Saturday, March 1, 2014

Central America (2013)

We set off from Panama City on October 9th to begin our voyage up the west coast of Central America.  We weren’t sure what to expect in terms of weather as the grib files showed little to no wind all the way up to Mexico.  The coastal land and sea breezes, which don’t show up on these offshore forecasts, might allow us to sail some, but we couldn’t count on them.  There are several ports along the coast where we could take on fuel and get some rest if needed, so we decided to just play it by ear in terms of when and where we would stop.  We hoped to eke out enough mileage to at least make it to northern Costa Rica, 550 miles away, on our first leg. 

The course from Panama City took us first south toward Punta Mala, and conditions were beautiful with winds NW 12-15 and flat seas.  This was short-lived, and only eight hours later, we had to fire up the engine and motor sail.  The winds were right on our nose as we rounded Punta Mala, and we bashed into five foot seas for the next 12 hours.

During day two, the seas calmed, and the wind was WSW at 5 knots, just off the nose enough to motor sail as we began to turn slightly to the NW.  As we neared Costa Rica, our speed increased thanks to a boost from the current.  This allowed us to run the engine at a lower RPM and still average 5.5 knots, meaning our fuel should last longer.  Nonetheless, we set our course for Marina Papagayo to be on the safe side and top off our diesel.  Although the sailing so far was lousy, after several months in the Caribbean, it was nice to be back in the Pacific again, where the sea life is abundant.  Fish and rays jumped out of the water all around us, dolphins played near the bow of the boat, and we saw plenty of turtles and sea snakes in the water as well.  It was time to do a little fishing, and Andrew caught a small tuna shortly after he put the line in the water.

The weather was the same every day.  Hot with clear skies during the day, and then clouds would start to fill in just in time for a beautiful sunset.  A few hours later thunderstorms began to roll out to sea, and our night watches were spent trying to avoid them and crossing our fingers that the lightning would miss us. 

The morning of day four was the by far the most frightening squall we’ve experienced.  Of course, it hit when we near a fishing boat, the only other boat we had seen since Panama City.  We were motor-sailing with a double-reefed main when the winds kicked up to 40 knots and sheets of rain pelted the decks.  We quickly lost sight of the fishing boat or anything else past 50 yards.  Lightning was crashing down all around us, with deafening cracks of thunder sounding instantly, verifying just how close those bolts were to us.  We left the engine running in forward, with just enough speed to keep our bow into the wind and fore reach slowly, while we both cowered on the cabin sole hoping to avoid arcing bolts of lightning if Saviah was struck.  An hour later, the skies cleared, and we could breathe easier until the next evening.

After four days, we rounded the northwest coast of Costa Rica and into the Golfo de Papagayo.  We only had so much time to spend in Central America, and if the weather was good, our plan was to skip Costa Rica all together.  There are some amazing sites to see in the country, but it is really expensive, there are reports of crime in many of the anchorages, and clearing in and out is a hassle.  We hoped to make a quick stop at the fuel dock to top up our fuel tanks and continue on to El Salvador. 

We hailed Marina Papagayo on the VHF and asked if we could take on fuel.  They said we would need to clear into the country first before we could take on fuel.  The nearest port that could do customs clearance was El Coco, 5 miles away, where we would have to anchor out and row in, walk around to all the offices and pay hundreds of dollars.  Clearance here is an all-day process, leaving Saviah unattended in an anchorage with a history of boat break-ins while owners are on shore.  The marina also told us there would be a 48-hour quarantine, apparently a new regulation, and after that we would be allowed to take on fuel.  Then we would need a repeat trip to El Coco, walk around to the offices, and pay more money to check out. 

This was going to cost us several days and quite a bit of money, just to get fuel.  Because of such a favorable current, we still had an eighth of a tank of fuel left.  We wouldn’t make it to El Salvador, but there is a marina and fuel dock in northern Nicaragua, 150 miles away.  If the calm seas and favorable current continued, and we had a little wind, we could make it.

We crossed the Gulf of Papagayo in flat calm conditions, and by sunset, we were sailing as the NE winds filled in at 10-15 knots.  It only lasted six hours but did save us some fuel.   The next day we kept the RPM’s low as we motor-sailed slowly along the coast of Nicaragua, enjoying views of the dozens of volcanoes that line the Pacific Coast. 

We approached the narrow entrance to the estuary in northwest Nicaragua where the Marina Puesta Del Sol is located, just as the sun was going down and with the engine running on fumes.  If we were 20 minutes later, we wouldn’t have had enough light to make the entrance.  We followed the channel markers into the marina as the last of the twilight faded.  It was nice to be back in port again.  We enjoyed burgers at the restaurant before crashing hard, exhausted after our six day passage. 

The marina is part of a nice resort with several pools, a private beach and a restaurant.  There were no other guests in the marina or at the resort, so we had the place to ourselves and access to all of the amenities.  The staff was very helpful and the morning after we arrived, they arranged for customs and immigration officials to drive out from another town to clear us in right at the marina.  This was much easier and significantly less costly than Costa Rica. 

We decided to do some land travel, and the first thing on the list was to hike up one of the nearby volcanos.  Unfortunately, the trails were closed for the rainy season, so we opted for a quick trip into the city of Leon instead.  We took a cab into nearby Chinandega and from there we caught the bus to Leon, a colonial city a couple hours away.

Leon was founded in 1524 and was the capital of Nicaragua until 1857.  There are quite a few historic buildings and churches here, including the main cathedral, which is the biggest in Central America.  There are supposed to be a couple of good museums, which were closed for renovation during our stay, but we still enjoyed walking around and checking out the town, happy to be off the boat for a little while. 

After a few days, we caught the bus back to Chinandega, where we had to change bus terminals.  Unsure of the terminal location or which bus to catch, we were lucky to recognize one of the resort employees and asked if we could tag along.  She got on one of the bicycle taxis and we joined her.  These three wheel bicycle taxis were a main form of transportation in Leon as well.  It felt strange and very lazy for the three of us to be peddled across town on the front of a bike, but that is the way people here get around. 

Back aboard Saviah, we were ready to move on and checked the weather, which looked fine for another leg north.  Although the marina was nice, it was also a bit isolated.  There isn’t a town nearby, so no place to get groceries, and there were no other cruisers to hang out with.  So we had the marina call the customs guys back to clear us out, did some laundry and topped off our fuel tanks.  We got our papers around 4 pm and, set sail for Bahia del Sol, El Salvador, 107 miles away.  

A few hours later, we found ourselves in the middle of a squall with 30 knots of SE wind, lightning, and choppy seas.  It only lasted two hours, but the choppy seas stayed with us for several hours, causing us to roll heavily with no wind to keep our sails full.  After that, it was an uneventful trip, and we made it to the harbor entrance at 3 pm, an hour before high tide. 

Our late afternoon departure from Nicaragua was coordinated with the high tide in Bahia del Sol at 4 pm.  Since the entrance to the protected estuary involves crossing a sand bar with a 12 foot deep channel that moves during the year, it must be done at high tide and with a local pilot that guides you in.  When we were just outside the estuary, we radioed the marina and requested a pilot boat.  It was about an hour before high tide, and we drifted in front of the large breakers guarding the entrance.  They looked daunting, and we didn’t see any indication of a channel.

Around 4:30 pm, the pilot boat arrived, and we battened down all the hatches and portlights.  Andrew manned the helm, while Di communicated with the pilot on the VHF.  We sat just beyond the breaking waves for a few minutes, while the pilot watched the wave sets, looking for a group of smaller waves.  Fast powerboats can get over the sandbar between waves, but these waves will catch us over the course of the transit and so it is best to wait for a smaller set. 

The pilot gave us some general instructions and after a few minutes told us to follow him forward at full throttle.  Andrew pushed the engine up to 2,500 RPMs to keep our speed up.  Six waves caught us during our bar crossing, and Saviah rose up the front side and surfed down the back.  It was a bit of a fight to keep her perpendicular to the waves so we wouldn’t get knocked over, but Andrew did a nice job of holding our course, and it was a big relief to have crossed the bar and reach the flat waters of the estuary.  Of course, getting in is the easy part, and we wondered what it would be like going into the waves on the way out. 

We motored another half mile into the estuary and pulled into a slip at the marina.  We were welcomed by a big group of people, including marina staff, the port captain, an immigration officer, Bill who heads up the El Salvador Rally and several other cruisers as well.  The first order of business was to complete our clearance, which was quick and easy with the officials located on site.

It was slack tide when we arrived, so in the middle of the night, we were surprised to wake to the sound of rushing water.  When we looked outside, the water was flowing so fast by the docks that it sounded like rapids.  We later heard that the current reaches up to 4 knots in the estuary.  We were glad to be tied up to the dock.  Although there is a decent anchorage in the estuary, getting to and from shore would have been a real chore in that current with no outboard on our dinghy.  The marina was also relatively inexpensive and a good spot to leave the boat for some inland travel that we were planning. 

The marina in Bahia del Sol is also part of a resort, and we again had access to all the amenities like pools and restaurants.  We spent our first week working on a few boat projects, cooling off at the pool, and planning our inland trip. There was also a good group of cruisers there that met at the pool every afternoon, and we enjoyed hanging out with them. 

After a week in the marina, we packed our backpacks and headed off on the bus to San Salvador.  This was supposed to be a short stop before catching another bus into Honduras, but we had the first of many scheduling problems on this trip.  The bus we were planning on taking wouldn’t arrive for another couple days, so we decided to make the most of it and look around the city. 

San Salvador is the capital of El Salvador and has a population of around 1.8 million people.  Pollution is pretty bad here, and crime is also a major problem.  It wasn’t very high on our list of places to visit, but we decided to see the sites since we had time to kill.  Our hotel was half a mile away from the downtown area, so we walked over to check out the Plaza Barrios with the Catedral Metropolitana across the street.  We also walked around the nearby Plaza Libertad and spent some time at the Central Mercado a few blocks away.  Here you can get just about anything from the hundreds of little stalls that line the streets.  We definitely stood out like a sore thumb.  People looked at us like they had never seen another tourist before, and we didn’t see any others while we were there.  After a few hours, we had enough and decided to see some of the sites outside the city.

San Salvador

Just outside of town, there are ruins from two ancient Mayan cities.  There was an English speaking taxi driver that was recommended by some other cruisers, and we arranged with him ahead of time to take us around.  On our arrival, we were told it was his day off.  We bartered for a while with a few other drivers and eventually found one to take us for a reasonable price. 

Our first stop was Joya de Cerén, a small settlement that was buried under ash in AD 595, after the eruption of a nearby volcano.  There was a small museum there that did a good job of documenting the history of the place and had some interesting artifacts as well.  The actual site itself was not much to see.  There were some small structures that had been uncovered by archaeologists, but they were fenced off and you couldn’t get very close.  So after about half an hour of walking around, we were off again. 

The next stop was the Ruinas de San Andrés, another Mayan settlement.  We were more optimistic about this site, which was occupied from AD 600-900 and once was the home for 12,000 people.  It was only recently discovered in 1977, when a large courtyard with a subterranean section was unearthed.  Unfortunately, this site was also a little disappointing.  It turns out that the subterranean section was closed off and most of the structures are still buried.  So, it was back to the hotel after a not so exciting day of sightseeing. 
Joya de Cerén and Ruines de San Andrés

The next day, we hired another taxi and headed about ten miles outside of town to see the Puerta del Diablo (Devil’s Door) and the small nearby town of Panchimalco.  Puerta Del Diablo is two giant boulders with several trails for hiking.  From the top, there were great views of the surrounding volcanoes and all the way to the Pacific Ocean.  We spent an hour hiking and were a bit surprised when our taxi driver decided to hike with us. He had on dress shoes, slacks and a white shirt, not a good combination for these muddy trails. 

After the hike we went into nearby Panchimalco, a historic town established by the Spanish in the 18th century and occupied mostly by descendants of indigenous Pipil Indians.  Once again, our taxi driver wouldn’t leave our side and stayed with us as we toured a small museum and an old church.  He explained that the area is dangerous and wanted to make sure we were safe.  On the way back, we passed many pupuserias lining the street and stopped at one of the most well-known ones for lunch.  At these stands they make pupusas, which are thick corn or rice tortillas, stuffed with cheese, beans, and/or meat and are the national dish of El Salvador.  We ate these almost every day during our stay.

After a few days, we caught our shuttle to Copan.  We had the comfortable van all to ourselves, and the trip took about five hours including a couple of stops.  One stop to clear out of El Salvador and into Guatemala, and another to clear out of Guatemala and into Honduras.  We would have to repeat this procedure in reverse on the way back.  At this point, we grew a little nervous about our passports, since we don’t have a big enough blank space for another stamp and we would need at least ten more.  We worried a little about this causing problems on border crossings.  Immigration officials were telling us we needed more pages, but so far they were willing to just stamp right over the others.  Hopefully this will continue.

We arrived in Copan Ruinas late that afternoon, and our shuttle dropped us off at our hostel just in time for dinner.  We instantly liked the small hilly town, with cobblestone streets and adobe buildings.  It was only a ten minute walk from the Mayan ruins, and we looked forward to exploring more on foot the next day.
Copán Ruinas

The next morning we rose early and walked to the Copán ruins.  The city was founded when one of the royal Mayan families settled in the area around AD 426 and remained the site of one of the most important Mayan civilizations for nearly four centuries afterword.  At its peak, there were around 20,000 people living in the 3,000 + structures around the main site. It was eventually abandoned and reclaimed by the jungle for reasons unknown. 

We had the place virtually to ourselves and spent most of the day walking around the ruins and looking at the many statues and hieroglyphics.  Many of structures are well preserved, although some have giant trees growing out of the sides, and roots that have caused all sorts of damage. 

The next day we came back again and hired a guide for a short tour of the tunnels that run through a few of the structures.  These tunnels were dug by archeologists to see and study the different layers underneath.  It was really interesting and he explained how each of the 16 kings that ruled the city was supposed to build over the remains of the previous city, completely covering the old structures.  As the structures became larger and larger, it took longer for the new king to build his city.  On a few occasions, the new king didn’t live very long, and they simply didn’t have time to rebuild. 

Visiting the ruins was definitely a highlight of our time in Central America.  After a few days of walking around the site, we decided to hop on a mototaxi and check out nearby Macaw Mountain.  This is a bird sanctuary just outside of town where they have all sorts of local birds. 

The sanctuary takes care of rescued, abandoned and endangered birds, some of which are eventually released out into the wild again.  They had lots of macaws, toucans, parrots, parakeets and many others.  Some of the birds are allowed out of their cages at feeding time and we happened to walk by just in time.  One of the guys from the park asked Di if she wanted to hold a couple of the birds and pose for a photo. 

After three days in Copan, we were due to catch an early shuttle back to San Salvador the next day.  Unfortunately, for lunch that day we picked the wrong place to enjoy some baleadas.  This is a Honduran staple with beans and/or meat in a flour tortilla, folded in a half and fried.  Later that night we both ended up with food poisoning.  This was actually only the second time for us to get sick, three and a half years into our trip, which isn’t too bad. 

When the bus driver showed up at 4 am, we were too sick to even consider getting in a vehicle.  The next day, we looked for another bus to San Salvador, but learned that there wasn’t one for another four days.  We did find another one going to Antigua, Guatemala leaving in two days.  Even though this was the wrong direction, they had daily busses from Antigua to San Salvador and it would end up being faster.  So we spent the next couple days recovering and then headed west to Guatemala. 

We really enjoyed traveling in the small tourist vans that go from place to place around Central America, and are both cheap and comfortable.  The weekend we left was the Dia de las Muertas (Day of the Dead), which people celebrate in this part of the world to honor their ancestors.  We passed several cemeteries, which were packed with families gathered around gravesites.  A few hours after we left, we passed through the capital, Guatemala City and then on to nearby Antigua. 

We arrived after dark and had a hard time finding the hostel where we had reservations.  Antigua is cold after sunset, and since it was an unplanned stop, so we didn’t have much for warm clothes.  After wandering around for about 30 minutes we finally found our hostel, but they had rented our room and didn’t have anything else available.  The manager walked us to the house next door where the family had a room in the back for rent.  It was not ideal, especially since they didn’t have hot water, but it was late and we didn’t feel like going door to door looking for another place to stay.

The next morning, we set out to see the city.  We had a full day there before our bus left for El Salvador the following morning, and we wanted to see as much of it as we could.  The city has an interesting history.  It was founded 1543, and served as the colonial capital for 233 years until it was transferred to Guatemala City in 1776.  The move was due to an earthquake in 1773 that destroyed much of the city.  The town was slowly rebuilt, retaining much of its traditional character, but there are still a few building that are ruins. 

Antigua’s setting is gorgeous, nestled between three volcanoes.  Most of the buildings that line the cobblestone streets were constructed during the 17th and 18th centuries, when the city was a rich Spanish outpost.  Many of them have been well preserved and there are also several impressive ruins from the earthquake that are open to the public. 

We spent most of our time walking around and hanging out in the Parque Central, which was a nice place for people watching.  It was especially interesting to see the villagers that come into town to sell their crafts.  Mostly, these where Mayan women wearing colorful traditional clothes and bringing in their handmade textiles to sell.  In fact, the majority of Guatemala’s population is Mayan, and many of them still where the traditional dress and speak one of about 20 different Mayan languages.  

We liked Antigua and could have easily stayed another couple days, but it was time to get back to the boat.  We took another small tourist van for the trip to La Libertad, El Salvador.  This area is on the coast and a popular spot for backpackers who like to surf.  After the rest of the passengers were dropped off, our driver took us to a bus stop where we would need to take local busses for the last stretch to the marina.

These were very crowded chicken busses, which are basically old school busses painted in crazy colors with horns blaring.  There were even guys sitting on the roof to take your large luggage and give it back to you when you reached your destination.  There is always room for one more, and just when you think you think there isn’t enough room for one more, another five passengers get in.  Our first bus was to Comalapa, about 15 miles away, and we stood for the 45 minute trip on a bus with three times more passengers than seats. 

After that, we waited on a busy corner in Comalapa for about an hour for our next bus.  It was definitely interesting watching the comings and goings in this town.  The street vendors hop on every bus that stops and try for a few minutes to sell their goods to people on these busses, before jumping off down the road and walking back for the next one.  There were also the delivery drivers who were heavily armed, even if it was just a small soda delivery truck.  Actually El Salvador is definitely the most gun loving country we’ve visited.  There were machine gun wielding guards at just about every building, as well as people who just had pistols tucked into their pants, no holster necessary. 

We finally reached the marina 12 hours after leaving Antigua and were happy to be back aboard Saviah.  The next day we checked the weather, which looked good for several days.  The marina was busy preparing for a sport fishing tournament, and we would have to vacate our slip in a few days anyway, so we decided to get moving.  We checked out of the country with the customs and immigration guys and coordinated with the pilot boat for leaving the estuary at high tide that afternoon.  We scrambled to get everything stowed and on November 5th, we bid farewell to El Salvador and headed out for the 250 mile trip to Mexico.