[050925; 1714 UTC,
Puesta Del Sol, Estero Aserradores, Nicaragua
N 12 degrees 37.51/W 087 degrees 20.53]
We promised more stories of our adventures when we got the chance. Today it is raining, so despite the fact we’re sitting at the dock at Marina Puesta Del Sol chomping to get going on our “marina” project list, we’ll write again. (Unfortunately, weatherunderground.com calls for this weather for about nine more days!)
In Central America, one thing is for sure, “creatures” are everywhere. Here at Puesta Del Sol we have translucent nickel-sized crabs that are crawling everywhere on the deck of the boat. They don’t seem to eat much, or bite and we suspect they’ll jump ship once we take off, so for now we just avoid stepping on them. Crocodiles reportedly live in the estuary, though we haven’t seen any.
One steamy day in Estero Jaltepeque though, a creature visited Encanto and created pandemonium. The story begins when Leslie and Judy L. of Paradiso joined Judy C. and her two girls Gaby and Sami at the “Judy Chan Sewing Sweatshop” to sew accessories for the school reading area. Everyone was concentrating very hard on designing and sewing (and teaching the girls geometry in the process) when someone looked up to see a very wet, very big, very curious RAT peeking in the open galley portlight. Mayhem ensued with a shoe flying across the galley and the girls running the length of the vessel trying to shut the other portlights. Judy L. and Leslie ran to the deck and grabbed a boat hook and other pointy weapons before taking off down the deck; the brave young girls soon joining us in the chase. Darting from the protection of an overturned pram to the underside of the liferaft canister to piled bags of sails as we poked at it from many angles, the rat seemed finally to accept defeat and make a run for it. Leslie got the boathook briefly under its belly as it ran away and gave it a little shove. This made the rat run faster, take a quick right, run the length of the deck and dive like a cliff diver (all four feet extended wide) back into the water and swim away frantically! It took a quite a long while for everyone’s heart rate to come back to normal – probably including that of our little, scruffy friend.
The increased number of cruisers coming to “Bahia Del Sol” has resulted in an increase in opportunities for entrepreneurial ventures. Santos, a young educated island man (and new father) who spent many years in San Salvador, provides bottom cleaning services to boaters. Free-diving, he battles the low visibility of the muddy estuarine water and charges $20 for the first cleaning and $10 for maintenance. Mar y Sol (Sea and Sun) restaurant, with a dinghy dock facing the estuary, serves cruisers Salvadoran cuisine and provides laundry service (a BIG bag washed, dried and folded for $8 USD). One of the newest and most widely supported ventures is the sale of tamales by the family who care-takes the island property of Jan of the vessel Quantum Leap. Each Tuesday on the radio Jan announces that tamales will be available and takes orders. These are banana leaf wrapped tamales that require hours of laborious preparation; the cost per tamale is $0.25. On Wednesdays, Jan and the four children pile into Jan’s small panga (with usually over one hundred tamales) for deliveries to boats in the estuary. The children, primarily tiny Amanda in her traditional frilly Salvadoran delantal, maintain the customer list, compute the charges, give change and giggle at your compliments and the propinas (tips) given to them.
Amongst the more nefarious entrepreneurial enterprises this summer was the theft of outboard engines. We had all been warned to bring dinghies up at night or to chain motors with impenetrable chains, but some still were stolen. Unfortunately, in these rural communities, fear still reigns and most local friends of cruisers were unwilling to provide even hints of who the perpetrators might be to facilitate the recover these engines. (One was recovered though the specifics were not shared in order to protect those locals who’d come forward!)
With the school project winding down at Isla El Cordoncillo and our friends’ September 7th wedding a few weeks off, we decided we should consider seeing more of the region before pushing on to Nicaragua and Costa Rica. A popular inland trip from “the Bahia” is Copan, Honduras.
Copan is in the mountains near the borders of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras and is the site of one of the oldest Mayan settlements in Central America. Copan was of interest because it is known for elaborate carvings and sits near a small, Spanish town called Copan Ruinas. Traveling to Copan turned out to be a challenge for us. A “chicken” bus from San Salvador to the border could drop us off for the walk across the border to pick up another “chicken bus” north to La Entrada, followed by a third bus to Copan. Alternatively, a first class bus could be had to San Pedro Sula, a few hours BEYOND the turnoff to Copan and near the Caribbean where you would get a “chicken” bus back. First class buses were available from Guatemala City, but this is like going to San Francisco from Las Vegas because you really wanted to go to Reno!
At first we were planning this with two other boats, until Encanto decided to stay close to home and concentrate on the girls’ schooling. With only two couples, Denis and Michele from Aquastrian and us, we decided to explore the option of taking a tourist taxi. Many phone calls later, Jose, everyone’s favorite taxi driver, arranged the trip with one of his many friends, Mario. (Philip tried very hard to ascertain whether Mario would be coming back to Honduras for the return trip but Jose would only say, “Don’t worry my friend!’).
We didn’t know Mario but trusted Jose and were thrilled to find that Mario arrived to drive us through this sometimes politically tense territory in a ten year old Toyota four wheel drive, extended cab truck with darkened windows. No taxi decals anywhere! Prior to our trip, cruisers Chris and Beth from Aquamarine, traveling by taxi with a group, were actually stopped by armed gunmen along a road in Guatemala. They were not harmed. The head man noted the presence of children in the car and, with a jerk of his chin and a wave with the hand holding a pistol, told the taxi driver to reverse direction and leave. The two other vehicles that were stopped ahead of them were not released. Chris was unsure what happened to them; he was just happy that his family was allowed to escape.
Mario is a tall, dark, bespectacled man of Mexican descent who’s lived for over thirty years in El Salvador. A man of few words, Mario concentrated hard on his driving and it became quickly apparent his driving was excellent. Denis sat in front with Mario and the two occasionally would exchange pleasantries. Denis is a wonderful, smart, almost childlike man with a receding hairline of unruly blond hair who exudes an enthusiasm for life in almost every word he speaks. (The “kid boats” would pout if Denis was unable to come to the pool each afternoon to play!) Denis is a multitalented man of French Canadian descent who carries a French accent and a concomitant understanding of Latin etymology that helps him to speak Spanish. As our trip brought us farther and farther into the mountains, Mario’s few words became rarer still. Feeling compelled to include Mario in some conversation, Denis – seeing a sheep on the side of the road and indicating it with a wave – asked: “Mario, how do you say baaaaaaa [meaning the sheep] in Spanish?” Without missing a beat, rigid, serious Mario replied, “baaaaaaaa”, and we all erupted in laughter. Poor Denis has still to live this down.
Perhaps it was the car-sized rocks that had slid into the road, the chicken buses passing us uphill around narrow curves, the near washout from a mudslide, or the chicken bus accident we came upon, but Mario spoke less and less as the seven hour trip progressed. Arriving in Copan at 2 pm, Mario was as silent as stone. We knew we had to feed this poor man, so we found a second-story open air restaurant just off the square and enjoyed a hearty lunch. After we ordered, Mario’s cell phone rang; it was Jose checking up on ALL his friends.
After lunch, we moved over to our hotel called the Posada de Belssy, a modest open affair in a family home on a steep street. Telma, the proprietress, agreed to give Mario a room for $9 (our rooms were $14) and he quickly disappeared to sleep. (We heard him leave for the return trip at first light the following morning.) Mario had apparently had enough of Honduras roads and though Jose tried hard to recruit him for the return trip, Mario was having none of it; not for the price we offered ($140 plus gas!). Thus the position of “Don’t worry my friend” became available. Unbeknownst to us at this time, word about the awful road to Copan (we didn’t think it was THAT bad) spread amongst Jose’s taxi friends and no one would agree to retrieve us. We, blissful and ignorant of our uncertain return, toured the town and the historic site and enjoyed fabulous scenery and coffee. (Jose eventually drove to Copan himself and drove us back to El Salvador. His first words to Philip when he arrived in Honduras bleary-eyed from his drive were, “Almost worry my friend!”)
The tiny town of Copan Ruinas was laid out up a small, steep hillside above the Copan river and fertile river plain. The valley looks a bit like southern Vermont at the height of summer, a broad green pastured plain along the valley floor flanked by small green rolling mountains. The town’s tiny, tropical flower-filled plaza contains replicas of some of the living structures at the Las Sepulturas section of the ruins along with a lovely colonial church. The steep, cobbled streets are filled with racing three wheeled motorcycle taxis (called tuk-tuks in Guatemala), bicycles, rugged all terrain vehicles, vendors of handcrafts or street food and scores of backpackers.
The 2 km trip from town to the ruins has been turned into a pleasant walk through the lush valley on a rock-paved walkway funded by Japanese philanthropists. Horses travel this path too and are an important form of transportation for the local farmers. The archeological site’s “Principal Group”, an acropolis or city built on a raised plain, encompasses the key temples and altars, the plaza and a ballfield, though over twelve hundred separate sites exist in the valley. This is believed to be one of the oldest Mayan sites in Central America, having been founded around 1200 BC. (A word about the aforementioned ballfield: the Mayans played a ballgame similar to soccer. In the tournaments, the captain of the WINNING team would be sacrificed after the games were over. This sacrifice was considered an honor).
Spectacularly carved stelae or vertical stone slabs, approximately ten feet tall and five feet wide, are spread around the (now grassy) main plaza and carry carvings that tell stories of rulers or gods. Many of these stelae still show signs of the traditional red paint derived from a local tree and nearly all contain a carving of the symbol of Copan, Zotz, the bat. Adjacent to the ballfield, with its dominant macaw head carving, is the hieroglyphic stairway, considered the most important structure on the site. Reconstructed during the early part of the twentieth century from rubble, this elaborately carved staircase reaches from the plaza floor up sixty three high steps. Thousands of glyphs carved into the stairs tell the story of the rulers of Copan. It is believed to have been commissioned in 749 AD by ruler Smoke Shell and is the longest Mayan inscription ever discovered. Adjacent to the staircase, a tomb containing the remains of rulers and filled with pottery and jade was later discovered.
Above this staircase was another plaza area called the Patio de los Jaguares marked by a dominant basket weave carving that signified rulers. Here there is an entrance to a tunnel that runs seven hundred meters underground through the bases of the pyramids within the acropolis. Only eighty meters is open now and though viewing the tunnel technically cost $12 USD more than our entrance ticket, Philip disappeared into it and the rest of us followed. Eventually the tunnel brought us out to the back of the pyramid, where flooding from the Copan River has partially eroded the structure.
Copan was believed the have supported over twenty thousand people at one time, before over-population, deforestation, erosion and disease led to its abandonment around 1200 AD. We also visited an adjacent site, called Las Sepulturas, where both middle class and rulers lived in raised homes of stone with palm, palapa-type roofs. This second site is quite a walk further north along the walking path and is quiet and sparsely visited.
When we started on our tour of this second, wooded, mosquito-infested site, a young man quickly fell in behind us and began offering information, in Spanish. Through him, we learned that the yellow, be-thorned ceiba tree, called Yax Ché by the Mayans, is sacred and was used to make musical instruments including drums. He also showed us the tree that bears the leaves with the dye used to make the red paint that had covered all the structures. (Crushing the leaves in our hands stained our fingers with this dye and resulted in an indelible “Mayan” fingerprint on our cell phone!) He then showed us the chicle tree that produces a sticky gum that was mixed with mud and sand to form the mortar for the structures. Chicle trees, with rivulets of gooey chicle gum flowing down their trunks onto the ground below, still dot the site. Eventually it became clear to us we couldn’t shake him or stop him from offering us valuable information, so we negotiated a guide fee and continued our tour.
Back in Copan Ruinas and looking for a place to buy bread and cheese for a later hotel rooftop picnic, Leslie was approached by Rosa, a young Mayan girl who asked her if she spoke English. An affirmation resulted in Rosa giving Leslie a laminated card describing the hand-made corn husk dolls made by residents of the Chorti Maya village of La Pintada, 3 km away. These inexpensive dolls were used to bring much needed cash to the village. Slight Rosa, with her wide infectious charming smile, was a tough negotiator. Around her quickly appeared her competitors (other children) who offered their dolls at increasingly lower prices, but Rosa stood firm and Philip eventually gave her what she demanded.
The following day just before we departed Copan Ruinas for the trip back to El Salvador, Rosa appeared again with other children while we lunched at an outdoor patio. Anxious to leave his last lempiras with Rosa, Philip called her over and tried again to negotiate. Philip held up the doll we had bought just the day before and compared it to the much smaller doll Rosa was offering to sell today at the same price. “Porque, Rosa, Porque?” (why, Rosa, why?). Smiling and giggling, Rosa would still not budge on her price and after a few animated protests by Philip and a warm photo of the two sharing a laugh; Philip caved again to Rosa’s charms and handed over his lempiras - for the much smaller doll.
Now in Nicaragua, we hope to again visit inland sites (particularly Leon and Isla Ometepe in Lago Nicaragua) to experience the country, though frequent tropical waves and the resulting offshore tropical storms have made the anchorages south of here tenuous with 6-9 foot southwest swell. Unfortunately we may have to push on to Costa Rica for haven and hope that we can get back to Nicaragua overland. One thing that is for sure when you cruise, that is that you have to be flexible with your plans!
Philip and Leslie with el gato supreme, Jake
Estero Aserradores, Nicaragua