Posted on November 15, 2017
Since before we left on this epic trip, Michu and I had been planning a week of language school for the whole family. A lot of different places offer high-quality language instruction, but when we arrived at Chiapas and heard from a fellow cruiser about the great experience his wife was having in Guatemala, we decided the time was ripe for a field trip. Leaving the boat well cared-for at the marina, we hopped a bus to the mountain city of Quetzaltenango—aka Xela (“Shay-la”).
Guatemala does not enjoy a particularly great reputation for safety, so we were cautious about our planning. The bus we took was not a classic chicken bus, but a direct, private, air-conditioned coach with about a zero-percent chance of being hijacked (as has been known to happen to the chicken busses). We were met at the bus station by one of the teachers of the school, and ferried directly to the home of a trusted host near the center of town.
We arrived mid-day Sunday, and had a few hours to walk around the city. Xela is pretty big, but our house was only a few blocks from the central park area, and the first Sunday of the month is market day.
Our teachers later explained that it was the 100th anniversary of a religious service group, and they had invited all of the other surrounding groups within the Catholic church to participate in a parade.
The climax of the procession involved carrying a huge, heavy litter from the cathedral around the main square. Every hundred yards or so, the people carrying the float would support the structure with dozens of metal crutches, and a different group would take up the burden. The outfits distinguished the different groups—some all in black, some all in purple, with different shaped hats and fantastic banners declaring their names and when they were founded. And lest you think it was all men: the first group out of the gate were women, garbed in traditional Mayan skirts.
We had requested a home-stay, and were happy to be placed with a woman who ran a hotel out of the front of her house and a series of rooms in the back in her home. She cooked for us three times a day, and gave us a better understanding of the food of Central America—bigger breakfasts than a typical weekday for us (although she cut back when she saw we couldn’t eat it all), main meal of the day around 1:30, and a lighter supper around 7, with lots of beans and tortillas at all times. On our last night, she made tamales for us out of chicken and rice, wrapped in a leaf instead of a corn husk. Home cooking, Mayan style.
The school itself was pretty intense. We were each assigned our own teacher—kids, too!—and worked five hours straight with our instructor, with only a half-hour break at 10:30 to take advantage of local vendors in the courtyard selling tostadas, empanadas and other snacks. The classes were a mix of grammar instruction, review, and conversation. So, just imagine: here is a person you have never met in your life. Please talk to them for five hours. Go! Immersion school is not for the shy—or, at least, it’s much more tiring for introverts, as T and I quickly found out.
The kids needed a bit more flexibility, so we sent them off to the zoo or for ice cream with their instructors for the second half of the morning; we also got a rest during mini-lectures after break twice during the week, learning about Guatemalan music and the specific Maya-influenced culture of Xela. Still, it was pretty exhausting for the whole family, and there were times when I felt like my grammar was worse than it had been on arrival. Do I use the predicate or the imperfect here? Is that verb irregular in the third person plural? I don’t remember! And this is the 5,000th error I’ve made today!! So the school was occasionally dispiriting in a break-you-down-to-build-you-up kind of way, but the staff were extremely nice and professional, and we all came out speaking better Spanish.
Xela itself was a great antidote to our experience in Puerto Quetzal. The town is a real, functioning city, with ancient stone streets in the center and a regular commercial perimeter. Tucked into the mountains, the cool air was a huge contrast to the tropical humidity we’ve become accustomed to, and we busted out our fleece and jeans for the first time in almost a year.
Posted on November 8, 2017
You’d think our biggest struggle around the holidays for the kids would be Christmas. Far from friends and family, no snow, serious limits on the presents…or maybe Thanksgiving? But no; on our boat, the biggest struggle is Hallowe’en.
It’s not so much the costumes or the candy; back in our old neighborhood, Hallowe’en was a serious community event, and our block was the epicenter, thanks to our friend Cooper’s haunted house. By the end of the night, all the kids would be across the street in his yard, running around like maniacs. Costumes, we can make; last year, we trick-or-treated the docks in Charleston; but we can’t put our kids back with their friends for the night.
This year, neither kid wanted to dress up if there were no other kids around. The marina is pretty sparsely populated, as well—not too exciting to trick-or-treat the two other cruisers and the office. Instead, we went with Distraction. Look over here—it’s the Day of the Dead!
Notice the skeleton crawling towards the plastic-strewn “water.” The little tripod in the front held some kind of burning incense, and they all had tequila on offer somewhere. Ofertas were set up in the official government office where we paid for our TIP, with a statue of the Virgin Mary at the head; there was also a big one at the Wal-Mart, with a prominent pic of Sam Walton.
We made sure to stock up on special Day of the Dead treats, as well. After so much time in Panama and Costa Rica, we are so extremely happy to be in a country with a serious food culture. Our restrictions on restaurant meals have flown out the window, especially since we know we can eat really well for not much money. Four days in country, three meals out–that’s a record, for sure, and we’ve no plans to put on the brakes. Chocolate- and coffee-tinged mole, taquitos, grilled meats, table-side salsa prep, heaps of guacamole, chilaquiles, platters of tacos…and we’re just getting started.
Posted on November 6, 2017
Boilerplate disclaimer: this is not what it will cost you to go cruising.
People’s constant advice, discussing cruising finances, always seems to be: It’ll cost what you have. We did not find this helpful in our planning, however true it may be. What we’re trying to show is the cost to us, more or less, for one month to go cruising. We’re going for monthly expenses, because they’re easier for us to track; so you won’t see the boat insurance amortized, you’ll just see that expense when we pay it. It won’t be what you’ll spend, but it was the kind of information that helped us out when we were trying to wrap our heads around that magical number for our cruising kitty.
Living up to expectations, October was not cheap. Among other things, our unexpected stop in Guatemala cost us almost $500. To break it down:
Marina: $870.73 Restaurant: $299.04 Grocery: $576.16 Transportation: $103.88 Supplies: $129.28 Boat Parts: $80.33 Ice Cream: $3.45 Booze: $14.94 Immigration/Customs: $422.80 Communications: $159.48 Laundry: $22 Fuel: stove, $46.86; diesel, $206.64 Grand total: $2933.59
A few things jump right out at you from those numbers:
- The marina costs included our three-week stay at the Costa Rica Yacht Club, almost all of which was in September; we also paid big money for the slip in Guatemala.
- Customs and immigration included costs of checking out of Costa Rica; $200 for our two nights in Guatemala; and our costs for checking into Mexico, including our ten-year Temporary Import Permit.
- Money spent on transportation is closely linked with cabs and private cars to get customs and immigration work done. Sometimes, you just can’t take a bus.
- Clearly, we need to start spending more money in three categories: ice cream, booze, and laundry. Where are our priorities?
Posted on November 2, 2017
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.
Posted on October 18, 2017
We’ve been trying to leave Costa Rica for a lot of days…but things are proving to be a bit sticky.
Our exit strategy started out well enough; we got our national zarpe in Puntarenas to officially take us up to Playa del Coco, we motored out of the debris-strewn channel without incident, and we headed out of the Gulf of Nicoya accompanied by swarms of leaping rays.
Two long days of travel, punctuated by one uncomfortable night at Playa Samara, saw us on the north side of the peninsula. At this point, something went seriously wrong with our charts–both Navionics and Garmin. We’ve had pretty good luck with our electronic charts; it’s not at all uncommon for boats to find themselves out of position on the little video game of mapping, but we’ve been more or less where we should have been–until now.
Once anchored, we were loving the little bay enough to stick around for three nights, including a mellow birthday celebration for me. Then on to Playa del Coco, the northernmost port of entry for Costa Rica. Our plan was to get our official exit papers from the Port Captain on Monday; pick up some last-minute groceries; head north six nautical miles to the only marina on the northern half of the country to top up on diesel and water; and spend a couple of nights in Bahia Santa Elena, prepping the boat and ourselves for the passage to Mexico.
Instead, we’ve run into a few roadblocks. The first stumbling point is this: despite being an official port of entry for all shipping traffic entering and exiting Costa Rica, Playa del Coco has no pier. The entire beach is a challenging surf landing. There’s nothing to lock your boat to once you manage to get to shore, and the area has a reputation for theft.
There’s not really a regular commercial water taxi, but we managed to get a ride in with a local, so we didn’t have to leave our dinghy on the beach, and waded through the surf per local custom as our friend nosed his dinghy towards land. Once there, we got the bad news: national holiday, office closed. Fine. We did our shopping and caught a ride back to the boat.
Next day, I dropped Michu off like a pro, only to get a message minutes later: once we were checked out of the country, we would not be able to purchase diesel. Instead, we had to head up to the marina, top off our tanks, and come back to check out the next day. Furthermore, we couldn’t just get our zarpe in town and be on our way–Michu was going to have to schlep it to the airport to deal with cancelling our temporary import permit, a half-hour away in the town of Liberia. Once checked out, we would have three hours to leave the country.
This is the point where I got irrationally pissed off. The layers of Central American bureaucracy are legend, and we’ve been dealing with them for the better part of a year, but somehow the ridiculousness of this particular set of hoops was the end for me. Why don’t you like us, Costa Rica? Why are you making it so hard for cruising sailboats to visit your beautiful country? There was pointless ranting and hideous profanity on my side, which fortunately abated by the time we got back to the boat and the kids.
As we made ready to pull up the anchor and get our diesel and water, I noticed a puddle of oil in the anchor locker. Never a good sign. Sure enough the oil was leaking out of the windlass again. This time, it was Michu’s turn to be irrationally pissed–yet another day of Fluids Not Being Where They Should. Dammit!
So here we are, two days later. The windlass is fixed. We’re off to get the diesel and water from the snooty, three-bucks-a-foot-a-night, where-is-your-zarpe-and-TIP marina. Tomorrow, we hope to get all the paperwork sorted, after which we still plan to head for Bahia Santa Elena. The port captain knows we won’t be leaving within three hours of finishing the paperwork–it’s not even physically possible to exit this bay within three hours of finishing the paperwork. No one will care, no one will check–but we still have to go through the motions of officialdom. After here, we’ll be out of touch for a couple of weeks; no wifi until we’re in Mexico, and we plan to take our time getting there.
Fortunately, there are compensations to our additional unexpected time here. A couple of extra restaurant meals; some excellent fender rodeos; beautiful sunsets. It’s not a terrible place to be, but it’s still time for us to be gone.