The Trap

 

 

“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.

 

View of Rio Dulce from the bridge

View of Rio Dulce from the bridge

 

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.

 

The Rio Dulce Bridge

The Rio Dulce Bridge

 

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.

 

The Anchorage in front of Fronteras

The Anchorage in front 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.

 

Quiché women making and selling tortillas in Fronteras

Quiché women making and selling tortillas in Fronteras

 

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.

 

Fronteras Main Street

Fronteras Main Street

 

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.

 

Noial, Kaila, Sofia, and Maya in front of El Relleno Primary School

Noial, Kaila, Sofia, and Maya in front of El Relleno Primary School

 

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.

 

Maya and a friend enjoying the swimming pool at marina Nanajuana

Maya and a friend enjoying the swimming pool at marina Nanajuana

 

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.

 

Ilan, Maya, Noial, and Lovam drawing a Quetzal bird. In Mario's Marina

Ilan, Maya, Noial, and Lovam drawing a Quetzal bird. In Mario’s Marina

 

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…

Mira choosing fruits at the Tuesday market in Fronteras.

Mira choosing fruits at the Tuesday market in Fronteras.

 

 

 

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Waters with a Taste of Mountains.

„First the earth was created, the mountains and the valleys. The waterways were divided, their branches coursing among the mountains. Thus the waters were divided, revealing the great mountains. For thus was the creation of the earth, created then by Heart of Sky and Heart of Earth, as they are called. They were the first to conceive it.“

-Popol Vuh

River and Mountains

River and Mountains

 

Very gently, like a thief entering a sleeping house, the fairy Morgana slides through the gates of the mountain: the mouth of Rio Dulce. It is the entrance to another world. Rocky shores (temples without roofs) overgrown with dark trees. Dark trees (sorcerers with sleeping birds and snakes in the hair) stretching thin fingers down, down to the green waters of the river. Green waters of the river (messenger of the tallest mountain and forgotten places) carrying aromas and the petrified reflections of ancient gods.

 

The Entrance of Rio Dulce

The Entrance of Rio Dulce

 

Nothing happens. Like in a vacuum. Like in a dream. Rocky shores, dark trees, green waters of the river-serpent. Only forest butterflies, men of maize in cayucos carved from tree trunks fishing with nets made out of Mayan secrets, and our alien boat sailing through the mountains perturb the slumber of this enchanted world.

Nothing happens for three days and three nights. We remain anchored near Cayo Quemado, a few mile before the town of Rio Dulce, unable to continue, slowly letting Guatemala soak in our bones through our skins, through our eyes, ears, and mouths.

Our mornings are populated by crystal drizzle, the smell of small fires, and the cry of a black forest bird.

A silent cayuco sneaks next to our boat. A mother with three children older than time are selling tamales. She made them this morning over the fire, with her hands and her magic. She put a chicken bone for a skeleton in the middle of corn-rolls and wrapped them, like you would wrap a newborn baby, in palm leafs. Over the fire, under her spell. They taste of palm leafs, smoke and flesh.

 

Quiche woman with baby selling Tamales from her canoe

Quiche woman with baby selling Tamales from her canoe

 

Our afternoons move slowly in the heat of the summer and even stop for an hour or go backwards. Time here is not the same.

On the second day we meet the river people. Half human half fish they live in the river from the waist down and in the forest from the waist up. They have small wooden houses built on the river banks. Their canoes glide like snakes on the surface of the waters. They have no other roads but the rivers. Their enemies are the invisible river crabs.

 

River People's House

River People’s House

 

Our evenings are purple with white dots. Purple like the mountain. The white dots are river lilies and egrets returning to sleep in the trees.

 

River Lilies

River Lilies

 

Our nights are filled with the distant songs of frogs and cicadas, and the melancholic cries of the river manatees.

 

Sunset over Rio Dulce

Sunset over Rio Dulce

 

Daily prompt 

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Livingston, Home of The Garifuna People of Guatemala.

 „Como se cuenta en las historias que ahora nadie cree -ni las abuelas ni los niños-, esta ciudad fue construida sobre ciudades enterradas en el centro de América. Para unir las piedras de sus muros la mezcla se amasó con leche. Para señalar su primera huella se enterraron envoltorios de tres dieces de plumas y tres dieces de cañutos de oro en polvo junto a la yerba-mala, atestigua un recio cronicón de linajes; en un palo podrido, saben otros, o bien bajo rimeros de leña o en la montaña de la que surgen fuentes.“

(As told in the stories that nobody believes now—neither grandmothers nor children—this city was built over buried cities in the center of America…)

– Guatemala, Leyendas de Guatemala, Miguel Ángel Asturias

Dawn

 

I am navigating in the dark. Time passes slowly when sailing with one knot and those final moments of night seam interminable. I know there is land in front of us just a few miles away, I can see it on the chart. The shores of Guatemala are so close I can scent the dry smell of earth and ancient mysteries. In the dark I can make out nothing more but the contours of mountains, a darker shade of black under the night sky. 

Two miles from land dawn begins to break with the speed of a flower blooming, and the most beautiful view gradually unfolds before my eyes. No more sea but mountain. Dark old cloud-eating mountain. The back of a sleeping monster in whose veins flows the blood of trees and forgotten animals. Green hills on the bank of a river, a home of herons, water lilies, and ghosts.

There, on the shores where the river meets the sea, under the lush chest of the mountain, men built a small town.

 

Livingston

 

Livingston , Guatemala. Hotel and docks.

Livingston , Guatemala. Hotel and docks.

 

Before heading up river to Rio Dulce, we spend a couple of days here dealing with customs and immigration, a lengthy but smooth process, and take advantage of our free time to explore the town. 

Public Laundry, Livingston Gatemala

Public Laundry, Livingston Gatemala

Livingston is a busy fishermen village where people and goods arrive solely by boat, as there is no land roads leading in and out of town.

Residential area in Livingston

Residential area in Livingston

Fishing boats and lanchas stop on the main docks to fuel, bring supplies, or pick up passengers for Rio Dulce or Puerto Barrios every few minutes.

Fishing boat at anchor

Fishing boat at anchor

As we walk up the main street where small negocios offer fresh fruits and vegetables, pan de coco, tortillas, and pretty much everything you need, we notice a bizarre mixture of people.

A young Queqchíe mother with daughter, Livingston , Guatemala

A young Queqchíe mother with daughter, Livingston , Guatemala

 

 

Ladinos with cowboy hats and checkered shirts are walking slowly down the street, indigenous Queqchíes and Quiché women with long black braids, bright-colored laced shirts and long pleated traditional skirts are sitting on the side of the road surrounded by a bunch of small kids. But what make Livingston a truly unique place within Guatemala is its Garifuna community, black Caribbean men and women with dreadlocks and Jamaican hats who make up the majority of the local population. 

 

A Garifuna girl, Livingston Guatemala

A Garifuna girl, Livingston Guatemala

 

Los Garifuna

 

In Livingston we met the „black indigenous people“ of Central America. Their identity was formed, in the 17-th and 18-th century, in the midst of destructive experiences, exploitation, and displacement. Their story begun with a shipwreck.

In 1635 a slave ship loaded with African men and women destined for the plantations of the colonies in the New World wrecked near the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent. The survivors found refuge on the island among a community of Carib Indians who had escaped the colonization in South America and lived free of European oppression and exploitation on the island. The two peoples’, traditions, music, and spirituality blended giving birth to a new ethnic identity: the Garifuna people. 

Polo Martines, a friend

Polo Martines, a friend

Later in the 17th century, French settlers joined the island community in a peaceful coexistence. But when English colonists came and started appropriating land, war started between the British and the Garifunas supported by the French. In 1796 the massive British troops won the war and exiled the Garifunas to the Roatán Island off the coast of Honduras. There, the Garifunas established new communities and fishing villages which spread to Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Belize. 

Garifuna child, Livingston, Guatemala

Garifuna child, Livingston, Guatemala

Today, Livingston is home of the largest Garifuna community in Guatemala, with population of 14,000. Here we met Polo Martinez. He takes us for a tour around the Garifuna part of the village. Extremely bright and knowledgeable person, Polo introduces us to their history and culture, music, language, and traditions. In exchange for the tour he asks for a bag of rice and some used books, in English.

Polo, leading us around the Garifuna neighborhood.

Polo is leading us around the Garifuna neighborhood.

The Garifuna people of Livingston are with no exception multilingual. They speak, along with English and Spanish, their own Garifuna language, a mixture of Arawakan, Carib, Spanish, English, and French. What is most fascinating about this language is the division of its vocabulary: women use different concepts and words than men. 

An old  Garifuna woman in her house, Livingston, Guatemala

An old Garifuna woman in her house, Livingston, Guatemala

Another friend we met on the docks while waiting for wind, Liverio Gamboa, tells us more about the local community and its struggles, mixing English and Spanish in a most innocent way. He is a curious-looking individual: black skin, white beard, long dark dreadlocks rolled under a red hat and blue eyes.

Liverio Gamboa, a friend

Liverio Gamboa, a friend

„How come blue eyes?“, I ask him.

„That’s the problem, he smiles, I told you. Who knows where these eyes came from…“

As the afternoon wind picks up and we are ready to sail up river we say good-by to Polo and Liverio. They will be there if we return.

„And remember, Liverio adds, somos el único pueblo que no ha vio combate. Aquí la gente muere de vejez.“

Mira with a Garifuna kid. Picture taken by another kid

Mira with a Garifuna kid. Picture taken by another kid

 

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The Gulf of Honduras Bridge Is Not On The Charts!

 

 Sailing south along the coast of Belize

 

Sailing south non stop for over twenty hours along the Caribbean coast of Belize between the mainland and the Belize Barrier Reef where the seas are low; winds over twenty knots, the boat doing eight, at times nine knots. The miles go fast. Small mangrove islands to port, tall mountains to starboard, dark and mysterious, a huge river delta poring its brown waters in the sea.

At night, we try to take turns steering the boat, Ivo, Viktor, and I, but most of the time Ivo is at the helm, enjoying the speed. As we enter the Gulf of Honduras, the wind dies and the sea becomes flat as a lake. Staying awake is a challenge. Humongous cargo ships criss-cross the gulf, passing just next to our tiny boat. One even alters her course avoiding us. Good thing she saw us.

 

The Gulf of Honduras bridge

 

Around 3 in the morning Ivo wakes me up after a sharp tack, worried.

„There is a bridge in front of us and it looks low, we almost crashed into the bridge!“

„What bridge are you talking about, I don’t see a bridge.“ All I see is city lights in the distance. I take the spotlight and gaze into the darkness.

„The bridge, there, don’t you see it? Shit, it’s not on the chart! And that’s exactly where we have to go, it’s on our way!“

 

Ivo

Ivo

 

He really sees a bridge. Viktor and I try hard, staring into the darkness to see it too. Ivo has convinced us the bridge is right there, only, we cannot detect it…

We spend an hour circling in front of the bridge, altering our course in order not to collide with it, checking another chart to see if they maybe indicated it there. They didn’t. Sometimes the charts are way off, but omitting to mark a creepy low bridge in the middle of the Gulf of Honduras is preposterous!

„Wait a minute, this isn’t a bridge, I say, this is a road on land far away in the distance and you are hallucinating! Go get some sleep,“ I take over the wheel for the rest of the night and turn the boat directly towards the imaginary bridge.

Ivo goes below to get some sleep thinking to himself, „Man I hope she doesn’t hit the bridge…“

 

 

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