7-3-2015 – Bahia del Sol, El Salvador and a Drive to Nicaragua

We’ve had another eventful month. A minor but life-changing event is that we bought a portable air conditioner – one which gets reasonable gas mileage, and came with four wheels and seating for five at no extra cost. 🙂 Dan had spent a good bit of time searching on the internet for vehicles for sale, and we’d even gone into San Salvador to look at one – which turned out to be a real beater! Ultimately we found one that met our eeds by networking. The day we were in San Salvador looking at that car, we hopped on a bus and in a city of 2 million ran into one of the only two people we know in the city. She offered us the names of two of her friends who sell cars, and the rest as they say, is history. We got a 2006 Mitsubishi Lancer, a surprisingly popular car here. We paid $4500 which we hope to recoup when we sell the car as we leave El Salvador next spring. We’ll pay about $350 for insurance for the year, which includes roadside assistance and is effective in El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Belize and Panama require insurance from a domestic company. We put new tires on it immediately, replaced the broken tail light lens, and identified a few other relatively small items that need attention. All in all we’re pleased at the new addition to our family.

Our "New" Car

Before the paperwork all went through, though, we wanted to go on a driving trip but couldn’t leave the country with temporary documentation. So we went to another corner of El Salvador that we hadn’t yet seen. We crossed over a beautiful mountain range with several volcanoes to get to the southeast corner of the country and stopped for the night in a very sweet town named Alegria, with a population of maybe a couple of thousand and elevation around 6000 feet, which seems to be a happy place indeed. The town square was full of birds singing and kids playing. We spent a pleasant evening wandering the town’s streets and enjoyed an amazing lookout point where we saw a constant play of lightening over the nearby valleys. Found a great little B&B called Entre Piedras; we recommend it. The next morning we drove a few hours and visited the “other” resort in El Salvador with a marina, Barillas, where we almost took Lungta when we first arrived in El Salvador. We didn’t have very good directions about how to find it, but sleuthed it out using clues from the Lonely Planet, other cruisers, and our GPS-equipped tablet. We turned off of the highway onto a dirt road and began heading in the direction we thought it would be. When the road took a sharp turn to the right, we asked some guards at a gate for a sugar cane plantation whether we were in the right neighborhood. They said to come on through, that the resort is on the other side of this huge plantation, and we should follow the signs with “flechas” (arrows). We traveled about 7 miles on a bumpy, dusty dirt road, through a working plantation complete with farm hands on bicycles and dilapidated housing, eventually coming across another gate with another guard – and a sign that said Barillas! (We saw a torogoz, El Salvador’s national bird, while on this drive. This also happens to be Nicaragua’s national bird, but they call it a guardabarranca. English speaking birders call it a turquoise-browed mot-mot.  See the cool tail?  That’s how we recognized it.) Barillas is a beautiful resort out in the middle of nowhere. They are on a loop of a big estuary, which is populated with mooring balls, but not many boats. Their grounds are immaculately tended, and the whole place has a tranquil, luxurious air about it. We talked with the manager for a while, and learned more about the marina. Although it would be more expensive for us to stay there (because paying rent on a mooring ball is always more costly than anchoring for *free*. 🙂 ), we got excited about possibly spending some tranquil time there some time before we leave El Salvador. We asked about the boatyard that we had heard of nearby, but she told us that it was changing ownership and was closed while the new owners worked on getting the appropriate permits. That was disappointing to us because we haven’t hauled the boat out for painting in a couple of years, and it’s getting to be time.

Torogoz, by Any Other Name

On the way back home afterwards, we drove through the small city of Usulutan where we had heard there was a chandlery (a boaters’ supply store). We were looking for some “sacrificial anodes” aka “zincs”, used to protect the boat’s metal parts from electrolysis while in salt water, and although they didn’t have any, they told us there were 30 large zincs at a sister store in Puerto El Triunfo, a tiny town not too far away. Zincs are needed on every vessel that sits in salt water but we have difficulty finding large enough zincs for Lungta, so we often try to look where there are large fishing vessels. Finding this town was a story in itself, but we ultimately got there and found our zincs. Since this was a port town, we took a stroll to see the water, and while we were wandering the dock we saw what appeared to be a boatyard a few blocks away. So we drove around town to see if we could find it. It wasn’t immediately apparent, but we knocked on a gate that had a “We sell ice” sign posted, and learned from the guard that it was indeed a boatyard. In our limited Spanish we explained that we were looking for a place to haul our boat out and asked if we could talk with a manager or boat captain. After a few hurdles we found ourselves driving across the yard of this large but now defunct operation. We were shown to the office where a nice young man who spoke flawless English answered all of our questions. Jonathon was the heir apparent to this boatyard that doesn’t currently have a lift of their own, but uses one on the other side of town. He called the owner of that yard and arranged for us to drive over and meet him. But Manuel didn’t speak any English, so our conversation was limited. He quoted us a reasonable rate, though, and we came away encouraged that we might be able to get Lungta out of the water while we repainted, talking all the way home about just what this would require. The yard was extremely rustic, to be kind, (rusty and decrepit if you’re feeling less generous) and it would be a challenge for all involved to pull this off.

When we returned after only being gone 2 1/2 days, we were disappointed to see that the boat didn’t fare as well as our previous 2 week trip. This time the weather had been overcast and rainy, so the solar panels were unable to keep the batteries charged. Fortunately we hadn’t been gone long enough for the batteries to drain completely, and the refrigeration was not yet at room temperature. We turned on the generator and were good to go. But it means that we need to continue working to reduce our power consumption if there’s any risk of cloudy days. Also, we had left our dinghy tied up to the dock, as usual, but found that it was quite full of water. It also hadn’t sustained serious trouble – i.e. sinking! – but it set our minds to thinking about how to prevent future mishaps if we’re gone during a rainy period. Perhaps a cover to slough off the rain…

We spent a few days at home before heading back out on the road. A friend of ours arrived at the airport for a 9-day visit. We met Joan and her husband David a few months (and nearly a lifetime!) ago at the Chiapas Marina in Mexico. Their trimaran is in storage there while they decide what to do with it, now that they’ve purchased some land and built a house in Ecuador. While David is occupied in Florida, Joan decided to take us up on our invitation. We’re glad she did! She arrived at the airport midday, and we gave her a choice of whether to go on a roadtrip or to hang out on Lungta – or both! She was flexible, so we set off for unexplored points east: through Honduras and into Nicaragua.

It took a bit longer to get there than we’d expected: the better part of two days. We took a southern route rather than the more heavily frequented Interamerican Highway, enjoying the changing scenery. While El Salvador was mostly canefields, Honduras had lots of fields with grazing cattle. We saw lots of horse-carts and even ox-carts in use. The inland mountains changed character from region to region, with some having rounded tops and others being craggy, but virtually all are heavily covered with vegetation. We ended up regretting taking this route for several long stretches that were full of deep potholes. I’m talking about some really serious potholes! For 50 miles we traveled at 20mph on a road designed for 60mph. Most of the other traffic was tractor-trailer rigs – try dodging potholes driving one of them! We were tickled when we saw a number of small groups of young men each with a 5 gallon bucket and a shovel, with their hand outstretched, asking for donations to support their efforts at filling in the potholes with some dirt – Kathy noticed that they all happened to be stationed under big shade trees. 🙂 Each had filled in the potholes in a 50 to 100 foot stretch of road, leaving the sunny 98% of the roadway covered with potholes large enough to swallow the entire front-end of our car and deep enough to break an axle.

Dragon Trees Lining the Road  Cliffs and Greenery  Cattle in the Road

This was our first time crossing borders by car, and we had a few “adventures”, from which we hope to learn a lot! The first border was into Honduras from El Salvador. Apparently we missed a turn (saw it later when we came back home), that separated the cargo trucks from the passenger vehicles. The sign was off to the side and largely obscured by a big bush, and it used a term that wouldn’t have been familiar even if we had seen it: livianos, which means “frivolous, fickle, lewd, light”. Hmmm. At any rate, we should have gone that way but didn’t, and we ended up having a tricky time crossing the border along with dozens, perhaps hundreds of semis and flat-bed trucks. Half a dozen “agents” crowded around us to “help” us navigate the process. They never really offered to help, but just jumped in and demanded passports and began filling in paperwork. Resistance was pretty futile, although we tried. 🙂 Somewhere in the mess, a miscommunication happened and one of the border guards got upset when he thought that we didn’t have the proper papers. (If you’ve been in the country for more than 6 months, you need to get a local driver’s license rather than use the one from your home country. He thought we had been in El Salvador for 10 months.) He tried to charge us $50 tax to cross but we refused to pay it. We said we’d just go back to El Salvador, but the guard said we couldn’t turn back – and we were at a stand-off. Eventually things got straightened out (largely due to Joan’s calm presence, I believe), and we were on our way without having to pay the charge after all. We did pay a $5 “tip” to one of the agents for arranging for us to cross over from the freight side to the passenger side, but that was nothing if it meant that we could be on our way again! The crossing from Honduras into Nicaragua was less chaotic, but only slightly so, and we were careful not to let the “flies”, as we were calling the agents, create trouble.

We overnighted in Leon, a beautiful city in southwestern Nicaragua. The town square is ringed by horse-drawn carriages offering to take passengers for a romantic tour of the town. We had dinner at Cocinarte, a wonderful restaurant that serves a very international variety and understands vegetarian sensibilities. Kathy and Joan both enjoyed Indian food while Dan selected a falafel plate. No one was disappointed! The next day we moved on to Granada, passing through the capital city of Managua, which has an interesting series of artistic, bright yellow, metal trees lining one of the main boulevards. We got caught in a nefarious traffic stop, where dozens of cars and trucks were being pulled aside for ticketing as they came through a traffic circle. It wasn’t exactly clear what our infraction was, but it had something to do with which lane we were in as we exited the circle. We paid our fine directly to the policeman (probably somewhat higher than standard 🙂 ), in order to avoid his keeping Dan’s driver’s license until the next day. Argh! It was a relief to get back on our way, and on to Granada, a city that reminded Kathy of Antigua, but on steroids. There were lots of tourists, lots of hostels, lots of cars. The city had some pretty character to it, but it was overshadowed by the frenetic pace.

Leon's Square  Managua's Trees

The next morning we went off in search of the Pueblos Blancos, which are known for their artisan markets. We drove through some pretty countryside, circling a very round lake that was an old volcanic crater. We spent most of a day in a town called San Juan de Oriente that was a ceramic center. There was an annual artisan fair going on in the main street and dozens of ceramic studios on the cross-streets nearby. We spent a few hours browsing through a number of the studios, as well as a store run by the town’s co-op which had pieces from a number of artisans. Joan was looking for a few decorative items for her home, which is still in the process of being finished. They don’t yet have electricity, so they use candles at night. She bought a couple of pieces designed to go over a candle and add sparkle as the light flickers through lots of small holes. Some of them were designed so that you could hang them from the ceiling, while others were just intended to sit on the table. We bought a couple of nice pots for two corners of our home that “needed” sprucing up.

Ceramics in San Juan de Oriente

After we were shopped out, we found a road that wound down to the water’s edge of the lake, which was called Laguna de Apoyo. There were half a dozen hostels, but most were already full. We stayed in a very rustic casita that was available from the last of the hostels in the row. This hostel is part of a project to raise money for local educational units. It attracts a lot of young travelers, and there was a swirl of pleasant energy all about the place. We walked across the street and down to the lake for a short swim just about the time a small troop of monkeys moved through the trees overhead; we were told that they were howler monkeys – how cool is that?!? They were climbing around in the mango trees, nibbling on the fruit and throwing the rest down to the ground – watch out! We had dinner at a little restaurant down the street with a nice couple from Holland. When we got back to our room, some wildlife had moved in. We had to convince a couple of spiders to move on, and there was a very interesting, kinda scary, insect wandering around underneath the desk. It was like nothing we’ve seen before and we’ve been unable to identify it with online tools. It seemed like an insect, with six long legs, about 3″ each, two antennae, and perhaps another pair of arms near the mouth like a praying mantis. It had a shiny dark body like a beetle, but rather triangular. The long legs and the way it scuttled sideways were reminiscent of a crab. Kathy tried to shoo it towards the door but it went the other way. Fortunately (?) it ran under the door into the closet, which was locked. So Dan shoved a towel into that crack and we slept comfortably in the knowledge that it wasn’t going to crawl in bed with any of us. Whew! We were woken up early in the morning (or was it late at night?) by an unusual sound that could only be the howler monkeys. We didn’t all agree about what the sound was like, but we were all in agreement that it was surreal! We left the room to the wildlife the next morning and moved to a different hostel down the road. This place had a very interesting room that had two tiny private swimming pools inside; one was a Jacuzzi and one was cool. Two walls of the room were open to the sky and had an amazing view of the lake (while still offering plenty of privacy). There was a hammock strung between two of the building’s structural poles, and a nice patio set offered plenty of seating to enjoy the scenery without ever leaving home. There was mosquito netting over the main bed, adding to the luxurious, romantic feel of the place. But, as with many developing world experiences, the fancy is mixed with the shabby: the Jacuzzi jets weren’t working, there was no mosquito netting on the second bed, the stone floors and walls were hard to clean and had collected a significant layer of dirt. We spent more time playing in the lake, much of it on a floating platform 50 yards from shore. In the evening we saw a number of bats flying around, including circling around the posts of our room, and in the morning Dan noticed a dozen or so clustered on one of the ceiling joists. The mosquitoes were voracious, though, so we think the bats aren’t eating quite enough.

Monkeys Overhead  Raft Platform  Our Room

Our drive back to El Salvador was much easier than the way out, partially because of the experience we’d already had and partially because we took a different, more well-traveled route. The only hiccup was that we had lost one of the visa papers as we crossed Honduras and had to rely on the leniency of the immigration official to go through without substantial penalties. (He told us that normally it should cost $180, but he waived it since we had the other two and our passports also supported our story.) Once we got back in El Salvador, we hugged the coast, traveling south around the edge of the Gulf of Fonseca to the town of La Union, where we’d heard that there might be a second boatyard worth investigating. Dan called a guy who had recently opened a small marina and asked what he might know, and Giovanni helped arrange for us to meet with the manager of a yard that has done a lot of work with the Navy and wants to increase his clientele of recreational boaters like us. We drove about 10 miles to the facility, Puerto CORSAIN, and took a nice tour and had a great conversation with Leopoldo. This place has recently had a big facelift and it looks beautiful. They had a 50 ton boat on the rail being worked on, so it was easy to imagine our own boat there. Now we’re all excited at this possibility! It looks like they can easily accomodate our weight and size, and we’re working with Leopoldo to get a quote and come up with a schedule – look like there’s more work coming up!

Puerto CORSAIN's Railway

After that journey, we spent 2 more days with Joan, mostly quietly hanging out at Lungta or by the resort’s pool. We had lots of pleasant conversation, a few nice meals, and a relaxing time. It was good to get to know her better, and we look forward to meeting up again. Joan and David have invited us to visit them at their home in Ecuador, and we’re seriously considering that! We might combine that with a visit to Peru, but this is the stuff of future blogs – stay tuned!

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