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Monday, May 28, 2012

From Mayans to Margaritas


At the end of every sailing season we like to take a week or so and indulge in some land travel.  This time – after 12months on Bandit, 7000 nautical miles and an Atlantic crossing – we were more than ready to get off the boat and work our way from the Rio Dulce in Guatemala up to Cancun in Mexico.   

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With Bandit safely on the hard (after we’ spent a busy week taking off sails, stowing clothes and linen, cleaning etc), we jumped on a bus and headed to El Remate – a tiny town in north east Guatemala near the magnificent Mayan ruins of Tikal.DSC_0151

 We’d heard lots about Tikal but nothing quite prepared us for the magnificence of these Mayan ruins - the astonishing ancient temples and structures are simply breathtaking.


Tikal is considered one of the finest Mayan sites and is unique in that the ruins are nestled in thick jungle.  Spread over a huge area (about 23 sq km) it takes some walking to take in all the structures and only 80% have been excavated – many are still covered in centuries of accumulated soil and jungle.  It certainly deserves its UNESCO rating.


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The 5am wake up was worth it as we had the site to ourselves and climbed to the top of the 70m Temple 1V in total privacy.  It was breathtakingly beautifully sitting high above the jungle canopy looking through the morning mist to other temples poking up.


As we wandered through the huge site we saw spider monkeys swinging in the tree tops, strange native turkeys (like peacocks) wandering around and other odd animals including a furry thing like a fox.  At times it was quite spooky being on our own.

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One of the temples had incredibly steep wooden steps to the top which made us wonder just what OSH would have to say about it.  Several people have been killed and injured falling from temples and steps…..but you are still able to climb most of the structures! 


After three days in El Remate, including a day trip to the island of Flores and the markets in Santa Elena, we continued on towards Mexico via Belize.

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This wasn’t a straightforward trip - it involved three countries, two border crossings and the entire day on buses.  But we had no desire to stop in Belize so decided to do it all in one hit.


Another early start for the 7am bus……and a four hour ride to Belize City with only a short delay at the border.  We had to get off the bus and carry our luggage through.  The bus driver had told us we had to pay to leave Guatemala but we’d heard otherwise so when the immigration official asked for money we shook our heads.  He didn’t push it….talk about corrupt!  Wonder how many get sucked in?


Our bus from Belize to Chetumal in Mexico was a chicken bus – an ex American school bus with hard bench seats and open window air con.  We got on apprehensively but it was great – the music blared out, everyone seemed happy and friendly and the scenery was interesting.  After 10 hours of travelling on scruffy and uncomfortable buses, through three countries and two border crossings, we were ready for some comfort.  It was delightful to find this scene awaiting us…….


Casita Caroline in Bacalar was recommended by Kiwi friend Mike White – an inveterate traveller who constantly gives us good advice about off the track places.  This one was no exception – a gorgeous spot on a magical lake.  A swim was first up followed closely by margaritas and enchiladas at a local bar.  Mexico was looking good!

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Bacalar was a pleasant enough little town and we easily whittled away a few days wandering the town, swimming in the lake and enjoying dirt cheap Mexican food….and indulging in those margaritas of course!


Sadly…the rest of Mexico – from Bacalar to Cancun airport, with an overnight stop at Puerto Moralis – was a huge disappointment.  The bus ride was boring – you couldn’t see a thing from the bus for the roadside jungle…which wasn’t even interesting.  Puerto Moralis was only notable for the best enchiladas and margaritas we’ve yet had! 


Friday, May 18, 2012

Life on the Rio Dulce


Crocodiles, malaria carrying mosquitoes, fire ants that live up to their name and temperatures in the mid 30s with 100% humidity – welcome to Guatemala Dr Ropata! 


We’ve had a fascinating time since arriving at our hurricane hole 30km up the Rio Dulce in Guatemala.  This is the most popular place in the western Caribbean to hide during hurricane season and there are hundreds of yachts/motorboats here.  It’s unlike anywhere else we’ve been not only because it’s fresh water but because the marinas are mostly small, family run businesses.  They’re friendly, cheap and they bend over backwards to make your stay as enjoyable as possible.


Fronteras is the town here and it’s very local…..just the odd yachtie walking around buying fresh fruit and veges at the street stalls….hardly a tourist in sight.  Produce is dirty cheap – fat and creamy avocados 10cents each, juicy mangos 15cents each, papaya and pineapple 50cents.  In fact most items seem to be “cinco quetzales” per kg…..about 75cents.  Meat, pork and chicken is also cheap and excellent quality…..a good piece of fillet steak for two is $3.


Fronteras is a bustling town with no footpaths.  You weave your way past roadside stalls and shops, dodging scooters and other pedestrians keeping a wary eye out for tuktuks and stock trucks carrying cattle…….no need to go into detail about the danger there! 

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Locals are friendly although quite reserved.  If we say “buenos dias” they reply but seldom instigate a welcome.  Women are very shy and tend to avoid eye contact.  Many dress in traditional clothing and mothers carry babies in slings tied either around their back or head – no strollers here. They’re almost impossible to photograph.


There’s a huge bridge crossing the river here and it takes the main road right through Fronteras and the hundreds of buses and stock trucks that cross it use their exhaust brakes constantly – noisy! 

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When we first arrived it was stinking hot with the mercury hitting 38 degrees most days with 100% humidity.  We got up at 5am to work before it got too hot.  However after a few days the rain came and it was so welcome as the temperature dropped to a mere 30 – 28 at night -  making life much more comfortable and sleeping a breeze.


There’s a huge contrast here between the rich and poor in Guatemala.  We sat on Bandit and watched locals paddling past in dug out canoes fishing while jet skiers flew by heading to their expensive waterfront properties.  Lots of wealthy Guatemalans have holiday homes on the river and there are some amazing complexes, fully staffed.  Many have the distinctive traditional high pitched thatched roof and are often completely open downstairs – amazing to live in such a climate.  


Watching the thatching process is fascinating….the leaves are put on green (unlike in England where it’s quite dry) and they obviously dry out in the intense heat.  It’s labour intensive stuff.



The river is a lifeblood for locals.  They live on it, fish in it and wash themselves, their children and their clothes in it.  We followed their example and had regular cool offs in it hoping they were right when they told us they’d eaten all the crocodiles!DSC_0009

We were incredibly wary of the mosquitoes which carry both malaria and dengue fever but out on the river we only ever saw one.  We’d lather up with DEET before going out but they just weren’t a problem.  The only insect that attacked us were the fire ants which hurt like hell! But then……I was stupid enough to stand on an anthill.


Tortugal marina, where we anchored off, organised lots of activities.  Most intriguing was the demonstration of harvesting and roasting cashew nuts.  The cashew tree produces a fruit from which the cashew seed hangs off.  The nut sits inside a pod which contains poison and needs to be burnt off.  The cashew is then removed from the charred pod.  All this is done by hand so that’s why cashews are so expensive!

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We also went to a fantastic self defence seminar put on by a fellow yachtie and a fun Brazilian night hosted by two visiting Brazilians Luah and Danilo who had spent the past year travelling the world.  They made caipirinhas, usually made with limes, but they made us samples using mango, pineapple, strawberry and grape – delicious!


All too soon haulout day rolled around and we reluctantly upped anchor from outside lovely Tortugal and headed to RAM Marine.  As our lift out time was 8.30am we were up bright and early. 


Hmmm….wondered why we bothered when we were still sitting in the scorching sun at 2pm.  As one American worker said to us – you’re on GMT here…Guatemalan Maybe Time!  It was a very long day.


Friday, May 11, 2012

Things that go bump…..


It was always going to be a close shave – the tide level at the mouth of Guatemala’s Rio Dulce is 2m and Bandit draws 2.06m.  We needed to cross the bar as Bandit is spending hurricane season 30km or so up the river at the town of Fronteras, an incredibly popular and safe hurricane hole for yachts.  We planned to cross on full moon…..but even with the high tide we knew we would bump and grind our way in.  Bandit has been sitting lower and lower in the water the past five years as we’ve added Italian pasta (kilos of it), Moroccan bowls and tagines, Turkish rugs and Sicilian pottery. 


Tension was high as we approached the bar which is unmarked apart from one buoy which wasn’t where it should have been according to our guide.  Most channels have clear markers but not in Guatemala!

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You’ve already guessed that we didn’t make it….under our own steam that is.  We bumped and scraped our way for a bit before coming to a complete halt – hard aground.


A fishing boat was quickly on the scene to offer us a tow “all the way in” for $50US.  They took our halyard and heeled us over and we slowly inched forward but went aground several times until right in the anchorage at Livingston.  Our rescuers then came alongside and announced the fee was now $75 because of the “extra work” involved.  Hmmmm….you can’t argue as you may need them again but it makes the blood boil!  We weren’t the only ones to go aground – a French boat also needed a tow.  A good day for the fishermen.


Several strong coffees later (to sooth frayed nerves) we had a visit from the local agent Raul along with customs, immigration, health and the port captain.  The usual round of paperwork followed and finally we were allowed off Bandit to go into Livingstone to get money out to pay the fishermen, Raul and provision.  Livingstone is not a safe overnight anchorage so we headed up the river.

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Just out of Livingstone the Rio Dulce curves and winds its way through a spectacular canyon (we’d call it a gorge in NZ) smothered with thick jungle ranging in colour from lime and emerald to bottle.


The original Tarzan movie was filmed here and it’s easy to imagine Tarzan and Jane swinging on by – there are plenty of vines for them.


We motored slowly upriver passing shacks with thatched roofs, fishermen in dugout canoes and women washing in the river.  The only sounds were unidentifiable jungle noises. 

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We kept an eye out for crocodiles and manatees – both of which live here - but didn’t see any.  We anchored in Texas Bay for a night – a quiet backwater off El Golfete, a huge lake. There is quite a community here and we enjoyed ice cold beers at the local bar for $1.


We loved watching the local fishermen skilfully casting their nets from their tiny dugout canoes….how on earth do they not tip out? The net falls in a perfect circle on the water and the fisherman hauls it in and picks out the fish caught in the net.  It’s addictive to watch.

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It was a weird feeling being anchored in a lake in the middle of the jungle.  Definitely no swimming here! 


 Next day we continued up the Rio and as we approached the town of Fronteras started passing some pretty upmarket houses with swimming pools and motor boats.  This is where wealthy Guatemalans holiday.  

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It’s a complete change to be on a river instead of the sea and we are missing the cool sea breeze (but not the salt).  Temperatures are in the high 30s and humidity 100%.  To say it’s hot is an understatement!