Updated on November 2, 2017
A bit of a sprint
We use a lot of different resources for making our cruising plans: cruising guidebooks, online aggregators like Active Captain, advice from fellow cruisers, State Department bulletins, tips from locals, traditional guidebooks like Lonely Planet, sailing blogs, and hours of staring at charts. Every single one of those sources pointed us to Bahia Santa Elena. (Well, except for the Lonely Planet-type stuff. Sorry, traditional travelers—this place is too remote for you!)
This huge bay on the very north coast of Costa Rica is entirely surrounded by national park. Hidden from the swell, it also provides great protection from the weather, including the nasty Papagayo winds that blow down from the north. We’d hoped to spend almost a week here, but our late departure from Cocos gave us only a few days.
We still managed to find our way to shore and follow a path to a small but glorious waterfall. Walking up the stream bed, the ravages of Tropical Storm Nate were everywhere. At night, the bioluminescence in the still water reflected the Orionoid meteor shower from the stars above. We cooked up some meals, cleaned up the boat a bit, and turned our attentions to heading north.
Winds were up and down along the entire coast of Nicaragua, following the spotty thunderstorms. I started to feel a little embarrassed about posting so many pictures of Arenal Volcano, as the entire coast was fringed with equally spectacular spires. Most fantastic: the sparkling waters at night. We have never seen such vivid bioluminescence, and the dolphins that came to swim alongside the boat were perfectly outlined, nose to tail, in glowing greens and blues.
I think most long-range cruisers would tell you that the first three or four days of a trip are the worst; after that, you fall into a rhythm of sleep and wakefulness, eating and reading, and the movement of the boat becomes background noise instead of loud bells in your face. We wouldn’t know. We maybe got there on the Jamaica crossing, but we really don’t love the long push. Costa Rica directly to Chiapas would have taken four or five days; instead, after two nights we opted to head for the Gulf of Fonseca and get some real sleep.
Fonseca is at the conjunction of El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, and has been a strategic stronghold for such formidable powers as Sir Francis Drake and the CIA. No one could even decide which islands belonged to whom, until the International Court of Justice parsed things out in 1992. The island we opted for officially belongs to El Salvador, but we strongly considered heading to El Tigre, a bit further up the gulf: there’s an excellent volcano to hike, an old CIA base to explore, and checking in and out of Honduras can be accomplished there for free in the same day. Sleep won out, however, and we went for the nearest comfortable spot. We hoisted our “Q” flag and spent a couple of nights pretending we were not actually in El Salvador.
On to Mexico! But first, we had a bit to learn about gap winds. The most famous gap winds in this part of the world are the Papaguyos blowing through the Gulf of Fonseca, and the howlers that rage down the Gulf of Tahuantapec; wind in the Caribbean jumps across the peninsula of Central America, intensifying in the “gaps” between the mountains, until being spit out on the Pacific side at double strength. They usually don’t really kick up until December, but apparently October is a fine time for them as well. We don’t think we really saw any full-disaster Papaguyos, but we did see strong, sustained winds that were affiliated with gaps in the mountains; winds would blow for two hours at 20 knots, maybe gusting 25, for three hours, then die down to almost nothing for two hours before picking up again. Reef in, reef out, genoa in, genoa out, motor off, motor on. Tell you what, though: we made great time.
We generally download weather about every eight hours when we’re on passage—maybe twelve, if everything’s relaxed—and at about two in the morning the night after we left Fonseca, we noticed a serious problem. A low pressure system was forming directly south of us, and it didn’t look pretty. Three of our weather models seemed to say, hey, don’t worry, it’s going to totally fizzle out and you won’t even notice this; one model screamed, “APOCOLYPSE!!!” literally placing a hurricane directly in our path within 36 hours. Obviously, we listened to the Apocalypse Scenario.
The southern coast of El Salvador is not exactly rife with safe harbors; the best and closest spot required following a pilot through breaking waves, an entrance that’s impassable much of the time due to our old friend swell. We’ve heard some terror-filled tales and wanted no part of it. Instead, we bee-lined for Puerto Quetzal in Guatemala.
Puerto Quetzal is a deep-water harbor for freighter traffic. In a classic case of If You Build It They Will Come, cruise ships now dock here as well. The result is a hilarious mix of filthy, industrial shipping harbor and faux-Guatemala tourist trap. The cruise ship folks are unloaded to a proscribed area filled with bad but overpriced restaurants, souvenir stores and little cultural dances playing out over the afternoon. The marina is in the tourist trap, entirely filled with sport fishing boats on the hunt for clients. We paid a pretty steep price for the privilege of stopping here; the marina is not cheap, nor is checking in to the country—and there’s no possibility of just hanging out under your “Q” flag and pretending not to be there. Tropical Storm Selma, of course, faded away and went east; we would have had no problem if we’d continued on, but we were happy to be safe.
The final stretch took a speedy 24 hours, and we finally pulled in to Marina Chiapas in beautiful old Mexico.