[050501; 1809 UTC,
Anchored outside Estero de Jaltepeque, El Salvador
N 13 degrees 16.5/W 088 degrees 53.7]
Greetings from El Salvador.
An old Chinese proverb states “A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step”. Well, maybe not so many miles but we’ve crossed of the Gulf of Tehuantepec, a four and a half day journey of nearly 500 miles and one that is justifiably dreaded by many cruisers due to its unusual wind (60+ knots) and steep seas with short duration (20-25 feet - the height of a two storey building). The Gulf of Tehuantepec is the sea between Mexico and Central America. We had waited in Huatulco and picked what we hoped would be a benign weather window and were rewarded with only light winds (15 knots tops) mostly south and west. We don’t mind going slow so long as the sails don’t flog and since we experienced uniformly flat seas we were able to keep sailing, ghosting along sometimes at 2 knots or less, even when winds became very light. Interesting though, friends on two boats a day behind us were suddenly struck with 30 knot winds one night with gusts to 40 knots. Many weather predictions missed this though we did find a mention in a tropical advisory warning of winds to 20 knots within six hours of the issuance of the advisory! It shows how there’s not much warning for winds out here.
We are now sitting at anchor on the outside of the bar at Bahia Del Sol, El Salvador. We arrived yesterday at 4 pm local time (that's Central Standard Time here) while sailing with great 15+ knot winds just ahead of beam. We saw, thankfully, only three boats and one cruise ship (11 miles off) during our crossing. For wildlife, we were thrilled with many visits from schools of sleek, seemingly joyful dolphins who played around our boat, often communicating with each other so loudly that we could hear their squeaking calls through the hull. We were also amazed at the number of sea turtles we saw. One day we were (unfortunately) motoring in glassy seas when we began to notice Olive Ridley turtles with their humorous looking lopsided humped backs. At one point Philip counted 12 within view! This continued for a few hours and then slowly the numbers dwindled.
Our stay in Bahias de Huatulco seemed to race by as we filled our days with projects and preparations and a smattering of sightseeing and socializing. From La India, where we stayed nearly a week, we moved to a better protected anchorage called Maguey seeking shelter from large swells that had begun to surge over our little reef; this during the high tides that are associated with a full moon. (Maguey is the corrected spelling of the cactus which is used to make mezcal, the distilled liquor prevalent in the state of Oaxaca.) The Maguey anchorage, while still in the National Park, was characterized by a concentration of palm roofed palapa restaurants bringing a large number of party boats by mid afternoon then shutting down and silent well before dark. Here we took advantage of the calm conditions during our brief stay to clean our boat bottom - something you cannot ignore here in the tropics because of the rampant barnacle growth – while keeping a sharp eye out for racing jet skis.
Since that time and before departing for Central America (2 weeks), we stayed at the nearly completed Marina Chahue, a facility in a dredged basin just east of Bahias de Huatulco National Park and the small towns of Santa Cruz and La Crucecita (the little cross). Entering the marina is a bit of a trial as the breakwater forms a narrow entrance between a beach and a cliff (complete with off-lying rocks). A large dredge called Dragas San Ignacio, which is operated by the Mexican navy, digs in the channel 24/7 and is consulted to move aside and drop its stabilizing cables whenever boats need to enter or exit the marina and there are some days no vessels are allowed to transit the channel. The marina office is housed under a small hipped roof palapa that sits on a hill just outside the slips. Also under this palapa are two small bathrooms. The shower is a two-person affair outside and around the side (cold water only). A small mall-like building for restaurants and larger marina facilities is taking shape overlooking the marina where a team of men work all day in 90+ degree humid heat pouring cement from 5 gallon buckets they manually haul to the roof.
Marina Chahue is a friendly place, so despite the inconvenient entry and exit procedures, rustic restrooms and strong currents within the basin that can rock your boat and knock you off your feet even at your slip; the marina does a brisk business. Enrique is the marina manager and is a preppy, handsome, thin, educated man from a wealthy family. He speaks perfect English, loves Mexico fiercely and tells of many youthful adventures of skiing at Vail and riding his motorcycle (too fast we can imagine because that’s the way he still drives his car!). Except for some help from one or two part time men Enrique pretty much runs the facility and alone provides all the services offered by the marina. Need fuel? Enrique gets a number of cruisers together who need fuel and piles everyone in the Fonatur truck (more on Fonatur later) for a trip to the local Pemex station. Need propane? Enrique drives tanks to the propane refill plant once per week. Need a zarpe to depart Mexico? Enrique takes everyone’s paperwork and passports to the airport – along with all the cruisers who have FM3 (resident) visas- to visit Migracion. Want a kitten? Enrique arranged for a cruiser to adopt a kitten. It’s probably not efficient but it works for now. (We learned while we were there that Enrique had been very active in preserving the Bahias de Huatulco National Park and protecting the area during the tourist development process and when he speaks it is clear he’s passionate about Mexico.)
Nearby to Marina Chahue is the small town of La Crucecita. This town fits the Mexican cliché of “muy tranquil” and has a peaceful, tree-studded central plaza (called a zocalo) with a gazebo and many benches where many townspeople sit, socialize and tend to their adored children, and lovers nuzzle and whisper in each other’s ear. On the west side of the plaza is a church with a painted brick red undulating roof common in Oaxaca state – its shape makes us think of a popover. (A quick digression: Oaxaca is pronounced like the coughing sound you made the last time you had the flu – wah-hah-ka.) There’s a small central mercado though most fruits, veggies, meats and seafood are acquired at small specialty tiendas that are scattered within two or three blocks of the central plaza. Meat comes from the carniceria, seafood from the pescaderia, and fruits and veggies from the fruteria. What’s surprising to learn about La Crucecita is that the whole town was developed de novo by Fonatur (a government foundation for development of tourism in Mexico) on land previously used for farming papayas. La Crucecita was developed for the express purpose of providing homes, schools and operations infrastructure for the developing region. Sit in a café on the plaza and you’ll see Fonatur vehicles everywhere including garbage (basura) trucks and teams of Limpia (clean) specialists that help to keep La Crucecita lovely. Walk the side streets as we did in search of supplies like bolts, alternator belts, etc. and you’ll find low rise housing that’s only marginally maintained. People here seem prosperous though and quite content and you see many from outlying areas coming into deliver fresh products or sell wares. One afternoon after Philip visited a dentist for a teeth cleaning we were sitting in an open air coffee shop just off the square when a bright red seventies vintage Chevy truck with a foot high, rearing horse hood ornament pulled up and parked just over the hedge from us. The truck was filled to the brim with oranges and three small men dressed in shiny taffeta-like western style shirts and big white western hats, and one woman in traditional bright colors, popped out. Quickly they began to bag oranges and take off walking towards various restaurants, etc. as other potential customers gathered around. With some urging Philip joined the fray and purchased ten to twelve plump, juicy but cosmetically-challenged oranges, all for $10 pesos (about $0.90).
Huatulco as we mentioned before is a crossroads for cruising boats because of the “barrier” of the Gulf of Tehuantepec. Here boats gather to prepare their boats and their psyche for the crossing. Meetings are held to discuss latest weather, strategies for navigation, events or mishaps experienced by preceding cruisers, etc. Many cruisers use the stop and the relative security of the marina and availability of friends who can care for furry friends so they may travel inland to visit Oaxaca or Mexico City, as we did. We are so happy we allowed ourselves this little splurge.
Oaxaca is an 8 hour trip more or less (mas o menos) by first class bus up the coast and through industrial Salina Cruz. The road then turns inland and up the isthmus and into the mountains through towns with Spanish or Indigenous names like La Reforma, La Escondida (the hidden), Totalapilla and Tlacolula. The bus trip alone was a tour as the road winds through the mountains with countless switchbacks and curves that are decorated by shrines - some simple and some elaborate - erected to commemorate the victims of the many vehicle accidents. This is not a comforting sight as the bus muscles around a curve and you watch gravel spill down a thousand-foot abyss. Enroute we stopped in the city of Tehuantepec where women approached the bus while balancing galvanized buckets on their heads that were filled with little portions of sweet corn, (served with lime and hot sauce) or chunks of mango or papaya. We bought some sweet corn (the sweetest corn we’ve eaten since coming to Mexico) and shared it on the bus.
The mountains were covered with mostly bare small scrub trees, though occasionally small swatches of an incredibly dusty blue-green agave and maguey “fields” would paint the steep mountainsides. These patches would pop up seemingly in the middle of nowhere, not a soul to be seen with only a narrow burro trail leading into the scrub vegetation off the highway. On our inbound trip we saw rain, REAL rain with purple black clouds lightning and thunder, for the first time in over a year and a half. Thus when we arrived in Oaxaca at about six pm local time we were struck by the cool clean air and immediately rushed off to see what we could of the historic center before dark, stumbling upon a public mercado only three blocks from our modest hotel. The mercado had cramped overflowing aisles filled with weaving, spices, dozens of kinds of peppers, piles of thick mole in buckets, meats cut often here in thin sheets that are strung together and hung from string, leather, black pottery and even grasshoppers (they call them chapulin and they eat them here!). Oaxaqueñan cuisine is the origin of mole and with mole, as with curry, many recipes have evolved. We saw black, red, green and yellow variations and there are probably many more we missed. This same evening we found a simple restaurant that had a view of the zocalo. The restaurant offered local fare and, of course, we sampled mole but also “Aztec soup” which is served with tortillas, pork rinds, avocado, slices of dried hot pepper and soft rich Oaxacan cheese.
Oaxaca is at the center of three valleys and this region was important to ancient peoples who developed the first planned city of the Americas at Monte Alban on a mountain top overlooking the valley where Oaxaca lies. Monte Alban was likely called Cerro Del Tigre (Tiger Mountain) and was founded by the Zapotecs in 500 B.C. and was occupied by as many a 30,000 people until 850 A.D., when it was inexplicably abandoned. The site is immense (20 square kilometers) and dotted with pyramids, palaces, ball fields, most of which surround an immense central plaza. To reach Monte Alban buses climb through the steep upper barrios of Oaxaca filled with tiny dwellings constructed of found materials from which garbage tumbles down. (Though one observation Leslie made was as the homes got smaller, the garbage became less prevalent, probably because these people had little in the world and less to discard.) Approaching the parking lot filled to capacity with perhaps a dozen tour buses we feared we would be disappointed by the site. We weren’t. We were awed.
Departing the on-site museum and walking up the hill towards the ruins of the central plaza and its surrounding pyramids we were immediately struck by the song of grasshoppers (chapulin) that are were eaten by these people (along with deer, armadillo and hummingbird!) and of course are still eaten today in the finest restaurants in this region. Soon we were stopped at the top of a set of steps probably 40 feet high with steps and risers of perhaps 10 inches or more. These steps descended down into the plaza. Here we just stopped and let the enormity of the city sink in. One interesting feature of the city is called the Temple of the Dancers. The edifice is named for the large (up to maybe 5 x 10 feet) stone tablets with carved reliefs of upright figures (danzantes or dancers) and reclining figures (nadadores or swimmers). These reliefs depict obese figures with wide noses and thick lips thought to be Olme people. It is believed that these reliefs show the captured leaders from other tribes who were later castrated and sacrificed on the altar in the plaza. No wonder the Zapotecs were feared!
Advances in architecture, pottery, jewelry, astronomy, dentistry, herbal medicine and even surgery characterized these peoples. People of power and influence had their teeth carved in patterns and even jewels inset into their teeth. Leslie was taken by the description of skull surgery, where they drilled perfectly round holes in the patient’s cranium, presumably to remove or treat infections in small cranial tumors. These tumors are thought to have been a genetic defect passed through the small population of elite who intermarried in the strictly stratified society (“a small gene pool”). Herbal medicine was also thought to be advanced during the city’s era and even today in Oaxaca herbal medicine is widely accepted and shops are easy to find
While exploring this site in the 1930s archeologist uncovered a tomb (Tumba 7) beneath a dwelling that yielded more than 400 pieces of intricately made gold, silver, turquoise, alabaster, coral, pearls, ceramics, obsidian, amber, bone and shell, many of which are housed in the regional museum in Oaxaca that we visited later. Intricate jewelry such as rings, lip rings, bracelets, necklaces, brooches or pectorals, many of nearly pure gold were found in abundance and worn by the Zapotec elite to represent power and prestige. Elaborate pottery funeral urns, some nearly three feet high, with masks depicting various gods such as Huehuecoyotl (old coyote or god of the dance) or Pitao Cozobi (deity of corn) were also found at Monte Alban.
Unfortunately we only had two hours to explore the site and it was back on the bus and back to the city to take in the museums and churches and mercados. While waiting to board we met a young couple from a nearly village who turned out to be newly married and with ties Washington State. Gilberto, a small dark man with a bright smile that he is quick to share, spent six years working in the Marysville area where his sister resides. Friends of Gilberto own a restaurant almost right next door to North County Bank in Smokey Point (the bank that Philip helped start) and a place where Philip would occasionally lunch. Gilberto promised to stop into the bank and bring Philip’s regards when next in Smokey Point. Gilberto was glowing when he talked of his new marriage and showed us their lovely braided gold rings, but his wife may not have spoken English at all because she seemed VERY shy. As is typical in Mexico Gilberto wanted to know how many sons Philip had and when presented with “nada”, he suggested there certainly was time to have at least one! Philip politely declined.
Dropped into Oaxaca City you might first guess you are in Europe. Originally founded in 1486, it fell to the Spanish in 1521 and it is from this time that most of its provincial architectural beauty dates. A large central plaza or zocalo (currently undergoing a controversial tree trimming and removal project) and an adjacent plaza are bordered by its cathedral, the palace of the Governor, post office and restaurants. Artisans from the region selling bright hand woven rugs, textiles and embroidered cotton clothing, shawls and pottery fill the open plaza and make it festive. As with many Mexican cities, people come downtown to walk, talk or simply sit and relax and the plaza is alive though subdued. The pace is refreshing. The city’s low brightly painted stucco buildings are characterized by long, low, French-door-like windows that are encased with broad ornate frames and protected by elaborate metalwork. It’s cathedral (begun in 1553) and churches are reminiscent of rural Italy with the exception (in our minds) of the immense Baroque Iglesia de Santo Domingo (church dating from 1551) with its acres of gold plasterwork and elaborate decor, including the sculptures of the family tree of its benefactors, the Guzman family. The family tree occupies hundreds of square feet about forty feet above your head as you enter.
As you look around and take in this city and the region you realize how so many influences have melted into its art, handicrafts, food and peoples. In Oaxaca you see many more people of indigenous decent with their lovely warm skin, high cheekbones and slight but strong physiques. One afternoon while sitting in a café waiting for a church to reopen after siesta, we watched as an tiny, pretty, ancient woman with a bright grey braids, a toothless broad smile and squinting smiling eyes sat on the curb waiting for a parade of children in traditional costume representing different schools to begin. Whenever anyone came near she smiled her broad smile and held up a cup. Unable to resist, Philip disappeared from the table and walked across the street and gave her his change. She thanked him but later after the parade finished and we began to walk down the street to our hotel she approached us again, clearly not remembering Philip. It wasn’t difficult even with our limited Spanish to hear her tell Philip he was plump, so he gave her more change at which time she took Leslie’s hand in both of hers and pulled her towards her and gave her a cheek to cheek kiss you see everywhere here. (Leslie had to lean down so she could do this!) We could’ve stayed in Oaxaca for weeks!
Returning to Carina from Oaxaca, we focused all of our efforts on preparing for our crossing, including the inevitable gathering of data from as many weather sources as we could, getting our paperwork together and purchasing and gathering provisions.
Now in El Salvador, we are now simply sitting in an open roadstead anchorage about a half mile from shore with 4-5 foot swells awaiting our turn, and favorable conditions, to cross the bar into the lagoon called Puerto de la Concordia where Bahia Del Sol is located. Our El Salvador ensign and "Q" flag are flying from our starboard spreader. It's a pretty awesome sight to see the waves breaking on the bar about one third mile north of us. We actually circled this morning along with another boat while talking to the pilots who were waiting on the inside of the bar to evaluate the crossing at high slack tide. The consensus was that the calm periods were of too short a duration to make a crossing so after about an hour, we returned to the forty foot depth and re-anchored. We’ll try again tomorrow.
In preparation for crossing the bar we removed most of what was on our stern rail and of course made sure that everything was sealed (duct tape is a wonderful thing) and that nothing could go flying down in the cabin that might hurt Jake. Last night we watched as two boats of friends crossed the bar. One crossed without a drop aboard but the other was knocked down by a wave (mast, boom and spreaders in the water) and took some water below. No one was hurt thankfully. Statistically nearly all boats cross without any problems at all but prudent advice from friends who served in the Coast Guard in Oregon has us timing wave sets and studying the waves on our radar. We just heard a VHF radio transmission between the hotel and the pilot concerning information they got in the internet concerning wave heights that suggests tomorrow will be more favorable, so we are encouraged.
Once inside the lush lagoon, we'll rejoin friends and begin to explore El Salvador. The hotel charges cruisers $10 per week to access its facilities which include a dinghy dock, pools, discounts at its restaurants, laundries and showers. The US Dollar has been used as the currency here since 2001.
This morning we had an interesting visitor. Leslie was slowly waking up in the cockpit (at 5:30 am) when she saw a creature in the water. The creature slowly swam closer to the boat and towards the anchor chain and its rope bridle. It was a chubby thing and weighed maybe twenty pounds with light almost blond brown hair of about 2 inches long and a long hairy tail (about 16 inches) that tapered to a point. It had little head with a pointy snout that was truncated to be flat at the end. It had tiny squinty eyes and upright cylindrical soft looking ears. As it approached the anchor chain, it looked up at us but either couldn't see us or was totally unafraid and began to grasp the line with its long fingers and to hoist its hind legs up to climb the rope. We discouraged it by shaking the line and it calmly swam down the side of the boat looking for another access. After stirring up the water around it with a boat hook, it eventually decided we weren't much fun and slowly paddled away. Philip is pretty sure it’s a sloth or anteater but unfortunately our digital camera isn't working so we couldn't get a photo. What we can’t figure out is what the animal was doing so far from shore, though it seemed perfectly at ease swimming. A young friend, Jamila, on Comfort Zone, has promised to try to find it in one of her school books or references.
Later this morning, Philip jumped to his feet and grabbed the boat hook to fend off a tree stump about eight three feet long and six feet across that came floating in the current towards the boat. As you can see there's never a dull moment in our lives...
We were just finishing this passage note when Philip was attracted by a man in the water swimming desperately against the west setting tidal current. When he yelled to him the man raised his arms to call out for help. We immediately called the hotel (actually the pilots who are Canadian and who work for the hotel) and alerted them and they dispatched a boat and a fast jet ski driven by the owner of the hotel, Marco. We then yelled to the man that help was on its way and then threw our life ring towards him. It drifted down to him with the wind and current and he was able to reach it and swim with less effort, all the time making progress towards Carina. Just about this time a sport fisher out of the hotel, Hot Tuna, came by on their way into the lagoon and we recruited them to help. The boat came alongside the man in the water who (we can guess) told them he was going to be fine because he had our life ring and us nearby but that there was ANOTHER man in the water, his friend, who needed help. The sport fisher raced off in search while we used a monkey's fist (a decorative large heavy knot) to throw a throw line to the swimmer. Alex, his name turned out to be, is a lifeguard who was swimming with a friend who turned out not to be the strong swimmer he had led Alex to believe. Alex was cold and very, very upset but after we got him aboard and wrapped in a towel he was able give us more information to relay back to help in the rescue. The sport fisher came back to Carina and Alex joined them to facilitate the search, jumping BACK in the water and swimming to it. The fate of the second man is still unknown and the owner of the hotel is continuing to search further to the west where it is more likely this man had been swept. Philip continues to look through the binoculars but even after climbing our ratlines nearly to the spreads cannot see anything in the sea.
With that, we'll close and write again once inside the bar and exploring El Salvador and hopefully, Guatemala.
Sus amigos del velero Carina,
Philip, Leslie & Jake the cat
lying at anchor outside Bahia Del Sol, El Salvador