Guanaja: Crossroads in the Western Caribbean

Sandy Bay El Bight Isla de Guanaja, Honduras, CA 16o  27.318’ N 85o 52.165’ W

March 27, 2002

Poseidon has a way of making it clear when you’ve overstayed your welcome, and he made our last night in Barbareta pretty uncomfortable. Sometime after midnight, the wind fairly abruptly, and much to our surprise, surged from eight knots out of the east to 30-35 knots and clocked around to the west, leaving us wide open to a long fetch with a lee shore behind us. We mounted our usual anchor watch: taking turns monitoring the radar, GPS, depth and wind speed, and sure enough, a little after 3:00 AM it appeared that either we were dragging or the entire island–lock, stock, and mangrove–was moving. This was hard to believe, as we’d been well dug in for over two weeks and weathered three northers there already, one packing almost 50 knots. This reminded me of Philip Roth’s line in his novel I Married a Communist. “You have to take off your hat to life for the techniques at its disposal to strip a man of his significance and empty him totally of pride.”

| | Faces of Guanaja* * *| So we launched into fire-drill mode, set a second anchor in the dark, grumbled about fronts as nocturnal predators, and attempted to pretend we felt more confident. I drank too much coffee, always a mistake when I’m anxious. Pretty soon my nerve endings were slam-dancing, and my general awakeness level raced past Jupiter and hung a left. The good news was that I had no trouble staying awake, and we collected enough water to fill our tanks and jerry jugs. Plus, instead of beating into eastern winds later in the day, it was a cake-walk downwind to Guanaja, which is where we are now. Man, can I rationalize.

| | All the houses on the Cay are built up over the water on stilts* * *| We’d planned to leave right after the morning Northwest Caribbean net, as did our friends Derek and Beryl Connor on _Rotuma_, a Contest 43. They were the only other boat in the anchorage, and we’d chatted back and forth during the wee hours as we estimated who might be closer to doom. (In most remote anchorages out here, boats sharing a cove will agree to monitor a designated VHF channel so that if anything goes wrong, they can get in touch, or commiserate, proving yet again that misery craves company.) As we were getting ready to take off, Derek called and said their second anchor–they too had dragged a bit toward shore–was refusing to budge. In fact, it took the two of us more than an hour to raise it, and once it was up we saw why. Their high-tensile Danforth had dragged under a rock or coral head, and the three-foot-long steel shank had bent so fully that it curved itself into the shape of the letter C.


| | Our route into the harbor at Guanaja* * *|

With all anchors up and secured, we motored into the wind, hobby-horsing through the first cut in the shallow reef. Then we turned south, unfurled a handkerchief corner of the genoa, and zoomed through the shallow second cut. We passed over the reef with three feet under us. Once in deep water we turned east, let out some more canvas and scooted the 18 miles to Guanaja.

| | The arrival of the supply boat once a week is a cause for island-wide excitement* * *| Isla de Guanaja is a crossroads where yachts exchange waypoints, tall tales, and advice about anchorages where they’ve been. For boats heading north from Panama and Colombia or west from Venezuela and the ABCs (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao), it’s a logical first stop off. For those southing from Cuba or the Caymans, this is a good place to enter the Bay Islands and ride the trades to Roatan, Utila, and on to Guatemala or Belize; and for those of us coming out of the Rio Dulce, it’s also the place where you wait for the tail end of a norther to push you east along the Honduran mainland and then south around the bend and past Cabo Gracias a Dios–the easternmost edge of Central America, where Honduras and Nicaragua meet at the delta of the Rio Coco. Cabo Gracias a Dios is a shallow, dangerous, reefy neighborhood that last month claimed the yacht _Antigone_ against its lee shore.


Whatever the local Mosquito Indians originally called this Cape, it was renamed by Columbus, who was so pleased to finally see it astern (after 30 days of beating from Guanaja and making only 150 miles) that he proclaimed “Thanks to God.” The name stuck. Admiral Columbus then anchored here at Guanaja on his fourth voyage (1502-1504), and called this island the Isla de Pinos. His brother Bartholomew wrote in his diary that it was filled with “very robust people who adore idols and live mostly from a certain white grain from which they make fine bread and the most perfect beer.” I can’t tell you much about the idols or the bread, but I’ll vouch for terrific tortillas, and I assure you Salva Vida Cerveza can still hold its own.

| | Almost all the population of Guanaja lives cheek by jowl on this tiny cay, just off the large main island, which is mostly wild forest.* * *|

For any sailor either checking into Guanaja or extending a visa, wearing a watch is a psychological impediment. As I write this, our boat papers are good for another month, but our passport visas expired about a week ago. While usually a good boy about such things, I’ve been stymied here because the immigration office–a wonderfully ramshackle building on a filthy canal of a side street, has been locked tight regardless of day or time. At first we checked regularly. Then one day a local woman informed us that the man for whom we were searching wasn’t there, but she didn’t know if “he be gone out or if he be gone off,” the difference, presumably, being venue and duration. Finally, we learned from the Capitania de Puerto that the jefe at the Delegacion de Migracion indeed “be gone off” the island altogether. Local conjecture is that his vacation will last for “mebbe annuder week, mebbe two.” This is the kind of bureaucracy I love: the usual persnickety sadism is replaced with utter carelessness. I figure I’ll check back in a week or two.



| | Doors of Guanaja: The termite-eaten Immigration Office, the door of which has been padlocked since our arrival.| The one-room jail, right on a busy street of the Cay. A sign outside announces “feeding times” in Spanish.| | * * *|

The island of Guanaja is only 2.5 miles at its fattest, and just over nine miles long. The highest point, easily seen from sea, is 1,300 feet, and this beautiful pine forest on a big rock, fringed all about by reefs, inclines at about 45 degrees. The shape looks to me like a dog lying on its belly with its body splayed out. At the southwest is a pointed snout. Then the body extends northeast into furry pudginess with little legs in the rear. This orientation, with its many jutting peninsulas and bights, offers protection from hard northers and traditional easterly trades. Not surprisingly, on an island with fewer than 21 square miles of surface, only three percent of it flat, there’s not much population inland.


While some North Americans and Europeans have been buying land on the southern hillside and building homes overlooking the sea, the main residential community is Bonacca Town, named for the Bonacca ridge on which the island sits in the Bartlett trough. But this town is generally called Guanaja town, or just “the Cay” by the locals. Founded in 1830 by immigrants from the Cayman Islands, this tiny teardrop is a densely packed community with a sometimes elevated, and sometimes sub-marine, four-foot-wide sidewalk in front of stilted houses, and everything is crammed cheek by jowl. Located less than a half mile off shore, originally formed atop the minuscule Shin and Hog Cays, but built higher by nearly 200 years of garbage and bits of heavens-knows-what, the Cay is now almost 17 acres and veined by interconnecting canals in which you’d never EVER want to slip and swallow. The sons and grandsons of pirates who settled here decided to build above the water and away from land to avoid the ubiquitous sand flies, yet still be close enough to get land fill and run a pipe for the good fresh water that’s plentiful on the mountainous big island. The result is that the Cay is sort of a Third World Venice.

| | courtesy of Dave Waltz| | Hurricane Mitch, from a NOAA satellite picture* * *| Guanaja was one of the islands most severely hit by hurricane Mitch in October of 1998, and on the north shore and upper ridge, where once there were dense pine groves, the vast power of the hurricane deforested whole sections. With winds exceeding 200 mph, Mitch hovered over Guanaja for three days. In the rich accent that is part British and part Eastern Caribbean, one man on the Cay told me “it was de noise dat was de worst. It was very bad, man. Wouldn’t stop for tree days. Always dat screaming noise. We was afeared it would never stop.” Houses on the big island lost windows and roofs and just about everything not anchored into granite. On the Cay, we’re told that the outer ring of houses on the east side were demolished immediately in the teeth of the wind, and formed a kind of wall that protected the fourth ring and those inside it. Then Mitch left, and people sighed their relief too quickly. He reversed course, came back from the west and attacked again. Mercifully, few people died here, but the long-term damage to the trees, the buildings, and to the local psyche, is still evident.

| | Mitch stripped the island bare. Locals said there was not a leaf left on any tree on the island. The hillside, now with only the trunks of the trees left standing, is a reminder of the devastation.* * *| At the same time, Guanaja is a vibrant island, with lots of wildlife, a giant reef system surrounding it, and picture-postcard cays and beaches. Every day we’ve been here dolphins have ambled through the anchorage, circling the five boats here, cavorting, puffing, spurting, and giving off happy vibes. They’re curious but wary and dash away from swimmers and dinghies. They remind me of our time at Cayo Norte on Banco Chinchorro in Mexico, where the same group of four came by every morning around eight. We came to recognize one by the distinctive shark bite taken out of its upper, or dorsal, fin, and another one because his dorsal fin was bent to the side. They’d let us swim near them, but never too near! It’s hokey superstition, but both the Commodore and I seem to invest in dolphin arrivals as magically good omens. We assume that when they visit, nothing major will break that day. Mostly it’s true.

| | Laura and Giovanni* * *| Here on Guanaja, we’ve met a number of friendly people who’ve made the island come alive for us. Giovanni and Laura diBerti, the couple who runs the restaurant and cruiser hang-out at the Lighthouse, meets and greets dinghies as they arrive for water, or dinner, a shower, or to swim in the pool–all free to the cruisers. This formerly fast-paced couple from Milan–he was once a recording executive and she a jazz singer–have been here six years as builders and managers of the property: shepherding cruisers, listening to woes, taking in laundry, helping find parts, setting up plane tickets, phone calls, and putting on a Saturday night pizza party that no one in the anchorage would be foolish enough to miss.

| | Leo diBerti, with his Great Dane, Kelly* * *| The clear, good water we share with the dolphins in the main anchorage on Guanaja’s south shore is great for swimming, but it’s also almost a mile west of the Cay. So when the weekly supply boat arrives on Fridays filled with vegetables and fruit, everyone high tails it to the Cay to stock up for the week. No one makes too many unnecessary trips because returning into the teeth of the eastern trades is wet and sloppy. On the Cay everyone parks their dinks at Mr. Aldo’s Texaco dock, and he welcomes you. Our first time there, when Mr. Aldo saw our combination lock and cable, he said to me, “You won’t need that here. I keep an eye on the skiffs. If anyone steals one, I’ll give you my boat; it’s worth a lot more than that rubber one.” I didn’t know my way into town, so Mr. Aldo walked me a little way through the labyrinth of alleys, and pointed out a monkey in a tree. “I forgot to ask you,” he said, “What’s your name?” I told him. “Hmm,” he said, smiling. “Isn’t that funny, that’s the monkey’s name too.” I like it here.

| | The Venice of the Third World* * *|

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