The Log of Moira


Western Caribbean: Farewell to Guatemala (December 2009)

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These are mostly Susan’s remarks. Larry’s notes are indicated thus <Larry: blah blah blah.>.


We arrived in Guatemala almost 18 months ago (May, 2008) in the pouring rain, lightning, and thunder of a squall which pushed us “fast and furious” from the Bay Islands of Honduras toward Livingston, an entry port of Guatemala. More frightening than the storm was the knowledge that a ship had been about 1000 yards away from us as the rain started, and we could see nothing through the downpour of the rain, even with RADAR, and I did not want a sudden noise of ship-on-boat in the dark, rainy night. Fortunately, all went well. By the time the squall had passed and the sky was clearing, we had reached the doorstep of Guatemala and could see the outline of Livingston. The ship and squall were both gone and we were safe and ready to go over the river bar.


Squalls are a part of sailing in the Caribbean, particularly at night. There are two good things about squalls. One, they efficiently wash off the salt of the sea from your boat. Two, squalls seldom last long. After about 40 minutes, even the big ones usually move on <Larry: though persistent ones can last several hours>, leaving the sailor relieved if maybe annoyed with a still-unsettled sea.


It therefore seemed appropriate if not exactly propitious that, having arrived in the rain, we were now about to leave Guatemala in the rain. At least this time we could time our exit to avoid the worst of the squalls if we wanted to. The storm we entered in had frightened me, and I was more than ready for a bright blue Caribbean sky.



Río Dulce Bar


The Río Dulce is a lovely river of Guatemala, and one of the delights of the western Caribbean cruising experience. To enter or leave the Río and get into the entry city of Livingston, a boat must cross the river bar, which is a narrow, shallow band of sand and mud. At mean low tide the depth at the shallowest area is charted as being 5.8 feet. Moira draws 6 feet. <Larry: So one waits for high tide to give a little more water. The bad news is that, in this part of the world, the tidal range is usually under a foot. Then again, one wants the high tide to arrive in the morning hours, so that one can get one’s official paperwork done and scoot up the river (or out to sea) before dark. High tide arrives an hour or so later each succeeding day.> Having waited carefully for a tide high enough at the right time of day, one can go across very daintily and carefully with a depth of 6.6 feet or more. Alternatively, your boat can be pulled over sideways on its ear <Larry: which reduces the depth of water a sailboat needs to float it> and towed over the bar, if you are willing to pay the fee and allow your boat to endure the wear and tear. When coming to Guatemala, we waited in the Bay Islands for a favorable tide (height and timing), and our crossing of the bar went well.


Now it was time to leave Guatemala, which required reversing the process.


Refitting Moira and Shake-down Cruise: Lago Izabal


Port rebed projectSince returning to the Río in October we had been working on getting Moira ready to sail for the first time in 18 months. When one leaves a boat in tropics during the summer months, a prudent cruiser takes all the sources of windage off the boat, such things as sails, bimini, soft dodgers, weather cloths, outboard motor, and such. The items are put in covered storage to protect them from sun damage, mildew, and storm damage. All of these items have to be returned to the boat after extensive washing and preparations. Each of the systems on the boat has to be tested, and often, repaired. <Larry: Few things are harder on a boat than disuse.> Repairs and renovations of critical systems such as the water maker, fixing leaking ports (see photo), and care and TLC for the engine, kept us busy for two months. I had to reprovision the boat with all sorts of food stuffs after thoroughly cleaning all the galley or kitchen areas. To say the least we were busy bees. <Larry: One task was cleaning up after an infestation of bees! They apparently decided that Moira’s mast was a reasonable facsimile for a hollow tree trunk.> It helped that the boat had a working air conditioner to combat the heat and humidity of the Río <Larry: a small window-style AC we had purchased locally, and would sell when we departed the marina> but life as a troglodyte was some what unsettling. I yearned to have the cool breezes of the Caribbean once again coming through Moira’s open ports and hatches.


Before setting our date to leave the Río Dulce, we scheduled a brief shake-down cruise around the lake we were near, Lago Izabal (sometimes spelled Isabel or Izabel). Outside of the marina district there is very little security on the Río, so we found ourselves a buddy-boat, another cruising boat whose crew also wanted to explore the lake. We enjoyed the company of Second Priority with Joe and Linda, and we both benefited from the perceived security of two boats together.


Rio Zarquita, GuatemalaAs one heads upstream from the sea, the Río Dulce twists through a spectacular three-hundred foot deep gorge of limestone covered with tropical plants, flowers and high towering tropical forests before widening out into the Golfete lake. At the other end of the Golfete the Río reappears, lined with upscale homes and marinas close by to the two towns of Fronteras and Relleno. After that the river widens again to become Lago Izabal, almost 26 miles long and mostly uninhabited. We sailed with Second Priority to Denny’s Beach, a small resort on Lago Izabal, which offered a restaurant and places to stay overnight for tourists coming from Livingston or Fronteras. The next day we sailed across the lake to El Refugio, a lovely secluded anchorage protected from most winds. Over the next two days we were able to explore several of the rivers nearby known for their bird life, water lilies and seas of water hyacinths. The white egrets and herons were beautiful, some with wing spans of over 6 feet. As I was sitting in the dinghy for the trip up the river, watching the egrets, we were able to hear the howler monkeys in the distance. Howler monkeys are able to wobble their throats in some manner that lets out a terrible but thrilling noise that is very much like a great howl, not easily forgotten. I would not want to hear it every day but on the river it was a treat and extraordinary to know that packs of these black monkeys were close by. At one anchorage Second Priority saw their first manatees. We were too far away for us to see them and they did not reappear. We have yet to see a manatee. Our final night on the Exploring Rio Oscuro, photo by 2nd PriorityLago was spent anchored in front of Finca El Paraiso (“Paradise Farm”), famed for its hot springs.


Lago Izabal served us well for our shake-down cruise. We sailed for the first time in almost 18 months and got to use all the systems of the boat without the stress of open ocean <Larry: and with the knowledge that if something major broke, we could easily return to the marina for repairs.> The lake was pleasant and peaceful. We saw several Mayan fishermen in their cayucos (canoes) fishing with hand-lines and cast nets during our stay in El Refugio, and two other sailboats. We never felt threatened, but it felt good to have another boat around in the remote anchorages. Security in the marina district is provided mostly by the Navy. The major marinas each pay a monthly fee to the navy and in return the Navy has assigned a small boat to patrol the district. They have made a difference in the marina district, but their budget does not allow them to provide security on the lake.


We returned to the Tortugal Marina, ready to pick our time to make the crossing of the bar at high tide in Livingston.


First Try


Several days later we were off to Texan Bay Marina, the first (or last) marina available to cruisers above the gorge. It is about two to three hours away (at cruising sailboat speeds) from the marina district of Fronteras. Because of its distance from town, the rate for a monthly stay is about one-half of that paid by cruisers in marinas nearer Fronteras. Texan Bay Marina is small but includes a decent restaurant and has a convivial environment. After a pleasant night in the marina we took off the next morning, expecting to meet with immigration in Livingston at ten o'clock.


Unlike the United States, where no one in the government tracks the comings and goings of US-flagged recreational boats, every country we have visited with Moira issues a zarpe or permission to sail, before you are allowed to leave the country <Larry: and sometimes when moving from one port to another within a country>. Upon arrival at the next country, the officers (immigration, customs, port captain, and perhaps others) at your destination will demand to see the zarpe and the crew list stamped by the country you just left. Not only does this process keep track of who is coming and going but some states raise revenue through the associated fees.


We had planned on making our escape from Rio Dulce with the hope that we could be in sunny Belize for Christmas, somewhere close-by to a lovely Cay Moira's track, Guatemala to Belizesurrounded by beautiful waters. Unfortunately the fates were not with us. We were about half way down the gorge which leads from Golfete to Livingston when the engine’s oil pressure gauge showed the engine losing oil pressure. Though we had had troubles with the engine’s gauges before, losing oil pressure was not a something to be taken lightly. At worst it could mean that the bearings of the engine needed to be replaced. Given the necessity for a well-running engine in the close spaces of Belize with its many reefs and atolls, we decided to return to Tortugal Marina. It was a hard decision to make because we were so ready to begin our adventures again outside of Guatemala. Turning around also meant another week or two in the marina waiting for the next morning high tide that would allow us to safely cross the bar at Livingston. <Larry: Never mind that it might mean much more than that to get the engine repaired, or even to get a new engine shipped in!> But turn around we did. With some fast assistance from Tortugal Marina, a diesel mechanic arrived that very afternoon. After about an hour of work, the mechanic showed us that the “sender” in the engine, that piece of machinery responsible for getting the correct message to the oil pressure gauge, was defective. Once the sender was replaced <Larry: with a new sender from the depths of our spare-parts bin>, the engine and the gauge were fine. Much better than hearing that the bearings in the engine needed replacement! Two very cold beers at the marina restaurant completed the afternoon.


The afternoon would not have turned so out well but for Larry’s cache of spare parts. Prior to sailing from San Francisco in 2004 we had visited the local distributor for our brand of engine, and after discussing our plans with the owner we left with a large box of spare parts. We replenish the parts as we use them. Over time we have collected spare parts for most of our operating systems. Having spares has made a difference to us many times. Spare parts for boat systems are seldom available in Central America. Sometimes you can have parts shipped in, but the process takes time, patience, and money, and sometimes the parts disappear in transit.


Unfortunately we could not just turn around and leave again. The tide schedule suggested that our next escape date was December 21st. So we did some more boat jobs, some extra provisioning and got ready for our next try to exit.


Reflections on Guatemala’s Economy


While waiting for the tide, we thought about our time in Guatemala. We had both enjoyed the country and certainly its most famous city, Antigua. Lovely, lovely Antigua was a very pleasant place to visit with a good mix of first-world amenities with the genuine, durable Mayan culture in the hills all around Antigua.


Rio Dulce bridge at Fronteras/RellenoWe were very conscious of the energy and growth of the country. Since the peace accords settled the civil war, the successive governments of Left and Right have focused on expanding the availability of electricity and clean water, and improving and building new roads. It was making a difference. The bridge that linked Fronteras and Relleno, the towns on either side of the Río, has brought to life the two towns. The bridge is still a tourist attraction in this part of Guatemala, even though over 30 years old. Trucks, cars and busses stop at the highest point of the bridge (about 90 feet above the water) and the occupants of these vehicles get out to see the river and the boats. Vendors from the village serve up drinks and small snacks. Although it is a two-lane bridge, and a parked vehicle blocks one of the lanes, drivers on the bridge don’t bother the gawkers. While is sounds naïve to an American reader, that is often the way of things in Central America: if you want to stop on the bridge and look around, you can (at your own risk) and no one will bother you. <Larry: The photo shows some of the vehicles stopped at the top of the bridge, and the Navy’s patrol boat at center right.>


Everywhere we went in Guatemala, we saw that the strengthening of the physical infrastructure of the country was enabling forward movement in the economy. The stronger the economy, the less chance of this country and others in central America of falling back to chaos of the civil war days. I trust that our foreign-policy formulators are taking into account that direct investment in specific projects like roads or bridges may be much more powerful than funds handed to the reigning government. A couple of years in central America makes this so clear to us… how to spread the word?


<Larry: Another element of relationship between the US economy and that of Guatemala was brought to our attention by a member of the US Embassy: the US exports criminals to Central America. That is, when an immigrant is deported for committing a violent crime in the States, he’s often been through what the official called “a criminal finishing school on the streets of Los Angeles.” When he’s deported back to his home country, he comes with criminal skills and attitudes that overpower the more placid home-grown varieties of crime. In a country with maybe half as many police (per capita) as Manhattan or Los Angeles, the results are predictably Not Good.>


Guatemalan woman using cell phoneGuatemala, like most of Central America, is alive with cell phones While land lines are still being installed very slowly, mostly in the cities, communication among the masses is by cell phone. Cell phones are cheap and work most places in the country. These countries have seen that it is much cheaper to build cell phone towers than land lines, and many of the population can actually afford a cell phone <Larry: or several, arrayed around a man’s belt like a bandolier, or stuffed into a woman’s bra!>. It was not unusual to see a Mayan fisherman tossing his net and then stopping to chat on his cell phone.


Throughout our stay in the Rio Dulce, we were struck by the uneven availability of goods. Larry is very inventive at using the ferreterias (hardware stores) to undertake boat repairs. But some specialized products cannot be substituted for, and Guatemala did not have. For example, we needed to replace our outdated signal flares: the US Coast Guard requires that flares be less than three years old. We were heading back to Florida where the Coast Guard were likely to stop and board our boat under the guise of a safety check but really as part of the drug interdiction program in the region. Flares are a part of required safety equipment on a US flagged boat. The only flares we could find for sale in Guatemala had expired. Then again, our preferred grade of engine-mounted fuel filter was not available in Guatemala. Fuel filters for a boat come in grades depending on the coarseness of the filter. We required a fine filter but the distributor for Guatemala only carried coarse filters, which may be a statement on the quality of the diesel fuel available. <Larry: And special-order? We’re talking maybe a couple of months, if you could find a retailer who was willing to do it at all. Replacement rechargeable batteries for power tools? Fugedaboudit!>


On the other hand, wonderful canned New Zealand butter was available in Tienda Reed, run by “Chiqui” Lupitou, who with his family has been catering to cruisers on the river for a good twenty years. Canned butter requires no refrigeration until opened. This saves space in my refrigerator for other things like lots of lettuce! We would give him our order for wine every several months and he would get it or something close each time. By the way, northern California wines are not generally available in Central and South America. So much for NAFTA. Unfortunately, Gallo wines, even Turning Leaf, are available. It is good that we enjoy Argentine and Chilean wines. “Chiqui” had some of the best meats in the area, cheese, and even sour cream! Casa Guatemala, an orphanage nearby, runs a store in Fronteras, where one can secure delicious cheeses, fresh butter, chicken (without the head and feet ) and pork. A vendor came via lancha to Tortugal Marina once a week, supplying us with the most delicious shrimp we have had since Mazatlán, on the Pacific side of Mexico, and as the season come on, he provided lobster, both from Belize.


Second Try


We were finally ready (again) to leave Guatemala. We left Tortugal Marina on December 20th, heading again to the vicinity of Texan Bay Marina, though this time we anchored-out in the bay in front of the marina. The next morning we headed down the gorge for Livingston. Our appointment with immigration was for ten o’clock, which would allow us to cross the bar at the best time for the tide and to reach shelter before dark. We had discussed with immigration our fees for leaving by email. Señor Raul, the immigration officer/agent in Livingston, is very professional and makes life easy for the cruisers.


Guatemala requires that every 6 months a boat’s cruising permit be extended. The cruising permit allows the boat to be in the country, and is in addition to extensions required every 90 days to the visa that allows the individual cruiser to be in Guatemala. The visa extension can be done by leaving and reentering the country, or by application to the immigration office by those in the know. We have done both over the 18 months in the country. But Moira’s cruising permit had expired while we were on one of our trips back to the States. We had asked Tortugal Marina to get it extended, but their efforts had not been successful. <Larry: Catch-22. You can only renew during the period of 30 days prior to expiration, and must show a then-current registration for the boat from your home country. Moira’s registration expired just before the 30-day window began, and we couldn’t get a copy of the new registration down to Guatemala from the States in time.> When we contacted the officials to learn how big of a fine we would have to pay for having an expired cruising permit, we discovered that our dilatory behavior was to our financial benefit: the fine for overstaying our welcome was less than the cost of renewing the permit would have been. Go figure!


Bahia La Graciosa, GuatemalaSo we checked out of Guatemala within the hour and were on our way in the rain. Señor Raul (the immigration officer) wondered why we were going out on such an awful day. But except for the rain (drizzle, really), the weather wasn’t so bad: it was not very windy, and what wind there was, was from a direction that made it easy for us to sail the next leg. We crossed the bar without incident <Larry: well, there was one thump> and headed for the Estero Lagarto anchorage behind Cabo Tres Puntas, a peninsula on the west side of which cruisers may anchor and find good protection from the North-East trade winds. Half way there we noticed that the winds were more from the West rather than the East, which we figured would have made the Estero Lagarto anchorage choppy, so we punted and headed for nearby Bahía La Graciosa, which provides a calm, secure anchorage, protected from winds of any direction, with mangroves surrounding the bay, and some bird life. <Larry: The morning after we arrived at Bahia La Graciosa, I swore that I could hear freeway noise, which was preposterous, as there are no significant roads on the peninsula of Cabo Tres Puntas. Later we figured out that it was the sound of large surf breaking on the other side of the peninsula, perhaps two or three miles from where we were anchored. The next morning the sound was gone: the waves had gone down and the surf had diminished.>


After two nights in this protected cove, we headed for Punta Gorda, the southern port of entry for Belize, within an easy sail of several hours from Bahía La Graciosa. But that is our next story!


Additional photos from this trip can be found in our Photo Gallery and Moira’s Ship’s Store.






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