February 28, 2003. Lake El Golfete, Guatemala.
|N 15 deg. 46′ 56″|
|W 88 deg. 47′ 56″|
Wednesday we left Utila, Honduras for the Rio Dulce in Guatemala. To arrive at the entrance of the river on a rising tide, we needed to leave in the middle of the afternoon. So we planned one last snorkeling on the outer reef of Utila in the morning to get another chance at catching the whale shark. We took Temptress outside the reef and tied her to one of the diving mooring provided by the island. The dive was not nearly as interesting as the previous day. The reef was deeper (so there was less light to see the fish) and less varied. Although the day was very calm, with no wind, a slight swell was making Temptress rock too much for comfort. So after the dive, we got underway even though it was barely noon. We would just have to anchor near the river entrance until the tide was high enough to pass the shallow bar.
As Clark was below, scooping chili into bowls for our lunch, I spotted a circle of fish jumping out off the water as if they were being chased by a larger predator. Then I saw what I thought was a black fin cutting the water near the fish. I yelled whale and Clark put down the chili and rushed on deck. Temptress passed within 3 feet of a 20-foot whale shark! The fin was actually its tail which it uses as a rudder to turn. As we drifted pass, it sat a couple of feet under water, slowly starting to turn away. We had a very good look at it. Then, Clark grabbed the wheel to turn the boat so we could follow it and maybe even dive with it. Whale shark are slow and not aggressive. But turning broadside to the swell got Temptress rocking again, so much so that one bowl of chili waltzed on the floor, chili first, as Clark watched in dismay. We stopped the chase before we lost another bowl. We are not sure we could have caught up with it anyway. But we were happy to have seen the elusive creature, which one hotel owner in Copan said did not exist in the Bay islands (my guidebook said it was often seen near Utila).
The trip to Guatemala was uneventful, about 20 hours equally divided between sailing, motor-sailing and motoring. The wind was pretty light and the seas calm so I did not get sick. In the morning, we anchored about 10 miles from the Rio Dulce entrance, in the protection of Cabo Tres Puntas, and went to sleep. At noon, we motored toward the entrance and inched our way over the bar. We saw as little as 6.1 feet of water and Temptress is about 5.5 feet deep! We anchored off Livingston, a small bustling town with a mixed population of Mayans in traditional dress and Caribbean Blacks. The Port captain was supposed to come to the boat but we gathered on the radio that he was in a long meeting and we finally decided to follow the crew of the two other boats which had arrived and went into town to start the entry procedures with immigration and customs.
The immigration office did not seem very organized but the official was actually quite efficient, checking the paperwork of one person while another filled the form and a third one came back to pay the fee. We then went to customs where the official apologized, in english!, for not coming to the boat. He explained that it was a very busy day and started filling several forms while talking on the phone. It was not a fast process but it turned out he was filling in the forms for the Port Captain as well as customs. The Port captain then came in his office, apologized himself profusely for not coming to the boat, welcomed us to Guatemala, and explained that his meeting was with Honduran and Belizean officials to revise fishing boundaries between the three countries (a very thorny problem). He then translated courteously in English the Spanish text of the form (a first in Central America) and claimed his fee. This is the friendliest welcome we have had in Central America. It was a bit expensive at $92 for check-in and out (more expensive than Costa Rica and Honduras which annoyed Clark since we will not spend much time here, about the same cost as Panama and cheaper than Mexico). We managed to finish the paperwork by five, did a little grocery shopping and went back to the boat to move to another anchorage, as the spot in front of the city dock was rolly.
In the morning, we entered the Rio Dulce canyon, motoring between walls as tall as 300 feet and covered with jungle vegetation. The air was full of a rich green earthy perfume, which I wish I could bottle, and the water, reflecting the vegetation, was also deep emerald. Egrets were fishing here and there, as were Mayans in their shallow dugout canoes. Some fog still floated over the river adding mystery to the beautiful scenery. It was very impressive and offered quite a contrast with the deep Caribbean blue water and sky of the Utila reefs. Living on a boat, we are not used to be surrounded by green.
After a few miles, the tall walls disappeared. We stopped first at the entrance of a smaller river, and went to explore with the dinghy. There were quite a few houses on the shore, all with thatched roof and with families doing laundry or feeding turkeys and chickens outside. One fork of the river ended up in rocky pools in the shade of the jungle, a nice cool spot with crystal clear water. The next stop was by a scalding-hot spring right on the shore of Rio Dulce. Steam was rising near a few small holes in the rocks and some boulders formed a little pool in front of the source, with vegetation hanging overhead. We went into the pool but had to keep stirring the water to mix in cool water and avoid being burned! We wanted to try to cook eggs in the source but the thermometer registered only 132 F (55C) not quite enough. Too bad, we had imagined soft-cooked eggs for lunch! It was a fun stop anyway. I swam back to the boat, which was very pleasant in the fresh water. No need for a shower to rinse off the salt.
The river is the road, so the school is right on the shore.
After lunch, we continued on to the first lake on the Rio Dulce, called El Golfete, and anchored Temptress next to an island with a great view over the lake for tonight’s sunset. The calm is almost eerie, with no wind in the early afternoon, flat water, no inhabitants with noisy fowls or dogs, just the sounds of birds and frogs. It is very peaceful.