Pictures/Journal - page 18

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Part 1:  Overview, Rio Dulce river area, Monkey Bay Marina


(click map to enlarge and see location of Monkey Bay Marina)





AREA: Smaller than Louisiana; bit bigger then England
POPULATION: 11.2 million   (50-60% are indigenous, mostly Maya originating from 22 "pueblos";  the rest mostly ladinos from Spanish settlers)
LANGUAGE: Spanish, Mayan - 22 separate (often mutually unintelligible) languages
ADULT  LITERACY: 69%    (US 99%)
ECONOMICS: More than half live in poverty:  57% of population lives on less than US$2.25 a day;  22% live on $1 or less;  "official" minimum wage is US$125/month  (from recent statistics)
MONEY: Quetzals    US$1 = Q7.5
INDUSTRIES: Cement, tourism; export coffee, sugar, bananas, textiles/clothing
LARGEST  CITIES: Guatemala City (capital), Quetzaltenango


BRIEF  HISTORY and OVERVIEW of GUATEMALA:   Guatemala has been in turmoil for centuries - politically and environmentally - struggling for equality and tranquility.  Today, Guatemala faces many of the similar problems of other countries, just on a more massive scale:  poverty, illiteracy, human rights issues (it rates 120 out of 173 countries on the UN human development index), crime, drugs and trafficking  .   .   . 

Guatemala gained independence from Spain in 1847, and since has been pretty much beset with ongoing political corruption, oppression of the indigenous Maya people and lack of civil rights for women.  Peace Accords were signed in 1996 ending 36 years of fierce civil wars between military governments, right-wing vigilante groups and leftist rebels.  Unfortunately, these guerilla wars are still what first comes to the minds of Americans when they think of Guatemala today.  During this period, it is estimated 200,000 people, mostly indigenous Maya, were killed, a million left homeless and thousands "disappeared".  Although the Peace Accords gave hope of improving human rights of the indigenous Maya and of women, and improving education and health care, little has been accomplished due to continued political corruption.

Case in point.  General Rios Montt, who was Guatemala's dictator in 1982-83 during the worst period of civil war atrocities, was advisor to admitted murderer Alfonso Portillo in becoming the new president in 1999, the first peacetime elections in nearly 40 years.  (In his platform, Portillo cited his murders as proof of his ability to defend his people - huh?)  Montt went on to become the leader of Congress in that election.  Incredibly in 2003, Montt was granted permission by the courts to run in the presidential election, despite the fact that the constitution bans presidents who had in the past taken power by coup, as Montt had.  Fortunately, he was clearly defeated.  Incidentally, just last week (July 8, 2006) the local newspapers ran the front page story that a judge from Spain has issued international orders for the arrest of Montt (and others) on charges of "genocide, torture, terrorism and illegal detention".

As mentioned under Belize's Brief History section, today Guatemala still does not fully recognize neighboring Belize as an independent country and thus maps and travel guides of Guatemala frequently fail to show or mention Belize.

Geographically and culturally, there are several diverse regions:  In the west are mountainous forested highlands populated by the 22 different peoples (with 22 different languages) of Maya origin living a meager existence; the Pacific coast are more mestizo with large sugar cane, cattle and cotton estates; the small Caribbean coast that is populated by the Garifuna Indian (Carib-Africans) with a Caribbean culture and dependent on the sea to survive; and to the north the Peten jungle plains bordering Mexico. 

As three tectonic plates converge in Guatemala, it is the site of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.  Major earthquakes have occurred in 1773 (displacing the capital), 1917 and 1976.  The western highlands has 30 volcanoes, several which are active today.  Rainy season (June through November) brings rains most days (or nights), sometimes torrential downpours, which can over-saturate the land resulting in massive landslides.  A large landslide occurred in 2005 totally burying many mountain villages.

Guatemala offers many interesting places to visit.  One of the highlights is the renowned Tikal Maya ruins in the Peten jungle in the north part of the country, near Flores.  This unique site is deep in the jungle, and as such the wildlife (howler monkeys, parrots, toucans, tree frogs . . .) is abundant, and the ruins have been cleared and partially restored.  One can easily obtain an after-hours pass which enables you to watch sunset and sunrise atop the pyramids, and enjoy the more active wildlife.  We have not been there yet.  In the other direction, just on the other side of the Guatemala-Honduras border lie the Copan ruins, and although not large in comparison, they offer amazingly well-preserved carvings not found at Tikal.

Another highlight, in the southern mountains and surrounded by active volcanoes, is the very picturesque Antigua, formerly the capital of Guatemala until an earthquake in 1773 destroyed it.  This brightly painted town retains its historic charm with interesting ruins and cobblestone roads throughout, and caters to the international traveler from a 5-star hotel (beautifully built around monastery ruins) to backpackers dormitories, a great range of restaurants and bars, and neat shopping for any budget.  Antigua is internationally known for its Spanish immersion schools where you can live with a local family.  In the same region is scenic Lake Atitlan, also surrounded by volcanoes and 12 villages named after the 12 apostles, and the popular town of Chichicastenango with its huge outdoor market twice a week.  This area is where you shop for bargains on the meticulously made, hand-woven Mayan textiles, brightly colored and elaborately designed, for which Guatemala is known.  (Each Maya village has their own design, so it's easy to identify a person's origin.)  There are several other places also of interest to us to see in Guatemala.  So far, our side trips have been to Guatemala City, and Antigua for 3 weeks.  We plan to visit the above places and more.

Despite all the hardships and poverty suffered by the Guatemalan people for so long, we are finding everyone to be very friendly, polite, helpful and unhurried.  They are happy people and make the most of what they have.  We find the adults and children alike to be very curious of us gringos, wanting to know more about us.  Most probably have never been outside of their village or town.  Family is very important, and typically the extended family lives together in one house or a cluster of houses, which is passed down to the next generations.  The majority of Guatemalans live in a one-room house of stone/wood poles/mud, concrete blocks or brick with roofs of thatch, tile or tin.  Floors are dirt and they have a fireplace but no chimney (yep, the smoke goes indoors and does cause health problems).

The people are very hardworking (you seldom see people just sitting around like you do in many Caribbean islands and Venezuela), and unfortunately, they still do everything the hard way - e.g., you seldom see dollies or wheelbarrows.  Men and women routinely carry enormous loads on their backs, frequently a head strap around the forehead supports a sling used to carry a huge bag.  Women carry young children or other loads using a very long and wide "sash", tzut, wrapped around the shoulder and waist, and women and young girls carry heavy loads on their heads.  It is not uncommon to see a woman with a large load on her head, a small child slung from her back and another load in front. 

The Guatemalan women take much pride in their appearance and surprisingly a large number of women and girls wear their native dress of the hand-woven textiles - you see them pretty much everywhere except in cosmopolitan Guatemala City.  More on that later.   





Tarzan territory


Family of 6 in cayuca - the woman is the only one paddling - very typical

Typical village


One of many pallets of fish sun drying



RIO DULCE,  MAY 9, 2006 --        :  ARGO will spend hurricane (rainy) season (June 1 - November 30) in probably the best hurricane hole in the Caribbean: the Rio Dulce river in Guatemala.  The Rio Dulce is a 25-mile long river starting at large Lake Izabal fed by runoff from the mountains to the west, winding through the jungles and surrounded by high mountains, and emptying along Guatemala's scanty 36-mile Caribbean coastline.  The only hitch is crossing the shallow mud bars at the mouth of the river at Livingston:  At mean low water the bar depth is only 5'5".  We draw 6'4" (i.e., we need 6'4" of water under the boat before touching).  This necessitates crossing the bar at highest tide, which occurs during full or new moons.  The highest the tide ever gets is 7'5" and tide tables predicted we would see 7'2".   On May 13 we leave our anchorage at Cabo Tres Puntas in the dark, transit the Bay of Honduras and arrive at the lone buoy marking the beginning of the shallow bars - this is the only navigation aid - on a rising tide, about half an hour before it will peak at 7:44 a.m.  Using waypoints from other cruisers and landmarks, we "blindly" motor in at moderate speed, surprisingly seeing 5'9" a couple of times and less than 6' for half a mile, but we never slow.  Whew, we passed our bar exam!


We anchor at Livingston for the night and, as we have heard from others, experience a truly efficient clearing in process:  Customs and immigrations visited our boat promptly upon arrival, providing us with a numbered map and instructions on where to go, how much to pay and locations of ATMs - a total of 5 stops.  Livingston is unique to Guatemala in that it is populated primarily by the Garifuna Indians, a mixture of Carib Indian and African, known for their distinctive music and more African appearance.  Due to increasing winds and wild currents that kept swinging ARGO around on her anchor, we did not feel comfortable leaving her that evening for dinner and local music.


Early the next morning, we set out for a solitude cruise up the Rio Dulce river, navigating the winding river through 300 ft. limestone canyons dense with palm trees and jungle foliage.  This is where the Tarzan movies with Johnny Weismueller were filmed.  The familiar ocean sounds we are accustomed to hearing are replaced by the eerie, but alluring, high pitched jungle noises of birds, monkeys and who knows what else.  We see many cayucas, small dugout canoes powered by an oar, with the locals fishing or families traveling quietly.  A very peaceful trip up the river which opens up into the Golfete, a large but shallow gulf where we anchor for the night at Gringo Bay, home of Jennifer, friend-of-the-cruisers.  As a transplanted Minnesotan, she is well known on the river and sells fresh robalo (snook) fillets and smoked (which rivals any smoked salmon we've ever had), fresh basil, coconut oil and she makes courtesy flags among other things.


20 miles up the river is our new home for the season at Monkey Bay Marina (see below).  It is situated in the beautiful orchid- and bromeliad-rich jungle, with howler monkeys plentiful.  It is very peaceful and pleasant and we have thoroughly enjoyed our stay here. 


Of the 22 boats here at Monkey Bay now, 8 boats are liveaboards with  6 of them from Texas (Port Aransas and Houston).  The other boats are in "storage" while their owners are away.  Incidentally, the boat next to us had a friend visiting from California when we arrived at Monkey Bay.  Turns out that we went to Gordon West's Radio (HAM) School in Alemeda with this friend in 2001, and during that weekend Gordon called our Monkey Bay neighbor as a demonstration during class - what a small world, once again! 


ARGO 3rd from left

To small ranchito, docks

Hear and see Howler Monkey VIDEO

Howler monkey snoozing after breakfast


From big ranchito, ARGO + dinghy to left of Steve


Monkey mommy with baby


Big ranchito with lots of hammocks, swings, tables, kitchen.  During June's "flood" river was only a few inches from its beautiful tongue'n groove wood floor


MONKEY BAY MARINA is a small, quiet 22-boat marina, accessible only by water (good for security, along with the 2 dogs), is probably the nicest and most secure marina available on the river.  It has new, sturdily built docks, pilings (so you don't have to med moor) and finger piers with side boards (so your boat doesn't get caught under the pier when the river level drops).  Another big plus is that it has a very large, reliable generator so that when the local power goes out, as it frequently does especially during rainy season, the generator kicks on.  It's located on a river bend, so it enjoys strong breezes in the afternoon (more so than any other marina) that keeps things very comfortable.  These features make it very desirable.

It has 2 ranchitos (thatched roof, open-air palapas built over the water) with swings, hammocks and tables.  A brand new 3rd ranchito now contains the kitchenette facilities with propane grill and cooktop.  Other amenities include bathroom/ shower,  washer/ dryer, full-size community refrigerator/ freezer/ ice maker, wireless internet, DVD player, board games, books and a large workshop with storage out back.  And of course the honor bar is always stocked with cold beer and other drinks.  Monkey Bay has a lancha (large hard dinghy) that we use for group dinners out or for "field trips". 

We pay (in 2006) US$170/month + electricity.  Water -- filtered, chlorinated and UV'd -- is free.  We do run our A/C, otherwise the rain will eventually create a mold/mildew problem inside.  We thoroughly waterproofed all our outdoor canvas before we left so it should be fine. 

There is no restaurant or bar so it keeps the place quiet with little traffic, which we like.  Other marinas have restaurants, bars, pools, social events, swap meets, etc. that we can use.

The marina is visually very appealing, nestled in the jungle.  There are huge orchids and bromeliads all over the place, and nicely landscaped by the owner's wife with colorful foliage, ginger, bird of paradise, heliotropes and numerous other flowering plants.  The howler monkeys frequently hang out in the trees, at times startling us with their very loud growling sounds.  We've seen one boa constrictor curled up in a tree. 

A curiosity here, and entertainment as well, is the sudden appearance of thousands of large army ants.  In follow-the-leader fashion, they invade an area looking for roaches, spiders and scorpions, and disappear just as quickly as they came.  The other day, a line of army ants extended from one ranchito, down 2 walkways and into the big ranchito, heading off in several directions including the roof support beams, and literally within 15 minutes they had reversed direction and disappeared, taking a spider with them.  Really amazing to watch. 

The marina is owned by a Guatemalan-born German and is currently managed by a couple who cruised here from Texas.  The owner, who lives with his family in Guatemala City, originally bought the property as a weekend house so that his kids and their friends would have a place to play, swim and boat at leisure without any worries.  There's even a zip line from one ranchito to the other across the water!

See for their website.

Big ranchito

New kitchen ranchito (11/06)



Big ranchito at sunset



Workshop out back - a good place to monkey-watch


The Rio Dulce area has more than a dozen marinas ranging in size from a few boats to 75 boats, all within about 3 miles of each other.  Each marina is unique in it's atmosphere and cruiser appeal, although most are quite picturesque with landscaped grounds amid the wild jungle growth, thatched ranchitos and  walkways over the water.  The river here is about 1/2 mile wide and at times strange "whirlpools" form due to the river outflow and tidal changes.  The water is not clear, but green/muddy from the mountain runoff.  The mornings are still, but the winds pick up steadily in the afternoon.  This makes Monkey Bay very comfortable in the afternoon, but can also cause the river to develop some choppiness.

As distances traveled on the river can be a few miles by water and the afternoon winds/currents can make it choppy/whirly, we bought a 13 ft. lancha, a hard fiberglass dinghy of sorts, from another cruiser and are using that, with our 15 hp outboard, to travel the river now.  It makes it faster and easier for commuting or exploring, although our regular inflatable would have worked OK here.  We should have no problem selling the lancha to another cruiser when we leave.  Our dinghy is currently stored on ARGO's foredeck.


*  *  *  Click above to enlarge panoramic view and see labels  *  *  *

These pictures were taken from the top of Guatemala's highest bridge - and the longest (1 kilometer) in Central America  - they are quite proud of it.  It is a local tourist attraction and buses, vans and other travelers frequently stop and get out at the top for a look. 

The bridge is quite long and a group from Monkey Bay briskly walk the bridge most mornings.  Two round trips is 2.5 miles, making for a good workout.  At the top we usually run into two enterprising men with Polaroid cameras who take pictures of the tourists - amusingly, many photos are done with the people posed in front of their truck or car, not in front of the scenery!.  They, and the other locals, think that us gringos are "muy loco" - they cannot understand why we walk for exercise.  Commuter vans slow down thinking that surely we would want a ride.  Alternatively, we have found a nice walk just out of town that takes us out into the country/jungle on paved roads but with little traffic.  


The closest town is Fronteras, although the locals call it Rio Dulce.  (If you ride the long-distance bus and say you want to go to "Fronteras", you will be dropped off at the Guatemala/Honduras border as that is the "frontier"; this happened to a cruiser.)  Fronteras is about a mile from Monkey Bay on the other side of the river.  It's pretty typical with everything located along the one main street, including numerous outdoor produce markets and street food vendors.  As it is the main thoroughfare for this part of the country, there's a lot of traffic including 18 wheelers and trucks hauling cattle.  We buy our produce at the outdoor markets (always wash everything in chlorinated water back on the boat) and there are several mini-marts and one large grocery store for groceries and specialty deli items.  Casa Guatemala (benefits Guatemalan orphans), which has a store and also comes by lancha to the marina twice a week, always has very good meats, large selection of cheeses, great yogurt, yummy sour cream (a cross between American sour cream and cream cheese), so getting good, fresh food is not a problem.

As mentioned above, it is rainy season, and as such we were expecting rain 24x7.  But that isn't the case.  It's kind of like Florida where you get afternoon rain every day.  Around June 1st, we started getting afternoon rain and/or rain during the night.  Yes, it can be torrential, but typically it's off and on so you can make a dash across the river before the next shower.  We have actually enjoyed it as the rain and clouds keep the temperatures pleasant.

However, a couple of weeks ago the nighttime rains were unrelenting to the point that the river rose over 3 feet within a week, putting the dock only 2 inches above water. The river came very close to record heights reached 11 years ago when hurricane Mitch came through the region.  We never lost electricity and everything stayed above water.  But Monkey Bay was the only marina so fortunate.  All the other marinas were under water and most, if not all, lost electricity.  As of this writing, the water is subsiding an inch or two a day, but it still has a long way to go.  Some marinas are still without power (electrical boxes under water) and most docks/buildings are starting to dry out.  Within 2 hours one night, our lancha (hard dinghy) had filled to the point it might go under, so bailing is sometimes necessary during the night.  Steve's in the process of procuring parts to build a bilge pump with a floater switch that plugs into the cockpit 12-volt plug, thus allowing for unattended automatic bailing.   

As we end this section I can report that the river has almost fallen to the level it was at the end of June - 2 months ago.  The largest marina on the river was without electricity to the docks for a full month, but we never lost it here at Monkey Bay.  Last Saturday we participated in a Poker Run (more of a crawl than a race) - by dinghy you go to 8 marinas, buy a drink and look around, pick up a poker card (sealed in envelope) at each and then return to the starting point to see who can make the best poker hand out of their 8 cards.  Of course the hand is all luck, but the real purpose is to get people to visit other marinas and meet new cruisers.  It is the end of August now and although there are roughly 400 boats here on the Rio, there are not that many cruisers as most take this opportunity (hurricane season) to visit family and friends.  Things should start jumping in a month or two as people return to their boats and start preparing to leave after the hurricane season.  The only "big" boat project we've had was our hot water heater sprung a leak.  We still had hot water while we waited for another to show up from the U.S. (had to have the exact same one as the space for it is "exact"), and a few weeks later it got installed.


Does anybody really know what time it is?   Well, actually NO.   Mexico is the only country in Central America that observes Daylight Savings Time (DST) due to some NAFTA agreement or something, so we change our clocks while in Isla Mujeres, Mexico in April accordingly, just like in the States.  Then just prior to leaving Belize for our trip across the bar in Guatemala, there are numerous discussions on both the local and regional radio nets as to whether Guatemala is now observing DST or not - about half of Guatemala is reportedly trying out DST.  This leads to the question of which time the tide tables (for crossing the bar) use - an hour off could mean getting stuck on the bar!  Between the tide tables on the internet, The Cap'n, Nobeltec and other applications, DST and Standard Time (ST) are both used (even though, I think, historically Guatemala has always been on ST).  A week later, we hear that now Honduras has decided to give DST a go, too.  Also affected are the various SSB and Ham nets that broadcast based on UTC/GMT/Zulu time, so you have to mentally adjust your time to compensate for this difference.   

Now that we're in Guatemala, everybody is observing DST, so we assume Belize is the only country in this region still on ST.




Two cruisers playing their alpenhorns at Casa Perico after dinner.  They carry them on their boats (they come apart in segments).   They actually made good music and were entertaining.


Guatemala continued .  .  .

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