December 2 – 11, 2019
Twenty five miles long and half as wide. The largest body of fresh water in Guatemala.
Despite the fact that the lake is only twenty-five feet above sea level, the looming Sierra de Las Minas range near the southwestern tip of Lake Isabel, dominates the horizon on a clear day. More typically, low clouds drifting into the valleys obscure the upper peaks, some of which range from one thousand to nearly ten thousand feet in elevation.
The Rio Dulce is fed by Lake Isabel. Whether at anchor or in marinas, those staying on the Rio Dulce for hurricane season usually hang out around the town of Fronteras, which is less than two miles downriver from the massive lake.
Surprisingly, very few people spend much time exploring Lake Isabel.
Maybe not surprising, really…
Tons of information — websites, forums, chat groups — can be found online. However, a great deal of information seems to be sourced from second or third hand accounts; or from a couple of cruising guides that are very thorough but potentially dated in their information (in one case, the newest edition is over ten years old).
When it comes to safety and security, everybody has heard something. But rarely can anyone give you first hand information. Furthermore, something may have taken place at some time; but that may have been years ago, or even a decade or more.
Just about every place has experienced crime, or violence, or both, at some time. Unless it is a recurring phenomenon, the real question seems to be whether the story has stuck over the years, or has it been forgotten?
Some places deserve their reputation.
Livingston, at the mouth of the Rio Dulce where we cleared in, is not a dangerous place, but it does have chronic theft. The advice to us was don’t anchor overnight there. Our friend had fenders that were tied to the side of his boat cut and stolen during the night; and we recently heard of a locked dinghy outboard taken from a dinghy while on its davits overnight.
Some places, like the coastlines of Somalia or Venezuela, can be quite dangerous areas to sail. Violent crimes occur regularly, piracy is an active threat, and one is well advised to steer clear. It sounds like the coast of Nicaragua is quickly becoming that way.
However, some places simply seem unable to shake an event in their history.
During a conversation with another sailor one evening, we were warned against anchoring in a specific area of the Rio Dulce between El Golfete and Livingston. Apparently people aboard a sailboat had, in fact, been killed… over ten years ago!
And, while we were never able to pinpoint a particular event that had occurred on Lake Isabel, one of the cruisers’ guidebooks actually specified that “all anchorages west of a specific line should be considered as questionable from a security standpoint, and you should only travel here with a buddy boat”.
For us, the whole buddy boat thing never seems to have a lot of appeal. I understand the allure of the strength in numbers approach; still, we are generally the people trying to get away from the crowd, not join the masses.
Hanging out with people because you enjoy their company and are of like kindred spirits is one thing. Hanging out because it makes you feel safer is another. I guess its either the mindset they won’t fuck with us if we outnumber them or, if one is being chased by a bear – I don’t have to be the fastest person, as long as I’m not the slowest.
Honestly, I don’t think I want to bank on someone else being a more appealing victim than myself; especially not the poor bastard right next to me.
Anyway, with the security question still definitively unresolved, we opted to venture into Lago Izabal and have a look instead of heading immediately for El Golfete (which also supposedly has its “questionable” areas).
First stop: Denny’s Beach. Right at the theoretical line of demarcation between carefree bliss and dangerous frontier. We considered going ashore to visit what seemed to be a very uninhabited resort until two local water taxis deposited a couple dozen new check-ins on the dock.
After two nights, we picked up anchor and flung ourselves headlong into the unknown. Our destination, a spacious bay in the southwest corner of the lake called Ensanada Balandra (also known as El Refugio).
A mile and a half front to back and half mile wide, it offered unlimited and well-protected space for us to anchor.
We had now travelled almost the entire length of Lake Isabel without seeing one other recreational boat. Quite a few locals in their tiny cayucas — fishing, gathering plants at the shoreline, moving about — going about their business; offering a smile, or a wave, or more often both.
No moments of concern. The biggest risk had been running over a floating branch or a fishing net. But if the risk of collision with fishing tackle constituted real danger, then Maine would have to be considered one the most dangerous places on the planet.
Instead of peril, we found tranquility; and one of the most pleasant anchorages we’ve ever been in.
A tiny, almost completely hidden, side river that fed into the bay offered a great dinghy excursion. Endless varieties of birds, howler monkeys in the nearby trees, and even a group of manatees that we found constantly hanging out near the entrance of the bay.
Always very shy, the manatees never allowed us get to closer than about a hundred meters to them. Even when we shut off the dinghy engine and tried to stealthily paddle closer they would disappear underwater, only to surface again after a minute or two, equally distant from us as they had been before.
Only the most discerning observer would have recognised the subtle tells that our def-con status was elevated. Dinghy, outboard, and fuel all secured and padlocked on the davit at night; limited time outside the direct view of the mothership; no mast or deck lights on at night (motorised night traffic was non-existent and we wanted to avoid drawing attention after dark).
During the day, our view was the dense jungle tree line around the bay, the entrance of the bay, and the Sierra de Las Minas range which dominated the horizon, the purple silhouette of its nine thousand eight hundred foot peak sometimes emerging from the lower clouds.
At night, only one actual light on a mountainside miles away. A faint glow of light over the trees in one direction and a brighter glow from the other side of the lake in the other.
Aside from the occasional outboard engine, or airplane miles above, there were almost no human sounds outside our own. If the wind blew one direction, we could faintly hear what sounded like a heavy machinery in the far distance, from the same direction as the faint glow at night. We eventually concluded it must be the de-forestation phase for a palm oil plantation… buzzkill moment.
Five days since entering Lake Isabel. Aside from the small local cayucas, we were yet to see another boat on the water.
We picked up anchor and made our way north along the west end of the lake.
Conflicting information had left us uncertain as to where the best anchorage would be. All we knew was that there were multiple bays of unknown depth, a nickel mine which may or may not be active, and a town called El Estor (or “the store”, supposedly named from the days pirates sailed Lago Isabel and would visit the town to buy or loot supplies).
Departing Ensanada Balandra, clearing around the peninsula which comprises one side of the bay, we were visited once again by the manatees, who waved us off from a comfortable distance of about a hundred meters… cheeky.
We headed for the barely visible smokestack of the nickel mine ten miles to our north.
And as we grew nearer, through our binoculars, we spotted sailboats.
Not pirate boats… but rather, buddy boats – two monohulls and a cat.
Three. At anchor. Closer than we’d want to be to the nickel mine and El Estor.
Bocas del Bajajal, the bay we’d hoped to tuck into, was either too shallow for us, or we simply couldn’t find a deep enough channel to give us access. So we opted to anchor just outside it, a quarter of a mile or so from the three sailboats.
Any question as to whether the sailboats were together was laid to rest when, after about thirty minutes, one after another, each boat picked up anchor and moved an equal distance away on our opposite side. We could never quite figure that one out.
Also strange was the fact that, at night, two of the boats kept their mast and deck lights off (like we had been doing), but the third boat was lit up. Hmmm. Perplexing…
Maybe a lack of communication. Maybe a disagreement in strategy. Maybe an intentional (or unintentional) allocation to decoy status on the part of the lit boat. Strange…
After watching a few local boats carefully pick their way amongst a network of, for lack of a better term, navigational sticks near the shore in order to gain access to a small river next to our anchorage, we followed suit and found ourselves exchanging distant looks with dozens of howler monkeys occupying the trees along the shoreline.
The Rio Polochic, very busy in the past when it was used for hauling goods downstream to El Estor, today only had a couple of local fishermen and a few small boats headed to communities upriver. Though it stretches some thirty or more miles, we didn’t get much farther than a couple of miles before turning around.
The nickel mine, a bit more than a mile to the northeast of where we were anchored, was in operation. Big, gaping wounds in the earth surrounded the mine where the Guatemalan jungle had been peeled back by machinery to expose the dirt and rock underneath.
Especially at night, the endless drone of the conveyer belts and mining equipment, as well as powerful industrial lights which illuminated smoke constantly belching out of the stacks, provided a staggering incongruity with the surroundings.
El Estor, two miles further along the shore to the east, also seemed out of place in the surroundings, with its even brighter glow at night and constant layer of haze over the town during the day.
After two nights, we were ready to return to the unequivocal solitude of Ensanada Balandra (El Refugio) on the other side of the lake… the buddy boats could have their nickel mine.
During our return stay at El Refugio, a cayuca pulled up alongside Exit while we were at anchor, which hadn’t happened yet. A man named Roberto and his son were out fishing for the day and night.
The boy sat silently at the bow, reluctant to speak even when asked a question. The man, however, was quite chatty… without speaking a word of English.
We were able to put together bits and pieces of conversation — the community just outside the bay where they were from; the fact that the fishing sucked right now.
Curiously, we both got the impression that he seemed rather sad that very few boats came to visit the bay. He was very adamant to convey to us that the area was not dangerous and that we should not worry about being disturbed.
Eventually, the man wished us an enjoyable stay, started up his outboard, and they set off towards the shore to reset their nets.
He seemed like a genuinely friendly guy; and I remember feeling somewhat guilty afterwards for not having had the presence of mind to offer up a bit of fuel as a goodwill gesture. Paying forward never hurts.
Although this anchorage, for peace and solitude, was certainly top-shelf, we decided only to stay one additional night. We had already been out here on the lake for a week; and our provisioning prior to departing Fronteras had not been exceptionally long-term in its scope.
We were now out of beer, bread, most of our fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as data for our phone (which gave us our only internet access).
The one thing out here that had been even more sparse than people was wind. In eight days, there had not been a single time when the wind was over a few knots before mid to late afternoon. We had a couple of blustery squalls here or there; but even those were generally closer to sundown or at night.
So, there was a lot of motoring done to get from one place to another on Lago Izabal. Oh well… you can’t have it all.
About halfway back to Fronteras, on the other side of the lake, we stopped to anchor just offshore of a small community called Finca Paraiso.
This was the only other place we saw another sailboat while we were on the lake. They anchored quite a reasonable distance away from us, late in the afternoon. It made the fourth sailboat in a total of eight days… unbelievable. Including us, not more than five visiting boats on the entire lake.
The following morning, we took the dinghy ashore and walked about an hour along a gravel road, past fields and pastures, until we reached a natural hot springs, appropriately named Aguas Caliente.
Tons of hot, sulphur-springs fed water cascaded down over rocks long covered with surreal looking mineral deposits from the spring water, creating a twenty foot tall waterfall which fed into the cool water of the small river at its base.
Standing at the bottom of the waterfall, the sensation was quite bizarre —- not only the spring water almost, too hot to stand under, and the rather cool water from the river the hot springs fed into — but also from the crazy fish all around that relentlessly chewed and nibbled at our legs and feet.
Even more strange, was seeing our friend Craig, from S/V Samba Pa Ti, who had just happened to come via a collectivo bus to visit Aguas Caliente on the same day. A mutual WTF moment.
Later, while we enjoyed a couple of beers at one of the beach bars at Finca Paraiso, watching Exit sit at anchor on water that was nearly perfectly flat, we met Mike and Anais from S/V La Flaca, the small sailboat that had anchored about a thousand feet from us.
Then, after a fabulous day ashore visiting the hot springs, one last sunset on Lake Isabel, just offshore from Finca Paraiso…
The next day, we returned to Fronteras. Passing under the bridge (one of our favourite pastimes) was the all clear signal that we had returned safely from our adventures on Lago Izabal.
After finding a way to get beyond all the hype and uncertainty, we had once again figured out a way to successfully navigate the unknown…