We arrived in Mexico on the beautiful island of Isla Mujeres, (the Island of Women) off the coast of Mexico and 5 miles east of the well-known holiday resort of Cancun, a concrete jungle looming on the horizon.
Cancun showing the Mayan influence on hotel design
The Island was tiny, 3 miles long and ½ a mile wide but a lovely little spot, if a teeny bit touristy, however it took us over 3 days to clear in to Mexico with all the bureaucracy here and we even had to apply to temporarily import the boat which took another day and a trip to Cancun, a legal requirement if you wanted to stay in Mexico for more than 5 days.All the boat documents, passports, crew list etc had to be supplied, original and 5 copies and for the importation certificate we had been warned by other cruisers that they had to be in colour, both sides and include a list of equipment on board together with serial numbers. What a nightmare and to cap it we had to pay for the import certificate in US dollars and with the exact money of $52.20. Fortunately we were able to scrape this together but had to clean the verdi-gris off the 20 one cent coins and then the customs lady had the cheek to refuse them, asking for dimes instead. Pity it was a good opportunity to get our own back.
Marina Paraiso from the anchorage
After we had officially cleared in we decided to treat ourselves to dinner ashore and had a magnificent dish of mariscos and had a lovely evening listening to a duo playing clarinet and classic guitar as we sat on the beach, watched the sun go down and picked our way through the large platter of mixed seafood. Both musicians were accomplished but the guitarist especially so and we were disappointed when they finished and went over to tell them so. Back to the boat then to get our heads down, only trouble being we couldn’t find the boat, it wasn’t where we had left it at anchor. After scouring the bay we eventually found it 30ft off the reef several hundred yards from where we had left it but it was still afloat, we leapt on and hauled up the dragging anchor and set off back across the bay to re-anchor. Next morning Mark a Canadian from a neighbouring boat came over and the whole story was revealed. At 5.00pm the previous evening I had brought the Customs and health officials out to the boat for an inspection and all was well as I returned to shore with the officials in the dinghy. Shortly afterwards for no apparent reason the boat started to drag its anchor (we learned afterwards that the holding was poor in the bay and lots of boats dragged) and was headed for Mark’s boat, both he and Terry, another Canadian, boarded Romano and let out more chain which eventually held but not before Mark had to up anchor and move his boat out of the way. Our engine keys were locked inside so there was no way for them to manoeuvre the boat, Romano came to rest 30ft from the reef – a close thing and a valuable lesson. Needless to say we wanted to thank these guys and invited them over for drinks the following evening and met their lovely wives, Sandy and Linda and a great evening was spent enjoying their company.
One little unexpected adventure came about on a day trip to Cancun when we were stopped by one of the ferry staff as we disembarked. He managed to persuade Gill to attend a time share presentation in a nearby hotel and for doing this they would pay us 1500 pesos, about £75.00 and all we had to do was listen. To qualify for the payment we had to be employed, staying in a hotel and be on a short stay holiday and if so he got his commission from the time share company. We agreed to go along and told our tale well enough but were then subjected to a 3 hour ordeal of hard selling. After fighting our way out through wave after wave of increasingly senior people we emerged with our hard earned £75.00 – not an experience to repeat.
While in Mexico we were keen to travel inland from here and see some of the Mayan temples and cities for which Mexico is famed. There are regular ferry services from the island to Cancun which take around 30 minutes and offer live music on passage, some good, some not so good.
So when it came time to go off on our tour of the temples we put the boat in Paraiso Marina on the island where we had to tie up between four tree trunks driven into the ground which was a first for us and not the easiest to accomplish. So with peace of mind after our earlier experience, we hired a car for 4 days and set off into darkest Mexico in search of ancient ruins.
We visited three places on our tour – Chichen Itsa which is the main site in Mexico; Coba which is spread out over several square kilometres in the jungle and; Tulum on the coast which is the smallest of the three sites and located in a beautiful spot on the cliffs overlooking Caribbean white sandy beaches (probably an early Mayan Butlins holiday camp for those who weren’t sacrificed!)
We won’t go into detail but suffice to say they are all well worth a visit, stunning achievements in architecture, maths and astronomy in the period up to 800AD when inexplicably the civilisation went into decline. Unfortunately in Chitchen Itza everything was roped off to preserve what is now a world heritage site and we were unable to climb the steps to the top of the temple however in Coba we did have that chance and both of us climbed to the top to enjoy spectacular views over the jungle tree tops. The descent down was more difficult on steps polished by thousands of feet and I don’t have a head for heights, Gill coped much better.We have included loads of photos to give you all some idea of the scale and quality of building in these cities.
The main temple at Chichen Itza
Gill exploring the Temple of Warriors – couldn’t find any!
A Mayan Indian woodcarver showing off his work
The temple in Coba that we climbed
The view from the top of the Temple
Gill on the top admiring the view
The Mayan city in Tulum
The beach at Tulum
For our first two nights we stayed in a nice roadside hotel near Chitchen-Itza with pools and the cost including our accommodation, breakfast and 3 course dinner all was £50.00 per night for the two of us. On the second night we stayed at an American style motel on the road between Coba and Tulum with no facilities but we did find a very good local restaurant nearby where we dined on seafood and delicious homemade fruit juices.
Our first hotel on the trip at Chichen Itza
Gill enjoying the ecopool
On the last day of our mini tour we visited a friend of Gill’s – Manuela who she had first met while backpacking in Argentina a few years ago. Manuela, a larger than life character with many a story to tell, now runs a very nice hostel in Playa del Carmen, a holiday town just south of Cancun. Manuela put us up for the night and Gill drove a party of us from the hostel downtown to 5th Avenue for sightseeing, dinner and drinks.
Manuela and Gill at the poolside in the hostel
The people we met in Mexico were delightful and invariably helpful, it’s a lovely country, steeped in history and it was bewildering to see the range of goods for sale in the supermarket – back to having choice after Cuba’s limitations.
The following day we dropped of the car in Cancun, changed the boat import certificate with the Port Authority because they had issued us with the wrong one and took the ferry back to Isla Mujeres. After our week in the marina was up we headed out to anchor in the bay only to discover a northerly storm coming in so we moved the boat behind the ferry terminal to shelter from any north wind. In these storms the wind swings round very quickly from South to North as the wind picks up and the speed of change nearly caught us out we had intended to put out two anchors out but the storm hit us quicker than expected and we could only hope that our one anchor would hold in 55 knot winds. In driving rain and a full gale which came up in a couple of minutes from calm, we had no choice but to set the second anchor. We went below wet and bedraggled and hoped for the best. As it turned out we were well protected by the shore and the twin anchors held well. In the morning the winds abated, the sky cleared and all was well again.
After a few days of mixing with our new friends we decided to move on and check the boat and crew out of Mexico in Isla Mujeres, this to save further frustration in the southern ports where it would have been difficult for us to get in because of our depth. The process was much slicker and less expensive but clearing out meant we would be unable to go ashore again in Mexico and we still had 200 miles to cover to Belize.
Our next port of call was Puerto Morelos where we picked up a mooring buoy next to Quetico an Island Packet owned by yet another Canadian couple, Rob and Kathy who we had met in Los Morros on our last day in Cuba and who were also headed for the Rio Dulce in Guatemala for the hurricane season. I had developed a severe toothache so we needed to find a dentist fairly soon and managed to book one in Cozumel at 10.00 am the following day on the internet. Off we went hoping all would work out and it wouldn’t resemble a medieval torture chamber.
The Island of Cozumel from our anchorage
A man with toothache
A lovely fountain on the waterfront
We arrived on the island and dropped anchored in a bay with three other local boats near the ferry terminal which linked the mainland at Playa del Carmen. After some hunting on foot we found the dental practise in part of a hospital. My worst fears were quashed, the service was superb, the facilities excellent and the cost, a fraction of the UK, it couldn’t have been better. However the full treatment was going to take at least 10 days and strictly speaking we were illegal immigrants so I opted for a course of antibiotics and copies of my x-rays for the next dentist along the trail.
In the morning we sailed down to Bahia Espiritu Sancto a huge inland bay protected by a reef and anchored in the middle, miles from anywhere and a very strange experience. Then it was on to Chinchorro Bank a large reef structure about 30 miles offshore where we anchored in the north end through a gap for another unusual night in the middle of the sea but perfectly calm and protected by the reef. We were boarded the next morning by an armed Mexican Navy patrol who wanted to see our papers and took details of who we were and where we were headed but all in a very courteous way. We declared we were “on passage” and as long as you don’t go ashore after you have checked out, the authorities accept a boat passing through and crew resting at anchor! We left them to head south on a wonderful overnight sail in ideal wind conditions down to Belize City. In fact the wind was so good we had to slow the boat down to arrive in Belize in daylight.
We failed however to get into Belize to “clear in” as our draft was too deep to enter their marinas and it was too rough to launch the dinghy to go ashore so we headed farther south to the next port – Dangriga. We found out on the way that it was Easter and everything was closed anyway– it’s like that on a boat, days and dates don’t mean anything and we had no idea so we anchored off Garbutt cayes for a couple of days and bought fish off the fisherman and swam and did jobs on the boat. Gill went ashore to explore one of the islands and found it covered in thousands of conch shells with a small stilted house and a beach garden created by the fisherman who lived there by grinding the broken coral to a fine powder, believe it or not to create the sand – obviously has a lot of time on his hands!
Garbutt Cayes from our anchorage
Gill proudly displaying this Belizean flag she made by hand – a work of art
Sunset over Dangriga where we checked in.
Our next blog will cover our adventures in Belize but won’t be posted now until we reach Guatemala in the beginning of June. If you want to track our position I will try to update the tracker log on www.blog.mailasail.com/romanocrew
Bumping our bottom in Belize
One of the features of Belize is its barrier reef which extends for over 100 miles; inside the reef is shallow shoal water with lots of coral heads which make for challenging navigation especially with a 7ft draft. We ran aground many times in our travels through Belize but somehow always managed to get off unscathed. For this reason and strong winds to boot, we were unable to get into Belize City to clear in through customs and immigration and had to anchor off Dangriga, the next town going south, in an exposed roadstead where the anchor dragged one night – it all keeps life interesting and us on our toes!
The harbour in Dangriga, The market on the beach
Dangriga is an unpretentious one street town and was a favourite with Gill probably because of a wonderful little café we found which not only served excellent food but also the most delicious homemade soursop ice-cream. A meal for two here including fresh fruit drinks and ice-cream cost us £7.00.
The Dangriga café. The Garafuno drums – part of their culture
There were also seven hardware stores in this little town and we were able to get much needed boat stuff at a fraction of the cost of a chandlery.
The local butcher at work on his band saw
Oranges on their way to the juicer holding up the Belize city bus
One of the key items was finding a future means of cooking, as filling our European gas bottles which we had last managed to do in Haiti was impossible in either Mexico or Belize and our on-board experiment with a charcoal barbeque was not to be repeated. Belizeans use a US propane system with completely different fittings and gas bottles. However, in one of these little stores we found a little one ring gas cooker and the matching gas cylinders in another – problem solved for £25.00. We have cooked our meals and made our tea on this little one ring stove for the last month. When we get to the Rio Dulce where there are extensive yachting facilities we will change our gas system to the US propane standard and should have no further problems.
While we were in Dangriga Gill took the opportunity of a day visit to Belize City on the local bus service, while I watched the boat and did a few more jobs.
– Gill’s account “Six hours on a hot, rickety old bus, sharing (or trying to) a torn plastic seat with an often very large person is probably not everyone’s idea of a good day out, but it was fun and interesting. I knew that Belize City wasn’t the great metropolis but I’d read that the scenery between Dangriga and Belmopan (the uninspiring purpose-built capital) was stunning – and it was – towering mountains, statuesque trees, rivers and vast orange orchards and pineapple plantations. We were slowed many times by the road trains of oranges (just imagine an orange juice accident – very sticky!) The journey from Belmopan down to the coast and Belize City became less interesting by the mile until the land was virtually reclaimed swamp. One sight I shall not forget though was the old cemetery which we drove through the middle of – and I mean through the middle – with the road at one point encircling a central reservation of gravestones – very bizarre! Belize City was all I expected – hot, dusty and fairly nondescript, full of the usual backstreet sellers of all sorts (many Chinese) and hundreds of aimlessly wandering tourists off of the cruise ships anchored offshore with little to interest them once they have been led through the usual assortment of local arts and crafts. I went in search of Fort George but disappointingly only found a new Radisson Hotel. Whilst in search of a bookshop, I was kindly assisted by a helpful young Rastafarian called Will who insisted on being my guide and taking me to the Library (well I did say I was looking for a book!) We parted as firm friends and he returned to his street corner with enough for the day’s lunch and I collapsed in an air conditioned café. After a further three hours of shake, rattle and roll, I ended up on the beach back in Dangriga trying to attract Mike’s attention back on the boat – short of swimming, I thought I was going to be spending the night ashore, but a local fisherman came to my rescue and transported me amongst his nets and anchors back to Romano – adventures all the way!
Nicer parts of Belize City
From Dangriga we set off for the reef and the Cays (pronounced keys) stopping off at a number of these tiny islands (some no more than 400 yards long and 100 yards wide), where we could get in close enough to anchor. These islands were a pleasant change from the mangrove covered islands we had visited in Cuba and Mexico and were more like everyone’s idea of a desert island, complete with coconut palms and white sandy beaches. What the guide books don’t tell you is that you share them with mosquitoes and tiny midges that eat you alive if you are not covered in insect repellent.
We visited places like Tobacco Cay and South Water Cay which had restaurants and cabins for accommodation.
Tobacco Cays and the lodges
More salubrious accommodation on South Water Cay
A birds eye view of Romano at anchor Gill in paradise
We booked into a restaurant in South Water Cay through a lady we met on the beach and duly turned up to eat at 6.30 as requested, ordered drinks and sat at a table. The waiter came over and told us we had to pre-order to eat, we explained we had arranged it with “Barbara”. He politely informed us we were in the wrong place and her restaurant was at the other end of the island so we sheepishly finished our drinks and got back in the dinghy to drive the 300 yards to Barbara’s place. She was there to meet us off the jetty, concerned that our meal was cooked and having seen us go over to the “competition”, who we later found out were not on speaking terms and that they had divided the island with a 10ft wire fence to keep the two apart, very strange! We enjoyed our prawns in garlic but we were the only people in the restaurant, so got lots of attention from Barbara and the staff.
We also visited a lovely little private island called Moho and anchored off the beach. We could see a man raking the beach and went ashore in the dinghy to ask if we could look around.
Pedro at work
Pedro’s assistant at work
The other side of the island
He turned out to be Pedro, a Guatemalan who only spoke Spanish and who lived alone full time on this remote desert island as a caretaker for the owner on the mainland. Every day he raked the beach and filled his wheelbarrow in the company of his bouncy Labrador pup, “Princess”. He loved the life and the solitude only occasionally being visited by cruisers or kayakers. With his permission we toured the island, the other side of which was covered in rubbish, plastic everywhere. He only swept the beach on the inhabited side of the island.
Coming south we visited Pelican Cays which form a ring of islands with a deep centre. We tried to anchor close to the edge of the inside circle but the ground fell away so quickly our anchor just kept dropping off into the depths. After several attempts we found a little mangrove island near the centre where it was so deep close in we could sail right up to the mangroves and tie up to them by swimming the last few yards. Having battled through the mangroves I decided the next line would be easier in the dinghy. The boat was fine and we had a very peaceful night so close in while the wind blew over the top of the island.
Tying up with the dinghy – much easier than swimming
Dramatic sunset heralding stronger winds
In most of the islands we snorkelled out on the reefs but were mostly disappointed by the lack of fish life and the best places were out on the reef itself. One such place was Carrie Bow Cay and here the water was so clear you could see 100ft around you with wonderful coral formations both soft and hard.
Another palm covered island
Another glorious sunset!
We could spend hours just swimming around watching the reef at work. We saw barracuda, grouper, snapper, stingrays, angel fish, parrot fish and many more in our daily sojourns on the reef. Our snorkelling was unfortunately confined to the inside of the reef as the waves breaking on the outside of the reef, where most of the fish life and coral was, was too dangerous unless you were diving and as a result we didn’t see any sharks at all.
In order to re-provision we came to Placencia, back on the mainland, a pretty and friendly little place but much more of a tourist town and full of craft shops, tour companies, restaurants and bars.
Placencia from the anchorage
Wonderful fresh fruit and so cheap
Boys at the bar
Here we had a well-protected anchorage with a number of other cruising and charter boats in the bay. Everyone met up at Yoli’s Bar for live music, a few beers and an opportunity to exchange tales and information with other cruisers. It was here we met George, an American gentleman and one of life’s characters. with a love of travelling to remote parts of the world and we enjoyed his conversation, anecdotes, advice on where to visit and shared dinner together at his favourite restaurant a really nice evening.
On one of our visits ashore Gill was intrigued by a shop selling Lion fish jewellery and went to investigate she talked with the owner, Kadija and a whole story unfolded. Gill did a bit more research and wrote this interesting next piece for the blog
“The Lion Fish threat
Beautiful but deceptively deadly, the invasive Indo-Pacific red lionfish is terrorising and decimating native reef fish in the warm seas of the Atlantic and the Caribbean.
Following the accidental release of 6 lionfish from an aquarium in Florida during Hurricane Andrew in 1992, plus other probable less accidental releases by “enthusiasts”, the population of this non-native species has taken the Atlantic by storm and colonised the seas as far north as Cape Hatteras in the US to Venezuela in the south and throughout the Caribbean, with a devastating impact on the indigenous reef fish population in the affected areas.
The lionfish increase at a prodigious rate, females which reproduce on a monthly cycle throughout the year can tally 2 million eggs in a year. This voracious and aggressive predator can devour whole fish two thirds its own size and its stomach has the capacity to expand by thirty times its original size – obesity even in the fish world! In other words, it’s hoovering up everything in its path, with little chance of being preyed upon itself. Unfortunately, its predators in the Atlantic/Caribbean area are few and not nearly enough to combat the huge growth in numbers, although divers in Roatan marine park, Honduras, are trying to train grey reef sharks to develop a taste for the venomous pests.
In Belize with its treasured UNESCO World Heritage site – the world’s second largest barrier reef – the fight is on to ward off disaster and, if not eradicate this intrusive species which is now too well established, to at least control its growth and minimise its effect.
Divers and fishermen in Belize are collaborating to catch these pirates of the fish world and produce a solution to their control. A market for this tasty, white fish is already being developed in the US and the fishermen are being encouraged to turn their attention towards this intruder and away from the overfished conch and lobster. Their previous fear of the venomous spines is being overcome with correct training in the handling of the fish and the results are benefitting everyone.
An unusual and original cottage industry, still in its infancy but expanding fast, is being promoted by two enterprising young women – the hand production of lionfish jewellery.
Kadija with some of her Lion Fish Jewellery.
They have discovered a way to highlight an extremely serious local problem and at the same time incorporate it into the world of fashion. Kadija Assales who runs the Treasure Box jewellery shop in the pretty little tourist village of Placencia has become a certified diver so that she can spear her own lionfish and gather her materials first hand – she then designs and hand makes necklaces and earrings incorporating the treated and now harmless spines and fins of the lionfish. Her friend, Palovi Baezar in the southern town of Punta Gorda is likewise designing unique bangles and unusual earrings to add to their joint collection. The two girls are doing their bit to bring attention to the lionfish problem whilst, at the same time, bringing much needed new work and skills to their respective areas.
So lionfish of Belize watch out, the fight is on – your spines are being used against you! “
We had returned to Placencia from the Cays to restock the boat and spend some time visiting the mainland, We spent a week at anchor off the beach at Placencia in a well-protected bay which gave us the time and security we needed to spend more time ashore. We tested a few local restaurants where we could buy a meal for two with drinks for £20 equivalent and often ate lion fish which was delicious and even served as fish and chips. There was also the usual plethora of excellent hardware stores and at costs a quarter of marina pieces we fixed a few things on the boat and invested in a couple of solar lights to light the boat at anchor rather than using our power hungry Anchor light.
Placencia High Street
Fruit and veg was great quality and not expensive
Shopping at Greg’s store before we leave for Guatemala
After a few days relaxing we decided to take a two hour bus trip to Punta Gorda which entailed getting a water taxi to Mango Creek, a taxi to the bus station in Independence and a bus to Punta Gorda. When we arrived at the bus station I discovered I had lost our kitty money (around £200.00) after paying off the taxi. Panic stations – the taxi had gone but staff at the bus station were great, they identified the driver as John from my description and phoned him to ask to check the back of his cab. He phoned back to say it wasn’t there. I knew it had to be so I asked another taxi driver to take me to meet him, and after 30 minutes we tracked him down only it wasn’t our driver and this guy who was the President of the taxi association was furious at being accused of absconding with the money; not by me but by other drivers. I described the car and driver again to my driver and he identified him as “Junior” and rang him; 3 minutes later he rang back to say he had found it and so with great relief we set off to meet him. He told me I was very lucky because the wallet had fallen under the front seat and not been noticed by the two other fares he had had since us. Gill knew I had found it by the huge cheesy grin on my face as I got out of the taxi, just in time to catch our bus to Punta Gorda.
The bus station at Independence where we caught the bus for Punta Gorda
The bus passed through a mix of agricultural land and light jungle and we saw lots of little thatched farmhouses and at one point a sign which intrigued me saying “Slow Tapirs Crossing”. Apparently they roam naturally but are not very good at the green cross code! This was the “Express” but in true Belizean style they stopped anywhere for anyone and delivered and collected parcels along the way. When the driver got thirsty he stopped at a little roadside shop and the conductor got off to buy him drinks and a snack and off we went again. Then a guy hopped on who sold snacks and went up the isle selling his wares and when he’d finished he got off to wait for the bus going the other way, no fare to pay, all very laid back.
One of the places we wanted to see in Punta Gorda was the chocolate factory which reportedly benefited from the first fairtrade agreement set up by Green and Black in the UK with the cocoa bean growers of Belize. This tiny facility made thousands of different flavour chocolate bars a week and of course we had to try some samples before buying the ones we preferred. The bars are individually numbered by hand and a best before date written on the back and taste terrific. (see photo). By sheer chance we met up with Palovi Baezar the other Lion fish jeweller in the Chocolate Factory while we were both visiting and gained a broader insight to the problem.
The Chocolate Factory but no Charlie
Gill doing a little tasting in the Chocolate Factory
By the time we came out of chocolate heaven it was lunchtime and we decided to eat at a beach side hut run by a large formidable lady called Jocelyn. We both chose grilled snapper which was delicious and washed it down with her freshly squeezed orange juice. This was quite similar to a place we ate at in Placencia called Brenda’s, another formidable lady of great character who had a shack on the beach, served simple tasty food from very basic equipment at a very reasonable price and bring your own beer.
Jocelyn’s Beach side restaurant serving great fish
Brenda’s Beach shack, Placencia
After a week in Placencia and with a favourable weather forecast for the coming week we decided to go out and visit the Sapodilla Cays at the south end of the reef, reputedly the loveliest and most remote in Belize. Our first stop was Ranguana Cay which we reached after threading our way through very shallow waters and coral heads, something which was to be a feature of our days on these cays. From here we sailed outside the reef passing through a narrow gap to the sea beyond hoping to catch a glimpse of the whalesharks which are currently taking advantage of the snapper spawning season (not one in sight) and then back in again at Hunting Cay 12 miles further south. This was easier sailing, avoiding the shallows, but nerve racking enough passing through these reef gaps, hoping the charts are accurate! At times like this the forward looking sonar I had fitted in Cowes came into its own – a fantastic bit of kit that gives you a 40 metre underwater sonar view forward of the boat and a great aid for threading your way through such treacherous waters.
We tried to anchor off Hunting Cay but it was too shallow for us to enter despite chart information to the contrary, so we aimed for Lime Cay and anchored with 0.5 metres below our keel. We were then hit by a rain squall but all held well and we didn’t touch the bottom.
Lime Cay and its shallow anchorage
The following day we headed north to Nicholas Cay but the same story it was just too shallow for us to get in so we sailed 3 miles north to Franks Cay and anchored in a perfect horseshoe anchorage protected from everywhere but the north. Again we anchored after 5 attempts and a change of anchors in 0.6m under our keel over thick turtle grass, the prospect of a beautiful island to visit the following day and some great snorkelling on offer. Wrong – the wind got up in the night and guess from where – the north. We bounced and pitched all night but only hit the bottom once, I was out of bed 2 seconds later. We couldn’t risk trying to find the narrow entrance out of this trap in the dark and had to wait it out until morning. By dawn the wind was 30 knots and rising, not what was forecast, so we decided to get out fast but as we had used our second anchor it meant that Gill had to raise it by hand while I controlled the boat in wildly pitching seas. She did it brilliantly and we squeezed out between the reefs into deeper water, breathing a huge sigh of relief and counting the lessons learned. The nearest safe haven in a northerly wind was 4 hours away on the mainland and we spent an uncomfortable time motoring through steep seas towards it with uncharted shallows around, sometimes having to stop the boat to find a way through and unable to use our sails which would have stabilised some of our pitching and rolling – not for the faint hearted. We later learned from an American boat that was also out on the Cays that the weather had worsened considerably and we were so glad we had decided to cut and run when we did. I also decided to give Gill much more practice in boat handling to free me to do the heavier tasks when required – one of our lessons learned.
We headed for a place called New Haven and anchored in 6m of water behind an island, well protected from all directions and by nightfall the wind had died and we had a blissful sleep. The next day we decided to explore the 3 mile long deserted beach ashore and headed off in the dinghy. There we found many coconut palms, some of which I could whack coconuts off with a long bamboo pole. The problem then was how to open them – the pictures show our manic attempts to crack them open with only modest success. (We now have a 3ft machete which does the job just fine and provides us with an effective boat defence.
How not to crack a coconut
Still no luck!
This could be better
Gill looking on with amusement
This how you do it
All that work for this!
Much easier – now we’re talking coconut tonight
We now have a good supply of coconuts and a source of milk – useful for our Pacific Island adventures yet to come.
Farther along the beach we saw some manatees grazing on the turtle grass close to shore and walked in to chest height to get close to them. We got within 20ft before our presence scared these gentle creatures away.
A view of coconut beach
Believe it or not this is a manatees nose and only 15ft away
We had decided to go back to Placencia to restock the boat again after our week on the Cays and return to Dangriga by bus to clear out through customs and immigration as our visas expired on the 21st May and the Customs guy had said it would be much cheaper than Placencia or other ports. The bus left at 7.00am so an early start to dinghy ashore and walk up to the terminus. The bus as always was packed and we were lucky to get a seat, although they are so hard your bum goes numb after half an hour. The kids are great and give up their seats for elderly and people help the elderly and infirm on and off the bus in a very caring way. No – neither Gill nor I needed assistance if that’s what you’re thinking. When we arrived at the offices the Customs guy told us it was $50.00 fee to exit but when I told him it was my birthday he let us off with no charge and a hearty handshake and happy birthday wishes – what nice people.
One of the other reasons Gill wanted to come back to Placencia is the Italian ice-cream shop, Tutti Frutti where they sell the most delicious selection of 18 flavours. So when we returned from our hot bus journey we headed straight there for choices of mango, dark chocolate, lime, baileys, pistachio, blackcurrant and many more – mmmmmmmmmmmmm!
Spoiled for choice
She’s here again
Gill’s second home in Placencia
While we were in Placencia I celebrated my birthday and had lunch at a place called the shack which served the hottest tacos we have ever tasted – needless to say it required a lot of beer to put the flames out
The Shack on the beach in Placencia
Man killing the heat!
Back in the nineties Placencia was hit by a hurricane which fortunately did little damage but just after it passed they had an earthquake which devastated the village and they left this jetty as it was afterwards.
We often moored to this sorry structure with the dinghy
We wanted to go back to the Sapodillo Cays however the winds were too strong for the exposed anchorages so we headed down south to Guatemala a journey of around 60 miles stopping along the way at New Haven, where Gill ran the boat aground for the first time and another little cay called Moho – confusingly this was named the same as another cay we had visited further north.
We entered Guatemalan waters and hoisted our yellow quarantine flag and as we approached Livingston at the mouth of the Rio Dulce we set out lunch in the cockpit only to be attacked by a large swarm of wasps that decided our boat would make a handy resting place – let battle commence! Gill battened down the hatches and I set to work with a flip-flop and Gill with a kneeling pad and her expert tennis swing and we attacked the swarm with vigour. The main swarm had landed on a red and black reefing line hanging on the rail while the rest explored the boat. Lunch was put on hold while the battle raged for an hour until we had killed or driven off every wasp. The aft deck and cockpit were thick with dead bodies and remarkably neither of us was stung – boarders repelled!
A few of the casualties
To get over the 5ft mud bar at the mouth of the Rio Dulce river we had organised a tow from a fishing boat through Raul Morales the local agent, prior to leaving Belize. To catch the highest tide in May we had to arrive at 06.15 off the Livingston sea buoy and so after sussing out the lay of the land for the next morning, we spent the night at the nearest sheltered anchorage off Cabo Tres Puntas (2 hrs from Livingston) see map!
For the next chapter when we cross the bar to Livingston and explore the beautiful Rio Dulce through the Guatemalan jungle tune in at the end of June.
The Rio Dulce
Apologies that there has been a long time between blogs but we have been busy getting the boat sorted and then in my case spent 2 months in the UK and Gill spent an extra month in Thailand visiting her daughter. So this post brings us up the Rio Dulce to Fronteras and the place we left the boat to go back home.
“During the hurricane season from June to November we needed a safe spot to leave the boat and have some work carried out to prepare the boat for the next phase of our circumnavigation. Our choices were; going north to the eastern seaboard of the US; going south out of the hurricane zone to Panama or Colombia or; to tuck in up the Rio Dulce in Guatemala, although technically speaking it’s still within the hurricane zone and also suffers from occasional earthquakes. We decided on the Rio Dulce, however, for four reasons; it’s a beautiful place; it’s very cheap to live there; the boat yard labour cost is very low and the skill base high and; although in the “zone”, it’s a very sheltered hurricane hole. I checked it out with the boat insurers and they agreed provided we had the boat lifted out and chained down while we were back in the UK.
To get into the river you first have to cross a mud bar at the entrance outside the town of Livingston and the maximum tide height in May was 6ft 6” and we draw at least 7ft maybe more fully laden. We were advised by other cruisers while in Belize to use a clearing agent called Raul Morales who would also arrange a fishing boat tow through the mud. I contacted Raul by email while we were still in Belize and agreed to be off Livingston on the 27th May at 6.15am (high water was at 7.00am) to meet up with the fishing boat and then hoped for the best.
On the 26th we sailed from Moho Cay in Belize and anchored overnight at a sheltered anchorage called Tres Puntas. From there we set off at 4.00am in the pitch dark over shoaling water and by following the previous day’s incoming track on the plotter we arrived safely at the Livingston buoy ahead of schedule. There waiting for us was a rather decrepit old fishing boat with two crew. The crewman threw us a line which we hitched to our bow cleat and off we went at speed, both of us on full throttle to cross the bar which was around 2 to 3 miles wide. We had only gone 200 yards when the fishing boat ahead of us suddenly stopped and I pulled the boat up behind him to discover that he had blown a seawater cooling hose on the engine. Undaunted and in true Guatemalan style he shot below to fix the problem while we drifted around on the end of the tow line, gradually both boats being pushed back out to sea by the river flow.
After half an hour and a few failed attempts he got going again and just on high water. As we re-approached the bar we could see the depth dropping on the echo sounder and soon we slowed from 7 knots to 2 as the keel sliced through the mud, all was well for 100 yards and then we stopped altogether, stuck fast. I had been warned there was a chance the tow wouldn’t work so as advised by other experienced cruisers I had rigged a line to our mast which the fishing boat skipper now took and drove to the side of us until Romano was at 45 degrees. I powered up our engine, the fishing boat skipper (who we later found out was called Hector) put his crew on our boat and with Romano’s draft reduced by the heel we continued trouble free over the bar. His crewman made sure I steered an exact course and with the boat on a steady heading the fishing boat was able to maintain a precise angle of heel. It was a very strange experience and quite exhilarating and cost us $60 but we had made it and were in the Rio Dulce which then continued at depth for at least twenty miles inland.
By 9.00am on the 27th we were anchored off Livingston town to be met and boarded by our agent Raul Morales and five officials from various authorities. We welcomed them on board and they inspected the boat, asked questions about our health, wanted to know how long we would be staying (the normal visa is 3 months duration) and as we were staying until November we requested a one year visa which was granted at a cost of 3000 quetzals (£250.00). We then went ashore in the dinghy to find a cash machine only to discover we were limited to 1000 quetzals (approx. £80) per day. On production of our passports the bank allowed us to cash the balance.
We passed through steep sided ravines and forested banks with fisherman in dugouts under the overhanging branches, we passed their thatched homes on stilts with children playing in the water and tiny villages tucked away up creeks. The noises of the jungle were all around us and we could only guess at the sources. A flock of swifts took up residence in our rigging swooping off to catch flies and back to roost chasing each other off the prime spots. It was an idyllic journey and everything we had hoped for.
Texan Bay was a small lagoon and village just off the main river and we dropped anchor with another four or five boats about 20ft from the shore in a perfectly still spot. We launched the dinghy and went exploring off the beaten track up narrow waterways, overhung with trees and lianas, hitting an underwater log at one point which fortunately didn’t damage the outboard. Back on board it was time for a welcome sun-downer and a meal in the cockpit, suitably protected with insect repellent. Gill had made some mosquito screens for the companion way and portholes so we could get air through the boat at night and these were about to get a rigorous testing (as I write this several weeks later they’ve performed well).
The following day we set off after a leisurely breakfast and passed through a large lake about 10 miles long called El Golfete. Here we came across some shallows we had to skirt around and our forward looking sonar came in useful again. It was quite different sailing up a river after months at sea and something I had never done before in a yacht. It was then on to the town of Fronteras where we anchored on the other side of the river, off Ram Marina, where we were due to leave the boat while back in the UK.
Well we had made it, it was the end of our first leg and quite strange not to be going on. I have sailed nearly 8,000 miles since leaving Cowes, 5,000 of those with Gill and about 2,500 with just the two of us. We have enjoyed the company of Sim and Stefan helping crew the boat, visited many countries en route and met hundreds of people nearly all of whom have been welcoming and helpful. We have a long list of jobs to do here including; the addition of a proper bimini; building a gantry and adding solar panels to increase our electrical generation without having to run the engine; converting the gas system to US configuration; adding a long range SSB radio; all this and more to prepare the boat for the next leg.
After a few days of trying to contact various specialists to undertake the work we were starting to find our way around. The town of Fronteras on the opposite bank of the river and at the end of a huge bridge built by engineers of the US Marine Corps, is an amazing place. A narrow two way road passes through the middle of town, coming off the bridge and this carries the main traffic for miles around. The result is chaos with huge trucks, buses, tuk-tuks, taxis, bicycles, motor bikes and people all competing for road space; there is no pavement and the shops and stalls encroach on the road. The huge trucks very patiently nudge their way through the melee and come to a halt if another is coming the other way, amazingly nobody gets squished and we have yet to see an accident. This is our main shopping place so we have to play dodgems while shopping but somehow it all works.
We decided to check in to Nanajuana Marina rather than RAM for the period up until we hauled out at the end of June as it was a hotel and marina and had much better facilities – bar, restaurant, great pool (one of Gill’s favourite places) and lovely tropical gardens. The mooring fees are a fraction of the European marinas, at £5.00 per day you couldn’t park your dinghy for that in the UK. Here also in these lovely surroundings we have made many friends of fellow Australian and French cruisers, this has been our first opportunity to develop a real social life with the opportunity for entertainment on board and parties on the dock. It’s not all milk and honey, most of the boats, us included have cockroach infestations and there are lots of biting things that come out at night and dawn to feast; insect repellent is an essential. We caught two scorpions in a house some German friends were renting and it’s not safe to walk through the grass back to the boat at night, we have to stick to the concrete paths. Gill also spent a morning trying to sieve weevils from the flour and gave up with the comment “well it’s only added protein” and perhaps scariest of all was the story that a French woman found a 4ft (growing by the day) snake on their boat and her screams could be heard for miles. The temperature varies from 32 to 38C and the humidity level means that you sweat all day and most of the night.
For an outback town Fronteras provides most of what we need and what they don’t supply we can ship in from the US. There are some unusual shops however like the local gun shop where you can walk in with your wad and come out with a colt 45, which many carry in side holsters to match the Stetson, jeans and cowboy boots and hats, amusingly the coffin shop is just opposite. Getting cash from one of the three banks is also a challenge; they limit you to 2000 quetzales (about £150 per day) which doesn’t go very far when you take living expenses and paying tradesmen into account. Often the banks run out of cash (Q100 notes are their largest denomination so you end up with a fistful of monopoly money, which you have to stash away before coming out of the banks) or there is a power cut or they station an armed guard to prevent you using the machine, or the machine eats your card. When this happened to me it was at a machine in the Marina store, the staff were great and repeatedly phoned the bank over a couple of days. When they did arrive to open the machine it was with a photographer to take pictures of the process and a guard armed with a sawn off shotgun, not the sort of response you would get from Barclays. But on presenting my passport I did get my card back. You get the idea this is a fairly lawless society where even the supermarkets have armed guards on patrol. To be fair however although they do seem to kill each other in numbers we have had no trouble at all and the local people have been welcoming and very friendly.
On one occasion we needed more cash than the machine would give us so we tried to use our passports and cards to increase the amount we could draw but the banks refused; something that has never happened to us before, so it was back to the ATM each day to draw our daily allowance. About a week later when I went to get our passports to complete an online application for a US visa for our return trip I discovered both our passports were missing and we then spent two panic stricken days retracing our steps trying to find them. The loss would mean a 6 hour bus journey to our consulate in Guatemala City, an overnight stay and hopefully the issue of temporary passports to return to the UK in a fortnight’s time. We also learned from Gill’s daughter Sarah that the passport office in the UK had a huge backlog and were taking months to process applications. This had been caused by the closure of many UK consulate passport offices around the world and a failure to deal with the increased load back home – nightmare! We had checked everywhere without success, only one bank to go – Gill went in while I waited outside. She rushed out kissed a rather stunned guard and produced the passports – which I had left on the bank counter a week before! The sheer sense of relief was overwhelming but I did get quite a severe and well deserved bollocking from Gill.
We are now just a few days off returning to the UK via Miami and have lined up some good deals for work on the boat while we are away. I also have a list of things we need to import from the US and have set that up with an import agent. I return to Guatemala on the 20th August to supervise the work and complete various jobs. Gill will return on the 10th September and hopefully we should be on our way again by the end of October.
The northernmost of the Central American nations, Guatemala is slightly smaller than England. Its neighbours are Mexico on the north and west, and Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador on the east. The country consists of three main regions—the cool highlands with the heaviest population where we visited last week; the tropical area along the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, and the tropical jungle in the northern lowlands (known as the Petén where we will be exploring further in a few weeks’ time). The population is around 12.7m most of whom are Roman Catholic and of Spanish or Mayan origin. For centuries the Mayans ruled this whole region until the Spanish arrived in the 16th century and governed the region until 1881 when Guatemala, which means “Land of trees”, was given independence. Various dictators and military juntas ran the country for many years and in 1960 civil war broke out and around 200,000 people lost their lives; it’s only since 1996 that law and order has been re-established but still with a very heavy and obvious military presence.
When Gill came back from the UK I went up to Guatemala City in the highlands from Rio Dulce to meet her with the plan that we would spend a week or so exploring the nearby town of Antigua which used to be the capitol of Guatemala until it was badly damaged by earthquakes in the 18th Century and Lake Atitlan reputed to be the most beautiful lake in the world.
In Guatemala City (population 1m) it was Independence weekend when we visited and the main plaza was filled with marching bands and cheering school children.
The next place we visited was the Cultural Palace, a huge building dominating the central plaza which was built in 1939 to celebrate the culture of Guatemala. Its an impressive building built with marble from Italy, chandeliers from Spain, stain glass windows made locally, gold leaf decorating the pillars and huge murals on the walls.
Fortunately we were given an English speaking guide who gave us the grand tour. The sculpture below was created as a symbol to end of a long period of violence during their 36 year civil war and as reminder not to go back. The rose is white and replaced every day as a renewal of their determination.
Afterwards we discovered a large underground market selling everything from food to clothes, leather goods and tourist toot! I bought some T shirts and baskets to keep loose items on the boat and then we had lunch at a market stall. We had no idea what we ate but it tasted OK, as usual, the old lady grossly overcharged us in their terms but it was still only £5 equivalent –they think we’re rich gringos!
So, after a day exploring Guatemala City, we headed off on an hour’s drive to Antigua by taxi. We had intended using the famous “Chicken Buses” used by the locals but for two reasons we were advised against it and to use a taxi instead; firstly, this was the rainy season and the buses carried passenger’s luggage on the roof and secondly over one hundred bus drivers had been murder by local mobsters, in the last few years, who tried to extort protection money. If the drivers didn’t pay the gangs the bus was attacked and the driver killed and the passengers robbed – it wasn’t a hard decision to pay the extra for a taxi.
Antigua is the lovely old capitol of Guatemala, nestling amongst three volcanoes which dominate the views from the town, but they moved it to Guatemala City after several earthquakes devastated the town, in consequence all the buildings are only one or two storeys high.
Our first task on arriving was to find the Posada where we were staying and after many attempts by the taxi driver we eventually found it by asking an electricity meter reader. Our welcome at Casa Alina, which was unprepossessing from the outside, was wonderful, we were ushered in to a beautiful courtyard home and on to to the spacious lounge where Alina and her sister made tea for us, almost unheard of in Guatemala which is coffee growing country and gave us their life history over a couple of hours. We were then, to our surprise, invited to dine with the family at a local restaurant which was a converted monastery that had been beautifully restored, serving traditional food from the locality and all you could eat. So here we were 3 hours in Antigua and being accepted as friends of Alina’s family.
Her sister Lucy had been a much valued housekeeper to Lachlan Reed, a Scot living in America who had married into the Honeywell family and gone on to make his own fortune, Lucy was lovely but boy could she talk. They had had a brother but he was captured by the rebels in the civil war and held for ransom but before they could come up with the money he was killed. This was told to us in a very matter of fact way as though it was an everyday occurrence.
We then spent a couple of days exploring the town using Casa Alina as our base,
The photo below shows The Convent of Mercy which unusually only contained monks, around 100 of them, unfortunately its now in a state of disrepair but must have been a wonderful place when in good order.
it happened to be “Independence Day” when we were there so we were treated to bands and drumming displays and fireworks, however after the first couple of hours the endless chain of marching bands and noise became a little wearing so we found another local restaurant to hide away.
On the second day in Antigua we visited a 750 acre coffee plantation close to the town; coffee is one of Guatemala’s main exports and is now much sought after in the UK. Our guide took us through the whole process, from the plant nursery, to growing the beans, the harvest, and the drying and roasting process. It was a great day and fascinating to see the complete thing from ground to cup and of course we had a little tasting afterwards and then back to Antigua in an army truck.
We found a little restaurant which had all the dishes of local food displayed in big pots at the entrance with offers of tasters so you could choose which to have. After the meal we left to cross town through a myriad of cobbled streets back to our Posada. Fortunately our combined navigation skills worked and we found home about half an hour later.
The following day we took our farewell from Alina and Lucy and set off by minibus with a young Chilean couple on a 150kmjourney to Lake Atitlan a further 1000 feet up in the mountains. The lake which sits at an altitude of 5100ft is also surrounded by three huge volcanoes one of which is live and these make a spectacular backdrop, especially when the lake is still and gives back the reflection of the mountains, it certainly deserves its reputation for beauty.
Our Posada – Los Encuentros, was in a town on the edge of the lake, called Panajachel and was unusual for its gardens which consisted almost entirely of edible or medicinal herbs and plants. The owner had written a book on their various medicinal properties, unfortunately his herbology skills weren’t matched by his people skills.
The following morning we set off on a launch/ferry across the lake to see the villages of San Pedro and San Juan. We took a tuc-tuc ( a three wheeled motor bike with a canopy) from San Pedro to San Juan where we had been told about a women’s co-operative which made textile products by the old and natural methods. The co-operative was started by a woman whose husband died and she had to find a means to support her six children so she and a few others set up a business which flourishes today and now employs 22 local women. The taxi driver said the men don’t do any work! The process starts by growing cotton, picking the balls by hand, removing seeds and spinning these into a thread on a bobbin held by their feet. The dying process uses only natural plant dyes to produce rich vibrant colours which are collected by the women from the mountainside in order to preserve the delicate local ecology. To give an idea they use such plants as, avocado, carrot, ocre, indigo, lobelia, beetroot and many others handed down from their Indian ancestors. The colours are then fixed using banana stalk extract. The result is stunning colours in the skirts, aprons, blouses and bags they then make from the dyed cotton as you can see from the photos. Just to make the collar on one cotton blouse takes one woman 1 month and the blouse sells for around £60.00 equivalent!
Still in San Juan we visited a business where they grew herbs for medicinal use and processed the products in-house. We bought some natural mosquito repellent (very necessary in this area) and some specialist teas.
Then it was back to San Pedro by tuc-tuc for a spot of lunch. The driver took us to a place which was probably his sister’s but we had a nice lunch of local food overlooking the lake.
After lunch we took a launch to a village called San Marcos and walked into the town to explore a little. Apart from the school, some shops, a sports ground and a church there wasn’t much to see. The rain came on as we were waiting for our next boat connection so we huddled under the trees at the end of the pier with the locals until the local policeman came to tell us it was arriving. It took us down the lake in pouring rain with a tarpaulin over the passengers; the poor driver had to sit out in a sou’wester but wore the biggest of grins as though he didn’t have a care in the world.
We went to eat in the main street after partaking of happy hour in the local bar which was offering two drinks for the price of one; well you couldn’t refuse could you! When we got back to the Posada we couldn’t get the key to work and no amount of hammering and ringing the bell for ten minutes raised anyone until I tried putting the key in upside down and hey presto we were in!
The following day we decided as a bit of an adventure to take a local “collectivo” which is the bus service there, so called because it stops anywhere for anyone and they really pack them in. It’s basically a pickup truck with two benches in the open back but they loaded 22 passengers in ours. It is after all is said and done, a car, albeit a Toyota made for eight at a push. Our load also included cases, mail, boxes, baskets of fruit and kids but fortunately no animals or chickens. The luggage that doesn’t fit on the roof is piled on your lap if you’re lucky enough to have a seat.
So off we went bumping our way over twisty mountain roads to Santa Caterina, a small village on the south side of the lake which has a few shops where Gill expertly haggled for a handbag which cost her less than £4.00 at the end and the village had a pretty quay side where interconnecting launches came in.
We moved on to San Antonio, the next town around the lake in another collectivo. Here we were “picked up” as we got off the pickup by a young women who showed us around the town and with her we visited the local pottery business, had to buy a dish of course and then on to a lovely restaurant overlooking the bay where the owner (probably her Dad) persuaded me to try one of his litre bottles of beer, it’s very hard to resist offers like that, well for me anyway!
We then took the collectivo back to Panajachel and for dinner and bed. In the morning we headed back to Guatemala city via Antigua, about a 3 hour drive in a minibus with a young Israeli couple. At Antigua we had to switch to a taxi because there were riots in Guatemala City and we needed a local driver to find the way around the problem areas.
Before we left Guatemala City to travel up to Antigua the 1* hotel we were staying wanted 5$ a day to store Gills suitcase so we booked into the 4* Radisson for less overall cost as there was no charge for leaving the case, so we were delighted to come back to a luxurious suite and still for only $60. The bed was the comfiest we have had for months and we shopped and bought our own breakfast feast for another $5.00 all in all a good result!
We came back to the Rio Dulce by coach on a 6 hour trip and got off the air-conditioned bus to be met by a blast of heat after the cool highlands. You can understand why most of the population live up there in the cool. After 2 minutes we were drenched with sweat – aahh its good to be back!
So now we are installed back on the boat and sanding and varnishing and getting equipment added which we will need next year’s trip across the Pacific. Once the pressure of this work is off we intend to visit other parts of this beautiful, friendly and interesting country. This will be covered in Part 2 of Exploring Guatemala.
For a month now we have been trying to leave this beautiful and compelling country but so far without success. We had set the date of 5th November as fortuitous for our departure – the tide was at its highest to allow us over the bar at Livingston and the hurricane season was coming to an end – but this plan didn’t take into account late deliveries of first the solar panels (from the US) and then the cable for the SSB which the shippers lost in transit. And would you believe it, they also lost the replacement after which the original order turned up (US suppliers and customer service do not inspire confidence in us!)
Mike and Roger fitting the solar panels to the new gantry
Having reluctantly resigned ourselves to the extra two weeks’ wait, we were then anxious to go at the next high tide – but fate stepped in once more and two days prior to leaving (and following our farewell party) the fridge packed up – a new compressor followed, plus the brand new state of the art alternator went phut on first firing. Obviously someone was trying to tell us something!! Plus to cap it all we both went down with virulent tummy bugs (dose of both salmonella and amoeba for good measure), not good sailing companions; so, another wait for yet another new alternator and the next high tide. The second new alternator duly arrived, Roger the “electrical whizz” came to fit it – nothing straight forward of course and his “does this wire go here or there” didn’t inspire much confidence in the outcome – rightly so as it turned out. Sure enough, we left the Rio Dulce (engine sounded good) and headed for Livingston where we checked out (Mike was only two weeks over the permitted 90 days, a mere trifle here after paying the fine of Q10 per day) and we psyched ourselves up at 6.0pm to hopefully sail unhindered over that dreaded bar – the engine had other ideas though and not a peep was to be heard. Roger remained calm and reassuring when an ever so slightly irate Mike requested the pleasure of his company here in Livingston (an hour down the river by high speed lancha). As I write this and following Roger’s visit today, we have everything crossed that the engine will perform when the time comes to set out this evening, just one more day late and exactly a month after we first tried to leave.
When we look back, the amount of work completed on Romano has been enormous and we have lived for months in a constant state of “work in progress”. It was, at least some relief to be able to escape the endless workmen and their projects onto the adjoining palapa area (a thatch covered communual space frequented by adults in their hammocks or working on various boat projects and children playing or heads down with mum doing their school work. This was the hub of our social centre and a great meeting place where there was always someone to talk to and Saturday evenings turned into the social event of the week with everyone bringing something to share.
One of our international Saturday night Palapa parties
Many new friendships were forged and the mix of French, Australian and us, which started somewhat hesitantly with some language difficulties, gradually evolved into a closeknit and interesting community. Audrey (delightful young French mum) who arrived in May with virtually no English now speaks the language like a native and Ella (15 year old Australian with no background in languages) is becoming proficient in both English and Spanish. The children who have all become firm friends prattle away together without any problems, of course.
Nanajuana Marina showing the palapa
Nanajuana was a beautiful place to weather out the hurricane season
I mentioned our farewell party which was held on a really grotty evening with heavy rain just before one of our planned departure dates. All turned out to say goodbye to us, including some newcomers we hadn’t even met before and it was a sad evening with a few tears and even presents from the children. One occurrence not to be forgotten is Mike’s unscheduled swim when he disappeared for a while and although he was vaguely noticed like some sort of large water rat climbing up the back of a boat out of the water right opposite the festivities, Nick the Australian owner remarked in his usual laidback way “well, yeh, I thought I saw you coming up out of the water onto my boat” but he obviously didn’t think that was anything remarkable or worth mentioning. Mike had slipped off the plank which only reached halfway to our boat (a hazardous access at the best of times) and weighed down by waterproof jacket etc had problems finding an exit from the water – and nobody heard his cries for help! Not only had he got a soaking but to crown it all nobody even noticed!!
Gill doing the washing as the men fixed up the boat!
The biggest projects on the boat were without doubt the adding of a new bimini and the gantry for the two huge solar panels (which so far are exceeding expectations and producing enough energy to keep up with the power hungry fridge and freezer). Mike finally settled on Carlos the Welder as the manufacturer and installer of the metalwork (aluminium) despite Carlos’ rather dubious reputation as not the most reliable craftsman in town. As it turned out, Carlos did a brilliant job and produced everything asked of him including some folding steps for me to be able to get back into the dinghy from the sea – not sure if he was amused or felt sorry for me when he heard that I had had to be dragged on a line for a mile or so because I couldn’t get back aboard after snorkelling. Whatever, he certainly had a soft spot for us – we hear many stories of others who are still waiting but he either likes you or he doesn’t!!
The boat with new bimini and solar panels
The list continues with a new mainsail (the old one was scathingly condemned by Luigi the Italian sail expert), the new bimini and sprayhood in cream (not very practical but so light!), with many new projects in wood, both inside and out, including beautifully varnished boxes to hold the extra diesel containers on deck, a very useful box/extra seat which clips to the table and so the list goes on.
The new mainsail being fitted by Luigi Bellotti
The cockpit sparkles with its new varnish, two windscoops (they would be the dearest in existence if I calculated the amount of time taken to make them by hand!) funnel the breeze down into the boat and Mike successfully located a new gas regulator to give us a cooker temperature other than hand warm.
Gill proudly displaying her fantastic wind scoops
Now we can even make bread, and as discovered today, the pressure cooker makes very good cakes! We’re in business!!
The proof and it was good – mmmm!
We did manage a day out in the dinghy up to Castillo San Felippe, about two miles up river from our marina. It was a glorious day as the photos show and the Castillo which had been built in 1500 by the Spanish to keep out pirates and of course the British who used to turn up regularly to steal the gold from the ships moored in the lake.
The Castillo as seen from the dinghy
The view from the ramparts over the river
During November we organised a few days away from the work site and headed north with Annie and Liam (Australian friends) to explore Tikal (one of the most important Mayan sites in this whole area). We set off with expectation and a cheap ticket on the Publico bus, only to find that the bus was already full when we joined it in Fronteras – well, full by our standards! 45 Persons is just the beginning with more standing than sitting and just when you think you can’t be expected to cram anymore aboard, there’s another shove and another few are added – they don’t seem to turn anyone away! The prospect of 4 and half hours standing whilst the driver throws the vehicle around the bends and in and out of the potholes whilst conducting an ongoing mobile phone conversation and eating his lunch at the same time wasn’t one to fill us with happy anticipation. I was the lucky one as a young woman offered me her seat after an hour of trying to perch on a narrow arm and I travelled in luxury – not so the others. To our amazement the bus stopped at one point to allow a rather portly lady with her basket of food on her head and her sidekick with a bucket of drinks to board and move into the bus – how is still a mystery – to sell a mixture of hot food (sandwiches would have been too easy!) to the passengers – all passed from hand to hand to the back of the bus.
Meals on wheels
We spent an hour or so in Flores (a quaint little island on Lake Peten to explore the cobbled streets and were sorry we wouldn’t be able to return that evening to join in the festivities of the Christmas tree lighting. We had booked ourselves into a little French run hotel further along the lake at El Remate – half way to Tikal. The Mon Ami was certainly situated in the most picturesque spot right on the edge of Lake Peten and afforded us the most spectacular sunset as well as a wonderful swim in clear warm water surrounded by tiny fish.
Sunset over Lake Peten
We had opted to take the very early morning tour to Tikal leaving at 4.00am with the idea of arriving to catch the dawn, hear the howler monkeys in full voice, enjoy the dawn chorus, as well as experience the rising sun as it emerged eerily out of the swirling early morning mists. We did eventually see the sun and waited quite some time to catch sight of the various monuments floating out of the shrouding mists.
Temples appearing out of the mist at Tikal
A little bit closer and later
A little furry friend we met in the jungle at Tikal
The monuments were as impressive as any we have seen in this part of the world, more so than Mexico which has inevitably become overly commercialised and we were able to climb as many as we had the energy for! I must say that by 10am we felt we had already done a day’s hard labour.
Amazing to think these were built over 1000 years ago
With the intention of spending two to three months in the San Blas islands, where we understand provisions are non-existent, we shopped to accommodate this with Mike declaring at every sortie that “there’s nowhere to put it”! Ah, but there always is! We had thought that we were to be joined by friends in the San Blas (not now coming) so we allowed for four including meat ready frozen for us in suitable four-sized packets. Upon collection of the meat, we saw with horror what amounted to a mammoth stack of boxes, all for us. I must admit this time I had rather overestimated the size of our freezer and we had to prevail on friends to take the surplus which we then cooked up for the farewell party, so it didn’t go to waste. From tins of everything, to toilet paper, to the occasional box of wine, we’re set for the next few months.
The saloon table laden with provisions – but where to put them?
After six months in this part of the world, we have so many memories to draw on and so many new and valued friends, most of whom we hope to meet again in the San Blas Islands or when we congregate to go through the Panama Canal as most of us intend to. As one of the young girls said to me with tears in her eyes as we left, “it’s like saying goodbye to family”. We have lived next door to one another and been part of each other’s lives for a brief but intense period. I shall miss the constant drone of the heavy traffic labouring its way over the bridge (the same bridge that a number of the younger crowd jumped from on the end of a rope and not entirely without incident either).
The not so low bridge – some folks are barking mad!
You soon forget to marvel at the beautiful scenery and area in which we have been living, the distant mountains, the lush vegetation, the river and its ongoing life of fishermen in their canoes, the myriad of birds. We have been spoilt by the wonderful and abundant fruit and vegetables, the colourful and interesting local peoples and the opportunity to explore a little of this beautiful and dramatic country – thank you Guatemala, we have loved being here. Honduras here we come!
Leaving the Rio at 45 degrees
Hector to the rescue!
Addendum: Yes, we did get away finally but not without more dramas – Roger’s fixing wasn’t fixed and Mike had to jump start the engine (a loose connection is suspected) and the high tide wasn’t as high as we had thought!! We spent the night rocking gently in the mud of the estuary after gunning through the first half of the sandbar. Hector, the local fisherman who had dragged us in in May, was prevailed on for the fee of $50 to come to our rescue at 6 am after his night out fishing and we were dragged out sideways. Sounds like another dose of gel coat to the keel. We are now safely in Utila (Bay Islands, Honduras) and further news about this part of the world will follow in due course.
Legless in Honduras
We anchored off Utila Town on the 7th December in the south facing bay there, which we thought would be quite sheltered only to be proved wrong. Each morning the wind came off the mainland at F4 and the bay was a choppy place to be until the wind veered to the North in the afternoon, however our anchor held well but getting ashore in the dinghy was a real challenge with swell bashing us against the jetty.
Nevertheless we managed to get ashore unscathed to clear in which at a cost of $6 is the cheapest we have yet encountered.
Having cleared in we went off to explore the island on foot, it’s around a 40 minute walk from one end to the other so nothing very tiring. The main and only street was packed sand outside town and roughly tarmaced for a few hundred yards in the centre of town. The main traffic was beach buggies, scooters and tuk tuk’s ( the local taxis) with a handful of pick ups. Given the size of the Island it was surprisingly busy.
Main Street Utila
Only 2000 people live here and their main business is running dive holidays off the nearby spectacular reefs and that’s about it, lots of cheap accommodation and a wacky feel to the place with lots of hippie types and a rehab shack on the beach.
We had further problems with the boat, one of which could have been disastrous. I noticed a strange reading on the solar regulator so checked out the wiring to find the fuse block under our bunk had melted and was glowing red hot. I immediately cut the power and went in search of a bigger fuse and an electrician to check out the electrics. We found Andy through the local hardware store. It turned out Andy did pretty much everything, including running the local water company and being chief of police. He came out, checked the system, fitted a bigger fuse block and we were back in business, for a while anyway.
I was still jump starting the engine and fired up to leave on the morning 13th December to spend Christmas on the next island in the chain, Roatan, after having exhausted all the Utila had to offer. We left in light SW winds for a slow sail and after an hour or so the winds died and we resorted to engine for the rest of the journey but in glorious sunshine. Getting in to the Fantasy Island anchorage on Roatan proved to be quite a challenge we made several attempts ourselves but kept running into shallows until a couple of local boats showed us a narrow channel right alongside the reef. Even then we only had 0.2m under our keel at the lowest point. Once into the pool, depths increased to 4m and we anchored in this beautiful enclosed spot, protected by reefs and sandy islands.
The anchorage at Fantasy Island Roatan
Roatan is a much larger and more commercialised resort and a major holiday destination for Hondurans. The island is around 50km long and 5km wide with numerous sandy beaches and off lying islands. Once again the main attraction apart from the beaches is diving on the world class reefs. We were on the south side facing the Honduran mainland which was about 30 miles away.
Sunset over the anchorage
Here we met some old friends and made some new ones, spent time snorkelling on the surrounding reefs, shopping and preparing for Christmas on the beach on Fantasy Island. The marina there had a thatched palapa (veranda) with a small bar where we could all gather for our Christmas dinner.
The beach on Fantasy Island. Interesting guests at the hotel, capuchin monkeys
About twenty of us had signed up for roast turkey and ham, although Gill had to show the marina manager how to cook the ham. Everyone contributed a dish and we had a good spread considering the limited facilities. I was given the job of carving the roasts. All went well apart from the weather which decided to send a squall in the middle of dinner, accompanied by horizontal torrential rain.
Some rather damp revellers
One of the boats, Kanthaka, owned by Thierry, a retired French Doctor, started to drag its anchor around six o’clock so a rescue party was organised, they fouled their mooring which disabled the engine, and meant we had to get lines ashore to pull them in. It was high drama on a very wet and windy night.
Thierry supervising the rescue
We were all soaked and cold and had to remove table cloths to avoid the tables being cleared by the wind. There we all were huddled in a group laughing at the scene, telling jokes and sinking a few more tots of rum from a bottle kindly donated by Thierry, just as well we were all seasoned sailors.
The snorkelling on Roatan was absolutely superb and I have never seen so many fish and the colours of the coral are so vibrant as you can see from the photos. There was also a patch of the reef known as lobster city where the lobsters lie thick and fat, unfortunately the reef is protected and so are these desirable dinner guests.
Looks good enough to eat. A school of Blue Tangs
While we were snorkelling on the reef one day and Gill was cruising through the shallows when she came face to face with a 5 ft barracuda that just hung there eyeing her up (lunch!) and didn’t swim away. as Gill swam off it followed her, she looked around for me as I had the camera but I was too far away. We found out later that divers feed this fish which is a stupid thing to do as they then expect to be fed, apparently one diver lost a finger doing this! The lobsters also get fed to keep them on the reef in large numbers, this makes for a protected nursery and a good breeding ground. It’s still alarming when a 2 ft lobster comes straight at you expecting grub. They’re very tame and you can touch them without them swimming off.
On Boxing Day some of us went off to play volleyball and disaster struck, I snapped my Achilles’ tendon and had to be carried back to the boat. We had no ice so I defrosted that nights mince to reduce swelling. Everyone was amazing and rallied round, an appointment was made for me by friends John and Suzie, to see an orthopaedic surgeon friend who happened to have a clinic on the island. Unfortunately the clinic could not carry out surgery and he referred me to a top surgeon in San Pedro Sula, about 70 miles away on the mainland. He also organised flights and transport from the airport to the hospital and refused any payment for his normally expensive services, I was overwhelmed that he should go to such lengths to provide the help as he did. John then spent some time driving round the island looking for crutches for me which we eventually found in a junk shop of all places.
The next day John and Suzie kindly took me to the airport on Roatan for the flight to San Pedro Sula while Gill stayed to look after the boat, it would be a massive understatement to say that she was not pleased with me and delivered several lectures on the subject. This was entirely understandable however, as this had wrecked our plans to leave for Panama the next day.
I was admitted to the Cemesa Hospital on the 28th December and the operation was carried out the next day after extensive tests, an MRI scan and chest X-ray. During the operation I was awake having had a spinal anaesthetic and bizarrely the anaesthetist took photos of the operation on his mobile phone to provide a running progress report for me while I lay on my stomach. I ended up with a knee length cast on my left leg.
It was the hospitals intention to release me on the 31st after a few days of observation – yippee back for new year and Gill’s 70th birthday. Only, fate took a hand and I slipped off the Zimmer frame on my way to the loo and broke my other ankle, words cannot describe how frustrated I was!
The next day I had the second operation, by now I was an old hand at this and am now the proud owner of a titanium plate and a bunch of screws in my right ankle which should play havoc with airport scanners and of course, another cast. Unfortunately, I had my money stolen while I was in hospital which apart from the loss of cash really upset the hospital staff, all of whom were fantastic, I could not have received better care anywhere. The NHS could learn much about patient care and genuine concern for the patient, here you’re a person not a statistic!
This also meant that I missed Gill’s birthday and as I forgot it last year I was truly in the doghouse yet again. I had remembered this year and was fully prepared, I just wasn’t there! Fortunately, she had some good friends at Fantasy island who organised a cake and a party.
Birthday girl with her cake and champagne
The second injury meant, however, instead of being able to shuffle on crutches and return to the boat. I was going to be wheel chair bound for at least a month and would have to stay in San Pedro Sula for after care and physiotherapy – not funny! It also meant I needed someone to look after me and Gill bravely volunteered to fly in for the month.
San Pedro Sula by the way is the most dangerous city in the world outside of a war zone with an annual murder rate of 187 people per 100,000 of population. So this is not a sight seeing place and there is absolutely nothing to do.
The lovely grounds around the apartment.
I was discharged on the 6th January and arrangements were made for me to rent a very nice apartment. Thank goodness we have Internet in the apartment and we can keep in touch with friends and family and plan the next stage of our travels. The most difficult aspect of all this is washing, in hospital I had lots of nurses to scrub me up and just change the bedding. This was not an option in the apartment with Gill on her own so she devised a novel way for me to shower – push the wheel chair onto the balcony, tie big plastic bags around the leg casts and pour pans of water over me, hilarious but it works.
Showertime in the apartment. Physio with Estella every day at the apartment.
We decided that a Pacific crossing was out of the question this year and we would spend the year resting in the San Blas archipelago in Panama for a couple of months more, explore Colombia, and take a trip to Canada where neither of us has been and; East coast USA. In December we will take the boat through the canal to explore the Pacific coasts of Panama and Columbia before setting off to the Galápagos Islands and beyond in March 2016. We have advertised on crew finder sites for extra crew to help us through my recuperative period. So a new member will be joining the boat in February.
Gill will also take the opportunity to go back to see her family in UK and Thailand in the summer holidays. I will stay with the boat and our new crew member until her return in September.
It’s also our intention to explore the islands off Honduras when we return to the boat to keep our hand in and give our new crew member some experience before setting off.
The Road to Recovery by Gill
Who would have thought that a simple game of volleyball would have changed all our plans for a whole year as well as placing us for seven weeks in the “World’s Most Dangerous City”! It just goes to show that you never know what’s “round the corner” and the “best laid plans”, and all that … But here we are at long last back on the boat and the last few weeks are already fading into the past. Mike is still wobbly on his two healing ankles but every day sees an improvement and a totter along the sandy beach and long daily swim is reaping great results.
A single out-of-action ankle was one thing but two was quite a different matter. With one, Mike could have returned to Roatan and the boat and with his crutches he would have managed, albeit we could foresee a number of logistic difficulties, but with no legs and in a wheelchair it was impossible. The surgeon was adamant, Mike had to remain in San Pedro Sula and be available every day for physio – no hardship as Estella, a young Colombian girl, was pretty, chatty and firmly insistent when she wanted results.
Estella cracking the whip – faster, harder, quicker.
Mike progressed from the wheelchair (didn’t quite make it to the wheelie stage), to crutches, to a walking frame and finally on the threat during the last few days that he wouldn’t be allowed to leave unless he could walk without any other aid, to just a cane and his “special” thick black hiking type socks and very sexy supportive matching boots.
The standard of care provided by the hospital was outstanding and would be hard to beat anywhere in the world. The scars on his legs have healed to pencil lines, no infections (and remember this is the tropics) and it would be difficult to tell he had ever had the operations. He has healed well and quickly due in part to the skill of the surgeon but also the post operative care given by Estella. When Mike was due to leave for the apartment and needed a wheel chair they went out and bought a new one and loaned it free of charge. When he needed to progress to a walking frame, Estella arrived with one, everything he needed they provided and offered in such a caring way, he could not have been in better hands.
Progress from walking frame to cane in two weeks
During the last couple of weeks the therapy progressed to the swimming pool where he was cajoled, threatened and entreated to walk, swim, kick and generally exercise twice a day under water pressure. The tiny swimming pool, sometimes a little on the green side, was the saving grace of the apartment and was somewhere to not only exercise, but just to sit and be outside, although we were still enclosed by high padlocked gates with armed guards manning the premises day and night.
The apartment itself was large and airy with great views out to the nearby mountains and along the valley. Watching the large variety of birds, both domestic and wild was interesting. Trying to close our ears to the incessant crowing cocks (they are obviously oblivious to the fact that they are only supposed to greet the dawn) became irritating. And the pop, pop of gunfire, near and far was unnerving but we were on the fourth floor so we reckoned that any stray bullets wouldn’t reach us!
One very pleasant surprise in all this was the response from our travel health insurance company. Mike contacted them from hospital to let them know he had had an accident and from that moment on they were supportive and responsive. You hear lots of stories of stalling, indifference and taking a hard line by insurance companies but once they understood the situation they agreed to meet all out of pocket expenses including the apartment, all treatment expenses, marina charges for the boat an our flights to and from Roatan Island. They even offered him the opportunity to return to the UK but with everything here going so smoothly that was not necessary.
From our balcony we could look down into the adjoining property, a huge parklike area with a river, trees, paths and lots of birdlife but we were told that we couldn’t go for a walk there and with the ferocious barking at night we thought it better not to chance our luck. So, we were pretty much “under house arrest” except for our weekly outings with Luis, our regular taxi driver.
Luis was an affable, always helpful guy but he had failed to develop his muscles and he struggled manfully with the wheelchair and loading and unloading into his already crowded boot (he ran on LPG and the boot was already half full with the tank) was a two-man operation, but we managed and were always grateful for his ready smile and helping hands. His time keeping was another matter though and on a couple of occasions he just forgot us. Once when I was catching the coach to Copan and Luis himself had set the time, the appointed hour came and went and upon calling him, he made the excuse that his engine had failed to start, but miraculously it came to life again and he got me to the bus station in the nick of time.
When you have little to occupy your day, little things take on a much greater importance and breakfast which was provided by the apartment complex was one of the highlights of our day. The highlight wasn’t so much what we were actually given because that was usually greeted with a groan rather than pleasure, but just the guessing and looking under the cover. I might add that the cleaning ladies who also prepared the meal would enter the apartment and leave the plates on the table any time from about 6.00am onwards. Plates of long ago cooked scrambled egg, cold shrivelled up indescribable bits of sausage, black bean puree (served with everything on every occasion, or so it seems, in Latin America), cold, chewy tortilla and a piece of rubbery tasteless cheese is not something you feel inclined to leap out of bed for, let alone pour yourself at speed into a wheelchair. The other two variations were cold toasted sandwiches complete with limp lettuce or our favourites, pancakes with honey which we heated in the microwave. I did ask for more pancakes and they came for a while but then we reverted to their favourites – scrambled egg, etc. I gave up and Mike ate the reheated scrambled eggs and the rest ended up in the bin. Needless to say we didn’t rely entirely on the provided breakfasts.
One of our few pleasures after the confines of the boat was having a gigantic fridge so we happily shopped without having to think of space or lack of it. The fruit and vegetables in San Pedro were fantastic quality and on one occasion a large sweet melon was added to the shopping to supplement our breakfast fare. Half was plenty for one meal so the other half was left in a bowl in the fridge. Imagine our surprise when by lunchtime the half was down to a quarter and that without any sign of mice or cockroaches in the fridge. Not an important matter but a mystery never the less and one we thought we should raise with the manager as the only other people with access to the apartment were the cleaning ladies and we had trusted them around our belongings and valuables, etc. “No, not me” was the answer given by the lady of the day to me and to Hector, the manager. So who raided our fridge? It remained a mystery but the word had gone out that we were watchful and not to be trifled with! Hector returned later with another huge melon and his heartfelt apologies.
Another pleasure which we had imagined would be ours in the apartment was a long, hot shower. Disappointment again. If we waited a couple of minutes the hot water finally came – scalding – 30 seconds later it disappeared again and we ended a very quick shower in a freezing burst. If we cared to wait another few minutes, already wet and soaped up, more hot water repeated the process. Washing my hair was a lengthy matter turning the taps on and off with a lot of hanging around in between. Mike had to be even more adept with his tap control as he found the most convenient way to have a shower was to sit on the floor with plastic bags covering his feet, so he couldn’t leap out of the way when the water was either too hot or too cold and on occasion a few choice words were uttered!
When they first removed the plaster, we all reeled from the smell of his stinky feet with their thick crust of dying skin and Estella who was at the receiving end requested that he do something about the offending problem toute suite. With no access to shops and a good scraper needed promptly, I volunteered to go in search of a substitute, remembering some rough waste ground opposite the complex. I returned with a selection of small rough stones which served the purpose admirably and after a good hard scrub, two shiny, pink feet emerged. Not sure whether the plughole ever recovered though!
Knowing we were within striking distance of Copan, the Mayan ruins, we had talked about the possibility of both of us taking time at the end to visit for a few days. It soon became obvious that Mike, even on his feet, would not be up to the venture. So, it was decided that once he was self-sufficient, with everything within reach, I would go to Copan on my own. Also a few days out of the apartment might save my sanity!
Copan is only about three hours by coach from San Pedro Sula and I was excited to have the opportunity to see a little more of the countryside. Like Guatemala, it’s beautiful with its mountains, valleys and rolling lush countryside. Tiny villages along the way indicated a mixture of modern and traditional life with the ubiquitous mobile phones in evidence everywhere, smart modern cars parked alongside the rusting wrecks half hidden under covering vines and horse-drawn carts trotting along dusty tracks. Women still gather in the rivers to do their washing and lay their clothes out on the rocks to dry. It was amazing to see people planting their crops, plant by plant on near vertical slopes (or that’s how they appeared to me) and slashing at crops with only machete-type tools. The fields stretched into the distance – what a hard life.
The steep roads in Coban
Copan is a lovely little town set on the side of a hill with picturesque buildings and steep cobbled streets on three sides. The main square was only one block from where I was staying and I was very happy to spend the afternoon exploring the town and then sit on a wall nodding hello to the friendly passersby watching a kaleidoscope of surrounding activity. As always, there were women selling fruit and cooking unfathomable dishes – usually something including tortillas of some kind.
Pupusas turned out to be the popular dish of the day – soft tortillas which are slapped into shape with a meat or veg filling poked into the middle, flattened and then cooked on a griddle or pan – delicious. The sights were simple but fascinating and it was therapeutic to sit in the sunshine and observe the scene.
Making papusas in Coban
The jolly icecream man with his handcart attracting attention with a little bell, the orange man pushing his wheelbarrow full of wonderfully juicy, sweet oranges stopping upon request to quick peel an orange on his machine, the local men in their Panama cowboy hats and the children in their mini fashion outfits. Overlooking all of this was the usual pretty church with a poster at the entrance, requesting that gum should not be chewed in church and please do not stick it under the seats!
Coban fruit seller in the man square
Just passing the time of day
Orange seller at at work with his peeler
The following morning it was overcast and cool, not a bad thing for a day of ruin-climbing and exploring. I followed the road back to the nearby ruins, skirting the heavily policed roadblock (apparently drug runs are frequent and this morning was no exception) and was amused that the police in the midst of their duties still had time to wave to me – lone gringo women hikers are probably still a bit of a novelty. The national bird of Honduras is the red macaw and these magnificent birds welcome you to the site. Dozens of them fly freely through the trees, encouraged to remain by being well fed and they are obviously very used to tourists, swooping low over our heads.
Red Macaws at the Coban ruins site
I had come to Copan because it’s there and not with any real hope that I would find it much different from the other sites we have seen, but I was wrong and so pleasantly surprised and impressed by the incredible stelae – the carved columns with their intricately sculpted integral hieroglyphics which document so much history of the Mayan culture, most of it still to be deciphered. The hieroglyphic staircase must have been magnificent and the still visible relief on so many of the remaining buildings is remarkable.
Beautifully carved stellar
The heiroglyphic staircase
During my wander through the site, I talked to a number of fellow sightseers, including an American doing voluntary work in El Salvador and his companions, a Salvadorian priest and a young woman from his village (I learned later that her father was the current mayor). They invited me to join them and we later explored another smaller but none the less interesting site where the nobility and scribes (very important people in that day) had lived away from the hoy poloi, a couple of miles down the road. To finish off a great day I drove back to Copan with my new friends and enjoyed their company and a great dinner whilst also having to practise my limited Spanish with non English speakers.
Dinner with new friends
San Pedro Sula seemed to us like any other bustling, affluent city with busy malls, modern buildings, plenty of evidence of industry, billboard advertising, just about everything you would expect and no obvious signs of poverty. It was hard to believe that we were in the midst of gangland, but apparently that’s where we were. It was brought home to me when I had been to the dentist and was waiting outside in the street for Mike and Luis to return for me. I started talking to a lady in one of the “hole in the wall” type snack places and she insisted that I join her inside her “hole” as it wasn’t safe for me to remain on the outside especially carrying a bag, so I sat and chatted for half an hour or so being questioned on personal information that no European would ever dream of asking about!
We had thought, mistakenly, that San Pedro Sula might have something of interest in its centre and so for something different to do, we got Luis to drop us off at the museum. Mike was still very reliant on his wheelchair at the time but with some help from a kind passerby, we lifted him up the 3 steps into the entrance. We had been assured that everything was on the ground floor. Once inside and about to pay for our tickets it became obvious that the exhibits were on the first floor with a magnificent stone staircase being the only access. My shoulders are not that broad and a fireman’s lift was out of the question so unfortunately we had to abandon the whole idea. Getting him back down the three steps was bad enough, none of the women were strong enough to help me lift the chair with Mike in it, so he resorted to sliding out and shuffling down on his bottom and then being heaved back in again at the foot of the steps.
The lifting crew
He then endured the uneven pavements and difficult to mount kerbs, not without a little complaining I might add, back into the centre and we manoeuvred our way around the square and into the side streets to await Luis’ return. Sightseeing in San Pedro Sula was off the menu!
Shaken but not stirred
Shopping in the modern, well stocked and laid out malls was a different matter though and was our treat of the week. We had no trouble filling the trolley with Mike whizzing up and down the aisles in his wheelchair, returning with goodies. Despite its obscure position and very narrow access, he soon located the beer and wine department, of course, like a well trained sniffer dog and returned with a big grin on his face and the week’s supply on his lap!
The standard of care provided by the hospital was outstanding and would be hard to beat anywhere in the world. The scars on his legs have healed to pencil lines, no infections (and remember this is the tropics) and it would be difficult to tell he had ever had the operations. He has healed well and quickly due in part to the skill of the surgeon but also the post operative care given by Estella. When Mike was due to leave for the apartment and needed a wheel chair they went out and bought a new one and loaned it free of charge. When he needed to progress to a walking frame, Estella arrived with one, everything he needed they provided and offered in such a caring way, he could not have been in better hands.
Apart from a missing filling and a trip to the dentist, I thought I would take the opportunity to visit an acupuncturist to try and alleviate a problem in my wrist and lower arm (not greatly painful but causing some discomfort during the yoga exercises I had been doing to pass away the hours and keep the joints working). The doctor diagnosed tendonitis but I hadn’t banked on having deep massage as well as acupuncture and certainly not from a shot-putting, sadistic torturer who had thumbs of solid steel. “It’s OK, it’s suppose to hurt, I’m just moving the pain along and it will be better next time”. Huh … I didn’t feel the acupuncture and was happy to endure the relief of just the needles! I was told that I needed at least three sessions and despite the bruises and the fact that most of my upper body now hurt, I thought I’d better return as directed. The second session was a repeat of the first and my slight discomfort had been replaced by a large discomfort down the whole of my arm. To cut a long story short, I did return for the third session, but just for a session of acupuncture with electric needles – a walk in the park after the massage. I can’t say that I feel any better but the expensive cream, pills and wrist brace will hopefully do the trick in time!!
It’s good to be home and back in French Harbour although the place has changed in our absence, our friends have all left, the marina is even more of a shambles than before, although we are assured that the palapa is about to be rebuilt, there will shortly be wifi and the bar will be re-opened. We’ll believe it when we see it, if it happens before we leave.
Joce, our new Canadian crew member, arrives on 7th March and we hope to be able to leave here a week later, first a gentle initiation for Joce and for Mike’s newly mended ankles with a sail to the nearby Cayos Cochinos, tiny islands which are supposed to be well worth a visit and then on to Trujillo and finally Guanaja to check out and head south to Panama and the San Blas. Fingers crossed …. We understand that internet will be a problem once we are in the San Blas but watch this space and we will be on line again with the next episode, probably in May.
When Gill and I were staying at Nanuana Marina on the Rio Dulce we met a great Australian couple, Nick and Andrea who were cruising with their two teenage daughters Ella and Millie. They left the Rio a few weeks after we did and arrived in Roatan a couple of days after I left for hospital. Since Gill’s departure they have been checking on our boat and communicating regularly on what’s happening at Fantasy Island, French Harbour. On one of their emails they sent a dramatic account of a rescue on the reef outside French Harbour which I thought might be interesting to people following our blog. Rob, mentioned in the text is crewing with them for this part of the voyage.
Nick and Andrea
“Last night there was meant to be a “pot luck” (bring your own meat to barbeque and a salad or side to share) on the beach but the easterly built steadily during the afternoon, blowing at about 35knots at dusk. We have protection from the open sea due to the barrier reef but no protection from the wind. The harbour became choppy and blinding rain blocked out other boats near us. Everyone (myself included) was batching their anchors, being on a lee shore. There is very little sunset/sunrise here so therefore no real dusk. Just on nightfall the topic of conversation on the VHF radio was the fact that a few boats had clocked 51knots – it was howling.
Then, a few minutes later a call came over the radio, “attention any boats in the anchorage, I have lost steering and am on the reef. My keel is pounding on the rocks. I am a 43 foot monohull, can anyone call a tug or assist in any way?” An American Lady who is sort of a permanent resident here took control and organised a sort of work/dive boat to assist. A smaller dive boat with an 85hp outboard also headed down. We were all listening to the radio as the two boats tried to drag the monohull off the reef. The breeze dropped to about 20knots so Rob and I took the opportunity to scoot to shore to pick up Robs bag which contained the meat for the barbeque which was not going to happen now. Still in our tender having arrived back at Muneera we heard a not so good conversation over the radio. A female voice was shrieking for a knife to cut a rope and then “we are tipping, we are tipping, we are over, the boat is over, the boat is up side down”. We grabbed a couple of buckets, told the kids (all four of them) to monitor the radio, Andrea jumped into our tender as well and the three of us zoomed off into the black.
It took us a little while to find the yacht which was still on the reef but just on the edge, mostly floating. I was surprised to see only one boat assisting, a sort of work boat with an inboard engine, about 20 feet long, with only one guy on board. There was a man and a woman on the yacht and the work boat was trying to get close enough to grab a tow line from the yacht but was having trouble. We gunned it to the yacht and asked what we could do. The couple were clearly flustered so Rob jumped onboard, headed to the bow and sorted the line out, passing the end to Andrea. We motored backwards in our tender (better steering under load) and managed to pull the bow of the yacht around and therefore creating enough length in the line to pass it to the work boat. I motored back to the yacht and asked the guy what else we could do. He asked me to check on the other boats that were helping him and pointed into the black. Rob stayed on the yacht to help with the tow as the yacht had no steering, Andrea and I headed toward a light against a black shore line.
Approaching at speed and I thought I noticed someone in the water beside the boat ahead of me and quickly slowed down. There was another work boat similar to the one we had just left and beside it was a narrow dive boat, about 18 feet long with three or four rows of seats, on its side, completely submerged, with three people on the work boat trying to right it with lines and two people in the water on the other side of the submerged dive boat. I drove around to the other side and jumped onto the work boat while Andrea did the same, tying our tender to the rear of the work boat. With Andrea’s and my help we managed to right the dive boat and hold it upright, beside the work boat, albeit submerged, while the work boat drove slowly to the Roatan Yacht Club which is situated on a sort of canal and is quite protected, a trip that took about 30 minutes. Once there the work boat guys used a barge with a crane to lift the dive boat by its transom while the bow was tethered to the dock. Once the dive boat was lifted above its gunwales it able to be bailed and float on it own. This is the only time during the operation that I became cold. Another squall his us while we were bailing the boat and because I was only stabilising the boat and not physically doing much, the wind and heavy rain made me quite cold. Sensible Andrea was wearing a wet weather jacket, I was not. The dive boat looked in ok condition, the outboard being a 85hp Yamaha two stroke which should flush easily enough.
Talking to the lady from the dive boat while it was being bailed I found out the following; The work boat was pulling the yacht forward off the reef while the dive boat was pulling the yacht over to the side with one of the yacht halyards, coming from the top of its mast. The dive boat pulled the yacht forward at speed which pulled the it backwards as it was attached to the yachts halyard by its transom. This drove the transom of the dive boat under the water and it flipped. Nobody on the dive boat had a knife which had the halyard been cut, the incident would have been avoided.
Andrea and I motored our tender back to the harbour with one of the guys that was on the dive boat. The yacht was being moored in front of the resort as we arrived. We picked up Rob and had a brief chat to the couple on the yacht. They had been entering the harbour having motored from Utila that morning. They said they had done this many times before and had their previous tracks on their plotter. There is a natural channel that dog legs through the reef, not something that you would attempt on a nice day without way points or a track. They said they were half way across the reef heading to the first dog leg when a large fishing trawler came barging through the natural channel and literally stopped in front of them, causing them to stop and loose way. Upon loosing way they were picked up by a wave and thrown onto the reef, smashing their rudder or breaking their steering mechanism. Don’t forget it was between 40 and 50 knots at the time. They have no idea why the trawler stopped in front of them. We headed back to Muneera for hot showers and a late dinner. The kids were all fine having fed themselves. ”
That was a very courageous thing for Nick and Andrea to have done, braving 55 knot winds and seas to go to the aid of a stricken yacht on a reef but typical of them. It’s a great example of cruisers helping other cruisers, we all share the same risks and you know one day it might be you. You find this spirit of selflessness and mutual support with many cruisers but this was a sterling effort.
Well done you two but I would have thought the girls could have had dinner waiting for you!
The Pirates of Providencia
After two months of frustrating delay caused by my broken ankles we finally left Roatan in the Bay Islands with Jocelyn our new French Canadian crew member on board and headed south about 30 miles to the islands of Cayos Cochinos for our first sail for a while. It was a glorious day with 15 knots of wind on the beam and we covered the distance quickly at 6.5 to 7 knots, a great introduction for Joce, or so we thought. We arrived at the islands and sought out an anchorage in the lee of Cochinos Grande, but couldn’t get our anchor to hold in the turtle grass bottom, so we tried around another point only to be met by a local in his canoe who told us that would be fined if we anchored there. It turned out that the military controlled the islands and only permitted mooring on their designated buoys at a cost of $30.00. We returned to the earlier bay but found it too shallow for us to reach some buoys inshore. At that point the military turned up and told us to anchor in the bay at a spot indicated by them, apparently the buoys had been destroyed in a storm.
We anchored as instructed and only found out later when we snorkelled out to check that the anchor had set that we were over a coral bed – not good. The soldiers wanted $30 per day of stay so we decided to leave the following morning and head for the island of Guanaja, about 45 miles to the North East. We intended to check out of Honduras here before going on to Providencia, a Colombian island some 400 miles away. The wind was right on our nose so unfortunately we had to motor the whole way, Joce was very subdued and kept himself apart.
Arriving at Guanaja we crept over the reef with only a couple of inches to spare and anchored in Sandy Bay. That night we went ashore to Manati, a restaurant which had been recommended to us, run by Annette and Claus, a German couple. Monday was their “kitchen closed night” but Annette took pity on us and we had a typical German dinner finished off with chocolate made by her son.
The island has no roads so everyone travels around by boat and the only town is built on stilts on an off lying reef with canals between the houses like a Little Venice. In the morning we all went there by launch to check out and to add Joce to our crew list, however, this was the moment he chose to tell us he wasn’t coming with us but wanted to return home. We had hints before hand that he wasn’t a happy cruiser but we were disappointed in the way he broke the news in the immigration office and that we wouldn’t have his support to get us to Panama, especially with my freshly mended ankles.
Finding crew who fit into the boat’s routine, who are competent and trustworthy sailors and have personalities compatible with the existing crew is a notoriously tricky business. With Jocelyn we exchanged many emails, went through his and our expectations, talked on Skype and I thought from this that he would fit the bill. How wrong I was, he hadn’t been on the boat a day when he insisted on checking all our stores for “use by” dates, he wanted Gill to throw out the flour because it had weevils in it (standard on cruising boats in the tropics and we just sift them out), was fussy about what he would eat despite telling us he would eat anything, had no concept of sailing at sea, was nervous about doing night watches and proved to be a loner with poor social skills. It was as well he left the boat at that time but he did teach us a lesson in crew selection and interviewing, his expectations of cruising were completely unrealistic and I hadn’t realised, despite our extensive communications prior to his arrival. Many people think it’s a life of gin and tonics at sundown, swimming and snorkelling and visiting desert islands but in practice it’s mostly hard work with some time off for play.
Gill and I left the following morning in flat calm for the part of the trip we were least looking forward to, 180 miles straight into the trade winds. The forecast however was for light winds and that’s how it proved to be. We still had to motor for a day and a half but it wasn’t uncomfortable and our fears weren’t realised. Our friends Gordon and Gillian on “N-aimless” went a day ahead of us and said they would wait for us at a group of cays on the reef some sixty miles off the eastern most point of Honduras, “the corner”. After this we hoped to be able to sail with the easterly trade winds on our beam.
We radioed ahead and they gave us directions through the reef to where they were anchored, in the middle of the sea, just behind a small coral mound you could hardly call an island. We were well protected by the reef around us from waves but not wind. That afternoon we went ashore in Gordon and Gillian’s dinghy to find the island covered in hundreds of stacked lobster pots and the main inhabitants, nesting brown Boobies. Mum watched the chick while Dad went fishing and made the run back through marauding Frigate birds who can’t catch their own fish so steal it from other birds. They will also attack unprotected chicks and we even saw them trying to steal fish during the beak to beak transfer from parent to chick. It was back to our boat for sundowners and to watch a beautiful sunset in this bizarre anchorage in the middle of nowhere.
After another days resting we set off for the Colombian island of Providencia, 100 miles off the coast of Nigaragua and a 190 mile journey with 2 overnight sails, something we hadn’t tried before with only Gill and I, preferring to limit our sailing to one night only at sea, when we are able. The seas were kind to us although the wind taunted us until we cleared the large reef area off the east coast of Honduras, by playing just off the nose, not enough to sail, so we had to motor/sail for another 70 miles until we were clear of the reef and could turn 90 degrees south. Gordon and Gillian wanted to motor/ sail all the way to Providencia so they left at noon, 5 hours behind us. Around 2pm the following day we could see them catching us up and it was good to have someone as company.
We then had a good sail in variable winds but just right to make landfall at 9.00am on Providencia. We reefed sail when the wind increased to keep the speed right for this arrival. Suddenly, just after we had reefed around 11pm the radio burst into life, it was Gordon, they had moved ahead of us under power and he warned us that they had been hit by 30 knot winds from nowhere and that the squall was headed our way. Fortunately, we already had our sails reefed but even then our speed kicked up from 3 knots to 7 knots in a matter of seconds however we were well balanced to ride it out.
We arrived off Providencia at around 9am as planned and as we came in to the anchorage radioed to Gordon to let him know we were coming in, the local checking in agent (Mr Bush) picked up our transmission and we were instructed to come to his offices straight away to clear in to this Colombian Island. So we dropped the anchor in the lovely bay there and jumped into Gordon’s dinghy and were whisked off to check in with immigration and the port captain. Mr Bush ran the general hardware store in which he also had a desk and a few chairs for those checking in, so we sat among the shop hardware for the lengthy check in process. The other officials came to his store to check our passports and issue our cruising certificate. These check ins are always slightly weird when you have been up all night, slightly spaced out and you launch into formal immigration procedures with officials in a strange country and every country has its own process and forms and charges. Here we had to pay $150, whereas Honduras cost us nothing to check in and out and you always wonder how much is official and how much is for the back pocket when charges are high. Some countries insist you use agents (always more expensive) and some you don’t, Mr Bush was an agent so we guessed he took his cut from our fees. We will probably be the last generation who can do this sort of trip. It gets more and more expensive year on year and the game is on to see how much money the various countries can extract from cruising boats which is a shame because cruisers bring financial benefit especially to island communities and it will eventually prove a killing of the golden goose through greed by a few.
I called this chapter Pirates of Providencia because the island sits just off the Spanish Main and has a perfect horseshoe anchorage, safe for marauding pirates. It was home to Cap’n Morgan and his moll and many other Buccaneers and the family names in the local cemetery here show names on the graves like Hawkins (Jim lad!) Robinson, Hooker (lots of them), Archibold, Bryan and Black. The Island was also a main slave trading centre, they grew tobacco and traded this for slaves. The island is protected by a tricky reef and there are high points around the anchorage to mount canon, it was perfect for their purpose!
The island is very pretty with proper hills, trees and beaches and we hired a beach buggy for a day with Gordon and Gillian to tour the island. It takes 3 hours to drive all the way round but we spent a day exploring all the nooks and stopped off at South West Bay, a spectacularly beautiful bay and beach for a swim and a lovely lunch of lobster and fish at a restaurant where our table was set out under the palms, digging our toes into the soft sand we dined well.
We continued travelling round the island to the east side which was protected by a long reef with an extraordinary array of colours in the water from the palest turquoise to the deepest blue. Gillian (as opposed to Gill) had a liking for visiting cemeteries and we visited yet another one behind a quaint old church, equally interesting, with plaques commemorating more British settlers from the 18th century. Before our return to the “city” with a little time still to spare on our rental, we decided to utilise our rented mini-moke to collect fuel in 5 gall jerry cans from the local petrol station. This was a lot of easier than previous trips where we had had to lug the cans 100 yards from the petrol station to the dinghy and ferry them over to the boat anchored half a mile away. It was too shallow to get the Romano any nearer
Upon recommendation from Gillian, Gill and I then visited a shoreside restaurant to sample their famed homemade corn ice cream, an unusual flavour but very rich and creamy.
The following day after checking the weather and getting a favourable forecast we cleared out with Mr Bush and left at the crack of dawn the following morning for a two and half day sail to Porvenir in the San Blas islands of Panama a journey of around 250 miles.
The weather forecast proved accurate and we had fair winds to carry us down to Panama which was a relief considering we were shorthanded and I was still very wobbly on my ankles.
As we left Providencia we were escorted from the island by a large school (fifty or more) dolphins who stayed with us for the best part of an hour, jumping and performing alongside the boat, each competing for attention. It was interesting to see their communication with each other and instructions being given by one of the larger members of the school with a slap of the tail. Each time this happened some of the smaller dolphins turned for home until we were left with ten and then finally one (who waved his flipper and wished us bon voyage!!!)
Mid-way we picked up an unusual radar target moving very slowly (3 knots), which as it came into view, it turned out to be a large ocean-going tug towing an old and partly dismantled aircraft carrier and heading for Houston, as indicated by the AIS, we guessed for scrapping.
During the night we crossed the main shipping lanes into Panama and the Canal, which was a busy time watching the tracks of numerous ships crossing in front and behind us. This kept us awake playing dodgems until we had cleared the area.
Because of the many reefs around Porvenir, which alone sported two wrecks of recently grounded yachts, we had timed it to arrive in daylight hours and this worked to plan arriving off Porvenir at around 10.00 am.
We dinghied ashore to check in on this tiny sandy island where we discovered a 400 yard concrete airstrip which runs its entire length, together with a couple of shacks and a scruffy little hotel. There are regular flights coming in each day with charter crews. One of the shacks housed the Immigration, Customs and Port Captain’s offices where “piracy” was the name of the game. The fees demanded by the various offices amounted to almost $US400 which didn’t include an additional tax payable to the Kuna National Congresso of $US60 for one month’s cruising in the islands. This was the most expensive place we have yet visited and we were soon to discover that further charges were yet to be levied by the Kuna chiefs on each of their islands we visited.
After 800 miles of sailing from Guatemala we had finally arrived at our next cruising ground with the intention of staying here for a couple of months to explore the 300 or so desert islands that make up the San Blas archipelago.
Pottering in Panama
There are 300 or so islands off the coast of Panama which are known as the San Blas islands by us gringos and “Kuna Yala” by the indigenous Kuna indians whose way of life has changed little in the last 2000 years. They still live in little thatched huts with earthen floors and bamboo walls, go fishing in traditional dug out canoes, collect their water from the rivers, pick coconuts and wild mangoes from the jungle, and trade with passing Colombian boats.
The Darien peninsula and the off-lying islands were once part of Colombia but now come under Panamanian control, however the Kuna are given special privileges (government subsidies) to enable them to preserve their traditional way of life, although many have satellite TV’s, solar panels and mobile phones in their thatched huts, and big new Yamaha outboards on their boats, a curious mix!
The mainland Darien Peninsula is mostly impenetrable jungle which is why the Kuna live on the coastal desert islands as fisher folk. Each inhabited island has its own set of Chiefs, or Sailas as they call them, who hold open meetings most days in the council hut to hear petitions and dispense wisdom and justice, the way it has been for the last thousand years. They are a happy go lucky people who are tolerant of the yachties who are the only outsiders they really see and who provide them with their major source of income, buying their crafts, fruit and vegetables and fish, lobster and crab.
Unfortunately this subsidy dependant people have become greedy over recent years and see us cruisers as fair game nowadays, trying to charge us for anchoring and visiting islands and anything else they can dream up, so there’s a cat and mouse game between the yachties trying to avoid paying and the Kuna trying to collect our dollars. I refused to pay on one occasion which didn’t go down well with the Kuna boatmen and we were ordered out of the anchorage, but we ignored them and stayed till morning when the sun had risen to show the surrounding reefs and our way out. We try to explain to them if they make it too expensive and unwelcoming, boats will stop coming and they’ll lose the revenue from selling goods and services. Some recognise this but most see us as a way of making easy money and don’t want to change. The cruise ships have already stopped visiting the islands because they overcharged, from our point of view that’s good news but for them its a financial disaster they killed the golden goose. It’s the fishermen and their wives who sew the beautiful Molas who will lose out if the yachts stop coming, Some work hard for a living and charge a fair price for their labour.
The Molas which are made from several layers of different coloured material are beautifully embroidered, pulling colours from the lower layers to build a traditional picture of fish, birds, or jungle flowers, or other things which form a part of their lives. The best of these sell for $50 but can take two to three months of painstaking work to make and are a real work of art. Some of the best of these Molas are made by transvestites who dress and live as women in the village communities quite accepted by their society. The most famous of these is Lisa and the photo below shows her sewing her name onto a Mola bought by Gill. These Mola makers and fishermen will paddle their dugouts from island to island looking for customers to buy their goods, often spending 6 hours a day travelling just on the off chance of finding a yacht crew who will buy from them.
The islands which are mostly uninhabited are everyone’s dream of desert islands with white sandy beaches, crystal clear water, gorgeous surrounding reefs and coconut palm trees swaying over the warm water. So we pick our way through the reefs, drop anchor in sandy bays, swim ashore in clear waters and go exploring. Sometimes it’s like that but there’s always a downside in paradise – some of the beaches are fringed by razor sharp coral making it difficult to land; some of the islands are owned by biting sand flies and mosquitoes and; the windward side of most islands is littered with rubbish washed up on the shore. When you find a good one it’s great and we have found a few! You do need bright sunshine however to show up the reefs as you move around so we tend to sail from island to island between 10.00 am and 2.00 pm when the sun is high. Twelve boats have been wrecked on the surrounding reefs between January and April of this year and many of them are still lying as a reminder to us all that these are difficult waters to navigate.
Otherwise this is very relaxed cruising, in the mornings after breakfast of fresh fruit, cornflakes and home baked bread we either clean the boat (at least Gill does) or do maintenance jobs from the never ending list or make bread or cakes and in the afternoons we swim, explore the island where we’ve anchored, talk to the Kuna who come by to sell fish, vegetables and fruit from their dugout canoes in our pigeon Spanish, we read ( I’ve been reading War and Peace for the last 6 weeks and nearly half way through!), snorkel on the reefs or go ashore to burn our rubbish (there isn’t any other way to dispose of it, if you give it to the Kuna they tip it in the water on the way home) which is an excuse for a bonfire and we flatten all our cans in our can squasher and give them to the Kuna who can claim back money for recycling them. I gave up fishing as a pastime and source of food as I don’t think there are any fish left and its a complete waste of time. The Kuna hunt them with spearguns and now you hardly see any eating fish on the reefs anymore. It’s easier to buy the fish off the Kuna for a couple of dollars. We also have to shop on the inhabited islands for fresh fruit and veg and when our fridge packed in we could only keep it edible for a couple of days. There is also the social life and mixing with other cruisers and by listening to the radio net each morning you can find out what’s going on and it’s a useful source of information and advice. So all this keeps us pretty busy and out of mischief.
Of course life is never that straightforward, there are our resources to manage on the boat to enable us to survive away from civilisation, fuel, electrical power, water all of which are difficult to come by normally but especially here. Fuel has to be transported by Jerry cans in the dinghy and siphoned into our tanks, a lengthy and laborious job. Our main source of electricity is our solar panels which I had fitted in Guatemala; they’re brilliant but they do need the sun to shine. If it doesn’t then we have a wind generator but this is the calm season so most days there is little wind and if that’s the case we have to run the engine but at 5 litres an hour this is an expensive way to generate power and puts hours on the engine, reducing the service life. We have to check the battery state several times a day as it is a crucial resource for us with so many electronics on the boat and fridge and freezer to keep going and iPads and Kindles and phones to charge.
Water comes to us from the sky and when we do get a tropical downpour it doesn’t take long to fill the tanks and we can have a “free” shower at the same time. The problem however is that this is now 6 weeks into the rainy season and it hasn’t rained much so we had to make for a village at the mouth of one of the rivers and fill up with river water. Fortunately we have dosing chemicals and a good filtration system on board. The tanks hold 700 litres of water and we have a water maker which is electrically driven but we use a lot of fresh water despite having a sea water tap for washing dishes and cooking. We need to shower everyday partly because of the heat but also to wash off the salt when we have been swimming, so a shower each evening is a regular event to prevent sores and keep clean.
Washing clothes probably uses the next most water, we only wear shorts and a bikini on the boat and tee shirts ashore which isn’t much but bedding once a week uses a lot. On one occasion we took our washing up the Rio Diablo in the dinghy and washed it in the river much to the amusement of the Kuna Indians who were doing the same (this wasn’t the same river where we got our drinking water). So all you folk back home with your automatic front loaders, think yourselves lucky, it took us four hours to paddle up and down the river, do our washing in the heart of the jungle waist deep in water keeping a weather eye out for crocodiles but you’ll be glad to know we never saw any.
The other issue we always have to be careful with is weather so we pick up daily area forecasts each day on our long range SSB radio from the US or the local net which also gives us the opportunity to stay in touch with friends who are also cruising the San Blas and exchange weather reports. This season is characterised by light variable winds with squalls and thunder storms. In the squalls wind speeds can reach 50 miles an hour or more and come from any direction. If you’re in an anchorage surrounded by reef as most of them are and the wind reverses it can easily pull out the anchor and off you go! This means we sleep lightly and get up to check regularly. If the wind is light then the bugs can fly in sorties out to your boat in search of fresh meat and although we are well protected with mosquito nets they still manage to squeeze in sometimes through the smallest of holes if we are not careful. The other problem with light wind is the heat, especially at night. We have wind scoops to pick up the slightest breeze but if there really is no wind we stew or put on the fans and consume more of our precious electricity.
If stuff breaks down out here and you can’t fix it yourself it stays broken, there are no mechanics or electricians and no spares for 500 miles. Two weeks ago our new fridge unit packed in with a gas leak so we only have a freezer (fingers crossed) but nowhere to keep fruit and veg or milk etc. Gill freezes the milk in small containers otherwise it goes off in a day and we have discovered the novelty of snow milk on our cornflakes. We can only keep fruit and veg for a few days but fortunately the Kuna boats come around with mangoes, banana and avocado which seems to be the only available produce. They are fishermen rather than farmers and a number of attempts to get them to grow produce on a commercial scale have all failed? The Colombian boats bring in fresh produce but you have to know which day or you make a long journey to a village only to find the boats arrive tomorrow and they have nothing. The only meat you can buy is chicken but fortunately we stocked our freezer with meat in Guatemala and still have plenty left. it’s not all bad news though, the one thing in plentiful supply is beer! You can’t buy milk but you can buy beer but without a fridge it’s warm, warm lager beer!
The other two things that broke were the toilet pump in the aft heads and one of the rings on the gas hob, fortunately we have two more rings and another toilet up forward but it’s getting tight now because the second one has started to leak and we don’t relish the old bucket and chuck it toilet routine. We are also getting low on gas and our nearest supply is 70 miles away or a day’s sailing.
Despite all of these problems in paradise we are enjoying ourselves and meeting up with old friends and relaxing in the sun. It’s still an interesting cruising ground and with 300 islands in the archipelago we are never short of somewhere to go and it’s not very far to the next island, yet another with white sandy beaches, coconut palms, warm seas and reefs.
You would think with so many islands you would never see anyone but we were anchored in Snug Harbour, a lovely well protected anchorage between three islands when a shout rang out one afternoon while we were reading in the cockpit. It was some Australian friends Nick and Andrea and daughter Millie on Muneera who had just sailed up from Carthagena in Columbia and randomly stopped for a rest at our anchorage, after their 200 mile journey. We sank a few beers while we exchanged news and experiences. They were en route to pick up their other daughter Ella who had been staying in France with other cruising friends and was due to arrive back in Panama before they transited the canal en-route to Australia to complete the girls’ education. It was great to see them again and a fluky coincidence they happened to stop where they did.
It happened again while we were anchored in the Coco Bandero islands and some friends we last met in a cafe on Tortola in the British Virgin Islands sailed into the anchorage and dropped the hook next to us. Another occasion for catching up and we spent the next couple of weeks cruising off and on, in company with Hella and David.
As we were coming to the end of our stay here in San Blas we decided to position the boat ready to head off west to Colon and the canal. We had decided to leave the boat in Shelter Bay Marina at the entrance to the canal while we went off to the US and Canada in June. The marina did a 6 month low season deal which suited us especially since they had credible repair facilities or so we have been told. A convenient place for us to head off from was the West Lemmon Cays, a group of islands with a nice central anchorage which unfortunately was difficult to get into, through narrow passages in the reefs and a winding channel. We had tried to get in on an earlier occasion but the seas had been quite rough, the light was poor for spotting reefs and the entrance very tight and convoluted, so we went elsewhere. This time the sun was high, the seas had calmed and we made for the waypoint (latitude and longitude) marking the entrance. I turned and went to go in but wasn’t happy with one of the waypoints so I pulled back and re-programmed the plotter and we went back to the entrance point and headed in through the tight channel. This took the entire concentration of us both until we reached the anchorage pool where we breathed a sigh of relief and dropped anchor and had lunch. I should have mentioned that this was on my birthday and one of the surrounding islands had a restaurant which we thought we would dinghy ashore to and check out. I went to the stern to get ready but the dinghy was no longer tied to the aft rail, we had both seen the dinghy when we stopped to reprogram the plotter just outside the entrance so we thought it couldn’t have gone far in the intervening three hours and weighed anchor to go off in search. We scanned the surrounding islands with binoculars and followed the wind direction for two hours without luck. Light was failing so we headed back to the anchorage in the Lemmon Cays to wait for morning and report our loss. We had no way of getting ashore now other than swimming so dinner ashore was out of the question. It put a real damper on my birthday, replacing it and the outboard would cost around $4,000 not to mention the inconvenience in the meantime. The following morning I put out a call on our radio reporting on the Panama Net to alert other cruisers. I also swam to the nearby island with the restaurant and talked to the ferry boat guys asking them to spread the word and offering a reward and telephoned some of the Kuna people we knew on downwind islands and we reported it to the Port Captain in Porvenir.
Our friends Hella and David immediately came to our rescue sailing up from a nearby anchorage. David took me around the surrounding islands in their dinghy but we saw nothing. I plotted the wind direction and mapped an area out where it might have gone, drifting towards the mainland and Gill and I decided to search this area, David and Hella kindly loaned us their kayak so we could go ashore when required and the following morning we headed south towards the mainland. On the first island we drew a blank but asked them to keep a look out and I distributed cards with our local telephone number on.
As we were approaching the second island, Carti we sailed in alongside some other cruisers on “Blue Sky” who suggested by radio that we follow them and advised we spoke to a man called Elojio who had his finger in lots of pies. As we dropped anchor they told us they already had his father John on board and he had told them they had our dinghy. We had already met John on a previous visit to Carti and I had already telephoned his other son Germain to explain our predicament and he had offered to keep a lookout. Fantastic, the father then came over to our boat in his dugout and we welcomed him on board, sat him down and gave him a beer. His conversation went all round the houses but no mention of a dinghy, so we asked him directly if he had it, in our limited Spanish, he looked puzzled and said no, it was clear by now that he was very drunk, he suggested we phone his other son Elejio which I then did.
Elejio was on a nearby island ferrying tourists and explained he would be back at 5.00pm, so we waited. I went ashore on time and he was waiting by the jetty off their house. He told me he didn’t have the dinghy but that he knew where it was. He had visited this island the day before and had seen our dinghy in a fisherman’s hut. He had offered to take it off them to return it to us but the fishermen wouldn’t let him. The dinghy was on an Island 400 yards from where we had been anchored in the Lemmon Cays, at the side of the entrance channel. He showed me a photo he had taken of it on his mobile phone which confirmed it was mine. The fishermen had seen the dinghy come adrift from Romano and paddled out to get it, stowing it out of sight and hoping to sell it.
They told him they believed they could get a reward of $2000 for returning it to its rightful owner, he laughed and told them they were dreaming so they asked how about $500 as this was the usual fee for returning a lost dinghy (a fortune to a Kuna fisherman). Elejio asked me what I was prepared to pay, I explained the dinghy was 20 years old and the outboard 10 years old and asked him what he thought a fair finder’s fee would be. He suggested I start at $50 and negotiate. I gave him $20 for his help and set off back to the boat to tell Gill the good news.
We set off the following morning dropped anchor and Gill and I kayaked across to the island, to be met by one of the fishermen on the shore. I asked if he had my dinghy, which I described and he took us to see the head man there. Chairs were brought out from the thatched huts and we started a circuitous conversation. Eventually getting fed up with this I asked if he had my dinghy he asked for a description to ensure I was the rightful owner, the cheek of him, but I wanted my dinghy back and had to bite my tongue. When I had satisfied him and told him the age of the kit, he asked for $100 reward for “saving it”, a far cry from his original ideas and a better place to start negotiations. I asked to see it before agreeing to anything and he took us into his hut and there at the back were the outboard, oars and anchor but no dinghy. His dragon of a wife asked repeatedly for the money but I asked to see the dinghy as well. It was locked in another thatched hut but sitting on a trestle in apparently unharmed condition. Much to his wife’s disgust we eventually settled on $70 which was a lot really to get my own dinghy back from these thieves.
When I related the story to other cruisers on the radio net the following day they said I was “really lucky” as most paid $500 to get their dinghies back. Now I tie it on properly with a second line, it may be 20 years old but it’s a Tinker and a first class dinghy in pretty good condition for its age. The outboard Gill would happily have given to the Kuna, it’s very temperamental and needs a lot of coaxing, but I can operate it!
After returning the kayak with our heartfelt thanks to Hella and David we set off back to the Lemmon Cays ready to sail to Colon at the entrance to the canal where we were going to leave the boat for the rest of the rainy season. We had been invited by other British cruisers we had met on and Island called Aridup to visit their house in a village on the way to Colon called Jose Pobre. They were taking their pet iguana to shore on Aridup which means Iguana Island, for some hibiscus flowers, which they like. In fact they decided it would be happier there than on the boat and left it happily munching on its own island. We said we would drop in to see Philip on our way through, Linda his partner would be back in the UK by then. We had a great 45 mile sail to Isla Linton, 6 miles from Jose Pobre, in fair winds and sunshine and dropped anchor in a lovely sheltered bay. Sadly however, our freezer gave up the ghost at this point so we had neither fridge or freezer and in the tropics that’s not good! I managed to fit a spare water pump to the freezer and we managed by switching it on and off manually to use it as a fridge until we reached Shelter Bay Marina in Colon where we could buy produce on a daily basis.
Next day we sailed to Jose Poble bay and anchored off the village in 4 metres of water. The bay was exposed to the North and we spent a rather rolly first night. Philip came out to the boat for dinner in his kayak armed with a bottle of red wine and four mangos from his garden. After dinner Philip set off back ashore in the dark, a brave venture for a man who professes not to swim. The following morning we rowed ashore through the reef to find Philip and go for a walk around the next point for a swim in a nearby sandy bay. We spotted his catamaran berthed at the bottom of his garden and went up to the his extraordinary house built into the jungle covered hillside.
Philip built this house by carrying thousands of tons of sand and cement and all the wood he needed for its construction, by boat from Portobello 8 miles away by sea and lugging it up the hill to the site, a monumental task by a very resourceful man.
When Philip bought the plot 12 years ago for a very modest sum there was only a wooden shack there where he lived while he was building the current house. There is a well in the garden and electricity but that’s it.
The view from the property is spectacular over the bay and we sat on the veranda watching a torrential downpour which scotched our plans for a walk. We met some of Philips neighbours, sank a few beers and had a magnificent dinner which included his famed dauphinoise potatoes.
The next day we tried again to have our walk but Philip had a badly infected leg from insect bites and was unable to make it and the heavens opened again so we couldn’t make it on our own. Philip furnished us with bananas, lemon grass and mangoes from garden and told us where we could find more mangoes in the village. We found the spot and collected pounds of mangoes which Gill planned to serve up for breakfast and turn into mango chutney. Back to the boat, ready for our 6 mile trip to Portobelo the following morning.
We entered Portobelo’s large protected harbour passing Drake’s Island where sir Francis is buried in a lead lined coffin and dropped anchor at the head of the bay, off the village. This was the main port for shipping Spanish gold back to Europe and as a result was heavily defended by forts. We went ashore by dinghy to shop and explore, we visited the Fort and went off to walk up the steep hill behind the village where there was a spectacular view of the bay.
As we started our ascent through some fallen leaves there was a commotion, Gill leapt backwards shouting “run, run” and fell into a ditch. I was in front and at first at first didn’t see what was happening and then I saw a brown snake about 3 ft long about 2 ft from me wriggling away through the leaves with a mouse in its jaws. It had struck at the mouse just as we had started to walk through the leaves which was fortunate for us, otherwise we might have been the target. I have never seen a snake in the open that close before and to see it make its kill was quite special but sobering.
Back on the boat we prepared dinner from our dwindling stocks of food and settled down for the night when a cockroach ambled through the cockpit. Always a signal to grab sprays and flatteners. After this I went off in search of some large ants I had spotted on deck and in the process of spraying them noticed that a catamaran which had been anchored some distance away was now 15 feet from our boat. 10 o’clock at night is not the best time to have to re-anchor but we had no choice and moved further out into the bay under a full moon which helped illuminate the scene.
The following morning we set off on our final leg of this phase to Colon and Shelter Bay Marina at the head of the Panama Canal. As we approached we passed through a number of ships at anchor waiting to transit and called up Canal Control at San Cristobal to get permission to pass through the breakwater. They gave us clearance, although we still had to dodge the ships exiting the canal. They should really have held all traffic for us, yeah right!
We followed the buoys into Shelter Bay and moored up with a perfect docking, even although we had had no Marina practice for several months, what a crew! This was the end of another phase of our travels. In a weeks time after we have put the boat to bed we are heading up to New York for 4 days and then on to Canada, but that’s the next episode.
Many of you must be wondering what has happened to us as we haven’t posted a blog for a while, but Internet is very limited here and works off the very variable mobile phone system. Weeks go by without word from home or from us, twenty years ago no one would have thought anything of it but in this day of instant communications friends and family start to worry if they don’t hear from us on a regular basis. We have spent 2 months without Internet except for two days in Nargana, an island near the mainland and even there the signal was so weak it took hours to download and send emails. So for those of you we haven’t responded to, apologies but we weren’t ignoring you.
The next blog will be New York and Canada in a few weeks time, now we have Internet again.