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by Dan and Jan Ahart
Tortugal Marina, on the Rio Dulce in Guatemala is run by a couple from the states. But the wife was born and spent the first 12 years of her life in Guatemala, so they feel they are at home and of course speak Spanish like natives. The marina includes 28 slips for boats of various sizes, six cabanas for rent by those who don't arrive by boat or want a break from the boat as well as a restaurant/bar and two common areas for guests. One with BBQ equipment and one indoors with TV, pool table and Internet stations. It is located on the main body of the river and only a 10-minute dinghy ride from town. Each slip has electricity and water available and if you have a laptop a one dollar a day fee will enable you to use wireless internet on the boat. The second day we were there, the owners asked if we would like to accompany them to the town of Puerto Barrios. One of their dogs had four little puppies that were in need of vaccinations by the veterinarian. We would help corral the puppies and do a little sight seeing on the way. The trip took about an hour each way and gave us our first close-up look at the Guatemalan countryside. There are some flat areas, but much of the country is very hilly, which makes road building, house building as well as farming and ranching a challenge. Typical of Central America, it is very green with coconut, mango, papaya and other fruit trees in abundance. We saw many roadside vendors selling everything from pineapples to tomatoes. The two most popular dishes we have seen in South and Central America are fish and chicken with rice and beans. Puerto Barrios was no exception, with dozens of small and large restaurants everywhere advertising the standard fare. But we also saw several large hamburger and fried chicken fast food restaurants a la McDonalds and KFC. It's not just us Norte Americanos who like good food served fast in a clean and pleasant air-conditioned environment.
A few days after our "puppy" trip we met a very nice couple about our age, who were interested in visiting some of the Mayan ruins. So, we made arrangements to travel together and see what we could see. We eschewed the local travel agents, preferring to find our own way on "chicken buses" if need be and practice our Spanish on the hapless locals. Although it is rare to actually get on a bus with someone carrying a chicken, it does happen. But, cruisers call all the local buses, as opposed to tour or express buses, chicken buses. They make a lot of stops, but they are dirt-cheap and they are a lot more fun. For example, one day the bus stopped at a private home just off the highway. We had no idea what was going on until every member of the household began carrying containers of every variety containing diesel fuel to fill the bus's tanks. We asked the driver if this was part of his normal routine and he said that he always stopped here because the fuel was cheaper. We had no idea where the fuel came from, how it was stored and how clean it was - diesel engines like clean fuel. But everyone took it in stride. Most passengers got off the bus to stretch their legs and then we all got back on and away we went. Often, when the buses stop a vendor or two will get on and ride to the next stop, where they catch another bus going back the way they came. Everything is sold by these vendors from cold drinks to sandwiches and even jewelry. We took three trips with our new friends. One was to Mayan ruins in Guatemala called Tikal and one was to Mayan ruins in Honduras called Copan. Tikal boasts the highest pyramids outside of Egypt. The tallest, at 212 feet comprises hundreds of thousands of hand-hewn stones. Tikal is an old city covering hundreds of acres and is still being excavated. Considering the city was built over a long period starting around 300 A.D. and was occupied for nearly 1,000 years it is in very good condition. But of course the only artifacts that remain are those of stone. Anything else long since deteriorated. The ruins in Copan are several hundred years newer and the site is much smaller, but everything has been excavated and there are two fine museums that give a good picture of what the city looked like and what life must have been like when it was occupied. All of the Mayan cities had been abandoned by the time the first Europeans arrived in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. No one is quite sure what happened, but the most prevalent theory is that the Aztecs exterminated them. Life among these indigenous people was apparently very harsh and cruel with constant fighting with other groups, slavery and human sacrifices sometimes numbering thousands per day. And to add to those cheerful thoughts some of their games resulted in death for the losers. Makes our current problems with international terrorism pale in significance.
Our third trip was one to a local hot springs. The ranges of mountains that extend from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego include hundreds of active volcanoes. So, hot springs here and there are not surprising. This particular spring was located only a few hundred yards from a waterfall that was of course, a very popular place to swim. By the time the water fell over the falls it was still as hot as you would ever want shower in. Standing under the falls even for a few seconds resulted in a nice pink glow to one's skin and a pronounced amount of sweating. Fortunately a small cold-water river joined the hot water at the base of the falls, so we could swim in hot or cold water just by swimming one direction or the other. The riverside around the base of the falls was also lined with huge granite boulders. Interestingly, some were cold to the touch and others were quite hot. Obviously there were lots of hot water fissures all over the place. Even in the cold-water areas, we could dive down and find hot stones on the river bottom.
A very large bridge spans the Rio Dulce connecting the town of Fronteras on the north side with Relleno on the south side. The bridge was designed by the U.S. Corps of Engineers and built by a Puerto Rican company. At its highest point the bridge stands 90 feet off the water which would allow very tall sailboats to get under it, but there are high voltage power lines across the river, which hang down below the bridge by a good 20 feet thus limiting the effective bridge height. It doesn't seem to bother the Guatemalans.
After a month on the Rio Dulce, we decided it was time to move on, so on 28 April 2004 we headed down river to rejoin the Caribbean. We spent the night of the 28th at "La Marina," which is located just up river from the town of Livingston, where we checked out of Guatemala the next day. We intended to sail directly to Belize, which is just a few miles north of Livingston, but the winds weren't cooperating, so we sailed east to Cabo Tres Puntas, which is a peninsula that juts north from Honduras where we spent the night at anchor while a squall passed through. The next day the weather cleared up and we sailed north to Belize. Stay tuned.