Thirty years ago Cool Change sailed her way up a mystical river in Guatemala called Rio Dulce. She and her crew fell in love with what they found and continued to explore for months. Fast forward from 1986 to the present day: she’s back! With new eyes and ready to rediscover this special place.
A few things have changed in the past 30 years including tide heights and water depths due to sediment built up. We were warned that if you attempt to enter the mouth of the river during the wrong tide, it’s easy for a deep drafted boat to run aground.
Looking out on the smokey mountains of this new land, we talked about how mysterious this place was and how we truly had no idea what to expect. We’ve heard it is a wondrous place full of howler monkeys, cultures still living traditionally, and natural beauty unique to this region. We have also heard stories of robbery, heartless killings of sailors, and that the Rio is an all-around rough place to be. We took it all with a grain of salt; we like to make judgments based on our own experiences.
It was an overcast day, still and quiet. The water was as flat as glass on the Gulf of Honduras. We motor sailed 27 miles from Snake Cay, Belize to Livingston, Guatemala. Dropped our hook on the muddy flats outside Livingston and waited for the prefect time and tide to crossover that haunting sand bar.
Scotsman noticed this beautiful moth had hitched a ride from Belize on our outboard. He was handsome and he knew it. We captured him from all angles as his little hairs blew in the breeze.
When the sun set we were once again the only boat on the horizon. As it got dark we noticed a string of lights heading our direction. CC was anchored 2 ½ miles off shore and we hadn’t seen another boat all day. The lights got closer and closer until we could make out some detail. Shrimp boats!
Most are dimly lit and look like they have seen their day. These fishermen would come 30 yards from us as if to peek in and say hello. Twelve lights turned into 50 before we knew it and we were surrounded by boats in all directions like fireflies on a summer night. You could hear the captains’ laugh and their mates singing. This went on all night long. We were on guard, sleeping with one eye open all night. There was tension in the air. Brandon slept on the bow that night, opening his eyes every half hour to see yet another fisherman just off our beam.
Up came the sun and it was time to try our luck at crossing the bar with a 6 ½ foot drafted sailing vessel. On the chart, the depth reading is 6 feet in the deepest part of the channel. Peak high tide was at 8:30am and it was now 8:15. We gotta go.
We pulled anchor and motored forward, lined up the cut and pointed our bow toward the mountain outside of town (the locals will tell you to hold a heading of 225 degrees). She slowly chugged along as we watched the depth sounder go from 8 feet to 4 feet and finally -2 feet! We were officially experiencing the wrath of this shallow bar. We were really just motoring through the thick layer of mud that covers the bar. CC girl pushed valiantly onward, making it about halfway before we came to complete stop. The water was now a muddy green and our prop was stirring up a nice mocha color to add to the cocktail of defeat. We worked the helm, rocked the boat, and throttled up in reverse and forward for about 10 mins. Now we know; when our depth sounder reads -2.6 feet we are sitting on the bottom.
To our port bow was another sailboat coming out of the Rio heading our way. The sailboat was being towed by a local fishing boat. Here was our opportunity to get out of this mess. As they came close we signaled for them to give us a hand when they were done with the other sailor. The boat had three locals onboard; the captain, a woman heaving lines, and “Señor Goofy” who quickly boarded our boat in an attempt to explain the procedure. We’re not in Belize anymore, where most people speak fluent English. First day in Guatemala and our Spanish was coming back to us out of necessity.
The captain signaled to throw him our main halyard. Right away we knew where he was going with this. The woman heaved a line and Goofy went to work on tying the two together. Goofy signaled the captain and we both hammered full steam ahead. The tow vessel turned hard starboard, taking out the 200 feet of slack between us and CC began to heal over hard. Our keel lifted out of the mud and we started to creep forward!
Goofy helped us navigate the bar and we cruised along. CC was laid over with just inches under her keel all the way into the village of Livingston Bay.
We had landed safely in the mouth of the river, and what a strange feeling it was. We had been sailing the open ocean for weeks, living everyday in a constant rolling swell. Now we are up here in this calm river that winds deep into the interior of Guatemala. We cleared customs in a few hours and headed straight up the legendary Rio Dulce.
The bar may be 6 feet deep but once you get over that hump you’re sitting pretty in the river and lakes at 12-30 feet deep. After rounding the bend past Livingston, the river narrows into a beautiful canyon.
From the start of our sail up the river we were mesmerized by the lush shorelines and the culture living along it. These people live on the water, literally. There are no roads up here, no cars. The only way in and out is by boat. We were smack dab in the middle of the main highway from Livingston to the inland lakes and villages.
The canyon twists and turns for miles, becoming very narrow in some parts. We loaded the camera gear into the dingy and grabbed some shots of CC pushing her way up river.
You get the sense that these people on the Rio haven’t changed much in the last 500 years (other than their Nike shirts and cell phones). They are still fishing in traditional dugout canoes, with hand lines and throw nets. Most of these families live in houses built on stilts right on the river.
You can’t help but smile and wave as you pass these resilient people. The further we went up river, the further back in time we traveled.
While checking into customs we met a man named Tom who suggested we stop in the little bay where he lives, Texan Bay. Apparently it got it’s name from a man named Texan Mike, who is the unofficial mayor of the area. Tom also mentioned that it’s a place to meet fellow sailors who have lived here for years, and that it’s a safe place to anchor while we get our bearings of the area. Sounds perfect.
After sailing about 10 miles up the river we reached the entrance to Texan Bay. Sailors from all over the world have ended up here, living in their beautiful stilted mangrove homes right on the bay.
We sounded our way in with a foot of water under the keel, dropped the hook and were immediately greeted by a local family in their dugout canoe. We exchanged what little cash we had for a bunch of bananas and hand-carved toy boat. The currency here in Guatemala is called Quetzal. $1.00 USD is worth about $7.50 Quetzal. We realized later that we had bought some 50 or so bananas and the boat for about 5 American dollars.
There are these small passages through the mangroves that take you meandering through hanging gardens of the jungle canopy just above your head. The howler monkeys scream in the morning and the manatees feed as the tarpon splash the surface of the water. We just landed in the Wild West of the Caribbean and we were anxious to explore. So we went to work getting the paddleboard and kayak pumped up and deployed to get a closer look at this water world.
There was a pretty interesting looking passage that twists back into the jungle behind Texan Bay. We were seeing locals paddling back up there all day and we wondered where it went. We packed up the cameras and the pup and began exploring the fincas (farms) that lined the river.
We paddled silently as we passed by one home where a little boy was playing. He was chasing us and saying something to the tune of, “Come play with me!” or, “Look at the dog on the paddle board!” His neighbor rowed over from across the creek to grab some fish out of a tub on the front porch. The sense of community was all around us. Everyone leaning on one another to survive.
We went deeper into the finger where it got almost too tight to pass and the vines above touched the water in search of refreshment from the heat.
The tight canal opened up to a series of glassy and pristine ponds. We explored for hours. The feeling of being somewhere truly wild came rushing back and we were lost in yet another untamed land.
We remained at anchor in Texan Bay for a few more days. We even got to meet Texan Mike and listen to his outlandish stories told in his thick southern accent.
We discovered so much in our first few days in Guatemala. It feels like we officially found paradise. It’s easy to see why CC spent months up here all those years ago. But where there is light there must be dark, and fair weather doesn’t always last. In the following week we would find out what happens when you let your guard down on the Sweet River…