Christopher Columbus, a pirate, an entrepreneur or a visionary?
A close view of Rio Dulce and Real Estate opportunities in Guatemala.
by Nicolas Aguero
"I found a land, the most beautiful in all the world...
I'm convinced this is Paradise on Earth."
Christopher Columbus, The four voyages.
Quest for Paradise
Of course Columbus was not a pirate, oh well, ok, if he was at least he had Queen of Spain’s license to do so: "rescue" was the word used back then in order to refer to the result of looting on the natives. This article does not intend to change history, neither to challenge historians. It might, however, highlight the vision of a person who opened new roads and ventured to places where nobody dared to go. In doing so Columbus shifted his gold seeking enterprise to a search for ‘earthly paradise’.
Investing overseas, at the time, required both wit and boldness, and you risked your life at it. Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus are fine examples of risk-takers. Fortunately for us, investing overseas is now far easier. To invest, you have to research first, travel later, and also foresee risk so as to avoid it: no swashbuckling pirates or faith driven conquerors required, just calm, accurate decision makers.
As we see it today, the big problem was that Columbus was set for "rescuing" richness and finding new trading routes: a piece of paradise was not a profitable commodity for the early modern European mindset. But it is now. As you see, sometimes waging war is not as profitable as a thoughtful, calm investment might be. And timing is of course an issue. Dodging arrows and converting infidels is not as advantageous or safe as developing real estate, although you gained yourself a statue!
The ‘earthly paradise’ Columbus described was actually located on the coast of Venezuela; he also traveled intensively through the Caribbean and Panama. But its description forged and idea of what paradise on Earth must look like and Westerners have pursued that image since: lush green vegetation, clear waters, temperate climate, and sandy white beaches. As his own son says: "among those islands he had suffered such a terrible storm and the same thing had happened on the outward voyage until he reached the Canary Islands; but once past them he found the wind and the sea always very calm. In conclusion the Admiral says that the sacred theologians and wise philosophers were right in saying that the Terrestrial Paradise is at the far end of the Orient because it is a very temperate place. So those lands which he had now discovered are (he says) the furthest Orient." (Christopher Columbus' Diary: Thursday 21 February, 1500)
Paradise in Guatemala Caribbean Coast
Over five hundred years have gone by and still, from time to time, someone claims to have found paradise on Earth, quite often close to Columbus' alleged Eden... Well we have found it once more, and we claim it is hidden in Guatemala's easternmost state: Izabal. The area is called Rio Dulce and stretches east from Lake Izabal down to the Caribbean Sea, passing by the formerly pirate sieged Spanish fort of San Felipe and the exotic Garifuna Afro-Amerindian town of Livingston. All you might portray about this kind of place is combined here: Maya speaking natives, African rooted (and dreadlocked) Caribbean culture, old Spanish forts and pirate tales and even older pre-Columbine Indian temple ruins, stories of United Fruit's greedy power and Guatemala's petty dictators entwined in the history of Puerto Barrios, at the core of a banana republic fruit company empire... The river flows with history but at the same time remains unspoilt.
Rio Dulce (literally the "Sweet River") is a river that flows into the Caribbean Sea. It is part of a lake and river system in Guatemala that has become a very popular cruising sailboat destination. Entered through the Amatique Bay at the town of Livingston, the river meanders for six miles through a spectacular gorge. The sides of the gorge rise up to 300 feet on both sides and are covered with teak, mahogany and palms. Wild flowers bloom throughout the foliage and you can hear howler monkeys and toucans around you.
In 1841, John Lloyd Stephens, an American explorer, writer, and diplomat, and a pivotal figure in the rediscovery of Maya civilization, wrote: “In a few moments we entered the Rio Dulce. On each side, rising perpendicularly from three to four hundred feet, was a wall of living green. Trees grew from the water's edge, with dense unbroken foliage, to the top; not a spot of barrenness was to be seen; and on both sides, from the tops of the highest trees, long tendrils descended to the water, as if to drink and carry life to the trunks that bore them. It was, as its name imports, a Rio Dulce, a fairy scene of Titan land, combining exquisite beauty with colossal grandeur. As we advanced the passage turned, and in a few minutes we lost sight of the sea, and were enclosed on all sides by a forest wall; but the river, although showing us no passage, still invited us onward.”
If you have seen Apocalypse now or read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness this might very well be your cup of tea, although you are more likely to find an Internet high-speed connection at the end of your journey rather than the limits of civilization.
The area begins at the mouth of the river on the Amatique Bay at the Garifuna town of Livingston. Going upriver, one passes through a spectacular steep walled canyon lined with jungle vegetation and wildlife. The river then widens into a small lake, El Golfete, the shores of which are lined with beautiful locations, Mayan settlements and a manatee reserve.
An interesting fact in this tale of sailors and entrepreneurs: Columbus ship’s log January 9, 1493 recorded: "On the previous day when the Admiral went to the Rio del Oro he saw three mermaids which rose well out of the sea...they were not as beautiful as they are painted though they have something of a human face." (http://www.mayaparadise.com/dugonge.htm). These ugly mermaids were arguably the sea mammal know as manatee. The safe keeping ugly mermaids was surely not the ultimate goal of Columbus but nature preserved areas are an extra added value for property these days, despite our disbelief in sea monsters.
The river then narrows and passes the towns of Fronteras and El Relleno where there are many hotels, restaurants, marinas, services for boaters, medical care, communications and transportation. A little further and the river widens into 590 square kilometre Lake Izabal, the largest lake in Guatemala.
Rio Dulce is a large river, 500 to 1500 meters (1/3 to 1 mile) wide over much of its length. The narrowest spot is La Vaca where the river narrows to a little over 100 meters (300 feet) as it squeezes through The Canyon. The river and both lakes are navigable by light vessels. The river and lakes are fed by smaller rivers and countless creeks and streams. Many of these rivers can be sailed for miles through forests and meadows.
The anticipation of unknown indigenous tribes and the unexpected scenery gives you feeling like Columbus discovering the new world. As you sail into the Rio Dulce you can feel the distinct smells of the Caribbean and enjoy nature’s palette of colours in the flora and fauna, hear the deep screams of the howler monkeys and dare look into the preying eyes of the vultures. All this combined provides its unique and undiscovered pristine charm. It is a strange feeling that mixes a touch of tranquillity and the unknown.
Rio Dulce is an aquatic community: The only access road to the area is the highway passing through Fronteras / El Relleno on its way up to the Peten. Outside the towns of Fronteras and El Relleno there are no roads or footpaths except a road leading to San Felipe and El Estor. The get around to different places on the Rio you must travel by boat and all homes and businesses on the Rio Dulce have a boat dock. Cruisers usually have a dinghy with a small outboard so getting around is not a problem. Those arriving by land can hire a speedboat; they work like taxis and are inexpensive.
The hurricane hole
People along the Rio Dulce are very friendly and have a strong sense of community spirit, pride and service. The area also is the favourite vacation spot for many wealthy Guatemalans. The emphasis is on boating and water sports but many backpackers and travellers from all parts of the world use the Rio Dulce as a jumping-off point for trips into the Peten, the rest of Guatemala, to Belize and Honduras.
Making friends is easy on the river. As you drift downstream, you’ll come across many yachts and cruisers moored up, the inhabitants always quick to invite you for a bite to eat or drink onboard.
The popularity of the region is due to the shelter against the hurricanes. Since the marinas along the Rio Dulce are miles inland, the Rio Dulce is about the safest place one could possibly be during a hurricane. The narrow twisting river blocks the hurricane and the hills to either side of the river and trees along the shores weaken the force of the wind. A properly anchored boat on the Rio Dulce is as safe as it can be during a hurricane, making it arguably the “best hurricane hole in the Caribbean”.
The “hurricane season” starts in June and lasts until November. Most hurricanes occur in the eastern Caribbean and blow out before reaching the Guatemalan coastline
Livingston and the Canyon River Road
But do not let big storms winds intimidate you. You needn’t be Indiana Jones, Capitan Benjamin L. Willard o Jack Sparrow in order to sail these waters: coming in upstream from the ocean is now a popular cruise destination. As we said earlier, the first town in the Rio Dulce is Livingston, home of the Garifuna or “Black-Caribs”. The city was named after American jurist and politician Edward Livingston who wrote the Livingston Codes which were used as the basis for the laws of the liberal government of the United Provinces of Central America in the early 19th century. Although the United Provinces tore itself apart in civil war and gave birth to several nations often misruled by bloodthirsty military leaders, the name of Livingston remained amidst the jungle, perhaps as wish for future generations.
One of the distinctive features of Livingston is the fascinating and exotic culture of Garifuna people, or “Garinagu” as they call themselves. Ethnically descended from Amerindian and African people, their language is a dialect of the Amerindian Arawakan language family. The British colonial administration used the term “Black Carib” to refer to the Garifuna and distinguish them from “Yellow Carib” - the Amerindians who had not intermarried with Africans. The Garifuna population is around 400,000 to 500,000 both in their Central American homeland and as many as 60,000 in the US, the latter due to heavy migration from Central America. According to legend, the Arawak speaking peoples of Northern Brazil moved to the island of St. Vincent long before the arrival of Europeans in the New World. After a long time in peace and tranquility, the island was attacked by a group of Carib-speaking men from the mainland. They slaughtered the Arawak men and took the women as their slaves and companions. At some point, escaped African slaves arrived on the island and were successfully integrated into the population, adding an African element to the culture.
When the British took over Saint Vincent, they met the resistance of the French settlers and their Carib allies. After a series of Carib Wars, the Carib eventually surrendered to the British in 1796. The British separated the more African-looking Caribs from the more Amerindian looking ones. They thought that the former were enemies who had to be deported, while the latter were granted permission to remain. The Garifuna requested the Spanish authorities for permission to settle on the continent. They were thence employed as soldiers, and scattered along the Caribbean coast of Central America.
Recently, the United Nations gave the Garifuna of Central America the title Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, whose uniquely fused African and South American ancestry and culture gave rise to new traditions.
Even today, this exotic culture still lives through Honduras, Guatemala and Belize where you can hear their lively “paranda” and “punta” music. (http://www.garifuna.org/)
Leaving Livingston behind, the river opens into a long narrow lake called El Golfete (“Little gulf”). The starting point is an island and a large natural anchorage where there are some houses and small businesses. El Golfete is about 10 miles long and about two miles wide. At its farthest end it becomes river again. Several marinas and resorts can be found in this area.
The lake and the castle
As the river is about to enter Lake Izabal it is spanned by one of the biggest bridges in Central America. On one side of the bridge is the town of Fronteras, the local centre of commerce for the area. On the other side is Rellenos. Fronteras is where Indians come in from the countryside in wooden canoes. Most of these boats are powered with outboard motors but many come to market day paddling them. The bridge has been adapted so that vessels can sail through into the lake.
At the very entrance of the lake is the “Castillo San Felipe de Lara” built by the Spanish when this part of Central America was an important transshipping staging point. In the early Sixteenth Century, trade was established between the inland colonies and Spain via the river. Constant attacks by pirate and privateer incursions into Guatemala through the Rio Dulce made it necessary to defend the entrance to Lake Izabal where warehouses had been set up for goods entering from or leaving for Spain. Thus the first tower was built.
After several attacks it was destroyed and rebuilt into a fort and then destroyed again until 1651 judge Lara y Mogrovejo rebuilt the fort a second time, calling it San Felipe de Lara Castle in honour of the king (and himself). For two hundred years the fort was a defense against pirates with colourful names such as Diego the Mulatto, Lieutenant of "Pegleg" Anthony Shirly, a pirate of aristocratic birth, called the "Adventurous Gentleman"; Careful and William Jackson who had their base of operations on the islands of Guanaja and Roatan; and William Parker, known as the plunderer of Santo Domingo and Puerto Bello.
And the lookout cried out “Land!”
There are many real estate opportunities in Rio Dulce. The area is underdeveloped and that’s why people are yet not investing there. But, isn’t that the way to make a good profit?
If there were already highways and big property developments for sure the market would be already showing the prices reflecting this. So far, in Rio Dulce and surrounding areas there’s lack of development, however the opportunity to bring your own enterprises or simply land here in search of beauty, relaxation and, above all, a cheap and good living standard, is open to anyone. Perhaps you will not be as daring as Columbus but yes at least with a tad of adrenaline to explore the unknown and open up new roads, maybe not for silk or spices but for tourism and retirement. And certainly you won’t have to wall yourself up to keep pirates out.
Today you can anchor your boat at a marina in Rio Dulce and get wireless internet access from your own boat yacht! Yes, it's true; you can set up your home or office from a yacht mooring in paradise while connected to the world. How much? Well, marinas charge a monthly total that ranges from about US $100 to $150.
Land lots and rundown properties are sold cheap. While you live in the boat you can build up your home or business. Even commercial properties with all the amenities, restaurants and bedrooms to run your own B&B are selling for US $100 to $300 hundred thousand. Riverfront properties including private marinas are sold for as little as US $20 to $50 thousand.
Advantages and Disadvantages for investors
The Rio Dulce has been declared a national protected area and the Guatemalan law includes the possibility of developing private preserves. You can check for the National Council for Protected Areas website: http://www.conap.gob.gt/ (Spanish only). It states the possibility of eco-tourism developments.
If you are interested in eco-sustainable developments, you can also check The Private Natural Reserve Association website: http://www.reservasdeguatemala.org/inicioeng.html
“In order to obtain the conservation of the biodiversity and the sustainable use of the natural resources in Guatemala, the participation of owners of private land is fundamental, represented by small, medium and large owners as well as native local communities, such as cooperatives and NGO who own land under conservation and management. This necessity has been recognized by the Government of Guatemala in the Decree 4-89 that establishes the Law of Protected Areas, which provides the legal, administrative and conceptual frame for the private land registration with the category of Private Natural Reserve as members of the Guatemalan System of Protected Areas – SIGAP (for its name in Spanish).”
Another advantage is the proximity to Flores, a beautiful island town and take-off point to visit the impressive ruins of the Mayan city of Tikal and the rest of the Peten, Guatemala’s jungle district. Most travelers follow that trail into of the Mayan heartland after visiting Rio Dulce. The recently excavated Mayan site of El Mirador is also close to the Rio Dulce. Located in one of the last refuges of virgin jungle, this is the largest Mayan archaeological site in Central America, many times larger than worldwide famous Mayan sites such as Tikal, Palenque, Bomampak o Chichén Itzá. As tourist and retirees look for new destinations, the Rio Dulce area is a great place to buy before a property boom skyrockets the prices and you loose the chance of owning a piece of paradise before pirates, excuse us, developers come looting upstream.
Disadvantages worth mentioning are the underdevelopment of the area and the lack of services in some parts of the Rio Dulce. Land titling might also be an issue so it is always better to seek for legal advise. There are not many real estate agencies and service is not up to international standards, some local specialist advice will be necessary. Finding builders that meet your standards will certainly require patience and due research, and you might need to bring qualified labourers from nearby cities.
Did the bold Venetian sailor really found paradise?
Apparently not, but he came quite close. Would you venture in?
Lic. Nicolas Aguero is January First Real Estate's company Director, for several years he has been a Real Estate Consulter for foreign investors with an interest in Latin American assets. Nicolas is fluent in both English and Spanish, with a degree in business he is a traveler as well.