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June - October, 2009

Rio Dulce, Guatemala

Every summer cruisers in the Caribbean face the same question: where do we spend hurricane season? A few pay no attention and stay wherever they like, playing the odds that a storm won't send their cruising dream to the bottom of the ocean. However, most cruisers play it safe and pick one of the few hurricane holes located far enough south to reduce their risk to a statistical improbability. In the northwest Caribbean that hurricane hole is the Rio Dulce in Guatemala, The sweet river, as its name means in Spanish, begins 22 miles inland at Lake Izabal and joins the Caribbean Sea at the town of Livingston.

Most sailboats require a high tide to cross the sand bar at the mouth of the Rio Dulce. Choosing an early morning tide allows you to check in to the country at Livingston and still have enough daylight left to move up river for the night. Livingston has a bad reputation for theft and the anchor holding isn't good. The sandbar has a controlling depth of 5-1/2 feet (the same as Caribbean Soul's draft), but the big question is where exactly is the channel. Boaters back home probably don't realize that all those red and green buoys that guide you safely through breakwaters and channels don't typically exist out here. There is a sea buoy at the mouth of the Rio Dulce, but from there you're on your own. We followed waypoints given to us by several boaters who had crossed the bar recently, and we had no problems "passing the bar exam."

Shortly after sunrise on the morning of June 6th, we dropped our anchor off the town of Livingston and prepared to receive guests. Around 9:00 A.M. a launcha full of officials arrived to greet us. They all smiled and welcomed us warmly to Guatemala. The boarding party included the agent Raul, the customs officer, the immigration officer, the port captain, and a health officer. With everyone seated in our cockpit, we passed around coffee and drinks while the officials completed their paperwork. Raul informed us that his services as an agent were optional, but we had to wonder if we'd really save any money if we tried to circumvent the accepted practice. The health officer asked to see Dakota's papers, something that hasn't occurred since the Dominican Republic (come to think of it, that was also the last time officials came to our boat). A rabies vaccination and health statement issued in March were satisfactory. When all the preliminary forms were complete, the party departed, and Raul promised our completed entry papers within an hour.

The scenic trip up the river took about four hours as it wound through the lush rain forest. As we approached the town of Fronteras, the river widened and civilization, so to speak, appeared along the shore. Sailing past a number of marinas and under the 75-foot tall bridge, we entered a small channel leading into a large, protected lagoon and the La Joyia del Rio Marina.

The Rio Dulce is the northwest Caribbean's hurricane hole.

La Joyia del Rio Marina

The La Joyia del Rio Marina, formerly called Susanna's Lagoon Marina, has 75 side-tie slips in the most sheltered location in Fronteras. There was a time when this marina was the premier spot on the river, but it was purchased a few years ago by American Garon Anderson, and these days it's in a state of decay. It probably would have floated downstream a long time ago, but inside the lagoon there's no fetch and not much wind. Although we didn't like the looks of the docks, we decided it was still better than being constantly rocked by boat wakes in one of the marinas on the river.

On our second day at La Joyia, we were startled by the loud pop of a gun being fired nearby. Nick poked his head out of the hatch and reported that a Guatemalan woman was walking down the dock with a pistol in her hand. We hunkered down as she fired again several times in rapid succession. Why was she shooting inside the marina? No one told us we needed flack jackets to stay here. A stray bullet could kill a tenant, sink a boat, or start a fire for goodness sake! We later learned that the pistol-toting woman was Hedi, Garon's wife, and she was trying out her new gun.

For boaters evaluating marinas on the Rio Dulce, we would say that La Joyia del Rio does offer the most protection from the weather in Fronteras, it's cheap, and it probably won't fall apart anytime soon. If you have some dirty boat projects to do, you can do them here. Garon allowed a catamaran to spray paint their boat in the slip next us. Overall, it's a safe place for your boat and that's why we stayed there. On the other hand, if you plan to live aboard and want a cruiser-friendly marina, you can do better just about anywhere else. We were particularly impressed with Jim at Mario's Marina, who helped us on one particular occasion and hosted a benefit to raise money for a starving village. We also enjoyed our time at Texan Bay Marina. Although it's not as convenient to town, the atmosphere down river is more pleasant and relaxing.


Caribbean Soul at La Joyia del Rio marina. The Rio Dulce is a steam bath in the summer. A number of local people died this year of Dengue fever, which is carried by mosquitoes.

River Rats

The Rio Dulce is home to hundreds of temporary and permanent River Rats, as the gringos call themselves. During hurricane season, the marinas fill up with cruising boats like ours that are only there until the storm threat has passed. However, some of these boaters never leave. The locals call the Rio Dulce "the river that eats gringos." In fact, this phenomena occurs in major harbors throughout the Caribbean. Some cruisers discover early on that the lifestyle is not for them, or they decide after many years to settle down in a favorite port. Some of these folks continue to live aboard on boats that eventually decline to dereliction due to nonuse. Some sell their boats and live in town or build homes. Some work or start businesses that may be profitable or may merely allow them to live a hand-to-mouth existence. In the Rio Dulce, there is a distinct feeling of separation within the gringo community between cruisers and expatriates. To the expats, the Rio Dulce is a little piece of heaven hidden away in Guatemala far from the troubles of their own countries. It is now their home and most will never leave. Shortly after arriving in the river, one of our friends exclaimed in her sweet Georgia drawl, "why these folks have just 'checked out'!"

To the cruisers, however, the river is a place of necessity to be endured until one can return to clear water, beautiful reefs, and the gypsy lifestyle we love sailing on the ocean. The river valley is beautiful, but Fronteras is a stinky, filthy place and the water is polluted. The weather is almost unbearably hot and humid, while mosquitoes carry malaria and dengue fever. Most cruisers leave their boats and spend several months back home or travel to the cooler Guatemalan highlands. Provisioning in Fronteras is limited and getting parts through Customs can be difficult and expensive. On the positive side, the Rio Dulce is a good place for haul-outs and bottom jobs. Boaters can choose the inexpensive railway at Abel's (our choice) or the pricier new yard and travel lift at RAM Marine. New security patrols were started last year after a boater was murdered and another boat robbed. Since then nothing beyond dinghy thefts has occurred. Above all, the Rio Dulce is the only safe choice for hurricane season in the northwest Caribbean.

So if you're a westbound cruiser wondering if you'll like the Rio Dulce, you'll have to come and see for yourself. You'll either love it or hate it. You'll either stay forever or get out as quickly as possible.

For more information, see the Rio Dulce Chisme web site and forum.


Expatriates gather at Bruno's marina.

Adventures in Travel

In July, I flew back to Texas to spend time with my parents. From the Rio Dulce, I traveled to Guatemala City on the Litegua bus. These buses are essentially old Trailways-type buses with reclining seats. Occasionally one of them has working air-conditioning, but mine did not. I was a little nervous about making the five-hour journey alone, a gringo woman among the local passengers. I wore no jewelry, and my money was stashed in several hidden places to the benefit of my bustline.

A 13-year old girl sat in the seat next to me, smiling and casting shy glances my way, so I struck up a conversation in Spanish. She began telling me in a rapid, hushed voice about her mother. I couldn't understand much of what she said, but I gathered the basic facts. A month earlier her mother had been shot in the head and killed on a street in Guatemala City. She was now living with her grandparents, and they had been in the Rio Dulce to visit an aunt. I had to choke back tears hearing this child's horrible story.

I asked her about her family and school. She had lots of friends at school and enjoyed mathematics. When I asked if she might attend a university some day, she looked at me like I was crazy and said it wasn't possible. Most rural Guatemalan children don't even go to high school, much less a university. How naive of me to ask such a stupid question! She told me that her aunt in the Rio Dulce worked as a housekeeper for some gringos who had a boat.

"Are they nice?" I asked.

"Mas or menos (more or less)," she replied diplomatically. I cringed. She pulled some candies out of her pocket and offered them to me. I gave her a granola bar. Later, her grandparents came down the aisle and signaled it was time to leave. They smiled and greeted me warmly. The girl turned to me and kissed my cheek, and I watched her disappear down the dusty street, a typical Guatemalan child with a predictable future.

In August, I flew back to Guatemala City from Dallas. I struck up a conversation with an older Guatemalan woman seated next to me. She was friendly and spoke Spanish nice and slow, so I could actually understand most of what she said. I was a little concerned about catching a taxi at the airport. Not only is there the usual gringo price issue, but some taxis are impostors that rob their passengers and sometimes do worse. She said she would talk to a taxi driver for me. However, when we emerged from the airport, her son was waiting for her and she asked him if he would mind giving me a ride. The Las Torres Hotel is near the airport, and he was happy to give me a ride. Her son spoke perfect English and gave me a business card for his dental practice. In front of the hotel, we all hugged and they encouraged me to call them if I needed anything during my stay in the city.

Nick met me in Guatemala City and we spent about a week at Lake Atitlan in the cool and refreshing highland mountains (see the Lake Atitlan log). As we were departing Guatemala City on the Litegua bus, Nick called Garon, owner of our marina, to see if he could give us a launcha ride when we arrived in Fronteras. In a rant peppered with a range of expletives, Garon informed Nick he'd never give him another ride because Nick hadn't thanked him for the ride he gave him to the bus stop the week before. Nick was of course stunned. He felt pretty sure he had said thanks, but it had been pouring rain that day and perhaps Garon hadn't heard him over the outboard noise. Even if Nick had failed to say thank you, it was hardly a cardinal sin that would justify a business owner cursing at his paying customer.

A few hours later when our bus stopped at the police station on the outskirts of Fronteras, we got off and decided to walk to the marina. Although the marina doesn't have access to the road, it's possible to hike across a schoolyard and climb through a barbed-wire fence to get there. Unfortunately, heavy rains had created a stream just before the fence. The only way across was via a delicate balancing act on logs and rocks. I crossed first, somehow managing not to fall in despite my natural clumsiness. About that time a young Guatemalan man appeared and gave me a hand up the embankment. He crossed the stream and, seeing our luggage, picked up the biggest suitcase, hoisted it on his shoulder, and easily walked across the rocks and logs to the other side. He returned and helped Nick carry the rest of the bags across. Nick thanked him and handed him a Q20 note, which he reluctantly took. I might add that Nick and I were still feeling poorly from the Mayan Revenge, which had kept us bedridden the previous two days. As it turns out, we didn't get help from the American to whom we paid our monthly dock fees but from a Guatemalan stranger who was kind enough to aid two foreigners.

Time and again in Latin America, strangers have offered us their assistance. Often they've walked up and offered it without being asked simply because they could see the confused gringo needed some guidance. I'm always touched by their small acts of kindness and wonder if they would be treated as well in our country where Americans tend to view foreigners with suspicion. Would I have offered a foreigner a ride to an American hotel? Probably not. Always in a hurry and focused on our busy lives, do we miss those in need just outside our peripheral vision? Too often we think writing the big, annual check to a charity fulfills our obligation (and our tax deduction). However, I've learned that personal acts of kindness cost nothing and can leave a lasting impression on the recipient. When our cruise is over, I will hold the warmth and kindness of the Latin Americans in my heart as a treasured keepsake.


Guatemalan "chicken bus" is the most popular mode of public transportation.

Yacht in Transit

Prior to departing on our cruise, we had heard that boat parts could be shipped into countries duty free simply by marking them with the magic words "yacht in transit." The logic is that the parts are not being sold in the country and will leave with the boat. However "yacht in transit" is, for all intents and purposes, a myth, one of many fantasies of which new cruisers are quickly disabused. While some ports are duty-free (for all goods, not just yacht parts), most are not. You don't always have the good fortune of breaking down or spending hurricane season in a duty-free port. Each country has different rules, some reasonable and some not. Enforcement often depends on individual officials. Even if you manage to avoid the duty, international shipping of boat parts is outrageously expensive and can exceed the cost of the parts themselves. Between shipping and duties, what would have been an inexpensive repair in the U.S. may cost a small fortune in a foreign port.

Cruisers often find it more convenient to bring parts back with them by airplane after visiting the U.S. or Europe. Often Customs at airports will overlook items in suitcases, whereas items shipped in would be inspected and assessed a duty. However, this tactic is not always reliable. In Guatemala, the duty can be an exorbitant 20 to 30 percent, so the airport loophole has been widely used by cruisers.

Our major hurricane season project was the replacement of our windlass. This item cost $2000 and weighed over 60 pounds. When another boater in our marina offered to bring our windlass when he drove his truck back to Guatemala, we jumped at his offer. Unfortunately, his truck broke down and he was forced to fly back. By this time, I had already returned to Guatemala so he was stuck with the obligation to carry this heavy, bulky item back on the airplane. We, of course, agreed to reimburse him for the excess and overweight baggage fees that the airlines so eagerly assess these days.

When I returned to Guatemala, Customs didn't even glance at my big suitcase full of boat stuff. Our friend, however, was not so lucky. That night Customs was checking everyone, and our windlass box caught their eye. Our friend had the foresight to remove the shipping invoice from the box in advance, and when Customs asked about the windlass he claimed it was a repair part.

"Oh no, this is new," said the officer. "It will be very expensive." Apparently the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) doesn't apply to individuals who just need to bring in parts to repair their broken-down boats.

Our friend pleaded ignorance of the cost, so the officer began leading him to the Customs office to find the price on the Internet. On the way, the officer suggested that for $50 the matter could be settled. Our friend quickly paid and hurried out of the airport with our windlass. Without the bribe, our windlass would have been impounded for as much as a $600 duty. Those of us from the northern latitudes often sneer at Latin America's reputation for corruption, but I must admit there are times when we've been thankful for it.


Our new windlass works great, but getting it into Guatemala was an ordeal.


While docked near Fronteras, Nick and I decided to get some lab work done prior to returning to the States and joining the ranks of the 40 million uninsured. Outside the U.S. you can purchases drugs without a prescription or get lab work without a doctor's order. So easy. Two years earlier in Venezuela, we had a complete analysis of--if I may be delicate here--the red, yellow, and brown bodily excretions. We took this earlier report to a lab in Fronteras where--with much effort, bad Spanish, and animation-- I finally got the receptionist to understand that we wanted the same tests done again.

Next we needed the samples. I tried to explain that we still needed to collect the "yellow" and "red," but, waving a suspiciously fragrant black bag in front of her, we had brought our own "brown." I must say collecting the brown was no fun task first thing in the morning before you've had your coffee, but we were nothing if not prepared. This whole conversation was witnessed to the amusement of several Indians sitting in the small waiting room. The receptionist gave me two clear, plastic cups and pointed me to the bathroom. There was no discrete little revolving door on which to place my samples, so I returned with the cup of yellow and the cup of brown and handed them to the receptionist.

Now I thought she might discretely place them out of view, but no, she sat them right out there on the table for all to see. Nick looked across the room at me with a wide-eyed, accusing look. You know how spouses communicate silently, like when a wife glares at her husband to say, "you'll never have sex again!" Well, I could hear Nick accusing, "I do believe you've left your poop on the table!" I just started laughing in that embarrassed way people do in situations like these when their poop unexpectedly becomes the table centerpiece in a public setting. An elderly Indian woman looked at the containers and then looked at me with amusement

I felt her silent communication, "Hey lady, isn't that your poop on the table?"

So then Nick got his turn, and now we had a collection of brown and yellow on display. I guess folks just don't give a crap about crap in Guatemala. After all, you see it everywhere. (So have you guessed what the section title means?)


This section's topic doesn't smell as sweet.

A Third-World Shopping Trip

In the rural town of Fronteras, a mile stretch of small businesses hug a hot, dusty two-lane highway where open cattle trucks, 18-wheelers, and pedestrians compete for the narrow pavement. It's hot, crowded, and smelly. To go grocery shopping, we tie up the dinghy at Bruno's marina, which is considered safe from theft. From there we walk to the foot of the bridge where concrete steps lead to the street. It's best to hold your nose and hurry up the steps, which are coated in bird poop and reek of urine. Carrying empty backpacks and canvas shopping bags, we squeeze through the streets lined with shops and street vendors selling produce and fried chicken. Indian women in traditional woven skirts lead their children by hand along the bustling thoroughfare, while the men gather in the shade to talk. The screech of air brakes warns of a big truck coming over the bridge. We're especially careful to step aside when a cattle truck passes, since the doomed occupants think nothing of spraying nearby pedestrians with a shower of excrement.

We make our way to the "best" grocery store in town, Despensa Familiar, with it's faded green and yellow sign. There's always at least one guard at the door, armed with the ever-popular short-barrel shotgun. We always use this ATM because of the security. Bags are not allowed inside the store, so we stuff our backpacks into a locker and take the numbered key. Nick grabs a cart, small to fit the narrow aisles. Employees of the store are unpacking some boxes stamped--wait, did I read that right?--Wal-Mart! It's a bit shocking, but the retail goliath that we love to hate and where we all shop at back home is now spreading through Guatemala as Despensa Familiar. In rural Fronteras, Despensa Familiar is more like the mom-and-pop stores that America's Wal-Marts have long since put out of business.

The selection we enjoyed back in the States is not found here. After all, the local diet consists mostly of beans, rice, and tortillas. We always have a momentary thrill as we approach the small produce area. If we've timed our trip right, there will be fresh lettuce and broccoli, maybe some peaches and nectarines. We linger here because it's one of the few cool places in the un-airconditioned store. In the cereal aisle we buy the one choice of whole-grain cereal. At the meat counter, we stare at the unfamiliar cuts of meat. Some days they have ground beef, which is good, but otherwise we don't bother buying their lean, tough cuts of red meat. Locally grown chicken is usually good, and sometimes they have "Tyson" brand, a sign of CAFTA no doubt. A Rotisserie chicken will make a quick lunch, so we grab a warm, fragrant bag.

We continue through the narrow aisles, squeezing past Indian families whose children stare wide-eyed at the gringos and smile shyly. (Don't touch them! Guatemalan children have been kidnapped for placement by unscrupulous adoption agencies. Indians have attacked and killed people suspected of kidnapping their children.) Despensa sells quality American toilet paper and paper towels, for which we're grateful. Finally, we come to the chips and booze. Frito-Lay has a limited presence here, so the selection of salty snacks is poor. You can, however, buy Pringles virtually anywhere in the Caribbean. Besides several brands of Guatemalan beer, there is reasonable selection of rum. Yes, rum. Throughout the Caribbean, you can conveniently buy your booze at the grocery store.

We push our heavily laden cart to the check-out counter where we stand in line with locals carrying their meager hand baskets. We smile and speak to a cute little girl in line ahead. She's captivated by us. When our turn comes, Nick retrieves our bags from the locker, and I unload everything on the small cashier's table. The produce is last because the cashier must take most of it to the scale at the front of the store. There she weighs each bag and writes down the weight. Returning to the register, she enters the weight and produce code for each item into the computerized cash register. But wait, there's no code for the pears, so she sets them aside and wags her finger "no."

"Lo quiero!" I protest. I want it! No, she can't sell me the pears because no one knows how much they cost. Nick and I shake our heads in disgust, but honestly this has happened several times in other parts of the Caribbean. Can you imagine an American store refusing to sell you something? Not likely.

Stooping under our heavy backpacks and shopping bags, we nod to the armed guard as we leave. We're not done shopping though. Unlike going to Wal-Mart back home where you find everything you'd ever need under one roof, our shopping expedition is not over. We stop on the street where a sweating Indian woman has displayed some produce on a blanket. Her two children are sleeping under the narrow shade of a roof. The baby, who sleeps in a wooden crate, awakens and starts squalling. The mother tries to shush him while gathering our purchases. She weighs the fruit in a scale made of two bowls hanging on either end of a wooden stick. A kilo of potatoes in one bowl approximates the weight of the purchases placed in the other bowl. We pay her and she thanks us, her desperation thinly veiled under a brave smile.

We continue down the bustling street, buying a pineapple here and a melon there. We walk back down the urine-soaked stairs and stop in another store that carries some special items. I buy some Worcestershire sauce, salsa, and Fritos (wow, what a find!). The clerk writes each item down by hand and adds them with a calculator. Back at the dock we load everything in the dinghy and speed off to our last stop, Tienda Reed (known as Chici's), which is a combination hardware/grocery store. Nick finds a spark plug while I pick up a large bottle of vinegar, Zip-loc bags, boxed Clos wine, and sour cream. The cashier writes it all down by hand and adds it up on a calculator. Our shopping is done, except for the pork chops and yogurt we'll buy when the orphanage boat comes by on Saturday.

At the boat, we unload everything from the dinghy onto the dock, from the dock into the cockpit, and from the cockpit into the boat.

"I want air conditioning!" I insist while pulling off my sweat-soaked clothes. As the cool air fills the boat, I sit naked on the floor labeling the top of each can with a permanent marker so I can identify them when they're stored in our dry lockers. Once everything is stored away, I sigh with satisfaction. I always feel a sense of well-being when the boat is well-stocked with food. It's so reassuring to know we won't starve. However, my self-satisfaction is marred momentarily by a pang of guilt. There's a drought in eastern Guatemala this year, and in some villages not far away children will be lucky to have a tortilla for dinner. Here on Caribbean Soul, dinner will be chicken, broccoli with cheese sauce, and a fresh salad. If we're not too full, we might have cookies for dessert. Life is good when you're a gringo with a fully belly.


Vegetable market on the street in Fronteras.

[Lack of] Culture Shock

When I returned to the U.S. in July it was after a year and a half absence. Some people asked me if I experienced culture shock. Indeed, it took awhile to adjust to performing unfamiliar tasks like driving a car, sleeping through thunderstorms, and wearing underwear. Although there was a heat wave in Texas, we traveled in air-conditioned cars from which we quickly ran to our air-conditioned homes and stores--such luxury compared to the constant sweating I endured back in the Rio Dulce. I had to choke back tears of joy at the quality and variety of food in the local grocery stores. I told my mother that if she could go shopping with me just one time in the Rio Dulce, she would return home and kiss the floor of her local Brookshire Brothers. Our towns are clean and modern, not old and trashy. Prosperity is the rule in the U.S.; in Latin America, it is the exception. I was happy to find that folks in Texas were even friendlier than I remembered. On many levels, it felt good to be home.

If I was shocked it was not by our culture but by our lack of it, the shameful demise of civility in our public discourse. There was 24-hour ad nauseam news coverage of everything from Michael Jackson's death to health care. Democracy encourages a spirited and pointed debate about issues facing the country. We don't all have to agree, but surely we can treat each other civilly while we hash out our differences. Mass hysteria, name calling, and misinformation dominated the debate so that the real issues never got resolved. I found myself longing to be anchored behind a reef blissfully far from the madness.

Many of the expats in the Rio Dulce say they'll never go home. Whether they're liberal or conservative, they can't stomach what our country has become. In Latin America, crime and poverty are overwhelming problems. Although we're unsettled by their problems, we cruisers float through their troubled waters on our yachts not really getting involved or taking it to heart. Surveys have shown that Latin Americans are happier than citizens of most first-world countries. Why is that? If your average American had to trade places with a typical Latin American, they would think they'd landed in hell. Yet Latin Americans have managed to adapt to their situation, enjoy their lives, and even be kind to strangers. Back in the U.S. where the most blessed people on earth live, everyone is angry and miserable. Hatred and nastiness spews out from our radios, our TVs, and our town halls. So was I shocked returning to American life? Yes I was--shocked, saddened, and ashamed.


A Mayan family sedan. Despite their poverty, we've found Latin Americans to be happy with their simple lives.


We didn't want to admit it, but the signs have been obvious for the last two years. Our dog is getting old--13 years this coming Christmas day. Dakota still loves to run on the beach, but his arthritic titanium knees slow him down now. Sometimes he slips and falls. Often he can't jump from the cockpit floor to the seat, and he's suspended there, forelegs clawing at the seat and rear legs splayed helplessly in the air, until one of us lifts him up. Dakota still loves his "baby doll," but he lacks the enthusiasm to chase it these days. A loud thump in the middle of the night no longer alarms us; that's just Dakota falling down on his bed. He may not hear us when we call him, but his nose still detects an open jar of peanut butter on the other end of the boat. Just before bedtime, he and Nick often share Ritz crackers and peanut butter. He drools a lot (Dakota, I mean).

Dakota spent 10 days with a pet sitter while we visited Lake Atitlan. The sitter warned us that she had ticks, so we applied a fresh dose of Frontline Plus and hoped that would do the trick. The day he came back, he seemed out of sorts and exhausted. He also had green pus oozing from one eye. We thought perhaps the long, open boat ride up river and stress of changing locations had worn him out. However, by bedtime he was barely conscious and Nick had to carry him to our cabin. We seriously wondered if he would survive the night.

Dakota did survive the night, but when he got up there was blood on the carpet where he slept. I frantically searched his body for the source and discovered it was, thankfully, external. Ticks, nasty bloody ones. In the days that followed, Dakota regained his energy, we bathed and groomed him, and we pulled off the ticks. However, we noticed some dark spots showing on his back near his tail. Dakota's skin was flaking off in scabs and his hair was falling out, but surprisingly he wasn't itching. When the problem failed to improve, I called a vet who works in Guatemala City since there aren't any in the Fronteras area. This vet could only speculate long distance but thought Dakota had a staph infection caused by an allergic reaction to the ticks. He prescribed cephalexin, which we purchased without a prescription at the human pharmacy.

After a week, the problem seemed worse and we were becoming worried that our old dog might not recover if we didn't get the situation under control soon. The Guatemalan vet had just been in a car accident and was hospitalized, so we didn't know where to turn for help. At this point, I was sitting up at night, staring helplessly at my sick dog, and crying myself to sleep. I asked my dad if his vet in Texas might be willing to look at photos and attempt a remote diagnosis. Dr. Stout of the North Street Veterinary clinic in Nacogdoches was willing and exchanged a number of emails with me. He concurred that the problem was probably staph but suggested a stronger antibiotic. Within a week, Dakota's skin was greatly improved. We kept him on antibiotics for a month. Later, I was able to consult with another Guatemalan vet who came to Texan Bay Marina. He said there is a seasonal dermatitis in Guatemala that starts at the tail working forward, and it often leads to bacterial and fungal infections.

As I write this, Dakota sleeps blissfully at my feet, his furry rump pressed against my foot, paws twitching as he chases rabbits (or maybe Dobermans) in doggie dreamland. He doesn't know he's getting old. He's got all the dogs in the marina believing his bluff, that he's a bad ass and not to be messed with. When they turn tail and run, he thinks "yeah, I'm invincible." But I know he's not, and my heart aches thinking of a future without my furry foot warmer.


When Dakota developed a skin infection, we had to consult a U.S. vet because there wasn't one in the Rio Dulce.

He's feeling better now. Dakota sleeps in this bean bag chair when we're underway.

Texan Bay

After four months at La Joyia del Rio Marina in Fronteras, we were ready for a change. As soon as the windlass was installed, we headed down river to the Texan Bay Marina. Texans Mike and Sherrie carved this marina out of the jungle a few years ago, and it has become well known for Texas hospitality and great Tex-Mex food. Downstream from Fronteras, the river has a different personality with cleaner water and a quiet, simple lifestyle. Our time in Fronteras had not given us a positive feeling about the Rio Dulce, but downstream we finally appreciated its appeal.

As October came to an end, our thoughts were focused on leaving the river and heading north. Although the "correct" time of year to travel from the northwest Caribbean to Texas is in late springtime, we hoped an opportunity might arise in November prior to the cold front season. We would need to stage in Isla Mujeres, Mexico on the north tip of the Yucatan to be ready should a weather window open up. The glitch in our plan was the possibility of a tropical storm in the northwest Caribbean. November is when storms most often originate in the western Caribbean. However, given that it was an El Nino year and hurricane season had pretty much been a bust, we decided the odds were in our favor to stick our noses out early. Of course, there was that troublesome low pressure system sitting down off Panama, and every week Chris Parker said it might develop into a tropical system. But for the past month, nothing had happened. So we decided to go for it.

As we enjoyed a chicken fried steak at Texan Bay on our last night, Mike counseled in his slow drawl, "Well, if folks didn't leave early we wouldn't have any stories."

His words would haunt us in the days ahead.

View our Rio Dulce slideshow

Sunset at Texan Bay is muy tranquilo.


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