[060113; 1326 UTC,
Bahía Ballena, Golfo de Nicoya, Puntarenas, Costa Rica
N 9 degrees 43.1 /W 085 degrees 00.7]
Happy New Year! After two months exploring the bahías and ensenadas of the far northern “papagayo” region of Costa Rica we reluctantly jumped off from Playa del Coco on December 27th, 2006 and headed down the coast for a thirty hour passage to Bahía Ballena, (pronounced, buy –AIN-nah) meaning “whale bay”, in the Golfo de Nicoya.
After having sampled a few anchorages in the Golfo de Nicoya region, we now understand the reasons that we were urged to remain in the pristine north of the country as long as possible. The relatively shallow Golfo de Nicoya is rich in sea-life, though much of the sea north of Islas Negritos Biological Reserve near the city of Puntarenas is lousy with litter – plastic, plastic, plastic and more plastic. So much plastic that for long stretches it has been necessary to post a bow lookout for plastic grocery bags that float, unfortunately, about two feet below the surface. This is a perfect depth for being sucked into engine cooling-water intake through-hull fittings. One supposes that the cause of this unfortunate pollution of this otherwise spectacular gulf is the disheveled city of Puntarenas, fallen far from its glory days in the 19th century as the provincial capital and major port for Costa Rica. But once again, we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Our Christmas was spent aboard the 60’ sailboat Encanto with additional friends from Our Tern, Soy Libre and RDreamz. Our Tern, a Valiant 40’ out of Everett, WA with Vaughn, Natalie and daughters Danielle and Brooke aboard, had recently visited the Galapagos and regaled us with tales and images of their month long visit. During their visit in the Galapagos they had the “good fortune” to witness a volcanic eruption at close range.
Encanto’s Judy Chan and her clan put a yeoman’s effort into making the holiday bright and warm. And warm it was as we met to bake and share luscious, sweet treats the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Of the lovely thoughtful gifts from Encanto was an Ocarina (clay whistle) handmade from local clay in the Guanacaste region. (We looked up the etymology of ocarina and this word is derived differently from Carina with its root being the Italian word, oca, meaning goose – perhaps for its song or for its round shape.) The reaction of five-year-old Andrew of Soy Libre to his new hand-crafted Batman cape, a gift from the Encanto family, was perhaps the most enthusiastic of all and the gift simply whet his appetite for Santa’s later arrival at Bahía Huevos.
Later that evening, elves from Encanto and Our Tern surprised each boat in the anchorage by caroling from a packed dinghy with their cruisers’ version of the twelve days of Christmas. The verses are:
On the twelfth day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me,
Twelve Lurkers Listening
Eleven Three-Bean Salads
Ten Foot Swells
Nine Trawlers Trolling
Eight Knots-We're Flying!
Seven Dolphins Leaping
Six Anchors Dragging
Five Crew a-Puking
Four Whales Breaching
Three Full Sails
Two Working Heads
And a Booby on the Masthead
The emphasis on the last verse by the bass-singing captains and a hearty, drawn out (sometimes giggling) treatment of the Five Crew verse, made us laugh.
Christmas Day’s Panama Pacific SSB radio net included a call from Santa Claus looking for weather information for his flight north, so we know for sure he visited us in Central America! Cruising kid Abby, aboard Sea Cardinal in Ecuador, quickly checked into the net to “pass traffic” with Santa and to gleefully thank him for the toys he’d brought her during his visit.
Later that morning, we arrived at Encanto once again (in our elves hats) to a mountain-sized stack of crepes and about twelve different fillings, plus smoked turkey breast, fresh fruit salad, fresh piña and a choice of powerful home-roasted Salvadoran or Costa Rican coffees. We enjoyed a long day of visiting and non-stop chatter followed by an excursion to the beach in a dinghy full of happy cruisers and cruising kids. It was a perfect day.
Boxing Day dawned bright and clear. A brisk northeast papagayo wind was blowing that propelled us south. Our diminishing propane supply was beginning to concern us (locally they did not have the fittings to fill “US” tanks). Also pending was the expiration of our 90 day cruising permit on January 30th when we would have to leave Costa Rica and be underway to Panama. But, there was still much of Costa Rica we wanted to see! Our passage included winds to 30 knots from astern with wild seas (yee ha!) but we also had flat calm and wind directly on our bow on this trip; there is no such thing as a perfect weather window.
The Golfo de Nicoya is not all litter and thieves (more on the thieves later). Here in Bahía Ballena, the bay is broad with a wide, flat, caramel-colored walking beach of powder-fine sand, perhaps two miles long. Here, a fishing village, a luxury resort, numerous farms and untold numbers of international ex-patriots seem to co-exist happily. Tambor, at the southwest corner of the bay, hosts a party on New Years’ Day. Locals (Ticos and ex-pats) partied from the afternoon well into the next day. (An explanation: Costa Rican males or a mixed group of males and females are referred to as Ticos; Costa Rican females alone are referred to as Ticas).
Food stands lined the beach offering home-cooked, succulent, grilled meat kabobs (pork, we hope) or slow cooked chicken, and the cold Tico cerveza flowed freely. A criollo band performed for countless hours at a shorefront bar with rhythmic selections that brought dancers of all ages and shapes (mostly dressed in tight-fitting clothing) to the dance floor. Couples danced sensually with swiveling hips in perfect coordination, gracefully floating across the concrete as if it were Zamboni-smooth ice. The celebration lasted till the wee hours, long after we had retired to bed listening to the music float across the quiet bay.
On Saturday mornings at the Bahía Ballena Yacht Club (really just a bar that was formerly owned by cruisers), a highly-praised organic farmers’ market features locally-grown produce, fresh herbs and even fresh locally-made cheeses such as mozzarella. The market is organized by Honey Heart, an ex-cruiser. She and her husband had started and then sold the Heart Inverter company. For those non-techie types, an inverter is an electrical device that converts the 12 volt DC power (stored in our batteries) to 120 volt AC current for running 120 volt equipment. (We actually have a Heart inverter on board Carina.) The Hearts own most of the property on the north side of the bay, some 172 acres of waterfront land that they purchased 25 years ago. Inland, a few miles through rolling, hilly farm country is the small town of Cóbano, a rustic but bustling center for the south end of the rural Nicoya peninsula where men wear long pants and “cowboy” boots and hats as everyday garb.
Further south along the coast is the shorefront eco-tourist town of Montezuma. Our Lonely Planet guide touted Montezuma as “charming” and “laid back”, presumably from the liberal consumption of another “herb” not normally sold at farmers’ markets. We hiked to Montezuma on our second day in the region along with friends from Moonsong, Alkahest and 5th Element.
The hike was billed as four hours of level walking along the shore with a lovely waterfall about half way. It actually took us five hours through varied terrain of beaches, rocks, lagoons and woodlands, including numerous Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre sites. The promised waterfall cascaded from an overhanging cliff of unstable rock that had evidently fallen during recent rainy seasons, leaving a boulder pile to traverse that forced us to walk through the falling water in order to continue on. Still, it was a great adventure and we celebrated our lovely day at an open air restaurant, “Cocolores” with local ceviche (raw fish “cooked” in lime juice) and cold bebidas (drinks).
Because it was the holiday vacation week, Montezuma was packed with a mostly young, international crowd, many of whom were camped in crowded lots along the town’s beaches where cannabis smoke wafted through the air. We were hot and tired as we waited, along with what seemed like hundreds of other sweating folks, for the last bus back to Tambor. Packed full, the bus out of town ascended the steep and narrow, switch-backed dirt road that, in 2003, had been closed to traffic for several months due to a mud slide that inundated the road and isolated Montezuma from the outside world.
We also celebrated Philip’s 61st birthday here in Tambor. Friends from 5th Element, Alkahest and Mira joined us at Trattoria Mediterrana, where Sandra and Maurizio, originally from Udine, Italy, serve sumptuous Italian fare. Our hosts were gracious and helped make the celebration special by bringing Philip’s birthday pumpkin pie, complete with our candles, to our table along with gelato. They also shared their homemade limoncello liqueur with us. Learning that sailing is their second dream (after moving to a tropical paradise), Alkahest agreed to host them for an afternoon sail two days later on their one day off. Light winds made for a relaxing sail and allowed us to enjoy Sandra and Maurizio’s special apple tart that they served to us along with ice cold Lambrusco wine.
We have also visited nearby Islas Tortugas, where hundreds of day trippers (and us cruisers) flock to the clear waters and rocky reefs to see spectacular underwater wildlife. After-hours many Puntarenas-based fishing vessels anchor here in their graceful, though well-used and somewhat run down, tiny trawlers. The boats’ cabin tops are adorned with long bamboo poles that are topped with the typical black garbage-bag flags. The crewmembers sometimes go ashore to play soccer, volleyball or to swim in the water along the bright white beaches.
Anchored at Tortugas, we traveled via dinghy a mile or more to Bahía Curu on the Nicoya peninsula in order to visit the Curu Refuge, a small privately-owned reserve situated in a shallow U-shaped bay. A wide, white sand beach lined with seemingly perfect palms completes the tropical picture. An $8 USD contribution buys you access to miles of hiking trails through reclaimed forest and mangrove swamps where friend Bruce suddenly stopped and exclaimed, “Wow, this is a real jungle!” As we hiked, we saw at close range a ctenosaur (a large black, spiny tailed iguana, see his picture on our website), scarlet macaws, a coati (a raccoon-type animal with vicious teeth!) and a troop of howler monkeys (hanging about the trees on siesta), all the while enjoying the calls of hundreds of birds that eluded our sighting. We did NOT see any of the crocodiles reputed to infest the small streams and lagoons of the reserve, though warning signs were much in evidence.
We also anchored for a few days at Islas Jesusita and Cedros, near the peninsula town of Paquera where we would have access to a ferry to Puntarenas. (In Puntarenas we replenished our propane supply.) Dodging fishing boats and even more fishing nets, plus trees and other flotsam, we reached the anchorage by traveling almost 370 degrees around both islands in order to avoid overhead electrical lines. Here friends Dana and Judy on Paradiso had spent six weeks while awaiting parts shipments from the US. In the interim they met some locals, including Giovanni, a fisherman and property caretaker who allowed us access to an shabby and abandoned fish camp which was supplied with a fresh-water well. Here we replenished our ship’s water supply and also washed mountains of laundry (and people ask us “what do you DO all day?!”).
This anchorage, while convenient, is now notorious for being visited by thieves, reputed to be from Puntarenas, who prey on yachts and locals alike, their specialty being outboard engines. One boat was even boarded (while the on-board couple slept) and the chain on the motor was snipped with bolt-cutters and removed from the stern rail. We had no problems here but we also hang our dinghy from a halyard (a line at the masthead used to hoist the sails) each night as a precaution and then often sleep outdoors to enjoy the cool evening air. That aside, the notoriety of the place made our stay (which was longer than anticipated because of strong winds) a bit uneasy. Thieves had earlier taken chainsaws to a resort owner’s moored trawler in order to steal the engine! (We also learned that, a year ago, this same resort owner was hacked to death with machetes when he presumably confronted the thieves during the night.) We were anxious to leave.
Now back at Bahía Ballena, we are enjoying the relaxed atmosphere of Tambor and Cóbano and the clean water of the bay while completing boat projects. A friend’s daughter arrived two days ago with a sewing machine part that allowed us to affect a repair to our sun-baked and torn genoa (foresail). We had to be careful to avoid being overcome with heat as we worked all day in the broiling sun on our deck to finish the critical project. We hope to be underway next week (with a few stops along the way) to our final Costa Rican port of Golfito before pushing on to Panama.
Sus amigos del yate, Carina,
Leslie y Philip con el gato perfecto, Jake
Bahía Ballena, Puntarenas, Costa Rica