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Cruising Down to Romantic Catamaran Island

September 13, 1987|PHYLLIS WHITE and ROBERT WHITE | The Whites are Venice travel writers

RIO DULCE, Guatemala — This had better be worth it.

After a long, hot ride most of the way across the country, we arrived as the sun went down at a small collection of one-story, tin-roofed buildings trying to work their way up to becoming a village. It had a name. Frontera.

We got off the bus at the edge of the Rio Dulce ("sweet river"). Lake Izabal was a few miles upstream. The Caribbean was 18 miles the other way. When the bus engine switched off it was suddenly quiet. A tree frog burped twice, then silence.

In front of us a fisherman stood up in a dugout canoe floating on the broad, slow-moving river. The jungle was a dark, tangled scrim on the other bank. The sun had gone down, leaving an apricot glow in the sky and reflecting off the water.

The silhouetted fisherman gathered up a hand net and threw it, a circle spinning through the air and sinking into the water with hardly a splash.

A larger cayuga , carved in one piece from a ceiba tree, tipped precariously as we stepped in. An outboard engine on the stern skimmed us through the dark night a few miles downriver to an island that used to be called Punto del Chorizo and is now more romantically Catamaran Island.

Men, Women and Macaws

Our luggage was swung up onto a wooden pier where a thatched roof peaked over a few tables. Casual, nautical-looking men and women sat sipping tall drinks of rum and fruit juice and the good local beer called Gallo. A scarlet macaw balancing on the edge of the handy bar stared at us with beady eyes and screeched raucously.

We had arrived at the Catamaran Island Hotel.

A short, brown teen-age boy flashed a quick smile as he picked up our bags and led the way across the small, green island to our "bungalow" built on stilts out over the water. A wooden planked deck jutted from the front.

Something splashed out on the river. Then a fat, lopsided yellow moon came up, its sparkling trail reflected across the water.

It was all so romantic that we expected Dorothy Lamour, backed by 20 strings, to start singing in the background.

It started for us when we were looking for a quiet, out-of-the-way vacation. Catamaran Island certainly fits those criteria. Eight wooden cottages perch over the water, each with its own bathroom and shower. Also, 12 rooms are built on land, there's a swimming pool, and a tennis court across the estuary on the mainland.

The dining room is open-sided, with a thatched roof and excellent food. Meals tend to be lots of beef and fish, with black beans and fresh vegetables.

Place of Unusual Beauty

This exotic place was born in 1969 when Charles Lucas, an ex-U.S. Navy pilot from Pensacola, Fla., found himself a flying job spraying cotton fields here. He also found a Guatemalan bride, Louisa, and the unusual beauty of the Rio Dulce, tucked up in the northeast corner of the country 18 miles south of the border with Belize.

The Lucases bought an uninhabited island on a stretch of the river where yachtsmen cruising from Miami looking for a haven of safety from Caribbean hurricanes dropped anchor for months at a time.

The new owners built two cabins while they lived on their own catamaran, hence the name. As the years passed, more facilities were added. But Americans practically stopped coming to Guatemala in 1981 when the military dictatorship's abysmal human rights record became well-known.

Americans are starting to come back, however, since democratic President Cerezo took office in January, 1986. Still, you're much more likely to meet German, French and Italian visitors wherever you go in this colorful country.

But once again you can enjoy a meal or a drink in the Catamaran's alfresco dining room while one or more of the three green resident parrots, Paquito, Pepito or Arturo, waddle over to untie your shoelace with their beaks until you bribe them with tortilla crumbs to cease and desist.

Delicious River Fish

Originally this was a good place to catch tarpon and snook, until the local people fished them out. But you can still drop a line off the pier and catch mojarra, a delicious river fish that grows to two pounds and is likely to show up on any night's menu. Or machacas, a fish that, manager Carlos Gomez will warn you, "gives a good fight."

One day be sure to take a cayuga down the river to the wildlife reserve to see manatees. Even if you don't glimpse those gentle, increasingly rare creatures, you're likely to startle thousands of cormorants that leap from the surface of the water to darken the sky.

Or simply sit on your own bungalow's deck over the water and watch a great blue heron land on a mangrove knee, or a rare tropical sun grebe, a solitary falcon or flocks of green and red toucans, parrots or parakeets flying past.

Naturalist and nature photographer John Tveten of Houston was there with us and declared it "simply a great area for bird watching."

A place like the Catamaran makes any trip worth the trouble.

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Best months on the Caribbean coast are February to May, and September. You'll get some rain then, but more is likely the rest of the year. You can enjoy good weeks at any time, however.

Prices: double rooms, $15 to $17; bungalows over the water for two, $21 to $25. Beer is 80 cents, drinks $1, meals $3 to $4. Contact Hotel Catamaran, 7a. Calle 2-39, Zona 10, Guatemala City, Guatemala.

Another hotel across the river is plusher, even has carpeting. Write to Hotel del Rio, c/o Travel International, Avenida La Reforma 6-30, Zona 4, Guatemala City, Guatemala.

Hotel Catamaran is 170 miles from Guatemala City, about a five- to six-hour drive with time out for lunch. Avis has an office at the airport and another in Guatemala City at 12 Calle 7-73, Zona 9. Or take a public bus. The fare is about $3, but the buses are generally crowded and not air-conditioned.

Once in Frontera, a ride in a comfortable and safe dugout canoe to Catamaran Island costs $2 for two people.

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