Floating, Tico Style

In Costa Rica the locals call themselves “Ticos” (or “Ticas” if you’re female) and there are all kind of things that are typically Tico.  There’s tico-time, which means they’ll get there when they get there.  There’s tico-tipico, which describes Costa Rican food available in the “sodas” (restaurants).  And then there’s the tico version of a float trip…

It all started when we (Grant and Michelle from Wildest Dreams and ourselves) decided to find a tour that would take us into the primary growth of the Corcovado Reserve.  Over a yummy lunch at Roberto’s of fresh Mahi Mahi and Red Snapper, we did a little (very little) research into tours available from Drake Bay where we and m/v Wildest Dreams were currently anchored. There were night tours to see snakes and frogs, bird watching tours, canoe tours, or one where you could sleep overnight in a tree house (now that sounds cool!).

We’d already spent a day in the Curu Reserve (photos above) and had great fun seeing lots of critters, so we opted for a different kind of adventure this time.  It might have been over the second beer when I happened to read about a Floating Tour.  The description read; moderate hike into primary growth forest, a swim under a waterfall, and a float down the Rio Claro.  Okay says I, I’ll call them!  Presto, we’re reserved for the following morning.  Meet Carlos at 8am on the beach.  Got it.

Now you have to understand that we float.  Every day all day.  Our boats float.  We are dry when we float.  So, for some insane reason I had it in my mind that we’d be floating down the river in some sort of boat.  That doesn’t seem like too much to ask does it?  Boats are good!  They keep you dry, away from crocodiles and snakes, off the rocks, and out of the mud!   However, as I learned the morning of our tour, the other three in our group had already figured that “floating” meant “floating”!  Hmmm…nobody bothered to inform the slow one in the group, namely me!­

It’s now morning so we jump in the dinghy to head for the beach rendezvous.  Swimsuits on, backpack full of necessary items like bug spray, water, a towel, binoculars…we’re ready!  We arrive at the beach, wheel the dinghy up to a tree to tie it out of the reach of high tide, meet up with Carlos, hop in the truck, and off we go for a dusty 30-minute ride up the hillside behind town and into the Corcovado Forest.  At the last minute as we’re getting ready to leave the truck and start hiking Carlos hands me a life jacket, looks at my tennis shoes and my non-waterproof backpack and says, you know you’re going to get all wet, right?


You’re probably all way ahead of me by now, but I was finally starting to see the light, finally starting to realize that I did NOT prepare correctly for this adventure!  I should have worn different clothes, different shoes, and put our gear into a dry bag.  Somehow the rest of the crew had done just that…where was I?  On well, what’s a girl to do?  Have a good laugh at my own stupidity, stuff the backpack back in the truck, and sally forth!

With Carlos having a good chuckle at my expense, and after ditching everything but the camera (which thankfully IS waterproof), we headed into the forest.  With each step into the trees we found ourselves in a different world.  The canopy formed by the trees overhead blocked most of the sun, the air grew close, the sounds were muffled, and the colors more intense.

Carlos told us about various trees and plants that are good for different remedies.  The bark of one tree will help stop bleeding, another is used to treat gastritis, another will alleviate arthritis pains, and there’s even one makes a wine that will get you very drunk, but only if you sit in the sun after drinking it!  Crazy and fascinating!  We also learned that we could tell this was primary forest because of the types of plants that thrived on the forest floor.  There are some plants that will only survive where the canopy is thick enough to keep the sun and rain off their leaves, as it is in the old growth forest.

The forest is full of huge trees that form a dense maze of leaves, vines, twisty trunks and hanging bromeliads.  During the rainy season it’s not uncommon for giant trees to come crashing down as their roots lose their grip in the mud created from the 6 FEET of rain each month.  We saw plenty of downed trees, vines growing both up and down from branches in the canopy, lots of crazy spiky trees, and green, every hue of green.  It’s an amazingly beautiful place and we were glad to learn that Costa Rica is serious about protecting these important environments.

Back to the adventure!  We hiked about 45 minutes on a deep carpet of leaves, over many leaf cutter ant highways, and fallen trees.  Because of the humidity and the complete lack of moving air, we were all soon drenched in sweat, except for Carlos of course; he was fresh as a daisy, walking barefoot through the forest, stepping easily over the ant trails, the root tangles, and downed logs.  Oh to be 70..ha!

Eventually we came to a spot that Carlos said was a little “tricky” and we needed to be careful.  I think that must have been a Tico way of saying, “We’re now going to climb down a cliff by hanging on to tree roots to keep us from plunging to our death!”  The reason we had to climb down the “tricky” section was because the old trail had been wiped out recently by a land slide that took out the side of the hill.  Hmmmm…

Marty had to go in front of me, because my creaky knees were not up to the downward descent.  But leaning on my stable man and hanging on to various roots we finally made it to the bottom where we were rewarded with a dip in the cool waters at the base of the waterfall.  Ahhhhh, it felt great to be swimming in fresh water!

After our swim, a snack and a little rest, we were off again, down to the Rio Claro.  We soon arrived at a spot where we prepared to float.  Carlos demonstrated how we would wear our life jackets upside down, like float-able diapers.  It was hysterical trying to get zipped and clipped into life jackets that are upside down and backwards, and thankfully the Coast Guard was nowhere in sight to see our abuse of safety equipment!  We giggled our way into our diapers and waddled down to the river to get the next part of this party started.

The river was fairly low, it is dry season after all, so we bumped along on rocks occasionally, and we also had to “portage” around a few rapids and waterfalls.  However, we mostly floated peacefully down the river, watching the sunlight play in the canopy overhead.  I’m sure we scared off any wild life with all our laughter, and Carlos was very amused at our antics…I think.  At least he kept shaking his head and laughing, so I’m going with he was amused!  Click HERE to see a short video of our craziness…

Pretty soon we arrived at deeper water where the current was stopped by the ocean waves entering the river.  In other words, time to swim!  It’s very difficult to swim with tennies on, and in a life jacket that is under you.  When you stretch out to swim, your rear-end is higher than your head so you basically end up trying not to drown yourself.  After paddling for about a mile in deep water, we crawled up on the sand of a gorgeous beach on the Pacific Ocean, about 2 miles from where our boats were anchored.

Needless to say we were all pretty tired by this time, but wait, there’s more!  We got out of our crazy life jacket floaties, Michelle emptied the water out of her “dry” bag (oops!) and off we went for another hike, this time along the beach.  Whether it was the humidity and not enough water to drink along the way, or just a case of a bunch of lazy cruisers out hiking and floating, we were all pooped!  Walking on the sand in the hot sun for another 45 minutes was a killer.

Thankfully we were rewarded by a memorable moment as we walked; this time it was a loud pandemonium of scarlet macaws in a leafless tree along the beach.  Evidently, it’s mating season for the macaws right now, and since macaws’ mate for life it’s a big deal!  There was plenty of squawking and screeching as the pairs of macaws in the tree either argued over a mate or just had a marital squabble.  Whatever it was they were doing was fascinating.  These are some incredible birds, about 2 feet long from head to tail, with multi-colored feathers and strong beaks.  Beautiful.

Eventually we stumbled back to the truck, drove the rest of the way over the hill to town, found some tico-typico casada (chicken, rice and beans), and gathered enough strength to flop ungracefully back into the dinghy and back to our boats.  A few Advil for creaky knees, a swim in the pool, and soon we were feeling human again.  Floating down the Rio Claro…a tico adventure to remember!


Mud to Mountains

Happy Dance is currently “mud-moored” at a dock in the Puerto Azul Marina in Punta Arenas, Costa Rica.  We had planned to be much further south by the end of January so that we didn’t have to leave Happy Dance in the muddy, tidal estuary of Punta Arenas, but the month of January has been full of unexpected challenges and some crazy winds. The reason we needed Happy Dance to be tied to a dock is so that we can zip off on a trip to Seattle to celebrate son Brad’s wedding to Jesse (YAY!!).

In order to enter the estuary and avoid the mud flats and moving sand bars we needed to follow a pilot-boat and time our arrival at high tide.  With a close eye on the depth sounder that kept flashing in single digits, we slowly made our way up the shallow estuary, bordered on one side by crumbling docks and mooring balls and on the other side by thick mangroves.

We had been assured we’d have enough depth for our 6’8” keel in the marina, but we were soon stuck in the mud and still waiting for low tide.  Happy Dance was hard aground, but thankfully still upright, when at complete low tide we were 2’ out of the water.  UGH!  Thankfully the bottom was soft, and the tide was soon rushing in to float Happy Dance…for a few hours until the next low tide!

With our mud-mooring complete, it was now time for a land adventure with our buddies on Wildest Dreams.  We rented a car and headed to the mountains to see cloud forests, volcanoes, and hopefully some critters!  We’d read in our travel guides that roads in the mountains of Costa Rica could be a bit rough and that it was a good idea to rent a four-wheel drive vehicle.  As we drove up toward Monteverde and Santa Elena on the steep, rutted, dirt roads, we were glad that we’d listened to the advice!

Adding to the driving adventure was our mapping app that kept sending us off on little “excursions”.  We’d suddenly be told to take a slight right or slight left, that would lead us down some barely passable road, then bring us back to the main, slightly more passable road!  These mountain roads are called “Ruta Nationales” and are described as “seasonal”; we decided they must be completely washed out in the rainy season.

On the drive from Monteverde to La Fortuna, we let our map app lead us once again, over hill and dale, on roads that looked like cattle trails, and right across 6 rivers!  It was a riot and we laughed our way along, hoping that we wouldn’t be the headline about the car full of crazy tourists who floated down into the lake!  While driving around the lake, the Arenal Volcano was ever present, drifting in and out of the clouds and providing plenty of picturesque view.

Once we arrived in the mountains, we explored Monteverde, Santa Elena, and La Fortuna.  We hiked through the cloud forest, visited a butterfly reserve, snickered at sloths, and peered at the gazillions of birds and other critters.  The forest itself was stunning, with huge tropical trees forming a canopy that blocked the sun, vines as thick as trees winding themselves up into the mist, huge green leaves, colorful flowers in all shapes and sizes, dripping undergrowth, and sounds of birds all around.  It was magical.

On our final day enjoying flora and fauna we got to see a forest of sloths.  (Click here for a video of big daddy!!) We saw six three-toed sloths; two mamas with babies hanging on them, a big daddy, and a juvenile.  Then we got really lucky and saw a sleeping two-toed mama in the treetops.  The two-toed are harder to find during the day since they do their eating and activity at night and sleep all day.  There are a gazillion fun factoids about sloths that I won’t go into, but they are certainly fun to watch!

We’re now in Seattle for a couple of weeks, to visit with family and friends and celebrate Brad and Jesse!  Then we’ll fly back to Happy Dance, dig her out of the mud and sail out to the islands to play.  It’s a tough life!


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!