Crossing the bar; words that kept me sleepless last night as the butterflies grew. The boats that left last week had quite a wild ride into a steep swell with one boat sustaining enough damage that they’d had to turn around and come back for repairs. We hoped to have timed our departure to coincide with a low swell and light winds. High slack tide was at 1530 (3:30pm for you land lubbers) so we tossed the dock lines right on schedule after a bittersweet sendoff from our Bahia buddies. As we followed the pilot boat out to the entrance of the estuary we saw that the breakers seemed to be leaving us an escape route and were only breaking to either side of our path. We did get a couple of fun rides over the bar where the depth was about 10’, but there weren’t any huge breakers like the ones in my imagination. As the depth sounder started showing deeper water we knew we were safely across the bar, with open ocean ahead. Hasta luego El Salvador!
We enjoyed a beautiful calm full moon motor-sail, slowing down to arrive in the Gulf of Fonseca at dawn. With three countries sharing the bay, we watched the silver moon set over the islands of El Salvador, the orange glow of the sunrise over Nicaragua, and our destination of Honduras right between.
The Gulf of Fonseca is a large natural bay with a number of heavily forested islands that reminded us of the San Juan Islands from a distance, but when you start smelling the fragrance of flowers instead of pine trees the similarity quickly ends. Entering at dawn we surprised a few night fishermen sleeping in their pangas, who poked their heads up and waved as we went by. There were fishing nets with small flags and buoys scattered throughout the bay and at one point we drove right through a long line of floats that weren’t visible until we were on top of them. Thankfully the lines were weighted so that they stayed below our keel and we didn’t catch any!
As light overtook dark, it was full throttle ahead; time to get Happy Dance to the anchorage so her crew could take a nap! We passed between the El Salvador islands of Isla Conchaguita and Isla Meanguera, hugged the Honduras island of El Tigre in order to stay away from the shoals, and soon rounded the point to see the little town of Amapala. We circled around to check the depth to make sure we wouldn’t be high and dry on the 10’ tides, then anchor away! Even though it was only about 8:00am, it was time for an anchor beer. Some traditions must be maintained!
Since we’d arrived on a Sunday, we assumed (correctly as we learned later) that the Port Captain wouldn’t be on duty, so we hoisted the yellow quarantine flag and stayed on board all day. A nap, a swim, a shower, and dinner in the cockpit watching the sunset show…ahh, it’s nice to be back on the hook!
The next morning, we launched the dinghy and headed to town. There is a long stationary pier that was built in Amapala’s hay day, when it was a major shipping port. As we motored in, a white-haired gentleman was waving to us from the top of one of the wide sets of cement stairs leading up to the pier, so we headed over and he helped us get tied off. He introduced himself in perfect English and said his name was “Bob”. We soon realized that he was really named “Roberto”, so that’s what we called him. Roberto said that he’d waited all day the previous day and was back this morning to see if we were going to come ashore, and now that we were there he adopted us and became our personal interpreter.
Our first stop was to see the Port Captain, where we provided all the necessary papers, followed by a stop in immigration, where we once again provided papers and passports. We had our fingerprints recorded, photos taken, and then the official even went out in the dinghy with Marty in order to take a photo of Happy Dance. After all was finally said and done, we received “the stamp”. Although this stamp was not your run of the mill ink pad stamp! Here in Amapala, where we were the 6th cruising boat to arrive this year (yep, we asked!), they used a fancy electronic printer to add the official entry stamp into our passports. It was a very efficient, friendly, free, check-in and no doubt we’ll do it all again in reverse when it’s time to weigh anchor!
With an entry stamp in our passports giving us 90 days to enjoy Honduras, we decided it was time to explore the town of Amapala. With Roberto leading the way and giving us a history lesson on all the buildings we passed, we found an ATM (air-conditioned…ahhh…) and then walked to the town square. The island has about 12,000 people living on it and Amapala is the main town. There is a cathedral, city hall, a market, and a town square that is in the process of being rebuilt. The streets are all smoothly paved with paving stones, but sadly, the homes are mostly in a state of deterioration.
Roberto spoke longingly about the good old days when the island was bustling as a result of the International shipping port that was once here. When the port was moved to San Lorenzo in 1980, it shut down El Tigre since the jobs and economy depended so heavily on the shipping traffic. Now El Tigre is a sleepy island with the locals trying to get by with farming, fishing, and tourism. Even though the foreign tourism is a bit slow (did I mention we were the 6th boat in this year?), they do get lots of daytime visitors from mainland Honduras which is just a 5-minute panga ride from town.
After our town tour we were hot and thirsty (a.k.a. drenched in sweat), so we asked Roberto where we could find some lunch. We walked up to a tiny little restaurant where Joanna served us a cold local cerveza (Salva Vida or Barena) with some excellent fried chicken and papas fritas. Roberto, who is 72, lives with his nephew’s family and he wanted us to meet the whole clan, so off we went to his house up the hill where the rainy season washes out the roads and the fence around the house keeps out the stray dogs. The chickens run wild through the house and yard, and the cooking area is a cement block enclosure with a wood fire and a pot of beans and rice bubbling on it. The family were all very welcoming with big smiles and lots of laughter (mostly at Marty’s bad jokes..ha!). We soon ran out of things to say in our limited Spanish, so it was time to head back down the hill and out to Happy Dance.
The next day we’d arranged to take a tour of the island with the ever-present Roberto as our guide. There aren’t many cars on the island, only tuk-tuks and motorcycles, so we all squeezed into a tuk-tuk and off we went. We were glad to have Roberto with us as he shared so much of the history of the island. By his account, the island is named El Tigre because Sir Francis Drake used to come here, and he was nicknamed the Tigre of the Sea. We visited a cave that is only accessible at low tide, where legend has it that Drake buried his treasure. Unfortunately, we’d forgotten our shovel…darn!
The beaches around the island are all black sand beaches, from the volcano that originally formed the island. It seems like everywhere we look there’s a volcano! I never realized that Central America was such a hot spot (get it?? Ha!). There was once a U.S. helicopter landing pad on the peak of the El Tigre volcano as well as plenty of antennas and listening devices. This was a base of U.S. activity during the Central American civil wars in the 1960’s.
After we’d been here a couple of days, three of our buddy boats from El Salvador showed up. It’s been great fun to share more laughs and adventures with Wildest Dreams, Chantey, and Octopus Garden! Hopefully we’ll have more Bahia buddies show up before we leave.
One of my favorite things about the cruising life is getting to know the rhythm of a new place. Here in the tropics the days begin early, and we’re usually awakened before sunrise. The parrots in the trees on shore start squawking at each other, the roosters start crowing, and the town starts waking up. A fleet of single and double handed cayucas (dugout canoes) are anchored nearby to fish for a few hours in the cool morning. Holding a single line over the side with a chunk of clam or other bait on the hook is a method that requires plenty of patience.
When the tide starts running out, the fishing lines are pulled up by winding them around a small piece of wood, the anchor, usually a rock tied to the end of a line, is pulled up and the cayucas start paddling back to shore. There are a couple of cayucas that are manned by a grandfather and young granddaughter, and when the current is running hard against them, a panga will magically appear from shore and tow them in. One day an ancient looking grandfather brought his cayuca up next to Happy Dance and the little girl, about 7 years old and working just as hard as grandpa, asked for some agua. They had 7 or 8 small fish that they’d caught that would be dinner for the family. After the cayucas go home the bigger fishing pangas, water taxis, and the Navy boats start roaring by. The Tiendas open, the restaurants start playing music and the tuk tuks start putt putting by. Then around sunset there’s more music in the air, the smell of a few cooking fires, and the sunset show over the volcano. It’s a beautiful spot, full of sights and sounds that are unique and universal.
So now we’re peacefully floating in the bay, listening to the music drift from town, mingling with the locals on El Tigre, and getting used to life on the hook once again. Life afloat means hot trips to town for provisions and doing a few boat chores that we somehow neglected to do while at the dock. As I write this, Marty is out doing boat yoga while squatting on the swim step with his toes dangling in the waves and the sun beating down on his head, in order to change the impellor on the generator. The old impellor was toast, so he’s also got to pull the hoses off and hopefully find all the pieces of the broken impellor. Yesterday he changed the engine impellor, another fun day of boat yoga. Fun and games on Happy Dance!
We’re watching the weather to find a good window for our 40-hour run to Costa Rica. The section of coastline off of southern Nicaragua is infamous for the Papagayo gap winds that form in the Caribbean and funnel across the narrow area of the mainland into the Pacific. They build fast, blow hard, and create a nasty set of steep tall waves. It’s something we hope to avoid, so we’ll keep our eyes on the weather and send an update from the other side!