Cruising the Northwest Caribbean
Part 5:  Dry Land Adventure

By Barbara Theisen

I didn’t want to open my eyes.  I knew it was only about 5 AM and I had been sleeping quite comfortably in my bed aboard Out of Bounds.  It was still a cool 80 degrees.  It was still dark out.  But like every morning, the air was already filled with the sounds of the surrounding rainforest.  Not just the melodic singing of birds, but the squawking of parrots, the howling of the howler monkeys, and the one sound that woke me up every morning – a painful, mourning whine of some bird I had not yet identified.  It sounded like a caterwauling feline, but I had been assured that it was indeed a bird.  Another day had begun on the Rio Dulce. 

Well, we had to get up early today anyway.  My husband Tom was catching a ride with Mario’s Marina to Guatemala City this morning.  This would mean taking the marina’s launch for the ride up the river to the twin towns of Fronteras and El Relleno where Mario’s kept their van.  The road running through these towns was the only road in the entire Rio Dulce area.  The real means of travel here was via the freshwater river, the Rio Dulce which flowed from Lago Izabel, the largest lake in Guatemala down to the Caribbean Sea, about 20 miles from here. 

Tom was on a mission.  He was going to Guate to buy a “cow.”  Well that is what we took to calling it anyway.   

We had left North Carolina about six months ago.  Our planned cruise had us heading down the ICW, crossing the Gulf Stream and sailing through the Bahamas and then heading through the Windward Passage and on to the Northwest Caribbean.  We had thought we would visit Cuba and then make a clockwise cruise over to Honduras, up to the Rio Dulce and then on to Belize, the Yucatan of Mexico and home to the states.  We planned on leaving our boat in Florida and, for the first time in ten years, moving off the boat for the summer and fall.  We knew we would need to restock the cruising kitty and we had decided to head to our home state of Wisconsin and take a huge business risk.  Tom, who had owned his own construction company for the past six years (and built during hurricane season and sailed the rest of the time), was going to build a spec house in Wisconsin. 

A young Mayan girl in traditional clothing.  The traditional "kaperraj" or cloth tied around her shoulders is used as a baby sling, a produce sack, a head-covering, or as a shawl.

But when we got to Cuba, our plans changed.  Of course, we’re used to that aboard Out of Bounds.  We ended up seeing much more of Cuba then originally planned.  Because of changes in International ports (where we could check out of Cuba), a broken autopilot, and because we were enjoying buddy boating with our friends aboard the S/V Poppy II, we found ourselves on the northwest corner of Cuba – just a short hop from Isla Mujeres, Mexico.   

We still wanted to sail down to Belize and the Rio Dulce.  So instead of leaving our boat in Florida for the summer/fall, we decided to leave her in the Rio Dulce.  That would mean that when we returned to Out of Bounds, we would once again be able to cruise this enchanted area. 

Now we were faced with a problem.  How would we get two adults, two kids, two cats, all of the electronics that we didn’t want to leave aboard the boat (heat and humidity were a real concern), plus some of our personal belongings that we would be needing over the next 5 or 6 months – back to the states.  Easy, we’ll just buy a car and drive home. 

When we first checked into Guatemala at the Caribbean town of Livingston, I asked the customs official if we could buy a car in Guatemala and drive it to the states.  I speak Spanish fairly well and the official was trying her hardest to show her knowledge of English.  But we must have had a breakdown in communications.   

I looked at Tom and the girls with some confusion and translated what the official told me.  “We can buy a car here but she thinks that we will have some trouble at the border.  Something about immunizations,” I said.  Finally after many questions, we discovered that we were talking two different things here.  I had used the word “carro” for car.  This is a commonly used word in Mexico, where I learned Spanish.  But it is not used in Guatemala.  The official had thought that I said the English word “cow.”  Every time she tried to say cow in English, she pronounced it as cower, so I thought she was saying “car.”  We had a good laugh over the thought of us buying a cow to take back to the states.

So now Tom was on his way to the big city to try to buy a roomy cow.  Tom speaks limited Spanish (beer please, check please, where’s the bathroom) but he is very resourceful.  With the help of Mario’s, he hired a taxi driver that spoke English and took him to various used car dealerships.  He found a used minivan and negotiated the price.  Next he had to go to the bank and withdraw enough cash to pay for the car.  Security men armed with machine guns guard the banks in Guatemala.  I guess this should give you a feeling of safety, but in reality it kind of gives you the jitters.  Of course, in Guatemala, even McDonalds and the Coke delivery truck come complete with armed guards. 

Tom purchased the vehicle, but it would take about a week for us to get the paperwork completed.  Because the next week was the week before Easter (when the entire country closes down), it would take two weeks.  But Tom was allowed to drive the car, even without the papers, and he returned to the Rio Dulce. 

One of our first projects was finding a cat carrier for our two cats.  We scoured the open-air markets, the agricultural stores, the hardwares and even the airport to find someone who carried an animal carrier.  No luck.  Tom finally built one.  He took two heavy-duty plastic laundry baskets (complete with plenty of ventilation) that we bought at the market in Fronteras.  He cut a large hole in the bottom of one basket and attached a “door” made from a lovely piece of thin teak (the only wood we had on the boat).  He now placed that basket, upside down with the door on top, on top of the other and screwed the two baskets together.  We had a large cat carrier complete with an opening top. 

Our next problem was daughter Kate.  She was sure she needed her beanie babies, her sewing stuff, her needlework, her painting supplies, most of her clothes, all of her books, well basically - everything she owned.  Somehow she managed to fit everything she absolutely had to have, except her rollerblades, which made the dinghy trip upriver and into the van once, but had to make another trip back down the river and back to the boat, to fit something more important – probably her dad. 

Leaving Out of Bounds was very strange.  She had been our home since the girls were toddlers.  We had never left her for more than a few days.  We had already packed most of our stuff in the van.  We had taken down our sails and our wind generator.  Our dinghy, outboard and scuba tanks were stored on shore in a shed.  We left our solar panel up to keep the batteries charged and left up our dodger and awning to provide some protection from the sun.  Mario’s Marina personnel moved Out of Bounds from her slip out onto a mooring buoy.  Each day that we would be gone, they would come aboard and open up the boat for the day to keep problems with mildew at bay.   

Kenna Theisen holds a bag full of hammocks that we bought on market day in Chichicastenango.

We headed down the dock with the cats in their new carrier, and caught the launch to town.  I was filled with excitement for our trip home and a summer in Wisconsin with family and friends, and apprehension at the thought of leaving our sailboat home. 

We arrived in Guatemala City a few hours later and checked into a hotel.  Tom drove over to the car dealer to get our papers - more than two weeks had passed since he had bought the car - only to find out that they still weren’t done.  So we ordered a Domino’s Pizza to celebrate our new adventure and made plans to tour a bit of Guatemala for the next two days until the papers would be done. 

The next morning we drove to the mountain village of Chichicastenango.  This is an isolated mountain village with narrow cobblestone streets where one of the largest indigenous markets in Guatemala is held twice a week.  Mayan Indians from throughout the region walk for hours to get their wares to the market.  Others arrive on the many “chicken buses” that arrive the day before market day. 

We were lucky to arrive on Thursday, which is market day.  The streets of the town were filled with makeshift stalls that had been erected that morning.  Colorful fabrics, woven hammocks, embroidered clothes, leather goods, carved masks and all sorts of handicrafts hung from the stalls.  Other vendors piled oranges or limes or nuts into beautiful displays.  Turkeys in baskets squawked and the smells of open cooking fires lingered in the air. 

Perhaps the most interesting part of walking the streets of Chichicastenango was seeing the colorful traditional clothing of the local people.  Each village has its own unique style, pattern and colors for each garment.  We enjoyed an afternoon of strolling through the streets, bargaining for hammocks and eating the local cuisine.  The cats spent a quiet day in our hotel room. 

The next morning we headed back to Guatemala City and that afternoon we finally were able to get the car’s papers.  The following morning we were off, heading to the Mexican border – about a 4-5 hour drive.   

Guatemala is a beautiful country covered with both rainforests and mountainous forests.  There are 30 volcanoes in Guatemala that reach a height of over 11,000 feet.  Many are still active and we drove past several that were “smoking.”   Along the Pacific Highway we passed many coffee plantations, which is the country’s biggest export crop.  

We arrived at the border town of Ciudad Tecun Uman and were immediately surrounded by “border boys.”  These teenaged boys offer their services to help you get across the border with a minimum of hassles.  We felt fairly confident that we could manage ourselves although the border boys obviously thought otherwise.  We showed passports, turned in our visas and were quickly on our way across an area known as “no man’s land” and then into Mexico.

Once in Mexico, we were searched – well somewhat.  The officials asked us to pop the hatch on the van.  The girls had to hold on to as much stuff as possible because we were afraid stuff would literally explode out of the car once the hatch was open.  The officials took one look at all of our stuff and I could just see them wondering what the chance was of getting the hatch actually closed again.  They quickly closed the hatch, said hello to our cats and sent us forward.  Next we had to have our tires sprayed for “bugs.”  Then inside to get tourist visas.  Then we were on our way. 

Backpacks swen with hand-woven cloth are displayed at a vendor's stall on market day.

We drove through the Mexican town of Tapachula and kept heading north.  We figured we could drive another 2 or 3 hours before we needed to find a hotel for the night.  A few miles past Tapachula we were stopped at an official customs stop.  We were told that we would need to get a permit for our car.  So we parked the car and were told to wait outside the office of the car permit man.  The sign on his door said that he closed his office at 3 PM on Saturday.  My watch said it was 5 minutes till 2:00.  A few minutes later, the official came out and told me he was closed and I would have to come back tomorrow.  Mexico was on daylight savings time and so was an hour ahead of Guatemala. 

So we turned around and headed back to Tapachula for the night.  We found a nice hotel with secure parking.  Sunday morning we headed north again.  After waiting outside the car permit man’s office for about an hour, we were ushered in.  He looked over our papers from buying the car and simply said, “You’ll have to go back to Guatemala and have this paper notarized.”  I wanted to cry.  “We have to go back to Guatemala City?” I asked. 

Well it ended up that we didn’t have to go back to Guatemala City but just back across the border to Guatemala and find a notary public – on a Sunday morning.  So back we went – through Tapachula – and on to the Guatemala border.  This time we crossed at Talisman, which was only a 30-minute drive from Tapachula. 

A toll bridge across the Rio Suchiate connects the tiny town of Talisman with the tiny town of El Carmen in Guatemala.  As we approached the border, we slowed down and came to a stop behind a very long line of cars, waiting to cross the border.  Immediately the border boys surrounded us.  But unlike the boys in Guatemala, the Mexican border boys all had I.D. tags hanging around their necks.  They seemed much more legitimate. 

We chose a young man to help us and explained our rather unusual circumstances.  We didn’t really want to check out of Mexico and into Guatemala but we did need to find someone in Guatemala who could notarize a paper.  Our border boy hopped on our rear bumper and instructed us to pull into the left lane and go around the long line of cars ahead of us.  We did.   

We arrived at the Mexican border and were told to go ahead.  We crossed the bridge and parked in Guatemala, but did not go through customs.  Instead Tom and our border boy hopped in a taxi and disappeared.  Tom had a wild ride through the countryside.  The taxi was flying down the road and pedestrians were flying for cover.  Then suddenly the brakes were slammed on.  “I couldn’t hit the pig,” the driver explained.  I guess he figured that people were smart enough to get out of his way but pigs were unpredictable. 

The girls and I sat in the car wondering if and when Tom would return.  We no longer had visas to be in Guatemala, yet here we were.  We no longer had ANY papers for the car, as they were with Tom.  We had no idea where Tom was.  But we knew that he didn’t have a visa to be in Guatemala either. 

The taxi took Tom to the nearby town of Malacatan where he met Francisco Fernando Fernandez Fong, a lawyer and notary.  Mr. Fong was thrilled to meet someone from the US, as he had studied there once, he told Tom.  Notarizing our paper was no problem.  He had two rates.  It was cheaper to have a paper notarized if both parties were present.  But in our case, where the car dealer was not present, he had to charge a bit more.  

A couple of hours later the taxi returned and Tom and the border boy took us back across to Mexico.  The Mexican officials had no problem with letting us back in as we still had our visas.  But they insisted that our tires be sprayed again and collected $5 for doing so.  Tom and the border boy negotiated a fair price for work well done and we were on our way once again, trying to head north. 

We passed through Tapachula and stopped at the customs office to get our car permit.  I waited in line for about an hour and a half.  Whoever was in the office ahead of me seemed to be having a bit of trouble with the car permit man.  Finally a frazzled American came out and it was my turn.  The official went over our papers and found everything to be in order.  But now, it turned out, I would need to make copies of the papers.  I was told to go across the street where I could have copies made. 

Across the street, I ran into the American who had been ahead of me at the permit office.  “Whatever you do, be sure to turn your permit in before you cross the border back into the states and be sure to get a receipt stating that you turned the permit in,” he instructed me.  He had driven an RV down to Central America and was now returning to the states.  He had turned his permit in before leaving Mexico the first time, but had no receipt.  Now the official here was telling him that because he had no receipt stating that he had turned his permit in, he couldn’t be issued a new one. A nice bribe finally swayed the official’s mind. 

When I returned with my copies, I had to get back in line and wait another hour for my turn.  This time, though, I left the office with our car permit.  We were on our way north. 

About two hours later we stopped for gas but after filling up, the minivan wouldn’t start.  We had a dead battery.  We were finally able to get a jump but decided we had better head back to Tapachula to buy a new battery. 

Heading south, the car ran for about a half an hour before dying again.  It seemed that the alternator wasn’t working.  We pulled off the road in the middle of nowhere.  We tried flagging down a vehicle, but had no luck.  There wasn’t much traffic on the road.  Finally a middle-aged woman came out of the house near where we had stalled.  She told us it wasn’t very safe for us to be stranded here.  But she told us that a minivan “taxi” would be coming by and that we could flag it down for a ride to a nearby town.  We decided that Tom would go for help and that the girls and I would stay with the car and the cats. 

Our newfound friend told us to push our car back towards her house, as that would be a bit safer.  She also told Tom that she had a friend in the town down the road that might sell us a battery.  She gave Tom directions.  Then she said that she suddenly needed to go to town too.  Soon the minivan came by and picked up Tom and the lady.  The girls and I took the cats, secure in their carrier, and sat in the shade of the van.   

In a little while, Tom and the lady came back in a car with the lady’s friend.  He gave us a jump and then we followed him back to a little town.  Tom told me later that he thinks that the lady had only gone along to help him. Back at the friend’s house, we charged the battery again.  We tried to buy a battery, new or old, but could only get a jump. 

By now, it was getting late and so we had to head back to Tapachula again for the night.  It was after dark and as we pulled into the same parking spot that we had left that morning, the car died again.  We were thankful that we had made it back and hadn’t been stranded on the highway at night.  Tomorrow we needed to get our alternator fixed. 

The next morning Tom headed out with our alternator.  Somehow, with his limited Spanish, he was able to find an alternator repairman, who was able to fix our problem. 

Well, finally we were really on our way north.  A few days later we had made it all the way to the US before we had to turn around again.  As we neared the border, we remembered that we had to turn in our car permit and get a receipt.  We kept following the signs to the border crossing, thinking that we would be able to turn in our permit.  The next thing we knew, we were in the US and hadn’t turned in our permit.  The guards searched our car and then sent us back across the border to Mexico where we finally discovered the office where we could turn our car permit in.  Turning it in was easy, getting a receipt took over an hour.  Then back across to the US again where we were searched a second time.  A few days later we were back in Wisconsin and another adventure came to and end. 

But don’t worry, we thrive on adventure and are currently planning our next one.  We don’t believe in “the adventure of a lifetime” but rather a lifetime of adventure. 

Barbara Theisen has spent the past ten years living aboard Out of Bounds with her husband Tom and daughters, Kate and Kenna. For more information on living the cruising life visit the Theisen’s Website at