Full Circle

Seven years ago, we landed in San Jose, Costa Rica to begin what has become a nonstop adventure, a permanent picnic, an excellent escapade!   We called it G.R.E.A.T. (Grand Retirement Escapade and Tour) and it certainly has been quite a ride!

This past week as we sailed by Tambor, Costa Rica, in the Gulf of Nicoya, we passed by the hotel where we’d spent a week on the beginning of our month in Costa Rica and Panama in 2011-2012.  It was kind of surreal to be sailing by in our home afloat looking at the beach where we’d watched the ocean through the palms from our beach side resort back then.  Happy Dance was a dream unrealized, and we’d yet to even decide on a life at sea.  It seems like so long ago and measured in miles traveled and the gazillion or so adventures we’ve shared since then, I guess it was!

We arrived in Playas del Coco just before Christmas after leaving the ferocious winds of San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua.  We had planned on spending some time in the reportedly beautiful anchorage of Santa Elena, but with the Papagayos forecast to ramp up, and some sad news coming from home, we decided the best decision was to use the one calm day we had to make our escape from windy Nicaragua to a town where we’d have access to an airport, namely Playas del Coco.

Being at sea during times of family emergencies makes us realize how isolated we sometimes are.  We’d received word before leaving San Juan del Sur that Marty’s Dad, lovingly called “Grumpy”, was in the hospital.  With little information reaching us from home it was tough to know what to do.  We weren’t able to put Happy Dance in a marina because we weren’t checked into Costa Rica yet, so anchoring out in Playas del Coco in 30+ knot winds was our only option while we tried to determine how to get Marty home.

We spent a very frustrating day wandering around town and waiting for officials so that we could get all the correct stamps and pieces of paper to make us legal and to allow Marty to be able to leave the country without being tossed in jail.  Walking between the Port Captain, a closed Immigration office, the Port Captain, and a still closed Immigration office, made us a bit crazy, not to mention, HOT.  Thankfully, the friendly ladies at the Port Captain’s office helped us by calling Immigration in Liberia to find out when the local office would be open and ultimately got us an appointment later that night for us to meet with them.  Once that was done we had the problem of how to get back to the boat in the dark since the water taxis don’t run after dark!  Another friendly local took pity on us and called his buddy and voila, a ride home to Happy Dance.  The next day Marty had an appointment with the Customs officials at the airport, where IF he got the right stamps for Happy Dance, he’d then be able to board a plane to the states.  Again, the friendly people of Costa Rica helped us out and Marty was able to fly to Texas.

His time in Texas was tough, to put it lightly, arriving to find Grumpy in the hospital with little time left.  After a life full of love and family, his 90 year old body was winding down.  We’re so thankful that Marty was able to be there with his brothers, to hold his Dad’s hand and have a chance to talk with him in those final days.  Grumpy passed away in his sleep on Christmas morning with his family around him, knowing he was loved.

Marty flew home to Happy Dance a few days later.  I was ecstatic to have him home but I’m sure he felt a bit numb after a week of hospitals and sadness, to come back to Playas del Coco, a busy little gringo town with lots of sunshine, and festive music.  So we left the dusty streets and noisy nightlife to head a bit north to Playa Iguanita.  We spent a quiet New Year’s Eve anchored there, listening to howler monkeys and birds, and the waves on shore.  It was a nice spot to begin 2019, to reflect on how lucky we are, and to bid a final farewell to Grumpy.

Our next stop was the perfect little anchorage of Playa Guacamaya.  It felt like we were finally back to enjoying the cruising life; floating over clear water in a protected anchorage where we snorkeled, swam, walked the empty beach, and sat in the cockpit enjoying the view.  Perfect.

After a few days enjoying the peaceful anchorage, the wind changed, making it time to head further south.  We stopped just a few miles away in Playa Conchal.  Billed as one of Costa Rica’s most beautiful bays we had planned to stay a few days to walk the long sandy beaches, however on the way into the anchorage Marty was on the bow and he kept pointing to something in the water for me to see.  (warning for Megret and Julie K, picture of snake below!)

We saw dozens of snakes slithering along the surface as we made our way to the anchorage, and there were quite a few around the boat after we dropped the hook.  Since we had internet, we googled to see what they were; yellow bellied sea snakes, highly venomous, for which there is no antidote.  Yikes; the pool is now closed!  Supposedly they don’t bite since they have small mouths, but it just didn’t sound like a fun time to be swimming with poisonous snakes.  Needless to say, we left the next morning!

Our next trek took us around Cabo Velas where we started heading in a more southeasterly direction.  We’re continually surprised at how far east we’ve actually come since leaving Alaska.  Our current longitude is 84 degrees West, nearly due south of Atlanta!

Full Circle!

The 50-mile trip from Playa Conchal to Bahia Samara was another typical travel day on this blustery coast; full of sail changes, getting slammed with too much sail out, becalmed after reefing, and finally motoring into a headwind over choppy seas.  We finally arrived in Bahia Samara and skirted the huge reef in the middle of the bay to anchor behind a tiny island called Isla Chora that provided a bit of relief from the incoming southern swell off the ocean.

Our days in Bahia Samara were full of swimming (no snakes), snorkeling, paddling, exploring the tide pools on the island, and listening to the waves crashing over the reef.  We hitched a ride to shore with Wildest Dreams and got completely lost trying to find the town because we thought that we were anchored right in front of it.  Nope!  We walked in circles for a bit getting strange looks when we asked locals where Samara was, but finally discovered that a taxi ride was in order since town was a 40-minute walk along a narrow busy road.  We finally arrived at the far end of the bay where the actual town of Samara was, perused the touristy shops, checked out the market, and of course found a beach side restaurant for lunch!  Ahh, the life of the cruiser…sometimes all who wander ARE lost..ha!

Leaving Samara for Bahia Ballena was another 50 mile jaunt, and again we spent our day hoisting and dousing sails, flying at 8 knots on a perfect broad reach, and becalmed on a lumpy sea.  Rounding Punta Blanco was a challenge with wind on the nose, breaking waves, and an opposing current.

Before rounding the final corner and heading into Bahia Ballena, we realized that we were passing Tambor, the site of our official starting point on the Grand Retirement Tour!  We could even see the waterfalls where we’d hiked, and swam in the tide pools.  Great memories, and fun to think of having come full circle.

When we anchored in southern end of Bahia Ballena we were next to the pier where we’d taken a panga ride to Isla Tortuga seven years ago.  Everything looked about the same, with all the pangas tied to the pier in a Med-moor mess, each with a separate anchor, but all leading to a single tie point.  We paddled to the beach to explore the little town, and visited Cristina’s restaurant, a landmark that’s been open for over 30 years in the same spot and run by its namesake.

One day the four of us dinghied up the river into a mangrove lined paradise.  After turning off the motor, we floated along listening to the roar of the howler monkeys in the distance (second loudest animal in the world!), and the birds fluttering through the trees.  There was one sound we were never able to identify that sounded like ping pong balls bouncing.  Was it the mud bubbling?  A bird calling?  Crocodiles burping?  Who knows, but it was a fun day of floating on a mirror in the midst of green.

When the winds changed, we headed to the north end of the bay and anchored in front of Playa de Muertos, where we were told the name was given because of a school of dolphins that beached themselves there.  It’s a rather sad name for a beautiful spot!  We loved the palms on the beach, the reef protecting us from the swell, the parrots squawking in the trees, and the quiet nights.  Perfect.

So, we’re now sitting on Happy Dance as she rests in the mud while tied to a dock in Puerto Azul Marina.  We were assured by the marina that we’d have enough water for our 6’8” keel, but I don’t think they took the full moon (and lovely lunar eclipse!!) into account.  At the moment the tide is a negative 1.25′, and Happy Dance is a couple of feet out of the water, stuck in the nasty mud of the estuary.  UGH.  It’s especially strange since the bottom isn’t flat so our bow is higher than the stern.  Why are we here you might ask?  We’re leaving Happy Dance on her own for a couple of weeks while we go inland to explore the mountains in Costa Rica, then we’ll hop a flight to Seattle to go celebrate Brad and Jesse’s wedding!  Exciting times!

So, there you have it blog readers, you’re all caught up on the circuitous travels, life changes, and exciting escapades of the Happy Dancers.  A circle of thousands of miles and a gazillion adventures, and always more to come.  As they say in Costa Rica, Pura Vida!!

Nicaragua, or Volcanes y Viento!!

We didn’t plan to stop in Nicaragua as we made our way down the coast, but weather and circumstances changed our plans.  After leaving El Tigre, Honduras on the outgoing tide at o’dark-thirty we motor-sailed through the maze of pangas and nets around the point and into a decreasing wind, passing Puerto Corinto around 3:00pm.  We’d gone about three miles past the channel entrance when we ran into a line of squalls and a 25-knot “noserly” (aka wind directly on the nose).  With 150 miles yet to go we decided to make a quick u-turn and anchor in Corinto for the night rather than bash into what was quickly becoming an ugly ride.

Our friends on m/v Wildest Dreams and s/v Shantey were already in Corinto, so we were happy to have buddies nearby.  While on passage that day we’d also discovered a problem with charging the batteries, so working on the issues in a calm anchorage was a much better choice than worrying about it while trekking through a blow.

First things first, it was time to check in with the Port Captain, so the next morning we hitched a ride in Wildest Dreams’ dinghy and tried to find a place to tie up.  The choices were a nasty mud beach at low tide with hidden pipes sticking up waiting to impale the dinghy, or a slippery rock wall, or some rusting shrimpers rafted together at the dock…okay, rock wall it is.  Thankfully a friendly gentleman pointed us into a corner that looked like it might work, so we crawled up the rocks, tied the dinghy to a shrimper and threw out a stern anchor to keep the dinghy from grinding against the huge barnacles on the hull of the shrimper.

Our next step was to find the Port Captain’s office.  We asked one of the guards at the gate to the power plant where the office was, and he gave us very specific, and very involved directions in Spanish.  We did pretty well at first to understand all the rights and lefts, and two more blocks, and one more street…, but after a while we must have looked a bit confused.  He laughed and called over a young man who then proceeded to lead us on his bicycle.  It was a long walk with plenty of twists and turns, so it was nice to have a tour leader!

We finally arrived at the Port Captain’s office looking a bit worse for wear and sweating like gringos, but we received a friendly welcome, and the naval cadets quickly brought out chairs for us to sit in while we waited for the Captain.  Eventually all the people were in place; the Customs official, Immigration official, and the Port Captain and his assistants.  Marty and I were led into the Port Captain’s air-conditioned office where six people were all working on getting us checked in.  It took about half an hour, lots of dollars, and a bit of explaining as to who we were, where we were from, where we were going, and what a “Happy Dance” is!  After we were “finito” it was Wildest Dreams turn, then we were finally set free to roam around town.

Nicaragua has been getting some bad press lately due to violence in the cities stemming from a bad political situation.  Thankfully in Corinto we didn’t see any of that, and we were actually told by a local (Florida Bert, our tricycle driver) that Corinto was one of the safest places in Nica because the President owns the port, and it’s the biggest commercial port in the country with plenty of extra security.  We did feel uncomfortable when groups of well lubricated tough guys were yelling at us and making weird comments, but that wasn’t too often and all the other people we met were very friendly and helpful.

The town of Corinto is bigger than we’d imagined, and also much poorer.  There are very few cars on the roads, only bicycles, motorbikes and a few taxis.  The main form of transportation is via tricycles with seats for four in front that the driver has to pedal.  There are a few shops and restaurants, but most were empty or closed and the locals didn’t appear to be spending much.  There’s a town square with a church and public market, a few stalls selling wares, and lots of people looking as though they were surprised to see Americans!  We found a good spot for lunch, with delicious food and gringo prices.  One day a cruise ship came in, which surprised us, but it didn’t seem as though too many people left the ship; and in talking with a restaurant owner, he felt the bad press and the bad president is directly affecting the locals’ business.  He also seemed to think that the “dictator president and his wife” would be gone soon and the country would start turning around.

When we found what we hoped was a good weather window we went back to the Port Captain to do all the paperwork again and prepared to leave Corinto at daylight the next day.  The Navy drove by and took photos of the boats and made sure that we left when we said we were going to.  We headed out of the channel on the outgoing tide and pointed the bow south for a planned overnight run to San Juan del Sur, about 200 miles away.

This section of Nicaraguan coastline from Corinto down to the northern edge of Costa Rica is notorious for nasty winds called Papagayos.  These are gap winds build in the Caribbean and funnel across the low-lying narrow land mass out into the Pacific.  In a word, it’s rough, and the farther off shore you travel the rougher it gets as the increased fetch creates even bigger waves.  We had chosen to leave under a forecast of 15-20 knots, hoping for a close reach with enough wind to sail but not over stress the crew…yeah, that was a dream.  We’d heard other cruisers say that when planning to travel this coast that you need to double the forecasted wind speeds.  We’re now believers in the double down method.

Our day started out well, motor sailing in light winds off the forward quarter.  It wasn’t long before the wind moved in front of us, so that to maintain a course near shore we wouldn’t be able to sail, as we would have had to angle away from shore which we really didn’t want to do.  The wind was now well into the 30’s so we reefed the main, battened down the hatches and got mentally prepared for a long crappy ride.  We were also starting to feel the effects of having been lulled into thinking we could believe the forecast, because we’d followed our rhumb line and we were now too far from shore where the waves were getting steep and very close together, in other words, not comfy at all.  Green water was coming over the bow and spraying into the cockpit, the waves were slowing us down, and the wind gusts were providing a wild chilly ride.  Welcome to the tropics!

After a few hours of this we decided to cut the trip into two segments and headed for the next good anchorage.  We pointed toward Masachapa, set the hook, blew the conch for sunset and relaxed…to get ready for another day of fun!?!

Day two was much like day one…having to motor sail about 35 degrees off the wind, fighting the gusts and wind waves.  We’d started out with a reefed main and kept it that way all day.  Even though we had to constantly adjust the sail as the wind shifted forward and aft, it was giving us quite a lift and we were happy to make the best time possible.  Our speed over ground varied from 4 to 7.5 knots depending on the current wind and waves.  When the waves slowed us down to 4 knots we started thinking about finding another hidey hole.  The next anchorage was Astilleros, a protected anchorage out of the wind and swell, but getting there would mean driving directly into the steep swell.  With a report from one of our Bahia buddies up ahead that the conditions smoothed out after rounding the point, we decided to carry on the three or four hours into Pie del Gigante and hope for the best.  Luck was with us and even though the winds were steady in the low thirties with higher gusts, the sea state did settle down a bit as we rounded the point and came closer into shore.

We were happy to see the sheltered anchorage of Pie del Gigante ahead and we were soon anchored and enjoying an afternoon swim.  After a peaceful night at anchor it was up at first light for the final push into San Juan del Sur, our final destination in Nicaragua.  The winds were already building so we were glad we’d chosen to start at dawn.

San Juan del Sur is what I would call a “gringo-ized” town, though not the Cabo or Cancun type of gringo-ized..with big box stores and heavy on the retail hell where you’d never know you’re in a foreign country; this is a friendly kind of gringo-ism, with plenty of young surfer dudes and dude-ettes, diverse nationalities, and a great mix of eclectic foodie cafes and restaurants.  It’s a fun spot, but man does it blow (not the town – the wind!).   We had a couple of calm days when we first arrived so that we were able to explore the town a bit and take in some of the sights.  It’s a beautiful spot with lots of friendly people and we wished for a calmer anchorage so that we could explore more.

We spent four days boat bound listening to the wind wail through the rigging.  It was wild to hear the gusts begin onshore as a high pitched moan, that increased in decibels as it approached.  Happy Dance strained at her anchor in the gusty 40+ knots, the mast was pumping and we were heeling as the wind crossed the beam.  All was well, just not too comfy.  As Ivan on Shantey said; “it’s a bit lively!”

So now we have a weather window for a couple of days before another bigger blow.  We’ve been told by a local that these aren’t even the infamous Papagayos yet; “this is just wind”.  Well, Papagayo or not, it blows!!  Today is check out of the country day, followed by some provisioning for Christmas dinner, then off we go in the morning to Bahia Santa Elena in Costa Rica.

Nicaragua is a beautiful country, with friendly people who are struggling against a tough political situation.  The two towns we’ve visited, Corinto and San Juan del Sur are at opposite ends of the spectrum in pretty much every way.  We’re glad to have visited and to have experienced yet another side of Central America.  It’s all these little vignettes and memories that we take with us that make the cruising life such a joy.




Isla El Tigre, Honduras

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!



Tuk Tuks and Chicken Buses

It happens to the best of us.  Even seasoned cruisers sometimes feel the need to exchange a dip in the pool for a ride on a chicken bus, trade happy hour in the hammock for Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride across a watery caldera, or an evening breeze off the ocean for the smell of brakes burning.

Why, you may ask?  It’s just something cruisers do!  When you live a life full of stunning sunsets and scenery, it’s sometimes necessary to change gears and head inland.  So, while waiting in El Salvador for a morning high tide to coincide with a decent sailing forecast, we decided to have an adventure in Guatemala along with our friends Michelle and Grant from m/v Wildest Dreams.  But first, we had to get there!

There are many forms of transportation in Central America, from pick-up trucks that carry standing passengers, crowded mini-vans, bumpy Tuk Tuks, Executivo Buses with reclining seats and AC, and of course the most popular; the chicken bus.

We’ve experienced chicken buses in Mexico and El Salvador, but Guatemala takes this method of travel to an art form.  Remember those yellow buses that we used to ride to school and sporting events?  Remember the slippery vinyl seats, the loud engines, stinky exhaust, and bumpy rides?  Ever wonder where all those classic Bluebird buses go after their seats are torn and the windows are stuck?  They are donated to Guatemala!

The transformation from school bus to chicken bus is a massive project.   The buses are shortened and given faster engines, so they can navigate Guatemala’s windy mountain roads, and then they’re given the all-important paint job. Because of the low literacy rate, the buses are color-coded in relation to their destinations, but the new owners go to great lengths to make their bus the fanciest bus!  It seems as if no expense is spared as the bus is dolled up with bright colors, swanky round windows, chrome decorations, flashing lights, and rooftop luggage racks.  There’s sure to be a sound system loud enough to compete with a heavy metal concert, a video screen to play movies on the long hauls, and of course a huge picture of Jesus surrounded by crosses and sequins.

There are a gazillion versions of the ever-present chicken bus belching black clouds of diesel fumes as they honk their way through traffic, an equal number of stories about people’s adventures on them, and there’s even a song!  (click here to listen)  So, we decided it was only right to begin our latest adventure on a chicken bus, albeit the less colorful Salvadoran version, with a two-hour sweaty ride to San Salvador where we explored the city a bit before checking into the Ticabus Hotel to wait for our 0530 departure to Guatemala City on an even bigger bus.

Let me just say, you just haven’t lived until you’ve stayed in a bus station hotel.  The front desk staff were full of smiles and helpfulness, and the rooms were semi-clean, but we spent a sleepless night listening to the party going on in the bar located 12 steps from our door, followed by a cold shower before heading downstairs to wait for our bus.  ‘Nuff said?  Thankfully, an early morning vendor rode by, and answered with a heaven sent “Si!”, in response to my piteous; “Tienes café?”  Saved!  His bike was loaded with fresh baked treats and hot coffee; it’s amazing what you can fit on the back of a bicycle!  With an overfull cup of hot coffee in hand we loaded the bus and spilled our way to our seats.  Maybe a nap?  What, and miss Tomb Raider playing on the video in very loud Spanish?  Ah, the joys of travel.

In a few hours we found ourselves stopped along the rode while the officials checked the luggage and made a quick walk through the bus looking for…?.  One passenger even had his cell phone looked at…checking his Twitter followers?  The bus stopped again at the border for another round of checks, then after we crossed the bridge into Guatemala we stopped yet again at an Immigration office where we got off the bus to present our passports for the inevitable stamp.  Central America officialdom is all about stamps.  Bienvenido a Guatemala!

Pretty soon we pulled into Guatemala City, a huge metropolis of 3.3 million people, situated at an altitude of 5,000 feet.  Our plan was to catch one of the “many shuttles to Antigua” that our guidebook had said would be waiting at the bus station.  Nope!  Not a shuttle in sight.  Once again luck and friendly people were in abundance and we soon had a mini-van shuttle lined up with Carlos, who advised that it wasn’t safe for us to ride the chicken buses all the way to Antigua.

With tired butts and sleepy eyes, we finally arrived at our lovely hotel in Antigua, a UNESCO world heritage destination.  Antigua was originally built in the 16th century and was the capital of Central America for over 200 years.  It was a tough town surviving fires, floods, and volcanic eruptions, until 1773 when 6 months of major earthquakes and tremors destroyed the town.  The capital was then relocated to a safer region, which is now Guatemala City, while Antigua was mostly abandoned and left to ruin.

Antigua is a great city to explore on foot.  When you enter the city, you know you’re surrounded by history as you wind your way through the straight-line grid of narrow cobblestone streets, where all the homes and businesses are fronted by stucco walls and ornate doors that open onto beautiful courtyards or shops selling Mayan and Guatemalan hand crafts.  There are town squares with fountains and huge shade trees, ruins of old churches and monasteries, and plenty of places to relax and check out the view of the volcano spewing black ash just a few miles to the south.

The Mayan people are beautiful, but they sure live a tough life.  The women still dress in the traditional “traje”, which is a combination of a skillfully woven, multicolored blouse called a huipil, a wraparound skirt woven on a foot loom, composed of about 5 yards of material that is wrapped several times around the woman’s lower body and reaches to the ankles, all held together by a faja (sash) at the waist.  Traditionally, one could guess the village that a woman was from by the colors and design of the huipil that a Mayan woman wore, a tradition in place long before the conquistadors ever set foot in the Americas.

After a couple of days of wandering the streets of Antigua looking at ruins and tasting Guatemalan treats at the restaurants, we boarded yet another bus for the trip to Lake Atitlan.  The bus ride started with a teeth-rattling drive on the cobblestones while picking up passengers.  Pretty soon the bus was filled with lots of young adventurous types from Belgium, Australia, Germany, and Sweden, along with these four oldsters from the states!  The ride was windy and steep, and concluded with a brake burning descent to the lake.  The driver even carried spare brake pads behind the seat!  We arrived at Panajchel, the main town on the lake, which was MUCH bigger than we imagined.  Our hotel was in San Pedro, so we piled into a “publico” panga for the 20 minute, 25 Quetzales (about $3.50) ride across the lake.  Once there, we squeezed our way into Tuk Tuks for a bumpy ride to the hotel.  Phew!

The Tuk Tuk is yet another version of Mr. Toad’s wild ride.  Barreling through narrow (really narrow) streets beeping the horn at every corner to hopefully avoid another Tuk Tuk or worse coming around the blind corner from the other direction, Edgar talked non-stop over his shoulder to us in Spanish explaining the sights!  At one point it looked as though we were going to drive right through someone’s front door, when zip, off we went in another direction down what looked to be a footpath!  Local knowledge is a good thing!

After checking into our hotel, we decided to take Edgar and Javier up on their offer to give us a tour of the local sights (everyone’s an entrepreneur in Central America).  Our little Tuk Tuk downshifted it’s way up a steep hill to El Mirador, (translates as The Looker, but I think it means Viewpoint), then coasted back down to San Pedro church where there’s a statue of St. Peter with a gallo/rooster (the cock crows three times…remember?), bumped over a dirt road to a textile co-op where 20 families work together to make and sell woven crafts, then a honey farm, and finally a chocolate “factory”.  It was a great trip to get a quick taste of the sights and sounds of San Pedro, a crazy busy colorful town perched on the shore of a lake surrounded by volcanoes.  What a place!

Our hotel was a peaceful respite from the hustle and bustle of our travels and it was with great pleasure that we put our feet up to enjoy a cold Gallo (the local cerveza) while looking out to the lake.  Ahhhhh…

The next day we had to start the entire trip in reverse; Tuk Tuk to Publico Launcha to Mini-van to bus station hotel to Ticabus to taxi to Happy Dance!  There were some funny moments along the way of course; especially when the wind whipped up the lake making our panga ride a wild one!  With Marty bouncing in the bow hanging on for dear life, (click here for the video!) we slammed our way over the waves, and took plenty of water over the side.  At one point the driver stopped and handed up a tarp so we could cover ourselves (after we were soaked to the skin), and the locals were all grabbing life jackets!

Guatemala provided us with plenty of smiles and fun memories.  It’s a beautiful country, full of resilient people and extreme landscapes, and chicken buses!

So now we’re back in El Salvador, watching the weather and waiting.  We’ll soon head southeast to new adventures and stories to tell!  Ah, it’s a good life.

Happy Dance in El Salvador

England and Wales, Part Two

The second part of our England and Wales adventure blog begins again after a fun evening enjoying a music festival at a nearby pub called the Chestnut Inn, named for the gazillion huge chestnut trees all around.  We woke to a boat wake rocking Trimdon Grange against the cement wall of the canal in Worcester; time to get moving!  We had to have her back in the marina by 0900, so we untied and pulled up stakes (literally) and off we went.  Making the final 90-degree turn into the marina was a piece of cake now that we were so experienced, ha!

Pretty soon the boat was safely moored in her slip, and we were ready to hoof it to a hotel we’d booked for our last night in Worcester.  As it turned out there was a half marathon going on in the city and it seemed as though everyone one in England was running!  Various streets were closed so we had to wind our way towing suitcases across the bumpy cobblestone roads through the throngs of people.  It was pretty funny trying to get to our hotel without having to cut across the wall of marathon runners.  We did end up crossing the crush of runners three times.  I’m sure the locals enjoyed watching two Yanks puffing their way through the gaps in the crowd!

After a luxurious night in our hotel (Boutique by Brown’s, highly recommended) by the River Severn, we once again had to trek across town with suitcases in tow to the rental car agency to pick up the “wrong side driving machine” that we’d be using for the next three weeks.  I was the designated driver, with Marty handling the navigation duties.  Of course, the very first challenge when pulling out of the car park (parking lot for you Yanks), was to figure out which side of the road to turn into, followed by the ever-lurking clockwise roundabouts.  We survived the first few miles as I quickly learned to shift using my left hand, muttering my new mantra; “stay to the left, stay to the left”.

We soon left Worcester in our rear-view mirror and headed northwest toward Wales. While driving through all the picturesque towns (cute town alert, cute town alert!!), we noticed what looked like an elevated aqueduct in the distance.  Pretty soon we came to a sign post for the famous Pontcysylite Aqueduct, so we made a quick U-turn and went for a look see!  It’s an amazing sight, with 18 tapered stone towers rising over 125 feet above the River Dee, supporting a 1000 foot long cast iron trough deep enough for the canal boats to cross over!  The architect was Thomas Telford, who designed many of the Industrial Age canals and bridges in England and Wales, including the suspension bridge that we would soon cross on our way to Anglesey.

Our plan was to drive through Snowdonia National Park, an area with 90 mountain peaks, on our way to the coastal town of Caernarfon (Ka-NAR-von) where we’d be staying for five nights.  As we approached the mountains, the weather deteriorated quickly, and the front bands of Tropical Storm Helene started pummeling our little car with wind and sideways rain.  Mt. Snowden, the tallest mountain in Wales at 3,560 ft., was hidden in the clouds, but what we did see of the countryside was gorgeous.

At one point we stopped for a look-see at the top of a pass, and as I walked across the car park I almost got run over by a soggy sheep heading for the hills!  It was freezing cold and the wind was trying to knock us over, so our little walking excursion didn’t last long.  Included in “the plan” were a few days of hiking in the mountains, along with a train ride to the summit behind an old steam engine.  Unfortunately, Helene had different ideas!  The train was only doing a partial ascent and hiking was not advised due to “60mph gusts which can knock over hikers”.  Okay, we get the picture – time to snuggle in front of the fireplace for a couple of days!

When Helene finally moved inland, we donned our rain jackets and headed out to explore the area.  Caernarfon is an historic city that began as a Roman fort originally built by Agricola in about 77-78AD.  The fort was huge, covering an area that would have included the castle and was occupied up until about 394 AD, just prior to the final flight of the Roman forces from Britain in the fifth century.  Caernarfon Castle that dominates the local skyline today was built in 1283 by Edward I, following his conquest of Wales, and was also the site of the Investiture of the Prince of Wales in 1969.  Yes, I stood where Queen Elizabeth stood!

We had great fun climbing around the castle and enjoying the views across the Menai Strait to the Isle of Anglesey.  The wind and current made us glad we weren’t going to be sailing Happy Dance through the channel!  It was beautiful though, and we could just imagine archers standing on the ramparts in the cold north wind, where the carved gargoyles on the top of the walls had been whittled by the wind and rain to narrow stubs over the centuries.

Walking the narrow cobble stoned streets of the old walled city we found many treasures to remember; sitting next to some well-lubricated locals at the historic Anglesey Inn who enjoyed teaching us a few words of Welsh, afternoon tea and amazing leek soup while sitting on the sidewalk people watching, visiting with a shop owner who explained the slate trade to us, and of course, lamb shanks, and steak and ale pie at the pub!

One day we drove over the impressive Menai Suspension bridge to the Isle of Anglesey and Holyhead.  The island is beautiful, with low rolling green hills, rock walls, and dramatic coastal views.  We drove to the northwest corner of the island and walked a bit of the Anglesey Coastal Path that circles the entire island, but the wind was blowing so hard that we could barely keep our feet under us.  We had fun watching the waves crash on the rocks around the South Stack Lighthouse, laughing at a herd of black sheep that we first thought were rocks, and exploring the amazing Ty Mawr iron age hut circles that date back about 4000 years.

One of the fun factoids we learned about this area was that Holyhead was the site of a semaphore station in the days before electric telegraph.  The station here was the furthest west of a line of eleven stations that could send a signal to Liverpool in less than 30 seconds using only line of sight flags and signals, to alert Liverpool of the condition and arrival times of inbound ships.  Think of the excitement to learn of a ship coming in after months or years at sea!

I should also mention just how fun our accommodations were in Caernarfon.  We stayed in an AirBnB that was the home of a Mom and daughter who lived nearby.  The narrow row house had three stories of creaky staircases with books and fun artwork everywhere.  The “hob” was a beautiful old iron stove, and there was a cozy electric fireplace that we enjoyed while Helene was howling outside.  It was fun to be in a real Welsh home, with books in Welsh and English lining the shelves, cupboards full of tea and foods we’d yet to try.

Our time in Caernarfon soon came to an end, so we packed up our little wrong side driving machine and headed toward Cardigan…soon to be another chapter coming to a blog near you!

Sorry, Love!!! (England and Wales, Part One)

Our first introduction with a local Brit was when I accidentally bumped into a group of “young tuffs” while we were trying to find our hotel.  Marty and I both laughed out loud when we heard his cheerful, accented response as he reached out to make sure I wasn’t going to tip over and said; “Sorry, love!”  That became the quote of our trip, but not because it was a sorry trip; it was a month of England and Wales adventures to remember!

After arriving in London we hopped on a train to Worcester where we planned to spend a few days recovering from jet lag and getting our travel legs under us.  We wandered the streets of Worcester for three days enjoying the great walking streets, shops, exhibits, river views, swans, rugby matches, local music, history, and of course, pubs!  Our Airbnb was located above (way above..) a central walking street, allowing us to come and go easily as we headed off in a different direction each day.

Pretty soon it was time for week one of the big British escapade, and what this trip was really planned around.  So, what’s blue, 50′ long, 8′ wide, goes 4-mph, and floats?  You guessed it; our cute little canal boat, named the Swindon Grange.  Being that we were celebrating my birthday, it was only right that our boat was blue!

We checked out of our flat, stopped to pick up Welsh cakes and wine, Cumberland sausages, and some makings for a good mash (we love the local food!), then walked to the marina to move onto our floating home.  After an overview of the systems from the friendly service guys at the marina, including how to clean the prop each day (Marty’s job), we were ready…maybe?  There’s no test driving involved, just a quick how-to video about the locks, and the walk-through onboard.  Casey, our instructor, kept saying, it’s no problem, you’ll be fine; then why do I have butterflies in my tummy?…argh!  This was as almost as scary as leaving the dock in Ketchikan headed for San Francisco!

To give me even a few more jitters, as we were completing our walk-through we watched another couple depart the dock in their boat heading for the first challenge; a 90-degree turn to exit the marina and enter the narrow canal.  We heard a loud thud as they drove their boat up onto the far side bank of the canal, followed by the engine screaming as they put it in full reverse to get back off!  Great…we’re next!  Maybe our boating experience actually did help us though, because we just treated this like leaving any tiny marina in Happy Dance; Marty on the bow giving the all clear, me on the helm slowly doing a three or four point turn – phew we made it!   Sorry, love!

After leaving the marina we were now in the canal leading to the River Severn and about to arrive at our next challenge; the first lock!  Marty was the designated “lock labourer” (he got a special button and everything), so we pulled over to the side to tie up while Marty walked up to investigate the lock workings.  Pretty soon he was signaling me through, so I pulled into the tiny space, and watched as the water disappeared beneath me!  When Marty opened the gates, I drove out and picked him up on the other side and we were off to the next set of locks.  We repeated this process many more times over the next week, for a total of about 50 locks.  Marty got his exercise and I took lots of photos!

Our first night on the river, we pulled up to a cute pub (redundant?) named The Camp House and tied up to their dock.  We headed up to join the Sunday afternoon gathering and we were soon chatting merrily with the locals, sharing stories and learning about their easy lifestyles.  There were as many dogs in the pub as there were people, but amazingly enough they were all very well behaved and I even had a cute little guy named Georgie on my lap for most of the evening.  Anyone who knows me is laughing now…go ahead, it was a magical night among new friends.

The rest of the week followed much the same pattern; we’d get up and have our coffee on the aft deck, then we’d head off for more wetland adventures.  The weather was perfect for us all week, with puffy clouds and intermittent sunshine and only one rainy day, so all was well on that score.  We’d explore whatever town or village or countryside we ended up in, and find somewhere for a tasty meal.

Some of the channels were crazy narrow, so tight that we’d have to drive through the reeds in order to pass a boat heading the other direction.  A few spots were called “pinch points” where you had to plan ahead because if you did meet another boat one of you had to back up to let the other through!  There were lots of old arched bridges, a few tiny tunnels where we had to duck to make it through, and lots of different types of locks.  It was beautiful in a green leafy way, with plenty of swans, grebes, and ducks all around.

So how did we like our boat away from boat you ask?  We loved it (don’t tell Happy Dance!).  It was definitely a different type of boat living than we’re used to, but there are some similarities.  The peaceful, slow, quiet mode of travel is wonderful, as is the coziness of the boat itself.  Just like on Happy Dance we had all the comforts we needed, and our view changed daily.  People in other boats were always friendly and helpful, and we were surprised at how the locals were so interested in our adventures as well!  It’s a great way to travel and explore the rolling  countryside and quaint villages of England.

“Sorry, Love”, our next canal boat trip is going to have to be longer!

See you next trip!



Where the Air is Thin

Our national park adventures have kept us in the stratosphere for some time now, and our latest stop in Rocky Mountain National Park carried us even higher.

Longs Peak, elevation 14, 259′

During our visit to the park we took a few hikes, enjoyed some afternoon thunderstorms, and drove the Trail Ridge Road, which we soon learned is the third highest road in the US at 12,183’ above sea level.

The drive to the summit was spectacular.  Once above the tree line the views opened up, with more mountain majesty’s everywhere we looked.  At the visitor center we took a short trail to the top, climbing 100’s of stairs to reach 12,000’.  Even after supposedly being somewhat acclimated to the altitude, it was still a bit of a struggle with 30%-40% less oxygen than we are used to at sea level!   It was mind-boggling to learn about the alpine tundra with all the miniature flowers and adaptive plants, and how they survive in such a completely harsh winter environment.

It may have been due to the thin air, but at some point, my mind suddenly veered to veni, vedi, vici.  While the correct translation is ‘we came, we saw, we conquered’, in our case it can be more accurately described as we came, we ahhed, we huffed and puffed our way to the top!

Sadly, our mountain adventures in the Murph have come to an end for this year, but in true permanent picnic form we have begun yet another escapade!  Now that we’re back where the air is full of wonderful oxygen cells we’ll soon be regaling you with the continued adventures of Marty and Sue…stay tuned!