After traveling in Mexico for three and a half years, we now find ourselves in a new country. It would be easy to think that El Salvador and even Central America in general are just more of the same thing, but we’re already finding numerous differences that remind us that we have begun a new adventure.
Crossing the bar into Bahia del Sol was a big decision for us, and one that we initially said we wouldn’t even consider. There are two estuaries in El Salvador where cruising boats can pull in out of the Pacific and stop for an extended stay: Bahia del Sol and Barillas. As with most estuaries, both of them have a bar that must be crossed before entering the protected waters, formed by the accumulation of sediment that gets washed down the river. Because of the shallow water, the waves break for quite a ways out, but the locals have figured out how to get around them. In Barillas the technique involves going parallel to the waves between two sets of them but never crossing any breaking waves, while in Bahia del Sol they take you across the breaking waves, timing the event so that it is manageable. Barillas is a resort with an airstrip and hangars, accessible by land and sea but not on a major thoroughfare (read paved road), and Bahia del Sol is a hotel with a small marina located on a regular bus route. Both have mooring balls available for a low/reasonable price and offer access to the hotel’s facilities (pool, wifi, restaurant, dinghy access, garbage disposal, laundry, etc). There is no marina in Barillas, which is not a problem for us, but might be for many smaller boats that need the electricity and/or water. There is a small haul-out facility near Bahia del Sol and a large one suitable for the local fishing fleet in Barillas. There is an organized event, called the El Salvador Rally, which brings dozens of boats to Bahia del Sol each spring and a community forms around that group, while Barillas remains well off the beaten path. The biggest item on the scales for us was the entry, so when Dan started to hear that there were times when the entry to Bahia del Sol was actually flat and we wouldn’t have to go through breaking waves, his ears really perked up. (Kathy remained skeptical until the very end. 🙂 ) We agreed that if the entrance was out of the equation then the accessibility of Bahia del Sol to the airport and its boating community made it more attractive than Barillas. Bahia del Sol is about 35 miles west of Barillas, so we would arrive there first. We decided to wait until we arrived at Bahia del Sol and could see what the specific local conditions were before making the choice. If conditions were not favorable then we’d continue down to Barillas.
The two other boats that were traveling down at the same time as we were both had guests arriving within a week of our arrival at Bahia del Sol, so they had a schedule to keep. Bob on Nirvana generously kept an eye on the weather in the area and provided all of us with updates on the tide schedule and the weather forecast. Fortunately the weather was completely benign, so there wasn’t much to warn us about! However, we were moving off of the new moon, which meant that the higher tides were diminishing. We left Chiapas on Monday, but then learned that if we didn’t arrive by Friday we might need to wait three more weeks until the tide was once again high enough to allow us to cross the bar. Although we prefer to sail as much as possible, this kind of schedule is enough to motivate us to motor partway whenever the winds are too light. We all three arrived in time for the Thursday evening tide. The marina sent out their pilot boat (along with Bill, the leader of the El Salvador Rally and an all-round competent person) to guide all of us across the bar. Isleña went first. Although there were waves breaking over a huge area, the pilot boat came straight through a gap in them. Using the VHF radio, they helped Isleña to get positioned to follow that same gap and then to identify a smooth(er) time to begin the passage. We all expected a much longer journey through the breakers than it turned out to be. After only a couple of minutes of tension, Isleña was greeted with “Bienvenidos a El Salvador” and told to proceed into the estuary at their own pace. Sam and Dave were shocked that it was all over so quickly! They reported seeing a least depth of 13 feet during their crossing. Next came Irie, who had virtually the same experience, and lastly we crossed. It was scary seeing waves breaking all around us as we crossed the infamous bar, but our trip was indeed uneventful. We saw only 11 feet below us half a dozen times, keeping Kathy’s adrenaline level spiking, but fortunately the trip was short so she didn’t explode from the pressure! The local tide was forecast to be 6.7 feet above mean and we had about a foot to “spare”, so we will need to leave on a tide that is at least that high. Once across that shallow section the water deepened back out to over 20 feet. They guided us all to the marina where a few dozen people were watching us come in. The immigration and customs officials were waiting there as well, and walked us to the office in the hotel where we were checked in to the country. It was all made *very* straightforward! We received a 90-day visa for each of us at $10 apiece and the boat’s permit costs $30 per month. The boat can stay indefinitely, but us people will need to leave the 4-country Central American region (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras & Nicaragua) for 72 hours in order to receive another visa.
We’ve noticed lots of differences between El Salvador and Mexico, some of them subtle and some more obvious. There seems to be far less tourism here than in Mexico, so the people are far less likely to speak any English at all (hooray – more opportunities to actually learn Spanish!) and we frequently feel conspicuous as we walk down the street. There are lots of giggles and smiles everywhere, which makes us think that although this is a poor country, the people have a happy disposition. The environmental mindset so prevalent in the States (and elsewhere, of course) has not yet found its way here, and we see lots of trash on the ground. Part of this is because trash collection is infrequent or non-existent, but part of it is that the people just plain throw their trash on the ground. We’ve only been here a short time but have all witnessed numerous cases of someone dropping a food wrapper in the street or throwing a soda can out the window of a bus. It feels painful, but we have no doubt that they will eventually come around to appreciating that the land cannot process all the (plastic) refuse generated by a Western lifestyle. The people here are of different stock than those we met in Mexico; there is less Spanish influence and more indigenous blood. They are short and dark-skinned – with wide smiles, did I mention the smiles? Many of them travel around the estuary in coyucas, the local version of a dugout canoe, using paddles that are shaped something like an oversized ping-pong paddle with a long shovel handle. Often we will see one or two people traveling in these boats with a variety of cargo, ranging from a couple dozen water jugs to a pair of bicycles to a fishing net ready to deploy. They always have a smile and a wave for us.
Someone in Chiapas told us that was the last place we would get good food: that the food further south was all bland. We have not found that to be true, although there certainly are differences. The local tortillas are much smaller and thicker, and are less central to a meal. The national food of El Salvador is called a pupusa. It is like a tortilla, but stuffed before it is cooked. There are a variety of fillings: almost always cheese, but usually also with beans or meat or squash-flower or … or … or. They are *wonderful*! We’ve also really been enjoying that it’s mango season here on the Bahia del Sol peninsula; there are a dozen or more mango trees dropping fruit all around on a daily basis, and all we have to do is walk by and scoop a few (or a lot!). Our favorite location to get them is a pen where a small deer lives (perhaps a rescue animal?) – we call him Bambi, and he’s learned to recognize us and eat rolled oats out of our hands. We’ve been surprised to learn where a cashew comes from. These trees are also bearing fruit now, and each fruit has a cashew nut attached below. When a fruit drops from the tree, you can tear the seed from below, roast it and remove it from the husk. Or perhaps you remove it from the husk before roasting it, we’re still working on that! 🙂
Bahia del Sol is a resort located in the Costa del Sol area, on a peninsula that wraps partially around the Jaltepeque estuary. We’re still learning our way around, for provisioning, etc. There’s a road that goes down the peninsula, and buses come down that road once or twice an hour. Some are bound for San Salvador, the nation’s capital and home to a third of the nation’s people, a bit more than an hour’s drive away (except of course that a bus never gets anywhere as quickly as a car would). Some are bound for Zacatecoluca, a smaller city (population about 60,000) a bit closer but still an hour away. I’m sure there are other locations as well, but the names don’t yet mean anything. 🙂 We took a day trip to Zacatecoluca, which is also called just “Zacate”, on our second day here. We found a barber shop for all the guys, purchased some new phone chips and a hotspot device from Claro, and did some grocery shopping. Although there are several choices, we’ve decided to use Claro for our cell-phone and internet communications. They have the best coverage, service all of Central America and have reasonable prices. There is a pay-as-you-go monthly data package of 8GB for the hotspot device that we bought for only $28. (Compare that to Telcel’s package of 3GB for $33 in Mexico.) We’re excited that our internet access will be easier and less costly this coming year than it has been for the last 3! In addition to that, we’re able to use the hotel’s internet around their pool or using a directional antenna from our boat. (The directional antenna only works for one PC at a time, but we’re working on that, too.) We enjoyed our jaunt into town, and came home energized about the town.
A few days later we bused up to San Salvador, where we spent three days mostly being tourists. We wandered around the Central Historical district, visited the city’s big market (where we enjoyed pupusas for lunch), and went on a death-march-like quest for the office of the Department of Hacienda (equivalent to the State department?). At that office, we applied for a tax ID number, useful in the event that we purchase a car (or other property). We are trying to find an inexpensive used car for our travels around Central America. At the moment we just have a few feelers out, trying to find the right one. We stayed in a hotel recommended by the Lonely Planet, Hotel Villa Florencia, which is close to the historic district but very inexpensive (only $20/night). We’re encouraged to find that the travel we’re anticipating will indeed be affordable – hooray! Keith had reached out to someone on Couchsurfing.com, and Julio responded to us that afternoon that although he would not be able to put us up for the night, he would be able to join us for dinner. He drove by our hotel after work that first night and took us to a restaurant that he knew of. We would never have found this place, or even heard of it, and then he ordered an item that wasn’t even listed on the menu (it was from an older version of their menu)! We all enjoyed our meals, and it was fun to have a new friend in a new town! Julio works for a bank, and was very busy the next day because it was the end of the month. However he suggested that we could go for a hike together on Friday because it was a holiday and he had the day off.
On Friday he drove us an hour and a half into the mountains for a tour at a volcano. Volcan Santa Ana is part of a national park with three volcanos. There is a campground halfway up, where we parked the car and hooked up with our park ranger guides (and more than 200 others who chose to do this hike on their national holiday!). The 2 hour hike was not terribly difficult, but we all did a little sweating along the way. We passed through the tree line and through a scrubby layer before getting to the rock and ash summit at over 6000 ft. There is a clear ridgeline all the way around the caldera, although it was too long for us to circumnavigate while we were there. The caldera is filled with a huge olive-green lake (that actually looks a lot like pea soup!) which was bubbling gently in one small area near the center. There were clouds billowing up around the ridgeline, and misty tendrils of sulfurous fumes coming from the surface 500 feet below. At one point the sun broke through and it was as if a spotlight shone on the lake. People milled all around the summit, some sat down and relaxed, and one enterprising young man set up an ice cream stand with the contents of a box that he had lugged up on his shoulders. Virtually everyone took a selfie or two. After 15 or 20 minutes, a big bolt of lightening struck somewhere nearby, along with a cool breeze that made us all realize that rain was on its way. We made our way uneventfully down the mountain but drove home in the rain. Julio took us all the way back to the boat, but declined to stay the night. Apparently bankers are still expected to work a few hours on Saturday (and perhaps other professions as well?). So he settled for a quick tour of the boat and a spaghetti dinner aboard before the long drive home.
On Sundays the whole cruising fleet gathers at the beautiful home of some American ex-pats who host a potluck party on their patio and in their crystal-clear pool. We’ve gone to two of these affairs so far and look forward to many more! Lynn & Lou are not boaters per se, but they’ve found that the cruising community is a vibrant addition to their lives, and
they are warm hosts. Their property backs up to the estuary about 4 miles west of where we are anchored, so now that we know where we’re going, we can dinghy up to their dock – with hot brownies or freshly-baked ginger snaps in hand. We spend the afternoon chatting with other boaters or members of the (very tiny) ex-pat community here or some of the locals who work for Lynn & Lou. It’s a very pleasant way to while away a few hours.
Last Wednesday a group of cruisers took a panga to a town on the other side of the estuary, where there are a couple of women’s co-ops organized to make handbags and jewelry for sale locally and for export. The village of roughly 400 people is on an island with no utilities, although many homes do have wells with slightly brackish water. The homes are well-kept with colorful hammocks and flowering plants decoratively displayed in most yards. While most of the men make a living fishing, these co-ops provide an opportunity for some of the women to learn a new skill, earn some cash, and build self esteem. There are about 9 women in each of the groups, and they split all of the proceeds equally. The first home we visited offered bags of various sizes ranging from a coin purse (for $1) up to a sturdy market bag for provisioning trips (for $25), all made from colorful fabric woven by another co-op 50 miles away up in the mountains. The second group offered bracelets and earrings made from tiny glass beads, and also crocheted bags and copper bracelets adorned with beadwork. The young women whose handiwork was on display nervously stood in a circle while the cruisers admired and sampled the wares.
Although our lives have morphed into a different lifestyle for a while, we will continue to update this blog with news of our adventures. Most of them will have little to do with sailing for the next year, as we explore the various regions of Central America by land. But in between each of our excursions we will return to Lungta, who we expect will be patiently waiting for us in Bahia del Sol. For those who may not be aware of it, let me mention here that there is a Yahoo! group called Lungta_Lives which we use as a mailing list to send an announcement whenever a posting is made to the blog. If you find yourself checking occasionally but never knowing when one will appear, this may be the solution. It is self-managed, meaning that you need to register yourself with an email address (go to www.yahoo.com and follow the links to their Groups feature, sometimes found under the “more” tab); please do not send the request directly to us. This group has very little email traffic, essentially once a month whenever a blog posting is made.