4-27-2015 – Bahia del Sol, El Salvador

After running back to Bahia Santa Cruz when the weather got rough, we spent four days hanging out in that bay and the small but bustling towns nearby. There is a historical tale that galvanizes the area, about a huge cross that was planted in the sand by a pale-skinned figure that arrived from the sea nearly two thousand years ago. Many people tried unsuccessfully to remove the cross, including a pirate using a big ship. Some believe that this was the cross that Jesus died on. Eventually it was broken into several pieces which were sent to different centers within the structure of the Catholic Church, one of them Rome. Many years later a church was built on the site, incorporating a small piece of the original cross. It is a beautiful open-air building overlooking the harbor, with the story lettered on a board in the back and no doors to keep people out. This story is the origin of the names of the local towns, Santa Cruz and La Crucecita. We enjoyed several visits to the town squares, sometimes for catching up via internet (including posting the last blog!), sometimes for listening to music, sometimes just for people-watching. One night we listened to a local band that was fronted by a 11-year-old (mas or menos) boy with an amazing talent and stage presence.

We noticed that the area has lots of birds, especially grackles which congregate at dusk and offer up a huge chorus of squawks and calls. We also saw a very striking bird with a long tail and a headpiece that curved up and over. Although our bird identification book did not seem to include it, Wayne remarkably tracked it down via Wikipedia. It’s called a
white-throated magpie-jay. We did not get a good photo of it, so you’ll have to do a little internet research as well. 🙂 The second day we were in the bay, a huge U.S. Coast Guard cutter pulled in and tied up alongside the municipal pier, where cruise ships occasionally visit. We spent quite a bit of time cumulatively watching them and speculating about what
they could be doing so far from home. Our best guess turned out to be related to drug interdiction. USCG Cutter Boutwell

The primary reason we hung out in this area was to find the best weather window we could for crossing the Gulf of Tehuantepec. We’ve been hearing about this significant passage for years, and were a little nervous about actually attempting it. But we also know real everyday people who have done it and have read numerous descriptions about techniques to use to increase the likelihood of an uneventful crossing. The first one is to gather good weather forecast data. Historically, of course, there was no NOAA to collect and disseminate global weather information, so gales could spring up without warning. Nowadays it is relatively easy to understand what causes the dramatic winds through this area, and even to predict when they are likely. The passage is about 250 miles, from Huatulco to Chiapas at the very southern end of Mexico. We typically travel a passage of that length in about 4 days, and usually allow for 5 – so we built in an extra buffer here by waiting for a clean weather window of 7 days, the full forecast period. (Clean weather in this case means winds coming from the south, rather than northerly winds which are driven by the systems in the Gulf of Mexico.)

We left early Thursday morning, and had a lovely sail to the last of the bays in the Huatulco region, Bahia Conejo – which we delightedly called Bunny Bay. We hadn’t gotten enough beach time in the area, and felt that we had enough buffer available to us that we could spend a night at anchor. We had our choice of anchoring locations: there was no one else around. We anchored off of the prettiest beach and dinghied ashore to explore. We walked the beach, scrambled on some rocks along the shore, splashed in the waves: generally enjoyed the beautiful afternoon. When we finally went back home, we were all refreshed and decided that we were enthusiastic about being underway again, so we pulled anchor and continued on our way around the curve towards the Tehuantepec.

Playing in Bahia Conejo

The consensus for the safest strategy to sail the Gulf of Tehuantepec is to keep “one foot on the beach”, which means to follow the 250 miles of coastline around an arc, staying close to the beach and in relatively shallow water, rather than cutting straight across the center (which might save 30 miles). If a wind event comes up, this strategy will assure that the waves will remain fairly small because there is not much distance for them to have been whipped up. One can anchor anywhere along the coast and ride out some temporary weather. If one is caught out in the middle when the winds pick up, the waves can get dangerously high and steep, and boats have been pushed out to sea up to a couple of hundred miles. We have to admit that we smirked a bit at one guide book’s description of how capriciously the winds can pick up, saying that “the window can slam shut at a moment’s notice”.  (Notice the deft use of foreshadowing here?)

The first 90 miles head north, right towards the shallow gap through which the winds can come. We had a lovely day of sailing, and came to the top of that stretch late on Friday night. Right at the focal point of the gap is Salina Cruz, a town with a number of oil refineries which services quite a bit of freighter traffic. We were fortunate to reach Salina
Cruz in the middle of the night on Friday, and passed across the traffic lanes without encountering any freighters, although we saw a dozen or so at anchor nearby. Moments after we passed out of those lanes the nice southerly wind we’d been enjoying petered out, and coincidentally the night shift change from Kathy to Dan. Within 30 minutes of that change, Dan woke Kathy up again with an Alexander Bell-like cry of “I need you!” The wind had suddenly started to climb again – and from the north! We quickly doused the mainsail, and then decided that the jib should also be stowed as the wind continued to rise. All the ruckus woke up Keith and Wayne, who helped us put away the other three sails while Kathy started the motor. It was a wild night, not particularly dangerous but flavored with the adrenaline of unforeseen circumstances. We found an anchorage on the chart, and read in our guide book that we should receive permission from the port captain before staying there. We tried to raise them on the radio, but no one responded – at 1am, can you believe that?! So we anchored anyway, scoundrels that we are, and went to bed snug, as one often feels with a storm blowing outside. In the morning, we saw the town was much bigger than we’d expected, but a petroleum stench permeated the air. We talked with the port captain, got a weather forecast that made us decide to stay another day, and spent a lazy day reading and cooking a canneloni dinner. That afternoon the Mexican Navy paid us a visit, and 3 men boarded Lungta for a drug inspection. This was the most thorough inspection we’ve undergone so far; they toured every room, took photos, opened cabinets and peered inside with a lighted fiberoptic camera, presumably looking for bales of drugs or other contraband. We got a clean bill and they were quickly on their way. After a good night’s sleep and a final check of the forecast (and finding a 5-day clear window), we put up our sails and resumed our journey. We were a bit nervous to poke our noses around the corner of the bluff that marked Bahia Ventosa, the Windy Bay, but the winds were once again southerly and there were no more surprises.

The first few days (before our mini-Tehuantepecker) we had a number of wildlife sightings, which seemed to group themselves by type. One day we saw lots of turtles, another day we had numerous dolphin pods come to visit, and a third day we saw and heard lots of mobula rays jumping. The day we left Salina Cruz we had some good fishing, catching 3 fish but only keeping one bonito. After that: nothing. It was a rather sudden change, and a surprising one. We did see some big flocks of birds, looking something like gulls or perhaps terns and squawking as they flew in loose formation like geese. Most of this stretch of 190 miles was long sand beaches backed by scrubby vegetation, with lots of crashing breakers with huge white tops constantly astounding and delighting us – because we were never so close that they terrified us! There were two openings to big inland lagoons in the region of the Tehuantepec’s “maw” where the vegetation stopped and the breakers increased. After that we could see mountain peaks once again through the hazy skies. Periodically there were rough buildings or groups of palapas, and the further we traveled the more signs of civilization we saw, including road traffic and even beachside towns, a couple of which had power lines and cell towers. Each day we saw a few fishing pangas, most of whom were excited to see us, waving and whistling over the noise of their big outboard motors (but not one came closer to talk).

Big Crashing Waves

Our next stop was Puerto Chiapas, in the far south of Mexico. This is a fairly small harbor which doesn’t get a lot of cruising sailboats. We called the port captain to alert them of our arrival and get permission to anchor in a corner of the harbor. He had a difficult time understanding our request, so Guillermo from the marina joined in and helped facilitate the conversation. We got permission to anchor there but were told that it would be easier for the port captain to inspect the boat if we were at a dock in the marina. The marina is only a couple of years old, dug from a plot of land neighboring the harbor and then flooded. It was recently dredged to 15 feet deep, so we agreed to head over there for the inspection and planned to return to the other section of the harbor to anchor. The folks at the marina are keen observers of humanity, though, and realized that if they got us in the door then we’d be likely to stay a little longer. Turns out we followed their prediction. 🙂 It took the port captain an hour to get around to driving all the way around the harbor, and by that time we’d settled in. We decided to stay one night, but ultimately stayed 5! It’s a nice marina, with reasonable rates, clean facilities, helpful and friendly staff, and decent wifi access. We seriously considered hauling the boat out here in order to paint the bottom, and were very disappointed when we learned that their new equipment was “only” rated for 60 tons (we weigh close to 64 tons) – not something we want to take a chance with! If they’d been able to haul us out, we might have stayed for a few weeks.

The first day there, we dropped the dinghy in the water and took a tour of the harbor, scouting out the anchoring area. We explored down a narrow channel that runs a few miles to connect to a huge lake that is part of a natural reserve. Although we didn’t go as far as the reserve, we were excited at the wildlife that we saw. A large school of small rays fluttered underneath our boat and were gone before we could figure out what they were, but some boys on a nearby bluff saw us and motioned us in the direction that the rays had gone. We were able to catch up to the school and had a second chance to see them swoop around before they disappeared again. We also sighted a number of beautiful birds. It seems that we are changing to a new ecosystem and we are encountering quite a few new bird species, many of them quite “glamorous”. After the short nature tour, we pulled the dinghy up on the beach in (what we thought was the) town and walked around a little bit. What we saw was a row of perhaps 30 restaurants that faced a road on one side and the harbor on the other. Most of them had swimming pools built in on the harbor side,
so that you didn’t have to swim in the (dirty?) salty harbor water. We were there on a weekday, and the place was very sleepy, but we could imagine what it must be like on a weekend, because it was clearly built for a large tourist crowd! We saw a few “tricycles” driving around town, built from a motorcycle or bicycle with the front wheel replaced by a
trailer where cargo or a bench were built in. We were intrigued to ride one, but didn’t really have anywhere to go. 🙂 Except that it was getting dark and time to head back home for the day. Perhaps another time…

Puerto Madera's Palapas  Tricycle Cab

Another day we had a fun experience when the marina manager Enrique asked a favor (and made us a deal in return). His youngest son was graduating from primary school, and the class was going to have a photo shoot that Saturday at the marina. He was wondering if they could stage their group shot on the boat. Dan upped the ante and suggested that we could take them for a short cruise around the harbor. It turned out to be a long day for the kids and their parents, as the photographer took individual portraits of each of the 21 students in addition to the group shots. The whole process probably took 4 hours! However they did eventually finish up in time to take us up on the offer. We only spent an hour or so motoring the boat out to the harbor and circling around before returning to the marina, but it appeared that the families were excited by their experience.

Class Photo

Our last full day there we rented a car and did a little tour of some of the region’s sights. We visited a Mayan ruin which was discovered less than 20 years ago, when they were putting in a highway around the nearest big city. It turns out that there are a number of archaeological finds in the area associated with this settlement (named Izapa), and
we stopped at one of them that was on some private property. It looked like the neighbors on the other side of a wire fence probably also had more to uncover but had not chosen to do so. The place we stopped had uncovered and at least partially restored 8 or 10 different buildings. We had fun trying to figure out what the different structures might have
been, but since we did not have a guide we did not really come up with anything conclusive. 🙂 They also had a few stones displayed underneath some rickety covered structures, uninterpreted, some of which had carvings on them or were shaped into huge bowls or funnels. After this stop, we headed up towards a local volcano on the border with Guatemala. We stopped in two villages along the way, one for lunch and the other at the closest point of approach for us. Both towns were charming, but in different ways. The first, Tuxtla Chico, had a produce market underway in the streets and we saw a trio of men playing a marimba together. The second, Union Juarez, had very steep roads – most of which had recently been paved with “hydraulic cement”, whatever that means! We stopped at a little restaurant/coffee house and sampled some of the locally produced coffee and chocolate.

Mayan Ruins of Izapa  Marimba Players in Tuxtla Chico

While we were in the area the rainy season began – several weeks earlier than the locals expected! We experienced a couple of gully-washers, and were quite nervous about all of the thunder and lightning we experienced a couple of nights. The local mango farmers were worried that their crop might be spoiled – and we were concerned that the last leg of our trip down to El Salvador might be more challenging. So we kept our stay relatively short and got underway again. We checked out of Puerto Chiapas and Mexico on the same day as two other boats: Isleña and Irie. The marina staff made this process quite easy by preparing all of the paperwork for us and driving us from one office to another to follow the various steps in the process. First we had to visit the immigration office and get our passports stamped (and pay $30MXN per person), then we stopped at the customs office and paid the departure tax for the boat (for Lungta it was $385MXN) and picked up our international zarpe, the document telling who is on board, and finally we visited the port captain and arranged for a final inspection. We had previously heard that this inspection would involve the Mexican navy and a dog or two, but for us it just consisted of another visit from the port captain’s office. Once that visit was complete we were expected to leave pretty quickly. We delayed just a bit while we ran up to the marina office and purchased some ice cream treats with (most of) the rest of our pesos, and then we threw off our dock lines and were on our way.

Fortunately, the weather did not follow us and we had a very nice passage south. We took three days to go the 200 miles down to El Salvador. Although there were huge waves crashing along the shore, out where we were the swell was hardly noticeable and we had a nearly constant moderate breeze pushing us along. We leap-frogged with the other two boats, sometimes being ahead of one or both, but most of the time somewhat behind. We would check in with one another periodically, often at night when looking for company. 🙂 The last evening underway Isleña called us to mention that they were going through a lot of fish and bird activity – and to be sure that our fishing lines were in the water. Half
an hour later we went through the area they were talking about, where there were several big patches of water where lots of fish were breaking the surface (which we have come to call a “fish boil”) and some small flocks of tiny birds gathering above. It wasn’t clear that the birds were actually eating anything, but they were definitely excited! The patches would grow and shrink and shift around, and the whole experience was full of energy. It was very cool! Earlier that same day we had all enjoyed watching the same small birds flying around in groups of up to a dozen. They would swoop in close to our boat and then veer off again, over and over again. Sometimes it would look as if they were about to land, or as if they were about to collide! Then they would recover, change course and come back for another try. We decided that perhaps they were doing the same thing as the dolphins that seem to have so much fun riding our bow wave, only in the air; perhaps there is something pleasurable about the change in pressure created by the boat pushing into the wind and deflecting it as we pass by. We haven’t seen this behavior before, but it sure was charming! After several minutes of flying in loops or figure-8’s around the boat, one would land on the water (for a break?) and the others would usually follow suit. We all thought of a kaffee-klatsch, gossipy women (ouch!) sitting around sharing their thoughts and
experiences. Capturing the energy in words, or even a still photo, is hard to do, but perhaps you can get a sense.

Birds at a Fish Boil  Terns Swooping near Lungta

We arrived in El Salvador three days later, but since this posting has gotten long I’ll save that for the next one. Suffice it to say we’re happy and healthy and excited to find ourselves exploring new territory in a new country!

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