The more we explore this region, the clearer it becomes. We have landed in this time and place for a greater purpose. The deeper we dig, the harder these experiences strike us, ultimately changing the way we look at the world. You can’t always change the situation, but you can infect it with your energy and begin the shift. We set out on this path in search of growth and experience…let’s just say we have already gotten more than we bargained for on this voyage up the Rio.
We weigh anchor at sunrise and point our bow further up river with Lago De Izabal in our sights. Mornings on the Rio are our favorite time of day; glass-calm waters, lined with mangroves, cat tails and the white cranes fishing the muddy banks of the river.
As we got closer to the heart of the Rio Dulce we started seeing huge yachts tied up to every house on the river and security guards toting guns keeping watch over the haciendas.
We began to see evidence of all of the big Guatemalan money. And living alongside all the excess, poor farmers and fisherman with nothing but the necessities.
We turned the bend and there she was; this giant concrete bridge reaching out of the bush. Big rigs screaming their jake brakes all day, and into the night. The town of Rio Dulce is the hustle hub, where people on the river go to buy, sell and trade everything.
It’s littered with street food, li’l veggie stands with fresh produce, local fish markets, taxis, exhaust fumes, motorbikes and the lingering scent of the cattle trucks passing inches from your toes. This was such a contrasting atmosphere from the serenity we had just come from. We sailed under the bridge and straight into the smokey lands of Lago De Izabal.
As you enter the lake there’s a castle on the point, with cannons facing the passing boats. It has a very intimidating aura as you pass by, only a few yards away. Castillo De San Philippe was built to keep out the English pirate vessels coming in to steal ye booty. This place has been a land of pirate activity for centuries and now it was our time to breach the gates of this region and look for some treasure of our own.
When the previous owner, Captain Gary (Ret), got wind that we were sailing into the lake he sent us this brilliant photograph of CC sailing past Castillo De San Philippe back in 1986.
It’s surreal knowing that they embarked on a similar adventure to ours, all those decades ago. When they were our age, and full of the same youthful fire and drive to see the world.
We were hunting for the entrance to a giant limestone gorge we had heard about. According to the chart, we should be able to access the gorge via the river that flows through it. Sailing up the north coast of the lake was like sailing onto the set of an old Indiana Jones movie.
Thatched-roof homes in the foreground, the smoke from their smoldering campfires lingering in the foot hills of the mountains. Where the men carry big machetes and hunting rifles, and the women gather on the banks washing their family’s garments and doing dishes.
The lake seems to be mostly fincas, small homesteads and very primitive country living on the lake. We sailed up to El Estor and dropped the hook about 2 miles from shore. Loaded the dink up with cameras and some supplies, and headed up the “Rio Sauce” in search of the 400 foot deep gorge.
We motored up the small mouth of the river, over a shallow sandbar and submerged trees. Finally, our chance to get an up close and personal look at this culture! The Rio Sauce bends and snakes though finca after finca and some thick timber lands. This waterway was full of life; cattle drinking from the river, exotic birds hunting along the bank…and a suspicious crocodile keeping his eye on us as we passed by.
The people here wave reluctantly, and we all had the sense that maybe we were navigating in rebel territory. I must add that, though it’s said to be safe now, in the 80s, this whole end of the lake was occupied by rebel forces while civil war was upon these people. Today they’re ranchers and fishermen…but you still have to wonder if that rebel soul is still alive in these people on the north coast of Lago De Izabal.
After covering about 10 miles, we were stopped by a massive tree blocking the river. We had to carry the dinghy and all of our camera gear around the obstruction. Our search finally came to an abrupt end a few more miles up where five strands of barbed wire strung across the river. We had no choice but to turn downstream and get ready to whitewater raft all the way back to CC girl. The current was pushing us into all of the sketchy passes through which we had barely fit on our way upstream. We’d motor until we were over mere inches of water and then we’d have to kick the motor up, jump out and push the dinghy.
As we came back out into the lake we could see Cool Change looking proud in her solitude. The Yamaha sang as we zipped across the 2 miles of water between us and home sweet home. The sun sank down into the hazy mountains, and we were greeted by a mixture of low-hanging clouds and smoke from the local fires. It created an ominous energy in the air and you could hear the distance bustle of El Estor.
Scotsman strikes a match and fires up the BBQ to celebrate our first night on Izabal. The whole crew was fat and happy, even Captain Peanut was thrown a bone. The boys retired early to have another attempt at this landscape mañana. Bru was in the aft pilot berth just beginning his rhythm of faint snoring, Scotsman chose to claim the main salon for his resting place, while Brandon set up the hammock on the bow. The boat was so still that night on the lake, with the smoke in the air and a new moon. It felt like something of sinister nature was upon us.
Bru and I were woken at 23:45 by Peanut’s fierce, “I am going to kill something!” bark. We jumped up and shined our flashlights into the darkness to see our dinghy, once again, drifting downwind. It was about 40 yards out by now, and we noticed right away that our outboard was gone! We knew the thieves must have been close. We could make them out in their canoe about 30 yards to the left of the dink but we couldn’t be sure. We assembled the paddling devices for yet another rescue attempt.
We launched a two-man rescue mission, before she could drift 25 miles into the dark abyss like she did in Belize. We paddled cautiously up to the dink, keeping a 360-degree watch. Quietly, we slid into the empty, motorless dinghy and paddled her back to the mothership – now a quarter-mile away.
We pulled the dink onto the deck were we should have had it in the first place. The bandits cut the bow line and just drifted away while they did their dirty work in the night. They wanted nothing to do with the dink, they had their eyes on that beautiful Yamaha 15. “Giddy up boys! Let’s pull the hook and leave this rat-infested anchorage!” We motored another 5 miles west and toward the middle of the lake where we would wait out the night.
As we sailed back down to Rio we talked about the night and who it could have been. Maybe it was a drug addict from the big city of El Estor. Or maybe it was just a poor fisherman that had nothing to lose by robbing the few sailors who dare to drift into these remote locations. C'est la vie was our verdict and we sailed back down the 30 mile lake to raise our sprits.
The last 12 months have been one hell of a year! Hills and valleys, sacrifices and detours…all that we three endured to bring this expedition to life. Nothing in the world could take away this feeling of freedom we have discovered, not even being robbed. It’s the sense of empowerment and bliss from our experiences that drives us to keep pushing on, in spite all of these obstacles.
We have beaten the odds by simply leaving our safe harbor back in the states, now we are thousands of miles away in a foreign land. That in itself is enough to be grateful for. Onward boys!