05/01/2011, Puesta del Sol, Nicaragua
Hiking in the Mombacho Volcano Mist Forest
May 1, 2011
Nicaragua- The Country of Lakes and Volcanoes
We quietly slipped off our mooring ball at 0515 and followed our panga guide out of the estuary. By 0645 both Perfect Wave and us had safely made it through the surf line and were on our way to Nicaragua. Not many boats it seems stop in Nicaragua, and we had mixed reports from the few that had about what the marina was like. One of the many things we love about our Perfect Wave family is not only their energy, but their enthusiasm to check out new places. Crossing the Gulf of Fonseca was not an easy or comfortable feat due to the short steep waves. (see photo gallery "Welcome to Nicaragua" for some incredible shots of Perfect Wave crashing over and under the seas) The mouth of the gulf is 21 miles wide and the bay is about 25 miles deep. This allows the wind to build up short, steep wind waves off shore. El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua all meet in this bay as well. We wanted to go in, anchor, and check out the old CIA base from the Reagan/Ollie North/Sandinista contra guerillas era on El Tigre Island. As stated in our Sarana Cruising Guide: "This cone shaped jungle island is a perfect base if you're an evil genius or perhaps just a CIA operative." However, the Port Captain in El Salvador firmly recommended that we not enter this bay due to theft and gun running that had recently picked up. "No problem," I said. I'm adventurous but I'm not crazy! So, these sea conditions are apparently pretty normal for this area but it made us feel very ill and it sounded like our boat was going to fall apart every time it crashed through a wave and slammed down in the trough of the next one. Thankfully by 3 PM it was all over and we pulled into the very pretty and quiet Marina Puesta del Sol.
Nicaragua is about the size of New York State yet is the most sparsely populated country in Central America at about 4.8 million. It is subject to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, as well as the occasional hurricane, the latest being Hurricane Mitch in 1998. 48% of the people live below the poverty level and lack of clean water is a serious problem. Much of the ground water supplies are contaminated due to improper waste disposal, chemicals, and pesticides. We were mortified to learn of the serious rate of kidney failure in the people, and that the causes have not yet been discovered. However, there seems to be a local knowledge that its cause is from the use of agrochemicals used in the growing of sugar cane, and the use of DDT when cotton farms were popular. As Larry and I walked one day on the dirt roads out of the marina, past ramshackle homes with small children and chickens running around, seeing the families pulling up a bucket of murky brown water from their well for their children to drink just made us cringe. We take so much for granted in the states. I wish I could just wave a magic wand over these third world countries and give them clean drinking water. I give thanks every time we are able to turn on our water maker and produce clean, clear water out of the sea.
On a happier note, we really loved our time at Puesta del Sol. There is a boutique hotel built on the property and a nice restaurant that our friendly waiter, Cinar, would serve us our dinner and drinks poolside while we enjoyed the warm evenings. Ben and I played tennis almost every day. I was even surprised on Mother's Day with a beautiful bouquet of flowers that the concierge, Maria, had made. What a special touch!
One evening, as we were lounging by the pool, a very, very, VERY skinny black lab mix of a dog wandered up sort of close to us and just sat there. Not begging for food, but patiently waiting...hoping maybe a morsel would find its way to his mouth. I was shocked at his condition, reminding me so much of the dog we had rescued near the Puerto Vallarta city dump, who has gone on to have the greatest life ever (thank you Teapot Tony and Ronnie for taking "Kruiser"!). We of course fed him and gave him fresh water and learned that all of the employees were familiar with him and named him "Negro", or in our language, "Blackie". This dog had the sweetest soul and I just could not, not follow through on him and figure out a better way of life for this dog. We figured out where he slept and spent the majority of his day. So we started feeding him three meals a day while we were there. We gave him a bath, picked ticks out of his fur, and even hired a taxi to take us in to the nearest town, Chinandega, with a veterinarian, an hour and a half round trip. We stood in the store front of the veterinary office while a very gruff man asked me in Spanish what was wrong with the dog. (Darn it....Rosetta Stone doesn't cover this one!) "Muy flaco", I said. Duh, he could see the dog was skinny. One shot of Ivermectin for the parasites, a bottle of injectable vitamin B (to be injected once daily for five days), a distemper and parvo vaccine for me to give at a later time, two syringes, a bar of soap for fleas and ticks, and two bags of food. All for the whopping price of $15.00. Heck at that rate I asked, "Could I get more syringes?" I hated using a syringe on this dog more than once, his skin was so hard to get through it had to have hurt. The cab ride by the way, was $50.00!
Seeing some amazing looking volcanoes off in the distance, our adventurous spirit kicked in and soon we found ourselves on a day trip to sled down the volcano Cerro Negro and have lunch in Leon, the second largest city in Nicaragua. Cerro Negro, meaning black hill, is the youngest volcano in Central America and last erupted in 1999. Some slopes are covered with rock and others with black volcanic sand, making it challenging at times as we hiked up the trail carrying our equipment. It was very windy and at times I thought for sure I was going to blow off the ledge! The view from the top though was amazing and even though there was no vegetation, the stark rugged beauty of the crater was impressive. So, what is sledding or surfing down a volcano you ask? Well, it's just a really cool way to come down quickly! Surfing would be hard, so we chose to sit on our wood sleds and one by one slid down easily. Very cool!
Now that we had been bitten by the "land travel bug", liked and had confidence in our guide Luis, we decided to take a weeklong trip with a private driver in a van and really do Nicaragua. So, the seven of us (Larry, Ben, and I, and Eric, Dawn, Whitney, and Tommy) loaded up and our first stop was Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. In the city we picked up a local English speaking guide to show us around. We visited a museum that embodied the whole country and its history in one, followed by a delicious lunch at a very nice restaurant serving traditional foods. I was just happy because they actually had a vegetarian dish on the menu! Yes folks, I know I complain a lot, but traveling in these countries and not eating meat is incredibly challenging. Let's just say, there aren't a lot of vegetables available and "tofu" doesn't translate down here! After lunch we stopped in a village to walk around a local artisan market, Ben finally buying a machete with his own money. He has asked for months to get one, thinking he can pick coconuts and cut the tops off so I can drink the coconut milk. It's actually harder than it looks. We chuckle thinking back, how at home he would be wanting to get the latest video game, now he wants a machete! How things have changed. We made our way back to the van, waiting for Perfect Wave to finish their shopping and we learned that our guide for the day also works at a local Managua radio station as a DJ. "Do you mind if I interview you live right now?" Absolutely not we said. The next thing we know, he's called the station and we are live, on the air, being interviewed. Wow! Who would have thunk!
Our next stop was my all time favorite volcano so far called Masaya. This huge smoking crater is constantly emitting gas so the white plume can be seen from far away. It is only about thirty minutes outside of Managua and has a nice road you can drive all the way to the top. Because of the smoke and sulfur gases it is recommended that you only stay up near the crater for about 20 minutes, as well as back your car into a space as opposed to pulling straight in, therefore allowing for a faster escape in case of a sudden eruption! (Say what?!) This crater was something else! The volcano was greatly feared by the indigenous people and the Spanish conquerors. The Spanish naming it "The Mouth of Hell", planted a cross on the crater lip in the 16th century hoping to exorcise the Devil. Sacrifices had taken place here, being thrown into the boiling cauldron, as well as executions. With the heat and the smell from the volcano, it felt evil and sacred.
Laguna de Apoyo was our last stop for the evening before we reached our hotel in the colonial city of Granada. This volcano top was blown away in a huge violent eruption, 22,000 years ago, leaving behind a tranquil crater lake 7km wide. From our view point, overlooking the pristine blue water, we could see Granada and it was a spectacular view. Just the drive up to the top was beautiful as this area is known for its nurseries. Every home had a garden. My partner in crime, Dawn, had been eagerly searching for the herb basil and this area looked hopeful to possibly buy a plant. (Yes, it's the little things that we miss!) But, we didn't know how to say it in Spanish. Have you ever thought about how you would try and ask for something like that in a foreign language? Thank goodness I had my handy dandy Webster English to Spanish dictionary and lo and behold...the word is Albahaca. Hmmmm....how are we EVER gonna remember that? Easy! Just remember Jessica Alba and hack a loogey I said! Voila! Did we ever find it you ask? No. But that's okay because as I write this we're sitting in Costa Rica, in the land of fruits and veggies, so it's a mute point!)
Granada, located on the shore of Lake Nicaragua, was founded in 1524 and is rich in colonial heritage, having a Moorish and Andalusian appearance. We really expected another Antigua, Guatemala, in atmosphere, but in the one evening we spent there it fell short for us. Although I have to say, we didn't give it much time. During the colonial period this city maintained a growing level of trade with ports on the Atlantic Ocean through Lake Nicaragua which drains to the Caribbean Sea via the San Juan River. The city has been victim to many invasions from English, French, and Dutch pirates trying to take control of Nicaragua. It was also where William Walker, the American filibuster, took up residence and attempted to take control of Central America as a ruling monarch. One of Walker's generals, set the city ablaze before escaping, destroying much of the ancient city and leaving the printed words "Here was Granada".
Sadly, the condition of Lake Nicaragua is a huge concern, seriously polluted by sewage - up to 32 tons a day, as well as industrial dumping. Once again we have learned how a country's economic situation has seriously hampered the building of sewage treatment plants and supplying clean drinking water. As Larry says, this country is still in survival mode. It's hard to worry about ecology when you're trying to meet your basic needs. It's so sad, as we have seen in the third world countries. We also learned here that the average family of four needs $400.00/month, just to put three meals a day on the table. The average salary being roughly $8-10/day makes this practically impossible. Which is probably why the more kids you have the more bodies that are out there working, even at the tender age of six, as we have witnessed. For example, our tour director's wife is a teacher at a private school, making $250/month.
On an interesting side note; even though Lake Nicaragua is a fresh water lake it has Bull Sharks who have actually been seen being able to jump along the rapids of the San Juan River entering and exiting the lake. As well as farmed Tilapia. Can I just say, "Ewww!".
Up early the next morning we were scheduled for a zip line tour and cloud forest hike on the volcano Mombacho, which is a huge strato volcano bordering Lake Nicaragua, 10 km from Granada. At the summit is a wet tropical forest, also called the cloud forest. Coffee plantations are plentiful. If you have never been to a coffee plantation and learned the processing of coffee, then all I have to say is DON'T complain ever at the price you have to pay for coffee. It is laborious to say the least.
Zip lining was a ball, but if I never do it again that would be okay. Once or twice in a lifetime is nice! We had a wonderful guide to escort us on our nature walk in the cloud forest, educating us on all the flora and fauna. I can't help but feel excited for Ben, exposing him to so much that he couldn't learn from a school book. And even though I know he doesn't necessarily appreciate it all now, we pray that someday he will go on to do great things in this world...or at least be a really happy person.
When we set this tour up with Luis at www.thetourstogo.com, he set up some very specific things for us to do to see the best of Nicaragua. However, we also wanted some freedom so he built in time for that as well. So, off to Punta Teonoste we went, a nature lodge and beach spa that we thoroughly enjoyed several nights at, albeit buggy nights to say the least, but great fun! First, let me explain that we had to do some serious "off roading" in our not so serious off road van. This cost us extra, for the wear and tear, not a problem we said. Our driver, Sergio, was such a sport and even though he didn't speak English and we really don't speak Spanish, we had a great time together and laughed a lot. He had left his wife and young son at home to drive us for almost a week, which was good for him to have a job, but we were very grateful and especially appreciated how safe he was with driving (which is a rarity in some of these countries!).
Punta Teonoste was so wonderful. There is a huge open aired thatch roofed building that houses the reception area, gift shop, restaurant, bar, and lounge area where the kids would sit at night playing games like they were in their living room. The chef was from France and fixed us some of the most amazing meals, and we loved the staff who were so warm and gracious. We had the whole place to ourselves except for one other couple that came for one night. Our bungalows were open aired as well, with a living room and bedroom downstairs, and a bed and bathroom upstairs in the loft. On the ground floor there was also a really cool outdoor bathroom which the wasps loved during the day and the mosquitoes loved at night. One night, even though we were all tucked in our mosquito net covered bed, we were attacked by a bazillion giant flying ant type things that somehow would get under the net and just drop on us, keeping Larry and I up most of the night. We all laughed about it the next day but decided it was probably time for us to move on. We hadn't seen our driver, as he had been able to stay in the employees' quarters also receiving three meals a day, but he was ready when we needed him and we all hit the road again. Now, at first we noticed that he kept looking out his window at the back tire. Hmmm... we know we are going to be on a dirt road for a good hour or more, needing to drive through 3 small (we hoped) rivers, with a not so clear map as to how to get back to the main highway, stopping at the occasional small home we came across to make sure we were going in the right direction. But now we know why our driver was looking at the tire, it started locking up, which made the van slide out and turn sharply. About the third time this happened, and I mean we are out in the middle of nowhere, our driver stops and jumps out to start to fix the problem. The three guys, Larry, Eric, and the driver, can totally handle this (I just love the testosterone that comes out in situations like this!). Larry sends me up the road to watch around the corner just in case the rare vehicle that might travel on this road comes speeding around and wouldn't be able to stop in time (accidents do happen this way), and my mind starts wandering. This is it. Banditos are going to find us and kill us. I can see the headlines now. What are our mom's going to think? Choke...I hear a car! And believe it or not, a tow truck (if you want to call it that) shows up! He's towing another vehicle but they stop, get out, see if the guys need help. The van gets fixed up, we all load up, wave goodbye and we're on our way. When I look at the back of the tow truck as they drive away there is a sticker on it that says something like "towing for God". Unbelievable!
Back to the big city of Managua we go, deciding to split the long drive back to our boat into two days, stopping in Managua to provision and spend the night at the lovely Hilton. (Lovely = no bugs!) Yes, Whitney and I can relax again, not having to jump at every tickle on our skin or shrink and hide when we hear a buzz! We got our driver his own room, gave him some money for food, and then realized that he had probably never spent the night at any kind of place like that. How we wished we could have gotten his wife there for a romantic evening. He was delighted and it really was cute. In the middle of the night, poor Eric's body decided this would be a good time to start to pass a kidney stone. So what did we all do? Go to the mall, see a movie, eat out...we really did feel sorry for Eric but there was nothing we could do but give him time, staying in the big city, close to a hospital in case he should need it. All passed well and with the van loaded to the hilt with food and drinks we headed back to our boats.
One thing we noticed that was very different from Mexico and El Salvador was a significant decrease in the number of men/security guards with very serious guns. In Nicaragua, we were told, they were so tired of the fighting and all that goes with it that there are few guns, little security, and no gangs. People were just concentrating on putting food on the table. It was a refreshing change.
What happened to Negro the dog you ask? After doing some checking about trying to bring a dog into Costa Rica, our next stop, we learned it would have been impossible and risked having the authorities turn our boat around. So, we convinced Marina Puesta del Sol that they needed a marina dog! This dog thought this was his home anyway, and there was always someone there 24/7. We loaded them up with months of dog food, a collar and cute bandana, a dog bed, bowls etc...and hope and pray they follow through.
We are so glad we stopped in Nicaragua. We are leaving with many fond memories. Next stop...Costa Rica!
(For all photos see photo gallery, Sledding Cerro Negro and Nicaragua inland trip)
04/23/2011, Barillas, El Salvador
Monkey walk at Barillas, El Salvador
April 23, 2011
Barillas, El Salvador
Even though when we left Bahia Del Sol we felt like we were saying goodbye to El Salvador, we did make one more quick stop in a super cool marina called Barillas. Again, this marina is set about an hour and a half in from the ocean up an estuary and we weren't 100% sure that we could make it in depending on the sea conditions and tides etc...we had been told over and over stories about how boaters had called on their VHF radio trying to contact the marina to have a panga escort come out and guide them in through the surf, but never getting an answer. Once again we have learned that sometimes you just have to check things out for yourself, that things are not always as other people say. With an e-mail a few days ahead, and a quick phone call, the marina was expecting us and eager to come out and help. Crossing the sandbar here was not nearly as exciting as the previous one, and even though at one point you actually turn your boat sideways to the waves the rolling back and forth wasn't anything our two boats (Perfect Wave and us) couldn't handle.
At this marina you are actually on mooring balls, surrounded by mangroves. It is peaceful and beautiful! Buggy, yes, I'll give it that, but 'nothing I couldn't handle. Whitney, Perfect Wave's 12 year old daughter, and I are the most squeamish about bugs. We try to support and encourage each other, and often just giggle! After all, Deet IS our new best friend! Heriberto, the manager, was the kindest most gentle soul, who loves his country so much and was eager to educate us. Immediately the next morning he arranged for us to go on the "monkey walk". About a twenty minute walk away there is a family who lives nearby and oversees about 30 spider monkeys. Some were rescue monkeys that Heriberto had received from zoos and circuses, one had been raised in a cage in a factory in Nicaragua and was too afraid to ever come out. This one I got to hold hands with. When I tried to take my hand away a little while later she just gently held on a little tighter, not wanting me to let go. The others just swing around freely in the trees, so playful and fun! It really was a special time for us!
Later on that afternoon, a very nice van picked us boaters up and took us up the side of a volcano to a quaint little colonial town for a nice lunch on a verandah overlooking the valley. Along with the driver were two heavily armed security guards. As much as we are used to seeing men in some sort of uniform carrying all types of guns, at the grocery store, gas station, bank, convenience store etc...it did surprise me that we needed to be so heavily escorted. We were grateful though for the protection. After, we drove up to see the lake that had formed in the crater of the volcano. It was really a lovely day and we felt blessed that we had stopped to stay in Barillas. Thank you Heriberto!
We ended up staying here for eight days, enjoying the restaurant, the pool, doing yoga, catching up on some serious homeschooling with our kids, and especially enjoying the quiet surroundings. This is also where we really started to bond with our buddy boat Perfect Wave. The kids are happy, the parents are happy, the boat is running well...life is good!
03/02/2011, Bahia del Sol, El Salvador
Two sisters watching the Saturday morning soccer game on the island across from the marina.
March 1 thru April 23, 2011
El Salvador & Guatemala
Wow! How our lives have been a blur! So much to tell, where do I start? Well, we made it into the marina in Bahia del Sol, El Salvador, easily. What fun and excitement though, surfing the waves in our boat, then having Peter and Cheryl of Stolen Kiss, and Henry from Cloudy Bay greet us on the other side in their dinghy and lead us in. We felt so welcomed and ended up staying for eight weeks! Oh yeah, and remember the engine problem we had when it died off the Guatemalan coast? Well, when Larry pulled off the inspection plate to take a look in the fuel tank guess what he found? Yep, my best bottle of Chardonnay that I had been saving! Nooooo! "Is the bottle okay?", I shrieked! It was sort of an orangy color, and what was left of the label was all gooey, and the foil cap on the cork was off, and all of this had sort of sucked up into the fuel intake valve. NOW we know why our engine died...problem solved! This really was worth a good laugh though and a lot of razzing from our fellow boaters. Did I drink the wine you ask? You betcha baby...couldn't let that go to waste!
So, the marina is attached to a hotel/bar/restaurant, and pool overlooking the estuary. If you walk down the long driveway to the hotel, cross the main road of Costa del Sol, then down another long driveway you can reach another section of the hotel, with pool and restaurant overlooking miles of beach filled with sand dollars that we love to pick up, look at, and sometimes keep. Larry and I immersed ourselves in Spanish lessons three days a week, two days a week we volunteered at the elementary school on the island across the estuary helping teach English, which Ben just loved being around the kids. There were many organized events such as wine tastings, a bonfire on the beach, Wednesday night fundraising dinners at Jan's (who has built a home on Isla Cordoncillo and dedicates her life to teaching the English language to the children as well as raise funds for improvements at the school etc...), Sunday pizza nights, yoga lessons by Ellie from Zeppelin, soccer on the island with the kids on Saturdays and Sundays, hours of walking on the beach, and a lot of socializing in the pool during the afternoons to cool off. We fell in love with Jan and spent a lot of time at her home, cooling off with a refreshment on her porch and loving her dogs, which included puppies that Ben got to see born! We also developed deep feelings for some of the El Salvadorian people, especially Leo, our favorite waiter, who took care of us morning to night, and Claudia, our Spanish teacher and receptionist of the hotel. The biggest downside to cruising, is always having to say goodbye and feeling melancholy for the people we have left.
The only problem being here on the coast of El Salvador was that provisioning was very inconvenient. The shortest amount of time it took to go to the grocery store or ATM was five hours and about $90.00 round trip. Now you certainly could do it all on the local buses for a few dollars and a few more hours, but the thought of trying to get ten big bags of groceries and cases of water and drinks on the packed buses back was unbearable for me. We did however take the bus one time, a two hour ride on two different buses, which really was a hoot. The buses here are old yellow school buses that have been nicely painted in bright colors, with designs almost graffiti style, usually with a woman's name on the side. There is a driver (duh!) and another guy that sort of hustles people to ride the bus, the intent being to fill it way beyond its capacity! The bus announces itself in a big way, honking its horn loudly anytime it is nearing civilization. Some of the patrons are along for the ride to just sell things like herbs, medications, foods etc...Yes, we stick out like a sore thumb and children will just stare, especially at Ben. It makes us giggle. There are truly, free range cows everywhere in this country, which makes for very exciting driving at times as they don't always look before crossing the road!
Ben really felt like this was his home. With the rally going on and many boats in one spot he had instant aunts and uncles, and grandma's and grandpa's and boy did he eat up all of the attention, seeing as we were initially the only kid boat. He became especially close with Carl and Christina on Bombalero, a twenty something year old couple that were so good to Ben and would play with him for hours. Carl, you were truly the "big brother" Ben has never had. He worked on a few peoples' boats cleaning and polishing stainless. He became the estuary taxi in the dinghy, running people back and forth from the anchorage to the marina, and he became every new boaters personal escort service in his dinghy, after they had crossed the sandbar at the entrance he would lead them into the marina. He took this very serious and loved every minute of doing this!
I have noticed as I have grown and changed on this journey, that the more you are exposed to things the less squeamish you become and it becomes your "new norm". A sort of slow process of de-sensitization. Like walking down the road with cows , seeing unusual large bugs, playing soccer barefoot in mud and God knows what kind of guck, eating strange foods in strange places etc..., it becomes your "new norm". I never in a million years could have imagined myself living in the places we have lived and going to the places we have gone in the last six months. It truly is life changing, this sailing around the world thing, and I am really excited that it has only just begun.
We were blessed with a visit from our daughter, Jessica, while we were in El Salvador, and this gave us the perfect opportunity to rent a car and explore Guatemala. We spent four lovely nights in the colonial town of Antigua. Being right before Easter, we were able to see the Semana Santa (Holy Week) parade, and the amazing colorful carpets that were handmade daily out of sawdust for the procession to walk over. Antigua is famous for its Catholic celebration of Holy Week, which commemorates the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It was amazing. Something you would see on the Travel Channel, never thinking you would actually be there for this special event. The town had such a mysterious feel. Narrow one way cobblestone streets, the street curbs are around 24", buildings that are attached together, block after block, some have fancy doors, some not, but when you look inside, past the 24" thick walls it's like entering a whole other world...courtyards...beautiful...open....gardens etc...and all of this surrounded by stunning volcanoes. One of which we took a tour and hiked in the evening, had a wonderful dinner at the top including roasting marshmallows in a vent of hot air from the center of the volcano, and then walking down in the pitch black (super fun, but you gotta do this stuff while you are young...don't wait!). The town was a little eerie...many of the men were walking around town in long purple robes, participating in the Easter procession that went on from early morning to late at night (felt like I was in a scene from the movie New Moon and a vampire was going to come out and eat me!). We stayed at a fantastic, luxurious resort, the Porta Hotel Antigua. We actually had to walk through an underground tunnel, lit by candles to get across the road to where our room was.
Now, renting a car in El Salvador and driving it across the sketchy border into Guatemala isn't for the faint of heart. I think our daughter was surprised at how adventurous we are and how we travel. It really did seem at times like it was going to turn out like a bad scene from a movie. Jessica had become really sick within 36 hours of being with us, but was such a trooper in the 100 degree heat and no access to a bathroom for the five hour drive. On our return, our rental car actually broke down near the border. Larry jiggled everything he could under the hood (it was mostly taped together with black electrical tape!), and the thing ran like a charm after. Phew! It is so hard sometimes. No 911 to call, no AAA tow service, heck...come to think of it, we don't even have a cell phone. But what we do have are hearts that believe in the goodness of people and no one has yet to let us down.
So, thank you, and good bye to El Salvador. We will never forget learning about your struggles as a country, and seeing the strength, beauty, and the love of the people.
See more pictures regarding El Salvador in the photo gallery
03/01/2011, Bahia del Sol, El Salvador
March 1, 2011
S/V Precious Metal punches thru a wave crossing the bar at Bahia del Sol, El Salvador
El Salvador...Here We Come! Or Adrift at Sea?
Yeah! We finally feel like we're getting somewhere in our journey! We feel this way only because Mexico was so easy...well, most of the time anyway! And nothing brings that point more to the forefront than "crossing the bar" into Bahia del Sol, our home for the next eight weeks.
It was a forty two hour trip from Puerto Chiapas, Mexico to our first stop in El Salvador. We should have known it was an ominous sign when leaving, when our supposed re-built windlass (remember the saga in December?) decided not to work AGAIN when we needed to raise the anchor. THIS time Larry and I did it together, protecting his STILL injured arm from the December windlass debacle. Poor Ben lay downstairs in our cabin with a 103* fever. We wrestled with whether or not we should be traveling, but we thought we would have a better chance of medical care for him in San Salvador than Puerto Chiapas. Although we will never forget the ladies in the kitchen of the beach palapa restaurant who had taken a particular fondness of Ben, and when they heard he was ill, brewed a special concoction of an anti-parasitic drink from herbs that they insisted I give him every few hours. Needless to say, he took one sip and spit it out. It is the thought that counts though. What sweet, sweet women, who live in severe poverty, yet they gave us this medicine out of the kindness of their hearts.
So, after being tied up to a big, oily, shrimp boat (or as Larry says, "It was covered with permanent strength liquid goo!") for three hours (because the fuel dock decided to take their siesta, for two hours, after we had been waiting for our turn for thirty minutes!) priorities ya know, we finally officially pull out of the stinkiest, most foul port. Ben is still feverish, but resting comfortably, we are having a nice smooth ride out of Mexico, no wind, passing through Guatemala, nightfall comes, and...the engine dies.
Well, at this point I kind of need to back up here and catch you up on a little incident we had back in December when we pulled into Barra de Navidad, Mexico, in December. We stopped at the fuel dock to fill up, and at the same time filled our water tanks. So, we had all of our caps on deck off our various tanks to be filled, and no sooner had Larry just reminded Ben and I to be really careful about what we put in the tanks, and...Larry accidentally puts water in one of our fuel tanks! Only about eighteen gallons but still...this is a problem. Luckily Santosha, our buddy boat at that time, had a small fuel polisher on their vessel and were kind enough to loan it to us. Poor Larry worked for the next three days straight, sucking fuel out, running it through the little filter machine thingy to remove the water (supposedly). He thought he got it all. As we traveled further south, he had switched us on to our other fuel tank and life was good. In January, as we headed out of Ixtapa towards Acapulco, Larry had switched us back to the fuel tank we had put the water in and...lo and behold the engine dies after two hours. He had to change out the two fuel filters, clean out the water separator, and switch back to the tank that we knew was still good. No problem, other than being depressed because he had spent all of that time trying to get the water out and obviously that didn't work. And, it was still daylight, so as we sat out in the water drifting, we weren't concerned. Now, you're probably wondering why, since we have a sailboat, we aren't sailing everywhere. Well, we only travel when the weather looks good, meaning calm seas and not too much wind. But, if there isn't at least twelve knots of wind, we don't typically put our sails up because our boat is so heavy they just sort of flop around and it's just really annoying and it's hard on the sails. Also, the direction in which the wind is coming from is a factor, and if it is straight on the nose, that doesn't work either. So, there are many factors in sailing and if you want to get somewhere, within a certain amount of time, staying on course, you just go.
So, when we pulled into Acapulco we hired a professional to come out and "polish" both of our fuel tanks for a mere $500. We felt really good about this and really thought we had put this problem behind us. However, we were still switched over to the original, good fuel tank. Now let me explain where the inspection plate is for the water fouled fuel tank (that is the cut out piece, about the size of a large dinner plate, that is bolted on so you can remove it and have access to the inside of your tank as well as a visual). Well, this is under our kitchen sink, need I say more. Now I had cleaned out everything under the kitchen sink with the exception of the items on this very handy shelf that is set deep inside to the right, because God forbid you don't let any space go unused on a boat. We usually keep extra drinks under here including my emergency stash of wine! (If you are wondering why I am telling you this, just remember it and it will all make sense soon!) Being on a mooring ball in Acapulco can be very exciting, because there are a lot of boats that race through the mooring field with no care, "waking" all the other boats (meaning; their wake they create from their prop makes all the other boats roll from side to side). Really meaning they are thoughtless, careless jerks.
So, now we can catch up to where I left off when the engine dies at night in Guatemalan waters. Larry had now switched back to our original "problem" tank, so when the engine died he pretty much knew the problem. Again, he put new fuel filters in because they were all contaminated with guck, switched us back to our other tank, and after several tries, got the engine started. It was scary though because it is pitch black out and we're just drifting, again no wind to sail with. I stay up on deck keeping a very serious watch , making sure no other vessel gets close to us. Larry works down in the boiling engine room feverishly. I don't have any steerage on the boat and we just roll with the waves, which is not a very comfortable thing to do. Forty five minutes can seem like an eternity in this situation, and your mind wanders into many different scenarios. With a ten year old on board it is very important we all maintain our composure as not to freak him out! But, I was worried, because our next port of call, Bahia del Sol in El Salvador, was going to be the trickiest entry as of yet into the estuary where the marina is. This is the dreaded sand bar that you can only cross at high tide with the aid of a jet ski that the marina sends out to guide you in, one boat at a time. If the conditions are too extreme they simply won't bring you in, meaning you have to wait outside the entrance for up to 24 hours. Bahia del Sol is where the El Salvador Rally (an organized flotilla of vessels that we had signed up to participate in) is taking place. So, needless to say, we needed our engine to be working the best it could to make it across this bar.
02/17/2011, Puerto Madero, Chiapas, Mexico
Temple of the Inscriptions, at the Mayan ruins in Palenque, Mexico
Last stop in Mexico
Chiapas...hmmm...what can I say? Well, it's about 20 miles from the border of Guatemala, brown, DIRTY, barren, hot, and VERY poor. This is when I come to realize that being in Mexico has been like being in Disneyland, and we ain't there anymore as we near the border. This port is home to a very large shrimping and tuna fleet, including a tuna processing plant turning this port into the most gooey, foul smelling, disgusting water port we have ever been. The largest tuna fishing vessel actually has a helicopter on it, I guess to fly out ahead looking for signs of the fish, then they deploy these small tender boats off of it so they can round them up by surrounding them with nets. I still have visions of video I had seen a long time ago with dolphins being trapped in the nets and dying. (I think I've said this before, but seeing this makes it practically impossible for me to eat fish of any kind.)
What the people lack in "things", they more than make up for in niceness. This is where we do our official "check out" of Mexico. Meaning we are boarded by the Navy, inspected, complete all the necessary paperwork, and have a drug dog on board to wander around, (I always have this lingering fearful thought...What if the last owners of this boat hid some drugs somewhere and forgot to take them with them?...). Everyone was very polite and professional, thank God, because Larry wasn't there (that's a whole 'nother story), and it was just Ben and I when they came on board. The Navy and the dog went away with treats, homemade chocolate chip cookies for the boys and dog treats for the canine. Cool! Larry eventually shows up with a story of walking to the port captains office to check out, then taking a collectivo to town,( a pick-up truck/taxi that everyone just piles in the back of the bed, that a cage has sort of been built around with two benches on either side but it's sort of more comfortable to just stand and hang on for dear life to the metal frame), then a cab to the airport to immigration, then...no cab back? Hmmmm...where'd they go?...so he starts walking...and walks for fifteen minutes, then starts hitchhiking (this IS part of the adventure isn't it?!) A car stops, whom the driver turns out to be the helicopter mechanic for the huge tuna fishing vessel in the harbor near us. He is a blessing for Larry, who speaks very poor Spanish and this man doesn't speak English either, but he gets him back to where our dinghy is tied up so Larry can make it back to our anchored boat. Yes folks, this is another one of those "only in Mexico moments". We would never think of hitchhiking where we came from in California.
The great thing about Chiapas was that it was close enough for us to be able to take a really fantastic road trip to the Palenque ruins. Mayan ruins and culture we were in the mood for and Palenque was supposed to be the best. I never would have dreamt this but I am becoming quite good at looking at maps, researching areas, reading the Lonely Planet guides, figuring out bus schedules, and taking our family on some really cool adventurous trips! However, we always travel with the mindset that we're not really sure what we're getting ourselves into, but we'll just make the best of it. This one was a hit. An eight hour luxury bus ride to the colonial town of San Cristobal de Las Casas, staying in a beautiful old hacienda, a tour of Sumidero Canyon in a speed boat (totally cool) was like traveling through Yosemite Valley on a river including monkeys and crocodiles, a spectacular 5 hour drive in another luxury bus to Palenque where we stayed in an eco-lodge (howler monkeys and all), and a tour of the Palenque ruins and museum. We really felt ready to move on after this road trip and bid farewell to Mexico. Thank you Mexico for a wonderful fourteen months!
See Palenque and Waterfall picture gallery!
02/07/2011, Off Shore from Huatulco
A Sea Turtle, lets just say "Ben found it"
The Engine Saga Continues...
We made it to Huatulco in 35 hours. The passage was uneventful (meaning no major boat problems!) but seemed to take forever and the seas were confused which makes for confused tummies! We of course saw the usual joyful dolphins, surfacing whales, and turtles, turtles galore! There are turtles EVERYWHERE! And they just like space out or sleep on the surface of the water and you don't see them until you are pretty close, and we start screaming at them to move or Ben shoots at them with his water gun. They will usually lazily lift their head up to look at you and then suddenly realize they had better skid daddle and for some unknown reason they almost always turn directly into the path of the boat! Thank goodness they have hard shells! So, our fishing possessed child had out his usual paraphernalia and lo and behold what did he hook? Nope, not a fish...but a turtle! It took us 45 minutes to pull in this poor, fighting, heavy turtle so we could either pull the hook out or at least cut the line so the hook could just rust out. We even put the boat in reverse because it had pulled so much of Ben's fishing line out and it was really hard trying to reel it in. In the end, we cut the line and the turtle swam off, relieved I'm sure. Ben has fished very little while we are under way since then, still recovering from PTST (post traumatic swimming turtle!).
All of these great little anchorages we had heard about that we had hoped to stop at along the way and snorkel in crystal clear water did not happen. Confused seas also make for confused anchorages unless they are well protected and the beautiful blue Pacific turns into a sort of brown/green color. Plus, we are very prudent in our choice of places to anchor and if it looks like if the winds or waves might pick up and we might drag, we just simply don't do it. That can be a real good way to lose your boat fast if you're not careful.
It was great to be in the Huatulco Marina though because not only were our old friends there, but we made lots of new friends too! Huatulco is the place where cruiser's heading south often stage at, waiting for a weather window before crossing the Tehuanepec. The Tehuanepec can be a very dangerous stretch of water due to the potential of strong winds and waves whipping up quickly so that is why you wait...patiently. Fortunately our wait was only a week but unfortunately we really could have stayed in this neat little town a little longer. Who knew? I was shocked to see this cute town with resorts and restaurants, and many snowbirds from the States and Canada that have been coming here for years. Renting a car gave us the opportunity to not only have a few nights off the boat (which always feels so great) but also to see the beautiful countryside of southern Mexico. On our way to the world famous surfing town of Puerto Escondido we stopped at a turtle sanctuary and breeding facility which gave us the opportunity to see all the different sea turtles and learn of their plight. Over the past summer we had participated in several baby turtle releases, holding the less than one day old babies with our sandy hands so as to supposedly imprint the beach on these babies so they knew where to return to years later to lay their eggs. We would walk them near the water at dusk, and then release them, letting them go through their necessary struggle to the water. Like pretty much everything else in the ocean, man has not been kind to these critters. The more Larry and I live on the ocean, the more we respect the life that struggles in it, and the more difficult we find to eat it. Not that we would ever eat turtle, but to eat some other fish or shrimp and not really know for sure if it was sustainably caught or what else was carelessly killed in the catching/netting/long line process, or if it is fish farmed, is it full of hormones and antibiotics? And so the dilemma goes...and if Ben catches a fish and we see it swimming so beautifully in the ocean you just hate to kill it. We're not that hungry...yet.
Puerto Escondido was adorable. It has several very nice hotels to stay at, little boutiques, and restaurants and bars that line the famous yet treacherous surfing beach. We arranged for a surfing lesson for Ben and ended up hooking up with a super cool instructor, Raul, who took us around for two days allowing Ben to safely surf with the "big" boys. He also took us for the best lunch we've ever had in Mexico at a local place, and then to their amazing market where these little, old Mexican women sit, selling everything from herbs that cure a case of intestinal parasites to small limbs off trees that if you steep in boiling water and then drink and you will be cured of many things, including arthritis etc...Very cool!
So, back on the boat, nine of us all pull out together to begin our big Tehuanepec crossing. Everyone had studied the upcoming weather extensively. We also took it one step further and hired a very handy weather routing company named Commanders Weather (see "Favorites" right side of this page). For a small price, in terms of your life (!), they will study all of the weather patterns, taking into consideration your boat speed, and calculate the weather along your route based on your boat speed. This is the second time we have used them. (As a side note, when the tsunami warning was released after the Japan earthquake, they immediately e-mailed us remembering that we may be in an area of danger, providing us with estimated arrival times of the expectant tsunami. I thought that was pretty nice.) At 6:45 AM and 43 hours later we all patiently waited outside Puerto Chiapas harbor, our last port in Mexico before crossing into Guatemala, radioing the port captain, asking permission to enter. Once again the camaraderie felt great. The crossing had been uneventful, actually quite calm and relaxing with the exception of the last night for us. Out of the blue, just as the sun was setting we were suddenly swarmed with fishing vessels, actually forming a horseshoe around our boat on the radar. Now some of the boats we were traveling with were 3 miles off shore, two were 60, we were about 10 miles off, and the rest fell somewhere in between. The concern with the fishing vessels is the long lines they put out, and of course wrapping it around our prop. The shrimp boats are large and well lit up. The pangas are small, unlit, and they don't always show on our radar. Dad steered, Ben and I stood up on the bow with a flashlight and weaved Larry and the Lisa Kay through the maze of flags that the pangas put out marking either the beginning or the end of a long line. Scary. Can I just say...I don't like to use the word "hate" ...but I HATE LONGLINES! (I implore you to go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium website and pull up their list of sustainable seafood to eat.)