Walking on the Wild Side in Barillas

Barillas Marina, El Salvador

Based on what we’ve been able to see in the weather forecasts, we’ll leave from here tomorrow and try to make Huatulco in one go. We calculate it should take us between 72 and 84 hours, depending on conditions.

We’ve enjoyed our time here in Barillas, even though we’re a bit remote. There aren’t too many boats here, so the social life is quiet. But it’s been blessedly calm, with refreshing afternoon breezes and tide swings to change the scenery four times a day. We’ve taken a few dinghy explorations as it’s rumored there are “crocodiles” lurking in the mangroves – I think they mean caimans, I’ll have to look up the difference.

When we’re in the mangroves, all of the birds seem to hold their collective breath, and the only sounds we hear as we row along are drips and loud pops. An internet investigation suggests that the pops we hear are actually a species of shrimp – pistol shrimp, or snapping shrimp – that are rumored to be among the loudest creatures on earth for their size. Of birds, we see lots of ibis, herons, parakeets, and ubiquitous grackles. We hear and see fish jumping in the water, but they are uninterested in our spinning rod and lure.

We’ve spent some of the time touching up the varnish on the cap rail, as we haven’t seen rain from the time we arrived in Puntarenas until a shower came through just the other night. The boat is dusty and covered with sugar cane ash, as we’re in the season where they burn the fields to prepare for the new crop.

We joined a Canadian couple for an accompanied walk through the forest to visit the spider monkeys, known personally and by name by an old man, Don Miguel, and his family who live on the property. Roberto, the marina’s security guard, led us through the jungle, helped us identify trees and plants, and introduced us to the landlord of the “monkey preserve.” As we approached Don Miguel’s poor little house and compound, he cheerfully began shouting for Pancho and Maria, and after a few minutes, we saw the upper branches of the trees moving, and a family of spider monkeys swung down into the garden to eat bananas from his hands. He identified each one by name, and pointed out a matriarch of 30 years old, whom he has known all her life, as well as Maria’s son Panchito, a youngster of a year or two in age. It was touching to watch Don Miguel interact with the troop, and his affection for them and their trust of him were clear.

A Trip to San Salvador, and Pupusas

Barillas Marina, El Salvador

Yesterday I was up at 5:00 a.m. for a private car ride into San Salvador, hoping to get new visa pages and a printer, and see a bit of the countryside. For $100, a private car and driver was available for the day, and Francisco, my driver, was very accommodating and helpful. He dropped me off at the US Embassy, a beautiful property on the edge of the city, and after just an hour and a half, picked me up again for a visit to Las Cascadas, a huge, modern shopping mall with an Office Depot! Found a great new Epson all-in-one wireless printer, some replacement business card blanks, extra ink cartridges, helped along with Francisco acting as my “business manager,” not uncommon in Central America.

Once we finished with my business, Francisco had to stop at Barillas’ city offices, so I enjoyed the drive through the city and a pleasant wait with the security guard. San Salvador is a beautiful old city, sitting on the shoulders of a volcano, with clean streets, fairly uniform sidewalks, and a look of prosperity about it. After the 13-year civil war that finally ended in the 90s, the country is united, prosperous, and proud of its democracy. And clearly, the US interests prevailed, rightly or wrongly, evidenced by the Burger Kings, Office Depots, shopping malls, and English signage. The city seems clean, tidy, well-organized and fairly safe, and like any other Latin American city, full of armed security guards everywhere.

Making Pupusas

I told Francisco I’d treat him to lunch if he found us a good local place to eat, so on the way out of the city, along the freeway, we stopped at a rest-stop equivalent lined with Pupuserías – little entrepreneurial shops specializing in the local comfort food pupusas. These are like empanadas, though made with rice flour, stuffed with everything from cheese to beans to flowers and herbs, made to order, and accompanied by a relish made of cabbage, carrots, citrus and jalapeno, all eaten by hand. Francisco and I each ate three, topped off with iced hibiscus tea, and the total bill was about $5. What a country. He explained to me that this place is known locally as the “pueblo de pupusas” or “pupusa town” because there are over 200 separate vendors in this one little stretch of freeway rest stop. Delicious!

The other task while here was to find a cheap Salvadoran cell phone so Ole could communicate with Independence of the Seas more cheaply than with our US cell phones (at $3 per minute for incoming calls, a 30-minute conversation costs a fortune!). No luck in San Salvador finding any phone less than $45, so we stopped in Usulutan on the way back to the marina and found a $20 phone, a $20 card, and back in bidness. There are now regulations all over Latin America, though, that require any cell phone to be purchased and/or licensed by a legal resident of the country, ostensibly to keep track of illegal transactions of one sort or another. So part of Francisco’s service was registering the phone in his name and handling the finances. It didn’t seem too far outside the bounds of custom for this type of transaction to take place. The local philosophy seems to be “when the door is closed by some legal restriction, use the window.”

Visiting Usulutan, El Salvador

Barillas Marina, El Salvador

Ole decided to order a cleaning kit for the water maker, which is coming from the States. We opted to order it here because the marina is proud of being able to import boat parts duty-free. The fridge was getting low on fresh produce again, so I joined the other cruisers in a van trip to nearby Usulutan, the county seat for the district of Jiquilisco, where Barillas is located. Half the ride into town was leaving the property via a dusty dirt road that passes through the cane fields – the town itself is just 15 minutes once the van reached the highway. Like any Central American city we’ve encountered, it’s full of traffic, noisy, a bit gritty, and filled with small businesses and entrepreneurial vendors selling everything from avocados to DVDs from little stalls on the sidewalk. Usulutan is a bit different, though, as it sits on the lower slopes of the mountains and is pleasantly hilly. I successfully found a new v-belt for the generator, and spent an hour and a half visiting hardware stores looking for a tiny t-fitting for the water maker, and almost an hour looking for a replacement printer, all in vain. Hot, sweaty, dusty and a bit dizzy, I ended up at the grocery store and found decent produce and something cold to drink while I waited for the van home. Given that my passport only has one visa page left and we’re so close to San Salvador, I think I’ll go into the city to get more pages at the Embassy, and while I’m there, investigate a printer that meets our needs.

Goodbye Nicaragua, Hello El Salvador!

Barillas Marina, El Salvador

After an early morning visit by the Nicaraguan authorities, we took off at about 9:00 April 1 for a six-hour run to the Golfo de Fonseca, a large sound shared by El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras. This was a must-visit place, as Ole ordered and had hand-delivered a chart for the area. The chart made it look interesting, as there were many islands and bays, and we envisioned gunkholing, swimming off the back, and poking around the beach. We arrived at an anchorage on the northeast corner of Isla Manguera, recommended by Roberto as a good anchorage, and not 15 minutes after we dropped the hook, the winds came howling off the island from the west, gusting up to 25 knots, and making it impossible to contemplate dropping the dinghy. The winds lasted until about 9:00 p.m., when it mysteriously calmed down.

Boy, we were never so glad to be up at 4:00 a.m. and leave an anchorage (except maybe from Vivorillos, three years ago). After two days of sitting through calm mornings, with jellyfish-laden water, and being treated to afternoon winds of 25-30 knots that lasted well past dinner time, we opted to just leave and head for Barillas Marina in El Salvador, where we arrived at about 1:45 p.m. We arrived at the ocean waypoint at 11:00, jogging in place for about an hour while we waited for their panga to come out and meet us to guide us over the sandbar and up the estuary to the marina.

The ride in was interesting, as we passed between shoals in water no more than 12-15 feet deep while huge breakers crashed on either side of us. There were a few moments of being sideways to the swells which made for some great rolls, but once the water flattened out, we enjoyed the calm ride past the beaches and villages, about nine miles up the mangroves to the Barillas Marina Club. Once we were secure at the mooring ball, the authorities and marina owner, Heriberto, came out to clear us in – a feat that was accomplished in less than 20 minutes at a cost of $20. Once we cleared in, we accompanied Heriberto for a tour of the facility and a short walk to Immigration, where we were welcomed to El Salvador and told how proud the country was of its democracy. Lovely, warm welcome. But we suffered a casualty on the way in – our HP printer, veteran of nearly 4500 miles, dropped dead in the night and despite our best efforts, died. Now the challenge – to find a good wireless printer in Central America!