Thunderball Grotto Images

Ivo

Ivo

Staniel Cay is a small island, about 1 square mile, in the center of the Exumas island chain with a settlement of about 80 permanent residents. It offers the basic needs locals, cruisers and tourists might need. There is a school, a church, library, post office, three small retail stores and two bars and restaurants, as well as various small and secluded beaches. It became one of our favorite places in the Bahamas.

We stop here for a while because a friend, Joey, told us to go check it out and jump in the Thunderball cave nearby. Turns out, the Thunderball Grotto, an underwater cave, is a big deal, it is on the cover of our Cruising Guide and if you Google it you will find out that it is the most exciting snorkeling destinations in the Bahamas and that one of the James Bond movies was filmed here in 1983, Never Say Never Again.

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We jump in as we would never say never to an adventure like this one! It is truly amazing, an unforgettable experience (one can feel Sean Connery’s presence everywhere in the underwater cave).

Maya

Maya

The cave is beneath a small hollow island just next to Staniel Cay, a dark chamber carved by the sea under the rock.

Inside the grotto

Inside the grotto

We go at high tide, even though everyone recommends to go at low tide, and so we have to dive to access the grotto through one of three small passages between the boulders (at low tide the passages are exposed and you don’t have to dive).

Viktor

Viktor

We are welcomed by hundreds of fishes who are not at all afraid of us, as they know very well that here they are protected by law.The Fish doesn’t think because the Fish knows, everything.

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 Inside the grotto, the high ceiling above the pool of crystal clear water is pierced by holes and sunlight sends illuminated beams, like spotlights, beautiful underwater. I suppose, one can climb the hill from outside all the way to the top and jump in the pool of the cave from the big hole in the center. Joey, is that what you meant when you said „jump in the cave“? We were considering it, but we didn’t do it…

Mira

Mira

We all loved the experience, especially Maya who has become a snorkeling addict and Viktor who had fun filming with the small underwater camera. The pictures, not the best quality, are stills from the film.

Maya

Maya

 

Viktor

Viktor (smoking seaweed)

 

Ivo

Ivo

 

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Arizona Dream- This Is A Film (lyrics)

This is a film about a man and a fish
This is a film about dramatic relationship between man and fish
The man stands between life and death
The man thinks
The horse thinks
The sheep thinks
The cow thinks
The dog thinks
The fish doesn’t think
The fish is mute, expressionless
The fish doesn’t think because the fish knows everything
The fish knows everything

 

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Strawberries and Champagne on the Beach

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December 30th, 2013

Shroud Cay is one of the many uninhabited islands in the archipelago of the Exumas, some 3 miles long and 1.5 mile wide. The low flat rocks and sand dunes of the island are covered with thick impassable mangroves, a population of short and very resilient trees and shrubs adapted to saltwater and the relentless tides of the sea.

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A web of tidal channels cross the island from east to west, like salt rivers which empty their riverbeds in the sea and fill them again every few hours, switching direction.

At some places the channels are deep and narrow, carving their way through rock and vegetation.

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Further they spill their waters over vast sand dunes, completely exposed at low tide and shallow at high tide.

The only way to explore the place from one end to the other is by kayak. A dinghy would not go through the shallows and even our brave kayak, Agent Orange, had some difficulties at times.

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We start at low tide, at the west end of one of the channels, Maya, Ivo, and me. All is completely silent and still. The roots of the mangrove trees, like dark fingers of dragons or giant chicken feet, are exposed.

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The vast sand dunes in the middle of the island are now dry, only faint streams of blue water allow us to continue across.

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The water is completely transparent and clear like in an aquarium; crabs, yellowtails, small nurse sharks and sting rays swim around us.

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We get to the other side of the island.

The sea to the east of the Exumas gets deep, there are not many anchorages, and with prevailing east winds and big waves coming all the way from Africa, it is a lot more dangerous and difficult to sail, so cruisers usually keep on the west side, protected by the east winds and waves by the islands, where the water is shallow and calm.

Our tidal river has brought us to a vast white-sand beach, completely deserted, where the only footprints are the ones left by our feet.

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December 31st, 2013

Here is what might have happened on this beach on December 31st, 2013:

A guy named John Collins, or John Dillinger, or John Johnson, proposed to his girlfriend Susanna, on New Year’s Eve.

John, born in a small town in Georgia, or in a small town in Pennsylvania, or in a small town in New Jersey, is about 30-35 years-old, college graduate, passionate about American Football and fast cars. He has a handsome little job as an executive assistant in a small corporation in east Florida where he lives in a nice second-floor apartment, since two years now. As a next logical step of his comfortable life development, John has decided the time has come to settle down. First marriage, immediately after that mortgage, and then, maybe after a few years, a kid. Plus, Susanna is a nice girl, 26, blond, good-looking, and fun. She would make a good wife and with the income from her receptionist job, they will do pretty good.

So John takes out his Master Card and organizes everything to the minute detail eight months in advance. He charters a luxury yacht for four days. A beautiful 48-foot Jefferson with two 210 hp engines, three double staterooms, outdoor speakers, and a nice little deck where Susanna can sunbath in her bikini. He has thought of everything: an affordable ring with a small diamond, a bottle of champagne, Dom Perignon 2003, chocolates, strawberries, he even buys a beach umbrella and a small cooler. He is ready to propose.

Susanna looks excited to go to the Bahamas on a luxury yacht with John for New Year. She posts photos in Facebook of the boat and the sea so that all her 682 friends can be jealous.

John is sure she will say “Yes”. She cannot possibly say “No” with all these preparations and expenses from his part.

John finds the perfect place: a beautiful secluded beach on the east side of an uninhabited island in the Exumas. There is no way they will be disturbed by anyone here; all cruisers go on the west side. He is planning a very romantic afternoon on the beach. He will set everything beforehand: the umbrella, the cooler with ice, the beach towel, maybe he should bring chairs? No, no chairs, a beach towel so that they can lay on it, chat, and make love after she says “Yes” and after the champagne and the strawberries. Like in the movies.

December 31st, 2013, they get to the beach a bit later than he has planned as she was busy texting with a friend, and then couldn’t find her sunglasses.  

They sit on the towel (John brought one of the boat’s white towels as he forgot to get a beach towel, the only think he forgot) , but the umbrella keeps falling because of the wind. They chat and kiss. She gets irritated when he starts talking something about all the plastic garbage that the sea has brought to the beach and how there is no one to clean it, even though this place is part of the Exuma Land and Sea Park. She hates garbage and she loves the environment, but this is not the time to talk about it.

Then he pulls out the little red box with the ring and the ice-cold champagne from the cooler and she is really surprised. She thought the champagne was for New Year?

“Susanna, will you marry me?”

Her face becomes all red, like the strawberries. It’s all perfect: the beach, the ring, the champagne.

“Oh, John…wow” is all she can say with her shrill voice. She tries on the ring, wonders how much it costs, they kiss, drink a bit of the champagne, she tries the strawberries and then the chocolates, but they are not her favorites.

“These are your favorites, that’s why I bought them.” says John.

“No, my favorites are the chocolate truffles, not these.” says Susanna.

“No, I remember you like these.” says John.

“Maybe is your ex who likes them, not me. You still think about her, don’t you… You think I don’t know she called you yesterday.” says Susanna.

“What the fuck are you talking about?” says John.

“You know what, here is your stupid ring and you can bring the rest of your stupid chocolates to your ex, I’m off.” says Susanna.

January 1st, 2014

We celebrate New Year alone on the boat with a nice dinner and a movie, nothing special. We forgot to buy a bottle of champagne and so we have no reason to stay up until midnight. There are no other boats in the anchorage, and it is just like any other night.

The next day, January 1st, 2014, Ivo and I take the kayak for another trip through the mangroves and channels, this time in high tide. 

Everything is different. The roots of the shrubs, the sand banks are submerged. We don’t have to walk across any shallows.

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As we get to the beach on the east side we discover a white towel, a beach umbrella lying open and crooked on the sand, and a small cooler with strawberries, chocolates (two of them half-eaten), and a bottle of champagne, Dom Perignon 2003, half empty. Everything looks abandoned; there are no people dead or alive and no boats nearby.

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We have no idea what has happened here not too long ago; we can only imagine. There are so many possible scenarios. One thing is sure, they left suddenly, in a hurry.

We wait for a while; we explore the hills, the shallow pools with hot water formed by the tides, the beach. There is a bunch of plastic debris on the sand: a broken bucket, shoes, bottles. It is incredible how much garbage accumulates washed by the sea on such beautiful deserted places, spoiling them.

As the afternoon advances it is time to go back to the kids and the boat.

We are now faced with a dilemma: leave the umbrella, cooler and towel on the beach, or take them.

The people might come back to look for their stuff. But why did they abandon them like that, the umbrella open in the wind, the champagne half full getting warm, the strawberries about to go bad, the chocolates uneaten?

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It looks like they left suddenly, affected by something, never to return. In that case, this stuff will simply become part of the rest of the garbage on the beach.

We decide to act responsibly and do the right thing.

 

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We eat the strawberries and the chocolates, we drink the champagne, and we take the umbrella, the towel and the cooler with us.

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There, we did have champagne for New Year after all, and an adventure!

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If the owners return later looking for their stuff only to find the green parts of the strawberries scattered about and two pair of footprints in the sand, too bad! They should not have abandoned their stuff on a public beach like that and I am sure next time they won’t.

On our way back, champagne in our system, we are pretty excited and happy, as well as a bit guilty.

The beach umbrella immediately proves to be very useful. With the wind about 10 knots coming behind us we use the umbrella as a sail and we get back to the boat at an incredible speed, sailing with the kayak through the mangroves, using the paddles only to steer.

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Note: if you know John, the owner of the stuff we appropriated, and if he wants them back, tell him we are willing to return them and we’ll share a bottle of wine when he comes to retrieve them.

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Allens Cay’s Iguanas

Viktor with iguana  Allens Cay , Exumas Islands, the Bahamas

Viktor with iguana
Allens Cay , Exumas Islands, the Bahamas

From Chub Cay we sail east, past the island of New Providence, without stopping in Nassau, the big, crowded, polluted, crime-ridden capital of the Bahamas, to Allens Cay in the Exumas.

Someone, whose name we don’t remember, whom we met only once on the beach in Chub Cay, has left a detailed Cruising Guide to the Bahamas on the steps of our boat in the morning of December 25th. Or maybe it was Santa on jet-skis who did it? In any case, the gift is greatly appreciated and we are using it every day. It tells us where is what and how to get there. It also tells us a lot of other useful information not only about the places’ geography, facilities and attractions, but also about their history, climate, and other particularities as well. But there is a downside to the cruising guide phenomenon. Everyone goes to the same place recommended by the cruising guide and it can get really crowded. Like Allens Cay.

As we reach the tiny anchorage near the tiny uninhabited island, we find eight other boats already anchored there. We drop the hook with just a bit of chain as we are too close to the other boats. The reason why this place is so popular is the iguanas.

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The cruising guide says that this is the one and only Bahamian island where the critters can be found and admired; everywhere else they have been extinct. (But it is not true; later we find them again on a another island many miles south from Allens Cay.)

 

Allens Cay's iguanas with Fata Morgana

Allens Cay’s iguanas
with Fata Morgana

 

The lizards proliferate on the island thanks to the cruisers and the tourists who come here in big numbers every day brought by speed-boats to feed and photograph them. The biggest local attraction.

Tourists visiting the iguanas on Allens Cay.

Tourists visiting the iguanas on Allens Cay.

We wait for two days for most of the boats to leave, and visit the fat iguanas only when there are no tourists around, which is very rare.

Viktor and Mira with iguanas.

Viktor and Mira with iguanas.

 

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Mira and Viktor with iguanas
Allens Cay

 

A sign on the beach explains that the iguanas are wild and protected, approach them with caution and do not bring your dogs. But they are not really wild, if you ask me. They are like zoo animals used to people and entirely dependent on them for food. Only, they are not tame and one even bit Ivo mistakenly taking his pinky toe for a piece of bread. Since then, Ivo regarded them with mistrust and hostility.

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Soon, we get really disappointed with the place, thinking that the Exumas would be less crowded. The anchorage in front of the next island south, Highborne Cay, is literally full with boats; we count twenty at least, and not even sailboats but big luxurious mega-yachts, which bring with them all sorts of noisy contraptions for fun-having like jet-skis, inflatable air-chairs and speed banana-boats, and even tiny one-person inflatable submarines, and they just zoom around the anchorage all day. This great motorboat presence and activity we explain with the proximity of Nassau, about thirty miles northwest, and the holiday season.

Highborne Cay anchorage

Highborne Cay anchorage

We keep going south and only twelve miles later we find what we have been looking for: a protected anchorage where we are the only boat, an uninhabited island with channels formed by the tides cutting across the mangroves from west to east and vast sand flats in the middle exposed at low tide and flooded at high tide, a beautiful secluded place not even mentioned in the cruising guide (because there is no marina, no bar, and no ‘facilities’ there).

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Fishing In Lake Izabal, Guatemala. A Photo Essay

 

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In Guatemala, indigenous people of Mayan descent make up almost 50% of the population, concentrated in the mountains and rural areas.

This is the country with the largest indigenous community in all of Central and South America.

 

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The Maya of today have preserved to a great extend the culture of their ancestors: languages, clothing, rituals and beliefs; the vital connection to land and nature.

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Chac-Uayab-Xoc: the Great Demon Shark

 

Corn and fish are the main food source of the Mayan Q’eqchi communities we met on the shores of Lake Izabal.

For thousands of years the Mayans worshiped the maize god; they believed their ancestors were made from maize.

They also had a fish-god.

Chac-Uayab-Xoc, also known as the Great Demon Shark, is the protector of fish and patron of fisherman. He feeds off the bodies of drowned fishermen, but ensures that the fishermen have good catches.

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Photos by Mira

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Mayans of Guatemala are the only indigenous culture that constitutes a majority of the population in a Central American republic. – See more at: http://www.minorityrights.org/2555/guatemala/maya.html#sthash.7kI5NaZ4.dpuf
The Mayans of Guatemala are the only indigenous culture that constitutes a majority of the population in a Central American republic. – See more at: http://www.minorityrights.org/2555/guatemala/maya.html#sthash.7kI5NaZ4.dpuf
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Men With Machetes, Bones With Souls, Mountains With Secrets

“Not even anthropologists or intellectuals, no matter how many books they have, can find out all our secrets.”
-Rigoberta Menchu Tum

Lake Izabal

Lake Izabal

„Are you afraid of death?” he asks me with the same intonation as if he is asking Do you like yellow flowers. I don’t know how to answer. My mouth becomes dry. „When you go to the graveyard, are you scared?” he clarifies.

„When I was a little girl, yes, I was scared of death and to go in graveyards, but now no. Now I am more afraid of the living than of the death.“ We both lough at the joke.

 

Hiking through the jungle

Hiking through the jungle

 

We are walking on a dirt road through a vast plantation of palm trees, the guy and me, past a palm-oil treatment plant, across a wide shallow river, and into the shadow of a jungle-covered mountain. Ivo, Joni, and the two other guys are walking ahead of us. We met them this morning. We don’t know their names. We don’t know if they are good guys or bad guys. All we know is that they are young indigenous Q’eqchi men who agreed to take us to a cave in the mountain above their village. They are wearing jeans, t-shirts and black rubber boots, carrying small backpacks and machetes.

 

Cutting a nut-like fruit called Monok from a spiky tree

Cutting a nut-like fruit called Monok from a spiky tree

 

The whole thing happened spontaneously. We were sailing along the remote edge of Lake Izabal, Guatemala’s biggest lake. It was getting late; we had to find a place to anchor overnight. We approached the shore where a big column of grey smoke was coming out of the forest: a village, we thought, and that’s where we stopped. From the boats we saw a few houses on the banks of the lake. Tiny, made of thin logs and roofs of dry palm leaves. Behind them, the heavy humid mountains of Sierra de las Minas: white limestone covered with thick intensely green jungle. The night fell.

In the morning the entire village gathered on the shore to meet our kayak. Caxclampon Pataxte is a small community of a few hundred indigenous Q’eqchi, mostly children. Tourists don’t stop here often, and so our visit is a huge event.

 

The people from the village greeting us

The people from the village greeting us

 

“Are there caves near-by?” I ask. Only a few speak Spanish.

„Yes, there is a cave not too far; we can take you there if you like.“ Thus begun our journey.

Once we enter the jungle and start climbing the mountain there is no road anymore. Our progress is slow and difficult. The guides use their machetes to cut a path through tangled vegetation and dig holes in the steep slopes making steps for us. The terrain is extremely harsh, at places seems impossible to pass.

 

Hiking

Ivo with one of the guides, hiking through the jungle

 

By the time we reach the cave, our guides tell us all about their struggles against the Colombian palm-oil company which, since over a decade now, is exploiting and polluting their land. The vast plantations of palm trees we have seen on our way, the smoke of the palm-oil treatment plant, the channels dumping chemical waste in the lake, are all killing the trees, poisoning the water, and bringing disease to their children. They have been robbed of their ancestral land by a corporate giant and are now fighting to get it back.

 

Road through the plantation

Road through the plantation

 

By the time we come back from the cave, we have become friends. The kind of friends who look out for each other and can count on each other. We could count on them for protection against the village crooks and the company people who saw us taking pictures and filming around the palm-oil treatment plant; they could count on us to tell their story of struggle against injustice.

 

Taking a break, sharing stories

Taking a break, sharing stories

 

We get to the cave’s entrance after about three hours of extreme hiking through the jungle. It is a small hole in the grey rocks leading down. The three guys stop at the edge of the hole to say a muffled prayer in Q’eqchi before going in. We follow. It is a place they rarely visit, they say, a sacred site for prayers and rituals; for secrets and secret knowledge. We are the first white people to ever enter this cave.

 

Saying a prayer in front of the cave entrance

Saying a prayer in front of the cave entrance

 

They lead us into a narrow dark corridor, humid and cool. We get to a chamber. The light of a small flashlight illuminates scattered objects on the floor: yellow bones, human skulls, lower jaws with crooked teeth. Some are calcified to the cave’s walls; others lay loose on the ground. It is a Tomba Maya, they explain, a Mayan burial ground. The skeletons must be hundreds of years old, they say, from the times before the Conquista.

 

Inside the cave

Inside the cave

 

Being in the presence of ancient Mayan remains is something both strange and beautiful. In the dark, my mind begins to wander. The cave with its breath of a carnivorous flower becomes a temple; I become a ghost from a faraway land.

“I am honored and deeply grateful, I whisper, to be here with you: men with machetes, bones with souls, mountains with secrets.”

 

Mayan remains inside the cave

Mayan remains inside the cave

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16 Advantages of a Simple Kayak

A simple kayak will:

 

1. Get you to a shallow place

A simple kayak will take you to the place you want to go, even if it is too shallow for a dinghy.

The drought of a kayak is 0.0002 ft.

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Near Comunidad Indigena Caxclampon Pataxte, Guatemala

 

2. Get you to a quiet place

The kayak has no engine, therefore it makes no noise.

Sneaking near an indigenous home on Lake Izabal, Guatemala

Sneaking near an indigenous home on Lake Izabal, Guatemala

You can sneak upon people’s properties without being noticed; or float downriver without disturbing the wildlife.

 

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Floating down the River Polochic, Guatemala

3. Get you to a tight place

You can paddle even in mangroves, between roots and branches.

 

Mangroves near Cayo Levisa, Cuba

Mangroves near Cayo Levisa, Cuba

4. Get you to a beautiful place

With the kayak you will be able to explore the most beautiful places on your journey.

 

Lago Izabal, Guatemala

Lago Izabal, Guatemala

5. Not pollute the waters

Keeping the environment clean (and having your conscious clean) is another advantage of not having an engine.

River Lilies

River Lilies

 

6. Save you money

This is an obvious one. No engine= no fuel= no dollars

 

Mira and Ivo paddling. Photo bi Joni Spencer

Mira and Ivo paddling.
Photo by Joni Spencer

 

7. Provide a nice spot for kids to do art while under sail

 

8. Provide a dark shady spot on the boat for resting

Maya sleeping under the kayak

Maya sleeping under the kayak

9. Keep you in shape

Paddle, paddle, paddle! Often living on a boat means less physical exercise. Paddling the kayak will make you spend that extra energy and it is good for your heart and muscles.

 

Maya and the kayak in front of Fort Jefferson, Florida

Maya and the kayak in front of Fort Jefferson, Florida

10. Take your kids and their friends off the boat

The kayak will become a favorite jumping-off platform and transportation for your kids, no matter how old they are. They will paddle between boats to pick up their friends, go to shore, or to explore the region.

Maya and Noial in Rio Dulce, Guatemala

Maya and Noial in Rio Dulce, Guatemala

 

11. Provide transportation for Cuban officials

If you ever sail to Cuba you will be unpleasantly surprised how many times you will have to deal with officials. Every time you move the boat from one cayo to another you will have to do another immigration checking out and checking in. The Cuban officials will board the boat every time to verify if there are any undocumented people on board (you are not permitted to have Cuban friends visiting the boat EVER even if the boat sits at the marina). Making the officials paddle to the boat instead of taking them there by dinghy is a nice little revenge.

 

The Cuban officials will come aboard no matter what; if you are on a dock or at anchor.  Here Ivo and an immigration officer paddle the kayak, El Poderoso (the name of the kayak means The Mighty One in Spanish) back from the boat anchored at Cayo Levisa. Fastest kayak ride ever, said Ivo.

The Cuban officials will come aboard no matter what; if you are on a dock or at anchor.
 Cayo Levisa, Cuba

12. Be loved by children everywhere

When you show up with a kayak in an indigenous Mayan village in Guatemala, you become The Event of The Year. Not you, the kayak!

Finca Jocoro

Finca Jocoro

There hasn’t been any scientific research done on the subject of How many indigenous kids can sink an unsinkable kayak, but the experiments have already started.

 

Near Finca Jocoro, Guatemala

Near Finca Jocoro, Guatemala

13. Help you make friends

Your new indigenous friends will visit your boat if you invite them. They are as curious about your way of life as you are about theirs.

 

Friends from Playa Pataxte visiting the boat

Friends from Playa Pataxte visiting the boat

You may take a few kids to the boat on your kayak, the rest will arrive shortly with their lanchas and cayucos.

 

Our kayak also has new friends!

Our kayak also made new friends!

14. Transport you and your groceries

You can park your kayak on the docks everywhere and visit the local village or town. Be sure to lock it against theft, though. When you comeback with bags full of fruits and vegetables, the kayak will be there for you. It will take more load than you think.

 

Agent Orange waiting for us next to Angelica and Andrea... Rio Dulce, Guatemala

Agent Orange waiting for us next to Anthonia and Andrea…
Rio Dulce, Guatemala

15. Transport 10 cases of 24 beers!

Yes, it will. You can load as much cases of the cheapest beer you ever saw on a simple kayak as you want. 10 is not the limit!

 

Ivo, happy, with 10 cases of Brahva, El Estor, Guatemala

Ivo, happy, with 10 cases of Brahva, El Estor, Guatemala

16. Pull your boat

When there is no wind there are but a few alternative ways to advance with a sailboat without using engines. Put your flippers on and go push the boat; or jump in your kayak and pull! Ivo has done both, but he prefers to pull: it’s more efficient. His record speed pulling the boat by kayak is 0.5 knots!

Ivo pulling the boat, Lago Izabal, Guatemala

Ivo pulling the boat, Lago Izabal, Guatemala

 

The story of Agent Orange

 

A few months ago, our good friends Neith and Sherry gave us a kayak along with a bunch of other useful things, before heading off to the desert in New Mexico where they will take part in The Solar Ark Project. We named the kayak El Poderoso which means The Mighty One in Spanish after Che Guevara’s famous motor bike. But after some time, we nicknamed him Agent Orange, as the kayak’s most notable feature is his bright orange color.

 

Agent Orange is a simple plastic unsinkable kayak. We didn’t realize then how much we will be needing it on our travels. The kayak became one of our most treasured possessions. We use it for transportation to go from the boat to shore and back when we are anchored someplace, as well as for a number of other things and I am sure that the list of ways to use it will keep growing with time.

Sailing into the sunset

Sailing into the sunset

 

 

 

 

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Demons of The Forest. Owners of Trees

„And they climbed up to the top of the tree. But the tree begun to grow larger. It swelled in size. Thus when they wanted to come back down, One Batz and One Huen couldn’t climb down from the top of the tree.

Thus they went up into the tops of the trees there in the small mountains and the great mountains. They went out into the forests, howling and chattering loudly in the branches of the trees.“

-Popol Vuh

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You will hear them.

When the day and the night and the night and the day start to blend and the light becomes enchanted and purple, they begin to howl. They begin to cry, and to moan, and to roar, and to scream. You will hear, even when you are still miles away, the most heartbreaking cries, the most ominous moans, the most arrogant roars, the most melancholic screams. What wounded  animals -or demons – could be, you will ask yourself, capable of such violent sadness?

Only a few miles southwest of the town of El Estor a river enters Lake Izabal. El Rio Polochic, the biggest tributary to the biggest lake in Guatemala forks in a few smaller channels before reaching the lake to create a basin, vast and remote, of intimate hidden bays surrounded by flat swampy shores where dense grasses, bushes, and trees form an impenetrable green mass. The abundance of tropical vegetation is hysterical.

Fata Morgana, Friendship, and Blizzard anchored near Bocas de Polochic.

Fata Morgana, Friendship, and Blizzard anchored near Bocas de Polochic.

The three boats drop anchor in a little protected bay. Here every day is blessedly the same. There are no other people. Nothing moves. A place entirely devoid of civilization. This is one of the world’s most biodiverse areas. The waters of the delta are kingdom of fish, otters, manatees, and crocodiles. Its shores are home to coyotes, jaguars, sloths, and giant anteaters. The skies are patrolled by over 250 species of birds, among which herons, egrets, toucans, and parrots.

 A channel of Rio Polochic

A channel of Rio Polochic

But while all those creatures try, at all cost, to make themselves as elusive as possible: hiding hushed beneath the waters, behind the grasses and bushes, there are those who announce themselves from the top of the trees as „the seers upon the face of the earth“. At the break of day and just before the night falls, their screams knife the forest penetrating your chest to chill your blood. You might think, as i did, these are the voices of some huge ghostly creatures, abandoned, hurting beyond hope. Or you might think, as i did, they are fierce and mean, messengers of Satan, and are probably devouring somebody right now. Such are their howls: deep and sinister as if coming from hell. The howls of the Black Howler Monkeys of Guatemala.

Black Howler MOnkey

Black Howler Monkey

We would hear them at dawn and at dusk, never got quite used to their unholy cries. Later, I would miss them. The first evening of silence I kept listening for their violent moans, in vain. When we sailed away after three days, just a few miles south, to a place where indigenous Mayan people live on the shores of the lake, there were no more howler monkeys. They don’t share their territory with people. And their voices didn’t travel to this place.

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The first time we went upriver by dinghies and floated back downriver with the motors off, we saw them far in the distance. It was a last chance kind-of-thing before darkness fell and swallowed their shapes. We saw them, a group of about 10-12 up in the tree without leaves. Silhouettes sleeping upon the branches. Then the night came. And the enigma: How ware these creatures, not larger than dogs, capable of such loud screams?

A group of Howler Monkeys

A group of Howler Monkeys

„Howlers are New World monkeys found in tropical Central and South America. They are aptly named for their cacophonous cries. When a number of howlers let loose their lungs in concert, often at dawn or dusk, the din can be heard up to three miles (five kilometers) away. Male monkeys have large throats and specialized, shell-like vocal chambers that help to turn up the volume on their distinctive call. The noise sends a clear message to other monkeys: This territory is already occupied by a troop. These vocal primates are the biggest of all the New World monkeys. Unlike Old World monkeys, howlers and other New World species have wide, side-opening nostrils and no pads on their rumps. Howlers also boast a prehensile tail. They can use this tail as an extra arm to grip or even hang from branches—no Old World monkeys have such a tail. A gripping tail is particularly helpful to howler monkeys because they rarely descend to the ground. They prefer to stay aloft, munching on the leaves that make up most of their diet.“ (National Geographic)

Howler Monkeys chilling.

Howler Monkeys chilling.

The next day, we saw them again. We went kayaking for five hours upriver and floated back downriver with the gentle current, and a couple of howlers were chilling just above our heads, in a big tree. We looked at them, and they looked at us. To me, this first close encounter with the wild animals was like some sort of a miracle.

They looked annoyed by us, watching us with mistrust and disapproval. We were trespassing. One kept chewing leaves, stuffing them in his mouth with a very slow motion, returning my stare, telling me: „Move on, can’t you see I am trying to eat here in peace. This is my private branch. How would you feel if I came to your window to stare at you while you are having supper?“

Black Howler Monkeys eating leaves.

Black Howler Monkeys eating leaves.

He looked sad, mean, and ugly, I thought. His teeth yellow and crooked, his fur black, full of lice. His tale long and thick holding the branch like a dark tentacle. His mouth, incapable even of the slightest smile, endowed him with a bitter melancholic expression. But what impressed me the most were his eyes: wet, deep, full of secrets. His eyes were the eyes of someone who remembers the times, forever lost, when he was a prince. When he and his twin-brother were punished in a cruel act of revenge and banished to live in the tops of the trees, in the small mountains and the great mountains, never to return to the world of men.

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The Cave Expedition

 

 

The week after our first failed attempt to visit a cave, we (FiendShip and Fata Morgana crews) sailed to Finca Paraiso on the north shore of Lago Izabal. We leave the boats anchored there, sneak past the Agua Caliente hot springs and waterfall and after about 40 minutes hiking through the jungle, we finally get to the entrance of a big deep dark cave.

 

Maya walking through the jungle

Maya walking through the jungle

 

The members of the this time successful cave expedition are: Daeli, Noial, Lovam, Spirit, Ivo, Maya, and myself. Three adults, three kids, and a dog.

 

Mira walking towards the cave

Mira walking towards the cave

 

The walk through the jungle is fun, the kids are running in front, and even Lovam, the youngest member of the expedition doesn’t complain. I am at the back of the group, stopping from time to time to take pictures and am the last one to arrive at the cave entrance. I hear the others go „Wow!“ one by one as they come out of the forest and very suddenly face a giant gaping black hole in the rocky wall of the mountain. I go „Wow!“ too.

 

Entering the cave

Entering the cave

 

There she is, finally, awaiting, hungry, her sharp teeth drooling with underground waters; spiders, the squeaky sound of bats, disturbed. We enter, eager, cautious, our flashlights illuminate her bowels: strange textures and shapes.

 

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Our eyes widen in the dark, we cling to each other. Her breath is humid and cool: the sweet-and-sour smell of guano. Our voices travel the dark walls of the cavern’s huge chamber in a weird way: bumping, disappearing, coming back again.

 

Inside the cave

Inside the cave

 

We go further. We get to a place where it becomes impossible to continue without ropes. The cave plunges some ten meters down and we don’t know what lies beyond. There is nothing more mysterious than the entrails of a cave.

 

The kids staring in the dark

The kids staring in the dark

 

Cave Picture Gallery

 

 

 

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Noial, Maya, Ivo, and Lovam

Noial, Maya, Ivo, and Lovam

 

 

 

 

Mira

Mira

 

 

 

 

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Daeli and Ivo lightpainting

Daeli and Ivo lightpainting

 

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In Search of the Lost Cave

 Hiking Across the Guatemalan countryside

 

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The mountains around Lago Izabal are home of many caves. Most are difficult to find and hard to access as there are no roads, not even paths leading there but wilderness. Once, we walked up and down Sierra de las Minas all day searching for a cave we never found.

Our journey started on a Friday afternoon. Together with the FriendShips we sail to Dennis Beach, on the south shore of the lake. We leave the two boats anchored there and we head for the mountains looking for a cave.

 

The beginning of the long walk.  Noial, maya, Ivo and Daeli walking past a traditional mayan house

The beginning of the long walk.
Noial, maya, Ivo and Daeli walking past a traditional mayan house

 

Joni stays behind chilling on the beach with Elan and Lovam. The rest of us: Daeli, Noial, Ivo, Viktor, Maya, and I, with Spirit and a random dog that joined us, spend the day hiking through the Guatemalan countryside following a narrow path through the jungle, past a small Mayan village, across rivers, bamboo forests, cornfields, and cow pastures.

 

Bamboo forest

Bamboo forest

 

We meet people carrying wood and people working in the fields and every time we ask them for directions to the cave. “Down the path, across the river, past the orange orchard is the cave”, they tell us, but we lost our way and cannot find it. And it doesn’t matter anyway. The green of the land, the hot smell of the cornfields, the coolness of the river waters, and the spectacular view of the lake shining beneath the mountain is worth it.

 

River crossing

River crossing

 

We return to Dennis Beach before dark, tired, our feet covered with mud, our sight filled with green landscapes.

 

More photos from the hike
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Cornfield

 

 

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Daeli with cows and two dogs

Daeli with cows and two dogs

 

 

 

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View of Lago Izabal

 

 

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A Traditional Mayan House

 

 

 

 

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Maya and Noial met a family of ducks

Maya and Noial met a family of ducks

 

 

Maya and Noial chilling in the stream

Maya and Noial chilling in the stream

 

 

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Exploring Guatemala’s Natural Wonders. Agua Caliente

 

Vista of Lago Izabal

Vista of Lago Izabal

 

Guatemala, a Biodiversity Hotspot

 

Between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, just south of Mexico, lies a small Central American country. Guatemala, a place of many trees, is one of the most biologically abundant regions in the world with a unique ecosystem: a reservoir of biodiversity. Coming from Canada where half the time we were looking at snow covered landscapes, it took us some time to adjust our vision to the Guatemalan green around us. The Nature here has gone crazy.

The country has been designated as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspot, a rich biogeographic region containing distinct fauna and flora of which over 6% of animal species and 13% of plant species are endemic, many under threat from humans.

There are five different ecosystems in Guatemala with climate varying from hot and humid tropical lowlands to drier and cooler highlands. With mangrove forests, ocean littorals, rivers and lakes, jungle-covered mountain ranges, wetlands, small deserts, valleys, volcanoes, caves, and cenotes, Guatemala offers countless destinations to nature-lovers like us.

 

Guatemalan Green

Guatemalan Green

Agua Caliente

It’s Friday. After dropping off the kids at school Joni and me go grocery shopping in Fronteras, stocking up fruits, vegetables and beer for the weekend. As soon as the kids finish school, at noon, we lift anchors and spread the sails. Fata Morgana and her best friend FrindShip are off for the weekend. Past El Castillo de San Felipe, we  navigate west for a few hours. It is an absolute pleasure sailing in a lake. No waves, light wind, green shores all around us. Two families, two boats, five kids, one dog. The lake is ours!

 

FriendShip and Fata Morgana sailing together in Lago Izabal.  Photo by Joni

FriendShip and Fata Morgana sailing together in Lago Izabal.
Photo by Joni

 

Lago Izabal is the biggest lake in Guatemala with a surface of approximately 600 km² and many rivers draining into it, of which the biggest one is Polochic River. The lake is surrounded by evergreen mountains, Sierra de Santo Cruz to the north and Sierra de las Minas to the south. At the foot of the mountains near the shores of the lake there are a few small fincas (villages) where Q’eqchi and Q’iche communities still live in the same way their ancestors did, in small wooden houses with roofs of dried palm leaves.

 

FriendShip and Fata Morgana anchored near Finca Paraiso

FriendShip and Fata Morgana anchored near Finca Paraiso

 

After about ten miles of navigating we drop anchors in front of Finca Paraiso. The next morning we all go to shore and head to Agua Caliente (Hot Water). We start early, to make sure there will be no one else but us, as the tourists start to arrive there by bus around 10 am. After a short hike parallel to a small river, past cow pastures and a village from a different era, we get to the place. From the green mouth of the forest above us a small waterfall tumbles down into a deep pool. Not a big waterfall at all. If you have seen many waterfalls (coming from Canada- Niagara, hello!) you might not even notice this one. But wait until you feel its waters.

 

Agua Caliente waterfall

Agua Caliente waterfall

 

The waterfall is hot! There is a geothermal spring above the river. Before reaching the edge of the rocks and plunging thirty feet into the cold river below, the hot spring waters form two scalding shallow pools and then cascade down the rocks. Speaking of hotspots! The deep pool below is a mixture of hot water from the fall and cold water from the main river.

We spend a few hours there swimming in the cold river below, soaking in the hot pools above, jumping from the rocks. Standing under a hot waterfall is a bizarre feeling. The water is heavy, pushing me down, falling relentlessly, booming, never stopping. I close my eyes. Only the compact hollow noise, the unforgiving liquid weight and a gentle smell of humid vegetation and minerals. The most extreme shower I ever took.  

 

Photos of Agua Caliente Waterfall

Joni, Elan, Noial, and Spirit on the rocks next to the river

Joni, Elan, Noial, and Spirit on the rocks next to the river

 

Maya jumping

Maya

 

Joni

Joni

 

Daeli

Daeli

 

Lovam and Spirit

Lovam and Spirit

 

Mira

Mira

 

Viktor

Viktor

 

Noial

Noial

 

Ivo

Ivo

 

Spirit and Daeli

Spirit and Daeli

 

Viktor

Viktor

 

Spirit

Spirit

 

Lovam

Lovam

 

 

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