Livingston and the Rio Dulce

Phil & Nikki Hoskins
Sun 26 Jun 2011 21:56
With our draft of 4 feet we had no problem crossing the bar into the Rio Dulce. This is, however, an issue for many yachts with deep keels. Some even needing to be careened by a local tug at modest cost to negotiate the mile of sand bar that presents a barrier to their progress upriver.  After negotiating the bar you then have to clear into Guatemala itself and the town of Livingston is where this procedure is best achieved.
Just drop anchor 100 yards off the shanty buildings that make up the run-down waterfront and sooner or later a small launch (sympathetically maintained in keeping with it's surroundings) will arrive alongside with officials onboard.  Customs, Immigration, Health (doctor in clean scrubs), customs agent etc., all arrive with their plethora of forms to be completed. Fortunately this process is eased by Raul the well known cruisers agent in Livingston who, with impeccable spoken English, can short cut the laborious task of having to run round the various officials offices in the correct order to complete the process that is started onboard your boat. As we wanted to get out of Livingston as quickly as possible we engaged Raul's services without hesitation.  Within 45 minutes he had the required permits and forms along with our passports ready for collection in his office situated overlooking the public washing area where local ladies take their laundry on washday!
Livingston (by the sea)                                                                                                                                     Get in, get done and get out quickly!
The only way into Livingston is by boat - there is no road. The place feels like a frontier town where warnings to be alert and cautious are heeded. One cruising friend spelt it out - "Phil - Don't stay the night at Livingston!!".  Even by day the place has some pretty undesirable characters loafing around the town dock all looking to make a quick buck or two.  What it was like at night we could only guess.  We overpaid for a Guatemalan courtesy flag hawked by one of the elder Rastas who had accompanied the officials out to our boat but at least we had something tangible for our $10 investment.
With Ajaya securely locked up we dinghied to the town dock. The Admiral resolutely stood guard duty whilst Phil went off to the bank, which had a heavily armed guard at the door, to change dollars for Quetzals (or Pretzels as some like to call the Guatemalan currency). Raul's office was next on the itinerary to collect the paperwork and finally to the bakery to buy some fresh rolls before returning to the dock.  The Admiral was verbally entertaining and keeping at bay the local boatboys, one actually saying on Phil's return that he had been looking after the boat himself.  A real joker! Then it was back to Ajaya to get the hell out of a place that most cruisers have no affection for.
With Livingston slowly receding into the distance as we pushed against a 1-1.5 knot current up the river we entered the deep sided gorge through which the Rio Dulce runs just before it enters the sea. This is an attractive stretch with dug-out canoes and local skiffs plying their trades, some full of camera toting tourists (guess we're two of those!), and local straw covered huts lining the waters edge. In the gorge the river is surprisingly deep in places with shallows on the bends as you'd expect. We had no problem with depth but had to weave our way amongst floating branches and complete trees being swept towards the sea from recent storms. This amazing gorge dog legs for about 10 miles until the first of the two lakes opens up.
The Rio Dulce Gorge...                                                                                   ... with swirls, sharp bends...                                               .... and the odd floating tree trunk
Laundry day on the river                                                                  a small river hotel                                               and for Heavens sake !! ...a Jehovah Witness Hall of all things!
El Golfete, the smaller of the two, takes a couple of hours to negotiate depending on your speed finally ending in a constriction of the water  between the two lakes into the main area of marinas and boatyards. This is home to many cruisers for the summer months with a choice of marina locations depending on your budget and requirements. Some have pools and restaurants, some just have slips and a rancho, a relaxing area with seats and hammocks supplemented by a kitchen with barbecue, hobs and sink which is what our chosen destination of Monkey Bay Marina had to offer. One big advantage it does have is the breeze which blows across the water starting early afternoon. The north side gets little breeze and without a swimming pool would be extremely uncomfortable. Even for us in Monkey Bay the dockside hose is a quick way of cooling down in the heat of the day. Temperatures range between the 70's at night to the 90's by day but it's the humidity that tests your resolve to achieve any meaningful work on the boat. We are not short of jobs to do whilst here.
                                                             The welcoming sign ..........                                                                                                                           and a view of the rancho from Ajaya
We anchored off the Marina the first night as the strong afternoon breeze had already kicked in which would have made our manoeuvre into the area behind the dock a little tricky. By the morning the water was calm  and we reversed into the slot alongside the fixed dock that had been kept for us. We were ready to commence our stay in the Rio Dulce, wondering how we would cope given the 5 month hurricane season we are sitting out. 
'Spice - the resident Monkey Bay mutt and right - his well appointed airy kennel. Loves Guatemalans - not so fond of Gringos according to John the marina manager (unless you have food to offer)      
Our immediate backdrop is jungle and on odd days Monkey Bay lives up to its name with Howler Monkeys swinging through the branches near the boat making a deep-throated noise that lends them their name. The whole complex is suspended above water, the docks, the heads and showers, the rancho and galley are all on piles or stilts driven into the riverbed which are planked over about 3 feet about the water level. There is no road access - we have to use the dinghy to get out and about. Out of the 20 or so boats in the marina only 6 are being lived on full time. We are fortunate not only to have in the same marina our friends Roberta and Steve from Chanticleer but also some really nice people from the other 4 boats. The mosquito problem here is intense, not just around sunset, these critters operate a 24/7 offensive with large numbers permanently on duty around the showers and heads where the clean bare torsos make for easy pickings in the dim light.  Not just the mozzies, as Phil had to pluck off a stag beetle that had buried its choppers into his leg whilst taking a shower a few nights back.
There is a resident Guatemalan family on site with the husband providing labour for the marina upkeep and the wife dutifully cleaning the heads and showers when not looking after their children. They keep chickens or animals slightly resembling chickens which feed off the scraps from the visiting boats. They certainly don't look well on our leftovers and wouldn't make the grade at Colonel Sanders place!
The chicken pit next to the recycling shed                                                                                                   finished pecking for the day! Off home.
Our surroundings are reminiscent of an episode from 'I'm a celebrity - get me out of here' (although to the best of our knowledge we have no celebrities in attendance at Monkey Bay). You expect Ant and Dec to come walking out of the shadows to set a 'critter challenge' to one of us unfortunate cruisers as we sit and chew the fat after a long hot day. Still, apart from the monkeys the largest thing we've seen so far is a terrapin which lives near the boat and pops his head up occasionally. But there's plenty of time! Actually we have seen something larger but this was brought to the marina by one of the local fishermen. We bought a crawfish (or lobster without  the nasty front bits) but being complete novices in the art of lobster despatch we left it to the man himself to deal with our acquired friend (strict veggies, vegans and animal lovers can miss out the next two pics!)......
Now ladies and gents, you take your hammer and sharp knife and insert just behind the head just here  .......  ouch that's painful! (Spot the Skippers new trunks!)