Sunday, July 01, 2007

Dispatch 30 Costa Rica

May 30- June 25, 2007
Costa Rica is stunningly beautiful and somehow feels familiar to us. We arrived after an overnight glorious sail to an amazing bay in the very north part of the country, Bahia Santa Elena. We were traveling in the company of another boat and entered to find 3 other boats anchored in this otherwise deserted bay surrounded by National Park. The weather NW of us featured 2 tropical storms, one threatening to become the first hurricane of the season so, at least we believe, our weather reflected the nearby disturbances. For the first 2 days, rain fronts swept through the bay over the course of the day and everything stayed pretty soggy. But the bay was almost completely enclosed, flat as a lake, surrounded by lush green hills and then it struck us—yes, this seemed familiar because, other than the temperature, the weather and scenery reminded us of SE Alaska!

The other boats were good company and we had a potluck featuring some guitar and drum playing and singalong. A group of us took a hike up a creek in search of a waterfall and found a beautiful waterhole for swimming with about a 6 foot waterfall feeding it. The trip was still fun even if the waterfall was a bit of a disappointment. The next day, the weather finally dried up and we went snorkeling outside the bay and had fair visibility and saw some lovely tropical fish and reef structure. We collected shells on the beach to finish off a great day. Meanwhile, every evening the parrots in the trees behind us would squawk to each other in voices that sounded almost like children playing on a playground. We scoured the greenery with our binocs until we finally found the green parrots with yellow heads. Nope, we’re not in SE Alaska anymore.

After 5 days of fun and games we finally sailed around the corner to do our official check-in with a delightful beam reach across the famed Bay of Papagayo. Intense winds that come unpredictably start here and blow out for a couple hundred miles in the dry season—lucky for us (?) it is now the rainy season so we have substituted that discomfort for another. In fact, soon after our early morning departure, one of the black cells of storm that peppered our radar screen arrived over us and it began to rain so hard it was like a firehose had been opened right above the boat. Now, it seems logical that, if one person is down below when the deluge hits, that person would remain below and stay dry so only one person gets wet. My only question is, why is it always Richard that is down below when the rain hits? The day ended sunny and we anchored in Playa del Coco, jumped in our friends’ dinghy and headed in to start the paperwork cha cha that characterizes the arrival at each new country. Our first impression on arrival at the town was that this country is full of gringos. In fact, it took a while to finally see a Tico (Costa Rican as they call themselves) amongst the tourists. It is a marked change from our recent travel experiences!

Check-ins are always interesting and the most important ingredients are patience and a sense of humor. It has been impossible, in our experience, to be completely prepared for all that the officials require. That is because, also in our experience, each boater’s experience is different depending on which official they interact with. Whereas one day you need 2 copies of your passport, on another day, you might need 3 or only the captain’s passport. The best approach is to arrive with abundant copies of everything and time to waste. Meanwhile, be polite and solicitous, never demanding, and, at least so far, things have gone well. We did get asked for a drink from the Nicaraguan customs guy and were told he was hinting at wanting a tip from another boat but “luckily” our Spanish is not good enough to understand a subtle hint about a tip.

The scenery continues to be exquisite with dramatic seastacks and verdant hillsides to feast the eyes upon. Because the rain comes and goes we’ve had several rainbows to enjoy as well. We sailed around the Nicoya Peninsula and into the Golfo de Nicoya overnight. We’ve done so much overnight sailing in the past 2 years, the plan was never questioned until we set out. Then we remembered that the weather had more or less settled into its diurnal rainy season pattern. To whit, the day starts sparkling—blue sky, sunshine, heat, humidity. By 3 to 4 PM, the clouds have begun to build up and the skies turn gray. Thunder starts to be heard. Somewhere between 4 and 7 PM, rain starts and lasts for 1 to about 3 or 4 hours. Lightning is seen in earnest from all around, sometimes in continuous strobe light effect. Well, when we’ve been at anchor, we ride the storm out and it moves on—we’ve seen up to 35 knots of wind. But, when we were passaging overnight, things seemed much more ominous. The radar shows rain cells as big black blobs and gives us an idea of direction and size. In our overnight passage, the rain cells were all around us and morphed continuously until, inevitably, they ended up engulfing us with no escape. During these times, the wind would rise to the 20’s briefly, rain would wash the boat again like a firehose for up to a couple hours and lightning flashed continuously. Richard had a fatalistic attitude about the experience, but Betsy was lost in the scientific thought process does a solitary metal mast sticking up from a flat water surface attract lightning? Suffice to say, it was not the most relaxing overnight passage we have done. We arrived at a quiet anchorage early the next AM intact and dropped the hook near some friends’ boat to get some sleep.

One of our uncertainties these past few weeks is where to leave the boat while we return to the US for Betsy to work for another 3 months. We intended to leave it in Southern Costa Rica, but we heard from a lot of people about the intensely rainy climate there. Seattle, well known for its rain, gets 30-40 inches of rain a year. It just happens to fall lightly and fairly continuously for 9 months. In Ketchican, Alaska, they were perversely proud of the 200 inches of rain they get. In Northern Costa Rica, the rainfall is around 110 inches/year and in Southern Costa Rica, they boast 220 inches/year. Our concern is about mold and mildew in the boat when we leave it buttoned up for 4 months.

On a whim, we decided to head north in the Gulf of Nicoya to Puntarenas, a town not well thought of in the tourist or cruiser circuit. There, the Costa Rica Yacht Club offers services for cruising sailboats but the sadly outdated information we had suggested that it was an unsafe place due to theft and debris in the estuary. When we arrived, we did so at a medium tide which was not enough water to get into the estuary and we had to anchor and wait for a higher tide at 6:30 PM which was, as usual, dark, high winds, rain and lightning. A very nice man, Jose, from the yacht club, met us in a panga and guided us to our mooring, not the smoothest arrival but safe and sound. The next AM we were pleasantly surprised to find the yacht club a pretty site with pool, restaurant, lounge, free internet, laundry, free panga service to and from the boat, affordable, with a haul-out facility across the estuary and 24 hour security. We decided this would be Qayaq’s home for 4 months.

With that decision made, we left to enjoy our last week before putting the boat away. At the Curu wildlife refuge, we took the dinghy ashore and hiked the park. Perhaps taking the trail called “Killer” wasn’t the wisest idea (it was even translated into English on the signs) but it was good exercise—straight up and straight down. A land crab, startled by our passage started to scuttle out of the way, down the trail, sideways and we’re not sure he meant to travel quite as far down as he did, but he looked out of control. Let’s call the slope a 50% grade for effect. We saw white faced capuchin monkeys lounging in the trees, a coati wandered across the path and spider monkeys were being rehabilitated in an enclosure we came upon. And everywhere we go in Costa Rica there are butterflies. They flit across the cockpit as we sail down the coast. They flit across the trails as we hike and in front of us as we row. They are beautiful and varied including one we saw whose closed wing pattern looked like an eye.

This evening as I write, the howler monkeys are roaring in the trees at Isla San Lucas. These monkeys look like little gorillas and are barely 3 feet long, but they can roar like lions. As we walked around this island we suddenly had liquid dribbling down near us and looked up to find half dozen howler monkeys watching us silently. Did we scare them or did they want us to know they were there? We spent Father's Day in prison here. Isla San Lucas was a prison until the 1990's and now it can be visited and the prisoner's graffiti appreciated.

Costa Rica is beautiful, literally the “rich coast”. Spotted eagle rays glide along the surface of the water near us in the dinghy. We went to an island today of white birds—hundreds of them—a combination of cattle egrets, ibis, great egrets. There were a few black frigate birds and pelicans too, but mostly hundreds of white birds. The only thing that mars the beauty of the place is the abundant garbage on the beach, in the water and everywhere on the streets and sidewalks. That part is really sad. We look forward to seeing more of this beautiful country when we return in the fall. Meanwhile, we will spend a week putting the boat away then fly to Seattle in late June to work from July through September. This will likely be the last blog for a few months.

Dispatch 29 Nicaragua

May 24-30
We left our El Salvador “home” after nearly 6 weeks. The marina is such a luxury place that they did everything they could to facilitate our leaving. They drove Richard up the river to the outboard mechanic at 7 AM to fix the outboard which has become a frequent problem, they signed us up for the fuel dock to fill up before we left and they arranged for a diver to get in the water to clean our propeller before we left. The latter task was something I was all set to do when, the morning before I was going to get in the water, a crocodile made a beeline for our boat at 6 AM almost as if he had heard the news of a prop cleaning about to happen. I chickened out and let the marina staff do it for me. On our appointed morning, the panga driver picked us up at 10 AM to guide us out of the estuary. We made it across the bar entrance uneventfully and he waved us on our way 2 hours later in open water. WOW, it was great to be sailing again.

We traveled down to the Gulf of Fonseca, a huge bay where 3 countries have waterfront and island territory: El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. We were still recovering from the pace of travel followed by boat preparation so we anchored one night just into the bay in El Salvador, then found a darling anchorage between an island and an islet just off an El Salvadoran village and just hung out for a couple days. It was lovely to be at anchor, free of bugs and in our own home. At last we were ready to take on a new adventure.

We left for a long day’s trip to a marina in Nicaragua, Puesta del Sol. We were able to sail nearly the whole trip and were very happy campers when we arrived off the marina entrance. Because the wind had been blowing most of the day, the waves were up a bit and our arrival time correlated with the end of the ebb so the bar entrance to the marina was a bit rough. Richard drove the boat while I directed us to the buoys in the well marked channel. The buoys mark the outer edges of the navigable channel, and, with the somewhat wild conditions, we were able to see breaking waves right next to us as we passed the first buoy—disconcerting!

Once inside the marina area, we were blown away by the beauty and peace of the area. This marina was built by Robert, of Nicaraguan birth, he had lived in the US most of his life only to return in the past few years and open this marina. It had the luxury features of any resort in the US, beautiful bathrooms, a lovely infinity pool, stable docks, water, electricity (well, until it went out and had to be restarted but that wasn’t under his control), a lovely restaurant and beautiful grounds for gorgeous hotel buildings. The resort seemed sort of misplaced because, as soon as one left the grounds, the Nicaragua surrounding the area was just unbelievably poor. In fact, Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America. People are still using horse-drawn carts for errands.

A couple days after we landed there, a group of the cruisers had arranged a van outing to take a tour of the Flor de Cana rum factory—one of Nicaragua’s successful exports. 11 of us piled into the van and were driven to the factory over washed out roads, amazing potholes, poverty stricken landscape intermittently peppered with American style stores and/or houses. What a series of contrasts. We took the tour and were taught that the aged rum was partly a brainstorm stimulated by the Sandanista rebels. Though they had not destroyed the rum plant, they claimed it as they claimed most everything in the country and the owners were able to control the rum inventory until after the Sandanistas were overthrown by putting lots of it in barrels to age for 12 years or more. The wooden barrels are rebuilt and reused, some of them hand-me-downs from Jim Beam and other liquor companies. The plant employed lots of people many of whom in the vernacular of US business would be considered under productive but any employment is better than none and workers make very little there.

Naturally at the end of the tour, we were invited to taste the product in their tasting room, starting with 25 year old, 12 year old and younger rums. It wasn’t our fault that the tour ended at 10:30 AM and that’s when the tasting took place. It was a happy group that piled back in the van looking for lunch, a short grocery stop then back to the marina. Because the previous outing had ended in one of the cruisers “petting” the hind end of a crocodile in a Chinese restaurant and then touring the local private hospital to be stitched up (“Boy I never realized how fast a crocodile can move” was Jeremy’s reported comment), the consensus on lunch was to play it safe at an American style rotisserie chicken place. This time lunch was uneventful. We briefly stopped at a grocery store and picked up provisions. The place was busy mid-week and the prices were really not too different from US prices which, when we learned more about local wages, seemed remarkable. As we waited to pile into the van to return to the marina, a sad local young man was begging for money as he sniffed glue.

We got back to the marina and the organizers went to pay the $138 total price for the 8 hour van trip. Somehow they were chatting up the finance woman in the marina office and learned that she makes $114/month and is raising 2 girls who are nearing college age and finds it hard to make ends meet. Well, I just bet she does, and this is at a luxury resort where she has a responsible position. Ruth was there our last night as we paid our final bill at 8 PM! I guess the marina owner certainly gets his money’s worth from his employees.

We left Nicaragua the following day with an uneventful and calmer bar crossing and sailed much of the way overnight 150 miles to our first anchorage in Costa Rica. We learned from a young couple who had traveled inland that there was much to see and enjoy about Nicaragua, we just didn’t take the time to do it this time around.

One last note about our experiences in El Salvador and Guatemala. We came to think of these countries as Banana Bread land. There is no way to describe the sheer volume of bananas and plantains available to buy at the markets. We have no idea what is done with the fruits that aren’t bought but most of them are well past their prime for sale at the markets and put me in the mind of making banana bread. Perhaps rotten bananas are used for fertilizer or some other handy use, but we never learned more about that.