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by Dan and Jan Ahart
Check-in at Livingston, Guatemala was very pleasant. The anchor had been down less than an hour, when a boat pulled along side with representatives of the Port Capitan and Immigration/Customs. They were very polite and spoke excellent English. All of our papers were in order, so we were given a blue sticker to put on the boat, instructed to take down our Q flag and requested to come ashore in one hour to pick up our passports and official documents. Livingston is very small, consisting of only a dozen streets or so, but they were all concrete and in excellent condition. The people are mostly of Mayan descent so they are very small. Average height of grown men was about five feet four inches and the women are shorter. The town is immaculately clean and full of little shops selling everything from food to clothing. There were a few souvenir shops and hotels, but most of the stores offered essential items only. The restaurants also looked very clean and neat. I first went to the Immigration office where our passports could be obtained upon payment of a 60 Quetzals ($7.50) fee. I had no Qs on me, so the officer said, "Here, take your passport to the bank with your credit card to obtain some Quetzals. Then come back and pay me." That was very neighborly of him and I did just as he said. Once the passports were safely in my pocket, I went to Customs, where our official documents were ready. The fee for these documents was 400 Q ($50). I tried to buy some bread on the way back to the boat, but all I got were interesting smiles and offers of flour. I didn't realize until later that we were now in a country where tortillas are the bread of choice. I did buy some eggs and then returned to the boat.
After lunch and a short nap, we motored 20 miles up the Rio Dulce to the town of Fronteras, where we anchored for the night. The river trip was very interesting. Less than a mile out of Livingston the river winds its way through a long gorge. The sides are about 250 feet high and straight up in some areas. The water was also very deep and in some places, exceeded 80 feet. After about four miles of traveling in the canyon, we emerged into a valley where the river widened. We passed many primitive Mayan homes that were built on poles and had thatched roofs and no windows or doors. The Mayans still travel on the river in dugouts. Now and then however, we would see a new modern home with a fancy boat in a boathouse. The river continued to wind around for another five miles until we came to a lake called El Golfete, which was about 9 miles across and three miles wide, but averages only 12 to 15 feet deep. Once on the other side of the lake, the river wound around a few low hills and then we came to Fronteras. One of Guatemala's major north/south highways crosses the river at this point and that, plus the excellent anchorages and marinas available is the reason for the town. There are high hills or low mountains all around the area, which are beautiful on a clear day. The distance from the ocean and the presence of the mountains make this area very safe from high winds and squalls. Hence, its popularity with cruisers year round and especially during the hurricane season. The town of Fronteras is not very large. The population probably does not exceed 3,000, but it is a major trading area and is full of shops and restaurants. We were very pleased to learn that not only are tortillas popular, but so are tamales and other yummy foods we were familiar with. Being from Texas originally, we felt we were right at home. The river varies in width from about a quarter of a mile where a 90 foot high bridge crosses it to a about a mile across in other areas. Just west of town is a huge lake on the river, called Lago de Izabal, which is about 15 miles long and five miles wide. There are many beautiful homes with boathouses attached as well as three fuel stations and seven very nice marinas around Fronteras. After anchoring out for two nights we rented a slip at El Tortugal (The Turtle) marina.
We estimated that there were probably 100 cruisers spread out between the marinas, plus a few cruisers, who preferred to anchor out. There have been some minor thefts reported, plus the area is popular with Guatemalans, who race around in their powerboats at night. We were told that collisions are not uncommon. So, for these reasons and the conveniences that a modern marina offers, we rented a slip. We have been in dozens of marinas in the U.S. and in the Caribbean, but this was our first experience with what we called a "walk the plank" system of getting on and off the boat. Usually, when in a marina a boat is side tied to the pier. Which means that one side or the other of the boat is tied to the pier and it is easy to step on or off the boat. Or, finger piers are used, which are narrow piers between boats that can be stepped on or off. However, a popular tying method in the Caribbean is what is called the Med or Mediterranean system, which means the bow or stern is brought to the pier and the other end is held via an anchor or perhaps pilings that are available to tie to. When the Med system is used a gangplank of some sort must be used to get on and off the boat, because neither the bow nor the stern of most boats can be brought flush with the pier. Gangplanks can be fancy affairs with little wheels on one end that can roll around on the pier as the boat moves or simply a large board that is tied to the boat and slides around on the pier. None of the gangplanks we had used before were really satisfactory because they always slide on the pier and or the boat, potentially causing abrasions on both the boat and the pier. By contrast, the "walk the plank" method is a large plank that is tied to the pier and juts out close to but not touching the boat. It looks kind of like a diving board. Obviously, in order for this system to work, the wood must be both light and very strong. Such is available in Guatemala. We never got a straight answer as to what the wood was, but it was incredibly strong. Our plank was a solid piece of dark wood with no knots, about 15 feet long, three feet wide and three inches thick. About half of it, or seven feet stuck out toward the boat. We could walk out on it, with it bending ever so slightly and simply step onto the boat. Amazing.
We also experienced another convenience for the first time. Wireless internet. For one dollar per day, we could rent a little device that plugged into our laptop and enabled us to use the internet on the boat. Compared to paying a dollar an hour at an internet café, plus the trouble of getting there, this was real luxury. And, since we were in a fresh water river marina, we had two sources of water available to us. Purified water for drinking and river water for washing the boat. All in all, it was a very pleasant marina. More about the marina and our travels inland in the next chapter. Stay tuned.