El Salvador! Images come to mind of being a kid watching Dan Rather on the nightly news reporting about the civil war in El Salvador. Did we ever think we’d ever visit this Central American country? No, probably not. We’re super glad we did though.
In our last story we left Marina Chiapas at the Mexican border and pointed our bow south. As our insurance will not allow us to go to Guatemala (or Nicaragua for that matter), we cruised the coastline and enjoyed the view of volcanoes from the ocean. Once the sun came up that is! Before the sun came up however, we had a busy night full of fishing pangas and long lines. Long lines are illegal in Mexico, and I’m not certain of their legality in other countries, but they are absolutely in use from Mexico south. A long line is a horizontally installed fishing line, generally comprised of floating line, with individual hooks hanging down every so often. In Mexico, we found that long lines could be miles in length and could be found near shore and 20 miles offshore. A panga often tends the lines, but not always. The lines have vertical flags on buoys, sometimes only at the ends, and sometimes at locations along the line. In Mexico, the lines are kept afloat with pop bottles and are pretty much impossible to see if there are any sea conditions, that is, unless you spot a flag. The long lines of course are out at night as well, and they are not usually lit. Oh and the flags are often black. Easy to see at night, right? Right.
We have line cutters on our prop shaft, but that assumes that the line doesn’t get stuck before it gets to the prop, which is really quite protected. We try to find the end of the long line, but after several miles of searching we’ll try to go across them. The pangueros have weighted portions of the lines in places (sometimes), which creates an opportunity to cross. Of course, there is no way to tell where this happens unless there is a fisherman nearby and he shows you. We’ve also tried centering the stabilizer fins and coasting across in neutral. That has worked once or twice. And otherwise we’ve had long lines caught around our stabilizers. So now… we cut the lines if we can’t figure out how to get around, or across. We have a boat hook on the bow and we bring the line up and simply cut it. The fisherman later will go back and tie that part of the line back together and it doesn’t take down their whole linear system. We feel badly, but…
Coming down the coast of Guatemala, the long lines were shorter – more like a mile wide. It was around 9 pm, nice and dark, just south of Puerto Quetzal, and Kevin was chatting with two northbound catamarans who were also a part of the Panama Posse. All of the sudden we saw lights coming at us at a high rate of speed. Flashlights that were being whipped around to get our attention. It was a panga. Kevin flipped on the LED light bar mounted up on the flybridge just in time to see us hit a long line buoy. Thunk, thunk, thunk… all the way down under the boat. The panga stopped at his line behind us, inspecting for damage, and we stopped as well to do the same thing, and to see if we were trailing a “V” of floating line. Thankfully the force of hitting the buoy seemed to have dragged it down the keel and we were not entangled. We waved a “sorry” to the fishermen and continued on. I headed off to sleep as my night shift would be coming up, and Kevin kept the lightbar illuminated. About 15 minutes after I lay down, the boat came to a grinding halt and was moving in reverse. I came up to the helm to see Kevin pointing directly in front of us. Another long line. I will say that the Guatemala fisherman at least have their lines much more clearly marked with many flags and floats every foot or so along the floating line. They actually look a lot like a swimming area enclosure. I went out on the bow with our big handheld spotlight and watched the line as Kevin navigated along its course. We found the end (thankfully) and moved around it.
My watch was thankfully farther away from any small or large towns and I did not encounter any long lines. But I was on high alert all night, using the light bar and scanning the horizon with binocs. We have a FLIR night vision camera, but with any kind of sea state and a lack of ambient light (no moon, no coastal lights), we don’t find it to be very useful.
The sun rose and we were in El Salvador! A beautiful morning with a sea state that was calming as we approached our destination, Bahia del Sol in Estero Jaltepeque. To enter the estuary, you must cross a bar. And not a bar where there is tequila and rum! Although adult beverages do arrive dockside at your boat, carried by a waiter in uniform who hands you cocktails as you tie up at the dock, just after crossing that bar. A reward for a job well done! Crossing the bar safely entails arriving just before high slack, to ensure depth as well as to reduce the impact of outgoing current. We left Marina Chiapas at 2:30 am in order to arrive at the bar just before high slack.
Bill and Jean are two amazing humans who live on an island just across from the Bahia del Sol resort and marina. As self-described “campground hosts,” Bill and Jean help all of the cruisers who come and go from El Salvador. They have lived in the area for 22 years, and came there first as sailors. As we’ve found in many locations, cruisers sometimes find their perfect community, and they stay. Such was the case with Bill and Jean, and boy are we glad they were there. They used to run the annual El Salvador Rally, but now have left that behind, and are still an incredible resource! We communicated with Bill and Jean before we left Chiapas, to ensure that the swell height forecast for the bar crossing was mild, and doable. They instructed us to arrive just before high slack, with a need for a morning crossing. They also gave direction to secure the boat, which we do when we are offshore anyways, but we did run around and give things an extra review. Way back in Washington we crossed the Westport bar at low slack in the dark with 15 foot standing waves. The bar lasts for an hour there. So we figured this shouldn’t be that bad, but nonetheless, it deserved our respect and caution.
We arrived at the meeting point early, where a pilot boat would come out and lead us over the bar and into the marina. The bar shifts location all of the time, and local knowledge is needed to come in and out of the estuary. While we waited we prepared. In other words, we played ourselves a little pump song, turned it up to 11 on all of the speakers, and had a dance party in the pilothouse. The chosen song? “Civil War” by Guns n’ Roses, appropriate given El Salvador’s long-over but long-fought civil war. We were ready.
The pilot boat came out to meet us with Bill riding along, holding his VHF radio. He has a kind, calm voice (and he is a kind, calm person!) and he talked to us as we approached the bar with breaking waves on either side of us. The view was disconcerting to be sure, and Bill assured us that it was a calm day, and that it wouldn’t be a problem. Our friends Doug and Mary (N46 One Life) were already at Bahia del Sol and they came out with their dinghy to fly the drone and record our entrance. Other center console boats also came out just to watch and see if something terrible happened. But Kevin is a master, and nothing terrible happened. We had our rear camera on in the pilothouse on full screen so we could watch as the waves came up behind us. I would watch and give Kevin notice that they were coming, and you could feel all 144,000 pounds of Red Rover surfing down the waves. Kevin used our jog lever (follow-up lever) to apply rudder pressure against the waves and resist the boat’s inclination to have the stern turn us broadside in the waves. He also worked the throttle as the waves came. I manned the VHF and talked to Bill, who we followed across the bar safely. A moment later his voice came through once again and he welcomed us to El Salvador! Whew!
As noted, at the dock, cocktails were immediately served and Bill and Jean were there to greet us in person as well with a fun little bag of information and gifts. Bill and Jean had also worked with the marina to have all of the appropriate officials there to check us into El Salvador. Easy. Ignacio, the general manager of Bahia del Sol, walked us around and welcomed us, inviting us to enjoy the pools, the beach and all that the hotel offered.
I should mention that we arrived in El Salvador on a special day. It was Kevin’s birthday! And not only did he get to do a night run filled with pangas and long lines, he also got to cross a bar! What a birthday! A celebration was of course in order, and Bill and Jean came through with that as well. In the late afternoon Doug and Mary picked us up in their dinghy and took us to Bill and Jean’s home on the island where we enjoyed cocktails in their pool, followed by a walk just down the island to Jairo’s for papusas. The island is beautiful, and rustic. Bill and Jean’s home is lovely. And the people who live around them are friendly and welcoming. But they are very poor. The island recently gained electricity. For example, the home that we visited for papusas, which becomes a restaurant on Saturday nights, only had electricity for about a week. Bill and Jean had only gained electricity about a month before we arrived. They work tirelessly to help the community around them, and were responsible for having electricity brought to the island.
Papusas, a traditional Salvadorean food, are delicious by the way. I had read that they are like a stuffed tortilla, but really, they are much lighter than that. YUM.
After we stuffed ourselves with papusas, we went back to Bill and Jean’s home where they had a surprise – a red frosted birthday cake for Kevin! And a funny hat to wear as we all sang Happy Birthday and enjoyed some delicious Salvadorean rum that Doug had brought along. We felt very loved and welcomed.
We slept like rocks, as is always the case after a night run or two, or three or four….and it was fun to wake up in a new country, ready to explore. We spent a week in El Salvador, and mixed accomplishing chores, a consulting project (for me) and tourism.
The first day we wandered about our new environment. The hotel is an all-inclusive resort and it attracts a middle-class clientele who drive out from San Salvador, about an hour and a half drive away. On the weekends, the place is rocking. Music, parties, people wandering all about with families and friends. They are having fun! And our boat was an attraction. While the marina has a gate, the resort also offers a water taxi down to some restaurants on the point. Guests coming and going from the water taxi took selfies with Red Rover, even going so far as to stand on the swim step! We tried to take pictures of them doing this… and we simply waved and smiled when they saw us (which didn’t deter them from their photos).
On Monday morning, Ignacio called. As we discussed on our arrival, he had arranged for our COVID Pfizer booster shots! YAAASSS! Thank you, El Salvador for the free and timely shot. We are so appreciative.
Back in Zihua, our son Mike had noticed that we had a leak of hydraulic oil coming out of the base of our davit (the crane that picks up the dinghy). It hadn’t leaked much after that, but it was time to address the situation. We had tested the davit to see what made the leak occur, and it appeared that when the davit reached its far left/right reaches on the swing, the oil leaked. Kevin figured out that he could remove the hydraulic cylinder that controlled this motion from the base, and we could get it rebuilt. Bill, of course, knew of a great machine shop in San Salvador, and with this knowledge, we set out to get the cylinder rebuilt with a little drive to San Salvador. The cylinder would be ready later that week. Fantastic!
Driving into San Salvador, through the countryside you see lots of bread delivery bikes.
We had Bill and Jean over for dinner one night, and learned all about El Salvador and their tireless work to help the people of the island and the communities around them. As we had multiple huge bags of Kirkland dog food still on the boat, intended for Zoe, we donated that food to Jean who would feed it to island dogs that were skinny and in need of better nutrition. That felt good. We think Zoe would approve.
Speaking of dogs, Max needed to have a health certificate in order to enter Costa Rica. Costa Rica requires that pets have a vet exam and a health certificate issued from the country they are arriving from, so once again, Bill and Jean provided the vet, and off we went to have Max checked out. The vet office was rustic, but the vet was kind and understood what we were looking for, even though he didn’t speak any English and our Spanish was rough. A dot matrix printer created the health certificate and Max was ready to go to Costa Rica!
Later in the week, we drove to San Salvador again, but this time with the intention to spend the night, have a great dinner and wander around a bit. But first, we had to pick up the cylinder, which was all fixed and ready to go! $90 was the tab. Incredible. San Salvador is a big and busy city. The traffic is incredible and the driving is crazy! We were amazed to see all kinds of US brands – restaurants, clothes, stores. We even had lunch at a Bennigans! While we saw lots of US brands, we only saw a few other people from the States/Canada, which was nice. This is a real, thriving city, and not just a tourism attraction. We stayed at a Courtyard by Marriott near the US Embassy in a very nice, verdant neighborhood, and visited an incredible grocery store with US products, but boy oh boy, we weren’t in Mexico anymore. The prices of vegetables had raised considerably and we were using US dollars! Weird! One of the things we like to do when we explore a new city or town is to wander down the community’s retail streets. We learned that this was not really a common opportunity, and that rather, likely as a hold-over from the days of the civil war, stores were carefully guarded and engagement took place inside the walls, not in a manner that spilled out to the sidewalk. We did find though, that in the downtown the market took over not only the sidewalk but the streets as well! We drove through the downtown shopping district and could really barely move. People were walking within inches of the car and vendors were selling everything from papayas to lingerie just a foot from the car windows. Kevin said it was the most stressful drive of his life! But it was fascinating.
We visited a mall (also a funny experience after so much time in Mexico), and we had a fantastic dinner at a romantic local steakhouse where we were the only Americans, and where we were greeted enthusiastically. This was the kick-off to our anniversary week!
Back at Bahia del Sol, we prepared to get rolling to Costa Rica, with a visit to the fuel dock. We’ll take a moment to share some information on our fuel usage here, as we get a lot of questions about that. What’s interesting here is something we’ve noted before – we use a lot of fuel for our generators. Why? Well, we run air conditioning at night when at anchor for one, utilizing our small generator and running just our stateroom. This also allows us to run a battery charger and we wake up with charged batteries! Both for ourselves because we could actually sleep, and for the boat. If we have guests, and we had all four of the kids (kids and their spouses/partners) for Christmas, we run the big generator at night, as the three zones of air conditioning require the large generator to run. It is just too hot to sleep. At least for us! This is the first time we’ve been tracking all of this specific data, which allowed us to do these calculations. We’ll do it again with the next fill-up and see where there are differences, if there are any. It’s still hot!
In the meantime though, an adventure was still to be had! Bill and Jean picked us up in their panga for a lunch at a stilt restaurant. The stilt restaurants are just that, buildings built on stilts that sit on ever-shifting sandbars. At high tide the sand is not visible. And when the sand shifts too much, the stilt restaurant is gone (or is moved). On Sundays, the stilt restaurants are busy with pangas and families simply enjoying the water, the views and the great food. And we joined in! At the restaurant, the owners’ son brought us some green mangos to purchase, and then eat with salt and lime. Yum! After which the family brought over a tray of whole fish for us to choose from, each with a different price. We picked our snapper and then sat back with local beer to watch the world go by as our fish was prepared. It was such a great day and an incredible experience. We are super thankful to Bill and Jean for taking us out for the day.
Bill and Jean unloading goodies in the stilt restaurant
Bill and Ignacio had assisted us in arranging an early Monday morning departure, timed to cross the bar again at high slack. The immigration officer did not want to come at 6 am on Monday, and as such he came to visit us on Sunday late in the afternoon. He was quite curious about our experience in El Salvador, which I fumbled through in Spanish, telling him how much we had enjoyed our time in his country. He also wanted to take his picture with me. And to have Kevin take it. First in the office and then in front of our boat. He wasn’t so interested in having Kevin in any photos, and in fact, when we asked if Kevin should be in the photo, he shook his head. Sorry Kevin. 😊
Early on Monday morning the Port Captain came to visit us and gave us our international Zarpe, or our paperwork to leave El Salvador that we would then provide to the officials in Costa Rica. Bill and the panga pilot captain arrived and we were ready to go. All looked good. We left the dock and followed the pilot boat, chatting with Bill on the VHF. Small swells came in, which we barely felt. We approached the bar and all was well. Suddenly, the pilot boat veered hard to port at a high rate of speed. We saw a large wave approaching and Bill’s voice came on the VHF, saying “ok guys, we’re going to need you to just hold right there.” Hold? Um…. Kevin was focused on the wave, hands on the throttle and the jog lever, a picture of calm. He didn’t hold exactly, but managed the wave with the throttle and steering. He even looked at me very quickly and said, “it’s all going to be alright.” Seeing a giant wave breaking over our anchor, which is 9 feet off of the water was something else. While trying to watch the depths (as requested by Bill), I tried to also film the oncoming rogue wave but failed miserably after the wave hit and Kevin’s coffee cup tipped over. This was a wide-bottomed YETI cup with a lid on, but the magnet wasn’t closed. The coffee was running on the helm, just above the electrical panel, which I decided was of much greater concern than the set of three giant waves. So, the boat is hurling itself through these huge waves and I’m trying to clean up spilled coffee. Kevin, of course, is just focused on the job at hand. Suddenly, Bill’s voice is back on the VHF and he says, well that was an unexpected big one. Yep. And he continued in his calm manner to say, good job guys, you have cleared the bar! I thanked him, while shaking all over and mopping up coffee. Bill sent us the below photos shortly after we departed and we were amazed. It looked much worse than it felt! And while seeing that wave coming at us was alarming, I found that I wasn’t terrified, I knew that the boat would handle it, and that Kevin was a pro. As he said, everything was just fine. There were two victims of this event. One, the coffee. We brewed some more. Two, a computer mouse that decided it didn’t want to work later that day after its dousing in strong coffee. Otherwise not a thing moved or broke. We prepared the boat, as we always do, and everything was in ship shape.
Time to head to Costa Rica! We had long desired to make it to Costa Rica to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary, and it seemed that this was indeed going to happen!
With the bow pointed south, we set out on our 32 hour, 280 nm passage that would take us down the coasts of Honduras and Nicaragua to Costa Rica. The day went smoothly and passed quickly as we read about Costa Rica anchorages, and chatted about what we wanted to do in the coming months. And then night fell. We had noticed that the Nicaraguan pangas were not necessarily long lining, but rather were utilizing shorter nets to catch fish, seeming to work in pairs. They weren’t moving, but rather were sitting still. At night, we were delighted to see that many of them had lights. In Mexico it is very rare to see a panga at night with lights. Now these weren’t navigation lights, no one seems to have those, but rather white LED lights that were probably their work lights with which they could see their nets. Easy to spot! While they were easy to see, there were a bajillion of them. As we cruised south we would come across areas with literally over a hundred pangas, in small groups and creating a bit of a minefield for us. We were cruising very close to shore due to the offshore winds (more on that in a minute), and we were surrounded by pangas and slow-moving shrimpers. It was a busy night. I took over from Kevin and my four-and-a-half-hour watch went by super quickly as I navigated around the pangas, trying to keep them 1 nm off of the boat. I dubbed this Panga Pinball Alley.
We were cruising close-in, within 5 miles of shore in northern Nicaragua, and as we reached the middle of the country, we came even closer in. The Papagayo winds were blowing, as they do in the winter months. Like the Bay of Tehuantepec to the north, the winds come across the land from the Caribbean and accelerate as they reach the Pacific. The Papagayos, however, don’t tend to stop entirely like the Tehuantepec winds, and as such, we needed to transit the area while the wind was blowing. We picked a weather window when the winds were less fierce, but they were certainly present. Cruising along with “one foot on the beach” the winds picked up as predicted and we experienced consistent wind in the mid to upper 20s and regular gusts up to 35 or so. As we were VERY close to the beach, the fetch was limited, and the wind waves were completely manageable. As we were passing San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, Kevin remembered that this is where Zach, a salty sailor friend who had helped us with the final leg from San Francisco to Seattle back in 2016, lived and operated a sailing business. He sent him a note, only to receive word back that he could see us! How fun is that?
We had timed this journey to leave El Salvador at high slack, but we were fortunate the worst wind direction would come for us after dark, when the wind velocity came down slightly. In the late evening, we rolled into Bahia Culebra, where our destination, Marina Papagayo is located. The marina however, cannot accept international arrivals after hours and we were instructed to anchor out. With some direction from Dietmar, the founder and leader of the Panama Posse who was moored at the marina, we anchored just outside the marina entrance under the lights of the Andaz Costa Rica Resort at Peninsula Papagayo. The boat was coated in salt, we were tired, but it was time for a margarita, enjoyed to the sounds of music coming from the resort above. We had arrived!