It's A Jungle Out There

By Douglas Bernon
August 24, 2001
Fronteras, on the Río Dulce, Guatemala
15 38. 98 N 89 00.10 W

Photo of walkway at Marina Tortuga Walkway at Marina Tortugal.

Today, for the first time in 2001, I took an honest-to-God hot shower-not a three-minute, solar-heated-hanging-bag-drizzly-hot shower, and not a one-gallon, garden-sprayer-misting-lukewarm shower, but a long, hot, soak where there's a nozzle over your head and gallons of artesian-well hot water, as many gallons as you want, that come flooding out and ping off your body. I've heard other cruisers talk about this particular thrill, and now, you can add my name to those who think this is an experience close to God. Fact is, this is an experience I expect to repeat a couple of times a day in this 95-degree, 100-percent humidity climate.

We tied up today at Marina Tortugal. Now, we have a pair of bow lines leading through Ithaka's forward chocks to a mooring, and our 45-pound CQR anchor is out for extra protection. There are two stern lines and two spring lines tied to the dock behind us. Everyone at Tortugal is Med-moored, but everyone means precious few people. There's an Italian couple, an Argentinean family, a Canadian couple, two French families, and a half dozen more boats that are being stored for the hurricane season.

Photo of Ithaka docked at Tortugal Marina Ithaka in a Med-moor, her stern to the dock.

Because of the robbery problems last winter, the Río is even less crowded than usual, and there probably aren't 75 yachts on the entire river. When we arrived here in Fronteras, we anchored in a basin near the bridge. Fronteras is a well-named, end-of-the-road, gritty, hardscrabble little patch of nowhere. It's the kind of place where you put a three-point bridle on your dinghy, hitch it to a halyard, and haul it to the height of your cabin roof, while cabling the outboard, the oars and the engine to a pad eye on the deck, which is why all the marinas have 24-hour armed guards.

We dinghied to each marina, to check them out, and immediately chose Tortugal, which had been recommended to us by a number of French and British cruisers we'd met in Belize. Their price was competitive, only $120 for a month, and they knocked off another $10 when we agreed to pay in advance. Here's what we chose among: Monkey Bay Marina had two of their four slips available, but no facilities to speak of. Mungo Bay Marina was fine but offered nothing special. Tijax Marina is large but was a tad grungy for our taste. It was, though, much cheaper than anyone else. Mario's Marina, which has the lion's share of boats here, maybe 40 or more right now, has a pool, a small store, and cable TV on all the time in its bar and restaurant. It's essentially an all-American hive, and while that may have some appeals, it's not what we were craving right now. Susannah's Marina is in a perfect hurricane hole, but there's no breeze in there, and two of the buildings were tipping into the water, which didn't inspire confidence. Bruno's Marina is right under the bridge at Fronteras, and while it has the internet café on premises, you can still dinghy there to use it without actually having to live in the dreadful little town.

Photo of bar and office at Tortugla marina Bar and office.

Tortugal is a paradise in the Río. It may not have a full restaurant, but there are lots of good ones just a short dinghy ride away. It has a picturesque palapa bar right on the water, with original art painted on all the table tops, a billiard room, and full bookcases. There's a pretty communal eating area built at the end of one of the docks, which is equipped with a propane stove and sinks, tables and chairs, for everyone to use. The docks and grounds are beautifully designed and maintained, and there's an international ambiance that feels right. Everything here has been rebuilt within the past two years. Plus, the extraordinary craftsmanship and flare of the place speaks to the attitude of the owner and the manager who have imbued the facility with a droll humor and warmth. Owned by an American-Guatemalan woman, managed by a Swiss who is himself a former cruiser — both keep their own sailboats at the dock — guarded by a small man with a large gun, there's a feeling of quiet ease here. It's essentially a full-service operation; in your absence they'll open your boat on sunny days to air it out. Plus, Tortugal gets a great, unobstructed breeze; and, unlike all the other marinas, it's located upriver from Fronteras, so the town's waste flows away from and not right past us. A marina gets big points for that.

Photo of restroom signs at Tortuga marina Men's and Women's Room Signs at Tortuga.

As nice as it is here, it's still a jungle out there, and we're in the middle of it. Back at Ak'Tenamit, which is only a few hours downriver, just this month they killed a fer-de-lance snake in the middle of the clinic. Locals call these small, venomous, and aggressive animals "three-steppers," because once they bite you, that's how far you can still stumble in this life. Yesterday, here at Tortugal, a woman walking bare-foot to the shower stepped on a scorpion. It's all a reminder that we're nestled in a temporary oasis carved out of a sticky and often treacherous garden, and there are no protective barriers that can guard against the realities of Mother Nature. We are the interlopers.

This week, we're living in the chaos of reorganizing and cleaning Ithaka from stem to stern. After more than a year on board, we know better what we need and don't need and what requires ready access versus what can be stowed three layers down. Being in the jungle, where even people can mildew between breakfast and lunch, forces us to get serious about cleaning immediately. Being tied at a marina makes it all possible. Because this is the hottest, stickiest, wettest place either of us has ever been, we've taken every single item we own out of every cabinet, drawer, locker and hidey-hole; wiped them and the boat down with clean fresh water and bleach to discourage mildew; tucked Bounce fabric-softening sheets under, in and around everything, hung mildew-prevention bags everywhere; dried out our life as best we could; culled through what we can get rid of, and donated several bags of the rest to the local Casa Guatemala orphanage; repacked the boat and made the first decent inventory we've ever had.

Photo of dinghy dock behind Ithaka Dinghy dock behind Ithaka.

We know we'll do some inland travel, and Bernadette says she looks forward to coming back each time to an organized home. She's knocked herself out making sure that's so. We've put more bay leaves in the food to protect against weevils, mixed what we're told is a sure-fire anti-roach concoction and placed it in a score of places so that should these ubiquitous flying creatures, each one as long as a dachshund, find their way in, at least their lives will be short. The recipe is courtesy of Mickey Zachry, on Eastwind. She and her family have lived here for seven years and run a marine services company called The Shop. Here's the mix she recommends for roach slaughter: Take 12 ounces of boric acid. Add one chopped onion, one cup of flour, 1/4 cup sugar, 1/2 cup margarine and enough water to form a thick paste.

Even leaving the boat closed here for as little as a week is an invitation for a mildew-fest. So, we've washed the salt off our foul-weather and diving gear, even washed the lines and dried them in the sun. The fridge and stove are scoured within an inch of their lives, and every zipper we own has a fresh lubrication with a Teflon gel. The mainsail is covered and bound and our genoa is wound tight and secured. The decks are clear. The winches and hatches are covered. Our engine has fresh oil and transmission fluid; the water tanks have an extra hit of bleach in them. The batteries are topped off; the awnings are up; the boat feels ready for the jungle, and so do we.