Coulee Country

Catastrophists unite!  We’ve been hiking and exploring the sights around Grand Coulee, and in doing so we’ve become believers in catastrophism as it relates to the creation of the Grand Coulee.  A self taught geologist named Harley (J. Harlan) Bretz in the 1920’s came up with the idea that the massive scale of the coulees, the scab-lands, the wide-ranging disbursement of boulders and moraines, and the rippled land forms could only have been created by catastrophic floods.  It took many years and the arrival of aerial photography and satellite imagery to get anyone to take him seriously, but his ideas were finally vindicated.  In 1979, at age 96, Bretz received the Penrose Medal, geology’s highest honor. He later reportedly told his son: “All my enemies are dead, so I have no one to gloat over”.

I was born in Omak, which is only about 50 miles from the coulees of eastern Washington, yet I still had to do some googling to learn the definition of a coulee.  I’ll make it easier for you though; “As a geological term, coulee means a ravine or deep gully, usually dry, which has been cut by water”.  In this area the water that cut the Grand Coulee is on a scale that is mind boggling.  We stood on the top of Dry Falls looking down the cliffs into the gorge and tried to imagine the flood waters from an ice dam bursting far upstream that swept water 300’ over our heads at a speed of 60 mph.  Yes, I guess that would carve some coulees!  I won’t delve into all the details, but if you’re interested you can google it for yourself; it’s fascinating history!  We’ve been ooh-ing and ahh-ing for the past week as we’ve hiked through Northrup Canyon, toured the dam, and camped along the shores of Banks Lake and Roosevelt Lake, and driven through miles and miles of rippling wheat fields high above the Columbia.

When I was little my friends and I would build dams in the gutters to create lakes and rapids for our leaf boats to float down so I guess it’s only natural that I should be captivated by the massive scale of Grand Coulee Dam.  It’s one of the largest concrete structures in the world; 550 feet above the bedrock, and 500 feet wide at its base.  It’s beautiful, functional, it put 1,000’s of people to work in the depression, it continues to provide clean electricity to millions, it provides irrigation over an area the size of Delaware, and it provides flood control.

All that being said, I’m still a tree-hugger at heart and I tend to sympathize with the cultures of those who came before us, so my heart is saddened by the loss of the salmon run and the destruction of the Indian culture that depended on it.  Yet, here I sit on the edge of Lake Roosevelt enjoying the view out our door, watching the fishing boats and house boats on the lake.  It’s the old “betterment for the masses at the cost of a few”, but sometimes one has to wonder and take stock of the sacrifices of those “few”.

We’re learning the art of camping in our new little land yacht, and we’re now moving east toward the mountains of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado.  Along the way we always seem to gravitate toward the water, whether it be a river, lake, or creek.  We’ve stayed at “Bob’s Lakeside Hideaway”, my brother’s property on Lake Osooyos, where we had a great visit with my brother.  We got to pound a few nails and drink some margaritas with my sister who lives on the other side of the lake in the house she and her husband are building.  From there we moved on to a campground in Grand Coulee, right above the dam, and then went to nearby Steamboat Rock, a gorgeous State Park on Banks Lake, which is a reservoir created from water piped up the hill behind Grand Coulee Dam.  Now we’re about 100 miles further north on Lake Roosevelt, enjoying the mountains and pine trees around Kettle Falls.  Marty is learning how to relax (he’s a slow learner), and I’m loving the smell of pine trees and sage.  It’s just another version of our floating happy dance!

Beaches

We’ve visited 100’s of shorelines in the past five years, but the beaches along Puget Sound will always be home.  There is a particular friendliness to the sound of smooth round stones being jumbled over themselves in the waves.  The water is crystal clear and triple-gasp cold, the snow capped mountains float over the pine tree horizons, and the friendly green and white ferries continue on their invisible paths back and forth between the islands.  Yep, I’m home!!

But wait a minute!  How did we get back to the beautiful Pacific Northwest you ask?  We flew, but not until we’d had a few more adventures in El Salvador.  In our last few weeks in El Salvador we’d been exploring inland and enjoying time with our new cruiser friends.  One day a group of us went to the annual Mango Festival that is held in the nearby town of Zacatecoluca.  Think of any food or drink you could possibly make from mangoes and they had it.  It was a YUM fest, with the whole population of the state seeming to be there enjoying the day.  It was funny to be the only gringos in town, and people would stop us just to talk and practice their English.  Everyone is so friendly, it’s really a great feeling.

We also made a quick trip to El Zonte, a popular surfing beach near La Libertad.   We enjoyed a few days with our cousin Jim in a house we rented that was right above a long sandy beach where the huge swells rolled in from the ocean in wave after wave.  It was the perfect place for some chillaxin’ and we spent a good amount of time just gazing out at the ocean from our hammocks and listening to the booming waves.  Not being brave enough to tackle the surf, we settled for happy hours in our private pool watching sunsets over the ocean…I know, it’s a tough life we lead.

After spending time enjoying the sights and sounds, pupusas and mangoes of El Salvador, we put Happy Dance to bed in Bahia del Sol to enjoy the rainy season on her own, and then we started our trek north by land and air.  As we made our way to the Pacific Northwest we took care of a bit of car selling, truck and trailer buying, and soon found ourselves on the doorstep at Three Tree Point being welcomed by my Great Aunt Peggy and having a week of fun with family.

We had a wonderful stay at Hemlock Cottage, the house that my great grandfather built on Three Tree Point, just south of Seattle.  Unfortunately, my cousins were on their own adventures in Alaska, but that meant we had the added bonus of being able to sleep in “the bed with the view” next to the windows looking down to the beach and out to the sunsets over the Olympic mountains.  It was like being a kid again when I used to sleep in the same spot, albeit in a different bed!  (When I was little I always slept tucked away in the top bunk of the bunk bed that was wedged into the corner at the end of what was then, the sleeping porch.  My grandmother’s bed was just below me and it wasn’t unusual for me to wake in the morning on her bed, having fallen from the top bunk to a soft landing.)  I loved having the huge windows open so that we could listen to the waves on the beach and hear the early birds welcome the dawn.  Every part of me seems to utter a deep sigh when I return to Three Tree (Thanks Barb and Gene!!).

After my trip back in time at Three Tree we headed to another memory lane and another beautiful beach, this one in Coupeville on Whidbey Island where Marty and I first met!  Along the way to Coupeville we picked up our new land yacht, affectionately named, The Murph and we were parked on the shore at Fort Casey.  It was a busy week, as we unloaded “the shed”, our final link to a home base, and we sold or gave away a whole lot of history, aka “stuff”.  I was kind of surprised at how hard this final purging was, but once done there’s always a sense of lightening the load; less is definitely more.  Thankfully we had some time to walk the beach, watch the ferries come and go, and enjoy some awesome sunsets with Mt. Rainier floating in the distance.  I collected a few more beach rocks, because really, can you ever have too many rocks?

So now we’ve left the beaches of the Pacific Ocean and Puget Sound behind for a few months as we begin our new adventure of traveling the U.S. and Canada in our land yacht.   We’ll be roaming around in The Murph for a few months, without a plan, just a goal to explore and see new terrain.  Along the way I’m sure there will be plenty of beaches to put our toes in the sand along the lakes, rivers, streams, and maybe we’ll even have time to find the world’s largest ball of twine!  Once the hot, humid, rainy season ends in Central America we’ll park the land yacht wherever we end up and fly back to Happy Dance to float our way to Panama.  So, stay tuned for possible lake shore beach-capades and travels to twirled twine, in the ongoing adventures of Marty and Sue!

 

Suchitoto

Our latest El Salvador adventure has been a 3-day trip to the historic town of Suchitoto, giving us a peek into the resilience and national pride of the people of El Salvador.

The Spanish settled this region in the early 1500s, followed by wealthy Salvadorans who added more elegant, traditional structures to the town, which flourished from the indigo trade and agriculture.  The modern history of Suchitoto has been more turbulent with earthquakes, a massive hydroelectric project, and the civil war, yet the historical charm and traditional buildings of Suchitoto survived.

In the Náhuatl language Suchitoto means a “place of birds and flowers”, so named for the hundreds of species of birds that live or migrate through the area.  The town is set in the mountains 25 miles north of San Salvador, at about 1,000-foot elevation.  In the center of town is the Parque Central and the Santa Lucia Church built by the Spanish in 1853.  Man-made Lago Suchitlán, is below the town, where the locals take tourists out to see the migratory birds on the various islands in the lake.

Before heading up the mountain to Suchitoto, we stopped at the Fernando Llort Gallery, El Arbos de Dios, in San Salvador.  Fernando’s son runs the gallery and talked to us about his father’s life and his art, which is often described as “naive” (i.e. childlike).  I would describe it as very colorful, and it reminded me a bit of Picasso.  He’s known as El Salvador’s National Artist and for teaching the citizens of the small town of La Palma, how to make a living through art.  We couldn’t afford an original, but we now have a lovely tea towel that shows one of his paintings (suitable for framing)!

When we arrived in Suchitoto, we immediately understood why the El Salvadorian people go there to get away from “el estress”, the stress of hectic San Salvador.  Suchitoto is peaceful.  It’s full of colonial architecture, cobbled streets, art galleries, and restaurants.  The shops open when the owners feel like it, the square is surrounded by outdoor cafes, and everyone greets you with a smile.

Our group of 11 stayed in the Los Almendros de San Lorenzo Hotel, one of the best hotels in El Salvador.  The hotel has beautiful rooms of all sizes in a meticulously restored 100-year-old house, with an eclectic art collection, a lovely pool in a quiet garden, a great restaurant, and is run by fascinating hosts; Pascal, an ex-French fashion executive, and Joaquin, a former El Salvadorian ambassador to France.  After checking into our rooms (plenty of oohs and ahhs…) we went on a walking tour to see the sights, then returned to our hotel for a swim and an evening by the pool with wine and pupusas.

The next day a few of us went to learn the art of “añil”.  We spent a few hours in the workshop making a scarf and learning the history of indigo dyeing.  Indigo, or añil, is a natural colorant extracted from the Xiquilite plant and was a very important element for the Mayans.  When the Spanish arrived in El Salvador in 1524, indigo became the new source of wealth in the region.  Then in the 19th century, the indigo economy collapsed due to the discovery of synthetic colors in Europe.  Now, indigo is making a comeback and there are organic indigo farms around Suchitoto as well as a number of workshops and art galleries selling beautiful indigo crafts. Being that my favorite color is blue, I was happy to play in a big vat of blue dye!  I’ll need a bit more practice before my “art” is famous, but it was fun and was well worth having our noses above a stinky 8-year old brew of añil.

After arts and crafts it was time for lunch.  We were looking for a taste of authentic El Salvadorian food, so we walked a few blocks from the central square to a restaurant overlooking the lake, called La Posada de Suchitlán.  Marty and I shared a sampler plate, along with a yummy El Salvador version of tortilla soup.  We had chorizo, some fried yucca, cheese and spinach stuffed yucca, an El Salvador version of an enchilada (think tostada), red beans, and a fermented cabbage salad.  It was all very tasty!

After lunch we walked around town some more, visited the Peace Arts Center, walked through the church, and of course did a little shopping.  I bought an indigo blouse made by a cute lady named Ada.  She and her husband have a little store on the square and she sews the clothes that they have for sale.  When I asked if I could try on the blouse, she directed me into their living area that was separated from the store by a piece of hanging fabric.  She said not to worry, there wasn’t anyone home except the dog!  I quickly tried on the blouse in their kitchen, avoided the sleeping dog, then stepped back into the store for Marty’s approval.  Sold!  Ada gave me a hug and we were all smiles.

Dinner that night was provided by Pascal and Juaquin at the hotel, and it was fabulous.  El Salvador beef is a whole different world from Mexican beef!  We enjoyed a sirloin steak with a rich mushroom gravy, veggies, and rice, followed by passion fruit cheesecake.  Yum.

On our last day we took a morning walk down (way down) the hill to the lake.  The lake is very low at the moment, but I’d guess that once the rainy season begins it will fill up again.  Along the way we enjoyed some great views, and we even saw our first turquoise-browed motmot, the national bird of El Salvador!

When we got to the bottom of the hill we had to go through a gate and were told that there was a dollar per person entry fee.  We had no idea what we were paying for but bought a ticket anyway and walked down to Puerto San Juan.  In the main tourist building of the port there turned out to be a food court set on the bank of the lake, with six or seven different food and beverage booths to choose from.  There is a malecon, and you can walk down to the dock and pick up a tourist boat to go out on the lake.  There’s even a ferry to take you to the other side of the reservoir, which is the largest lake in the country.  We enjoyed a cold beer, watched the tourists (we’re the only gringos in town), and enjoyed some time by the lake before heading back out to grab a mini-bus back up the steep hill into town.

We thoroughly enjoyed Suchitoto.  The relaxed feel of the town is a nice change from busy Zacatecoluca and San Salvador, plus it’s a town with an amazing history.  In the late 1980’s the town was on the verge of extinction, mostly because of the civil war which raged all around it.  Now the town is a “wonderful miracle”, a tribute to El Salvador and her people.

Tidbits from El Salvador

We’ve now been in El Salvador long enough to have experienced chicken buses, hot pupusas off the grill, a local soccer game, visits to unique towns, tide travels in the estuary, and even a small earthquake!  So here you go….a little bit about our first impressions of this complicated country.

First off, a mini history lesson about El Salvador.  Being the smallest and most densely populated of the seven Central American countries, with a population of approximately 6.34 million, El Salvador was traditionally an agricultural country, heavily dependent upon coffee exports. The service sector now dominates the economy and the government is trying to open up trade and expand manufacturing.  However, the country continues to struggle with high rates of poverty, inequality, and crime.  They’ve had a tough road to recovery following the bloody civil war that ended with the 1992 peace accords; just as the country began to recover, they were devastated by Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and by a major earthquake in 2001.

I mention this brief history in order to address everyone’s question when we said we were coming here; “is it safe”?  I guess the real answer to that is “mostly yes”.  Yes, there are gang and turf wars in parts of the city, and locals are forced to navigate through the invisible gang borders, but as gringos we’re pretty isolated from that, and of course we limit our travels only to safe areas.  The people we have met are hardworking, honest, friendly, and sadly, very poor, yet they consistently greet us with smiles and helpfulness.

So, on to the fun stuff…our latest adventures!

Chicken buses…

Bus travel here is not a relaxing experience.  It’s a constant jostle for space, with minuscule leg room pushing the average gringo’s knees up to chin level. That’s if you’re one of the lucky few who manage to get a seat at all. Otherwise you’ll be in the aisle, hanging on above the flow of vendors and the conductor, leaving you bumped and bruised by the time you reach your destination. Chivalry is not dead however, and the older women are usually given seats, then they put other peoples’ babies and small children on their laps.  Pop and salsa music is played at full volume, with the drivers’ favorite CDs left on a loop.  We happened to have the same bus driver coming back from town as when we’d gone in, and the same CD was playing.

Referred to as chicken buses, for the squawking chickens that might be stashed in the luggage rack, these buses provide not just transportation, but a virtual community on wheels. There is a stream of buskers, freaky looking clowns, and soap-box orators, as well as snack sellers forcing their way down the aisle at every stop. Any time of day you can buy individual sweets torn off a long strip, little packets of peanuts from a clever basket that attaches to the hand holds, taco chips and cashews, plastic bags full of fluorescent drinks, ready-peeled oranges (which are sucked for their juice then thrown, like everything else, out of the window), pizza slices, chips, hot dogs, and of course, pupusas complete with chopped salad and chili sauce.

Considering the average travel time in this tiny country is about an hour, I was confused as to why everyone was eating everything that came along. I was told by one of the expats here that the locals eat on the bus because it’s cheap!  In a country where a high wage is still only single digits per day, a 25-cent pupusa is a good buy.  Add the dollar for the bus fare and voila, dinner is served.

Then there is the tireless ‘cobrador’, usually a small and wiry man chosen for his agility to worm his way through the bus, hissing and clicking his tongue for fares, and hanging out the doorway, shouting out “Avisa, avisa!” for more customers to pile on board. The running joke in El Salvador is “how many people can you fit on the bus”…”one more!”

The language…

We’re having a hard time getting used to the differences in the Spanish spoken here from what we were used to in Mexico.  In other words, we’re lost.  Everything is spoken faster (if that’s possible), the words are shortened (Buenos Dias is just Buenos), and there are quite a few different words for things.  More to learn!

The food…

El Salvador is known for pupusas, a traditional dish of a thick corn tortilla stuffed with a savory filling such as cheese, beans, or meat.  They are typically accompanied by curtido, a lightly fermented cabbage relish, and tomato salsa.  We like them served hot off the grill…awesome!  We’ve also enjoyed some great grilled steak, huge local prawns, and fresh fish that is cooked whole.  All yum!

The earthquake…

We were aboard Happy Dance one day when the boat started shaking.  While it’s not unusual to get rocked a bit from boat wakes or the current, this was a different feel.  It was as if Happy Dance was floating in a bowl of water with someone banging the sides making ripples shake us from all sides.  Weird!  There wasn’t any damage that we know of and it wasn’t a big one, but it was a new sensation for the Happy Dancers.

Drinking water…

Since we’re in an estuary that is very silty from the tidal changes and mud bottom, we’ve pickled the water maker and have to rely on local water sources.  The dock water isn’t an option, so we have water delivered by one of the locals who pulls it out of their well.  The delivery was a new method for us and was pretty funny.

A few boats ordered water at the same time, so the panga arrived with six 50-gallon strategically placed open barrels.  We put out our fenders and the panga tied alongside and started pumping water up to us.  He had made a pump by wiring a battery to a bilge pump and sticking the hose into our tanks – genius!

Soccer tournament…

We dingied over to the island one day to watch the local soccer teams play and share in the local scene.  Even playing on a rocky, dusty field these guys were serious about their soccer!  Marty enjoyed yakking with the local kids who took the field during a break, and we also enjoyed pupusas off the grill.  Everyone from the island came to watch the fun, and fun it was!

San Sebastian…

This is a small town located approximately 30 miles northeast of San Salvador and it is known for high quality, colorful, patterned textiles, that are made into hammocks, purses, tablecloths, blankets, etc.

Traditional “telares” or large wooden looms are used to weave the cloth, just the way it has been done for over two centuries.  We visited three different workshops and watched the weavers at work.  Only men work the big looms as it is a strenuous process, and they are paid by the yard, earning two dollars for each four yards of material made.

It’s a much larger process than what I learned from Gran when I was young!  She and I used to warp (the warp are the long threads on a loom) her loom together with me handing her the next thread one at a time to pull through the heddles.  These men are winding on miles of warp from a huge warping spool that turns like a giant rotisserie.  It was mind-blowing to watch and to realize the hours of work that goes into each hammock sold by the side of the road.

Illobosco…

Illobosco lies on top of a hill at 2500 feet above sea level, 35 miles east of San Salvador on the Pan-American road.  It’s famous for ceramics and is one of the oldest artisan towns in the country and in Central America. Some say the ceramic activity began sometime in the 1700s. Unfortunately (Marty might say otherwise) we didn’t have much time to visit the gazillion shops full of colorful ceramics, but we saw quite of few of the varieties of things they make here.

There are traditional types of pottery including griddles, pots, pans, and flower pots. The popular types are Christmas gifts such as catholic images: Saint Joseph, the virgin Maria, mules, ox, and the 3 magic kings.  My favorites were the decorative types with all sorts of original, colorful designs, and miniatures that represented daily life in El Salvador.  The artwork is quite detailed and original from artist to artist.

We also stopped for lunch, which cut into my shopping time, but it was sooo good!  We had grilled steak, chicken, chorizo, and hot freshly made tortillas while sitting out in a lovely garden area.  The tortillas here are thick like a griddle cake, not like the type we’re used to in Mexico.  Okay, so maybe that was better than shopping..ha!

The Jaltepeque Estuary…

We’re situated on a long peninsula of land called Costa del Sol that separates the estuary from the ocean.  There are large tides and strong currents in the estuary and sometimes the current running past the dock is more than three knots.  It’s been fun to drive the dinghy around as we visit palapa restaurants on stilts, the nearby island of Isla Cordoncilla, and soon we’ll take the dingy up estuary for some shopping at one of the small towns. It’s wild to see mangoes falling off the trees, and cashews growing wild.

One day we all piled in a panga for a tour of the estuary on our way to the Rio Lempa.  Along the way we visited a small fishing village on Isla Colorada, where the government built a dock to help the fishermen and to provide water access to the village across the long mud flat that exists when the tide is out.  The fishermen bring their catch to the dock and one panga collects it all and then is escorted by armed guard to and from the market.  The houses are each fenced and there is a walkway down the middle of “town”.

Isla Colorada is also where the local women create some beautiful beading and sewing.  A few years ago, a woman came to the village to teach the women how to sew and how to make jewelry and as a result of the success of the project the government provided money so that they could tile the mud floored hut, buy some sewing machines, and create a center where the local women’s group can work together.  This allows the women to earn money to help support their families.

After traveling by miles of huge mangroves, with lots of white egrets and smaller yellow birds, we arrived at the mouth of the Lempa River.  The Rio Lempa is the longest river in El Salvador and is approximately 240 miles long.  It enters El Salvador from Guatemala in the northwestern corner of the country and flows across the coastal plain to its mouth on the Pacific where we enjoyed lunch, a beach walk, and a nice swim!

So there you have it, all the news that’s fit to print!  We’re about to hop in the dingy for another adventure, heading to a palapa restaurant for lunch, followed by pupusas at a local’s house tonight…it’s all good in El Salvador!!

Adios Mexico, Bienvenidos a El Salvador!

It’s hard to believe that it’s been five years since we pushed off the dock in Anacortes to sail toward beautiful destinations and new adventures, and we’ve enjoyed plenty of both as we’ve traveled the Pacific Coast from Alaska to Central America.  We’re now in El Salvador and from all that we’ve seen so far, we’re going to love it here!  Before we regale you with tales from our new home, here’s a bit on how we got here!

Our trip down the coast from Huatulco to Chiapas, to El Salvador was long and mostly uneventful, interspersed with long line dodging, turtle counting (123!), freighter traffic, gusty winds, and sleepless nights.

Crossing the Gulf of Tehuantepec was mostly easy with the exception of some strong onshore winds and opposing current that made for a very lumpy sea as we crossed the shipping lanes at Salina Cruz after sunset.  This is adjacent to the Bahia Ventosa (Windy Bay) where the Tehuantepec gap winds funnel from the Gulf of Mexico through a 75-mile wide gap in the Sierra Madres, creating gale force winds and huge seas.  Thankfully for us, the winds were blowing in the opposite direction as we crossed so although it was rough, it wasn’t a Tehuantepecer!

Since the winds were blowing onshore and the seas were getting rougher as we approached shallower water, we decided to head out into deeper water on a more direct route to Chiapas.  After changing course, we were able to sail on a broad reach with the waves abeam, doing 8+ knots using only our small inner jib.

We arrived at Chiapas at 0300, surfed into the channel on the incoming swell, then Marty went out on the bow with flashlight in hand to light the buoys and mangroves and keep us off the shoals.  The channel is fairly well-marked but narrows as you make the final turn down an unlit lane into the marina.  A friendly marina worker was waiting at the dock to point us to the right slip and help us get settled.  We slept for a few hours, then woke at 0700 to greet the Capitania de Puerto who arrived with the Navy, complete with guns and a search dog.  Welcome to Chiapas!

We rested up, did some provisioning in the big stores in Tapachula and kept an eye on the weather forecasts.  After a few days we had another good weather window for the final leg to El Salvador, so it was time…time to schedule our Zarpe Day!

Leaving Mexico by car or by airplane is a very simple affair; leaving by boat is another story!  We were very glad that the Marina provides such great assistance in getting our official clearance paperwork, the Zarpe.

There are four steps in the Zarpe dance with each step in a different office dealing with a different government entity.  All of them include plenty of paperwork, fees to be paid, lots of waiting, and then…the official stamp, and we’re free to leave the country!  It’s kind of a bittersweet feeling as we have loved our time in Mexico, but after four years we felt it was time to explore new territory.  The fifth and final step is completed on board when the Navy and the Port Captain inspect the boat and your paperwork one more time.  After they are finished you have 15 minutes to shove off and leave the marina….adios Mexico!

The trip from Chiapas to El Salvador was another easy one; the hardest part was simply trying to stay awake on watch!  We had to slow down quite a bit to time our arrival with high tide, and even at that we were five hours early, so we anchored off the beach outside the bar entrance at dawn and went below to snooze for a few hours.  Then it was 1230 and time to weigh anchor!

We met the pilot boat at the GPS coordinates we’d been given, he instructed us to line up with the entrance, then wait, wait, wait…now gun it!  Off we went with Happy Dance moving at full speed.  The bar entrance was quite flat for us and was actually a bit anti-climactic after worrying about it for so long!  We surfed a couple of small waves, and then voila, we were over the bar and entering Bahia del Sol.

We turned left, motored up the wide estuary to the marina where a crowd of cruisers, officials, and dock workers were waiting for us.  With plenty of hands to tie us to the rickety dock we were then handed a welcome drink, and a welcome gift of Flor de Cana rum!  Next stop was an air-conditioned office to meet with the Port Captain and Immigration Officer.  Pretty soon our passports were stamped, and we were officially welcomed to El Salvador.  Yay!  Time to hoist the new courtesy flag!  From what we’ve seen and enjoyed so far, we know we’ll love it here in El Salvador.  Stay tuned for more details about our new home!

 

Barra de Navidad to Huatulco

The 544-mile trek from Barra de Navidad to our current berth in Marina Chahué in Huatulto, has been full of great sailing, fast currents, and plenty of sea life.  This has all been new territory for us, since the furthest south we’d gone in previous years was to Barra.

Our first leg was an easy overnight sail from Barra to Isla Grande, just north of Ixtapa and south of the big shipping harbor of Lazaro Cardenas.  All had been going perfectly, with enough wind to sail by, a gentle swell pushing us along, and lots of dolphins.  Then as we were about to motor sail across the shipping lanes between an incoming and outgoing freighter, we caught a long line that was held up with nearly invisible coke bottles on each end.  Drat!  We quickly put the engine in idle and rolled up the sail, and Marty jumped in the water to investigate.  Yep, we had plenty of bright red poly propylene line wrapped tightly around the propeller and shaft.  With a knife and lots of dives, Marty was able to free the prop from the mess and we were soon on our way.

We set the hook a few hours later in the anchorage by Isla Grande, the little island just north of Ixtapa.  We loved it there and spent 4 days enjoying the picturesque anchorage.  During the day tourists are shuttled to the island via cute little ferries to enjoy the protected swimming beach and colorful restaurants.  Jet skiers buzz around and pangas tow screaming kids on bananas through the anchorage just to make sure the cruisers are awake.  There are five or six palapa restaurants on the beach that serve fresh seafood and cold beer.  The best part is that everything closes up at around 5:00pm; the tourists hop on the last ferry back to Ixtapa, the restaurant staff all pile into a panga for the ride home, and the cruisers enjoy a final round of tequila, complements of Juan who has lived here and run the beach side restaurants since his father started them many years ago.  When the sun goes down, the beach goes dark, and silence descends.  Nice.

We spent our days swimming and snorkeling, and our afternoons enjoying cold beverages and warm conversations under the palapas with the other cruisers, while sinking our toes in the sand.  It doesn’t get much better!  Isla Grande is definitely on our list of places to return to; however, it was soon time to think about weighing anchor and heading for Zihuatenejo.  Supplies were running short, we were nearly out of pesos, and the time to head south was approaching.

We pulled anchor around 10am and made the two-hour trek to Zihuatenejo Bay – a much busier place than Isla Grande!  The bay was chock full of cruising boats, so we had to anchor out in the swell, but it was bearable.  We put the dinghy down and headed to town to figure out the lay of the land.  First stop, el banco!  With pesos in our pockets once again we could arrange for the local cruiser concierge, Ismael and Hilda, to bring us fuel in the morning.  With that chore taken care of, it was time to find dinner!  There were plenty of choices in the area where we were, so we sat down with our toes in the sand, Happy Dance in sight, and waited for our camarones to arrive.  Yum!

The original plan was to stay a few days in Zihuat, but it felt like a big city to us after so many days anchored out and in small towns.  After checking the weather, we decided that we had a good window to get to Huatulco before another Tehuantepec gale started blowing.  After our fuel arrived in three heavy jerry cans (50 liters each), we fueled up, returned the jerry cans, and raised anchor around noon, planning to arrive in Acapulco the following morning.

The afternoon winds were just piping up so that we were able to put out the sails, turn off the engine, and enjoy the sound of Happy Dance splashing her way south.  The dolphins joined us for a while and we even saw a lone Orca swimming north!

That night after the moon had gone down we were running about four miles offshore just north of Acapulco when a larger vessel on the radar that had been just sitting offshore near the town, suddenly started heading toward us at a fast rate.  As it approached we could see their navigation lights and knew it was heading straight for us before it altered course at the last-minute to line up on our stern.  We were sailing with only our head-sail, making an easy five knots, with only our navigation lights showing.  We could hear the deep rumble of the mystery ship’s engines, so we figured (and hoped) it was a Navy vessel, but we couldn’t see the outline in the moonless dark.  It hung back a few hundred yards, just idling behind us for a while, then it suddenly put engines all ahead full, charged alongside our port side, crossed our bow and ran down our starboard side heading off north into the distance at full speed.  After we’d recovered from nearly getting swamped by his large wake, we wondered what the h*&ll that was all about!  We hoped for the best, that it was simply a Navy vessel monitoring the coast, but it was weird having him buzz us so close!  Another story for the books..ha.

One thing we didn’t factor into our time and distance routing was the north-south off shore current that was running 1-2 knots, pushing us along at an average of 7+ knots.  Generally, we plan our routes at a speed of 5.5nm/hr so that we have wiggle room before and after our scheduled time at a destination to be sure we arrive in daylight.  As I say, we weren’t counting on such a great push from the current.  We were also able to sail most of the way so that our fuel supply was pretty much untouched by the time we approached Acapulco in the dark around 6:00am.

We hadn’t planned on spending much time in Acapulco anyway, so it was an easy decision after checking the weather to pass by Acapulco toward Huatulco.  Based on the distance remaining, we estimated that we would arrive in Huatulco about 46 hours later, or two more long nights at sea, but decided that was preferable than waiting for enough light to drop anchor in Acapulco.

The wind and current were still in our favor and Happy Dance was jitterbugging along under sail on a flat sea at an average of over 7 knots.  Later that afternoon when the peak winds were blowing, we were reaching 8.4 knots in the gusts; fun!  As the seas built with the afternoon winds, we were starting to get a bit of a squirrely ride running downwind, so we reefed slightly to balance the boat and relieve the auto-pilot from having to work so hard against the weather helm.  With single reefs in both the main and Genoa we were still making over 7.5 knots with a flat boat and a following sea.  Lovely!

When you’re making long passages it’s easy to get caught up in watching the world go by, focusing on waves or sea birds, or as on this trip; counting turtles!  Marty started counting one morning as the sun came up and we were soon obsessed with it.  The first day we saw 52 turtles, and on the second day we passed by 110 turtles, most of them with birds resting on their backs.  We challenge our cruiser buddies to top that count!  We also saw dozens of dolphins and a herd of humpbacks.  The trifecta once again, yay!

Our speed over ground had pretty much constantly exceeded our planning speed so that on the second day of the trek we found ourselves within range of an anchorage by that afternoon.  We adjusted course slightly to stay closer to shore, and at around 3:00pm we were at our GPS mark for the turn into Puerto Angel.  From our guidebooks and charts we felt this would be a good overnight spot, out of the swell and wind and with enough room to catch some sleep before the final push to the Bahias de Huatulco.  No go.  We pulled into the narrow rocky entrance and saw immediately that the anchorage was not as advertised!  The photo in our guidebook shows this lovely calm anchorage with plenty of room between the beach and the rocks.  Well, reality wasn’t quite the same.  The tide was extremely low, panga moorings choked all anchor space and the swell rolling in was crashing on the steep beach just past the pangas.  The tiny two-lobed bay was full of sea-foam from the breakers and there wasn’t an inch to spare for the tired crew of Happy Dance.  A quick 180 degree turn, and we were on our way once again.

There were only three hours until dusk which limited our decisions a bit.  Thankfully the tide had just turned so that the current switched around again to push us along at 7 knots to the next anchorage that was about 16 miles away.  After two days and nights at sea, those last three hours seemed to take forever, and we were a bit nervous as to what we’d do if the next anchorage wasn’t suitable.

Luck was with us though, and as we pulled around the southern point between Puerto Angel and the Bahias de Huatulco, the wind and swell both subsided as we pulled under the lee of the headland.  The sailing guide and chart both mark the entrance to Jicaral Cove by calling out the “white cone shaped rock”, where you should make the turn into the somewhat hidden entrance; argh!  So we picked out the whitest, most cone shaped rock and plotted our GPS turn accordingly.  With waves crashing on the rocks on both sides of the entrance sending up huge plumes of white foam, we crept into the bay.  Phew!  Marty on the bow turned around to give me the thumbs up and we proceeded to find a place in the tiny bay to drop the hook.  There really wasn’t much choice since there was a reef on each side and a section of the beach buoyed off, so we soon had the anchor set, engine off, and smiles on our tired faces as the sun set and darkness descended.  Needless to say, we slept quite well!

The next day we were delighted to wake up to a calm anchorage, empty beach and beautiful rock formations all around.  The books say the bay is surrounded by “jungle covered hills”, but maybe that is more evident in the spring.  At the moment most of the trees are bare, so it doesn’t look too much like the tropical jungle we expected.  It’s beautiful though!

We decided to spend another night in our quiet little refuge, so I spent the morning snorkeling over some beautiful coral and exploring the empty beach.  It was quite a surprise later when at around 11am the tourists showed up!  First came the pangas who set up umbrellas and tables along the shore, then came the bigger fishing boats to drop their guests off for a walk on the beach.  Then came two big tour boats that anchored nearly on top of us and unloaded their guests by panga, to either snorkel the protected coral reefs, or go sit under an umbrella on the beach. It was quite entertaining to listen to the hubbub, and even funnier when it all vanished in a couple of hours and we were alone again!

Another good sleep and we were off again in the morning for one more night at anchor before the weather started turning fowl.  We soon found ourselves in a bay called Chachaqual rising and lowering on a 2-3’ swell in front of a steep beach, 36’ above our anchor dug deep into the fine white sand.  Ragged rocks and coral reefs bordered each end of the bay, making for picturesque white froth as the swell rolled across.  Once again, colorful umbrellas were lined up on shore in the morning, ready for the tour boats to arrive.  It seems to be the schedule here in these bays, quiet in the morning, full of people for a couple hours before the afternoon winds pipe up, then quiet and empty once again.  We enjoyed Chachaqual Beach; a lovely last stop before we went into the marina in Huatulco.

As we made our way the next morning for the final 6 miles to the marina, the wind decided to pipe up and the waves were crashing on the rocks in Huatulco Bay.  This coast is definitely a rugged one, and our charts leave a bit to be desired.  We picked our way in, keeping well off the islands centered in the middle of the bay, and found the entrance to the marina easily.  Giving me the jitters was that the tide was out, the channel narrow, and we didn’t have any idea of where they were going to put us once we entered the marina.  With the wind up it’s always a bit nerve-wracking to go into unfamiliar tight spaces.

We made it through the entrance with a foot or so to spare under the keel, and soon saw the local dock hands gesturing to us to make a wide swing around the dock to come in on the other side.  It turned out to be an easy docking and thankfully we didn’t rub any paint off the keel, and we were soon tied securely to the dock.  Ahhhh.

From our brief tour into town yesterday we can see that Huatulco is much different from the towns on the Baja, and that we’ll definitely enjoy it here.  There is a gale building in the Tehuantepec, so it seems that we’ll have a few days to learn more about this new spot!

There you have it; Barra to Huatulco with the happy dancing crew of Happy Dance.  As usual she has taken very good care of us and we’re very happy to be exploring new places, new waters, meeting new friends, and counting more turtles!

Bahia Tenacatita

We seem to have found ourselves in the middle of a town meeting of the Nomadic Retiree Cruising Community, with a “mayor” and everything! On any given day in beautiful Bahia Tenacatita there are 25 to 35 boats bobbing on the gentle swell wrapping around Punta Hermanos, with the self-appointed mayor planning activities for the agenda deprived vagabonds.

Bahia Tenacatita is a great anchorage, with protection from the prevalent winter northwesterly on the ocean as well as from the rollers that can be heard crashing onshore a few miles to the east. Occasionally the wind will blow from the south and enter the bay, making for a lumpy night’s sleep, but lately it’s been calm and flat – a cruiser’s paradise.

We’ve been here off and on for nearly a month (most of which I don’t remember because I was asleep) and this week we’ve been enjoying all that this little slice of paradise has to offer!

One day we joined up with a couple of friends for a dinghy excursion up the Estero Verde, a two-mile trip through a thick mangrove forest that leads to a lagoon next to the fishing village of Tenacatita. We’ve been told that there are crocodiles in the narrow river leading to the lagoon, but on our trip we saw herons, egrets, hawks, lots of unnamed birds, and the brightest green lizard I’ve ever seen!

When we arrived in Tenacatita we tied the dinghies to a palm tree and walked across the narrow sandy peninsula into town. There has been some sort of land title grab/recovery going on in the village in the past few years so that most of the palapas are now gone that used to line the beach, but we were still able to find a spot for an awesome lunch of fresh fish and cold cervezas before dinghy-ing back down the narrow jungle trail to Happy Dance.

Another day we took the dingy around the point to the same little village, but this time we were headed for a little beach known as the aquarium, named for all the gazillions of baby fish growing up in the protected reefs surrounding the beach. We pulled the dinghy up on the sand, enjoyed a cup of morning coffee on the empty beach, then donned our snorkel gear to go check out the reef. It lived up to it’s reputation, and we were immediately surrounded by a school of silvery bait fish, then lots of other little guys hiding in the nooks and crannies of the reef. A few eels poked their heads out, and there were plenty of urchins and other pokey looking creatures making for a colorful undersea world.

We are anchored in a little nook at the end of the bay where the estuary enters the bay. The snorkeling right near the boat has been exceptional and one day I even swam with a baby turtle for a good 10 minutes or so. He was only about 14-15 inches in length, but he was so curious about me that he just swam around me, it was awesome! We’ve also had dolphins coming over and scratching themselves on our anchor chain, or swimming around munching on the gazillions of bait fish under the boat. Some whales have also ventured close in to give us a show, making a triple crown of our favorite sea creatures!

Then there are the aforementioned activities organized by the mayor. On Friday nights everyone gathers together in their dinghies for a raft-up to share snacks and stories, and learn a bit about each other. Sometimes we’re lucky enough to have a musician serenade us, too. Every afternoon there is a swim to the beach, followed by bocce ball or walks on the beach, then everyone gathers in the palapa to tell stories and enjoy a cold beverage under the palms.

It’s all very casual, and is a great way for cruisers to get together who might simply pass each other coming and going. However, anyone who knows us knows that crowds are definitely not our thing and we’re not good at getting to know new people in social situations, but we’ve been joining in some of the scheduled events or as Marty says; “we’ve been drinking the mayor’s Kool-Aid”.

It’s an interesting gathering of many different types of people; young and young at heart, social butterflies and recluses, retired and working, those who live aboard full-time and those who have a limited amount of time, rich and not as rich, artists and executives, free spirits and type A’s.  The one commonality is that we’re all sailing the same sea, enjoying the beauty and freedom of this unique lifestyle in whatever method each person chooses.

Tenacatita has been a fun stop and we’ve been glad to make some new friends and see yet another side of the cruising lifestyle.  We’ll soon be weighing anchor when the next weather window appears for us to head south, where we’ll be exploring some new territory.  New adventures await!

Calm sea in the anchorage following a brief rain