Bellying Up To The Río Dulce Bar

By Douglas Bernon
July 27, 2001
On the Río Dulce River, Guatemala
15 46.71 N 88 48.17 W

There were only three possible places we could get in trouble between the Sapodilla islands of Belize, and Livingston Harbor, just inside the mouth of Guatemala's river called Río Dulce. All were shallows. The first two turned out to be no problem, and that left only crossing the skinny, unbuoyed bar that, at its deepest, runs just six feet below the surface and stretches for nearly a mile across the entrance to the river. From sea we couldn't spot the opening to the Río. It's a slight dogleg to the right, and it's well hidden among the trees all around it even as you actually look up the river. The sun was up as we approached the coordinates where we thought we ought to switch to our entering bearing, and this helped.

Before making our actual approach to the harbor, we took care of our flags, lowering Belize's colors and hoisting Guatemala's and the yellow quarantine burgee. We get an incredible kick out of this ceremony on Ithaka because it means we're entering another country. Maybe someday the thrill will diminish. But at that moment, you could have stuck an Afghani spleef the size of a corncob in my mouth, and I wouldn't have gotten any higher than I was raising Guatemala's blue and white stripes. There's something about knowing you're in for new foods and new sights and new adventures, for a culture that's unlike the one you were in the day before, for new boating buddies and native friends.

Photo of raising the Q-flag and the flag of Guatemala Raising a new flag and lowering an old one is reason for celebration on Ithaka.

It feels different to arrive somewhere by sailboat rather than by airplane. Maybe it's the slowness of one's movement and the longer span of anticipation; maybe, too, it's the greater effort required and the satisfaction of knowing your labors had something to do with getting there. It's probably all those, plus the tension of having to contend with a different set of government officials to gain permission to bring your home into their waters, to be granted the right to live among their people for some spell of time.

Because of the shallow bar, we wanted to have everything in our favor entering the Río Dulce. After all, our keel goes down just as far as the bar comes up, making it an even draw in flat water. So we arrived close to the full moon to take advantage of the month's higher tides and prepared to enter on the flood, which, according to the tide tables, should have given us another 1.7 feet of skate-on-through depth.

There are many theories about the best place to enter Livingston Harbor and the best bearing to follow. Of course many are contradictory. We consulted fellow deep-draft cruising sailors, gathered their waypoints and perspectives, listened to discussions on the net, checked the guidebooks, and came up with a plan. Most people try to time their arrival at the outside sea buoy for a half hour before high tide, and start puttering on in. That sounded good to us, so we rose early at Punta Manabique, just a dozen miles away, trolled two fishing lines, and enjoyed our last sail before the hurricane season put the skids under us.

Photo of leaving the turquoise waters of the northwest Caribbean behind We were leaving the turquoise waters of the northwest Caribbean behind for a while, and entering the freshwater world of Guatemala's "sweet river."

Our intention was to leave the sea buoy about 200 yards to port and take a course of 225 degrees while lining up on a house with a red roof up the river. When half its roof becomes hidden by a bend in the river, the Río cognoscenti say, take a quick turn to a bearing of 205 degrees for about a quarter mile. Then, when the water deepens by another foot, turn to a course of 300 degrees and poke on over toward the Texaco fuel dock where there's eight feet of water. Once your hook is down off the town of Livingston, you hail the port captain by VHF, so he can come by launch and conduct his onboard inspection. All this seemed straightforward enough, but Frank Schooley's Cruising Guide to the Río Dulce offer this useful warning: "The port captain was having a devil of a time keeping the buoy in place ... because the tow operators would set it adrift whenever he replaced it."

It was our good fortune that no one had cut loose the buoy, and it was pretty much where we expected it to be. The sun was essentially behind us, and we were feeling pretty smug. Gradually, as a small opening in the trees grew larger against the mountain backdrop, we could distinguish the entrance to the river from the green hills behind. There are few buildings on the mountainside; we found the house with a red roof at just about 225 degrees and headed on in, watching the depth sounder read three feet under the keel, then two, then one ...

After all our preparations to get into Livingston by floating over the bar, we furrowed right into that sucker. The usual and favorable easterly trades had yet to pipe up for the day. A modest land effect, combined with an almost unheard-of west wind, we reckoned later, must have blown the top layer of the river right out to sea, reducing the depth from the seven and a half feet we hoped for to about five and a half feet, which is six and one quarter inches too few. Yup, we bellied up to the bar in no time at all, going a soft bumpity bumpity bump, till we stopped. Not surprisingly, the Happy Vulture Towing Company was idling nearby and didn't even wait for us to beckon them on the VHF. They just pulled right up and tossed us a line. At first they wanted $50, and even though we were in an unfavorable bargaining position, we worked the price down to $30.

Photo of sailing into Guatemala One of our first up-close views of Guatemala.

It was a most inglorious arrival, and as I sat on the bow, staring up the tow line to the little tug, that rope felt not so much like an umbilical cord as trunk-to-tail among the elephants in a circus parade, with Ithaka staring at the least attractive part of the preceding beast. But even that didn't matter too much, because as we looked to the side, as we were pulled over the soft sand bar, before us were the beautiful mountains of Guatemala and the promise of a new adventure.

Livingston is a Rasta town with a hot, drowsy, down-at-the-heels, wild-west feeling: steep streets, some paved and some dirt; scrappy buildings; open-air, dusty restaurants and bars; everyone moving at a languid pace. During the 19th century it was Guatemala's main port, shipping out fruit and coffee and hardwoods. Today it's the country's only black town, a burg of 3,000 Caribs, Garifuna, Mayans, and Mestizos, and a slew of backpackers, many of whom are sitting on the curbs, drinking beer, eating lunch, watching the world. There's a tough, gritty feel here. Once we processed through customs and immigration and grabbed a quick lunch of beans and rice, we weighed anchor to head up the river.

Photo of ambling along on the hills of Livingston in Guatemala Life ambles along on the hills of Livingston.

After motoring through the entry chop for about half a mile, we turned right into deep, calmer water and a pandemonium of greens: steep-walled white limestone cliffs that swallowed us whole as we entered the same gorge that John Lloyd Stephens came through 150 years ago. Stephens, my favorite American travel writer of any era, wandered all through the Yucatán and Central America, and put 10 years of adventure into the wonderful, and still-in-print, "Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and the Yucatan". Here is his 1841 description of the first six miles of the Rio Dulce, unchanged and perfectly accurate today.

"On each side, rising perpendicularly from three to four hundred feet, was a wall of living green. Trees grew from the water's edge, with dense unbroken foliage to the top; not a spot of barrenness was to be seen; and from both sides, from the tops of the highest trees, long tendrils descended to the water, as if to drink and carry life to the trunks that bore them. It was, as its name imports, a Río Dulce, a fairy scene of Titan land, combining exquisite beauty with collossal grandeur. As we advanced, the passage turned, we lost sight of the sea and were enclosed on all sides by a forest wall; but the river, although showing us no passage, still invited us onward."

As we came out of the gorge, we listened to the screech of monkeys and watched hawks, kingfishers, cormorants, pelicans, egrets, and parrots go about their hunts. Once the river widened and the cliffs softened into hills, there were occasional huts and homes and two churches. Mostly there was just an otherworldly feeling from an antediluvian time. We anchored about 10 miles up the river, just off to one side, and this morning, from three to six I sat naked in the cockpit enjoying a hard rain and a serious scrub. As the mist gradually gave way, I watched dozens of snowy egrets dive for fish, then return to their tree perches, white decorations on a mountain wall of Christmas trees and palms.

Photo of sailing through the canyons in Guatemala Sea Camp follows us through the canyons.

Our first anchorage here is near a smaller estuary called Río Tatin. There are some houses on the right and left, thatched huts with rickety docks, young men in long cayukas (dug-out canoes) casting their fishing nets, and plenty of laughing, sometimes shrieking, boys in shorter, shallow mahogany cayukas, paddling here and there, reminding me of kids on bicycles, going nowhere in particular but doing it ever so quickly.

Because we're in a wide twist in the river, we can't see the opening from the canyon behind us nor the entry to the canyon ahead. It's as if we're in a large tidal lake, with more gentle hills immediately around us and a background of greater mountains in the distance, their caps hidden in blue-gray mist. We're anchored in a freshwater river in the middle of a jungle, and both of us have to pinch ourselves to make sure this is real. For the first time since we set sail from Newport, more than a year ago, we've erected Ithaka's large canvas boat awning. No plans to leave this spot soon.