“I call it ‘the trap’. You think you gonna go there and stay for a week; you get there and stay for a year. Some people stay there forever, never leave,” Leonardo, a sailor and a dear friend of ours we met in Cuba, told us a few weeks ago.
Notorious among cruisers for being a place protected from hurricanes, Rio Dulce has become a main destinations for boaters from around the world during the stormy summer months. We also came here to hide from the hurricanes and Rio Dulce quickly became home.
Rio Dulce is a small area nine miles upriver from the town of Livingston, at the edge of Lago Izabal. All there is here is a bridge linking two aldeas (small villages), Fronteras and El Relleno, and the many marinas and anchorages in the waters around them.
In 1980 a massive cement bridge designed by the US Army Corp of Engineers was built by a Puerto Rican company. Standing 90 feet above the water, the bridge connects the east and the west banks of the river and the main road between Guatemala City and Tikal with lots of heavy truck and bus traffic. On the east bank of the bridge is the small village El Relleno, and on the west bank is the bigger town of Fronteras.
In the past few years Fronteres grew from a bus stop to a small town with everything that a small town might need: a school, a clinic, a post office, a few banks, many small shops, hardware stores, panaderias (bakeries), cernicerias (meat shops), shoe shine stands, pharmacies, fruit and vegetable stands all perched on both sides of the main road, the same heavy-truck-and-bus-traffic-road.
By the way, there are no sidewalks, you exit a small shop and you are on the street. It is an adventure shopping there especially on market day, which is Tuesday, when the vegetable stands are packed with fresh produce (always at very low prices) and everyone, locals and cruisers, are out to stock up.
El Relleno, on the other side of the bridge, is nothing like Fronteres. It never grew up. There isn’t a busy market street, but a few tienditas (small shops) on the ground floor of people’s houses and a small primary school where our daughter Maya, almost ten, has been accepted in fourth grade and is currently studying along with the local kids, learning Spanish.
And then there are the surrounding waters with their many marinas and anchorages, a city of masts. There are probably more boats here than houses in the two villages, and more boaters, mainly Americans and French cruisers, than locals. Twenty five years ago, there was only one marina in the area. Today there are about twenty competing to attract clientele. Each one has excellent services and amenities. Electricity, water, hot showers, laundry 24-hour security, book exchange, trash disposal, open air community rooms under grass canopy roofs and hanging flowers, work-shops, tiendas, beautifully decorated restaurants and bars under thatched roof, swimming pools, Wi Fi, gym, beach volleyball, tennis and pool rooms. Many of these marinas are accessible only by water and are surrounded by jungle. Some even offer jungle bungalows for rent. The best thing about all these marinas is their prices ranging from US$ 150 to US$ 250 per month. In United States you would pay more only for your monthly gym fee.
Us, and all the other boaters not staying in any marina but anchoring out for free wherever we chose for the week, are welcome to use some of the nearest marina services gratis. We have been welcomed to all the dinghy docks, swimming pools, volleyball courts, book exchange, and Wi Fi, as well as to free popcorn movie nights, Wednesday at Mar Marine and Saturday at Tortugal, yoga and Pilates groups every morning in Mar Marine and Bruno’s, watercolor painting groups Wednesday mornings at Bruno’s, Pot Luck Dinner Monday evenings at Mario’s marina. Every Sunday there is the boaters’ inter-exchange market happening at Mar Marine, where cruisers bring anything they want to get rid of and try to sell it. Here you can buy used boat parts, anchors, generators, cruising guides, even used clothes and shoes.
It is easy to feel home in a place like this. Here we met new friends, young cruising families with kids, and with all those activities our days are pretty busy. And there is so much to explore around Lago Izabal and beyond. Rio Dulce is a trap, such a lovely place…