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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Inside The Storm

„When in the wind’s eye she refused to go farther and with all her sails aback she slowly forged astern. Back, back, until every watcher’s heart was ready to burst with suspense, back to that fearful maelstrom. Back, to the octopus whose arms were extended to receive the doomed ship and her crew. Back, till in the hollow of a huge wave her stempost struck the sand beneath and the story is told.“

-An account of the 1849 storm and the wreck of the Hanover, by Milton Spinney, son of the keeper.

 

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Imagine you could get to a small Caribbean island, one hundred percent virgin, covered with lush tropical vegetation, bordered by a long stretch of white powdery sand where you can go for walks in the morning and collect pink seashells, surrounded by waters so crystal and fresh you just snorkel all day among purple corals and fish. Imagine you can get there for free and stay for as long as you like to, never having to pay for airplane tickets and hotels. There, you don’t even have to worry about food. The avocado and mango trees are loaded with fruit, lazy lobsters and fat fishes are begging to be fillet and barbecued, and watch out for those big coconuts constantly falling from the palm trees just next to your bare feet. Totally free!

This is what you sign up for when you give up house and job, when you buy a sailboat and load all your belongings and kids aboard, and one fresh April morning you lift anchor, spread the sails, and chose a direction.

This island experience is not some romantic totally unrealistic representation of the cruising family’s journey. We are enjoying such moments since a few months now. The only detail that is not completely true, besides the coconuts falling next to your bare feet (if you want a nice coconut, you have to climb up the palm and get it!), is the „totally free“ part. Everything has a price, especially freedom. And not everyone is willing to afford the price of ‘free travel’. Sometimes this price can be as high as your very life and the life of your children. But you only realize that when you hit your first storm.

August 23

We are tired after a day of sailing and we still haven’t found a protected place to anchor. It is dark when we clear the reef and drop anchor just past the breakers, in sixteen feet of water, not too close to the shore of a small island where we can see the lights of a few houses. Belize City glows in the distance, further west. We are now in Belize.

This isn’t really an anchorage, there are no other boats, and between us and the sea is just a tiny stripe of coral reefs which are calming the waves a bit, but are unable to slow down the south winds. Our plan is to spend a few days here, check out the islands and snorkel around the Belize Barrier Reef, the second largest reef system in the world after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. But Neptune had other plans for us.

The next morning we wake up under heavy skies. A black cloud almost touching the sea is getting closer and closer from the south-east and soon a thick and dark wind full of rain descends upon us squealing and roaring and howling. Here comes the crazy old man riding upon the storm like a demon coming from the deep, mighty and furious. Lightnings slit the darkness around us followed by terrific explosions. We no longer see the shores of the island, we see nothing. The GPS says we are dragging anchor and fast. We turn on the motors and try to keep the boat from crashing into the reefs or to shore, but we have no idea which direction to turn, plus the wind is way stronger than the engines to be able to turn. Total chaos.

Good thing we dropped anchor away from the reefs and the shore and we had enough space to ‘drag safely’ for an entire mile. After some time, I have no idea how long the squall lasted, the wind calms down a bit, giving us enough time to reanchor and let out 300 feet of chain. Then it hits again. This time we don’t drag. We take GPS position every half an hour. The storm like a vulture circles above us and assaults us many times in the next couple of days and nights. Each squall is worst than the previous with winds of 40, then 50, then 60 miles per hour. But the boat takes it. We even get used to it and start playing cards.

On the third day looks like the worst has passed. The sky is still grey, the wind is still blowing hard but steady and the sea is rough, but no more squalls. Our wind-vane which anyway wasn’t working is missing and we are exhausted, but everything else is fine. It could be a lot worst. We could have been at sea and not at anchor, what would we have done then? Probably, for the experienced sailor, this would have seamed just a swirl of clouds. To us it was a hurricane. Later we found out that it was tropical storm Erin.

Time to sail the hell away from here, forget about snorkeling and visiting Belize, we now just want to get to Guatemala as soon as possible. Thus, we never set foot on Belize land, nor in Belize waters, we never met a single Belizean man or animal, although technically we spent a few days in Belize. Our memory of this country is populated by the terrible sounds of the storm. And the story is told.

 

Inside The Storm

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A Perfect Day At Sea

 

Caribbean Blue

Caribbean Blue

 

 

„What is your favorite color?“

„I love the colors around me“

It’s so peaceful. The world flows all around us. The sea, like a little girl gently carrying a butterfly on the palm of her hand carries our little boat, her white wings luminous against the sun. The liquid blue is poring beneath. I could dip my brush inside the ocean and paint blue jays, sapphires, eyes, moons, igloos at dusk, forget-me-nots till the rest of my life. My vision has become equine.

Some days at sea are truly perfect. Such days begin with a perfect candy-colored sunrise and end with a perfect candy-colored sunset. Orange, purple and pink clouds burst over the horizon during those two short spectacular moments, and then: just blue again. We sail.

Blue dolphins.

„Why do dolphins make us act like idiots?“

„I think they heard the music, some funny song they probably like, and that is why they came to dance around us.“

And we lough and we giggle, we call them and talk to them as if they understand. Surely they understand.

Blue wind.

„Wind is blowing from the right direction with the right velocity: five on the Beaufort scale. That is not too much and it is not too little.“

„It is perfect“

The sails are full and tight and shiny like the belly of a pregnant woman. We sail.

We fish. Fishing is important. We stick two fishing poles on both sides of the boat so that they are really stable and will not fall in the water when the fish pulls. Thus we don’t have to hold the fishing poles. We let the lures drag about five waves behind the boat. We wait and we listen for the sudden hiss of the line. Both lines pull almost at the same time! First one and a second later the other! Swish. (One). Swish. We panic. But it is a happy panic full of excitement. We bring in two identical tunas. Twins. The next couple of days, we don’t fish.

Some days at sea are truly perfect. This was one such day. Somewhere in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Mexico. And it happened to be my birthday, I am not joking. The sunrise, the blue of the sea, the wind, the dolphins, two tunas, a perfect sunset. Neptune sending me gifts.

 

 

Mira and her Birthday Gifts

Mira and her Birthday Gifts

 

Weekly Writing Challenge

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Playa del Carmen: Mayan Ruins and Sea Turtles

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August 18.

We pick up the anchor and leave Isla Mujeres heading south.  (The windlass suddenly doesn’t work, so Ivo has to bring the chain and anchor up by hand.) Our destination: Rio Dulce, Guatemala, a hurricane hole famous among the cruising community. Lots of boats spend the unstable summer months here as Rio Dulce is one of the most protected anchorages in the Caribbean and storms rarely visit this pace. The distance we have to sail is about 450 nautical miles, at least 4-6 days of sailing depending on the wind and if we don’t stop at night.

But we have to be mad not to stop, we are sailing parallel to Riviera Maya, keeping close to shore, and on our starboard side are some of the most beautiful Mexican beaches and resorts. Why not spending some quality time in a five-star ultra luxurious resort (or somewhere near it) for free?

 

Hotel Pool, Playa del Carmen

Hotel Pool at a 5-star resort, Playa del Carmen

 

After a few hours of uneventful sailing we drop anchor just south of the crowded Playa del Carmen after the last hotel right in front of the beach. There is not a single anchorage here, so we are hoping for calm winds and seas at night. The next day we explore.

 

Fata Morgana anchored off the beach, Playa del Carmen, Mexico

Fata Morgana anchored off the beach, Playa del Carmen, Mexico

 

For the first time we leave our boat anchored in front of a beach, alone, in a country notorious for its high crime rate. There is no dinghy dock here, so we paddle to shore and finally Viktor brings the kayak back to the boat and swims to shore with a bag full of shoes. Thus we don’t have to worry at least for the kayak. We head to town.

 

Viktor after swimming from Fata Morgana to the beach with a bag of shoes.

Viktor after swimming from Fata Morgana to the beach with a bag of shoes.

 

Once a small fishermen village, today Playa del Carmen is a major tourist destination with modern gated hotel complexes and condominiums, downtown area with shopping plazas and boutiques, internationally recognized chain restaurants and bars, and luxury department stores.

 

Public Beach at Playa del Carmen

Public Beach at Playa del Carmen

 

From here we go to Tulum to check out the ruins. If we had a good detailed chart or/and a cruising guide explaining how and where to clear the reef breakers, we could have sailed to Tulum, a few miles south of Playa del Carmen, and anchored just in front of the God of Winds Temple perched on the edge of a bluff, facing the sunrise. But we don’t have a guide and the chart doesn’t show any depths beyond the reef, so we take the bus instead.

 

Mira in Tulum

Mira in Tulum

 

Tulum, City of Dawn, is one of the last Mayan cities and one of the best preserved Mayan sites. (Maya did not have to pay admission because of her name. Joke. Because kid under 13 enter for free.) We are impressed by the size of its territory and the number of individual structures: temples, palaces, frescoes, platforms. But the hundreds of tourists invading the ruins inevitably spoil the entire experience. At some point we just want to run away from there. Plus, we are getting worried for Fata.

 

Tourists at Tulum

Tourists at Tulum

 

We get back at the boat in the afternoon to find her undisturbed, quietly waiting for us. The next day we spend walking around the coast. South of the last hotel and sandy beach is a rocky deserted shore where we notice at least twenty recent sea-turtle nests. Suddenly, we spot a coati digging in the sand. The animal runs away and hides in the bushes as we approach. There is blood and turtle eggshell. He’s been eating recently hatched baby sea-turtles! We find two survivors and keep them in a bucket covered with sand, like Suzy did back at Loggerhead Island. We plan to release them on the beach around midnight.

 

Ivo with a baby green turtle

Ivo with a baby green turtle

 

It’s midnight, full moon. Ivo and I paddle with the kayak to the beach to release the two baby turtles. One is dead. The other one swims away. And then, we see a huge green turtle just finished laying her eggs, exhausted, covered with sand, heading back to the Caribbean Sea. I can’t resist and snap a picture. She tolerates us, ignores us, and disappears in the black waters of the night. We are overwhelmed. Was it a dream?

 

A green sea-turtleheading back to the sea after laying her eggs.

A green sea-turtle heading back to the sea after laying her eggs.

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Cayo Levisa to Cabo San Antonio

Close to shore or offshore?

We leave Cayo Levisa together with Harley and April and we get to our next destination, Los Morros at Cabo San Antonio, almost at the same time, after over 30 hours of sailing. Only, Harley and April, who have more than 10 years of experience crewing aboard mega-yachts sailing 4 times around the globe, kept close to shore and stopped to sleep for the night anchored behind the reefs, while we took Fata Morgana way offshore and sailed non-stop the whole time, day and night, battling with current and waves, dealing with squalls and electrical storms. Turns out, sailing close to shore is way faster and the sea is much calmer, with less currents and waves, and about the same wind as offshore.

Lesson learned.

April and Harley

April and Harley

 

Marina Los Morros

We arrive in the afternoon of the next day.

Los Morros is technically a marina, if you can call a small wooden pier and a small concrete building with a couple of toilets a marina. The nearest village is over 100 kilometers away. But, there are the officials waiting for us: customs, immigration, coast guard, the entire gang, and that’s what qualifies a small pier in Cuba as a marina. We drop anchor near by and we clear in for a fourth time… Soon El Karma joins us. We sleep for 12 hours straight and the next morning we are ready to explore.

Mira witha Cuban military truck

Mira witha Cuban military truck

The place is so tiny and charming, so far away from everything, at the end of the mangrove world, it feels like a childhood memory. An immigration officer gives us directions and we start for the beach. A bunch of slow sun-stricken cows roaming around the shore are paying close attention to our actions while chewing their breakfast for the second time.

Fata Morgana anchored at Los Morros, Cabo San Antonio, Cuba

Fata Morgana anchored at Los Morros, Cabo San Antonio, Cuba

 

Bug-infested walk to the beach

Turns out, the beach is at the end of a three-mile road through the jungle, where the bugs live. We need a bug repellant fast if we don’t want only our dry skeletons to arrive at the beach. „Hay que inventar“ (Have to invent) I remember the phrase everyone uses in Cuba, and soon we solve our problem using palm leafs as fans and hats against the insects. We camouflage so the unintelligent mosquitoes think we are some sort of walking trees and leave us alone.

Viktor, Maya, and Ivo walking with bug-repellent palm leaf hats. This is how we showed up at the beach.

Viktor, Maya, and Ivo walking with bug-repellent palm leaf hats.
This is how we showed up at the beach.

 

 

The Beach

Cabo San Antonio Beach

Cabo San Antonio Beach

The one-hour bug-infested walk is worth it. We get to another secluded mini-resort: little bungalows with tiki roofs at the edge of the forest and just next to the beach, little piglets running around.

Piglet

Piglet

There are a total of four tourists and six pigs on the entire beach (before we showed up all covered up with vegetation). We spend the afternoon chilling, having lots and lots of fun in the water. Best time in Cuba!

Ivo, Viktor and Maya, The human pyramid

Ivo, Viktor and Maya, The human pyramid

 

Mira, Ivo, Maya, Viktor: a rare picture of the four of us

Mira, Ivo, Maya, Viktor: a rare picture of the four of us

 

 

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Marina Hemingway to Cayo Levisa

 

Leaving Marina Hemingway

After a week and a half in Marina Hemingway, inadequately expensive, noisy, mosquito-infested place with terrible facilities, we are eager to leave and sail west. On the way out of the marina, we have to clear la guarda and immigration again. In Cuba, you have to go through this painful process every time you enter or exit a port. Even if you go for a two-hour sail near the shore and comeback to the same port, which we’ve done once while in Marina Hemingway, you have to check out and check back in with la guarda and immigration, as if you are leaving the country and then coming back. This means: officials on board inspecting your passports, boat documentation, and the boat itself, before authorizing the move. I believe, Cuba is the only country who does this to cruisers. Unpleasant.

 

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.
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.

 

Our plan is to sail 60 miles west to Cayo Levisa and spend a few days there, then continue to Cabo San Antonio, the westernmost tip of the island before crossing over to Isla Mujeres, Mexico.

We hoist the main sail and the jib early in the morning on August 4, but there is not much wind until noon. The ocean surface is calm and sleek like the skin of a sleeping manatee. The boat barely moves with 1,5 knots.

 

Viktor and Maya are doing some laundry while the boat  gently sails west.

Viktor and Maya are doing some laundry while the boat gently sails west.

 

In the afternoon the wind picks up from the east and we start making good progress doing about 6-7 knots, wing-on-wing. Our autopilot and wind gauges don’t work since we started this journey, so we never know what is the wind speed, and we constantly hand-steer the boat. These are two major things we have to work on as soon as possible, but for now we just make the best of it. We became really good at ‘feeling’ the boat while steering and guessing the wind. They certainly didn’t have wind indicators and autopilots in the old times, is our consolation.

Thus we sail west all day along the Cuban north coast keeping a safe distance from the reef breakers, on the edge of the indigo-colored Gulf Stream. On our left slowly float by soft green hills, deserted beaches, and small coastal villages.

As the sun prepares to dive behind the horizon, we prepare to clear the reef and find an anchorage behind Cayo Levisa. It has been a long day.

 

Cayo Levisa

 

Fata Morgana is the only sailboat at Cayo Levisa anchorage.

Fata Morgana is the only sailboat at Cayo Levisa anchorage.

 

Cayo Levisa is a tiny mangrove island with a long stretch of fine sand on the north side. Tourists, mainly from Italy and France, arrive here daily, but the place is never overcrowded, as there aren’t any hotels, but a few coquette wooden bungalows alongside the beach. I wonder, how much it would cost to come here and rent one of these for a week. The good thing about sailing is that you can visit places like this and stay as long as you want for the reasonable amount of zero.

 

Cayo Levisa Beach

Cayo Levisa Beach

 

We even get a huge pile of fruits and vegetables as a gift from a guy who works here. Marcus is  one of those rare people with open hearts and minds and a talent for kindness and benevolence. „Remember, not all Cubans are like those you met in Havana. In the countryside, people are welcoming, honest, and generous, even if they are poor“, he tells us with a perfect English. This little gesture illuminated our entire Cuban experience and restored our faith in this country’s ordinary people.

 

An unexpected gift.

An unexpected gift.

 

The next couple of days we spend with Harley and April who followed us here from Havana. Together we go snorkeling on the reefs in the morning, feeding with leftovers the thousands of yellowtails and sergeant-majors swarming near the corrals who come and take small pieces of food from our hands. We spend the afternoons on the beach submerged in the warm shallow waters only our heads sticking out, like a family of hippopotamuses, around a small surf board where we rest our beers, exchanging stories.

 

Cayo Levisa

Cayo Levisa

 

And in the evenings, the kids stay on the boat and watch Back to the Future 1, 2 and 3, while we go on shore to the small restaurant and dance on the beach. April brings two cords with scorched tennis-size balls at the ends where we attach glowing sticks because we couldn’t find kerosine and teaches us to fire-dance but without the fire (and a good thing too, especially for beginners). Ivo is natural and ambitiously masters most of the moves in just a few hours. The tourists are sitting at a safe distance, watching us.

 

Maya drinking Cola at the beach restaurant

Maya drinking Cola at the beach restaurant

 

Although we enjoy our time in Cayo Levisa, we get disappointed again when we try to go on the other side to the mainland and visit La Esperanza, a tiny fishermen village nearby. The authorities tell us we cannot go. Even if Harley and April would stay behind and keep an eye on our boat, we are not aloud to set foot anywhere except Cayo Levisa. The explanation is that there is no customs and immigration authorities there to clear us in (although we already cleared three times in Cuba…) It’s ridiculous. Not being able to go on shore and explore the country’s rural interior is the biggest downside of visiting Cuba by boat.

The next morning, we lift anchor and sail off to our last Cuban destination: Los Morros, Cabo San Antonio.

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Traveling in Cuba. Viñales

 

 Cruisers traveling in Cuba

 

We came to Cuba by boat and that made it very difficult and expensive exploring the country by land because of the many restrictions on boaters and the high marina and transportation costs.

 

In Cuba, it is forbidden to just drop anchor anywhere you like, leave the boat and go to the mainland. (One more reason why Cuba is unique in the world of cruising.) On the north coast, you can drop anchor only near some of the many tourist-populated cayos and resorts, but you can then only visit the cayos, by law you cannot set foot on the mainland and explore the nearest village. Plus, there must be at least one adult on board at all times if you are anchored out, you cannot leave the boat unattended. The concern, I guess, is that a bunch of not very patriotic Cubanos might grab the opportunity (and the boat) and sail off into the sunset (or rather into the Gulf Stream and north).

 

If you want to explore the interior of the country, your only option is to leave the boat at one of the marinas, which are not many in Cuba, pay 20 dollars per day for a 40-feet boat ( $0.50 per foot per day), and find transportation to where you want to go. Here is the tricky part: transportation. From Havana to all main cities,  Santiago, Trinidad, Camagüey, Holguín, etc., you can get an air-conditioned tourists-only bus for about $100 per person one direction. Or you can rent a car (maybe air-conditioned if you are lucky) with or without a driver, between $90 and $120 per day. You can try to move around by cheap local bus, which is actually an old truck and people pile up in the open-air trailer under a canvass. We wouldn’t mind doing this, to us it sounds like fun, but it would take days to get anywhere, and we would still have to pay for the marina, $20 per day, so it is not worth it. Same problem with hitch-hiking…

 

We really wanted to visit Trinidad, a spectacular UNESCO heritage mountain village with spectacular colonial architecture in the south, but we calculated that for our family of four it would cost us over a thousand dollars to leave the boat for a few days in Hemingway marina, get on the tourist bus and pay for hotel or a casa particular in Trinidad for a couple of nights. So we didn’t visit it this time, we might sail there some other day.

 

Viñales, Pinar del Rio, Cuba.

A photo journal.

The only place we visited in the country’s interior was Viñales in the Pinar del Rio province, less than two hundred kilometers west of Havana, thanks to Harley and April who we met at Marina Hemingway: it was their idea.

 

Harley and April aboard El Karma

Harley and April aboard El Karma

 

We found a car (with AC!) with a driver for a full day for the bargain price of $90, gas included and split the cost and the space with Harley and April. We enjoyed a nice two and a half hour ride on the big Cuban highway … stopping only about six times under bridges because the car started to overheat and we spent all the drinking water we had trying to cool it off.

We found a car (with AC!) with a driver for a full day for the bargain price of $90, gas included and split the cost and the space with Harley and April. We enjoyed a nice two and a half hour ride on the big Cuban highway ... stopping only about six times under bridges because the car started to overheat and we spent all the drinking water we had trying to cool it off.

Cooling off the car

 

For two and a half hours we look out the car windows. The countryside is charming: fresh green mountains, plains, little neat villages. None of the madness of the big city.

Pinar del Rio province, Cuba

Pinar del Rio province, Cuba

Viñales is a small model-village in the mountains, a national monument since 1978 and a UNESCO heritage site since 1999. It is a main touristic destination, and so we were not very pleased to find here crowds of visitors, buses arriving every half an hour.

Main street and church in Viñales

 

The main attraction in Viñales are the two caves where runaway salves,  Cimarróns, lived in the 1800s. After entering in the first cave, we decided not to enter in the second… There is an entrance fee of $5 per person, the cave is in fact a few meter long corridor complete with fake snakes and frogs and a small restaurant at the entrance. Even if the cave is not big and impressive, its history is a fascinating one. The fact that this cave was the home for runaway slaves in the 1800-s was the most thrilling for me.

A restaurant and bar in the cave of the runaway slaves

A restaurant and bar in the cave of the runaway slaves

A bunch of street artists ambush the cave exit and perform a  Cimarrón dance for inevitable tips.

 

Performance in the cave

Performance in the cave

Ivo and Maya contemplating replicas of the runaway slave's houses in Vinales Valley

Ivo and Maya contemplating replicas of the runaway slave’s houses in Vinales Valley

 

The caves are located in Palenque near Viñales, in a deep green valley surrounded by tall granite mountains and thick vegetation. It is an awe-inspiring landscape.

Viñales Valley

Viñales Valley

 

Looking up

Looking up

We get a bunch of very cheap and very sweet bananas from a local farmer on our way back in Viñales.

Bananas 24 for $1

Bananas 24 for $1

 

Back in Viñales, we hide from a torrential tropical mountain rain, enjoying a glass of cold beer on the terrace of a small restaurant. In Cuba there are two kinds of beer: Bukanero and Cristal. We like Cristal a lot better, but they didn’t have Cristal and served us Bukanero instead…

 

Una cervesa por favor

Una cerveza por favor

As we are sitting in the restaurant enjoying our cold beers, a car pushed by three people passes down the road. Poor people, having car problems in the rain. Oh, wait a minute, this is our car! Our driver, Erie, a very timid always smiling guy, was supposed to wait for us at some corner, but I guess he had a bad day with that car…

 

Car problems in Cuba: an inevitable part of the journey

Car problems in Cuba: an inevitable part of the journey

We managed to get back to the marina without anymore car problems on the way back, listening to old 80-s disco hits and enjoying, once more, the unspoiled Cuban countryside.

House near Palenque

House near Palenque

 

The history of the Caribbean runaway slave, el Cimarron, is a fascinating one. 

 

As the sugar production (sweet gold) was booming in the French colony of Saint Domingue in the 1700-s, black young women and men, African princes and princesses, were piled up on ships and brought to the islands to work the sugar cane plantations. The slaves lasted for about a year in unimaginable conditions, and so more ships with „fresh meat“ were arriving weekly. For the slaves, the only hope was to escape. But escaping was not easy and most of the times the runaways were caught and brought back to be killed in public as an example, or died from dehydration and exhaustion in the unforgiving tropical wilderness of the island. But some succeeded, some made it to the mountains, to the caves, to freedom. They formed small communities, away from the cities and the plantations, life as close to nature as one can only imagine. Nature was mother, doctor, protector. The caves were home. The Cimarróns were free, multiplying, organizing.

Inspired by the French Revolution, a black avalanche descended from the mountains in 1791 upon Le Cap and Port-au-Prince in the then French colony of Saint Domingue. Sugar fields burned with black smoke for weeks, heads of planters and their entire families rolled on the streets, boats, this time loaded with white refugees fled to Cuba and America.

In Cuba, the emancipation took longer, freedom for all didn’t come until 1886. The history repeated itself.

I have read two remarkable books (in Spanish) which I would recommend to everyone interested in the subject of the runaway Caribbean slave.

One is  Miguel Barnet’s Biography of a Runaway Slave. Historia de un Cimarrón. It is the detailed and personal testimony of Esteban Montejo as told by himself in 1966, when he was 103 years old, and as such it is also a valuable historical document.

The other is Isabel Allende’s The Island Beneath the Sea, La isla bajo el mar, a beautifully written historical novel full of romance and intrigues, giving a poetic account of the Haitian revolution in the French colony of Saint Domingue (today Haiti). 

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Turtle Nest Expedition

 

 

 

Loggerhead Key is a tiny island in Dry Tortugas, across from Garden Key where Fort Jefferson is. A tall lighthouse, three times the height of a regular one, was erected here in the 19th century, about the same time as Fort Jefferson was being built.

Pier and Lighthouse, Loggerhead Key, Florida

Pier and Lighthouse, Loggerhead Key, Florida

 

There are not organized tours here, and so the island, its white sandy beaches, and the coral reefs around it are undisturbed by people most of the time. The only way to come here is by boat.

Driftwood on a white sandy beach, Loggerhead Key

Driftwood on a white sandy beach, Loggerhead Key

 

July 22, Monday

We drop anchor very carefully on a sandy bottom patch, making sure there are no coral heads beneath. Ivo and I take the kayak to check out the lighthouse and explore the place. Viktor and Maya stay on the boat to play video games…

Fata Morgana anchored off Loggerhead Key

Fata Morgana anchored off Loggerhead Key

 

On the island we stumble upon Mark and Suzy, Marine Biology Students doing an internship and a group of scientists studying the sea turtles.

Suzy

Suzy

Kristen Hart, a research ecologist, and her crew have just arrived to monitor some of the turtle nests on the beach.

They accept our offer to help with the turtle nest expedition. (Our help consists in caring a huge beach umbrella and holding it above the excavating researchers, taking pictures, and asking too many questions.)

Excavating a recently hatched turtle nest

Excavating a recently hatched turtle nest

 

In the next couple of hours, under the hot tropical sun, Kristen and her crew excavate turtle nests marked by a pole indicating a recent hatching.

Kristen Hart holding unhatched turtle eggs

Kristen Hart holding unhatched turtle eggs

They count the eggshells, mark the nest GPS positions, take samples from the unhatched eggs by opening them and collecting the smelly rotten yolks in a jar.

An unhatched baby turtle

An unhatched baby turtle

 

The nests contain exactly one hundred yellowish eggshells each, of which a few unhatched eggs in various stages of development, and couple of baby turtle body parts, meaning that most of the baby turtles successfully hatched and made it to the ocean sometime in the past couple of days.

We are so grateful to be part of this expedition… It is an amazing learning experience; we only regret that the kids didn’t come. We learn about the green turtles and the loggerhead turtles, their habitat, behavior, and reproduction first hand.

We spend the evening and a night of a full moon on the boat watching the light of the lonely lighthouse lazily circling around us. Tonight, enormous creatures will emerge slowly from the warm dark waters of the ocean hauling their heavy shells across the sands to find a familiar spot. A place where many many years ago they awoke buried among their one hundred brothers and sisters and with much effort their journey begun. At this spot, they will remember, their old mother came, many many years ago, and gently covered with sand one hundred round eggs, her most treasured possession. They will remember, yes, and they will do as she did. Tonight.

Full moon over the lighthouse

Full moon over the lighthouse

 

The next morning we go back to the island, this time with Maya and Viktor, to investigate the sands of the beach for new nests. Another short expedition.

Suzy leads us along the beach

Suzy leads us along the beach

 

Suzy leads us along the southeast beach showing us fresh turtle tracks and nests, explaining the difference between the green turtle and the loggerhead nesting behavior. I am glad the kids are interested and participate. This is an example of how they learn valuable lessons outside school, thanks to traveling. A natural history, ecology, and biology lesson they will never forget.

A recent turtle nest and tracks from the night before. The eggs are under the little hill.

A recent turtle nest and tracks from the night before. The eggs are under the little hill.

 

They learn that green turtles and loggerheads have different patterns of walking on the sand and making their nests. That they dig sometimes a few nests before choosing where to lay their eggs. That they do this in the dark of the night to avoid being discovered and bothered by birds and predators. That they lay a hundred eggs or more, of which over 90% hatch successfully, but only a small fraction of the baby turtles make it to adulthood. The rest become easy prey for marine predators. That, if they make it, they can live to be hundreds of years old. That people hunt them in the past for they were an easy pray and had delicious meat until their numbers diminished dramatically. That today hunting and killing a sea turtle is a crime. That pollution, oil spills, and destruction of their habitat continues even now to endanger them. And that there are now programs and individuals out there who care about them and try to preserve them.

 

You can read more about the sea turtles of Dry Tortugas and the research and conservation efforts of scientists like Kristen Hart in Implementing the Dry Tortugas National Park Research Natural Area Science Plan: The 5-Year Report 2012.

 

 

 

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