March 31st – April 1st: Golfo de Fonseca to Bahia Santa Elena, Costa Rica
It was almost 190 miles to our next destination in Costa Rica, so we left early in the morning. We had decided not to stop in Nicaragua. There is a very nice marina, Puesta Del Sol, in the northern part of the country. But, it is very isolated, and we knew that it was very expensive to check in to Nicaragua. There were some other anchorages listed in the Sarana cruising guide, but we decided to go straight to Costa Rica. We were close to crossing the Gulf when the radio chattered with an “hola hola hola hola” call. We had heard kids in Mexico doing this, so we ignored it. A few minutes later the call was repeated and we again ignored it. After a couple of minutes, Rose noticed that there was a large boat catching up to us. I took a look and realized it was a Navy patrol boat, so we slowed down for another boarding.
Scary boarding by the Nicaraguan Navy
This was the Nicaraguan Navy. Once we came to a stop, the patrol boat circled us three times, and they motioned that they wanted to board. They came up on our port side with no fenders, and smacked into us hard enough to crack the gelcoat. Two very young soldiers carrying AK-47’s jumped on board. I figured this would be similar to the boarding we had from the Salvadoran Navy. They didn’t speak English, but they did have a translator on a Smartphone, as did we. We explained that we were in transit to Costa Rica from El Salvador, but they seemed to think that we needed to check in to Nicaragua to transit their waters. I explained again that we were not planning to stop in Nicaragua, and that we should be clear to transit. They said that this was illegal. I began to get the idea that a shakedown was happening. They wrote down information about the boat and our passports, and then another launch showed up, from the Nicaraguan Coast Guard. The guys in that boat had some conversation with the Navy guys, and then a call came through on the VHF. There was a rapid conversation that I couldn’t follow, and then the Navy guys asked me to speak to the caller. In English, the caller identified himself with the Coast Guard. I explained that we were just transiting through the Gulf on our way to Costa Rica, and he said that we could do that. He then said to call him “if we have any problems continuing our journey”. I said that we were having a problem with the Navy, and then he repeated himself. I hung up the call, being a little confused. Suddenly the demeanor of the Navy guys changed. They were no longer claiming that we were illegally transiting in their waters, but that they needed to inspect the boat. They went into the engine room, taking numerous pictures. They looked at the cabins, and took pictures of all of the instruments in the pilot house. They wanted detailed information on the boat, so I pulled out the inspection report from the Mexican Navy, when we were in Chiapas. They asked if we had any pictures of Nicaragua – we had taken a couple of shots of their patrol boat as they circled us. They told me to delete those photos. Out of curiosity, I asked if we could take their pictures, and they consented. We gave them some sodas, and they were finally done. The entire process took two hours, and we had drifted a mile to the west during the boarding. We think that they were trying to shake us down for a “fine” for being “illegal”, but the Coast Guard found out and put a halt to it.
Experiencing the Papagayo winds
We reset our course and continued our voyage. Once we left the Gulf and turned southeast down the coastline of Nicaragua, we thought we would have a smooth ride. We couldn’t have been more wrong. The wind started to build, going from fifteen to twenty to twenty-five knots, coming on our port bow. Our course was straight for Bahia Santa Elena, which would take us ten to fifteen miles offshore. The fetch started building, and we were pounding into short, steep seas. It was too rough to us the flying bridge, so we moved into the pilothouse. Late that afternoon, we were taking spray over the flying bridge, and the winds were still picking up. We decided to take a closer to shore course to reduce the fetch on the waves. That helped make a smoother ride, and after dark the winds calmed down to fifteen knots.
There were a lot of pangas out fishing, and of course they don’t have any lights, so we had to keep a sharp eye out. At least they would periodically wave a flashlight, allowing us to safely dodge them. We only saw one other boat that night, a large yacht called the Polar Bear. We had seen that yacht at Paradise Village. I talked with them on the VHF, and they had been fishing in Costa Rica, and were returning to Nuevo Vallarta. Once dawn broke, the winds increased in intensity to a steady thirty to thirty-five knots, and we saw a peak gust of forty-four knots: we were in a gale. Amazingly, there were a lot of pangas out fishing – these are some tough hombres! We continued to get soaked in spray (the boat, not us, which is one of the reasons we have a power boat) and continually adjusted course to get closer to shore. We couldn’t get too close, as there were many fishing nets. This was a very uncomfortable passage, and it really wore us out. We were barely able to eat crackers, cheese, and apples over the leg.
Once we passed San Juan del Sur, the winds backed down to twenty knots or so, as we adjusted course for Bahia Santa Elena. The Papgayo winds are similar to the T-Peckers. They blow across Nicaragua, and can be especially strong where Lake Managua and Lake Nicaragua lie. Normally, they don’t appear after March, but we had a doozy of one at the beginning of April. We finally crossed in to Costa Rican waters and entered Bahia Santa Elena. Once we got into the bay, the waters were flat, and the wind was down considerably. We went to the far end of the bay that offered the most protection. It felt great to be still.
Position at destination: 10°55’ N, 85°47.5’ W Air temp: 88, Water temp: 76 Nautical miles for this leg: 189.5 Total: 3637.6 Departed at 7:00am, arrived at 4:45pm April 2nd: Bahia Santa Elena, Costa Rica
It’s OK to stay in Bahia Santa Elena without checking in to Costa Rica – there is no port of entry here. The bay is in a National Park, and we had read that sometimes rangers will come and charge a fee, but we never saw them. We were the only boat anchored at that time, and we only saw one panga during our stay. The water in the bay was perfectly calm, but we still got some string wind gusts. Out of nowhere, the wind would blow at twenty-five knots or so, and then completely die. We decided to spend the day and night to rest up before heading for Marina Papgayo. I could see that we had picked up some fishing nets in our starboard stabilizer – there were ropes and a bunch of 2-liter soda bottles hanging there. We have “kelp cutters” in front of the stabilizers, which are angled stainless steel blades designed to cut through kelp. Clearly, they don’t so much for fishing nets. I decided to dive in and remove the nets. Notice in the arrival info above that the water temperature here was 76°. We hadn’t seen any water below 80° since we had been in Mazatlan. Since I was so acclimated to warm water, I donned the wet suit. It turned out that the kelp cutter was completely gone! He ropes were wrapped around the stabilizer shaft. I worked them with a knife for a long time, but couldn’t get all of them. I would need to use the hookah to stay under water, and I didn’t want to break it out here, so we decided to let it go for now.
The bay is very scenic, but since this was near the end of the dry season, most of the vegetation was tinder dry and gray. Only the trees close to the water had some greenery. We could hear howler monkeys, but we never saw them. At dusk, we saw a lot of parrots roosting in the green trees near the water. We checked the weather forecast, and it looked good to transit to Marina Papagayo the next day.
April 3rd: Bahia Santa Elena to Marina Papagayo
We departed Santa Elena at first light, into much smoother seas than we had during our passage along Nicaragua. As we got close to Punta Cabayul, Rosé noticed that the sea was full of snakes. They were swimming away from shore. We weren’t able to get any pictures, as they were hard to see, and swimming fast. We don’t think they were sea snakes, as they stayed strictly on the surface. It’s interesting to note that the Gulf of Papagayo used to be called Culebra, Spanish for snake. Hmmm…
Once we rounded the point, the seas totally flattened out, and we were mobbed by a huge pod of dolphins. They were coming towards us like they had been shot out of a cannon, and they numbered in the hundreds. This was the biggest pod we had seen on our voyage.
We turned into the Gulf of Papagayo, heading towards Marina Papagayo. The marinas in Costa Rica are quite expensive, but Papagayo had the best rate, plus we got a discount where we got seven nights for the price of five, thanks to the El Salvador Cruisers Rally. We had read up on the check-in procedures for Costa Rica. According to the Pat Rains guide, the Port Captain and immigration were at Playas de Coco, at the east end of the gulf. She said that you can either make a beach landing there, or go to the marina and take an expensive taxi ride. We didn’t want to worry about a beach landing with the extreme tides, so we decided to go the taxi route. I don’t know if her guide was wrong, or if procedures had changed, but once we called the marina, they informed us that we could not leave the boat once we were docked. We would be in quarantine, and we would have to wait up to twenty-four hours for the Port Captain and immigration to meet us for check-in. And, we would have to hire an agent to accomplish this, at the very high price of $350! Since we were anxious to dock, we decided to eat the $350.
Of course, the wind kicked up just before docking, and we were not able to get into our assigned slip without a bow thruster. Fortunately, the marina was fairly empty so we were able to get into another open slip. We found out that under the quarantine rules, we could not even go to the marina office or the restaurant. Technically, we were only allowed to tie up the boat, but the marina manager said it would be okay for us to wash the boat. Washing the many pounds of salt off of it took a considerable amount of time – virtually the entire afternoon. The water pressure at Marina Papagayo was intense – it was like a power wash from the hose. Considering how brown the countryside was, I’m not sure where they get water during the dry season, or why the pressure is so high, but we were grateful. We had paid a crew to polish the stainless steel when we were at Bahia del Sol, and it was already rusty in spots due to the heavy spray we had taken – yikes! We found out that the agent would be bringing the officials for our check in at 10:00 the following morning.
Position at destination: 10°38.5’ N, 85°39’ W Air temp: 92, Water temp: 82 Nautical miles for this leg: 44 Total: 3681.6 Departed at 6:00am, arrived at 12:30pm April 4th – 14th: Marina Papagayo
The marina is very new, with wide slips and fairways, and a wide floating concrete dock. We were about as far as we could be from the marina office complex, but the exercise didn’t kill us. The marina is part of the resort complex, which includes some luxury hotels, golf courses, and high-end housing. We had resort privileges of a sort by staying at the marina – we could use resort facilities for a small fee, but we would have to get to them, and there was no public transport. It’s about a forty-five minute drive to Cocos, at a rate of at least $50 each way by taxi – no bus service. There is one restaurant at the complex, and a small convenience store / chandlery. There was also a small condominium building, with a lounge, swimming pool, laundry, and exercise facilities that we could use for free. But, we quickly figured out that we were very isolated.
The agent and the officials arrived promptly on time – Cost Rica is not on mañana time, like the rest of Latin America. Other than the agent’s insane fee, check-in is free. As was the case in Mexico, we would need a domestic Zarpe to travel from port-to-port, but we would get that when we checked out. Once we had finished the immigration procedures, the agent drove me to the Liberia Airport for customs. For some reason, customs doesn’t have an office in Cocos. For that matter, the marina had built offices for the Port Captain, immigration, and customs, but they were sitting empty. We only needed one passport for customs, so Rosé decided to stay on board.
Costa Ricans, or Ticos, are pretty crazy drivers. I learned that they like to drive in the center of the road, only moving over for oncoming traffic. The countryside on the drive to the airport had burned recently, adding to the near-moonscape appearance. We had been thinking that even in the dry season, Costa Rica would be green, but we couldn’t have been more wrong. This state, Guanacaste, gets extremely dry at this time of year. The customs office isn’t at the airport, it’s a few miles past it. Once we arrived and went inside, it was clear that the customs lady was in a foul mood. First, she was upset that the agent had copies of our documents, not the originals, and then I found out that I had grabbed Rose’s passport by mistake. Cringing with fear as I faced her wrath, I threw myself on the mercy of the Aduana Court. She reluctantly agreed to grant importation for our boat, but not before extracting a pound of flesh from our hides. After wards, the agent told me that he had never before been questioned about copies of documents. It sounded to me like a petty bureaucrat was venting…
We had lunch at the marina restaurant, where we were introduced to Costa Rica prices – higher than the USA! Clearly, we weren’t going to be eating out much. That afternoon, we met a Steve and Joan from Salty Dog, a monohull sailboat in the marina. They had a standard poodle with them, Vivi. They were also planning to go to the Panama Canal, so we discussed a buddy-boating plan. Steve had worked out a number of stops using the Sarana guide, so we decided to join them. We found out that they were working to get a replacement debit card. They had rented a car to go to a local beach, but had left their bag in the back seat, and some enterprising Ticos had liberated the bag and its contents. They also told us about some beaches in the Gulf, accessible by dinghy, where they were running Vivi. We joined them on Sunday morning to enjoy the beaches.
While at the first beach, with the very dry vegetation, I saw a brown coatimundi ambling down the beach. By the time I grabbed the camera, it was already obscured in the brush. VIvi had never been swimming before, but this day she was taking to the water like a fish.
The swimming pool at the marina was really nice, as were the showers. The water was much cooler than we had at the pool in El Salvador, and it was very refreshing. I had arranged for a marine electrician to come out to check out the bow thruster on Monday afternoon. Since Steve and Joan still had their rental car, they invited Rosé to go to Cocos with them for lunch and some provisions. I had been trading some e-mail with Imtra, manufacturer of our bow thruster. They believed that the problem could be the Automatic Main Switch, as I had determined that the voltage at the thruster motor was well below the 9V they said was necessary. I was still skeptical about this – I couldn’t figure out how the motor could turn without the propeller moving. We had the drive leg (gears and props) replaced just before our journey, so it was doubtful that could be the problem. I knew that our battery capacity was weak, as the batteries were nearing the end of their service life. But that didn’t explain why the thruster would (usually) work when we left a dock, but not at the end of a cruise. It seemed to me that the batteries would be fully charged in either condition. Anyway, I asked the electrician to look things over. Of course, that day there was nothing I could do to make the thruster fail. I disconnected shore power and allowed capacity to drop to 70%, but the thruster always thrusted. The electrician did determine that there was over a volt dropping across the switch, lending credence to the theory from Imtra. My theory was gremlins… While troubleshooting the thruster, I ran a cleaning cycle on the watermaker, which had not been able to produce water under 500ppm TDS since leaving El Salvador. After cleaning, it worked fine.
The volcano, canopy tour, hot springs, and whitewater rafting
Steve and Joan told us that they had been to the Arenal volcano, about a four hour drive from the marina. We decided to go there for a night, cramming as much fun as we could into an afternoon and a morning. We rented a car for three days, at the low, low price of $99 per day – Costa Rica is expensive! We left the pilot house air conditioning on for Quincy, and left at dawn for the volcano. We hadn’t driven the car, a Toyota Yaris, since we got it the previous afternoon, and it just barely started – I think the battery was almost dead. We drove to Liberia, then turned south on Highway 1, the Pan American Highway. It was under construction, widening it from two lanes to a divided four-lane highway. The construction was haphazard at best. Traffic would be diverted down the side that was finished, and then suddenly you would have to go to the opposite side. Wherever these crossovers happened, traffic would slow to a near stop. There was very heavy truck traffic, and they had no intentions of pulling over at any time to allow traffic to get around them. We did get lucky, as we weren’t held up by trucks. Were behind a very new, large pickup truck. I was maintaining a respectable distance while keeping an eye in the rear view mirror at the Tico that was tailgating us. We went through one of the crossovers, then started to accelerate when the vehicle (an armored car) in front of the pickup suddenly braked hard. The pickup couldn’t stop in time, and we heard that sickening “WHAM” of a rear-end car crash. I was able to stop in time, and prayed that the Tico behind me had good brakes – he did. The armored car didn’t have a scratch on it, but the entire front end of the pickup was trashed.
We turned off the Pan American Highway at Cañas, and started our trip up into the mountains. The road is narrow and windy, and it wraps around a very large reservoir. The wind was howling on the western end of the reservoir, so we were glad to be in a car. We passed through several villages, and there were a lot of single lane bridges. Unlike the construction zone on the Pan American highway, the truck drivers here would motion passing cars around them. Soon, I was driving like a Tico. As we neared the eastern end of the reservoir, the countryside was noticeably greener. After we crossed over the dam, we were definitely entering a rain forest. The speed of the transformation was remarkable. We made the turn onto a dirt road that led to the Arenal Volcano Observatory Lodge, our home for the night. It was raining off and on during the ascent to the lodge. We checked in, but at 10:00, our room wasn’t ready, and the restaurant wouldn’t be open until 11:30. We booked three tours: a canopy (zipline) tour of the cloud forest, a natural hot springs resort with dinner, and whitewater rafting for the next day.
We stayed at the Arenal Observatory Lodge, and our room had a picture window view of the volcano – which was mostly obscured by clouds. Apparently when the volcano is erupting, it isn’t a dangerous or explosive type of eruption, and you can see the glow of the lava from this room. But. It has been dormant for a few years, so we didn’t see anything other than its base.
We needed to be at the canopy tour at 12:30, and the restaurant wasn’t open until 11:30, so we decided to take a short hike to a nearby waterfall. There are a lot of trails around the lodge, which is nestled in a dense rainforest. Looking at the map, the trail to the waterfall looked short and easy. We didn’t count on the elevation changes, so it took us about twenty minutes to get to the fall. It was around forty feet with the outflow in a steep jungle ravine – very much worth the walk.
There was also a great view of the reservoir, Laguna de Arenal. After lunch, we drove over to the canopy tour, just ten minutes from the lodge. There is some background about us on ziplining. I’m not afraid of heights, but let’s just say that I have a healthy respect for them. When we were in Fiji for our 15th wedding anniversary vacation, we decided to take a zipline tour in the rainforest. There was no practice – just grab and go. The line there was the style where you grab the cable with a gloved hand to brake yourself. Too late, and you have a rough landing; too soon, and you stop short of the platform and have to haul yourself up. Well, that’s precisely what I did on the first line. I never got comfortable with the braking, and I stayed at a high anxiety level. You were supposed to be in an almost sitting position with a tether to the lower cable holding up your harness. There was an upper cable that you kept your hand on for balance and braking. I think that I was actually using my left hand to pull up my body so I wouldn’t just hang on the harness. The next day my arms were incredibly sore. Somehow I managed to survive, and at the end of the tour, the instructors said that we could go again. Rosé was thrilled; I was terrified. Anyway, I knew that she really enjoyed doing this, so I wanted her to have another experience.
The nice thing about the Sky Trek system is that braking is semi-automatic. There is a single cable, and you assume a horizontal position, feet first. You have a braking mechanism that goes around the cable behind your harness. You can twist it to reduce speed, and to initiate braking. At the end platform the guides brake you with some rope mechanism. They vibrate the cable to let you know when to start braking. We took the tram up to the top platform. The course basically goes back and forth over a very deep valley. Unfortunately, once we got to the platform it started to get very cloudy. They instructed us, and then had us go over two very short lines to get the hang of it. That helped to ease my anxiety. Once we finished the training runs, the skies erupted with some very hard rain. The guides said we had to wait for the wind and rain to ease. After a few minutes, about half of the guests decided to opt out and return to the base via the tram. I have to admit I was half-hoping that the tour would be canceled. Once the rain and wind eased somewhat, the tour started. The clouds were low enough that you couldn’t see the landing platform. Rosé went before me, and clearly had a great time. I summoned up all of my courage and released my steely grip on heavenly earth, and off I zipped. It was still really cloudy, so I couldn’t see much around me. I’m not sure if that was good or bad. The landing platform was hidden by the clouds as well. The lines at Sky Trek are quite long – it takes close to a minute of white-knuckled terror to get across. I finally felt the line wobble, and I twisted the clamping mechanism for all I was worth. The braking system did its job, and soon I was standing on blessed ground again. I decided it wasn’t so bad after all, and after a couple of times, I actually enjoyed the experience.
After we finished the canopy tour, it was off to the hot springs in the town of La Fortuna. At Baldi Hot Springs, there are a lot of pools, all labeled with their respective temperatures. We started with hot and progressed to scalding. The last pool we were in was 120°, which was the hottest one. Behind it there was a man-made grotto. Suddenly hot water started pouring down in the grotto. It was practically boiling, and there was no warning at all. Fortunately we weren’t standing under the scalding waterfall at that time. We moved on to a larger pool listed at 110°. At the end of that pool there were a couple of water slides. I decided to give them a try. Being emboldened by my ziplining experience, I decided to take the more difficult slide that started with a high spiral. I had never been in this kind of slide. Quickly I lost all control, and I was spinning wildly inside the tube. I had no idea which end was up until I finally emerged, launching backwards and upside down into the pool. Rose was trying to take a picture of me, and asked me to go again to get a better shot. I countered that she should go, and I would take the picture. For some reason, she declined the opportunity. I always knew that I had married a smart girl. We had a nice buffet dinner and then drove back to the lodge. It was incredibly dark up there, what with the cloud cover and very little human-made lighting.
The next day we drove to La Fortuna for our whitewater rafting experience. It was raining that morning, and we were told that due to the heavy rains, we would be taking a different river than the planned one. Having exactly zero experience with whitewater rafting, that sounded fine with me. I was thinking that we would be in a large raft, gently meandering down the forest, with an occasional rapid or two. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It took a little more than an hour for us to get to the launch point. We were going down the Rio Sarapiqui, a Class 3 – 4 river. There was a lot of lecturing about safety while we were riding to the river – mostly on what to do if you fall out. I was determined not to fall out.
We were grouped with a family from New Jersey, so we had four adults, a teenaged girl, and our guide. I was placed in the front with the father, and we entered the river for paddling practice. The guide would tell us when to paddle forward, backwards, hard, or to stop. We were the first raft in the group, following a guide in a kayak, who would determine the optimal route. It was really a lot of fun, but the water was fairly cold, and there was no avoiding getting wet. We quickly discovered that the teenager was completely worthless at paddling, and the mother wasn’t much better, so we had to work pretty hard. I kept my foot jammed under the holding strap hard enough to cut off circulation, but my partner didn’t. Somewhere around the fifth rapid, he fell out. Fortunately for him, our guide caught him immediately and we got him back into the boat.
Midway through the tour, we stopped for fresh-cut pineapple and watermelon, which was absolutely delicious. After we cleared each rapid, we would all touch paddles and yell out, “pura vida!”, the national slogan of Costa Rica. Once we finished the rafting, we were served a tipico lunch, consisting of rice, black beans, and choice of meat. The rice and beans in Costa Rica are really good, so the meal was very nice. We returned to La Fortuna, picked up a few things at a grocery store, and started the long drive back to Papagayo. We left at sunset, so most of the drive around the lake was in utter darkness. We made pretty good time until we got onto the Pan American Highway. This time we got behind a few trucks that had no intention of pulling over, and every time we came to a crossing, they ground to a halt. This section had taken us a half an hour on our drive up, but with the crawling trucks, we spent an hour and a half that night. We made it back to the boat around 11:00, and Quincy was very happy to see us.
Back at Papagayo, we learned that another wind event had blown through the area, and the water temperature was all the way down to 73°! We had the car through the day, so we took Steve and Joan into Cocos for lunch and provisioning. We were also planning to check out with the Port Captain, as were wanted to leave on Saturday. I found the Port Captain’s office, but it was closed – supposedly for lunch. Later I would be told that it was pretty much closed all day on Friday. So, we were stuck for the weekend. Steve went over a plan to buddy-boat all the way to the Canal, which looked good with us. They had a car on Sunday and Monday, so we had a very nice dinner with them in a small town between Papagayo and Cocos. We attempted to go to the Hilton on the east side of the bay, but they insisted we had to buy day passes at $75 just to get in to the property. Monday morning Steve drove me into Cocos for checking out with the Port Captain. With a Zarpe Nacional in hand, we shoved off from the marina. Steve and Joan were not able to join us, as they were still waiting for their replacement debit card.
April 14th: Marina Papagayo to Bahia Portrero
The first stop on our Costa Rican cruise was Bahia Portrero, a large bay about eighteen miles southeast of Papagayo. It was a very calm and pleasant cruise, but it started with a strange twist. A couple of minutes after leaving the dock, I heard a strange sound coming from the smokestack, followed by a visible dark discharge. Believe it or not, a black bird (dead) came flying out of the stack. I don’t know whether it had gone down to hide because it was sick or dying, or if it had nested there, but it came flying out when I kicked up the rpm’s. There were a few boats moored in Portrero, but only one other cruising boat was anchored. It was a calm overnight stay, but not particularly remarkable.
Position at destination: 10°26.5’ N, 85°47’ W Air temp: 88, Water temp: 85 Nautical miles for this leg: 17.8 Total: 3699.4 Departed at 12:00pm, arrived at 3:00pm April 15th: Bahia Portrero to Bahia Carillo
We departed early in the morning for our next anchorage, Bahia Carillo. The coastline here is dotted with numerous small bays, popular with surfers when the summer swells are up. Bahia Carillo is exposed to the south swell, and it can be quite rolly at times. There are very shallow shoals near the beach, and reefs that jut out into the bay. We chose to anchor close to the east side of the bay, near a mooring field. The cruising guide said this was the most protected part of the bay, but we still had a good amount of swell. We were the only cruising boat in the bay. Most of the moored boats were fishing charters. There were a few hotels and restaurants on the beach, but we stayed on board, as the rolling motion would have made retrieving the Little Blend very challenging. After dark, the swells shifted to our stern, and we had a lot of wave slap against our swim platform, and the reflected swell kept a steady roll going all night – not the best for sleeping.
Position at destination: 9°52’ N, 85°29’ W Air temp: 89, Water temp: 87 Nautical miles for this leg: 56.4 Total: 3755.8 Departed at 6:25am, arrived at 3:45pm April 16th: Bahia Carillo to Bahia Ballena
The rolling and slapping got worse through the night, so we decided to leave before sunrise, since we weren’t sleeping anyway. We continued down the coast in a southeasterly direction to Bahia Ballena, a very large and well-protected bay. Between Carillo and Ballena, the coastline is rough and rocky with very few anchorages. The big feature is Cabo Blanco, which juts into the open ocean. The surf was really pounding this area, and there were lots of logs floating offshore – more evidence of the rainy season’s start. Bahia Ballena is also known as Tambor, and there are scheduled airline flights to San Jose. The bay has a very large beach, with coconut palms everywhere behind the beach. There is a village here, and we were able to tap into free wifi from one of the beach hotels – thanks to the wifi amplifier!
We really started to see the large tidal range here, which was around ten feet. The beach was quite large at low tide, and at high tide it virtually disappeared. There was a fishing village in the western corner of the bay that had docks, but they were fixed metal docks, requiring the skills of a spider monkey to climb them at low tide. There were a few cruising boats anchored in the eastern part of the bay, but we were by ourselves in our corner. Because of the large tide and the scary-looking dock, we just stayed on board. The countryside was starting to look a little greener, and we guessed that the rainy season was starting somewhere, as some pretty big logs came floating by us. There were a lot of people on the beach, as this was Santa Semana (Easter Week), which is the second-biggest holiday in Latin America.
Position at destination: 9°43’ N, 85°00’ W Air temp: 89, Water temp: 87 Nautical miles for this leg: 46.8 Total: 3802.6 Departed at 4:30am, arrived at 11:30am April 17th: Bahia Ballena to Islas Tortugas
We decided to take the short trip to Islas Tortugas instead of crossing the Gulf of Nicoya to Puntarenas. The cruising guide said that Islas Tortugas has an average of 120 visitors per week, but there were probably double that number when we went there. That’s when I realized this was Santa Semana. On shore there are a number of ramadas where lunch and drinks are served to the day-trippers coming over from Puntarenas on the tourist boats. Across on the mainland is Curu National Park, with lots of wildlife and hiking trails. But since this was the end of the dry season, the crackled, gray landscape of the Park was not very inviting. We anchored well away from the tourist beach and used the kayak to go ashore.
These islands very much reminded us of the Caribbean, with white sand beaches and palm trees. The crowds reminded us of beaches that are inundated by cruise ship passengers. Ashore, we found out that the food and drink operations are strictly for the wristband-wearing tourists, as they could not take cash. We walked the beach for a while, then kayaked to a nearby island for some shelling. Late in the afternoon, the exodus began. We had seen about twenty-five boats anchored off shore – a mix of tourist, fishing, and sailboats. Within a half an hour, all but two were gone, back to Puntarenas.
Position at destination: 9°47’ N, 84°54’ W Air temp: 92, Water temp: 87 Nautical miles for this leg: 9.7 Total: 3812.3 Departed at 11:00am, arrived at 12:30pm April 18th: Islas Tortugas to Quepos (Marina Pez Vela)
We left at first light for Marina Pez Vela, a relatively new marina just outside of Quepos. The seas were very calm that morning, but shortly after Rose went down for a morning nap, we were hit by a micro-rogue wave that I never felt up on the flying bridge. Our port side was slapped by a wave high enough to dump in a good amount of sea water through the port windows that are over the berth. Sea water inundated the mattress cover that Rose had just washed, destroyed a portable DVD player that was on the shelf, and wreaked havoc with some books on the shelf. It was amazing that I never saw or felt this wave,, but after that, we vowed never to passage with those windows open.
We passed by the very expensive Marina Los Sueños at Herradurra, where the slip rate (if you could get one) was $3.75 per foot, per day. That marina is used by large and expensive sportfishing boats. We were going to spend some time at the new Marina Pez Vela at Quepos. Once we arrived in the afternoon, we could not find the marina entrance. There was a full mooring field outside of the marina, which was too new to appear on any chart that had. We called the marina for instructions, and still couldn’t find the entrance. After another pass through the mooring field, we found the entrance, which was parallel to the marina. We tied up to the office dock and checked in. The marina is a large circle, with all of the docks arranged around the edge of the circle. There are plans to eventually fill in the circle with finger docks. Despite being well-protected, there was a lot of surge in the marina. When we pulled away from the check-in dock, our swim platform got caught under the pier and the surge pushed it up, tearing out a mouse bite. After all of the grief and expense it took to get that platform, we weren’t happy to see damage to it.
We motored across the circle to our assigned dock, a typical two-wide slip. What with the surge and the wind, and no bow thruster, I wasn’t too keen on going stern first into the slip, so we went in with our bow. However, the dock finger wasn’t long enough to allow us to exit using our cockpit doors, so we had no choice but to back in. taking careful aim, and with help from some boat boys, we managed to muscle into the slip. Fortunately there wasn’t another boat by us, so I had the full width of the slip to work with.
Position at destination: 9°26’ N, 84°10’ W Air temp: 90, Water temp: 90 Nautical miles for this leg: 52.3 Total: 3864.6 Departed at 5:30am, arrived at 1:45pm April 18th – May 3rd: Quepos
Once we were settled in, we took off on foot to explore the village of Quepos, just a five minute walk away. As this was the Friday at the end of Santa Semana, not much was open. We found a few small tiendas and a number of restaurants. We found an open Italian restaurant that served excellent pizza with gelato for dessert. We liked the look of the village.
On Saturday morning, we decided to visit the Manuel Antonio National Park. A bus leaves Quepos for Manuel Antonio every half hour, and it only cost around a dollar. The road goes over a mountain, where the grades can be pretty steep – we had doubts that the bus could make it. There were a lot of small hotels along the way, as well as a grocery store larger than the one we had seen in Quepos. We rode back down the mountain and onto Manuel Antonio beach, which is very large. At low tide, the beach is thirty yard wide, but only about five yard wide at high tide. We got off of the bus and walked to the park entrance. We decided not to hire a guide, as they were pretty expensive, and we figured that we could see the animals on our own. That decision was questionable. There weren’t many animals evident, but the guides were finding many spiders, birds, and lizards for their clients to view with a telescope. We really didn’t see any animals, but the park was gorgeous. Only one main trail was open, so we soon found ourselves at the beach contained within the park. It was muy linda, but very crowded.
We jumped in to cool off a bit, and then we decided to cut through the small stretch of woods to the less-crowded beach on the other side. At that time, a troop of white-faced (capuchin) monkeys arrived. We followed them along the beach as they looked for food. While they weren’t tame, they clearly had little fear of people. One enterprising monkey spied a plastic bag full of bananas, which promptly ended up with the monkeys.
We were able to get a lot of close-up pictures before the troop scampered back into the forest. We walked a few paces through the woods to other beach, which wasn’t nearly as crowded. In the woods just behind the beach, Rose spotted an agouti and an iguana – who needs guides?
We walked along the beach towards town, to exit the park. We had lunch at a local restaurant, and caught the bus back to the marina. Once we returned to the marina, we saw that Salty Dog was docked just a couple of slips down from us. We greeted Steve and Joan, and they had a tale of woe for us. They had departed Papagayo a couple of days after us, after finally getting their replacement ATM card. They were anchored in Bahia Carillo, but more in the center of the bay. The dropping tide caught them, and apparently they were anchored over some rocks and dragged to shallower water. The incoming swells lifted their stern and slammed their rudder onto some rocks. Steve believed that the rudder shaft was bent, and their autopilot wasn’t working. They hand-steered on an overnight run to Quepos, fighting the rudder all of the way. Yikes! Marina Pez Vela had a brand new Travelift and a boat yard that still wasn’t open. However, the yard manager agreed to haul Salty Dog on Monday to ascertain the extent of the damage. It turned out that the rudder was severely damaged but the shaft could be straightened. Steve talked to their insurance carrier to plan for the repairs.
We ended up spending two weeks at Marina Pez Vela, in spite of the high cost. Had we known we would spend that much time, we could have gotten the monthly rate for less than the cost of two weeks at the daily rate. We spent a lot of time hanging out with Steve and Joan, having several dinners out and a couple of trips to Manuel Antonio. One night we decided to go to the small casino in Quepos, which doubled as a brothel. We played a little bit of blackjack. Rosé ordered a drink, thinking it was comped. It wasn’t, and we were quoted two different prices for the drink. Ah well, we made enough at the table to buy some drinks and ice cream. There was a sports bar in town that had numerous televisions, but was unable to get the NBA playoffs as we wanted to watch the Warriors play against the Clippers.
There were a number of stores that sold cat food, and we were able to scrounge up a few Latin varieties of Fancy Feast for Quincy. We also found a fried chicken chain called “Pollo Hermanos”, which immediately made us think of “Breaking Bad” (Chicken Brothers Restaurant). The chicken was right up Quincy’s alley, so he was a happy cat.
We found out that on Friday nights and Saturday mornings, there was a farmer’s market on the jetty in front of town. There was a huge selection of produce, some great looking chicken, and a few odds and ends. Best of all, the prices were reasonable! We got some very good watermelon, pineapple, vegetables, and even decent strawberries. This was definitely one of the highlights of our Quepos stay.
While at Quepos, the rainy season started in earnest. We had rain most every day, and one day it rained for over six hours. The rain was accompanied by some very nasty lightning – this part of Costa Rica has some of the most intense lightning in the world. We had the bottom cleaned by a local expat, who did a really good job. He looked at the damage we had sustained on the keel back at Punta de Mita (Mexico), and he told us it was just some fiberglass damage. Nothing critical, but it should be repaired at the next haul-out. Also of note was the tide: it was about ten feet. The bay across the jetty from us had great surf at high tide, but was completely dry at low tide. There was a small working marina in the town, and a very narrow channel flowed the edge of the jetty. It was surreal to watch small fishing boats speed through that channel at low tide.
For Joan’s birthday, Steve picked out a nice hillside restaurant called “Los Altos” on the way to Manuel Antonio. The view was fabulous, and the restaurant came with a great pool. Later in the afternoon a troop of white-faced monkeys appeared in the trees. All in all, it was a great day.
One afternoon we went to the beach with the boogie board. The waves came in with regularity, and the depth of the bay was pretty shallow, which made for some great long rides on the board. Unlike Ixtapa, I never got flipped.
We were in need of some spares for the boat, and I needed a new DVD player, so we had been talking about my going to Florida while we were waiting to cross the canal. But this would be a problem, since we were not able to get a marina slip in Panama City, meaning that Rosé would have to stay on a mooring or at anchor. I checked, and found to my surprise that I could get award tickets from San Jose to Jacksonville with ease. I’d have to get from Quepos to San Jose, and I would need to spend two nights in Jacksonville due to flight times, but the trip would be mostly free. I found out that I could book a dirt-cheap fare from Quepos to San Jose on Nature Air: the fare was just $14, but that taxes were $22, for a $36 all-in price. We decided to make this happen, and we quickly ordered some more supplies for our Jacksonville mailing address. I figured I would be bringing back about $800 worth of parts, taking one full-size carry-on and a big duffel bag. Steve and Joan also had another replacement card sent to our mail forwarder, and they asked me to pick up some specialty batteries for them.
My trip was actually smooth. I was a little concerned about my first smuggling experience, but I was never questioned. Just before my trip, I found out from another boater that I would have to have a return ticket from Costa Rica – they wouldn’t accept the fact that we would be leaving by boat, so I had to buy a refundable ticket back to the USA.
The Quepos airport consisted of a single landing strip with no control tower, surrounded by very green forest and fields. The terminal “building” was open air. When I checked in, I didn’t have to show any ID – Nature Air operates on the honor system. Strangely, I was weighed along with my bags, and I was pleased to see that I had actually lost a little weight since we left San Francisco last October. I almost expected that the arriving flight would be announced by a little person yelling, “the plane! The plane!”
The first flights I took in seven months weren’t without drama. I had booked a 2:40 flight out of San Jose, which gave me two hours to make my connection in Miami. My plane from Quepos left 25 minutes early (more on that later), so I got to the counter in San Jose at 11:00. There was a 12:55 flight, so I wanted to switch to that one. Unfortunately, they didn’t have any aisle seats left in the MCE section, so I decided to stick to my original flight. But then something hit my sixth sense, so I did switch to the earlier flight, taking a window exit seat (the one on the 757 with no seat in front – 10A). This turned out to be a smart move; the 2:40 flight was canceled! However, the incoming plane for my flight had to go around a storm, used too much fuel, and was diverted to Liberia (northern Costa Rica) for refueling. And then it got delayed when a big thunderstorm hit San Jose. We actually left at 2:30, but I made it! When we arrived in Miami, I discovered the new kiosk immigration system – do they have that in San Francisco now? Immigration was a snap, and I went to baggage claim – which was an absolute zoo. I got the bag quickly, but the lines to exit customs resembled waiting lines at Disneyland on a holiday. They snaked around multiple baggage carousels, then went back and forth with turnstiles. Lots of people missed connections because of this. It took 45 minutes to get through the line! Anyway, I got to the lounge about an hour before my connection.
The most interesting part of the trip were the flights from Quepos to San Jose. I found a $14 fare on Nature Air for the trip, although they did tack on a $22 “fuel surcharge”. Because of the mountains, it takes about 3 to 4 hours to get from Quepos to San Jose by bus, which isn’t air conditioned. The fare is ridiculously cheap, at $8, but then you have to get a $30 taxi ride to the airport in San Jose. My return flight from Miami arrived at 1:35PM, and the last flight on Nature Air was at 3:00. I didn’t book the flight, since I wasn’t sure that I would clear customs in time, so I had no sure way to get back to Quepos. Pus, there would be some big charges for excess baggage – the $14 fare (actually $39 with surcharges and taxes). I really should have just forked over the $39 and hoped, but the cheap side in me came out. I knew there were buses at 4:00, 5:00, and 6:00, but I really didn’t want to endure that long, slow ride (with no A/C). So, I was hoping for a smooth transition. Nature Air says that they close the flight an hour before departure. There was another local airline, Sansa that had a flight at 3:45, but at a much higher base fare. Anyway, we landed a few minutes late, but I got my bags quickly. I had a suitcase that can be carried on (although I didn’t, knowing that with all of the parts in it, the TSA would have cow) and a duffel bag. As I understood it, you get a $500 exemption on household goods brought in to Costa Rica by tourists. I wasn’t sure if my supplies (including 28 cans of cat food) would qualify, but everything I had read says that customs rarely opens bags, so I decided to go full-on smuggler. However, I saw that all bags were being x-rayed at the exit, so I thought about declaring some of the items. I had $800 of boat parts (including oil filters, watermaker supplies, solenoids, water testing kit, and some other odds and ends) as well as another $300 of non-boating items. Well, they x-rayed my bags, and nothing happened. My first foray as a smuggler worked!
By that time, it was 2:15. At the exit, you get mobbed by taxi drivers. I told one that I was going to the domestic terminal. He asked me if I had a reservation, since I need to have a ticket 24 hours in advance. He also offered to drive me to Quepos for $140. I was prepared to do that if I couldn’t get on the plane, since I really didn’t want to ride the bus. Another guy escorted me to the terminal, where I was able to get on the flight at the last minute. However, the full fare and excess baggage required a $99 fare – no problem, since it would save me over three hours. Nature Air flies very small planes – Cessna Caravans and DeHavilland Dash 6’s. From Quepos, I was on the Cessna, which was very cool since I sat just behind the open cockpit.
The planes fly at 6000 feet, so when there aren’t clouds, the views are great. On the return trip, I was on the “big plane” with two engines. This one had a stop, going first to La Fortuna, which is near Arenal Volcano. It was 25 minutes to Arenal, 5 minutes on the ground, and another 25 minutes back to Quepos. Not so fast, but much better than the bus. Although it was a cloudy and rainy day, the view was pretty nice. Leaving San Jose, we headed up towards a mountain pass, and I could see that all of the rivers were flowing. We turned to land at La Fortuna, which has an airport about the same size as Quepos. After just five minutes on the ground, and an exchange of a few passengers, we took off for Quepos. The return trip was much cloudier, so there wasn’t much to see on the ground. After landing, I hustled out of the airport, paid the $3 tax, and thought I was going to catch the only taxi that was waiting. Sadly, that cab was waiting for specific passengers. There was a Canadian guy also looking for a cab to Quepos, so we split the ride once another cab wandered by. The fare for the marina was again 5000 Colones, but only 3000 to town, just about one minute less! Anyway, we split the fare, and the taxi delivered me direct to the dock, where the Fabulous Rosé was waiting for me. After our first time apart in seven months, it was great to see her again.
We put away the supplies and had dinner at the marina restaurant with Steve and Joan. We decided to leave on Saturday, as we wanted to visit the produce market one more time. That turned out to be a good decision, as it rained all day on Friday. While I was gone, the fuel leaking sailboat to our port side departed, but a derelict sailboat moved in on our starboard side, next to Salty Dog. It was owned by a rather corpulent lady who had bought the boat in Florida, and had sailed it single-handed to Panama, and now was planning to take the boat up to California to sail with her kids. After taking a look at that dilapidated boat, I had a hard time believing that it had made it this far. Apparently she had hired a captain in Panama, but he had jumped off of the boat as soon as he could once it was docked in Quepos. She was also low on funds – she didn’t have money to tip the dock boys, and there was some question about how she would pay the marina. Later, the captain told her that she needed cruising guides, as he wasn’t familiar with the areas north of Quepos. She said she couldn’t afford that either…
On Thursday we went in to town looking for some more cat food, but most of the stores were closed. Later, we would realize that May 1st is a holiday – Labor Day. Funny how a capitalist, democratic country like Costa Rica celebrates a famous Soviet holiday. Anyway, we had lunch at the Chicken Brothers (yes, just like Pollos Hermanos from Breaking Bad), which had delicious fried chicken. We saved a little for Quincy, as he always loved KFC. We visited one of the carnicerias, picking up four New York steaks and a half-kilo of very lean hamburger for around $20. That night, we had pizza that Joan made, and pasta that we made.