Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Dispatch 27 El Salvador

April 16 – 24, 2007
The grounds of Barillas marina are stunning. The land was once a plantation owned by one of the 14 rich families in El Salvador. The land was divided during the revolution, but, when things settled down, the owner developed the resort here. The former president apparently used to come here as a luxury retreat so the service is impeccable. They have a hangar for charter airplanes, bungalows to stay in, a restaurant, store, pool, showers and large area of grounds which they will guide you around. They are very concerned for our security and want to accompany their guests everywhere. They offer a walk to view monkeys near a settlement on the grounds which we enjoyed. An air-conditioned van (complete with armed guard) goes to town (a half hour away) twice a week for us to get groceries. We selected this place for its security while we make a family trip back to Ohio later this month, but, meanwhile, we’ve enjoyed the facilities a bit. There are, so far, 2 down sides to our boat moorage. One is the dadblammit no-see-ums that plague us much of the morning and evening. We shower in the late afternoon only to spray bugspray onto our just cleaned bodies so we can survive the trip back to the boat. The other down side is the place is hotter than hell. It is humid hot and we are here just before rainy season which we understand cools things off a bit with a daily rain downpour. The only consolation is that, in talking to a couple here who are completing a circumnavigation, she said she has never been so hot anywhere which encourages us that this is as bad as it gets. We jump in the pool which is barely below air temperature and sit in it long enough to get our body temperature down a little with a slight breeze to help.

Several of us decided to take a little dinghy outing in this estuary at Barillas Marina. We are moored almost 10 miles up the estuary and thought to look around some of the little settlements on the way in. 3 dinghies set off with a total of 10 people. First we checked out a couple beaches that the marina manager had recommended for swimming and decided we weren’t interested. We stopped at a settlement and looked for a restaurant to return to for lunch. The first place we went into the guy sitting at the entrance was falling down drunk at 9:30 AM and mostly what we saw inside was cases of empty beer bottles. We moved on and found what looked like a real restaurant down the beach. There we told the woman cooking we wanted to return with 10 people for lunch and, after she told us all they had were pupusas, (the local specialty food), we said we’d be happy to eat whatever they made. We explored the inactive coconut plantation on land owned by the marina.

Then we went back to the restaurant. They were busy making pupusas, flat bread cooked on an iron skillet on an open fire, stuffed with chicharron (pork rind) and queso (cheese), and heated back up to melt the cheese. They served 3 per person. We also drank beer while we waited. We spent a couple hours there. We talked and watched the villagers, met the cook’s children and watched boats arrive and fill water barrels from the local well. The yard around the restaurant had pigs and dogs wandering around. We went to pay our bill and, for 10 people lunch and around 2 beers apiece, it was $35, total!! We were amazed.

We took the bus (with armed guard) and van (without armed guard—we belatedly learned the guard is to avoid having the bus stolen, not for our personal protection) into the local largish city called Usulutan. The town is bustling—crowded and busy on both Tues. and Fri. They have what seems to be a daily market set up for about 10 blocks with everything for sale imaginable—household goods, fruits, vegetables, meats, live chickens, iguanas and, like a scene from Harry Potter, crabs tied together in bundles stacked in a wash tub still waving their legs/claws. There is super loud music blaring from the stands selling CD’s or the mobile carts selling CD’s moving up and down the market. The vendors are very nice to us and nearly every block there is someone who yells out in English, “Hello, how are you” or “Good morning”. There are many El Salvadorans who live in the US and send money back to their families here—in fact that is the single largest source of income for the country.

On first impression, we have found the El Salvadoran people friendly and less jaded by tourist interactions. Many have capped front teeth with metal, most often gold. They are quite short—we both stand out in a crowd. So far we like El Salvador but there is grinding poverty here and large income discrepancies between rich and poor. The minimum daily wage is somewhere around $5, yet there is a parking garage in San Salvador charging $5/hr for parking—guess who parks there? The currency is US dollars, which makes it more convenient for the El Salvadorans living in the US to send money to their families. The “Spanish” word for 25 cents is “quatah” (you know, quarter) so a bunch of bananas might cost “dos quatahs”. Mangoes and bananas just fall off the trees here so they tend to be super cheap and so delicious. The women carry most everything on their heads; the men carry machetes or guns.

The weather is excruciating to us—hot and humid. One night we had the first rain of the season. The day had been horribly muggy and overcast and by evening there were thunderclouds building up over the mountains. After dark, we could hear thunder and were waiting for rain. It was not subtle—it fell like cosmic buckets being emptied over the whole boat accompanied by huge gusts of winds and wild lightning flashes. We were too busy closing ports and hatches to count the seconds between the flash of lightning and the thunder but we may not have been able to correlate the two since they came so often. We had boat covers over the whole boat for sun and had hoped we would be able to withstand a rain without closing the boat up (due to the heat). No dice. The rain was horizontal buckets at times and, in seconds, the settees were getting wet and we were scrambling to close it all up. The good news is it lasted less than an hour and the air was much fresher when it was all over as was the next day. We can expect more of this to come—probably nightly starting in May.

We closed up the boat to head to the U.S. On the way, we had 3 days to take in some of El Salvador. We took the usual luxury van into Usulutan, but, from there, with another couple of cruisers, we took the “chicken bus” to San Salvador. The buses here are converted school buses with no shocks, just like in Mexico. The cost of the 2.5 hour trip was $1.60 each. The bus was full, sometimes with standing room only. As we stopped in various places vendors would enter the bus with food, candy, vitamins for sale. The food vendors are usually women and they balance a basket of, let’s say, cucumber slices in plastic bags and, when someone buys some, they open the bag and put in hot sauce and salt all while standing on a lurching bus. They have amazing balance! Other food for sale included banana chips, fresh sliced fruit, fresh roasted cashews (they grow everywhere here), dulces (hard candies). The vitamin vendor came aboard as the bus was trying to get around a corner in a town market with stalls set up on both sides of the street and barely room for the bus to fit between. He had a voice that would have pleased an operatic bass singer—he could project remarkably as he told us about the miraculous capabilities of his vitamins that cure arthritis, kidney problems, respiratory problems, heart problems to name a few that I caught in his speech. We had seen the same presentation on a bus in Mexico actually.

We arrived in the bus “terminal” in San Salvador, one of about 4 bus stations that are outdoors, filled to the brim with buses going every which way, on dirt/grass surrounded by food vendors. The way you identify your bus is someone comes up and asks where you are going and they point to the right bus—no posted schedules but the buses do have their destinations painted on the front. We caught a cab to the hotel we had chosen which was close to el centro. The taxi driver wasn’t familiar with the hotel so we had a bit of a time finding it but, once there, got rooms OK. The place was once nice but now a bit seedy. Richard and I elected to take the room with AC and were led up to the second floor, into the garage to the room just off the garage. It was pretty small but had a TV, bathroom and AC. The other couple took a room on the first floor that was so hot they had to keep open the window of the room which looked right into the hallway off the lobby—they had to keep it open all night!

We then ventured into the centro and walked through the Mercado (market) which sold everything as usual. We attracted a bit of attention here as gringos are very rare. We found a food stall that was crowded and ate some beef, rice and tortillas for lunch, then went to check out the Anthropology Museum. We took a cab to the museum and enjoyed the exhibit showing the ancient civilizations that had been in El Salvador since at least 2000 BC. Then we cooled off with some “chiladas”, a drink our new friends introduced us to. That is, beer poured over ice with lime juice—don’t gag, just imagine how good it tastes in 95 degrees and 90 percent humidity! The museum was in a very upscale almost suburban feeling part of the city and we found a supermarket much like any good US supermarket and bought a few snacks to take with us on our adventure for the next day. It was there we sat out our next violent short electrical rain storm—very exciting.

The next AM we were up early and took a cab to one of the other bus stations where we hopped a bus for Suchitoto. Cost for this trip was 80 cents apiece. This village just 30 miles north of San Salvador was darling and wonderful. The bus trip took about 1.5 hours but was fascinating. The telephone poles are painted different colors depending on whether it was FMLN territory or the other party. Unfortunately the roads are strewn with garbage but we have seen evidence that the El Salvadorans are trying to clean up. Horses were tethered by the side of the road.

Suchitoto was everything we wanted. Although it had had quite a bit of destruction during the war (it was an FMLN stronghold and one of the earliest sites of fighting), it had recovered nicely and is rediscovering itself as an arts center. The people were so nice everywhere and we felt very safe. They seemed to welcome tourists. At first we were the only gringos in the town, but, later in the day we saw 2 young backpackers walking the street and a load of Christian missionaries drove through and stopped for refreshment on their way to their final destination. There were several galleries selling local arts and crafts. The cathedral was non-stop action with 2 weddings and a funeral on the Saturday/Sunday 24 hour time period we were there. Richard and I stayed at a darling hotel just across from the cathedral. It had a garden courtyard where they served meals, and breakfast (a big one) was included, for a total of $27 which seemed expensive by El Salvador standards but it was convenient and nice. The room barely had space for 2 people to turn around beside the double bed and the bathroom was little bigger than the head in our boat and included a shower, but, hey, we’re used to living in small spaces and we didn’t really hang out there. We shopped the galleries, then walked down to Lake Suchitlan, a huge lake created in the 1970’s by a dam. It was beautiful and we enjoyed a leisurely lunch in the restaurant overlooking the lake. As we sat around the lake, the air temperature became intolerable so we took the mini-van back up to the town (stuffed full, no AC, but at least we weren’t walking in the blazing sun) and hung out over cold drinks for an hour or so until our friends headed back to San Salvador. Richard and I strolled the town and hung out at the town square with half the town until right around 7 when we felt the first rain drops. We popped up and went quickly to our hotel and it had already started to rain harder by the time we got there 3 minutes later. It started to pour as we sat under cover in the hotel courtyard and Richard stole a glance back at the town square which, in 5 minutes, was deserted! Welcome to the start of the rainy season.

We returned to San Salvador and stayed at a B & B in the suburban part of town. From there we were able to walk to the Art Museum and a gallery of the El Salvadoran artist Fernando Llort. Our host explained that this part of town is very safe because the president’s house is in the neighborhood. Indeed the houses here are very nice, large with lovely gardens but surrounded by high cement walls topped with razor wire sometimes double stranded and occasionally electrified for good measure. Also, every 3 blocks or so we found a security guard posted with shotguns or even automatic rifles. Tomorrow we leave for the US, after which we will return to the boat then launch into Guatemala for more exploration.

Dispatch 26 Golfo de Tehuantepec

April 7 – 11, 2007
The Golfo de Tehuantepec is the last hurdle before leaving Mexico and it’s a doozy. It stretches 240 miles from Puerto Angel to Puerto Madero (approximately) and is known for gale force winds 140 days/year or more. The gulf sits on the Pacific side of a gap in the mountains of Mexico across a very narrow waist of the country. In fact, due to its geography (the gap in the mountains and short stretch across land), the Tehuantepec was one of the considered sites for the canal that was eventually built in Panama. The big blows occur when North winds blow from Texas across the Gulf of Mexico, then funnel directly across the gap into the Golfo de Tehuantepec (in other words, hot air blowing out of Texas—you can just imagine how often this happens...) These “gap winds” accelerate the wind from the Atlantic side up to 2-3 times their original speed. A 15 knot wind can become a 45 knot wind after it is funneled through the gap, the seas build to 12-20 feet and it is surely a place you don’t want to be in a small boat. The boating world has dubbed these blows “Tehuantepeckers”. Fortunately for us boaters, these winds are almost completely predictable now. In the past, the strategy for transiting the gulf was to sail “one foot on the beach”, that is, barely offshore, so that if the winds started to blow, the seas or ‘fetch’ would be smaller since the wind comes off the land. Now, although that teaching dies hard, people are a bit more daring.

But let me digress to review the events to this point. Thanks to the many who wished Richard’s tooth well—so far it is. We had as good a dental experience as one could hope for and all is well to date. We bid Acapulco goodbye happily and spent 2 more days getting to Puerto Angel to stage ourselves for a Tehuantepec crossing. Puerto Angel was a cute town and a cute little anchorage which we shared with 3 other boats. Apparently we missed the large swells that swept into the bay the day before we arrived and we continued to be lucky for the following 6 days as the Tehuantepec was quiet. You see Puerto Angel really is right on the edge of the Tehuantepec and, though the area doesn’t feel the winds, it does feel some waves. We left there after a nice visit and found a scenic anchorage on the way to Huatulco, our final stop in Mexico. La India, this scenic anchorage was amazing. There are no shore services in this bay and from 4 PM to 10 AM we had the anchorage to ourselves. From 10-4, pangas carrying tourists and larger tour boats stop in for an hour or two to snorkel and then leave. The snorkeling there was some of the best we had in Mexico—the water clarity was stupendous and the reef was like a carpet over the bottom and healthier than any we had seen to date. We loved our stay in our little bay and left the day the swell started to increase and the visibility dropped. Another Tehuantepecker was starting.

A few miles away, we could escape into a new marina in Huatulco. The marina experiences a very uncomfortable surge, but is quite secure, and, best of all, run by a darling man Enrique who goes out of his way to help cruisers in every way. He helped us all get our international zarpe, a document that clears us out of the country and that is required for entry into the next country. He drove us to the gas station to fill up jerry cans. He drove a cruiser to the airport to pick up his wife, and on and on. He even made it possible for Richard and I to keep our FM3 documents which are supposed to be confiscated upon leaving Mexico—we wanted to keep them for souvenirs.

We left Huatulco, with the intended destination of Barillas marina in El Salvador, in the company of 4 boats. Because the weather windows are well defined, boats tend to leave in bunches and a natural camaraderie develops by traveling together. The boats were Seascape, a motor boat that traveled at 8 knots, Cop Out, a catamaran that traveled at 7 knots and Ventura, Cynosure and us, 3 sailboats who were fairly well matched and traveled at 5 knots. The initial foray into the gulf was lumpy with small to moderate winds right on the nose. The forecast was for the wind to die the afternoon/evening of our first day so we persisted despite the somewhat uncomfortable sea state. We decided to cut across the gulf due to the favorable weather forecast even though that would leave us little option if the wind should start to blow unexpectedly.

The group quickly split into their various speed contingents. The 3 sailboats ended up buddy boating the whole passage to El Salvador. Although it is not our typical choice to do so, buddy boating certainly afforded a sense of security in case of boat issues. Ventura had engine problems due to, we think, dirty fuel. The problem temporarily improved with a fuel filter change, but this had to be done at least once/day. Cynosure just happened to have a diesel mechanic aboard who paid a boat call to check the engine. Toward the end of the second day, we were motoring across the Gulf of Tehuantepec with 80 or so miles to go to reach the other side and the water was glassy, absolutely no wind. It seemed there were turtles every 100 yards or so. We all stopped to help troubleshoot Ventura’s engine problem, and, since neither of us had much expertise in the matter, I said to Richard, “Lets go swimming.” We all had our mainsails up by habit so we hung a line off the boat so that, if it should start to sail, we could grab the line to get back on board.

Secretly, it was one of my fantasies to swim on this daunting piece of water and my wish came true. In fact, everyone decided that was a grand idea and we all threw off what little clothes we had on and jumped in. The water was not all that refreshing—the temp was 86 degrees at the surface, but about 3-4 feet down, it became a little cooler. Just getting wet then getting out to air dry cooled us off. It was exhilarating and not the least because of the tiny risk that we would all leave the boat and it would leave without us!

As we all rinsed off and got set to go, Jordan got on board Ventura to look at the engine and Richard and I set the sails to ghost along in the 1-2 knots of wind that had started. We had been the slowest boat for the first day and a half and this got us a few hundred yards “ahead”. The other boats followed suit quickly and both also quickly got ahead of us. We watched as the wind climbed to 5-7 knots and looked at each other and said, “spinnaker” which was what we did. Fwooom, the spinnaker filled (well, it doesn’t exactly fill with a snap in 5 knots—forgive the poetic license), but it gave us our edge. We started gaining on the other boats. The wind built to 9-12, our boat speed was over 6 knots. As everyone knows, a sailboat race happens when 2 boats are on the water together so just as fast as they could, one, then the other boat put up their spinnakers. First and during all this, pictures were taken as we were sailing very close to one another. At one point I even radio-ed one of the boats and said, “Hey, head down a little and we’ll get your picture,” which they did, during which time we handily pulled ahead of them (and got their picture). Well, we concentrated on boat speed, uncharacteristically hand steered and actually pulled ahead of the other 2 boats both of whom were under spinnaker too. It was a glorious moment, enhanced by the radio call from Ventura who asked who was driving and complimented us on our seamanship. I think he said something like, “here you are this mellow cruising couple and all of a sudden you whip out this killer spinnaker and take off. I’m impressed.” He does single handed racing. I must admit, a spinnaker run in the Tehuantepec was another fantasy come true.

Well, if I were you I would be thinking that this is the part of the story where the wind continued to build and became 50 knots and those fools were hanging on for dear life, but, luckily, sportsfans, this story has no such drama. Just like airplane flights, the best description of a successful passage is, “uneventful”. At sunset, the wind died and we all turned on the engines. By morning we had successfully transited the Gulf in 2 days and were on our way into Guatemala.

We never saw the coast of Guatemala. It remained cloud shrouded with flashes of lightning at night and we were 15 miles offshore purposely to avoid fishing nets. Alas, apparently that was not far enough off shore. On the 4th day out, we caught one of the fishing lines on our rudder. Suddenly the boat speed dropped by a knot as we were towing hundreds of yards of fishing line and floats. We pulled the line on board and cut it hoping it would float free, but no dice. Richard had to swim the rudder and pull it free. Luckily it did not catch in our prop. Later the same day, we caught on another line—this time we saw the line, but there was no real way to get around it so we hoped to float over it like the other 2 boats we were with, but, no luck, we caught it again. This time it did float off once cut. We felt terrible about cutting the fishermen’s lines, but didn’t really have an option.

Because of the one boat’s engine trouble, we elected to travel very close together and were in visual distance through the whole 100 hour passage. While this was comforting, it meant that group decisions were made. Rather than our own speed (we would have chosen to sail much more and likely be slower,) the group decided to motor and maintain speed so we could arrive on the 5th day before it was too late to get a guide into the estuary. We sailed only when we could make good time and motor sailed a lot (kept the engine going while we sailed). We were able to move at above 6 knots with this approach and our overall average speed was greater than 5 knots, more than respectable for us.

The coast of El Salvador unshrouded herself as we arrived and we could see a couple of the volcanoes rising in the distance. Both El Salvador and Guatemala are very geologically active and have several volcanoes, too bad we didn’t see the coastline of Guatemala as we transited it. As a result of motoring, we arrived 4 hours earlier than our best estimate, first thing in the morning, and had almost no wait for a guide. The catamaran who took off like a flash the first day had to dawdle for almost a full day to avoid a night arrival and we all 4 went in together just a day behind the 8 knot motor boat. (Reminds me of the tortoise and the hare fable…) The guide is needed to transit the bar into the estuary. As we sat outside in 30-40 feet of water, we could see breakers along the coast in front of us. The guides sped out, lined us up like ducklings and guided us through the non-breaking part of the seas. It took 2.5 hours to get up into the estuary (against the current) and the first half of that was unnerving and a bit uncomfortable with breakers on each side and the residual confused seas to toss the boats around. This guide service is provided by the marina at no charge—logical once we got in there because there was no way we would have found the place otherwise!

The guide took each boat up to the mooring buoy, tied us up and went to report our arrival so Customs and Immigration could have a go at us. We are now in El Salvador! The check in was so comfortable it was almost embarrassing. The officials came out to each boat, boarded us, filled out paperwork, did a cursory inspection then drove us into shore to clear immigration and get our 90 day tourist visa for $10 each. El Salvador uses American dollars as its currency so the whole process could not have been easier. While on shore, the lot of us that arrived together decided we really must try out the pool and showers and have our first complimentary beverage so we hung out at a palapa by the pool, swam, visited, showered and thanked each other for good companionship on the voyage. Other friends are here as well and have just returned from inland travel in Guatemala.

We hope to land travel back to Guatemala while the boat sits here at the resort quietly. First, we have a trip planned to the US for Betsy’s mom’s birthday.