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.

Fun With Wind and Weather

Bahia Santa Elena, Costa Rica

Two weeks later, and we’re still in Costa Rica. We’re in just about the northernmost protected anchorage, just an hour and a half run to Nicaraguan waters, nailed down by the winds.

From Islas Tortugas two weeks ago, we did a short run to Bahia Ballena for a couple of nights. There isn’t much there, just a small village with a wicked (for us) surf landing, and a community pier where the fishing boats tie up. The tide range is a pretty wide 9 feet (from our Florida and Caribbean experience of inches), and tying up the dinghy required setting a stern anchor to prevent being sucked under the concrete pier during the incoming tide. The pier was worn, slimy with marine growth and pelican poo, but the fishermen were friendly. We managed to score a kilo of fresh shrimp right off a shrimper who sold to the fishermen at the pier, and enjoyed peel ‘n eats and a beautiful salad.

The water wasn’t the clearest, but we installed a new zinc under the swimstep, and had a few cooling dips when the heat overtook us. A highlight of our stay in Bahia Ballena was the chance to watch Holland America’s Maasdam pass by on March 12 on its way to Huatulco, and contact them on the radio to relay a greeting to the DeFever Cruisers Association group onboard. We don’t know if they saw us or not, but it allowed us an excuse to raise a glass in their honor.

On March 13, we hoisted anchor about 11:00 pm for the 116-mile, 16-hour run to Bahia Culebra. We had a beautiful run with next to no wind and long slow swells of 3-5 feet. When we arrived on the 14th, there was quite a stiff breeze blowing out from the east, so we tucked into a little bay on the northwest side, and protected by a little point, enjoyed a quiet two days punctuated by a couple of troops of howler monkeys calling back and forth. What struck us the most about this bay was how dry the landscape is. After two years in the wettest part of Panama, it was odd to see California-like hills of golden color, dry trees, with very little in the way of green except right along the shore.

On March 17, we moved over to the head of the bay to anchor off the new Marina Papagayo, to run in and check email. The marina is beautiful – state of the art slips, electricity, uniformed staff, shops, bar and restaurant, and stunning internet facilities inside an air conditioned lobby. We had planned to stay for lunch, but after just 90 minutes the wind kicked up, raising whitecaps between us and Emma Jo, so we opted to run back and spare the computer more spray than it could take. We sat there overnight, watching wind gusting to 25 knots, and thought about moving the next morning to where we could get some lee. The annoying thing about the wind, after about 12 hours of it, was realizing how dry it was – coming right out of the east, off the parched hills. Reminded us of the Santa Anas in Southern California – and the Foehn in Germany (during which murderers receive lighter sentences on account of being driven mad by the winds – just sayin’). On the 18th, after Ole ran ashore to check emails at the marina, we opted to move to the south side of the bay and look for some lee.

Our first choice was crowded with a resort and wave runners, so we rounded a point and ended up in a wide bay called Playa Panama, mistakenly choosing the southwest corner for an anchorage. We ran ashore in the dinghy to one of the cutest little beach bars we’ve found so far – the Playa Panama Beach Club, to check emails and make a few Skype calls. When we returned to Emma Jo, there came the wind again, and in the evening we opted to move back to the southeast corner, where we got some lee. When the wind blows 20-25, it makes jumping off the stern a bit chancy for a swim. We’d hate to end up in Hawaii.

On the 19th, we left Bahia Culebra to pursue checkout formalities with the Port Captain in Playa del Coco. I had to dinghy Ole ashore with the boat papers, and as I dropped him off into a 3-4 foot surf, the wind kicked up, and I had to battle 20-25 knots alone in the dinghy, find the boat, get aboard, and tie up by myself. I did fine, but being alone for 4 hours while Emma Jo was buffeted around in a crowded anchorage was not my idea of a great time. I set the anchor alarm and watched the anemometer – couldn’t bear to be in the salon listening to the wind howl through the screens. Ole had to go from the Port Captain to the Bank and Immigration, then take a taxi to Liberia (about 30 minutes away) to Customs at the airport. Once we got him back aboard, dried out, and fed, we picked up the anchor and moved back to Playa Panama to wait for calmer conditions to turn north.

On the 20th, we picked up anchor early, hoping to get a head start on the wind, which seems to pick up any time between 7:30 and 9:30 a.m. Heading north, we needed to round the last cape in Costa Rica – Cabo Santa Elena, to find a protected bay on its north side. We had a fine enough ride until we reached the extreme west end of the cape, turned north, then east, took a look at the army of whitecaps marching toward us, then changed our mind, anchoring off a little place called Key Point, behind the Islas Murcielagos (Bat Islands) back on the south side of the cape. The water was clean and clear, and the wind continued to blow 20-25, so we sat. At dinner, we decided that if Ole woke up at 4:00 a.m. and it was calm, we’d just get up and round the cape before the wind woke up, which we did. We arrived in Bahia Santa Elena, a beautiful, almost landlocked bay, to find one sailboat leaving, two at anchor, and two local fishing boats enjoying the glassy surface of the bay. A spotted dolphin played with us as we came in, crossing our bow wake and rolling over to look at us. We figured on a night or two here to rest up before our 130 mile run northwest to Puesta del Sol in Nicaragua.

We ran over to introduce ourselves to the sailboaters – a nice couple, Danny and Paula on Paula Jean and a great family, Troy, Brady, and their three daughters on Seaparents. We all got together and took an exploratory trip up the estuaries at the head of the bay, finding big green parrots, hearing oropendola, and the most amazing black-red crabs with neon yellow claws clicking over the exposed mangrove roots. Pretty trip!

Last night Ole and I went on a “date.” We had martinis as the sun went down, accompanied with the very last of Dale and Linda’s home-canned salmon. After a brief radio confab about the weather, we changed clothes – Ole in clean shorts and a parrot shirt, me with mascara AND lipstick and a Mexican sundress, had a nice dinner with wine, then put on Neil Diamond and went dancing on the back deck while the wind howled around us. Hey – you have to gather rosebuds while you can! And if there’s no beach club in sight, we make our own.

And now it’s the 24th of March. For two straight days, the wind has just been howling through here, making dinghy excursions kind of wet and uncomfortable. Ole set the wind alarm for 30 knots yesterday, and the beeping was so constant, he just turned the darned thing to 40. The one thing good that has come of this experience is that we now trust our ground tackle and can sleep through 20 knots of wind while we’re on the hook.

Exploring Almirante Bay…and Finding CHOCOLATE

Photo Courtesy of Green Acres Chocolate Farm

We chose to anchor near Camryka because we had heard of a little farm called “Green Acres” that happens to be their neighbor. Cruising friends had strongly suggested stopping in for a walk around the property, as Dave and Linda Cerutti, the owners, are manufacturing chocolate from the cacao trees they found when clearing and improving their property. We were a bit shy about just going over by ourselves, but when we saw a lancha speeding up to their dock with some tourists inside, we jumped on the phone and asked if we could join them for a walk.

Dave and Linda are retired from the yacht captaining business. Dave explained that when they arrived in Bocas on somebody’s yacht ten years ago, a man in a cayucos paddled up and asked if they wanted to buy land. No, they said, they were sailors and weren’t interested. The cayuco man was undaunted, and after several tries, got Dave and Linda ashore and showed them 10 hectares (about 25 acres) of jungle, complete with a stream, ancient trees and vines, howler monkeys, toucans, sloths, parrots, and poison dart frogs. Dave asked the man his price — $20,000, he said. Dave countered by saying “12,000” thinking that would end the conversation, but he ended up with the property. He recounted that at the closing, as they were signing papers, it became apparent that the seller had no idea of the difference between $1200 and $12,000! In the next few years, they hired some local help to clear a home site, build the dock, and hack through the jungle, finding some amazing plants, including many varieties of wild cacao.

Linda, a plant fanatic, has turned the area around their home site into one of the most beautiful tamed wildernesses we have ever seen, encouraging orchids, heliconia, hibiscus, peace lilies, and more species of rhododendron than we knew existed, as well as making way for some spectacular tropical hardwood trees. Her efforts provide shelter to an amazing array of insect, amphibian, and other animal life.

Blue Morpheus Butterfly

Golden Orb Spider

Owl Moth

Dave, not being much of a gardener, got interested in cacao, researching how the sweet fruit with big seeds ends up as chocolate. After about a 2 hour walk through his property, marveling at the flowers, golden orb spiders, poison dart frogs that look like they came out of a crayola box, and blue Morpheus butterflies as big as salad plates, Dave showed us his chocolate manufacturing “plant.”

He gathers ripe cacao fruit from his own trees, and the local Indians sell him ripe fruit that they find on their walks through the jungle. Twenty to sixty seeds, black and shiny and about the size of almonds, are extracted from each fruit and set out to ferment for 3 to 7 days. Then they are set out in trays to dry, tricky here in this area of unexpected tropical downpours. Once dried, he then roasts the beans in a contraption made from an old propane tank for about 30 minutes, then cleans and winnows the beans to separate the “nibs” from their shells.  He then grinds the nibs finer and finer until they release their oils and liquefy, pouring the resulting “chocolate liquor” product into ½ lb molds and refrigerating them to set. This whole process is accomplished in a homemade “Rube Goldberg” factory, put together with old tanks, pieces of blenders, hammered together trays, and a circa 1960 refrigerator, all in the space of a single-car garage.

Well, we couldn’t leave Green Acres without buying some product and a cookbook – and a later experiment making brownies from scratch with 100% organic homemade chocolate produced the most satisfying chocolate experience of my short life!

Exploring Almirante Bay

After a quick blast through town for provisioning, we left Marina Carenero to explore the area for a few days before moving over to the Bocas Yacht Club and Marina. Who knew that just an hour’s cruise from here there were absolutely deserted bays where the only sound was the howler monkeys hooting back and forth. Superb! We dropped anchor at Big Bight, the first of the three bays north of here, and were stunned by the quiet – and the noise! We figured we’d stick around here until tomorrow, do a quick run into town for the new impellors, then head for the next bay up tomorrow night.