We came for a few weeks on our way towards
the USA and ended up staying for 4 months and then going to Guatemala
instead. So we must have really liked the place a lot? Well no or
at least not quite that much. It just proved to be an extraordinarily
difficult place to leave, at least for us. We'll come to that, but
first a bit about Belize.
Formally, British Honduras and the only
English speaking country in Central America it still retains a certain old
fashioned Britishness. It's hard to put your finger on, it's not just
the Queen's head on the banknotes, the coins they call shillings, the Heinz baked beans and marmite on the supermarket shelves, or the
availability of brown ale in the bars, it's tiny things that pop up in use
of language or manners that we recognise from our childhoods.
||It's a small, poor country of 350
thousand inhabitants and virtually no natural resources. There's about 140
miles of coastline between the Guatemalan and Mexican borders with a large
handful of small islands and all protected by the second longest barrier reef
in the world,
without which the Belizean coast would be one long horrible lee shore on the
receiving end of 1,500 miles of seas piled up by the trade winds blowing the
length of the Caribbean. As
it is, although the country lacks anything approaching a natural harbour,
the seas inside the reef are generally flat and this, plus the trade winds,
make for easy sailing conditions, and this in turn has attracted in the large yacht
charter companies. Outside the barrier reef are also three significant
atoll reef systems with spectacular diving. Add to that
jungle, nature reserves and Mayan ruins - all in a country that is generally safe and
with inhabitants who are mostly charming. All that
sounds pretty good and certainly provides plenty of material for brochures
and advertisements, but somehow, at least for cruisers like us, the reality
seems to add to something less than the sum of it's parts.
We arrived at Belize via the
Ranguana Pass, one of a handful of entrances through the barrier reef and
anchored for our first night at Ranguana Cay, a coral island of sand and palm
trees, just like in the brochures. I say "anchored", but that should be
in the plural. We had three goes at it and even after that we weren't
very confident of the holding, but the forecast was benign and we had plenty
of room if it all went pear-shaped in the night. The problem was that
surrounding most of these lovely coral islands is just a very thin layer of
sand and coral rubble over a rock bed, so nothing for the anchor to set
into. Though if you're really lucky you can pick up your very own lump
of coral in the anchor and spend the next half an hour finding
innovative ways of removing it! The only way to find good holding, we were to discover, was to
anchor behind the decidedly un-scenic and often mosquito rich mangrove
islands which were surrounded for the most part by thick gooey mud.
|But back to the charming Ranguana Cay
with its sand and palms, at least we had those for an evening
stroll. Well actually not or not unless we wanted to pay $10
each to step onto the beach. Like many of the nicest islands,
Ranguana Cay had been sold and was now private. At least here
you can go ashore - many of the other islands are private with a
capital P and quite a few islands within the marine reserves, where
one has to pay to anchor, are private and anchoring is prohibited.
Anchor up the following morning, remove coral
and head west.
Placencia, the only place where a boat of our draught can sensibly clear-in
(more of that later) was the ultimate destination, but the weather was
forecast to deteriorate and the wind direction would make Placencia less
than ideal (Belize doesn't actually have a single decent harbour) so we were making a detour 10 miles south to anchor behind the
enticingly named "No Name Point". 18 miles as the crow flies, but more
like 25 on the route we would need to follow in order to have deep enough
water, The anchorage at No Name did offer great protection, surrounded
from all directions by mangroves, anchored in thick mud, but with only about 50cm
of water under our keel. Shallowness was something we were going to become
(almost) accustomed to during our time in Belize and we'd also later have
the opportunity to experience having no water under our keel, AKA being
The diversion to No
Name turned out to be a good call for a number of reasons. We were in
contact with Mark & Amanda on Balvenie anchored at Placencia and they were
having a pretty torrid time. The bay was wide open to the southerly
swell and the boat was rolling so badly they were having to sleep on the
floor. Also, taking shelter at No Name were Roger and Carol on Androsian who
were old Belize hands and knew all the best spots, so a couple of
days later with the weather improving they led us to another
sheltered anchorage only a mile from Placencia - just as bleak and
even shallower with barely 20cm under the keel and not even
distinguished enough to be named No Name.
From here it was a
longish dinghy ride to Big Creek, the banana loading port where Customs &
Immigration were located. Roger and I set off to get the formalities
out of the way, but it was not to be.
Despite every conceivable form of arguing, cajoling, pleading, nothing would
security guards to allow us ashore. Instead we would have to
re-anchor at Placencia, and from there catch the Hokey Pokey water taxi to
Independence where we could then take a land taxi to the offices which
were just 100 metres from where we were currently sitting in the dinghy.
|So, next day to Placencia for a second
attempt at the paper work. Apart from the slightly laborious process,
all straightforward. Though it should be said with a fee of US$5 per
day just to be in the country (a number of anchorages are in National Parks
and attract additional fees of $5 pp/night) and US$50 to extend ones stay after 30days
- Belize probably has the most expensive clearance fees of any country we have
visited. And, you can add to that at the public jetty in Placencia
will be informed loudly that there is a $5 fee for each bag of
rubbish taken ashore! In fact Belize is a pretty expensive country in every way you
care to mention - it's difficult to comprehend sometimes how the locals
survive! These fees together with the fact that, at least for
deep draughted boats, this bureaucracy can only be completed in Placencia
and has to be repeated every 30 days - cause many vessels on route from the
US to Panamá to bypass Belize altogether. Considering that tourism is the
country's largest employer and largest earner of foreign currency it's hard
to understand why Belize appears to have worked so hard to discourage
cruisers from visiting.
Enough of the rant. All that aside,
Placencia is charming. Of course it's touristy (in a low key Belizean
way) and it's not really representative of Belize, which is much more
gritty, but we did like it, which is just as well as we were going to be coming
back there very, very often. But we didn't know that then.
Out to dinner with the Balvenies, now
recovered from rolling. After that some serious shopping then off to explore all those picture
postcard islands. It wouldn't be long though before we discovered
that, in the same way that picture postcards manage not to include the eyesore
right next door, not all those islands were quite what they seemed.
First stop Wippari Cay. The island is now private and the two mooring buoys
make it virtually impossible to anchor with sufficient shelter.
Bugger! Off to Lagoon Cay, not as pretty, but not private and no
mooring buoys, only a very narrow strip of sand to drop the hook in
surrounded by really deep water. Still, better than
nothing. We'd stay there for the night and move on in the morning.
South Long Cocoa Cay - pretty, private and with
much construction going on, but more importantly try as we might we
could not get the anchor to bite in the hard bottom. Try
another one. Cary Cay "excellent holding in sand" the pilot says and
"nesting ospreys". We'll go there then.
|Not much room, but we did find a bit
of sand amongst a lot of coral. Not private, but not really
possible to go ashore because the island is so heavily wooded.
There were ospreys though. Now on the plus side there were
beautiful islands which although private welcomed you ashore, but
not many. There was also great snorkelling and dolphins and
manatees and rays and nurse sharks, so you didn't feel the need to
go ashore anyway, but one can't help feeling Belize must have been a
lot nicer 20 years ago.
But for us Belize was really a pit stop on
the way to Mexico, Cuba and all points north so after a month we
returned to Placencia and cleared out for Mexico. Now, if you're not a
sailor the next paragraph may have you glazing over and searching for the
off button so feel free to skip down the page a bit. The problem with
the trip north is that the coast runs NNE and the west setting current means
that you have to steer closer to NE to lay your course. The prevailing
wind is NE to ENE which means that's pretty hard to do. However, the
good news is that every week to ten days the wind goes ESE for a day
or two and although the window's quite short (it's generally followed by a
strong northerly which is best avoided), the trip becomes do-able. But
(always a but) if you're a shallow draughted boat, you can clear out close to
the Belize, Mexico border and you've then got about 120 miles to the corner
where the coast starts to turn north and/or there's decent shelter or 150
miles to a secure marina. If however your boat draws 2.1 metres (like
Samarang) you can't get any further north inside the reef than Belize City
and you have no real choice but to clear out in Placencia so your trip
becomes 210 and 240 miles respectively and your draught also prevents you
from getting into the best protection at that first bay.
We cleared out and headed
north for 3 days -
towards the northernmost reef exit for us - with a promised weather window, but the window
shrank as we approached it - High twenties gusting thirties overnight and
going ENE was the message from Chris Parker (the man we pay to give us good
weather advice). Bugger, that was our unanimous decision. No
problem, we'll wait for the next one and we did, and for the next one
Well I'm sure you've guessed the rest.
After 5 weeks of being cleared-out of Belize and not actually having left we
really had no choice but to do the decent thing and clear back in. The
authorities were probably not going to be too happy with us anyway. So
with our tails between our legs we slunk back to Placencia.
Heartbreaking to give up all the Northing, which would make it even harder
to get away, but we really had little choice. Actually, Immigration
and the harbour master weren't in the least interested and cleared us
straight back in. Customs were a different manner. I was taken
to be interviewed by the officer in charge. Lindy was sent away to be
"spoken to later". "Where have you been? Why didn't you go here?"
questions in rapid succession "Too shallow. Not a point of entry. Bad
weather." were the repetitive answers. I think he was looking for
contradictions. Then "why didn't you go to Majahual?" - "Never heard
of it." I replied. "It's huge" he exclaims "It's a Mexican
naval base and all the cruise ships go there." "Still never heard of it.
I'm sure it's not in the pilot" I say. He breaks into a grin. I
think he's found what he's looking for, a way out. I'm clearly not a
smuggler. No smuggler would present at Customs with such a stupid
story, but he's started the interrogation and he needs a way to finish it
honourably. And now he has it. He's found something I don't know
and he can send me away having helped me out and grateful. He hammers
the keyboard and spins the PC to face me, an overhead photo of Majahual - it
is indeed a cruise liner terminal with three liners moored. For us it
would be an open roadstead and quite impossible. But more importantly,
the interrogation now seems to be over and we're just two guys discussing the local geography.
All smiles he leads me out and everything's fine. Lindy doesn't even
get to have her finger nails pulled out!
By now we needed a serious revision of plans.
Time was getting short for the trip to the US. We would be under real
pressure to get far enough north before the hurricane season, which would
curtail our time in Cuba. On the other hand we couldn't spend the
hurricane season in Belize, even if we wanted to. But, the only other
option was Guatemala and the Rio Dulce. Plusses were a big cruising
community, loads of marinas, a couple of boatyards with the ability to lift
us and do the work we planned for this summer and best of all, skilled
labour at US$40 per DAY as opposed to $90 per HOUR in the US. The
minor downside - the mile long river entrance is only about 1.6 metres deep and we
draw 2.1. We knew it could be possible at high water springs, maybe
with a tow, maybe with the boat careened. We knew lots of people who'd
heard of people with our draught who'd done it. We'd never actually
been able to speak to any of them, but..............
With the decision made we could relax and
enjoy Belize - at least until we had to attempt the entrance across The Bar!
Dic & Lizzie on Indian Summer, our
from Santa Marta arrived in Placencia so we had a great excuse to wine and
dine and spent three
weeks sailing with them. After they left we settled into what became
a kind of 2 week'ish natural circuit, starting and ending in Placencia for
reprovisioning, then visiting our favourite snorkelling spots interspersed
with our favourite anchorage for sheltering from bad weather (50 knots for 3
hours one night was the worst).
||But finally it was time to leave (we had a
tide at High Water Springs to catch at the end of May).The plan was to spend the next week exploring the allegedly great
snorkelling around the southern islands in Belize, and then cross the
bar at the entrance to the Rio Dulce at Livingston on Monday with a 2.1
foot tide and a mate of local Mr Fixit Raul's on standby with big
fishing boat to do the necessary if we got stuck. (Actually slightly
higher on Sunday, but overtime and other complications.)
Anyway, the weather didn't have the same agenda - squalls, squalls and
more squalls was the forecast. We shelved the islands idea and decided
to go more directly to Guatemala and headed off instead to New Haven.
Great anchorage, but also great big biting yellow bug things and scenery
that could have inspired The Wasteland. So motored off again the next
morning to Tres Puntas in Guatemala where we thought we could hang
around for a few days to wait for the highest tide to get into Livingston.
A couple of boats we knew were already there, all with less draught than
us, who would be crossing the bar on Friday morning to avoid the Monday
morning rush hour.
We asked one of them, Ralph on Fortuitous, to check with Raul whether we
could come in on Saturday instead, because of the bad weather, if we wished. Unfortunately, he asked
him in front of the Port Captain, who now being alerted to our
existence, was insistent that we must clear-in asap. Well asap was by
now Saturday, and a squall had just come through putting wind in the
southwest and us on a lee shore, making three days at Tres Puntas seem
decidedly less attractive anyway, so we agreed we would meet Raul's
mate at 07.15 at the sea buoy the following morning.
Oh, nearly forgot to mention, Fortuitous, who had the
same 'way points' as us, told us that he only saw 6 feet on his
way over the bar, a foot less than our draft - bliss!! - and
that the boat that came in after them had to be careened for
nearly a mile - he was very late, on the wrong track, and his
boat was called Still Crazy - but not good for our confidence
We hauled anchored and headed a few miles down the coast to Bahia
Graciosa to get shelter from the swell and have a relaxed time to
contemplate running aground on the bar the following day. And that was
all hunky dory until the next batch of squalls came through in the
middle of the night packing 40 knots - this time of course from the NE
(putting us on a lee shore once again). Not to worry, we needed to
be up early anyway and weren't really sleeping much 'cos of fretting
about the morning. So when the trivial 25 knot squall came through just
as we were hauling our anchor at 04.45 our happiness was almost
Off we motored with torrential rain and no visibility towards the Bar
with the radar showing a narrow squall line stretching from the
anchorage to the Bar moving on exactly the same course as us with
absolutely no rain to either side. What luck, we'd be able to remain in
torrential rain for nearly the entire trip! The rain did finally stop
leaving nasty residual swell just before we arrived "en punto" at the
sea buoy. And was Raul's mate there waiting for us? You don't even
have to ask do you?
|We motored around the buoy for
twenty minutes, making VHF calls we knew weren't going to be
answered, whilst a French shallow draught ketch glided past us
on his way into Livingston. How long do we wait before we just
go for it on our own? - Is the big question??
Then I thought I could see something through the haze, something
moving in the harbour. We keep peering and then, yes it was
moving and it was a boat, but was it coming towards us? After an
agonising 5 further minutes we were almost sure that it was
creeping in our direction. Not as fast as the panga that
overtook him heading straight for us though!
The panga arrived. He wanted to be our guide. 7 foot draught
would be no problem he insisted - as long, of course, as we had
a good guide - "the channel is very narrow". We told him we were
waiting for Hector & Gaviota. "Is that boat Gaviota?" He was a
bit evasive, but finally confirmed that the vessel inching in
our direction was indeed said Gaviota. Having exhausted all of
his bargaining chips the panga man broke out into big smile -
"You don't really need a guide or a tow." he said "Just head
towards that small white house on the south shore and then turn
towards the town dock."
Now Hector rolls in (it is indeed very rolly). Profuse apologies
for the delay and lots of smiles "All Raul's fault." This is
probably not true, but now is not the time to start a long
philosophical debate in Spanish about the meaning of truth.
Panga man lights a cigarette and sits back to watch the fun. My
suggestion is - we just go for it on our own, following him, and
only start buggering around with lines if we grind to a halt.
Hector looks unhappy. I reassure him that I'll pay him his $50
whatever happens, but he still looks unhappy. Hector is in fact,
not only a really nice guy, but also a real pro and has done
this more than a few times before. His suggestion is - that we
connect the tow rope now - 'cos that'll be easier - and that he
tows us from the beginning, because if we're tied to his stern
we're bound to be on the right course and if we do touch bottom,
he's got a big powerful engine which will keep on pulling us
through. Better not to stop, better no lines to mast, better no
heeling the boat over, etc, etc - Big smile! Lindy agrees.
We go with his suggestion. And......
Well actually, it's a piece of piss! Best $50 we ever spent. Our
engine idling in neutral, Hector doing all the work. ¡Muy, muy,
We stood watching the depth gauge. It read 2.0 or 1.9 a handful
of times, but only instantaneously when we're in the trough of a
wave, mostly it's 2.2/2.3. We're absolutely sure we'd have got
through on our own - as long as we'd been on the right track -
and there's the rub!
We had loads of tracks - too many - but the track he followed
wasn't quite any of them. The closest was spookily not as one
might expect the "new" track supplied by Raul, but actually the
very "old" track in the Rauscher pilot. Interesting! Also, we
had thought that the track might change quite frequently with
the outflow of the river, but Hector confirmed that the channel
was pretty much always in the same place. We didn't think to ask
why the entrance buoy was somewhere else?? We, of course, now
have that track and the question is - will we use Hector again
when we leave? And the answer is - Absolutely Yes!
A while later a lancha delivered the full house of officials
accompanied by Raul to clear us into Guatemala. We sat in the
cockpit for 10 minutes chatting... the quality of Guatemalan
rum, the price of wine, bow thrusters - normal small talk -
whilst immigration lady wrote our names in an exercise book,
then they were gone. Pick up everything in an hour from Raul's
office - Q1,400 ($182) - I think the easiest clearing-in we can
Back to the boat with veggies, beer and a new sim card in the
rucksack. The anchorage has now become a horrible place - wind
has built and is blowing straight into the bay, tide is now
definitely flowing out and we're lying side-to everything and
rolling like a pig with the anchor chain rubbing back along the
hull. Time to go.
Just as everyone says, the gorge is spectacular. You wind your way
between two vertical walls of green. The buzz of the insects was so
loud, even over the engine, that we had to go below to check we hadn't
inadvertently switched on the spin dryer!
Halfway through we overtake a
canoe who decides to show us that Perkins 4236 produces less power than
two guys with paddles. They easily keep pace with us, even stopping to
take swigs of cola, but after 30 minutes they've made their point and
with smiles and waves, they drift off into the undergrowth.