The next day we went to the beach at Ixtapa, just a five minute walk from the marina. The beach is very large, both long and wide, and it was not crowded at all. Lucky battled the waves with his boogie board, and the waves won. The surf was breaking hard and very close to the beach, resulting in numerous face plants and wipeouts. After the beach, we cleaned up and joined Cat and Tim on the bus to Zihuatanejo. Once there, Rosé and Cat did some shopping, while Lucky and Tim drank cervezas at a local cantina. After a few rounds, we caught a taxi to take us to their hotel, La Casa Que Canta. It’s a very beautiful boutique hotel located at the beginning of the cliff, with fabulous views of Zihuatanejo Bay.
We had some bienvenidos drinks at La Casa, then walked down the road for dinner. The staff at the hotel were very helpful, calling an air conditioned taxi for our ride back to Ixtapa. We returned to La Casa the next day, having lunch on the beach followed by a cantina crawl across Playa La Ropa. The area was certainly more developed than we remembered it, but it was still very charming. In addition to the beach, we enjoyed the pools at La Casa: there is a fresh-water pool at about mid-level, and a salt-water pool at the bottom level near the Bay.
It was really great to spend time with Cat and Tim – we have taken many tropical vacations together with them, and we always have a great time. They were flying out the next day, and we had decided to travel to Morelia in order to see the monarch butterfly preserve at El Rosario. We said goodbye to our good friends, and went back to Ixtapa. Along the way, I remembered the letters that I had planned to ask them to take back to the states – d’oh!
March 4th – 5th: Morelia and the El Rosario Butterfly Preserve
Back when we were in Mazatlan, we read about the monarch butterfly preserves in Michoacan. These are the winter homes for millions of monarch butterflies that migrate from the United States and Canada. Sadly, their numbers are in decline, due to loss of habitat in the north. Mexico has taken steps to ensure that the butterflies have a safe winter home, preserving the natural forests. But the caterpillars only eat milkweed, which has been displaced in the United States and Canada in farming areas. We understand that the USA is restoring milkweed, but this year had the lowest butterfly numbers on record. Still, we believed it would be a worthwhile trip.
We planned to take a highway bus the the capital of Michoacan, Morelia. We had been told that Morelia is a very beautiful city, despite being the capital of Michoacan, where many of the cartel wars are happening. We would spend a night in the historic district, and take a guided tour to El Rosario the next morning, returning to Ixtapa by bus that night. The morning we were to leave I noticed that we had lost all water pressure. The pump was supposedly running, but there was no output. Well, that was a fine kettle of fish! Our friends had just brought us a new spare – I had not seen Flojet pumps anywhere in Mexico. We simply turned the breaker off, left lots of food and water for Quincy, and departed for the bus station. The bus was very comfortable, with air conditioning that was actually too cold. We left at 10:00am, arriving in Morelia at 2:00pm. Morelia is in the mountains at 6,400 feet, so the nights are very cool. In addition, the butterfly preserve at El Rosario is even higher at about 10,000 feet. We were looking forward to cooling off…
We stayed at the Hotel Real Madero in the historical district. I had the reservation paperwork with me, but the first taxi driver we met had no clue where it was, despite having the address right in front of him. He had a book of hotels, and kept insisting that there was a different Hotel Real Madero, and that it wasn’t in the historical district. I offered my phone to him to call them, but to no avail. We wasted a good five minutes trying to convince him where we were going, and then we gave up. The second taxi drive immediately knew where to go. Once we got to the district, close to the hotel, we ground to a halt. There were a mass of people camping in the street we needed to use to get to our hotel. The driver explained that it was just a couple of blocks away, but that we would have to walk. The area looked like the “occupy” protests in the USA. There were lots of tents, food booths, and an almost carnival atmosphere.
We found our hotel and entered the lobby. Both of the agents there spoke English very well. After checking in, we asked about a tour to El Rosario. They made a phone call, and we were booked to leave at 6:00am the following morning. Our room was on the second floor, and the bedroom was in a loft. It was a very cool room, both literally and figuratively. We dropped off our bags and went out to see Morelia. The architecture in the historical district is French provincial – you would swear that you were in Paris. There are lots of al fresco restaurants and bakeries. This area has many universities, so it was crawling with college kids. There was a beautiful cathedral just outside of our hotel, and we walked through the neighborhood.
At the eastern end of the district, there was a square with a fountain and an aqueduct. We found Morelia to be a very charming and beautiful city, and we wished that we had more time to spend in it. We had a nice dinner in our hotel, and retired early since we had to leave before dawn.
The next morning our guide picked us up for the long drive to El Rosario, which would take about three and a half hours. We asked him about the protesting campers. He explained that they were teachers. The Michoacan government was trying to upgrade their education system. At present, it seemed like anyone could be a teacher. The government was now requiring teachers to either have formal education qualifying them, or else requiring a teaching certificate. They were allowing present teachers to get educated for the certificate while still teaching, but the lay teachers were protesting this by camping out in the main street – go figure.
Our guide was very knowledgeable about the area, as well as the butterflies, and he drove us to the preserve in maze-like fashion. If you have ever driven in Mexico, you know that signs are a rarity. We went through a lot of villages with twists and turns, over roads that were a mixture of good and evil. We finally arrived at El Rosario at 9:30, and bought some cokes and water for the hike. We knew that it was quite a ways to get to the butterflies – some people choose to rent horses for the trek, but we decided to walk. Our guide told us there were 600+ stairs to climb. You pay a nominal entrance fee (I think it was ten pesos), and a guide / ranger from the preserve goes with you. The senorita that was with us was in much better shape than us. Being acclimated to sea level, and a relatively sedentary life, we weren’t in the best of shape. I shed my jacket after about one hundred stairs. The stairs are cut into the dirt side of the mountain, so they aren’t even. But we took advantage of the many benches that were set up for resting. We finally got to the top of the stairs, and then there was a undulating trail. It felt marvelous to go downhill a bit. I was sweating, sick, and delirious. After some time, we went cross-country, and then descended into a pine grove – and there they were!
The grove was eerily quiet, and we were the first visitors of the day. At first, you don’t even realize there are millions of butterflies around you in the trees. It was still cold, and they were just starting to stir. Our guide told us that they clump together for warmth at night, and as the sun warms their wings, they start to flutter about. You know, a butterfly fluttering by! We aren’t religious people, but being there was a spiritual experience. You are awed that these delicate creatures are able to undertake such a huge migration. We felt very humbled that we are migrating with twenty-seven tons on boat underneath us, with all of the creature comforts of home. You realize that these butterflies have traveled over a thousand miles to get here, going on nothing more than instinct.
As the sun started to warm them up, the monarchs started to fly. The forest was full of gossamer wings with brilliant colors. Every now and then, one of them would light on us, pausing without any cares. We were told that before they start the migration north, they mate. The males won’t make the migration, and they die on the ground. The females will fly north until they find a milkweed patch, lay their eggs and then die. The caterpillars emerge, gorge themselves on milkweed, and then undergo an incredible metamorphosis into the next generation of monarchs, and then continue the northbound journey. It;s truly amazing, and we just marveled being there. Like I said, it was a spiritual experience. Let these pictures express some of the wonders we saw that day.
We stayed in the grove for about an hour. A few other groups joined us after some time. When we left, we saw a huge group of people on horseback in the clearing near the grove – we left just in time. The trip down was much, much easier on us, and we had a local lunch at a shack when we returned.
We arrived back at the Morelia bus station just in time to barely miss the 3:00 Parhikuni bus back to Ixtapa. So, we booked tickets on the Autovias bus leaving at 4:30. This was the same company we used getting to Morelia, and this bus was even colder than the one we had the previous day. I think there were only tow or three passengers besides ourselves. The fares aren’t cheap, at $485 pesos, but it’s hard to imagine that they could make money
with the handful of passengers on this route. It’s a non-stop bus, but there are many slow-downs for security checkpoints and turns. Once we got back to Ixtapa, we stopped for a pizza, and walked back to the marina.
March 7th – 8th: Ixtapa – Acapulco
We spent the next day preparing for our voyage to Acapulco. I replaced the water pump, so we were good to go with that. Earlier in our stay at Ixtapa, I had met a couple, Roger and Susan, cruising on their sailboat Second Wind. Roger was wearing a Banana Slugs tee-shirt, which anyone from the Bay Area recognizes as the mascot of UC-Santa Cruz. We found out that they were bound for the El Salvador Cruisers Rally, and annual event taking place at Bahia del Sol every March. After looking inot this, we decided that it would be a good idea to join. We would have the camaraderie of other boaters, with enough marina discounts to offset the small entry fee of $76 USD. We figured that we would be arriving after the official starting date of March 15th, but rally activities last for about a month.
We wanted to arrive in Acapulco in the morning, so we left at one in the afternoon for the 118 mile trip. According to the Pat Rains guide, the marina situation in Acapulco had improved dramatically over recent years. Based on her reviews, and the marina’s website, we chose to stay at La Marina Acapulco, which supposedly had been recently renovated. I had some problems calling them, to Elsa from Marina Ixtapa made a reservation for me.
Our trip to Acapulco was uneventful, taking just nineteen hours for the journey. We arrived early in the morning, and tried to figure out where the marina was located. The shoreline in the harbor is very busy and confusing, but we finally spotted La Marina Acapulco. We called them on the VHF, but got no response. After a second effort, someone chimed in to call them on a different hailing channel. I did this, but the response I got was to wait until 9:00 for someone that could speak English. In the meantime, we tried the bow thruster, but it wasn’t working. Once we came into the marina, we realized that the “photographs” on their website are an artist’s conception of what it will look like in the future. For now, there is just a big L-shaped dock where almost every boat is med-moored. If you aren’t familiar with this, it is when you back the stern up to the dock and either tie the bow to a mooring ball or drop the anchor tight. I guess this way they can accommodate more boats. We had never med-moored Tropical Blend, and I wasn’t crazy about doing this without a bow thruster.
We were directed to a tight spot between two other powerboats. Just as we started to back down, the wind kicked up a bit. I can assure you that backing down a Nordhavn trawler with a flying bridge is not an easy process. I had to make several attempts at it, and finally got close. A couple of guys on the dock dove in to the water and passed us the line for mooring ball that would hold the bow. To complicate matters, there was a surge in the harbor, so we were bouncing up and down, and drifting back and forth. After a lot of effort, we tied up as best we could. A couple of the guys on the dock said that they could clean the bottom, but they wanted double the price we had been paying elsewhere in Mexico. It had been some time since we had the bottom cleaned, so we agreed on a price. Only then did I find out that they didn’t have any diving gear, and that they would clean the bottom by free diving. They assured me that they could do a good job, so I agreed. I observed them putting on wet suits, and checked the water temperature, which was suddenly down to 79°!
Position at destination: 16°50.5’ N, 99°54.5’ W
Air temp: 86, Water temp: 79
Nautical miles for this leg: 118.4
Total: 2617 Departed at 1:00pm, arrived at 8:30am
I went to the office to check in on this fine Saturday morning. During check in, I learned that there was no pool – it was for condo residents only, and there were no bathrooms or showers. We were paying $45 per night for a med moor and electrical power. We had high expectations for Acapulco – we thought it was going to be a great place to spend a few days. High on our list was seeing the world-famous cliff divers at La Quebrada, which was very close to the marina. Acliff divers at La Quebradafter assessing our marina situation, we decided not to spend more than the one night there. We would go across the bay to anchor near Base Naval for Sunday night.
The cliff divers have one show in the afternoon, so we decided to head over for the 1:00pm show. We took a VW bug taxi (Acapulco culture) to the cliffs. We decided to go to the lower viewing platform, which cost just fifty pesos. The area where the divers plunge is quite narrow, and the surge coming into it obviously results in a great depth variation. We saw the small prayer chapels on top of the cliff, and we assumed the divers would appear at the top. Wrong – they came right through the crowd, climbed a little bit down the cliff on our side, then jumped into the water, and proceeded to climb with all of the skills of mountain goats almost straight up the side – it was amazing.
One of the divers was just a young teenager. Before the show started, a number of boats had anchored near the cove. Two of the divers started swimming out to those boats. As far as we could tell, they were out soliciting donations, which we thought was very appropriate, since we were paying customers. Once the actual diving started, the teenager went first, from a small step about one-third of the way up the cliff. Even that relatively small dive was thrilling to watch. Once the dives started from the top of the cliff, we were really awed by the bravery and skill of the divers. It was truly a very memorable experience. Afterward, the divers returned to sell t-shirts and other memorabilia, and we purchased an autographed shirt to remember the show.
When we returned to the marina, we stopped at the Superama grocery store just across from the marina. It turned out to be a really good store, including hot Italian sausages, which we had not seen anywhere in Mexico.
The next morning we were visited by the guys that had cleaned the bottom, asking if we needed anything else. We asked them if they could fill a propane bottle, and they said yes. We gave them the one we use for the oven and stove, which had not been filled since we left California. They said they would be back in a couple of hours, so we decided to take a bus to the nearest Home Depot. We were still hoping to find a UV water filtration unit. We caught one the highly decorated local buses. The colorful non-air-conditioned local buses offer a unique travel experience, even for those who think they’ve seen and done it all. They come in virtually every color, are frequently personalized and decorated (some to an extreme), and often have a nickname plastered on the windshield. No one can say that they’ve vacationed in Acapulco until they’ve ridden a local bus. The buses have ‘barkers’, young teens who typically hang out the doors shouting its destinations: “CICI! Hornos! Caleta!”.
The Home Depot was across Parque Papagayo from Ave. Costera, so we took a Costera bus. We thought we had seen it all on Mexican buses, but that day we saw something new. There was a fish market along the way, and our driver stopped the bus (parking on the busy Avenida Costera) and ran to the fish market to make a purchase. It was only a minute or so, but it was a moment of hilarity. We got off at the park, which was very nice, and walked through it to find the Home Depot. Alas, no water filter, but it was still a memorable experience. To get back we took one of the Ave. Cuauhtemoc buses back to the marina – this bus had a very loud barker, who was yelling out the destination in between the peanuts he was shelling. These buses cost six pesos, a very cheap way to get around.
The guys were late getting our propane bottle back, but they finally made it. They told me that the fitting was leaking and had to be replaced, which we had also been advised about back in Alameda. We figured out how to drop the mooring and get out of there, and cruised east to the Base Naval.
March 9th: Acapulco – Puerto Marques
Once we got near Base Naval, we didn’t really like the looks of the anchorage – it was open and a bit rolly. We decided to leave Bahia Acapulco and take the short hop to Puerto Marques. That bay is very popular on weekends for the Acapulquenos. We arrived in the Bay and determined that the northwest corner was the most protected area. There were tons of beachside cantinas, with the requisite umbrellas. There were quite a few medium sized powerboats in the bay, which seemed to have local people aboard. There were a lot of tourist boats pulling skiers and banana boats. We figured that the scene would calm down after dark, since it was Sunday. On cue, between five and six, all of the boats anchored in the bay left, except for one sailboat that we had talked with back when we were looking around Base Naval. We turned in early that night to prepare for a pre-dawn departure for Huatulco.
Position at destination: 16°48.6’ N, 99°50.7’ W
Air temp: 84, Water temp: 80
Nautical miles for this leg: 8.8 Total: 2626
Departed at 1:15pm, arrived at 2:45pm
March 10th – 11th: Puerto Marques – Huatulco (Marina Chahue)
We left just before dawn for the long overnight run to Huatulco. We had been eying the weather conditions in the Gulf of Tehauntepec since we had been in the Sea of Cortez. For the winter months, the “T=peckers” had been howling, with seas over fifteen feet during almost every day. We had finally seen some easing when we were in Ixtapa, and now windows were cropping up. There was a solid window forecast for March 14th, so we were anxious to get to Huatulco to wait for our crossing.
The conditions during the day of March 10th couldn’t have been more benign. There were no winds and no swells, and the sea surface looked like a pane of glass – perfect weather for a trawler like ours. During the morning hours, we saw countless numbers of turtles floating on the surface to warm themselves.
Quincy didn’t seem to be too impressed by the turtles…
This part of Mexico is fairly deserted. The shoreline looked like an endless beach, with very few towns, and fewer boats. We didn’t see any other cruisers over the nearly 240 mile stretch. There are a couple of marginal anchorages between Acapulco and Huatulco, but we elected not to stop there as we wanted to get to Huatulco to take advantage of a crossing window.
The afternoon before we reached Huatulco, a west wind whipped up to twenty knots with a following sea of four to six feet. Still, it was a gentle ride. We could see the beautiful beaches that lined the Bays of Huatulco, a series of small bays in the area. We arrived at Marina Chahue late in the afternoon. It wasn’t very full, and we made it into our double wide slip without problem. I was getting good at docking without a bow thruster by now.
Position at destination: 15°46’ N, 96°07’ W
Air temp: 84, Water temp: 82
Nautical miles for this leg: 236.6 Total: 2863
Departed at 6:05am, arrived at 5:05pm
March 12th – 13th: Chahue
Marina Chahue is a nice, modern facility with very helpful staff, especially harbormaster Ezequiel Gutierrez. Unlike many of the marinas in Mexico, Ezequiel responds to email promptly, and was very helpful with the check in process. He apparently gained fame setting up the new Marina Chiapas, so he knows how to take care of cruisers’ needs. However, the facilities are primitive. The docks are nice, if a little surgy, but that is typical of Mexico. The bathrooms were very basic, and the shower was in an outdoor stall with non-existent water pressure. The town of Crucecita is right there, with good provisioning, restaurants, shops, and beach clubs.
There is no pool or beach at the marina, but Ezequiel advised us to take the short walk to the Club de Playa Chahue for both. There is a nominal $35 peso fee to use the club, but we were never asked for it. The food was decent and the cervezas were cold. We went in the morning to secure a table an umbrella right off of the beach. The sand is almost pink, but it’s a little coarse. The water gets deep quickly, and there is an undertow, so weak swimmers should stay out of the ocean. The pool at the club was large and relatively clear, if a little dated. We spent the entire day at the club, thoroughly enjoying ourselves. We met a pretty little senorita named Victoria while we were there.
The next day we explored the town – we think it is Crucecita, but we just called it Huatulco. There is a lot of shopping – cruise ships dock here, and one was in town the day we were there. We finally found the correos (post office), so we were able to mail our letters back to the states. We had a great lunch at a local restaurant, where I finally got to sample Oaxaca cheese, which is muy delicioso. We wansered around the town, and it was really hot that day. We bought some paletas, which helped with the cold. We stopped at a fairly large supermarket for provisions, and made our way back to the marina to prepare for departure. We wish we would have had more time to explore Bahias de Huatulco – the little that we saw was stunning, and not touristy at all. But, we had a plan to get to the cruiser’s rally in El Salvador, and we needed to exploit the weather window across Tehuantepec. While we were at the marina, we met the crew of Catchin’ Moments, a 78’ Hatteras. They had to lay up in the marina for some engine work (it required sending a mechanic down form the states), but they were also planning to go to the cruiser’s rally. They cruised quite a bit faster than us, at ten to twelve knots, so they weren’t leaving until the next morning.
March 14th – 16th: Huatulco (Marina Chahue) – Marina Chiapas
We left the marina just after dark and made our way into the Gulf. We had decided on a “one foot on the beach” strategy, which means that we would follow the contour of the bay, roughly five miles offshore. Even though the weather window looked good, we have heard some horror stories about boats getting caught in a sudden gale when they were heading straight across the bay. By being closer to shore, even if the wind picks up, the fetch (wind waves) are fairly benign. It’s well offshore that the waves get dangerous. Our route would stretch about 250 miles, and we were expecting it to last around forty hours. There can be some strong currents in the gulf, so we were estimating a six knot average speed.
The weather turned out to be great, with very light winds and flat seas. For the first section of the trip, a northeast leg to the commercial port of Salina Cruz, we had a strong current helping us out. After we passed Salina Cruz and turned due east, the current eased. But once we made the southeast turn towards Chiapas the next afternoon, the current was against us, and we could barely make five knots. This area had a very large shrimping fleet. After dark, they mobilized. I was amazed at how many of them were trawling. You have to stay on your toes, as they don’t like to change course. At one time, I counted over twenty-five of them on a three-mile radar screen. It took us a couple of hours to work our way through the fleet.
We had been getting visited by frigate birds since San Blas. They show up in the evening, and like to light on top of our paravane poles. These are big seabirds that leave big … well, you know. I had read one boating book where the owner attempted to shoo them off with a slingshot. We had been looking for a slingshot for a long time without success. I got the idea that we might be able to use a Super Soaker to move them away. Early the next morning, I found some of them hitching a ride on our poles, and I sprang into action. Rosé was very impressed by my machismo! To save water, I filled a bucket from the salt water washdown, and got busy. Not only was it fun blasting those ugly bastards, but after a couple of hits, they left for good. Victory was mine!
As we approached Puerto Madero on Sunday morning, we saw Catchin’ Moments on the AIS. They entered the channel just minutes ahead of us. Marina Chiapas is very well protected, located behind the commercial port. It took about fifteen minutes to get there. They weren’t responding to the radio, but we figured that the marina office was closed on Sunday, so we decided to just take a convenient slip. The marina was pretty empty, so we took a slip on the back row that would be easy to get in to without a bow thruster. Catchin’ Moments was having a more difficult time, as the fairways were a little narrow. For some reason, the dockworkers that were there that morning told them to take a slip instead of the end tie that would have been much easier. They seemed to believe that another boat was coming to take the end tie. We docked without incident.
Position at destination: 14°42’ N, 92°23.5’ W
Air temp: 90, Water temp: 91
Nautical miles for this leg: 250.5 Total: 3113
Departed at 7:45pm, arrived at 10:30am
We had read that the Mexican Navy inspects boats arriving and departing Chiapas, but we didn’t see any sign of them. Before we entered the channel, we contacted the Port Captain to get permission, so they knew we were there. We decided to check out the marina and walk over to the restaurant. The facilities are very nice, including a brand-new Travelift and boat yard. The restaurant had the best nachos I had eaten in Mexico, although it was a bit pricey. As we were finishing our lunch, Rosé noticed several official-looking guys by our boat, so I guessed that would be the Navy. I hustled back over while Rose settled the check. Sure enough, it was the Navy and the Port Captain. The inspection consisted of filling out some very detailed forms, including information about our fuel and water capacity, engine horsepower, and other items that I can’t begin to guess why they want to know them. But, they were very friendly, even though they had limited English – I had to use the phone translator a few times. We offered them some sodas, and they were our best amigos. They were quite fascinated with Quincy, and the process, though tedious, went smoothly.
On Monday morning, we checked in at the marina office, and inquired about the checkout procedure. The staff at Marina Chiapas is incredibly helpful. They drive you to the airport for immigration and customs, and then to the Port Captain. Memo told us that it takes a few hours, and that we could do this on Tuesday, since we wanted to depart Tuesday night. We had seen another trawler in the marina, so we went over to introduce ourselves. The boat was Pegasus, a 49’ Sea Horse. We had looked at a Sea Horse before settling on the Nordhavn, but it wasn’t well equipped for long range cruising. Pegasus is owned by James and Charlotte Caldwell, a very nice couple originally from Scotland, now cruising full time. We found out that they were also going to the cruiser’s rally, and they were planning to leave that night.
We decided to go to Tapachula on Monday. This city is very close to the Guatemalan border, with over 500,000 inhabitants. We knew there were several stores there we wanted to visit, including Home Depot, Office Depot, and Walmart for groceries. We walked outside the marina to the highway, and waited for the collectivo taxi van. It came by after about fifteen minutes, and it only cost fifteen pesos for the thirty-kilometer trip to Tapachula. Once there, we got off near the Home Depot. We had a map that showed the Office Depot very close to the Home Depot. We were looking for a USB wall plate to install the cable for our Ethernet amplifier. It turns out that the map grossly understated the distance to the Office Depot. It took us about a half an hour of walking in the 90°, 70% weather, along a street under construction. While we were sweating, sick, and delirious, we observed construction workers wearing sweatshirts and hoodies. Oh, lawsy, lawsy, lawsy.
Anyway, the Office Depot didn’t have what we were looking for, so we decided to look for a lunch place. Every city in Mexico is required to have at least four restaurants per block, except Tapachula. We wandered the area around the Office Depot, and found nada. We decided to head back to the Home Depot, which is across the street from a mall that had restaurants. We had seen that the city buses were air conditioned, so we took a bus back for the mile or so to the home depot. At six pesos each, the cold a/c was a bargain. We were hoping to find a UV water filter at Home Depot, but it was another nada experience. We did pick up some more five micron filters for the watermaker, so it wasn’t a clean bust.
We went across the road to the mall, and had a decent lunch. The inside of the mall connected to the Walmart grocery store, so we picked up some more provisions. As is typical in Mexican stores, we had to check in our Home Depot bag. Once we had finished provisioning, we hailed a taxi for the ride back to the marina. We agreed on a fare of two-hundred pesos. Just before turning into the marina, we remembered that we had left the Home Depot bag at the Walmart – d’oh! We decided that I would go back for it while Rose put the provisions away. I explained to the taxi driver, and he agreed to take me back to Tapachula and back again to the marina for another two-hundred pesos, which I thought was more than fair.
After we got everything settled, we left to visit the fuel dock. We had read that the fuel dock at Puerto Madero has a large concrete fixed dock, which can do a lot of damage to fiberglass hulls. The recommendation was to visit only at high tide, which was around 4:00PM that day. The dock was as ugly and dangerous as advertised. Since we knew the prices in Central America would be higher, we took on a lot of fuel at Pemex prices (about $3.96). We took on 2000 liters, over 500 gallons. This was a commercial fueling station, with lots of buses and trucks coming through. The diesel hose for boats was huge, but the flow was really slow. It took us over forty-five minutes to fuel up. We were pretty concerned about leaving the dock, since the bow thruster was not working at all anymore. We had a plan to shove off, go forward of the dock where there is a small turning area, and kick the stern around – and the plan worked. In the meantime, we got a VHF call for the marina office, who had gotten a call from the Port Captain, who had seen us leaving the marina. Apparently they were concerned that we were leaving without checking out. W explained that we were just making a fuel dock run.
While we were at the marina checking in that morning, a sailboater came in asking where they could get an oil filter for their engine. Memo gave them some possible places in Tapachula, but I guess they decided not to go, as they pulled out of the marina late in the afternoon. Towards dark, we heard them calling on the VHF, saying that their motor had quit in the ocean, and they were heading back to the marina under sail only. Fortunately for them, there was enough light for one of the boaters too meet them in a dinghy and to tow them in. I’m not sure if the oil filter was their problem, but they had a tale of woe getting out of Chiapas. Earlier, they turned back because of weather.
The next day was checkout day. Memo took us, the crew of Catchin’ Moments, and two other boats in his large pickup. The first stop was the port office. Since Puerto Madero is a commercial port, we have to pay a fee for being in port – I think it was seventy or so pesos. The next stop was the airport, for immigration. Memo had warned us that we needed to show a receipt for our tourist cards. We didn’t have one, since we had received them from Marina Coral when we pre-checked in at Newport Beach during the final FUBAR meeting. They did the paperwork, and we got the cards when we checked in at Ensenada. Rationally, I thought that having the card was proof of having the card, receipt be damned. But oh, was I wrong! As I recall, we had to pay again for the tourist cards that we already had, at about 336 pesos each. This pretty much exhausted our stash of pesos. There was one more stop, at the Port Captain’s office, where we had to pay for our Zarpe. Fortunately, Gary from Catchin’ Moments had some extra pesos, so he spotted me the Zarpe fee. I gave him some dollars after we got back to the marina.
Back at the marina, we had to endure another inspection from the Navy and Port Captain, with exactly the same guys that we had seen two days earlier, with exactly the same forms. I asked them if they wanted to copy the information, but they insisted they had to fill out new ones by asking me questions. Some days, you get the bear, and some days, the bear gets you. Zarpe in hand, we were now cleared to leave Mexico, after spending a thoroughly enjoyable five months in that wonderful country.
March 19th – 21st: Marina Chiapas – Bahia del Sol, El Salvador
We left that evening in order to carefully time our arrival at Bahia del Sol in El Salvador. To enter the bay, you have to cross a bar that has breaking waves. This can only be done around high tide, which was due at 5:00PM on our arrival day. The rally was arranging a pilot boat to meet us and lead us over the bar, and they said we would cross around 4:00PM. If you miss the bar opening, you have to anchor in the ocean, a rolly open roadstead, waiting for the next daylight high tide – yikes!
It was quite dark when we left, but the harbor had a lot of background lights, and the channel was well marked. Once we got near the end of the breakwater, the darkness was full-on, and we had to use the radar to find the very long breakwater. Once we cleared it, we played chicken with a few pangas that sort of had lights. These boats rarely have navigation lights. Sometimes they wave a flashlight around, but you have no idea what that means: are they anchored, moving towards you, or what? One of the pangas seemed to be heading for us with an occasional light flashing, so I steered well away from them. We had decided to go well offshore, as Pegasus had told us this area had a lot of longlines out. Once we crossed into Guatemalan waters, boat traffic disappeared – well, at least as far as we knew. At least the seas were calm. The next afternoon, the wind kicked up to around twenty knots, and we had a quartering sea with waves of five to six feet.
Thanks to some favorable currents, we arrived at the bar opening at 3:00PM, well ahead of our scheduled crossing time. It was a little rolly outside, so we elected not to anchor, but just circle around. We called the pilot boat on the VHF, and they advised us to wait until about 4:00PM, as they wanted to take both us and Catchin’ Moments across. We weren’t sure where the bar was located: from a mile offshore, it isn’t obvious. We had a waypoint where the pilot boat would meet us, but we could not identify the bar crossing. We did a mile back and forth waiting. Turning into the waves was challenging, as we tried to avoid rolling with the beam swell. Once we would track back to the west, it was amazing how much smoother the ride would get.
Around 4:00PM, we picked up Catchin’ Moments on the AIS, and they hailed us on the VHF. We told them that we had been in touch with the pilot boat, and they had advised us to wait out here. Catchin’ Moments joined us in the circling game. With all of this time to wait, I started to psych myself out, worrying about the bar crossing. We had never done this before. The pilot boat’s job is to look at the swells and pick the right moment to burst across. They are supposed to have local knowledge of the depth contour, as it changes from day to day as the sandy bottom shifts. I really got tense about the impending crossing, but Rosé was calm as a sleeping kitten.
The pilot boat finally appeared, and I moved up to the flying bridge for the crossing. The plan was to escort us across first, followed by Catchin’ Moments. Bill, the rally organizer, was on the pilot boat and he explained that we would follow them to the launching point, and when he said now, to floor it. I explained to him that we could floor it, but it would take time to get up to top speed, but he was familiar with trawlers, and said it wouldn’t be a problem. We got into position, and a few waves later he said “now!” I mashed the throttle lever, and about three seconds later he said to stop – I guess the swells weren’t right. We waited for a few more swells, and he said “now!” again. I punched the throttle, and we started to surf. I had to saw the wheel a bit, and then he said that we had crossed the bar. That was it? I nearly soiled myself for that? Sheesh! It was quite easy. As we crossed over, we hit a top speed of 9.6 knots.
Cruising up the estuary, we had the inrush tide and we were making close to eight knots at 1600rpm. We watched Catchin’ Moments cross, and soon they passed us. The bar crossing is about a mile from the marina. We were instructed to take the slip closest to the restaurant, easy to do without the bow thruster. Once we were in our slip, we were greeted with welcome drinks, and the immigration official told us he would check us in when we were ready. Participants in the Cruisers Rally to El Salvador receive a gift bag with hats, shirts, guides, and discounts at other marinas in Central America. This marked the first time we were greeted with gifts and cocktails upon arrival – the way it should always be!
Position at destination: 13°18’ N, 88°53.5’ W
Air temp: 88, Water temp: 88
Nautical miles for this leg: 255.5 Total: 3368.7
Departed at 8:00pm, arrived at 4:30pm
March 21st – 29th: Bahia del Sol, Cruisers Rally to El Salvador
The check-in process was smooth. Immigration fees are $10 per person, and the cruising permit is just $1 per day, with a minimum of thirty days. After we completed our check-in formalities, we checked into the marina at the hotel desk. As members, we received a 10% discount on the dockage fees as well as food and beverage at the restaurants. Next to us were Roger and Susan from Second Wind. They told us about a good restaurant just a short walk from the hotel. We set out to find it, and quickly realized that once we were off the hotel property, there weren’t many lights. We walked a ways up the road, and decided to turn back. We ended up having dinner at the marina restaurant. It turns out that they have really good cheeseburgers! Our friends from Catchin’ Moments joined us – Susan and Gary, their daughter Pressley, and her friend Alex. We found out they were from Florida and had owned many sport fishing boats. They had bought Catchin’ Moments in California, and they were taking it back to the Keys, where they planned to place it in a crewed charter business. They were very serious about fishing and diving. We really enjoyed meeting them.
The rally has a lot of sponsored activities, including trips and dinners. Saturday afternoon there was a BYOB party at a house up the estuary. We made a jalapeño bean dip and brought some rum punch. It was a long dinghy ride up the estuary, but the house was beautiful, with a very nice pool. Docking the dinghy wasn’t so easy. There is a 10’ tide in the estuary, so any fixed docks have to be pretty high. We arrived at low tide, so at least we could see all of the jagged steps on the dock. And that first step was a big one! Anyway, we had a great time meeting the other participants and sharing food and drink. We returned at dusk, taking Gary, Susan, and Pressley back with us.
That night we walked over to the restaurant on the ocean side of the hotel. They had a buffet going on, and it was really crowded with locals. After dinner, there was a dancing show put on. Then they asked for volunteers for something, so we immediately volunteered Alex. He was partnered with a very attractive and skinny local girl. They had to pop a balloon between them without using hands, if you know what I mean, and I think you do! They did really well on that task, as well as a couple of others that I can’t recall, because we were laughing so hard that we cried. It was a really fun night.
On Sunday, there was a lunch party at a “restaurant” at the eastern end of the estuary. The restaurant is located on a sandbar in the estuary that is well exposed at low tide. It’s on stilts, about fifteen feet above the low tide level.
They had coolers full of soda and beer, and they had fish and shrimp for lunch – you picked out the type and size of fish. We each ordered a combo. The fish was fired whole (minus the innards), as was the shrimp – this is the style in Central America. Lunch was quite tasty, and afterwards we engaged in a bocci ball game on the sandbar, which by now was very large.
There was a daily happy hour from 5 to 7 at the restaurant, with $1 local beers and rum drinks – how cool is that! Most of us would head into the pool, which was really too warm, but beat sitting outside. The hotel had restaurants on both sides of the peninsula. On the ocean side, the pool was green and very uninviting, but the estuary pool was usually blue, although a bit cloudy. The water at the marina was terrible – it had a yellow hue and it had a little smell of sulfur about it. This applied to the dock water as well as the bathroom shower. I took one shower in the bathroom, and the water had a very metallic taste to it, not to mention the stinking smell of sulfur. Bill said that at the peak of the dry season, the ground water has tannin in it. His water generally comes from a cistern, but he had just had a 1000 gallon delivery. Fortunately, our tanks were full with good water from Chiapas. The water in the estuary is full of floating garbage and debris. Catchin’ Moments had to clean out a lot of branches and trash from their air conditioning intake strainers. We were docked just ahead of the fuel dock, and we witnessed several customers simply throwing used oil containers into the estuary. Some boaters that were docked further out made water on the incoming tide, but we certainly never tried it. And the speed of the tide going in and out was unreal – it had to be pushing three knots or more. A ten-foot tide forced through the narrow mouth of the estuary created an enormous tidal current.
We had been thinking about spending just four or five days at Bahia del Sol, as was Catchin’ Moments. They were in a hurry to get to Costa Rica for serious fishing. But when they checked on the weather, they were advised that a Papagayo wind was coming up. Those are winds that blow across Nicaragua in the spring, and can be almost as fierce as the Tehuantepec gales, whipping up some short, steep seas. Since they were able to make a higher cruising speed than us, Catchin’ Moments decided to leave on Wednesday and head directly to Marina Papagayo in northern Costa Rica. We decided to stay longer until the forecast improved.
On Tuesday, we took a trip in a van to the town of Zacatecoluca, simply called Zaca. We were told there was an interesting public market, as well as stops at a grocery store and a local lunch. It took about an hour to navigate the road to Zaca, considering curves and topes. The town was pretty dense, and the market was much larger than we expected. The first building we went in had mostly produce and some clothing and crafts. The produce in El Salvador appears to have been hit with radiation – it was freakishly large. There were carrots up to three inches thick, and softball-sized tomatoes. Strangely, the vendors don’t like you picking your own. The custom is to tell them what you want, and they will pick it out. You can also specify for today or mañana, and they will select based on ripeness. We bought some carrots, tomatoes, and cucumbers. We had a hard time paying at one vendor: when I asked how much, she kept saying something about a “cuata”. I had no idea what that meant, and couldn’t find it in the translator. Finally another cruiser told us it was Salvadoran slang for a quarter. They use the US dollar for currency, so a “cuata” is a quarter.
A different building held unspeakable meat and seafood items. I say unspeakable because of the presentation. Everything was out in the open air, and flies were everywhere. The meat was hanging from hooks, fish was laying in tubs on melted ice, crabs were trying to escape, and chickens were in various states of slaughter.
It was kind of like a timid kid at a horror movie. They can’t bear to watch, so they put their hands over their faces, yet continue to peek through fingers with one eye. We walked around a bit to get horrified. This was also common at the public markets in Mexico – one needs a strong stomach, and a depressed sense of smell to handle it. After the market, we went to a Super Selecto grocery store, which wasn’t bad, considering the size of Zaca. To my delight, I found some Vlasic dill pickle chips – I had been Jonesing for good dill pickles for a long time, and they just weren’t available in Mexico. We then left Zaca and went to a roadside local restaurant for lunch. This was a real locals’ place, with local prices to boot. Two pollo asado lunches with beer and soda cost us just $4.50.
The rally included a couple of one or two-night tours to other places in El Salvador, but we had arrived too late to make the sign-up, so at mid-week, there were just a handful of us at Bahia del Sol. We were invited by James and Charlotte on Pegasus to join them for a day trip to San Salvador. We caught the local bus (an old Bluebird school bus) outside of the hotel, and then traveled for about forty-five minutes, with many, many stops to a place called Los Arcos (the arches). There, we would catch a different bus to San Salvador, via the autopiste (expressway). Once we got off of the local bus, we were immediately assaulted by bus touts to get on their bus to San Salvador. It literally felt like an assault. We started towards one bus, but it was immediately blocked by another one – these guys really compete for business, and not in a friendly way. A Salvadoran with good English skill showed us which bus to take, and we got in without any more assaults. These are min-buses, with air conditioning, and the expressway is very nice. I don’t recall the exact cost, but I believe it was somewhere around $2.50 total to get to San Salvador.
Once we got into the city, which is in a valley after a small climb, we were dropped off in an open lot – no station. Charlotte had planned the day’s itinerary, which was fine with us. The first place required a short taxi ride. Charlotte had said she was tired of seeing cathedrals in Mexico, but lo and behold, our first stop was… a cathedral! Actually, it was a very unusual cathedral, Iglesias el Rosario. On the outside, it is a stark, bare concrete building – you would never know that it is a church. But inside, it has a very unusual stained glass, which was quite stunning.
The glass provides all the colors of the rainbow, and there were a number of metal sculptures that Charlotte said were made from melted-down civil war guns. Not too far from Rosario was the more conventional Metropolitan Cathedral.
After visiting Rosario, we walked through the historic district of San Salvador. We have never seen so many loud, smelly, diesel buses as they plowed through the streets. There were lots of street vendors, including a few mobile phone repair stations. In Latina America, electronic items are repaired, not thrown away – a big change from the USA. The electrical wiring in this part of San Salvador has to be seen to be believed. The poles contain a spaghetti jungle of wiring. It’s clear that anytime someone needed some power, new wiring was just tacked on. Whoever has to repair wiring when things go wrong has a very tough job.
After walking for some time, we caught a taxi to a very modern mall in the affluent area west of downtown. It was a modern as anything you would find in an upscale area of the USA. We took advantage of the cold air conditioning and had some berry smoothies. We did a little window shopping and then went off for lunch.
Charlotte had found a local pupusa restaurant in the Lonely Planet guide. Pupusas are the national food of El Salvador. They are sort of like thick tortilla pouches stuffed with meat or cheese. We actually hadn’t tried any, so we were looking forward to it. This restaurant was vegetarian, so we got some stuffed with cheese, jalapenos, and some vegetables. They were absolutely delicious! The restaurant name was Kalpataru, and we definitely recommend it.
After lunch, the next stop on our tour was a nearby university where there was a museum about the civil war. The museum had the clothing that Bishop Romero was wearing when he was gunned down by the right-wing death squad. It had a lot of information about the civil war, and it was very moving to be there. On the plus side, the area was very vibrant, with lots of students and upscale housing. Our impression was that El Salvador is on the way up, developing a strong middle class.
We then walked over to a nearby Super Selecto grocery store, much larger than the one we had been to at Zaca. We were looking for cat food for Quincy, but they didn’t have brands that he would like. There was a very nice produce selection, and we bought some fresh vegetables. However, we broke the rules. Apparently you are expected to have the produce weighed and priced in the produce section, while we took it directly to the cashier. They sent it back to the produce department, and didn’t chastise us for our ignorance.
We then took a taxi back to the area where we could catch the bus back to Los Arcos, and amazingly enough, we found it. By now it was rush hour, and the traffic was pretty crazy. The bus hung around for some time to pack some more people in and then left. Once we got to the autopiste, the bus turned into something like a rest area. There was a pedestrian bridge over the expressway, and a lot of people were coming into the area. There is a saying in El Salvador about buses: how many people fit into a bus? The answer is, “one more”. We found this to be very true. While sitting in the stop, the barker was pounding the side of the bus and screaming out the destination, while the driver was constantly on the horn. More and more people kept coming in. Based on the available seats, the bus capacity was about forty. But soon we had standing passengers, followed by squeezing passengers. Each time we said they couldn’t possibly add another passengers, two or three more would squeeze in. We were totally amazed. After about twenty minutes, the barker must have been satisfied that the bus was full and we finally left.
Freeway or not, the bus made stops on the autopiste to both drop off and pick up passengers. We slowly got some air into the bus as passengers left. Once we got to Los Arcos, we identified the bus going to Bahia del Sol and got on board. Once again the barker was determined to get the bus stuffed. Since these buses aren’t air conditioned, it was really hot with the still air. But, you didn’t dare leave your seat for fresh air outside. We finally added “one more” and left. At one of the early stops, a paleta frozen fruit bars) vendor came on board – with his cart. He dragged it into the stairwell and held on to it as we rattled down the road. The bus experiences were a blast, totally making our day!
The rally organizers put together some fun events. One night we had games, including a whistling contest with a twist. The contestants had to consume a number of saltine crackers and then whistle. This is a lot more difficult than it sounds. I finished second in my round, but Rosé won hers to make the final. She just barely missed taking the championship. We were always filling to pool at happy hour, but the water was very warm. One day an ice truck showed up, and they brought huge slabs of ice into the pool, arranged by one of the participants. We were like little kids playing with the ice, and it was great fun.
March 29th: Bahia del Sol to Rio Grande de San Miguel
According to our weather router, the conditions for cruising down the Nicaraguan coast were improving. We expected that by Monday, the window would be good enough: not great, but manageable. We decided to leave on Saturday. With the bar, you can only cross around high tide, which was at 1:00PM on Saturday afternoon. We made a plan with the pilot boat to leave at 12:00, which would get us across with the outgoing tide. The pilot boat was late, not arriving until 1:00PM. On departure, the bow thruster failed – the first time it had not worked leaving a dock. The wind had kicked up a bit, blowing on our beam towards the dock. Directly behind us was a small basin next to the fuel dock. I figured we could back out of the slip, and the wind would push the stern into the basin, and then we could use the thruster to turn the bow hard to starboard. When the thruster failed, something close to panic set in. the stern did carry into the basin, so I turned the wheel hard and attempted to power forward to starboard. But, there wasn’t much space to maneuver, and the wind was really pushing us, so I had a difficult time with it. Rose and one of the guys on the dock had fenders ready in case we got too close to a dock or a boat, and it was really close. We finally got enough room to get out of the marina, without hitting anything.
We thought that going out over the bar would be easy, but it was harder than coming across. With the outgoing tide and incoming swell, the seas were rather angry over the bar. Plus, I had not activated the stabilizers as we cruised through the very calm estuary. The pilot boat told us to go, and we were pitching and rolling severely. We couldn’t make more than four knots, and it took well over a minute of white-knuckled terror to cross the bar. Once we cleared the bar, we made a course to the southeast, about a mile offshore. We were surprised by the amount of garbage floating out there – it’s a bigger problem in El Salvador than it was in Mexico. Our real destination was the Gulf of Fonseca, a very large gulf shared by El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. But since we couldn’t cross the bar until 1:00PM, we didn’t have time to make the seventy-three miles in daylight, and we didn’t want to arrive in the dark of the morning. We decided to anchor in twenty-five feet of water in an open roadstead once we lost the sun. We ended up anchoring about a half a mile offshore near the Rio Grande de San Miguel. Of course, the winds turned our beam into the swell, so we deployed the flopper stopper.
Position at destination: 13°09’ N, 88°20’ W
Air temp: 88, Water temp: 87
Nautical miles for this leg: 39.4 Total: 3408.1
Departed at 1:30pm, arrived at 7:15pm
March 30th: Rio Grande de San Miguel to Golfo de Fonseca (Isla Meanguera)
We left at first light for the Gulf of Fonseca. After a rolly night, the seas were very calm on this leg. On the cruise down, we ran across a “river” of debris running parallel to the coast. There were a lot of floating logs in the river, and we had to veer off course for over two miles before we could find a clear opening to cross the river. I’m not sure why this debris stayed so tightly packed. We rounded Punta de Amapala and entered the Gulf. It was very beautiful and well protected. Our destination was the southeast corner of Isla Meanguera, close to its little sister, Isla Meanguerita. There was a small village there, and we thought we might want to go onshore for lunch. After we had anchored, I could see a large boat heading across the Gulf towards us. We had officially checked out of El Salvador at Bahia del Sol, but we were told it was OK to stop in Fonseca in transit. The boat was an El Salvador Navy boat, and the officer in charge boarded us. He spoke English well, and just wanted to see our documents. We showed him our Zarpe and other documents, and he copied some information into his logbook. He was very friendly, and told us that if we had any problems to call the Navy on channel 16. We were too lazy to go ashore, so we had meals on board, and went to sleep early in anticipation of our long journey to Costa Rica.
Position at destination: 13°10’ N, 87°41.5’ W
Air temp: 90, Water temp: 86
Nautical miles for this leg: 40 Total: 3448.1
Departed at 6:15am, arrived at 12:30pm