Hualtco to El Salvador
29 May 2011
Virginia and Dennis Johns
Friday, May 13 the immigration agent came in the morning and cleared us so we left around 1130 with lots of hands on the dock to help with our lines and get us safely out of the slip (we had a nasty cross wind and a very tight fairway). It was high tide and we got over the bar at the marina entrance with no problem. Out of the harbor we found 15-20 knots of wind and so put up our sails right away. We were able to sail until about 0400 the next morning, averaging 7 knots. It was great. We saw several pods of dolphins. Virginia was a bit anxious about the crossing of the Gulf of Tehuantepec as there are times of the year that it can blow at gale force and above. But May is historically one of the calmer months and the weather forecasts we got were for a very mild crossing - and that is how it turned out. We went from point to point, straight across the bay, not taking the often-recommended longer route that hugs the coast, and it worked out just fine. We passed one boat headed north and were hailed on the radio by Robin who was crewing aboard the northern bound boat, Inspiration at Sea, and we visited with him a bit. His boat was down in Bahia del Sol, where we were headed, and he would be returning there in a couple months, but was helping a friend get her boat further north. We heard later that he got off at Huatulco where she had her car so he could drive that north for her. She later had an emergency at sea, losing her engine, getting caught in a storm, and was eventually towed into Acapulco by the Mexican navy. We don't have any more details yet. That night we saw some heat/sheet lightning in the distance.
Saturday, May 14 we motor-sailed all day and night. The seas were calm. About dinner time we saw a pod of dolphins that were the most active and athletic we have seen yet. They were jumping high out of the water and twirling around. What a show. We saw a water spout in the distance. That night we again saw rain and lightning in the distance. This time some of it was bolt lightning so we deviated a bit from course to keep our distance. We got in one short rain shower, about 10 minutes. Around midnight we crossed into Guatemala waters.
Sunday, May 15 we had very flat seas in the morning. We got a bit of wind by noon, but still had to motor-sail. We saw sea turtles and more of the acrobatic dolphins. That night we got near a big lightning storm. We delayed our arrival at Bahia del Sol by about 5 hours doing a dance with the storm, basically motoring around in circles as it would change direction and form new cells. We got into some rain and put on our foul weather gear, but we managed to stay away from the lightning. Again, around midnight we crossed into El Salvador waters.
Monday, May 16 we were approaching the sand bar at the estuary entrance for Bahia del Sol and radioed in to arrange for a pilot. We were initially advised that the high tide window of opportunity to enter was likely going to be closed by the time we arrived and we would have to anchor outside and wait for the next opportunity. This seemed a little odd because although we had lost some time dodging lightning storms the night before, we thought we'd still be arriving only about 90 minutes after high tide and that should have provided plenty of water over the bar. Another cruiser (Tom on Dragon's Toy) got on the radio and helped relay our conversation with the pilot as the pilot was onshore on a hand held radio that didn't have good reception; Tom suggested if we had the ability to push it a bit, we should do that as we would likely end up anchoring for two days as there wouldn't be any pilot on duty on Tuesday. We pushed our engine the highest we have so far and it performed great. Arriving earlier than expected, the pilot was willing to come out to meet us and the calm we experienced all day provided a very uneventful crossing. Unbeknownst to us, a number of cruisers had gathered at a palapa restaurant right at the bar entrance to welcome us, but started booing as our entrance was so mild and not very entertaining. Fine with us! We did have a bit of a challenge getting lined up at the dock to clear customs given the strong tidal action and wind in the estuary. But we just kept bearing away and trying again until all the opposing forces were accounted for. There were lots of hands on the dock waiting to grab the lines and help us. After arriving, we discovered El Salvador does not switch to daylight savings time so our tide table times were an hour off which made the hesitation by the pilot understandable. We were planning to anchor out, but the marina said they had one slip left (the end tie where we were directed for clearing customs) and we could have it for $23 a night...the least expensive marina yet. What a great group of cruisers there are here. Some are headed north, some are staying here, and some are south bound along with us. The Hotel Bahia del Sol that runs the marina is wonderful. Clearing into the country was made so easy - immigration and customs authorities have an office right here at the hotel. There is an outdoor restaurant, which we have used on a number of nights when it was just too hot to cook in the boat. Next to it is a beautiful swimming pool and shower facilities (no hot water, but the water is ambient temperature which is mid-to-upper 80's -so refreshing, we haven't missed hot water!) They have a laundry service and are very helpful with making travel arrangements.
Docked right across from us is Pam on Precious Metal. She came right over to greet us. Karen, Steve, and Don who did the 2008 Baja HaHa with us will remember her as the one that loaned us a generator to recharge our batteries when our starter motor failed. She is here for an extended stay, making repairs to her boat from a lightning strike. It is rare to be struck, but even rarer to get 'hit' by what they told her was called a "bolt out of the blue", which was not a direct strike. The lightning hit the water several miles away and traveled through the water and into her engine room via her engine exhaust port, causing a fire in her engine room. Her engine was fine, but it fried all her electronics. She has a metal hull, not sure if that factored into the situation. She immediately introduced us to several of the "daily cruiser activities" including a dip in the ocean at the nearby beach every morning around 0900 (Dennis got in his first boogie boarding and body surfing); walking the beach collecting shells; shared trips to town for provisioning; then around 1600 we'd meet at the pool for happy hour. The drinks are so inexpensive, $1.00 for a soda or beer. Worked for us...by 1600 were very ready for a cool dip after an afternoon of boat projects. All the charges (marina, drinks, food, laundry, pilot service) go on your hotel bill and every Sunday you go in and pay your bill, and then wander the facility giving a weekly tip to the staff that helped you that week. El Salvador uses US dollars as its monetary unit so that is convenient for us. It was easy to understand how for many of the cruisers, days turned into weeks, weeks to months, and months to years, extending their stay here.
Tuesday, May 17 after the morning beach routine we walked to a nearby palapa to have Pupusas for lunch. These are a unique El Salvador dish. They are puffy tortillas stuffed with various ingredients, fish, meat, vegetables, beans, cheese. Delicious. We pulled the last of our yellowtail from the freezer and bbq'd it that night, mmm still great after all these days in the freezer.
Wednesday, May 18 after the morning beach routine we took the bus into Zacatecoluca (the nearest major town) where we would be doing provisioning as needed. It was about a 90 minute bus ride on the direct line. We went in shortly after lunch and planned on having dinner in town, but after visiting the town plaza, the church, the street market, and the two grocery stores, we decided to head back to the boat 'early'. This was around 1700. We went to the bus station and were told that we had missed the last direct bus of the day to our area, our next bus would be 'manana'. The look on Virginia's face instigated a flurry of activity. There suddenly was a lot of activity with men whistling and yelling, passing the message down the street that we needed to catch the bus that had just left. They held it up and it waited for us. This bus would take us to a town "Arcos" where we would need to transfer to another one by walking along a path to another highway -fortunately several other riders were making the same connection, otherwise we certainly would have been lost. After a short wait, we caught a bus to Bahia del Sol taking us out to the estuary entrance which is at the end of the bus line. We were definitely the last ones on the bus and it was dark when we got back to the boat. But everyone had taken good care of us! Like in Mexico, the El Salvador buses have a driver and a 'hustler'. The hustlers are great. They amazingly keep track of folks as they get on the bus and then come down later to collect the fares. They ask where you are going and remember to warn the driver to stop at that spot. In this case, the hustler kept coming back to reassure us (Virginia) that he remembered where we were headed and it was 'coming up'.
Thursday, May 19 as we headed to the beach in the morning we realized that the hotel has a pair of macaws in a tree at the reception area and a fenced in area with a family of deer. There was a new fawn, so cute. A lazy day, met more of the cruisers in the area at happy hour.
Friday, May 20 we went to the beach in the morning as usual. The current pulls you down the beach so we always have a walk back to our towels. This morning Virginia and another cruiser, Henry, spotted a bright yellow object in the lapping surf and went over to investigate. They were the keys to Libertad (fortunately on a keychain with a yellow float) which Dennis had forgotten to remove from his pocket before he went body surfing. Lucky find! We do have backups, so it wouldn't have been devastating. That night the hotel had a special Italian dinner and a group of 11 cruisers reserved a table in their large meeting hall. There was a heavy downpour while we were at the dinner. The thatch repair job we had seen them doing earlier in the week held up for the most part, but Virginia had a few drips in her spot and had to inch closer to Dennis. Then we lost power for a short time, but there were candles on the tables only adding to the romantic atmosphere. It was a nice time to visit with that particular group as three of the boats were leaving the next morning, headed south. It stopped raining by the time we had finished dinner, but it did rain more that night. None of our hatches leaked. We were quite cozy.
Saturday, May 21 we got up early to bid our friends farewell. Dennis walked down to the estuary entrance to watch them cross the bar and get an idea of what we would have in store when we made that trip. Virginia said her goodbyes at the dock. All three seemed to get away without a hitch. We met a couple who was staying at the hotel, having done a swap with their timeshare ownership -not cruisers. They are interested in doing an overnight tour to Antigua, Guatemala so today we arranged to go with the "Tourin" company run by Jorge Martinez. He is mentioned in our cruising guide. Quite a few of the cruisers here have taken trips with him and all been very happy with the arrangements. We were so happy to meet this couple as they seem like very nice folks and we needed at least four for the tour. Barbara and Lamar are from Atlanta Georgia. They are retired too; Barbara was the director of the department of international and cultural affairs for the city of Atlanta and Lamar was the director of the cultural presentations at the airport. He is also a jazz musician and has a radio show.
Sunday, May 22 Happy Birthday to Virginia's mother! We are preparing to close up the boat while we are away because when we get back from the 2-day 1-night tour to Antigua, we will be taking off in a rented car for a few more days to do some touring on our own in El Salvador. We were interested also in going to the famed Mayan ruins in Copan, Honduras, but we don't want to cross the border on our own and the cruisers that might accompany us on one of Jorge's tours, are currently away visiting family and friends in the USA and other countries and aren't scheduled to return until after we will have headed south. The hotel had 'pizza' night so no cooking again.
Monday, May 23 We left with Jorge, Barbara, and Lamar for our trip to Antigua at 0730. Bill and Jean joined us for the first leg of the trip to San Salvador as they had business in town. They are the organizers of the El Salvador cruiser's rally and live here a big part of the year. Bill also works with the pilots who assist with the bar crossings. Jorge talked nonstop (in English) giving us a lot of background on El Salvador, its people and political history. He had a dentist appointment in San Salvador so he handed us off to Jose who drove us the rest of the way and was our English translator and facilitator. He handled everything at the border for instance, and it was an easy process. We arrived in Antigua at about 1500 and an English speaking tour guide, native Guatemalan, (Sergio) was waiting for us. After we grabbed a quick lunch, he took us on a walking tour of the city. He had studied archeology, anthropology, and history at the university and of course had lived there so he was a wealth of information. We toured churches (many in ruins from earthquakes in the 1800's and one as recent as 1976), residences, the artisan market, the central plaza, and a jade factory. A new color of jade, lavender, was discovered recently in Guatemala. We had dinner at a restaurant that served traditional Guatemalan food (including plantains) and included a show demonstrating one of the traditional dances - with elaborate costumes.
Tuesday, May 24 we hired Sergio again to take us to a nearby village that had a museum with ancient costumes and musical instruments. It was located on a coffee plantation and thus part of the museum included the equipment and an explanation of the coffee making process - both traditional and modern. Evidently Guatemala produces high quality coffee, but since none of us on the tour drank coffee we were poor judges. We had found mention of this museum in our Travel Guide book and didn't realize that in fact it was where Sergio lived. So he knew everyone we saw and introduced us to the owner of the coffee plantation/museum who is his friend. It was so interesting to talk to that gentleman, who is probably in his forties. He had worked for Motorola making good money but then decided to manage the family business when his mother was ready to retire and does not regret it as he says his quality of life is greatly improved. Much less stress...however he was quite anxious that day because the heavy rain of the wet season was already 10 days later than usual and he was worried that if they didn't get rain soon the coffee plants wouldn't bloom sufficiently. He talked about how it was necessary to diversify the business as other countries like Vietnam have entered the coffee market producing large volumes of coffee; hence he started the museum on the property and is expanding into other areas as well. He has developed the property to be a lovely park. Since coffee needs to grow in the shade of trees it was a natural progression. Sergio then took us back to Antigua and we visited the fanciest ($490/night during high season) hotel in town. It was built in an old colonial home, much of which was in ruins from the earthquakes we mentioned earlier. But they have done a marvelous job of maintaining the ruins as they were, but developing around them. So for instance, the patio for the restaurant has a low wall along one side that is the remains of a stone wall of the original house. There are Mayan and other local artifacts displayed throughout. Very tastefully done.
We headed back to El Salvador around 1300 and got back to our hotel around 1830. We had thoroughly enjoyed the company of Barbara and Lamar - kept finding similarities in the things that Lamar and Dennis enjoy and do. It was a constant source of entertainment. We had to say our goodbyes that evening as we were headed out on our El Salvador road trip the following morning and they would leave before we returned. Jose was a very pleasant guide, we really enjoyed him too.
Wednesday, May 25 We took off early in the morning for our road trip. This first day we headed northwest, following the path we took to Guatemala, skirting the fringe of San Salvador and going onto Santa Tecla, Armenia, and Sonsonate -Dennis paid close attention to those initial miles two days ago on the tour to avoid getting lost. Heading more north, we stopped at Juayua to see a cascade/waterfall. There were two police guards at the top of the dirt road heading down to the site who told us that there wasn't any 'agua' (water) at this time of year. But we asked if we could do the hike anyway and they said OK. We parked the car and headed down the trail; moments later we realized they were following us, keeping watch over us and keeping us safe we presumed -apparently that was their assignment for the day. The hike was through dense growth/jungle area but had a good trail. When we got to the bottom we saw that there was indeed water flowing over the rocks (perhaps the police were a little reluctant to make the trip to the waterfall in their full uniforms?) and locals who doing maintenance on the site were taking a dip. It was beautiful. There were also 4 gringos there. We approached them and to our utter amazement they said they were all from Santa Barbara, had gone to UCSB and graduated in 2005. They had delivered a car to Panama and were now headed back, slowly, on a vacation of their own. They had come with a hired guide and had done a bit more hiking to other falls in the area. We walked back up the hill, with our police escort. We stopped a bit further north in Apaneca and had lunch at the Hotel Las Cabanos de Apaneca. We had found them on www.tripadvisor.com and had considered staying in their cabins for the night. The restaurant was wonderful and the grounds, hidden from the street, very green and relaxing - like a little oasis. But it was too early in the day to stop so we continued on to Ahuachapan and stayed at the Hotel Casa Blanca. This was an old colonial home converted into a hotel. It appeared that we were the only guests that night. Hopefully the pictures can give an idea of the ambience. It was very quaint and enjoyable. The staff were so pleasant. We just relaxed in the room and wandered in the hotel common areas -too tired to even venture out for dinner -signage in most towns is poor to non-existent, so it can be quite a challenge and frustrating to follow the main highway through town and to find a given address.
Thursday, May 26 we got up early and briefly explored the town, then having breakfast. Then we headed east to the Tazumal ruins. It was a pyramid structure - actually several layers of pyramids built on top of each other. It was interesting to see this huge structure in the middle of the jungle. They had a lot of clearing to do to make way for it. There was also a museum there with some of the artifacts found on the site. It is the most significant Mayan ruins in El Salvador (according to the guide book). A lesser ruins, Casa Blanca, was nearby but the park it was in was closed that day. We headed further east through Santa Ana to Suchitoto. We had made reservations (again for a place we found on www.tripadvisor.com) at the Hotel El Tejada. It was a great find. We had a big room with a view over the lake, Lago Suchitlan. We then walked the town, visiting the central plaza and church of course. We then went looking for a local mentioned in the guidebook: El Gringo - Robert Brozmoran. Robert is a Californian whose mother is Salvadoran. He moved here in 1995 to manage the nonprofit educational programs his mother started and is now a permanent resident with a young family. The guide book said that he had a small tienda and restaurant and was happy to provide information about the area. Turns out he actually does tours and agreed to do one for us the next day. We headed back to the hotel for a nice swim in their beautiful pool to cool off from our long day of hiking and driving. The hotel restaurant was fabulous; we ordered the brochette for dinner and shared it - two large skewers and delicious. Then we checked up on our email via the Internet available on the patio. The rooms are being remodeled and they are beautiful. We highly recommend this spot. While on the map it is at the 'edge' of town, it took us 5 min. at most to walk to the central plaza.
Friday, May 27 had breakfast (included in room rate of $75/night for the room with the view; $60 without the view). Robert picked us up at our hotel and first took us to the lake for a boat ride. The lake is manmade, dammed up the Rio Lempa filling the valleys between several volcanoes and providing hydroelectric power to the area. The level of the lake changes by 60 feet depending on the season and since we were visiting at the end of the dry season it was at its lowest level. There are numerous islands in the lake, but one, Bird Island, is curiously the only island that has birds nesting on it - a lot of birds. It has been named a preserve so we didn't land on the island, just circled it as best we could maneuvering through the water hyacinth with the low lake level. Robert was a wealth of information as he has been very involved in the community since settling there, volunteering and in elected positions that work with education as well as community development that improves the quality of life there and encourages tourism. We learned so much about how the formation of the lake changed the local communities (not all for the good - as a couple of them are now very isolated being hours away from Suchitoto by car when they used to have a short road right across the valley which is now underwater). We learned about the civil war (much of which was waged in and around Suchitoto) and following redevelopment efforts. The area near the lake where we took the boat ride is a good example of the efforts they have made that were targeted at supporting tourism, but had positive ripple effects in the community, creating more jobs for instance. They got grant money and loans to finance a building that houses 5 small restaurants (which formerly operated off of a fold-up table under a palapa roof), trained the restaurant staff on issues related to food preparation and healthy cooking conditions, added restrooms, decorated it with work from local artisans, added shade awnings to the pangas that do the tours, built a launching ramp. The restaurant owners and panga fisherman pay a small tax for maintenance and it is enough money for them to also fund 10 full time street cleaners for the city. It is a very clean town. He took us to another cascade. This one has hexagonal rock formations like those at Devil's Post Pile in the US. There wasn't any water flowing over this one, but that allowed us to see the rock formations more clearly. He toured us through a couple of the old hotels that were renovated old colonial homes - very nice. But he had to agree that the hotel we were at was the best deal in town. We also visited the Peace Institute and learned about the community development programs going on there. It was a fascinating day and provided so much information about the country and the people.
We then headed back to the marina via a scenic drive that took us even further east and then south through San Vincente and Usulutan. We finally headed west again towards Zacatecoluca for provisioning. After we left the first grocery store and headed a bit further into town to the second one and the outdoor mercado - to get the remaining things on our list, we got a flat tire. Dennis had to change the tire in the heat, but other than having to empty the trunk of the car to get to the spare, that went relatively smoothly. On the last leg of the trip we were reminded of our exciting bus trip to Zacatecoluca when we first arrived - this time the trip was quicker and much less stressful. The sun had set by the time we arrived at Bahia del Sol and we found a few new boats in the marina. We opened up the boat and the interior temperature was still in the 90's from being closed up all day, so we turned on the fans, and went up to the restaurant for dinner while the boat cooled down. We had an interesting discussion with a solo sailor who is Finnish, but lived in California just before making this trip. He is a surfer. He was asking us our plans and every time we would talk about skipping some country along the route (such as our plan to go to Costa Rica from here, not stopping in Nicaragua) he would try and talk us into stopping everywhere, not skipping anything. That appears to be his plan and he has no timeline. Very nice guy.
Saturday May 28 we met our new neighbors, Michael and Suzanne aboard Namaste. They are originally out of San Francisco. They headed out on a planned 4-5 year circumnavigation, but when they got to Ecuador, they fell in love, bought some property, and are now working on getting permanent resident status. Some new laws went into effect in March regarding how long a boat can stay in Ecuador which did not specify cruisers as a separate category and so cruisers are being cautioned that the interpretation may be that we can't keep our boat more than 3 months in Ecuador. That would change our plans. But Tripp Martin who is mentioned in the guidebook at Puerto Armistead in Ecuador and who lobbies for cruisers is trying to get some clarification. We had already been in touch with him to let him know we wanted to stay with him when we first arrived. We'll have to get in touch again and see what's happening with these new laws. Michael and Suzanne are in a different position because they have property there and so they feel they are more likely to fall into the category covered by the law and might be assessed a tax not only for future years, which might be reasonable, but also for past years - and they have been there awhile. So they have moved their boat up here and will fly back to sort things out before bringing the boat back down. They gave us their contact info in Ecuador and graciously agreed to help us arrange our stay.
Tonight is another of the special Italian dinners. We are going with Michael and Suzanne. We told the bar pilot that we plan to leave tomorrow at noon high tide, presuming the surf level is manageable. It looks somewhat lower today so that is a good sign.
Dennis' brother, Greg, has made his arrangements to join us in Costa Rica - near Playa de Coco where we will check into the country. The plan is to sail down to Golfito, where we will leave the boat while we do some land trips with him. That way he can get in some cruising time and touring time. We are looking forward to his visit.