Skip to main content

A Rio Retirement Alternative

  • Author:
  • Updated:

Retirement. Some long for it, some fear it, but sooner or later, we're all going to be there. What do you plan to do? What is your reward? If you're a boater, chances are you've dreamed of giving up the rat race and moving aboard your boat; if not forever, maybe just for a while-long enough to live the dream. I'd always cringed at the thought of retirement communities and yet that's exactly where I've ended up. However, this is a retirement community with a major difference. My husband John and I are living among hundreds of fellow cruisers, adventurous souls who have severed their ties to shore and opened their minds and hearts to a new lifestyle.

Destination: The Sunny South

About five years ago, an early retirement fell into our laps and John and I decided to jump at the chance to combine our love of travel with our love of boating. We rented our house on Lake Simcoe in Ontario, Canada, moved aboard our 38-foot Bayliner MY, Diamond Lil, left the Great White North, and headed south. If you plan to cruise the Caribbean, sooner or later you'll head up the famous gorge of the Rio Dulce in Guatemala, as we did. “The river that swallows gringos,” attracts cruisers for a variety of reasons. The main reason is its location. Some 25 miles inland and surrounded by mountains, the Rio Dulce is perhaps the most attractive hurricane hole in the Caribbean. The freshwater environment is another attractive benefit. “Rio Dulce” means “Sweet River” and sweet it is after the wrath of salt water has taken its toll on your boat to arrive in the Rio and enjoy some freshwater cruising.

The Rio offers a wide variety of marinas of every size and shape-most with security personnel. As in many Central American countries, there have been security concerns in Guatemala in the past, especially in known trouble spots. The Guatemalan coast guard distributes information about anchorages it has deemed as safe (areas with around-the-clock patrols) to cruisers as they check into the country.

Most everyone I speak with here in the Rio has fallen in love with the diverse and beautiful country of Guatemala, and with a return rate for cruisers as high as 50 percent, we meet more and more “river rats” who hadn't planned to stay here, but did just that.

Spectacular Sights

Most marinas offer a great boat-sitting service for crew who would like to take advantage of the inexpensive inland travel. For example, you can journey to the magnificent Mayan ruins of Tikal in the sparsely populated northern region of Peten; experience the romantic charm of the colonial city of Antigua, nestled among towering, and in some cases, still-active volcanoes; or visit Lake Atitlan, center of life on the highlands and referred to by author Aldous Huxley as “the most beautiful lake in the world.” These and countless other popular tourist destinations beckon, with both travel and accommodations at a fraction of the cost back home.

For those feeling restless and missing the open sea, take a short jaunt across the El Golfete and through the magnificent gorge and the Caribbean. North, south, or east, paradise is just around the corner from the Rio Dulce, making it a great place to entertain friends and family from back home.

The Price Is Right

The low cost of living in Guatemala is another huge draw for retirees living on fixed incomes. For a side tie slip here at Bruno's Marina, we pay only U.S. $175 per month, with power for an additional $0.35 per kilowatt, which averages about $110 per month. Cable TV is included, and fast, reliable internet access (on the boat) is $25 per month. Water is free of charge and feels like a gift from the gods after six months spent on the hook out in salt water. An armed guard patrols the grounds and walks the docks from dusk to dawn.

The Rio is a popular and economical place for haulouts and boat repairs. Several hotels and marinas offer special rates to cruisers who are being hauled out. The prices for boat maintenance and repairs are very attractive. We had our entire hull, superstructure, flybridge, and aft deck polished and waxed; two day's work for two workers was only $74.

Staying Informed On The Net

A morning cruisers' net on the VHF radio keeps us all in the loop. Each morning, from Monday through Saturday, a different volunteer hosts the net. First, the host asks for any emergency, medical, or priority traffic. “Nothing heard” is always a good thing during this part of the show.

Next up is “Mail Call.” Marinas holding mail for boaters announce so here. Also, cruisers, and sometimes guests of cruisers, planning to fly back to the United States, Canada, or Europe often offer to deliver flat, stamped mail to their local post offices upon their return. They announce their location, date of departure, and cut-off time for mail to be dropped to their boat. The post office in Fronteras is rarely open and the next closest post office is miles away in the town of Morales. And with the high postage costs and slow delivery from Guatemala, this is a great service.

The net controller then invites new arrivals to the Rio to identify themselves and those leaving to say good-bye. Next is a segment called “Boat-to-Boat Traffic,” where people let others know that they wish to contact them on the radio immediately after the net: “Diamond Lil would like to talk to Oasis after the net on Channel 69,” I might say. “Oasis, your phone is going to be ringing,” jokes the net controller. “Treasures from the Bilge” is a buy, sell, trade, or giveaway segment matching up people needing items with those having items available-important in a place where such items might otherwise be unavailable.

Non-commercial announcements come next. The wide variety of marina-sponsored and other events and parties are announced. There are Spanish classes, swap meets (no, not wives), yoga, games of all sorts, special happy hour events, open houses, football parties, July 4th parties, election parties, movie nights-you name it, we have it here on the Rio.

Finally, local restaurants have the opportunity to announce their daily lunch specials and happy hour times. For instance, at Texan Bay Marina it might be chicken-fried steak; at Rosita's, just down past the bridge, it's hilachas (shredded beef in a tomato sauce); while over at Backpackers the special might be egg rolls or vegetarian lasagna. The choices are many and prices are reasonable.

Peaceful Twilight

As the sun gets low in the sky, the cooler evening air draws people together at various happy hour gatherings. There is usually a crowd to be found in the shade of the towering mango trees at Bruno's picnic tables and lots of activity as people pass by on their way from the dingy dock into town and back. For many people, part of the routine of a trip to town is a stop at Bruno's for a cold one and some gossip.

All too soon another day has passed and the sun sinks mercifully behind the Sierra de Santa Cruz Mountains to our west. Dusk is my favorite time of day, when I enjoy a daily walk across the Rio Dulce Bridge, the highest in Central America. The mountains in the distance are silhouetted against a bright pink sky and the mighty Rio runs pink. The road from Fronteras threads as far as I can see through the smoky countryside, itself a patchwork quilt of endless shades of green. The smell of wood smoke brings back happy childhood memories of Canadian cottage country.

As I reach the top of the bridge, my spirits soar and a sense of deep contentment overcomes me. I am not alone in this feeling, as the bridge is busy with others making this daily pilgrimage to glance down at what, to me, should be one of the Seven Wonders of the World. “Buenas,” or “hola,” we greet each other, without fail. Gringos and locals, we are one, humbled by the power of the Rio below.

Spanish music drifts across the water and is swallowed up by the racket of hundreds of birds roosting in the trees at Bruno's. Pink becomes orange behind the blackening rain forest, its features blending together in the approaching darkness. I sense myself being swallowed by this magical place. It most certainly is a retirement community like no other.