of April and worked our way S to Placentia, mostly a fishing village but tourism is growing. As many locals come here for vacation as do foreigners. Around a thousand people live here and there are several small grocery stores and always many fresh produce venders on the street with anything you could want at very cheap prices by US standards. Just across the bay is Big Creek, second largest commercial port in Belize.
We decided to leave our boat at a private dock for safety while we explored inland. We felt uncomfortable leaving it alone for 4-5 days out in the anchorage but have never heard of anyone having and theft problems. It was a wise decision because the day before we moved it a charter boat dragged his anchor across 300 yards of harbor and just hit us a glancing blow as we were coming back to our boat. Luckily we managed to get our dinghy between the two boats before he did more damage. We only suffered a bent anchor part and the captain of the charter boat did not believe their boat did the damage. I guess he figured we dragged his boat the 300 yards just to try and rip his company off.
Local bus service is very reliable and cheap. They are mostly old school buses that the drivers cram as many riders in as possible. At times we had at least 120 people in buses designed for 85 capacity. But it is interesting and a good way to meet the locals. Our 3 bus 5 hour ride took us to San Ignacio, about 6 miles from the Guatemala border. We stayed at a great little guest house in the middle of town and it was luxurious to have air conditioning for those 4 days as well as daily news on the TV. I do miss my morning news casts. We visited Cahal Pech, just short walk from our hotel, the oldest Mayan ruins in Belize dating back to 600 B. C. It is still being slowly excavated as funds become available. Caracol, a 3 hour rough drive along near wilderness roads, is the largest known Mayan ceremonial center in Belize. At its height, around 650 A.D. it had over 30,000 structures, 140,000+ inhabitants, and covered nearly 70 square miles. The tallest temple is 442 feet high. The road passes within a few miles of the Guatemalan jungle. Three years ago Guatemalan banditos were stopping cars along the road and robbing them at gunpoint, hiding passengers and their cars in the jungle until the day was over, then leaving the prisoners go while the robbers slipped back across the border. Now you can get an army escort through this area if you arrive at their outpost at a specified time.
For us the most interesting site was ATM ( Actun Tunichil Muknal ) a must see sight if you are not claustrophobic. Discovered 5-6 years ago by loggers was this cave with an underground river flowing out it's mouth. Further exploration by geologists found Mayan artifacts and human remains. This site was used from about 500 A.D. to 1000 A.D. as a ceremonial grounds. The cave was essentially dry during that time as evidenced by stalactites seen in the flooded portions of the cave lower down. It is about a 1/2 mile excursion into the cave with no lights other than those on your head. Short parts of it has to be swam but mostly you are wading thru water until you get half way in. Then the ground rises and you come upon old pottery shards and bowls, over 2000 of them, plus skeletal remains of previous residents. The archeologists chose to leave the majority of artifacts in place for the enjoyment and wonderment of the people who visit the site. There are currently only a dozen or so guides that are licensed to escort tours into this cave.
As I write this we are anchored in Glovers Reef, one of 3 atolls off the coast of Belize. It is also one of only a few true atolls in the Northern hemisphere. We think this is the nicest of the three and as of now we are the only boat here. We've been here a week already and decided to stay another week just because we like it so much. The entire area is a national undersea preservation area and the diving and snorkeling are fantastic. There is a small all rustic resort on the island and the owner of the resort and the island lives here. The atmosphere is very laid back and casual. If we want to dive we just let them know and they will pick us up at our boat when they take their guests out. They have a small bar open to anyone and it's essentially an 'honor bar' when the bartender Angie is not around. You take your drinks and mark it on your tab, same with the diving we have done. Pay before you leave the island, which surprised us since we are just 'drop ins' that could disappear. But they said only one person ever tried to leave without paying and that was a resort guest. I suppose we have honest faces. We have not been to the mainland in over 2 weeks and have run out of all fresh produce and are short on dingy fuel. Eddie, the owner, said we can ride into the mainland on their shuttle boat tomorrow to reprovision while they pick up new guests from the airport. Hospitality does not get much better than that. We could also eat buffet style in their dining room if we give them advance notice so they can prepare enough extra, not for free of course. Literally everything has to be brought out here by boat except fresh water, a 30 mile boat trip each way. The resort gets 50% of it's electricity from solar power and the owner plans to double capacity in the near future to provide substantially all of his electricity. When it is finished he will have almost $100k invested in the system and will reduce his current fuel cost for running his generator from $9000/month down to less than $1000/month.
Addendum: We will be leaving Belize in 3 days for the Rio Dulce in Guatemala, about 50 miles away. We will spend about 5 months there waiting for hurricane season to end before continuing S to Columbia and Panama.
After leaving Thompson Bay, Bahamas we arrived in Port Antonio, Jamaica 72 hours later. It was mostly a motor sail due to minimal wind conditions. We heard that Port Antonio was a safe area with easy check in and navigational approach. We had not planned on going to Jamaica but our weather guru advised not going to Columbia until late fall due to squally weather this time of year in that area. Jamaica was a nice change from the Bahamas, high mountains, lush vegetation, inexpensive food, rivers. We stayed in the Errol Flynn marina for the week we were there which made trips into town easy. Errol Flynn lost his sailboat here but loved the place so much he bought the island just across the harbor, now called Navy Island. It is still owned by his family and his widow runs a large cattle ranch outside the city. He married a very young girl and died from his habituation to morphine. The marina manager said Ms Flynn still comes around once in a while to chat. The outside bar frequently shows Flynn movies at night next to the pool. Another boat at anchor had their dinghy stolen so we were glad to be in the marina with security. Your dinghy is usually the only the way to get back and forth to shore, carry groceries, etc. They are expensive, easily costing $3-5000 and generally are stolen for the motor. They are also very difficult to replace here in the islands.
Port Antonio is a very run down city of about 20,000, many of which seem to have nothing to do but lounge around the streets not doing anything visibly productive. The street hustlers got very tiresome by the second day, someone is always trying to get money from you. If you asked someone where the post office was located they would most likely walk you the 1 or 2 blocks then hold out their hand for a tip. We got to the point where we hesitated asking anyone for anything. We enjoyed our tours inland to the rivers and mountains. Overall we enjoyed our stay but were also happy to leave. It is a beautiful country marred by a high crime rate, high unemployment, and a 'hustle the tourist' attitude by many.
Our last weekend in Georgetown we entered the Coconut Challenge with our friends Steve and June. The 4 events included paddling your dinghy around the anchorage, using one swim fin each, collecting coconuts tossed in the bay, ring toss, bowling, and hoop throw. We did not even come close to winning but it was a lot of fun anyway. About 30 teams entered, several in costumes or decorated boats.
As much fun as Georgetown and the Cruisers Regatta activities were it was time to leave. There were over 300 boats in the bay and it was getting too crowded. Some boaters don't know how to anchor properly and some boats dragged into those behind them, usually in the middle of the night. Others chose to run noisy generators during sunset hours until late in the evening, ruining your quite time. A 35 mile sail took us SW to Thompson Bay on Long Island. A crowded day in Thompson Bay is 40 boats, the day we came there were only 8, more our style. Long Island is 80 long by 2~4 miles wide with a population of 2500-3000. We rented a car for 3 days and explored as much of the island as we could. Hamilton's Cave has been in Mr. Leonard Cartwright's family since 1849 and is the largest cave in the Bahamas. Dean's Blue Hole is the deepest in the world and annual competitions are held there to see who can free dive ( no scuba ) the deepest. The current record we were told is 120 meters, almost 400 feet on one lung full of air!!
Long Island, like most of the Bahamas has "settlements" instead of towns or villages. These generally consist of a few to many buildings, which may includes homes, shops, restaurant/bars, etc, scattered over a wide area. If there was not a sign saying you were passing thru a settlement you might not even know it. The Post Office here is also a small general store, and the resident doctor has a big sign pointing to his home.
Thompson Bay Inn, a small restaurant/car rental/cottage rental business is a short walk from the beach and proprietor Traphena has a freshly cooked home style buffet a few evenings a week. For $18 you get all you can eat potato salad, cole slaw, plantains, rice, grouper, conch, lobster, curry chicken, and bbq ribs, plus happy hour drinks. We have eaten there twice and expect to do it again before we leave the island.
We were hoping to leave this week but the weather is not cooperating and we will probably be here until next Monday if not longer. Weather dictates not only when we can go but where we can go comfortably and safely. Over the next 2-3 weeks, as we head further S, our passages will be longer. Generally between 100 and 700 miles, versus 10-20 miles here in the Bahamas. So we also have to plan on what the weather will probably be like when we reach our destination 1 to 5 days after we start out. Our original plans were to sail from the Southern Bahamas to Columbia, then up to Guatemala for hurricane season. After talking to Chris Parker, our weather guru and forecaster for the Bahamas and Caribbean, we changed our plans. When we leave here we will be sailing to Port Antonio, Jamaica via Great Inagua, Bahamas and the Windward Passage, which lays. between Haiti and Cuba. From there it will be @ a 700 mile passage W to Belize where we will spend the rest of the Spring as we work our way S to Guatemala. In the fall, after hurricane season we will sail to Columbia, then Panama. This change in routes actually saves us about 1000 miles of sailing and should provide more comfortable conditions underway.
Once we leave the Bahamas I don't expect to have a decent internet connection until we reach Guatemala so this may be the last update for a while.
Hope you enjoy the new photo's we have added.
We spent 4 days in Warderick Wells hiking, swimming, and generally being lazy. It has been a tradition for cruisers to put a piece of driftwood with their boat name at the top of Boo Boo Hill. There are hundreds of placards in place and it was fun to see the names of cruisers we have met while sailing here and in the Caribbean.
From Warderick Wells we had a leisurely sail to Big Majors, "famous" for its swimming pigs. Living on the uninhabited island are a small group of pigs that run to the beach and often swim out to approaching dinghy's begging for food. They can be aggressive and last year a woman was bit in the chest and required 42 stitches. Just off Big Majors is Thunderball Grotto where a scene from the James Bond movie Thunderball was filmed. You have to swim thru a short tunnel to enter the grotto, which is a large pool inside a 'cave' which is open at the top, letting sunlight filter in. Hundreds of fish congregate inside hoping for a handout. They seem to be very fond of dry cat food.
A short distance from the grotto is Staniel Cay, the first place we could buy any groceries since Nassau. There are 3 stores, The Pink store, The Blue store, and Isles General store. Each about a big as a one car garage with very limited supplies. Heading further South we anchored off Black Point, home to about 90 residents. The village had one grocery store, a large laundry which cruisers flock to, and free wifi from the 3 bar/restaurants. Most restaurants ask you to call in by radio before 3pm to make reservations. This way they know how much food they will have to prepare, much of which is frozen meats or shrimp. We called Lorraine's to reserve a spot for her famous Saturday BBQ. When we arrived the small restaurant was brightly decorated and she apologized and said there was going to be a birthday party tonight, and asked if we minded. Of course we said no problem and then she said our meals and all drinks would be free, compliments of the birthday boy. There happened to be 6 other boaters there so she gave away well over a hundred dollars in food and drinks, a lot of money for an islander with not much opportunity to generate an income in such a small town. One of the other cruising couples from a boat called Changes sat at our table and we have become good friends since. There is a general migration of cruisers heading S and you will likely run into some one you have met before in your next anchorage. We met a couple in Big Majors that we had originally met in N Carolina on our way S to Florida.
We gradually worked our way along to Little Farmers Cay after spending several days anchored off an isolated beach where our only company was a few birds. Little Farmers has a population of about 65, but on Farmers First Friday in February Festival the population exploded to over 500. Half of those were cruisers and the rest Bahamians home for the festival. Once a school child finishes 6th grade, and his grades are good, the government gives them a scholarship to continue in school. Unfortunately they have to move to either Nassau or Great Exuma for further education and only return home for holidays. The main event is the races of traditional Bahamian sailboats. Boats are brought in by the mail boat, which is actually a small inter island cargo ship. These boats have no winches or modern sailing equipment to aid the crew. The boats are about 18 feet long and everything is done by hand. The boats also have no keels to keep the vessel upright against the force of wind against sails. To compensate the crew slides a board over the side of the boat and they crawl out there, and some how never seem to fall off. Of course there were nightly parties, impromptu jam sessions, a hike to a water filled cave 90 feet below the surface, and plenty of festivities in the small village. Michelle and I suffered humiliating defeats, me in the Men's Sexiest Legs contest, and her in the Lady's Wet T shirt contest. No pictures nor further information offered so don't ask, we entered under duress.
After 4 days of fun we next sailed to Lee Stocking Island, home of the Perry Marine Research Center. They are affiliated with NOAA and several universities dedicated to studying marine life and the ecology of the sea. Most research is done during the summer months when school is out and the students can get away to conduct their studies so there was not much to see, but we did get an informative tour from the head of the facility. We had several great hikes and along one beach saw at least 2 dozen of the largest stingrays we have ever seen, at least 3 feet across. Later that afternoon, while floating off the stern of our boat, we saw a five foot nurse shark cruise by under us.
Next stop was to be George town but we heard the only fuel dock was closed down so we stopped at a place called Emerald Isle, ten miles N of Georgetown. We rarely use marinas because of the cost but this place was amazing. Floating docks are a rarity in the Bahamas and $1/foot was an excellent price. We did not need water (40 cents/gallon) or electricity (85 cents/kwh) since we make our own water and electricity. This marina was the nicest we have ever stayed in. Free wifi with a very fast connection. Free modern washers and driers, it can cost as much as $8 to wash ad dry a load of clothes in a Laundromat. Each bathroom had a shower stall bigger than the one in our old house, complete with shampoo, conditioners, body gel, shaving cream, mouthwash, hair drier, etc. Two boaters lounges complete with computer, printer, one with a scanner/fax machine, and big screen TV's, each decorated like an expensive country club. It even had a small billiard room and kitchen for the boaters. Everything was free with your slip fee, including shuttle service to the grocery store. I'm not sure how they make a profit.
On to Georgetown and Stocking Island. Georgetown is the largest town in the Exumas and the end point for many cruisers. There are two large grocery stores, one of which provides free water at it's dinghy dock for boaters. A common sight is a dinghy with a half dozen or more 5 gallon water jugs being filled and taken back to the mother ship. You enter the small Lake Victoria by passing thru a short tunnel formed by the overhead bridge and embankment. Stocking Island, a mile across the harbor is where most boaters anchor, currently about 350 last count. This is where most of the events take place. Volley Ball beach is central to the action with 3 volley ball courts, beach bar/grill, picnic table, beach chairs, tree swings, 50-100 dinghies at any one time. The area is like an adult day camp. Each morning at 0810 there is a cruisers net on the radio that first broadcasts any safety or security information, followed by the local weather report. After the all important weather any business can advertise their lunch or dinner specials, activities, dances, etc. Then comes the community announcements which provide information on organized events by the boaters. Sunday mornings are non denominational church services on the beach, other activities include volley balls "classes" or tournaments, bocce ball, book/DVD exchanges, bridge lessons, basket weaving classes, bingo, poker games, trivial pursuit contests, pot luck dinners, jam sessions. There is something out here for every taste and temperament, or you can just enjoy a secluded spot on one of many beaches or a pleasant hike on one of the many trails. We won't be here for the main event which is the boat regatta which begins in 3 weeks. There are planned races for local boats as well as the cruisers, lots of activities centered around boats and boaters, some serious, most just plain fun, or funny.
We expect to be here another week then weather permitting we will probably sail directly to Columbia, about 850 miles more or less.
We are about 1/3 of the way down the Exumas chain in the Bahamas, cuurently at Warderick Wells, headquarters for the Exumas Land & Sea Park. The park is approximately 8x26 miles large and serves as a protected area for the marine creature to replenish themselves. Tagged specimens of fish, conch, and lobsters have been found as far as 75 miles away.
Nassau was nice but we much prefer more secluded anchorages. So far none of the islands we have stopped at have been inhabited until now, and only the park staff live here. We are gradually working our way to Georgetown which has turned into a winter haven for many boats, last count was 175 and the average is usually 250-300. It is one of the largest towns in the Exumas and many of the boaters are regulars. A couple we met in N Carolina has been going there evry year for the last 21 years. The captain, Skip, offers Sunday services on the beach while his wife helps out at the local schools.
We have addes some photo's to the gallery on the right.