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Cruising is . . .

AND an incredible hands-on lesson in geography!

When we posted our last update, we were still in Mexico in “Bahias de Huatulco.” And after the built up coastline of the mainland Mexican Pacific coast, Huatulco (“Wah-TOOL-co”) was a real treat for us.

Bahias de Huatulco, the southernmost recreational destination on Mexico’s Pacific side, is a series of small coves and bays. Many of the anchorages reminded us of the Sea of Cortez: only one or two other boats, barren sandy beaches and excellent snorkeling.

This area was the perfect place to have a visit from a special person and, in preparation, we pulled into Marina Chahué.

and got to work sprucing up.

We were very excited to see Jon crossing into the customs area of the Huatulco International Airport AND with all of his luggage, which included emergency supplies from the US – like cans of Petit Baby Le Seur Peas, Stove Top Stuffing Mix and Kraft Italian Dressing Mix. Thank you, Carol, for shopping and Jon for transporting!

We really enjoyed our time with Jon. We went sightseeing. Had several dinners out and lots of good chats.

We had some wonderful snorkeling and Jon got in some much needed R&R.

We hope you come back to visit again soon!

After Jon returned to the US we prepared to leave Mexico. We first had to go to the Capitán del Puerto to obtain permission to leave the country. We were the first ones in the office that day and it took them a while to find our paperwork. So we worked on our last Mexican postcards while we waited.

It cost us $490pesos (about $45US) for our exit paperwork. This was double the normal cost because it was “Semana Santa” (Easter Week Holiday) and all the employees were working overtime.

Enrique, the manager of Marina Chahué, made the long trip out to the airport with our passports to get them stamped by Migracion (Immigration). So, once we paid our marina bill, all of our paperwork was finally in order.

We had to time all of these activities with the weather, waiting for the perfect opportunity to “cross the Tehuantepec.”

The Gulf of Tehuantepec (“tay-WAHN-ta-peck”) is infamous for sudden gales called “tehuantepeckers” by cruisers. A tehuantepecker is capable of blowing a 120 foot coastal freighter 300 miles offshore. The Port Captain at Salina Cruz, the city on the western edge of the area says his port experiences Force 8 winds (35-40 knot winds) an average of 140 days per year. Last year, we understand that 4 boats were lost at sea crossing the Tehuantepec. No wonder that cruisers like us, in our small boats, approach this crossing with caution and concern!

There are two schools of thought on crossing the Tehuantepec: (1) “one foot on the beach” following close to the coastline so you can drop anchor and hunker down if an unexpected tehauntepecker develops and (2) straight shot rumb line from Huatulco to Puerto Madero at the southern end, getting across as quickly as possible but exposing yourself to the full force of gale winds and high seas if a tehuantepecker does arise. Cruisers will forever debate the merits of the two and there will never be a complete consensus on one or the other. Each captain and crew must make their own decision. For us, it was “one foot on the beach.”

We left as soon as we anticipated a fairly long weather window. On our first day out, we sailed until 5PM when we reached Punta Chipahua (“chip–a-HU-wah”) where we pulled into shallow water and dropped anchor next to the biggest sand dune we have ever seen.

And that was the pattern of our days for the next 10 days. A bit of motoring in the morning to pull up the anchor and get ourselves offshore into 40 feet of water; some wonderful sailing from mid morning to about 5PM and then heading back to shallow water to drop the anchor and get a full night’s sleep.

We were fortunate to have an easy crossing with wonderful weather. In fact it was our best sailing in all of Mexico. At one point, on a close haul, we had both the main and the mizzen reefed and the genoa only partially unfurled and we were still making 7 knots!

For the most part, the sea floor along the Pacific coast of southern Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador is even and composed of sand, mud and ground shells. So we could pull into shallow water and just drop the anchor whenever we were ready to call it a day. What surprised us was how shallow the water is so far off shore in some places. (Can you make out the shoreline in the picture below?)

The biggest danger we faced was fishing nets that could get caught in and foul our prop, especially along the coast of Guatemala.

Because of the high expense -- $160US to enter, $2.50US per foot boat length per night to anchor out (about $370 for 2 nights) -- we decided to not officially check into Guatemala, but we did raise the Guatemalan courtesy flag when we crossed over to their waters.

We didn’t stop to visit Guatemala, but the Guatemalan Navy came by to say hello to us.

After a night of squalls, thunder and lightening in Southern Guatemala (the first and only night we were not able to anchor out on our 10 day adventure), we crossed into the territorial waters of El Salvador and raised a new courtesy flag.

And a short while later, we were sailing past Acajutla, the northernmost port of El Salvador, and saying hello to . . . .

Uncle Sam!

From Acajutla we traveled another day and a half to our destination: Bahia del Sol. And since we would be making first landfall in a new country, we had to update our flags. On the starboard side, we added the yellow “Q” flag under the country flag for El Salvador.

On the port side, we raised the ship’s flag.

Bahia del Sol is actually a hotel located in Estero Jaltepeque. Because there is a large and dangerous sand bar at the mouth of the estuary, it was historically bypassed by cruisers. About 10 years ago, however, Marcos, the owner of the “Bahia del Sol” hotel saw two cruisers sailing past the mouth of the estuary. He got in his power boat and went out to greet them. He promised them a calm anchorage and wonderful hospitality if they would just trust him and follow his boat over the sand bar into the estuary. Would we have had the faith and courage to be the first to make that crossing, following someone we had never met before?

Even with guides many cruisers still bypass this area because of the sand bar. But we decided to give it a try. Preparatory to crossing the bar at Bahia del Sol, we dropped the sails, closed all the ports and secured everything on deck.

And then we followed our guides, former cruisers Murray and Colette (of the Whitby 42 “Tarazed”), over the bar and into the estuary.

We had a very easy bar crossing. The shallowest water we saw was 4 feet under the keel. And we had no waves breaking over the deck. Even still, our hearts were pumping from the stress of being ready for anything. Boy were we all glad to get into the calm water of the estuary.

And it sure looked inviting. The tropical environment we saw was far different than what we had been used to in Mexico

The hotel houses a representative from immigration and there is a navy base in the estuary. Murray collected the needed officials and brought them out to our boat. Clearing into El Salvador was completed on the boat, took about 10 minutes and cost a mere $10US per person for a 90 day visa. Nobody said a word about the pups!

There were about 60 boats at anchor in the estuary with us. The estuary being so calm and safe, most of the boats were empty, their owners on extended inland sightseeing trips or travels back to home.

There is no cost to anchor in the estuary. Using one of the mooring balls costs just $5US per day. And for a mere $15US per week, cruisers have use of the Hotel Bahia del Sol’s dinghy dock, showers, trash cans, and swimming pool.

For an additional $30 per month, the hotel also provides WiFi internet access at the restaurant and around the pool.

In the estero (estuary), everything is accessible by river and everyone uses the river like a city street. Cruisers travel in inflatable dinghies, locals travel in canoes carved out of trees or fiberglass pangas.

One day, we took our dinghy up the estero to the small town of Herradura and had a shrimp lunch at one of the riverfront restaurants.

The food was great but it was hard to get the attention of the servers who were engrossed in the latest games for the world cup.

This is when we discovered that tortillas are very different in El Salvador. They have a smaller diameter and are very thick.

We love to try out new foods. While in Bahia del Sol, we made friends with Teresa of the restaurant Mar Y Sol and she arranged for the head cook to give us a lesson in making the national dish of El Salvador: the Pupusa. A Pupusa is a ball of tortilla dough stuffed with a filling of cheese, beans, shrimp, pork, etc. The ball is then flattened out and cooked on a hot griddle.

And remember all those boats with the owners away? Many of the locals now earn money tending to those boats. Santos arranges for maintenance work and also does bottom cleaning himself. He speaks great English and is recently married with a small son. One day we went out with Santos, his wife Mari and son to one of his favorite restaurants.

There was no printed menu. The cook opened her ice chest to show us what was available. Our dinners included 10 shrimp for $5US. Beer $1US per bottle.

We had one major provisioning trip into the capital city, San Salvador. We hired Jose and his taxi for $60 US for one full day of shopping. It was a one hour drive from Bahia del Sol to San Salvador. Along the way we passed many road side stands for fruit, coconuts, and vegetables.

El Salvador is a country of the very wealthy and the very poor. What a contrast between the road side stands and the shopping malls of San Salvador. One of the malls was built around the former home of a very wealthy resident.

Shopping at the traditional stores in San Salvador was interesting. They did not have shelves of merchandise, but counters and peg boards. One of everything available is affixed to the peg board. You just need to point.

And every store has its own security force. (A way to put all those guns from the civil war to use?)

Our main reason for braving the bar at Bahia del Sol was to get a new coat of anti-fouling paint on the hull. It was quite an experience to say the least so we will let the pictures tell the story.

What we had planned would be a 4 day adventure in the yard turned into a two week ordeal. It was a particularly long time for the pups who had only one way to get off and on the boat. (Our efforts to secure a room for us and the pups at the hotel were not successful. We all lived on the boat the two weeks we were “on the hard.”)

We were all very happy when it was time to drop us back in the water.

Finally, we were ready to continue our journey south! First, though, we had to go to the naval base in the estuary to get the commandant’s permission.

Those who pass up Bahia del Sol, usually pull into the Barillas Marina Club, located in the next estuary about 40 miles down the coast of El Salvador. We decided to check out Barillas as well. To get into Barillas also entails crossing a bar, but this bar is much smaller and much tamer. After the bar crossing it is a 7 mile trip up river to the club.

This exclusive club belongs to a very wealthy El Salvadoran. Non Salvadoran tourists who arrive on a boat become automatic members of the club when they arrive.

El Salvadoran nationals who belong to the club usually fly in, using the club’s mile long private landing strip.

This is a club for the very wealthy and the grounds and accommodations show it.

All this for just $11 per night for cruisers? We’ve been told that a business that promotes tourism in El Salvador is exempt from taxes. We’re not sure there is a connection here, but it did cause us to think about it.

The Barillas Marina Club is out in the middle of nowhere. It is surrounded by jungle and sugar cane plantations. One day, one of the guards took us on a walk through the jungle.

Our destination was a clearing in the jungle where some families lived.

Here we met Miguel who has looked after and befriended a troop of monkeys. During the civil war, El Salvador’s monkey were often used as target practice. Since peace in 1992, Miguel has nurtured the troop and enabled it to grow from 3 to its current size of 3 babies and 17 adults.

We spent a fascinating time with Miguel, feeding and watching the monkeys.

We thanked Miguel with a gift of food for his family.

Once each week, the Barillas Marina Club provides transportation for cruisers to visit the town of Usulutan for provisioning and shopping. The trip takes one hour and half of the time it is on a dirt road through old sugar cane fields. The town is fascinating, and indicative of every other place we saw in El Salvador: a mixture of the very new with the very old; the very wealthy with the very poor.

El Salvador’s major cities have large grocery stores. But we still prefer to shop at the small street side stalls, like this one we found when we took a dinghy trip up the estuary from the Barillas Marina Club.

After a week in Barillas, we were ready to continue our journey south. Our next stop was the Golfo de Fonseca (Gulf of Fonseca), a large bay with several islands bordered by 3 countries.

We visited several of the islands in Fonseca, and then crossed over and up the large estuary to the town of San Lorenzo and into our next country: Honduras.

Because of its out of the way location, San Lorenzo is not often visited by cruisers. But Armando, a San Lorenzo native, has built a restaurant on the river “Porlamar del Pacifico”, is adding some hotel rooms, plans to put in some mooring balls and is actively promoting San Lorenzo as a cruising destination. When new boats arrive and drop anchor, he brings out beer and ice as a welcome gift. He provides a small launch ramp for cruisers to park their dinghies, serves wonderful food (a great shrimp dinner for just $5US) and helps cruisers in whatever way he can. His local phone is: 781-2370

The town of San Lorenzo had an immigration office so the passport check-in was easy. Armando arranged transportation for us to get out to the Port Captain’s office for the remaining required paperwork.

San Lorenzo is not a wealthy town. But it is clean (a welcome respite from some of the towns in Mexico and El Salvador), and the people were very friendly and gracious.

Leaving San Lorenzo, we returned to the gulf proper and visited Amapala on the Honduran island of Isla El Tigre.

Arriving at the southern end of the Golfo de Fonseca, we were in our third Central American country: Nicaragua.

We anchored one night at the “Monypenny” anchorage at the southern point of the gulf where we enjoyed the best of the Gulf: gigantic shrimp.

And then we returned to the swells of the Pacific Ocean for a 35 mile trip down the coast before we turned into another estuary, crossed another bar and arrived at the new Marina Puesta Del Sol.

Marina Puesta del Sol was completed June 2004 by a former cruiser from California. He came to Nicaragua to build a power plant and got a little sidetracked when he discovered there were no marinas to keep his cruising sailboat. The upshot was the first marina/resort in the country. And it is a first class resort with 2 pools, a five-star restaurant and more

A two room suite costs $550+ per night. Our two cabin sailboat runs $22 per night. But then, we don’t have someone to leave mints on the pillows!

The marina is some distance from the nearest town. Needing to reprovision, we grabbed a ride with one of the restaurant employees who was heading into the markets to do some shopping. Leaving the marina, we started on a dirt road. Bouncing along with our teeth and spines jangling, we hoped that it wouldn’t last too long.

Be careful what you wish for . . .

The paved portion had so many potholes it was impossible to drive in a straight line and this is a main highway. The few times we saw another car, it was like a game of chicken to see who was going to go around which pothole in what direction!

Luckily, we didn’t see too many cars. The road was mostly populated with pedestrians, bicyclists, equestrians, horse drawn carts and livestock.

The countryside was beautiful.

And although we saw the same contrast between the wealthy and the poor as with the other Central American countries we have visited, it didn’t seem to be so dramatic here. Homes were in good condition, livestock were well fed and the people carried themselves with pride.

The town of Chinandega was great! Most people got around by walking, bicycling or grabbing one of the pedal-powered taxis.

As with most larger cities, even if you had a car, it would be hard to find a parking space.

Chinandega had the biggest Mercado we had ever been in. So we had fun provisioning. The final number at the supermarket was a bit steep though: C3,186.64! (Didn’t sound so bad when we converted it to dollars - $180US at an exchange rate of 17.5 Cordobas to the dollar.)

As much as we have enjoyed these three Central American countries, there is a big incentive for us to head south.

It’s the start of the rainy season here. There’s been rain, thunder and lightening like we have never experienced before. We have endured humidity that saps our energy. When its raining, it’s 80° F and 96% relative humidity. When it is sunny its 100° F or more and 88% relative humidity. For the first time ever we have had to put up both our sun and rain covers.

And this is just the beginning of the season. We hear that it gets worse in the months of August and September. So we are headed south again. How far? We’re not quite sure. We are still thinking to get to Ecuador.

Not all who wander are lost.

Copyright © 2006 Shaimas. All rights reserved. Last updated 14 June 2006