Passage Note #48: Bahia del Sol, El Salvador to Golfito, Costa Rica
As usual we had been watching the weather for some time as we traveled inland in Guatemala and once we returned to the boat we did our normal predepature cha cha of cleaning the bottom and the prop, replacing a shaft zinc, obtaining 5 gallons of diesel that we used coming from Chiapas and stowing the dinghy onboard.
We had scheduled the port pilot to safely escort us out of the Bahia del Sol estuary across the bar once more and into the open sea for the following morning. As we pulled away from our mooring, Bill from Mita Kulu called us and said he was on his way to meet us at the entrance with the port pilot. We were led out and over the bar in reasonably calm conditions at 7 am.
Once we started to move away from the entrance we hoisted the main and rolled out the jib. Out went the fishing lines and we began our short overnight trek to Nicaragua, 100 miles away.
About an hour after departing Bahia del Sol we started seeing dozens and dozens of long lines that we managed to either steer around or safely pass over. These long lines stretch up to 1⁄4 mile and may contain 1000’s of baited hooked. Usually a hard-to-see float marks the both ends of the line and sometimes there is even a flag flying. These are big hazards for small boats - catching a line in the prop can make for dangerous work going over the side with a knife in hand having to cut the line and all those hooks off the prop. Luckily we avoided them all. The wind was less than 15kts coming from a direction we could sail and so we rolled right along the rhumb line.
“Hook up!” is what one of us yells to the other when we see a fish on the line or are alerted by our nifty clothespin alarm system. Later that afternoon we started to catch large Jack Cravelles between 15-20 lbs. These fish are members of the jack family and are called “El Toro” by the Mexicans because they fight like a bull. Unfortunately, we don’t eat these because the meat is dark red and almost looks like beef. We finally rolled the lines in after too many unproductive “Hook up!”s, catching and releasing 15 of these lure destroyers and calling it quits.
Early the next morning we had left El Salvador and were sailing down the northern coast of Nicaragua. At 7 a.m. we entered the estuary where Marina Puesta del Sol, an upscale hotel/restaurant/marina with a pool, is located. Tying up to the dock a few hours before the office opened gave us some time to have a cup of coffee and breakfast before meeting the harbor master. He called customs and immigration for us. They had to drive 1 hour from Corinto and we finally got cleared in by 3pm.
The Puesta Del Sol Marina is private and was developed by Robert, a Nicaraguan-born geothermal engineer and his Mexican wife, who live on their power boat at the dock. It is very isolated - about a 45 minute taxi drive to the closest large town - and the road is often impassable in the rainy season. The restaurant was very good and we enjoyed several meals with new cruiser friends. The resort straddles a thin peninsula; we were on the estuary side but a short walk away was a pool and bar facing the ocean. We took advantage of the 2 pools for our 4 o’clock swim and the sunsets from the ocean side were beautiful. It was a joy to swim in a clean pool, unlike the pool at the hotel in Bahia del Sol (El Salvador) that was brackish and smelled.
After 10 days traveling around Nicaragua we returned to the boat and prepared to head to Costa Rica. Jacaranda was covered in cane ash from the burning of the sugar cane fields on the other side of the estuary. As in El Salvador, we saw huge fires every night from the countryside and if the wind blew towards us we could be assured of a heavy fall out of ash. When the fires were set during the day, huge plumes of smoke sometimes covered the sun! These are intentional burns that are done prior to the harvest to rid the fields of rodents and snakes and also remove all the leaves on the stalks of cane. Setting a controlled fire to the fields is essential for maximizing the processing of the cane when it was harvested by hand. Boy, what a horrible job that is in the intense heat swinging a machete all day! Very few farmers can afford the machines to do the harvesting.
The next leg of our trip to Costa Rica entailed sailing past the Gulf of Papagayo and its associated strong winds that blew mainly at night. Although not as strong or dangerous as the Tehuantepecers we had to watch out for in Mexico, we had another timing issue - strong Papagayos blowing on the nose could make for a slow and uncomfortable trip. While we were away from the boat traveling inland, we could tell by the windy conditions we had that the Papagayo winds were blowing hard. Our friends on the dock in the Marina reported experiencing 30+ knots while we were gone.
A careful look at our daily weather files forecasted a break in the nightly Papagayos: a one day weather window due the next day. That was enough time to get past the Gulf of Papagayo and to our next destination in Costa Rica.
At first light the next day, we were prepared to leave the dock. But first we had a small matter to take care of. When we returned to the boat from our inland trip, Linda noticed what looked like mouse droppings on the deck at the base of the mast under the mainsail. Our first thought was “oh no we have a ‘raton’ on board - we can’t let it get below and inside the boat”. I did not want to take the sail cover off until the moment we were ready to pull away from the dock fearing that we would be chasing a mouse around the deck.
We hoisted the sail slowly and sure enough, I smashed the little black critter in a fold in the sail before he had a chance to escape. Linda noticed a second critter in another fold. By then we realized they were not mice but small bats that had been snoring away in their new little “cave”. Linda was able to rescue the second bat and sent him on his way with a toss in the air.
So at 6am we were underway in the clear day, headed out of the estuary in Nicaragua and aiming towards Bahia Santa Elena, Costa Rica. The initial wind came from the direction we were headed so we chugged along at 3 knots occasionally seeing our boat speed dropping even further. The forecast called for the previous evening’s Papagayo to start weakening by late morning. By 11am the wind had shifted allowing us to roll the jib out and begin sailing. We carried the good sailing breeze through the entire night and started the engine only about 5 miles from the entrance to the bay the next morning.
Bahia Santa Elena is part of the Costa Rican National Park system, adjacent to Parque Santa Rosa, the largest stand of dry tropical forest left in Central America. It’s so remote that no one lives on this large bay but we saw the occasional fisherman coming in to sleep during the day and head out around 5pm for a night of fishing. South of us, the Papagayos blew pretty hard for the next two days, causing strong bullets of wind to come off the land, down the ravines in the high hills in front of us. They would lay the boat right over, die off and allow the boat to swing beam onto the next blast. But our anchorage was well protected and we were glad we were able to squeeze through the break in the strong winds with our one day weather window and relax here.
Surprisingly, this bay reminded us of Quemado in Baja in the Sea of Cortez, except that the hills were covered in bare trees instead of desert. But it was brown nonetheless, this being a dry forest and the end of the dry season with no rain. No green except some mangroves and short trees near the shore. We stayed on the boat during this time, enjoying our solitude, and although we did not venture ashore we were entertained by all the parrots and howler monkeys we could hear and see (the first time from the boat!!). We departed at 5am on the third day hoping to get around Punta Elena before it got really windy. This point is known for accelerating the wind, sometimes more than doubling the wind speed that occurs in Bahia Santa Elena.
Sure enough, the wind continued to build as we sailed downwind towards the point; we had a double reefed main, prepared for it to pipe up even more. But as we turned around the point and headed towards Playas del Coco, the wind surprisingly went light then switched to the SW allowing us a great sail all the way into Bahia Huevos.
The following day we moved over to Playa Panama, anchoring in front of a beautiful resort called Casa Conde del Mar which had a pristine beach and tall trees filled with howler monkeys. We took two buses to the cute town of Playas del Coco and then proceeded to spend the whole day checking into the country (including another bus trip to beyond the Liberia airport where the Customs office was located). What a schlep!
Linda was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the provisioning in the AutoMercado in Playas del Coco - great selection of food although at higher prices. We motored across the Bay to get fuel at Marina Papagayo and then moved further down the coast stopping at various small bays and anchorages, finally ending up at gorgeous Punta Quepos. Now it felt as if we had made the transition into the real tropics! Our spot was gorgeous, ringed with high jungly green hills full of monkeys and birds, anchoring near a popular snorkeling reef and a short dinghy ride to 3 pretty beaches.
Many years ago, we met Elizabeth, the daughter of a long time friend of Chuck’s Mom, and talked about meeting her when we got to Costa Rica. Here it was eight years later and it was finally happening!!!! Elizabeth has a house on the top of the hill overlooking our boat in a beautiful jungle setting with birds, monkeys and a wonderful vista of the bay and surrounding jungle. We spent 2 wonderful days visiting with her, her artist friend Bill, going into the town of Quepos and Manuel Antonio National Park. This park is one of the most accessible and most visited in Costa Rica - wildlife is abundant and the beaches are beautiful. We were not disappointed with sightings of numerous deer, sloths, birds, monkeys, bats, agouti, iguanas, etc.
Hiking in the jungle from the beach where we left our dinghy (called Playa Biesanz) to the road to catch the bus to the Park, we met a couple who were delivering plants to an older Tico man who lived in a small shack near the road. The woman offered to drive us to the bus stop which was quite a ways away. She mentioned that we could just as well hike on her property, which we were in the middle of, and see the same animals. Her name was Sara Biesanz and her husband, Barry, not only owned the entire Punto Quepos, but we discovered later he was considered the best wood craftsman in Costa Rica.
From Quepos we continued south down the coast again stopping in many bays until we reached the Osa Peninsula. and anchored in Drake Bay in a torrential afternoon downpour.
The rainy season was upon us! The next evening, rounding the corner into Golfo Dulce, we passed a stand of ylang ylang trees in Corcovado National Park and the heavenly scent reached us like a crystal bottle of Chanel No. 5 breaking on deck. The smell was intoxicating! We spent a few days in Puerto Jimenez, on the west side of the Golfo Dulce, a lovely little town that serves as the main jumping off point for entering the pristine rainforest of Corcovado National Park. This park is the jewel of the Costa Rican Park system. We spent a number of days exploring this beautiful bay with virgin jungle coming right down to the waters edge. Scarlet macaws, toucans and howler monkeys entertained us every day. We traveled about 45 minutes from Puerto Jimenez with Nito, a nature guide from Surcos Tours and explored the jungle on a day hike at La Tarde Ecolodge, a private property bordering the Park, finding colorful poison dart frogs, many types of exotic birds, snakes and monkeys, and walking among the electric blue fluttering of large Morpho butterflies.
Circling the Gulf clockwise, we also stopped in Rincon, Pargo and isolated Playa Josecito, at the base of the Piedras Blancas mountains. The highlight was a 2 day visit to Casa Orquideas, a private botanical garden planted by expats Trudy and Ron McAllister thirty years ago. This is a sanctuary, a private piece of paradise, whose exotic fruit trees, orchids, heliconias, gingers, bromeliads and ornamental plants attract over 100 species of birds and butterflies. Toucans, hummingbirds, and a flock of 9 scarlet macaws frequent the grounds and we never heard such strange night noises from the multitude of frog and toad species! Trudy took us on a tour and explained the medicinal uses and odd facts about some of the plants.
Finally, we made our way into Golfito, the main port in this southern pacific end of Costa Rica. Golfito, in its heyday, was United Fruit’s shipping center for bananas and the place still retains its huge pier and the architecture and layout of a “company town”. We had an appointment with Tim of LandSea to tie up to one of his five moorings. Here we plan to leave Jacaranda while we go back to the US for a month - three weeks in San Diego to work on our rental house (our long-time tenants have left and we need to get it ready for new tenants) and one week in New Jersey for a long overdue memorial service for my father and the dedication of a room in the hospital in which he practiced to honor his medical career.
MORE PHOTOS: Go to Photo Gallery in the Menu and click on PN #48
NOTE: We have friends who are currently cruising Indonesia with their three children. For those who enjoy reading our passage notes about cruising, Behan on Totem writes a terrific blog with many photos. We both love her writing and encourage those interested in more cruising stuff to check out their blog. See how its done with kids aboard!