Letter from San Juan, March 26, 1997


Hi, We're now in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, home of the best sunsets in all of Central America. We're also sitting up tonight looking at a near-total lunar eclipse.

I last wrote from Acapulco.

We were there about a week, then sailed out early one evening. One of the features of this leg was a celestial display: the star Canopus, which is quite bright, was twinkling white, green, and red. We've all seen stars twinkle before, but this was something unique and dramatic. We were spellbound for hours. Two afternoons later, we arrived in the Huatulco Bay area, anchoring in Bahia Santa Cruz, a beautiful little bay with a few restaurants and hotels and stunningly clear water. Nearby, the town of Crucecita had more restaurants, hardware stores, ice cream!, a gas station, etc.

Bob and Carol from Motu (San Diego) rented a car, and I went with them to see Oaxaca. It was about a six hour drive over the mountains and down the Oaxaca valley, and it was the first time any of us had been cold in many months. We brought jackets & jeans, but we'd forgotten what winter air in the mountains in the interior of a continent could feel like. Brrr.

We visited the Toltec/Mixtec ruins at Monte Alban and at Mitla and Yagra. Monte Alban is a big complex, and very impressive. Yagra is a much smaller site, but the land around it is especially beautiful. We also discovered that a surprising percentage of the colorful crafts that are sold in Mexico are made in the Oaxaca area. We saw artisans weaving, carving and painting; different villages have different specialties.

In Oaxaca, we stayed in a hotel; hotels have TVs; TVs have news and weather in the morning. We eagerly studied the satellite photos to try to get an idea whether the Gulf of Tehuantepec would be raging or calm when we got back to the water. We agreed: it looked like a gale (caused by high pressure in the Gulf of Mexico juxtaposed with low pressure in the Gulf of Tehuantepec) was just ending.

Sure enough, when we got back to Huatulco, the anchorage was abuzz with activity. The radio predictions and weatherfaxes concurred: the gale's ending! Weather window! Leave tomorrow or be prepared to wait another week or more! Shopping, stowing, bottom cleaning, last meals ashore, and away we went: Espire, Motu, Seeadler (Ingo & Espi, also from Pete's Harbor, Redwood City!), and Moonshadow all left the next evening, and Cherokee Rose left the morning after that.

It's a paradox of modern weather prediction that the Gulf of Tehuantepec, where the wind is said to average 35 kts over the year and reaches 60 or 70 kts frequently, was flat calm for most of our trip, as it has been for most of the other southbounders who preceeded us. Because we really want to avoid the gales, we end up traveling when there's no wind at all. We motored for about 35 hours, longer than I'd ever run the engine nonstop before. Back in San Francisco, 35 hours would have been almost a year's worth of engine time.

The first night out we all noticed comet Hale-Bopp. It was the first comet I've ever seen that looked like a classical comet-with-a-tail. We were all delighted. We were less delighted a few hours later when we passed Puerto Salina Cruz in the dark and ran into a fleet of about a hundred shrimp boats. It took hours of tracking, dodging, and worrying before we were clear of them all.

We were able to sail slowly the last day of our trip, and got into Puerto Madero just before sunset. Puerto Madero is a functional little port, a bit of dredged estuary with a good stone breakwater. It's not very scenic, but it is secure, and a nice place to rest. There are a few restaurants on the beach, and a town a mile or two away.

The Tehuantepec Class of Feb. 19-21 had a dinner the next night on Seeadler. Ingo had traded with one of the local shrimp boats for shrimp and squid. Espi cooked those and much more to perfection, and other boats contributed dishes as well. It was a very nice get-together. Cherokee Rose arrived about an hour before dinner, so they got a great welcome.

The next day, after four months in Mexico, we set out for Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala. We had really come to think of Mexico as home, and felt a pang of loss as well as the anticipation of visiting new places. A Mexican navy patrol boat followed us at a distance until we crossed the border, just an hour or so before sunset. We alternately sailed in light air and motored in calms, and anchored just before noon the next day.

Puerto Quetzal is unique. It's a big, well constructed harbor, but clean and not so busy that it's hectic. We saw freighters come and go almost every day, and we were anchored right off the sterns of the Guatemalan Navy's Pacific fleet. For cruisers, the security was superb; access to the anchorage and the dinghy dock was through the Navy Base gates.

We took advantage of the security to go on inland trips. Marc & Anna went to Guatemala City; I went there, and also to Antigua, which was the capital of the country before an earthquake destroyed it in the 1700s. "Guate" is a big city, with innumerable restaurants, every kind of store, and some very good museums. It even has an internet cafe, tho' I didn't learn that until after I was back on the boat. Antigua has some beautiful old buildings, some in ruins, some standing still, a very nice Mayan music museum, and lots of Mayas selling colorful textiles.

Guatemala is a beautiful country to visit, but there's one little problem: riding their busses is HARD WORK. They're all very crowded; 3 to a seat plus standees, kids in laps, luggage, and the occasional chicken, and the roads make the ride rough and long. I wouldn't hesitate to do it all again, but I'd allow more time to recover from each ride. We got back to Puerto Quetzal exhausted.

We spent a day putting the boat back in shape, and set sail the evening of March 3 making for La Union, El Salvador, in the Gulf of Fonseca. We ran in light air for a day, beat in light air for a day, then beat in heavy air for a day at the mouth of the Gulf. It wasn't bad sailing, but it was slow progress. It also set us up for an accident: I'd left the spinnaker on the fordeck in its turtle (bag) when the light wind shifted forward. It was still there when the weather got rougher. Apparently, the seas coming over the bow opened the bag, and sloshed the sail over the side. We noticed in minutes, because dragging a huge sail slowed us down a lot, and we got it back on board fairly quickly, but not without damage. It will take a bit of sewing to put that sail back in usable condition.

We got the hook down in La Union mid-afternoon. The Port Captain came out to Espire and checked us in. That evening, the wind came up, from a direction that had six miles of fetch, so the waves were big. By the next morning, we wanted to get out. We could come back when the weather was better. Meanwhile, nearby Amapala would provide better shelter.

Unfortunately, having checked in, we had to check out. In miserable conditions, waves and spray, we prepared the dinghy, and I set out for shore, with a dry shirt and the ship's papers in my backpack, and a lifejacket over that. I managed to get ashore no worse than wet, and got the dink up the beach at the public landing. The landing was a zoo, with big confused chop, and a dozen pangas also laboring to load or unload, arrive or leave.

I found the Immigration Office, and had to explain that Yes, we were just arriving, but Yes, we were leaving, too. I explained about the wind and the waves, and made it clear that we would come back when we could. The power in town went off for a while, which I think helped make my point about the wind. I got all the passport stamps and paperwork I needed.

I checked in with Marc & Anna by radio, and was told, "Umm, there's no danger, but the anchor's dragging. We're motoring into the waves to keep the strain off the anchor rode." Lovely. OK, let's get this official stuff over and get away.

Back in the dink, back in the waves, and off I went to the Navy dock to get the Port Captain's paperwork to leave. I must have looked like a drowned rat when I got there; they were very, very helpful. They were also quite concerned, really seemed to be hurt by our short stay. I had to emphasize that the bay and the town were fine (it's true!), but the weather was a problem, and we intended to return when things settled down.

Anyway, I got the Zarpe, the official permission to leave, and jumped back in the dink. We got the dink aboard Espire in so much wind that the inflatable wanted to fly like a kite. Getting the anchor up was easy by comparison. And then we were free.

This episode was my introduction to the other Great Wind of Central America: the Papagayo. The Papagayos, like the Tehuantepec gales, are the result of barometric pressure imbalances across the narrow spots in the isthmus between the Caribbean and the Pacific. The Papagayos seem to affect a larger area, though, and they've been a problem for all the southbound cruisers this year.

In the Gulf of Fonseca, both La Union and Conchaguita, El Salvador, are untenable when the Papagayos blow. Amapala, Isla del Tigre, Honduras is rather sheltered, and San Lorenzo, Honduras is quite secure, miles up a river.

We got to Amapala that evening around dusk, Friday, March 7, and decided it was sheltered enough. We rejoined Motu and Cherokee Rose and two other boats eager for a rest. They picked us up by dink when our anchor was down, and we had dinner with the gang on shore.

The wind picked up that night, and for two days was up enough that dinghy trips to shore were slow and wet, and therefore infrequent.

Amapala is quite beautiful to look at. It's on Isla del Tigre, which is a nicely cone-shaped inactive volcano. The town was once Honduras' principal Pacific coast port, so it has some nice buildings. The port has moved to more modern facilities at San Lorenzo, though, so Amapala is a little run down, and unemployment appears to be high. They get a bit of tourist business, fish a little, and that's about it. Cars come to the island via a landing craft ferry, and fuel comes in pangas full of jugs. The people are nice, though, and there are a few shops where we could replenish our stock of fresh food and the like.

On one trip ashore, we took a moment to find the local elementary school and drop off some gifts: construction paper, notebooks, pencils, and crayons (which we'd bought bulk at Price Club before leaving) aren't a big deal to us in the States, but they were certainly appreciated by the teachers in Amapala.

The wind was bothering us all, and when the radio predicted a lull, we were all ready to go. The other boats headed out of the Gulf with the intention of going to Costa Rica if they could get that far. We felt like we really hadn't had a chance to see El Salvador yet, so we headed over to Isla Conchaguita.

We loved it. The town is small, without anything that we would really call a store, but it was clean, industrious, and people were friendly after initial shyness. We stayed for 3 nights, and were deluged with conversation, gifts of fruit, and more. We gave another bundle of supplies to the school, but I still think we came out way ahead in the gift-giving.

We walked up to the top of the island one day. On the way up, we caught up with a dozen cows and a herdsman. He gave us a cow's pace guided tour of the upper island: grazing land he was clearing, and an area where he'd planted mangos, papayas, avocados, and bananas. We were loaded with fruits and veggies when we left him, and all we could get him to take in return was some Ritz crackers.

In late afternoon, we staggered down the mountain into town, dusty, tired, parched, and hungry. We ran into Arnoldo, a teenager whom I'd met the day before, and as quick as you could say "hospitality," Arnoldo's Mom was serving us ice water and plates of cheese, avocado, scrambled eggs, and tortillas. Wow. We invited Arnoldo out to the boat, and got him to accept some canned foods to take back.

The next day, we were off again, hoping to use the remainder of the mild weather to get to southern Nicaragua. We passed Corinto in the middle of the first night out, sailing in light wind, but by mid-morning, the wind had shifted to dead ahead of us, and was rapidly increasing. At 11am, we turned and ran back the 25 miles to Corinto. We got into the harbor near sunset just as a spectacular windstorm hit. We got the hook down, anchored among the usual suspects, the same boats we're been meeting at each port. We watched the wind rage a bit longer, and went to bed.

Corinto, Nicaragua, is a nice town. The harbor is dominated by a commercial cargo wharf on one side, and surrounded by mangroves and creeks on the other three. The town was friendly, the phones worked well (I'd had some trouble in Guatemala and Honduras), the officials were friendly, and the market had wonderful, big ripe fruit, fresh bread, and more. I liked visiting there; I'd have liked to stay longer than the two days we were there.

Again the radio spoke. Weather window! The last bunch of boats in Corinto was here for three weeks before they got a chance to go; we weren't going to let a chance pass us by. Just after sunset, we motored out of the harbor and started sailing into still-considerable wind. By the wee hours of the morning, the wind was down a bit, and the seas weren't too rough. I don't like to motorsail (motor with the sails up, to move faster by using both the wind and the motor to power through the waves), and we hadn't done so in all the miles to that point, but we did it now. We really didn't want to still be out here sailing slowly when the Big wind returned.

By the next afternoon, we were about 25 miles from the next real port, but we were just off a cove that cruisers know as "Gershuna II's unnamed anchorage". We anchored off a small town, just outside of the anchored pangas. It was still windy, and a big ocean swell was coming into the cove, but it was comfortable enough, and much better than beating all night to go 20 miles. That evening and the next day, more of the boats from Corinto straggled in to join us.

The town looked quite appealing, rather like Chacala (described in my January letter from Puerto Vallarta), but the wind and the lack of a dock made going ashore difficult. Two days later, the weather abated a little, and we hit the beach.

It turns out that the unnamed anchorage is named Astillero. The people were very friendly. There were several small shops, and we loaded up on veggies and bread. The crew of another boat located a little restaurant to get a fish dinner and beer. We had a nice long chat with the local school teacher, who got the last of our school supplies, and a copy of the book "Donde No Hay Doctor" (Where There Is No Doctor). We use an English edition of the same book on the boat for our health questions. The local people were really tickled that the Veleros (sail boaters) had come ashore to visit, and we felt better by introducing ourselves after having essentially camped in their front yard for two days. It seems that most of the boats that visit come only for a night of shelter from the wind, then go back out.

The next morning, we, too, went back out. We had a relatively pleasant beat down here to San Juan del Sur, which is a very, very pretty harbor. There's a bit of a tourist industry here, and this is Semana Santa, Holy Week, when many Hispanic American countries take a week off at the beach. It's loud at night, with music in several of the beachfront bars, but it quiets down promptly at midnight.

We've had to re-anchor several times to get out of the way of holiday events in the harbor. Today they've been setting up a big PA system on a pair of rafted barges nearby. I hope we won't have to move again. It's windy and rolly in most of the harbor, and we've managed to get a good spot.

There's no bank in town, so I rode the bus 40 minutes to Rivas, near Lake Nicaragua and in sight of the volcanic island Ometepe. It's very pretty.

Our next stop, probably next week, maybe as early as this Friday, is Playa de Coco, Costa Rica.

Best wishes. Take care,


point left Back to Espire's voyage of discovery.