Currents, calms and squalls

“Any day now” or “Within the next week” was what we were repeatedly told in Costa Rica about the fast approaching rainy season. We had not seen rain since December and I was doubtful our luck would last through Costa Rica. The clouds looming and ever present but somehow we made it all the way to Golfito, the last port in Costa Rica, before the rains began.  Relaxing at Tierra y Mar (Land & Sea), we watched the first downpour of the season and an incredible display of lightning. It was great to watch apart from the fact we were to set sail shortly, as lightning tends to put me a bit on edge while at sea.

We pulled up anchor on a calm, windless morning hoping for some southerly winds as we rounded Punta Mala in two days’ time. We rode the ebbing tide out of the bay escorted by a DSCF4824couple of bottlenose dolphins slowly swimming along side. It was a beautiful day and you could see the lush green coastline for miles as we headed out of Costa Rica and made for Panama City.

We had already crossed the Costa Rica / Panama border when the first squalls began to develop. We carried no radar and made adjustments here and there to avoid what we could. We did alright until an inescapable dark mass with tendrils hanging low began to close in on us. As the thunder began to boom you could see the ocean below churning from the winds that would soon be upon us. I pulled in two reefs while it was still easy because once the wind wall hits and the deluge starts the easiest tasks can become difficult or even dangerous. I then had Josie put a cellphone(for GPS), a compass and our SPOT into a rubber boot which is then placed in the oven. The idea is the oven acts as a sort of Faraday box in case of a lightning strike and we lose all of our primary equipments. Does it work? I’d rather not find out.

When the wind did hit it was a relief as this squall carried winds of less than 30kts. The rain was falling so hard that to go on deck for even a moment would leave you soaked to the bone. We had no visibility left as the thunder cracked and lightning flashed. Once one gets to this point there is no reason to be on deck after everything is set, so I went below to dry out best I could. For the next 45 minutes we rode right up through the middle and out the other side. Once the wind and rain subsided we were becalmed as evening began to set in. This went on throughout the night and we had another three squalls before the sun came up.

The following day with barely enough wind to sail on we had no more nasty weather . We made our way to Punta Mala well after dark and about 3 or 4 am things began to get difficult. The north winds that the gulf of Panama is famous for begun steadily increasing. We were heading now directly up wind with the Humboldt current set against us. Tacking every hour or so between the busiest shipping lane in the Americas and the Panamanian coast, our progress came to a halt.  With 25kts of wind sustained, sometimes more, and a 2kt current set against us we were now making 1 nm good every hour.

To add to our challenge a bottle of oil had come loose from its storage and began to leak all over the cabin floor. By the time we had noticed it the floor had been coated from one end to the next. It made the already-challenging task of keeping one’s balance, inside of a boat heeled over and beating into the waves, an impossible one. If some one had filmed us trying to clean up while slipping, sliding and swearing I am sure the footage would have ended up in the slapstick hall of fame.

Sailing hard on the wind with so few miles gained is exhausting and after 2 days gone and just over 50nm gained since rounding Punta Mala, we finally made the decision to anchor at Isla Bona to get some rest and explore the abandoned factory on the DSCF4866uninhabited island. After a hike across the island to see the machinery being taken back by the jungle, pelicans nesting and the mysterious field of black sand with a high specific gravity we kayaked back to the boat. Soon after the wind shifted slightly and now the wind waves were causing the anchorage to become potentially dangerous so we moved 1 mile away at Isla Otoque.  This well-sheltered anchorage proved to be as calm and peaceful as we could have hoped.

The next day feeling much better about everything we headed out as the sun was coming up. As soon as we left the protection of the island it was clear that the wind was beginning to shift and abate. We were now able to take a more favorable heading, even if not direct, that allowed us to make good time. As the morning drew on, the winds continued to lighten and with the sun shining the sailing was excellent.

We arrived in the outer anchorages area outside Panama City filled with cargo ships and tankers shortly in the early afternoon. We did our best to follow DSCF4904protocol here but repeated attempts to contact Flamenco Signal Station left us wondering if our radio had crapped out on us. After hailing a passing tanker by the name of Woo Loo Moo Loo and confirming our equipment was sound, we waited till traffic was light and cut across the canal channel towards the La Playita Anchorage. We wandered through the crowded anchorage till we found a spot near the breakwater where we finally doped the hook. With our final Pacific passage of this journey now behind us we barely had a moment to reflect on the thousands of miles in our wake before the whirlwind of paperwork and preparation that is the Panama Canal.

Costa Rica Part II

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The plan was simple: to kayak to the beach once we anchored and let Gidget run around and do her business.

When we anchored at Punto Quepos, however, the nearest beach was crowded with people – not an ideal situation to let Gidget off the leash. But there seemed like another beach on the other side of the anchorage and it was abandoned. Perfect . Off we went. The waves seemed light enough and landing the kayak seemed simple. We took our GoPro camera and were able to snap some pictures of the sceneries surrounding us along the way.  As we were approaching the beach, I could hear the rolling sound of a big wave coming behind me. Uh-oh. Why did it have to happen then? Gidget was sitting in front of me and she slowly turned her head around to look behind her. She had an absolute look of terror on her face: her eyes wide, pupils large and her ears folded backwards. She knew what was coming, and she had a plan of her own. As Jerrad was paddling fast to beat the coming wave, Gidget decided to abandon ship. She jumped and tried to swim; and as we got distracted trying to get her back on the kayak, the big wave crashed right onto us with a loud, thunderous noise.

It all happened so fast. I fell off the kayak into the rocky shore. As I was trying to get back up, the force of the wave pushed me forward and something was dragging me at the same time. I was stumbling down on the rocks while realizing that the line on the kayak was tangled around me – around my neck down and cross my abdomen then around my left leg. As the kayak was pushed ashore, it dragged me – sprawled on the rocky bottom- with it. When I finally reached the beach and untangled myself, I was greeted with the sight of Gidget relieving herself, big grin on her face.

“All this just for the damn dog to pee on the beach,” I muttered to myself. I had scrapes on my left elbow while Jerrad was bruised on his right shin from a rock.

We paddled back without any incident, only to realize about half an hour later that neither of us had the GoPro. Shit. Our precious camera must have been swept away when the wave came crashing upon us. Hoping for the tiniest sliver of miracle, Jerrad kayaked back to that beach and looked madly at the bottom – up and down the shore, back and forth – hoping to find the GoPro in between the rocks. It was nowhere to be found and Jerrad came back empty-handed. After no luck of finding GoPro in Costa Rica, we managed to get one in Panama City later on. It was an expense that put a dent on our budget, but we both thought it was worth it due to the camera’s durability and underwater capabilities.

That night, I had a conversation with Gidget – pleading for her to just pee and poop on her potty patch everyday for the sake of everybody involved. She looked at me innocently. Evidently, she still prefers real grass than the fake potty patch grass that she used only when she absolutely and emergently has to.

20130414_083943The rest of the night was quite uneventful, except for the slightly rolly anchorage.  The next day we moved a couple of miles down to anchor off of the Manuel Antonio National Park. We left Gidget in the boat and kayaked to the beach entrance of the park. While the kayaking was relatively painless, I jumped out once we reached the shore and was trying my best to outrun the coming wave to the beach. Well I failed. The wave caught up with me. As it was pushing me ashore, I lost my balance and once again, fell into the water face down. Two days in a row, this must be some sort of a record, I thought.  We got to the beach and started dragging the kayak to a safe spot around a tree to secure it.

The beach was beautiful – with warm, yellow sand, bordered by lines of dense vegetation- and deserted. “Pura Vida”, they like to say in Costa Rica. A phrase near and dear in Costa Rica’s culture, it literally means “pure life” but culturally means  more like “full of life”, “good life” or “this is living!”  Those words flashed through my mind as I enjoyed the sight, smell and sound around me that morning. That’s when we saw a woman standing in front of the crashing waves, with her breasts hanging loose. Soon, she also took off her bikini bottom and was butt naked on the beach.  I was pretty sure that she was also thinking of those words as she felt the crashing roll of saltwater hitting her skin. She had the beautiful beach almost to herself, the sand was soft, the air  fresh, the jungle lush, the view spectacular and well, ¡Pura Vida!

20130414_175743After we finished exploring the park – with only glimpses of sloths and howler monkeys far away on the trees- we went back to the beach to check on our boat. Poor Vento Dea was rocking in all 4 directions, even with bow and stern anchors, making the rolly anchorage at Punto Quepos pale in comparison. It must have felt like a washing machine inside the boat. It was an unpleasant sight made even more disturbing with the fact that Gidget is inside that violently-rocking boat. We hurried and kayaked back, weighed anchor to the calmer open sea to our next destination anchorage, Bahía Drake .

From Drake, we continued on to Golfito, our last port in Costa Rica.  In Golfito bay, we anchored for free in front of Tierra y Mar (Land & Sea) Services and kayaked to shore to use their amenities. Of all the expensive facilities for cruisers in this country, it was refreshing to have Tierra y Mar; a quite, low-key spot where you feel more like a guest in someone’s home than just another customer.

See more pictures of Costa Rica here.

Costa Rica Part I

With gusty winds on our third morning out of El Salvador, the jagged mountainous landscape of Costa Rica slowly appeared on the hazy horizon. Our original plan was to dock in one of the marinas and explore lush tropical forests inland, volcanoes and national parks. I was flabbergasted when I found out how expensive all the marinas in Costa Rica are; the rates- at almost $3/foot/day- are steeper than that of Cabo San Lucas or Acapulco and they are all geared towards the sportfishing boats and mega pleasure yachts. Realizing it was extremely out of budget, we threw our plan out the window and decided to anchor along the Costa Rican coastline, leaving the interior for another time.

20130406_112532I was quite sad with this new plan, but our first anchorage did not disappoint and was a beautiful preview of Costa Rica’s stunning charisma. We dropped anchor in Bahia Santa Elena at approximately 1.30PM, giving company to the only other sailboat there. The bay is surrounded by hills and mountains that were not quite as lush as I have imagined as the northern part of Costa Rica is more affected by the dry season. It was pristine and it was quiet, except for the wind and the wildlife. I imagined the hills must be sporting heavy and lush vegetation on their slopes once the rains start. Powerful gusts of wind would come every so often over the mountains to the north-east, sometimes howling loudly sending Gidget scrambling down the companionway into the cabin with a look of terror.

At nightfall it turned into a magical place for us. The water around Vento Dea, even without disturbance, sparkles with tiny plankton emitting phosphorescence, a display of blue twinkling dots on the surface. I put my feet in the water and swirled them around, creating the brightest bioluminescence I had seen so far. My feet created a trail of glowing blue light underwater. We found ourselves on the edge of the boat playing with the water or just staring into it to watch the glowing schools of fish swimming around. I then looked up to the black sky brilliantly illuminated by millions of twinkling star and spotted a shooting star every so often.

The white twinkling stars up above and the blue glowing creatures down below –we were witnessing nature’s parade of lights. It was as heavenly as it gets. My mind drifted back to a mere six months ago when we were living in Bakersfield in California’s cen20130406_174417tral valley -the smog and the smell suffocating, the very environment we lived in sucking the life out of us. It trapped us inside a world of flat land, brown sky, spoiled air, materialism and unhappiness. Living there long enough will make you forget how beautiful the world really is. I consider myself to be very fortunate and privileged to be able to see with my own eyes the wonders of Mother Nature that so many have forgotten.

20130411_121346After staying 3 days at this delightful anchorage, we continued southeast down the coast. Along the way we anchored near beautiful beaches, visited a national park, saw glimpses of howler monkeys far above, and met a new friend. Mauricio, a chef in Playa Panama where we anchored, helped us from the first day we were there. He drove us to Playa del Coco and invited us to his home so we could do laundry for free. He, like any other Costa Rican we’ve met, showed great pride in his country and could not stop talking about the places we needed to visit. Throughout our stay, we felt the warmth and welcoming gesture of everybody we have met – adding the charm to this beautiful country we fell in love with.

El Salvador

El Salvador is the smallest and most-densely populated country in Central America; it uses US Dollars as currency and is one of the cheapest places to visit. It is a beautiful place with friendly people; but having some of the highest crime rate in the region has deterred many tourists to visit the country. For us, El Salvador was a blur of ten days where we saw a glimpse of its beauty, met some interesting and wonderful people, and were mostly hanging out(not by choice) in the isolated yet exclusive marina club where we spent too much money indulging in simple luxuries such as a real bed or daily orders of watermelon smoothies.

20130318_133036There was not much to say about the trip itself from Huatulco, Mexico to El Salvador. We had a wide weather window to cross the dreaded Gulf of Tehuantepec. For those of you unfamiliar with this gulf, it is a body of water bordered by the narrow isthmus of Mexico where there is a gap between two mountain ranges. The gulf is infamous for its gale-force wind known as the T-pec, formed when the wind blowing from the north in the Gulf of Mexico is funneled through the gap and unleashes its fury in the Pacific ocean.  T-pec can blow up to 40-50 knots, creating steep waves and extending 500 miles offshore. They say even commercial freighters can sustain serious damage from T-pec, let alone a sailboat our size. Sailors crossing this gulf usually observe the weather system in the Gulf of Mexico to find a good window to leave. Feeling a bit squeamish and anxious, I made sure Jerrad found the perfect time to cross. He did; the gulf was dead calm and flat the whole entire crossing. As a matter of fact, the only rather exciting thing that happened on this trip was that one morning our boat was caught in a fishing line. While Jerrad was busy attempting to free our boat, a panga boat with two fishermen came over. They were most likely checking their lines, instead they found this silly little boat bobbing up and down, stuck. They kindly offered to cut the line to help us and in a matter of minutes we were free. Before we managed to fully thank them or take a photograph for this post, they already zoomed off into the distance – presumably to their next set of lines.

We moored our boat by the Barillas Marina Club, located 9 miles inland from the entrance to Bahia Jiquilisco, through the mangrove-lined tidal estuary channels. To enter, we had to hail through VHF for a free pilot service to guide us around shoals and breakers. While the panga pilot with its massive engine took only an hour to meet us at the starting point, it took us abouDSCF4686t two hours to complete the whole route as our brave 1 cylinder, 10HP Yanmar thumped away against the  choppy waves heaved up by the shoals. It was a good thing the panguero had either his cellphone or music player with him; at one point we saw him waiting for us to catch up by sitting on the edge of his panga and playing with the waters with his feet. The pilot panguero guided us safely through the shoals and the channels, then brought all the necessary officials (Marina staff, Immigration, Port Captain and Customs) to our boat to complete the clearing-in process into El Salvador. The whole process took an hour; we were delighted and impressed.

Being on a journey on a sailboat for the last three months, all dates and times became quite unremarkable for us. It was pretty hard to remember what day of the week it was when we were sailing, let alone any holidays looming over us. Our plan to go and spend a few days in a surf lodge crumbled into pieces as Señora Emerita in the Marina office, bless her heart, called at least 20 hotels/lodges around popular surf beaches to make a reservation for us to no avail. I’d hate calling those many places to find a reservation for myself, let alone for somebody else. The cause? Semana Santa, or the Holy Week. Neither Jerrad nor I even remotely remembered the slightest about Easter, being isolated from the world aboard Vento Dea.

20130324_153321So it began. The Barillas Marina Club, built on what used to be a coconut plantation, is isolated from everything. The nearest town is a 40-minute drive through dirt roads lining miles of sugar cane plantation.  Thus, we spent too many days in the club instead of around El Salvador. We visited San Salvador for a day, and were surprised by the multitude of American fast food chains found – even a 24-hour Denny’s was about to open. We went with the other cruisers in the Club for the weekly provisioning trip to the nearest town Usulutan, but our time was mainly focused in the large supermarkets and even larger outdoor markets. We took a dinghy trip to visit a nearby fishing village, Puerto Parada and went on a 1.5-hour drive to El Cuco beach for a day surfing trip and visited the monkeys roaming the trees near the Club. But most of the days we hung out at the palapas by the swimming pool, drinking the most delicious watermelon smoothie we’ve ever had. After sleeping for two nights on the boat and being eaten alive by no-see-ums resulting in at least 90 bitemarks and small welts all over me (Yes, I counted them – and yes, our mosquito nets and coils were not enough to deter these little buggers), I succumbed to the temptation of renting the small bungalows the Club offers. We were spoiled rotten with a nice real bed, cable TV, air conditioning and a beautiful shower. The bill we received at the end of our stay was hard to digest; no more big beds and AC for us for a while.

Then we met the two permanent residents at the Barillas Marina Club. One is a lung cancer and stroke survivor who lost much of his ability to read, yet sailed alone from California to El Salvador; a testament to the durability of the human body and mind power. The other a retired military man who has been to half the world while serving in the Navy for 25 years. And they both had no intention of leaving their paradise, El Salvador. It was an impressive (perhaps slightly concerning) sight to see the rate at which they emptied cans of the Salvadorean beer Pilsener. We enjoyed their company and learned a thing or two important lessons during our time together at the “palapa of knowledge”. At this point in our lives, we realized that there is always something we can learn from every person at every walk of life. One of them told us that he is perfectly happy in this place and he has done all he wanted, seen all he needed to see, met all the people he wanted to meet and has no fear of “checking out” for good from life, as long as he is in paradise. This struck a chord with us, being at stage where we are trying to figure out our path in life and turn our dream into reality. We all have our demons, and we try to live our life as best as we can, but how many of us seize that opportunity or live that dream life to be able to say that we are truly content with everything we’ve done, every place we’ve gone, everything we’ve seen and every contribution we’ve made to humanity that our life at this exact present moment is enough? How many of us are truly satisfied with our life that we have no regrets and no fear of death knocking too soon on our door? I can only hope someday I too can share that same feeling; it’s a damn good feeling to have.

See more pictures of El Salvador here

Get busy living or get busy dying, that’s goddamn right
-Shawshank Redemption

Clearing Out of Mexico

“Stream-lined” process and integrated building are words from time past. That was clearing into Mexico in Ensenada. Being the first Port of Entry from the US, the whole process there was geared for the convenience of the American yatistas: one integrated center that houses the Port Captain, Immigration and Customs as well as the Bank handling all the necessary paperwork and payment in less than 3 hours.  Clearing out of Mexico, however, was quite a different story: a process taking not less than 24 hours, and is almost guaranteed to delay your planned departure time, it requires you to travel around town and hunt down the necessary officials to stamp your Zarpe (exit papers), which is only good for 48 hours.

20130305_180811After a whopping 3 months in Mexico, including the lasts 2.5 weeks hanging out in Huatulco and the nearby cute town La Crucecita, a long fair-weather window to cross the dreaded Gulf of Tehuantepec presented itself to us. On Saturday, the day before we decided to leave Mexico to El Salvador, we started our clearing-out process, as advised by the harbormaster at Marina Chahue. Being told that the Port Captain’s office (Capitanía) opens at 8AM, we took a short cab ride there only to find ourselves sitting around in two plastic chairs outside the office for about an hour. Once it opens, the staff asked us why we didn’t get our Zarpe yesterday and that there would be overtime fee to get our Zarpe today. After filling out three different sets of paperwork which all ask the same questions, we were told to come back around 2PM.

At about noon, we got a text message requesting that we come back to the office to finish our Zarpe. The message ended with the slightly confusing statement “I am wences”. Jerrad went back to the Port Captain’s office to deliver a letter stating that the bill had been paid at the marina, and was again told to come back later.

Finally, at around 2PM we went back to the Capitanía to get our Zarpe, stamped by the Port Captain but not signed. Here comes the fun part: we were told to go to the Immigration Building to get it stamped then come back to the Port Captain’s office to get his signature. I asked where the Immigration is. The lady said a blur of sentences in Spanish that sounded like “Chahue” was a part of it. Okay, we thought, it was somewhere near the marina (our Spanish language comprehension has always been based on catching some words of every sentence spoken to figure out what they were talking about, it works 85% of the time). Off we went with this taxi driver, who at first seemed to know where Immigration is, only to drive us back to the marina itself. Now we knew for sure it wasn’t in the marina, so we asked one of the marina guards where Immigration was. They told us it was near the Port Captain’s office! After a short bout of confusion, we decided to perform the silliest cab ride ever: we went back to exactly the same spot where the taxi picked us up in the first place. The driver, having neither compassion nor patience for our ignorance, raised the fare from 25 to 40 pesos (I thought it would’ve been 25 pesos still, since he has to come back anyway).

We then successfully found the Immigration building, walked in there thinking they would just stamp our Zarpe and be done with us. Of course that was what exactly did not happen. The door was locked but there were officers inside so we knocked. After a brief explanation they let us in. The officials looked at our Tourist Cards then their computers. Shortly after they came up with a paper saying I owe them money for my Tourist card (and how was it that they think I could obtain the card without paying them in the first place, I have no idea). Thank goodness we kept our receipt from our payment in Ensenada. Once that was cleared up, they asked us when we were leaving. Jerrad said 11AM tomorrow. The official then basically said, “Okay, no problem. We come tomorrow 10.30 to your boat, do your paperwork and stamp your Zarpe.” What? They will come supposedly half an hour before we were supposed to leave, stamp our Zarpe, which at that point we still have to bring back to the Port Captain’s office for his damn signature. Mind you that this whole time, Customs is not even in the picture yet. Customs (Aduana) was contacted by the Marina staff already and they would also come the day of our departure (at some unknown time) to clear us and stamp our Zarpe before the Port Captain puts his final signature telling us we can leave.  Needless to say, we didn’t leave at 11 AM.

banderamexicoOn our departure day, at 10.26AM, the Immigration officials came to our boat. The main person looked around our cockpit, then asked for a table to do our paperwork. I laughed silently. We told him we have no table on our boat. With a ”What the hell is this crap? How could you not have a table?” look on his face , the official reluctantly stepped aboard, sat on the cockpit and took out his papers, stamp and ink pad from his bag.  A quick fifteen minutes later, we had the Immigration stamp on our Zarpe as well as our passports. We then waited for the Customs official to come and complete the Stamping trilogy of our Zarpe. He came about an hour and a half later and had us fill the Customs Declaration Forms. Neither he nor the Immigration officials bothered to check anything inside our boat. He then nicely offered to give Jerrad a ride to the Port Captain’s office to get the final Customs stamp and Port Captain’s signature. By 13.30PM, our Zarpe was beautifully decorated with three very official-looking stamps and the signature of the Port Captain himself. We were cleared! We can officially leave Mexico. It only took  29.5 hours.

Escape from LA

It had been almost two hours and we hadn’t even made it 10 miles. With the 405 and the back streets jammed, and the residential streets filled with minivans and school buses, I hung my head. My appointment time had long since come and gone and my flight was scheduled to leave in 14 hours. This delicately-timed and expensive plan was falling apart. What was I doing in Los Angeles in the first place?

 
While preparing to leave Mexico it came to my attention the my passport would only be valid for another 5 months. Most coutries require a passport to be valid for at least 6 months or they will deny you entry. To complicate matters and compound my problems we were about to cross the Gulf of Tehuantepec- an area that if not timed correctly can push you 200 miles out to sea with winds that can reach hurricane force. These winds can heave up massive seas over 30ft tall and are real boat breakers. If you miss your weather window it can be a week or more till the next. We had 3-4 days before the winds would allow us to pass. To get a new passport in Mexico I would have to go to Mexico City and it would take at least 3 weeks as all passports must be printed in the US. So it seemed to me that the best option would be to fly to the states, get a passport the same day and then fly back that night.

 

IMAG1135I went ahead and booked my tickets,  said goodbye to my wife and headed to the airport. Getting to Los Angeles was simple, I carried nothing more than a backpack and everything went smoothly. I landed about midnight and my mother was just pulling up as I cleared customs. She had brought along our German shepherd,Daisy, who we had to leave behind. It was wonderful to see them as I missed them both terribly.

 

I was fast asleep shortly after we got to the hotel and the morning came quickly. My appointment was at 8 o’clock in the morning and the website stated clearly (twice) that you can not be more than 15 min early or 15 min late or you will not be let into the building. The Federal building was only 10 miles away from our hotel and when we left we had the better part of an hour to get there.

 

trafficThings were looking alright till we entered the freeway; there were far more miles of cars than there were miles of road. We spent the next 20min just getting back off the free way to see if the surface streets were any better. Ah, what luck! We began making up time, that is for the first mile or so before we were back into gridlock, this time with the addition of traffic lights.  It was nearly 8 o’clock and we still had only gone about 3 miles. We still had 7 to go and it was clear that I was not going to make it by 8, 8:15 or maybe even 9 if this kept up.

 

I directed my mom to head down some residential streets and even with school traffic and stop signs every block we were actually moving. It was a huge improvement, but I had already missed my appointment and wouldn’t be able to get another one till the next day. Worse yet my flight was leaving that night and outside the time allotted for changing my ticket. Nothing to do but just show up, fudge the clock on my phone and play dumb.

 

When we finally did arrive at the federal buildinge8BRpqZhC74gibwxgbbjuelx_500 it was quarter to nine. I ran to the entrance where I waited in line to pass through security. By the time I got to the passport agency door where the guard checked my reservation it was well past nine. He asked for my reservation number, I gave it to him. He then asked when my appointment was and I told him fully expecting rejection and immediate expulsion from the building. To my surprise he just told me to go to the first window without a word about my excessive tardiness.

 

If there is one moral to this part of the story it is always to show up late. What I mean by that is once inside I was bumped immediately to the front of the line, bypassing those who not only came before but also on time. All said I couldn’t have been in there for more than 10 min before all my paperwork was processed and I was given a time later that afternoon for the will call window.

 

With half the day to burn my mom and I set out to find a few items that I wanted to bring back with me. After hitting the asian market, Bed Bath and Beyond and a few other stores we headed back to the federal building to pick up my passport. It was ready right 52 glorious pages of international travel. It was now only 3 and my flight wasn’t until midnight so we took Daisy for a walk and just hung out near the Passport Agency because they have free parking. With the moon high in the starless Los Angeles sky we were getting hungry and decided to find a restaurant near the airport. Click click click. Dead battery, something was left on or open this whole time. No problem my mom has AAA, a short phone call later someone is on their way. An hour goes by with no sign of anyone. We call back, “Oh, 11000 Wilshire not 1100, we’re not coming”.

 

The parking lot nearly abandoned I dig through the back of my mom’s car and find some jumper cables, I head over to the only car in the lot that has someone in it to see if we can get a jump and she happily agrees. A few minutes later we are back on the road but it is now getting late and our dinner options are Denny’s and Taco Bell. After a quick dinner we head to the airport and say goodbye to my mom.

 

Check-in and security were as good as I have ever had it at LAX. I had plenty of time at the gate but as our departure time came and went (yet the board still said on time) I knew something was up. After a short time there was an announcement that our flight had been canceled “due to technical difficulties caused by customs and immigration”.  This news was both disheartening and slightly amusing. Later I would come to find that what had happened was the flight had been delayed and by the time it had landed all customs and immigration officials had gone home so the plane was sent back to Mexico City.

 

After waiting four hours in a mob I found that there is only one flight to Huatulco per day through Mexicana and I could either wait 3 more hours and leave at 7am so I could wait in Mexico City for 20hrs or they would put me up in a hotel, furnish meals and I could take the flight the following midnight. I chose the latter because there was no way I would be able to make it back to the Marina, take care of all the official paperwork, clear out and make our weather window.

 

I spent the next day resting and hanging out with a couple of surfers from England I had met who were headed to Puerto Escondido and since I no longer had any “need” to get back by any specific time everything from there on went smoothly. We ended up leaving about a week later than planned because of this one day delay.

 

Sitting here now on this boat seeing a thousand beautiful things a day and meeting incredible people wherever I stop it is obvious that I could never go back to a life without a sky full of860577_10200722812133836_1256225289_o stars or where I can not see where the sea meets the sky. This world is vast and holds treasures that you could never imagine and not a single one can be bought or sold. This is a hard concept for a city dweller to understand because they live in a world of concrete and steel; even the natural is artificial, landscaped and planned. Every square inch is money. This is why I can never go back.

Hagia Sofia: A Nature Lover’s Delight

I was browsing online to read other sailors’ experience crossing the gulf of Tehuantepec when I came acros20130314_120405s an article from another travel blogger on Hagia Sofia. It is a sprawling 300-acres of land in the mountains dedicated to ecological tourism and local education. I am not a plant enthusiast but the article describes a tour that includes transportation, meals, a walk along the garden’s path, a relaxing nap on the hammock along the side of the river, and a cool-off swim in the river by the waterfall. I was sold, mainly by the words “nap”, “hammock”, and “waterfall”.

I called the number to make a reservation for the next day. The fee was 500 pesos (~US$ 40), and this includes transportation to and from, as well as organic and freshly-prepared traditional breakfast AND lunch. You bring a towel, bathing suit, walking shoes, sunhat and organic insect repellant (they emphasize organic quite a few times on the phone). We were to be picked up at 9.15 AM the next day.

We waited in the dirt parking lot and a white SUV pulled up promptly. The driver, Marcel, came out to greet us. We got inside the air-conditioned vehicle and met the other 4 passengers for the day’s tour. For 30min we went along the paved road, passing the village of Santa Maria Huatulco. Then it was another 2.5 km strip of bumpy dirt road before we reached the entrance of Hagia Sofia.

20130314_141102Right after we arrived, we were greeted with warm welcome and directed straight to the fresh fruit and juice table. They had cashews, jackfruits, papayas, starfruits, and bananas, all grown on the property. Then we hung out at the tables while the chef prepared quesadillas for us. The owner himself, Armando, was also there greeting every guest at every table. He then personally took us on the tour.

We started off in the flower garden. Being that our exotic flower knowledge is close to none, I wouldn’t even dare to write a review of the flowers in Armando’s garden. We did learn that most of them were heliconias, flowers that frankly neither Jerrad nor I have seen before. They were peculiarly-shaped, beautiful flo20130314_112755wers with bright, waxy colors. After the flower garden, we were treated with a quick break by the river, fresh juice and hammocks awaited.

Once hydrated, we moved on to the fruit orchards. There were pineapples, passion fruit, avocados, noni, mangoes, oranges, hybrid fruits like limomandarina or mango piña (mango that he claims tastes like pineapple), and rambutan. He gave us samples of some of his fruits. It was quite a remarkable feat what this man has accomplished, as I looked around and all I could see were miles and miles of land of fruit trees with the mountains on the background. The view was spectacular.

Eventually we went back down to the seating area for a quick rest before being driven to where the waterfall was. The water was quite refreshing, especially after a walk under the hot sun. The tour was then complete with the serving of a delicious lunch.

20130314_124737While the place itself was quite amazing, especially to a plant enthusiast, something that is noteworthy here and one reason why we decided to visit is that Armando is not only selling this as a business, he is also working with the local villagers to plant some of these fruit instead of growing corn. Armando told us he is trying to get the government to fund a program to give each local family two acres of land to start planting these fruit trees.  Harvesting these fruits could bring them one-hundred fold profit compared to corn, bringing them out of poverty.  Not only that, he is also teaching the locals on sustainable land development. At this day and age where habitat and land destruction is rampant for the sake of profit, people like Armando are quietly and slowly emerging to help local communities build an economically and environmentally sustainable lifestyle, ensuring an inheritable planet to future generations. Surely an effort worth knowing, if not supporting.

You don’t need to be a botanist or a flower connoisseur to appreciate Hagia Sofia nor do you need to be a hard-core environmentalist to appreciate Armando’s vision. His passion and warmth will invite you in and his simple yet profound visionary idea will open your mind. This was truly a visit we enjoyed and would truly recommend to anyone visiting Huatulco.

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The Colonial City of Oaxaca

It would seem incredulous to be in Huatulco in the state of Oaxaca and miss the opportunity to visit the state capital city Oaxaca de Juárez, only 170 miles (280 km) away.  We rented a car and left our boat behind in marina Chahue. It is not uncommon for other marina guest to do the same. If driving doesn’t suit you, one can take a bus or fly on aerotucan. Having a pet, however, made driving our only choice.

We stumbled across Europcar while walking around Huatulco and Jerrad went in to ask about their rates. He walked out seeming satisfied with the price and was told that we could just return the next morning to get a car. All we needed was our passport and a credit card, painless enough. We returned the next day promptly at 8AM only to find that there was no car available until maybe that afternoon. That was not going to work out for us because, even though Oaxaca was only 170 miles away, the drive would take us at least 6 hours as it goes through the Siera Madre mountain range and we would prefer to arrive before sunset. We thought of taking the taxi to the airport for other car rentals when the Europcar staff said he has a friend who most likely would be able to get us a car. Two phone calls and a taxi ride later, we met his friend Marcos at the Rentame facility in the airport and by 9.30AM we had ourselves a white Ford Fiesta. Oaxaca, here we come!

20130303_134625To get to Oaxaca, one can take a couple different routes: Hwy 190, which takes you two hours out of the way but it bypasses the mountain, or Hwy 175 that winds through the Sierra Madre mountains. We chose the latter and off we went. Several long hours of driving on the steep 2-lane mountain road, full of speed bumps and hairpin turns, in a rental car with a bad gearbox lay ahead. First gear worked 10% of the time and second gear about 40% of the time. Third worked 90% of the time but would occasionally throw a curve ball and SURPRISE! you would be in first. This made the drive somewhat annoying for Jerrad and worrisome for me. So I mainly occupied my mind with the breathtaking mountain vistas along the way. We passed several mountainside villages where schoolchildren were walking back home on the side of the highway. Some of them were literally flabbergasted as they saw Gidget sticking her head out the back window. Scattered along the highway as well were snack shacks and restaurants for the hungry traveler. We would definitely recommend this route if you ever travel from Huatulco to Oaxaca (preferably with a properly working car and a functioning GPS). Word of warning, we did notice that Hwy 175 branches off to a couple different directions, all still named 175, and we were unsure if they all converged back or not. But if you know the general direction of where you are going, it is unlikely you would get lost.

Roughly six and a half hours later, we arrived in our pet friendly hotel in the heart of Oaxaca. We left Gidget in the car for ten minutes while checking in only to come back to an empty bag of potato chips with crumbs all over the front seats. As we handed over our car key to the valet attendant, I pitied the man for not knowing what he was getting himself into. Hopefully he made it to the parking lot without much trouble.

The minute you arrived in downtown Oaxaca, you are surrounded with rich culture and history every which way you go. It is an enchanting colonial city with influences stemming from the Zapotec,  Miztec and Spanish cultures.  Oaxaca was named the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. Vibr20130301_152317ant and colorful buildings lined up both sides of the cobble-stoned streets typical of an old colonial architecture, the zócalo is packed with families, couples and friends enjoying each other’s company as well as all kinds of food, jewelry or toy vendors and street musicians. It is a lively and vibrant city. It is a very musical city with wedding celebrations down the street or live dance show at an outdoor amphitheater. It is a city that always celebrates its past, as evident by the dazzling numbers of art displays and galleries, museums, dance performances and historical structures throughout the downtown area. I’ve read somewhere that Oaxaca has 27 churches, all of them (well, maybe not since I didn’t see all 27 of them, but many at least) display the magnificent intricate details in their architecture, which dated back to the fifteenth and sixteenth century.

One thing Oaxaca is famous for is its native crafts, including hand-woven rugs, pottery and the alebrijes, wooden figures of animals or mythical creatures with vibrant colors. These wooden figures were carved from branches of (usually) the copal tree and painted with dyes produced from natural ingredients like pomegranate, lime, huitlacoche and cochineal. To see the process an artist goes through to make the alebrijes must be quite an incredible feast to the eyes.

Not only is Oaxaca famous for its art, many have called this city as Mexico’s culinary capital. It is well known for its variety of moles among other things. Mole is the general term for the rich sauce used for these dishes, and there are quite a few of them, including mole negro (bl20130310_130519ack), verde (green), amarillo (yellow), and coloradito. Chocolate de leche (hot chocolate) here also has that unique taste as the chocolate is often blended with spices such as cinnamon.  Other popular food items here include the tamales, tlayudas, and Oaxacan cheese. Mezcal is a specialty of this region as well; it is liquor made from roasted agave plant, which gives it a smoky flavor.  Sometimes they put a worm inside the mezcal bottles and they supposedly are edible and highly nutritious; I must admit I wasn’t feeling adventurous enough to try one. You can indulge in this culinary heaven fitting to whatever your budget is. Delicious food can be found from the cheap Mercado 20 de Noviembre all the way to the 5-star restaurants around town. Our 3-day stay was hardly enough to try all the different specialty dishes Oaxaca has to offer; surely a telltale sign for us to plan another visit.

Any visit to Oaxaca must also be accompanied by a visit to the Monte Albán archaeological site, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a large pre-Columbian civic ceremonial center that, according to the UNESCO website, “best represents the singular evolution of a region inhabited by a succession of peoples: the Olmecs, Zapotecs and Mixtecs”. As far as I have l20130301_120545earned, its civilization spanned some 1500 years, with archaeologists dividing them into 5 phases of construction, settlement and urbanization. The impressive ruins consist of the ball court, the plaza, temples and tombs, mounded platforms with terraces, esplanades and carved stone monuments known as Los Danzantes. The city also has its own system of dams and conduits. It was a remarkably humbing experience to walk around these structures and to think of their monumental significance in human history.  An imprint left behind by ancient civilizations, a partially unfolded story of their lives found amongst the ruins. Once finished exploring the site itself, we went inside the museum to see some of the excavated jewelry, tools and potteries from these long-gone dwellers of the Mesoamerica.

20130302_132750-1We loved everything about Oaxaca: the architecture, the culture, the art, the people and the food.  Well, let me take that back. There is one thing we didn’t love about Oaxaca: the traffic.  A minor annoyance, since the city is better explored on foot anyway. I wish I could tell you more about the history and culture of this place, but I am still only beginning to unravel its rich and complex tale. Oaxaca and Monte Alban are the kind of places that you have to be immersed in. No one can truly tell you what it is like and you must see it for yourself, through your own eyes.

 

 

View more photos of Monte Alban here

View more photos of Oaxaca here

Acapulco med-mooring

Josie looked baffled at the abrupt end of the most painful radio conversationDCIM100GOPRO I have ever heard. We wandered aimlessly toward an unknown and unseen marina with no slip assignment or idea of where to go. We drifted through the mooring field and spotted a dock; can’t be that one move on. Slowly a group of motor yachts began to appear and it looked to be the only option.

 

A panga came out to meet us as we approached the entrance to guide us to the floating dock. It was at this point that it became clear that the Acapulco Yacht club had nothing but Mediterranean moorings and I knew this could only go poorly.

 
This is a moment I have been trying to avoid since we set out on this adventure, namely because for all the excellent qualities our boat has it doesn’t back up for shit. It is completely unresponsive in reverse unless you are med_mooremoving at a reckless speed. Also one can not forget the obstacle course the windvane, propane tank, solar panels, split backstay and pushpit/stern pulpit create.

 

So there it was, a racing boat to one side and a freshly painted pleasure yacht on the other. Never one to back down once a challenge is presented I hand Josie the boat hook and briefly explain that she needs to get the hook under the mooring ball as I slowly motor up to it. After a few good passes and a few not so good all resulting in failure one of the staff offers his assistance. I reluctantly agree knowing that after he is aboard and I begin to back up from the dock the boat will turn itself 90 degrees before I make it clear of the other boats.

 
I carefully pull into the space and our mooring guide, Alejandro, climbs aboard via the bowsprit. I throw the boat in reverse and as predicted the bow drifts towards the fresh paint and the stern towards the mooring line of the racing yacht. I am hard over on the tiller with no luck while Josie and Alejandro do what they can to keep us clear. Although I am sure none of the spectators were impressed with our antics, up till this point I would say the whole thing was going rather well; we hadn’t even hit a single boat yet.

 
20130222_153032In one pass we manage to grab the mooring ball and begin to pull it up and attach the mooring lines. Now all that’s left is to slowly back up between two expensive yachts, with a slight cross wind, in a boat that can’t be steered in reverse. Again I knew this could only go poorly, but there was no turning back now. Come what may I put the boat in reverse and we began to move toward the dock.

 
I was beginning to feel quite good about everything as Vento Dea smartly slid dead center into our space. It didn’t last, our mooring line was too short and we stopped 15 feet from the floating dock. With no momentum the wind began to takes us to places we didn’t want to go.  Josie used the rubberized handle of the boat hook to keep us away from the other boats while I grabbed some more line for Alejandro who was manning the bow line. We move forward to slacken the mooring line before attaching a piece long enough. It was very two steps forward one step back or rather two steps back one step forward.

 

20130222_174811Okay everything is set, back into reverse and away we go. The same shenanigans till we are within 5 feet of the floating dock and we can throw the stern lines to a couple of bystanders. Once they have us tied up we are able to pull the boat back slowly till it is as close as possible without risking the windvane.

 

The Acapulco Yacht Club has beautiful grounds, excellent facilities and some of the best showers we have seen this side of La Cruz. But I must say that it is very much a traditional yacht club, the kind of place where you are required to carry membership cards while on club property. I suppose to give a sense of exclusivity one comes to expect from such an establishment. This sort of thinking tends to leave a bad taste in my mouth and I felt more at ease with the grounds keepers and line handlers than with the members.

 

IMAG1034Although mainly stopping for marine supplies and services we made it out to the malecon and nearby zocalo on the two nights that we were there. A lively night market, street performers and public movie screenings were all within a stone’s throw of each other. As with most major cities good food is abundant and easily found. Our stay was short and the area we were in was under massive reconstruction so I honestly have little to say about Acapulco itself other than to try the pozole if you pass by this way.

Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo: Beaches, Hotels and Cocodrilos

Our trip to Ixtapa took a little over 48 hours. It was another 190NM of pleasant and smooth sailing from ManzanDSCF4587illo with just enough wind to push us along at a comfortable pace. At some point along our journey, a bird decided to catch a ride by perching itself at the bow pulpit for the entire first night. It flew away after sunrise, continuing its journey or perhaps searching for breakfast.

We docked without incident in La Marina Ixtapa in the early afternoon under the hot sun and almost non-existent breeze.  After the usual nice-long-shower-after-sailing routine, we decided to explore a little bit. Ixtapa itself was pretty much a town built for tourism. The marina was nestled among tall, exclusive hotel resorts and condominiums. These tall buildings all lined up along the beaches of Ixtapa, where one can enjoy the sunshine and warm blue waters. Geared for tourist trade, el centro de Ixtapa has little to no cultural or historical value.  It is lined with souvenir shops, boutiques, cafes and restaurants. As one walks down the street and the main town square it is clean, comfortable and expensive. It’s nice enough but not memorable in any way.

20130218_181038About 10 km southeast of Ixtapa is Zihuatanejo, a charming old town and laid-back fishing village. Both Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo are often combined as one tourist destination, being so close together yet different enough to give the tourists the feel of the two different lifestyles. Bahía Zihuatanejo is a nice, picturesque anchorage spot crowded with numerous sailboats enjoying its shelter. Every year, this town also hosts the Zihua Sail Fest benefiting the village children. We walked around the downtown area of Zihuatanejo, bustling with locals walking about in and out of specialty stores, little hole-in-the-wall eateries preparing their mouthwatering dishes, and the honking of local taxis and buses maneuvering the small streets loading or unloading the passengers.

Walking a bit further to Av. Cinco de Mayo, one would find the Mercado Artesanías:  cobble-stoned walk20130218_170736ways lined on both sides with souvenir, folk art or jewelry stores as well as restaurants and markets. It will eventually lead you down to the beach along the bay where you can watch the panga fishermen or just sit down in one of the beach restaurants overlooking the bay with an ice-cold beer in hand.  One random note for the movie lovers:  this bay is featured in Shawshank Redemption, in which the character Andy played by Tim Robbins dreamt of going if he was ever to be released from prison.

20130219_181006The marina in Ixtapa itself, however, was relatively quiet with only a few restaurants opened along the promenade when we were there. Most of the boats here were power fishing boats available for sport fishing and day trips; not many other fellow sailors were staying onboard their vessels.  One noticeable building was the landmark lighthouse, as noted in the expanded 2nd edition of Mexico Boating Guide, our cruising bible during this leg of the journey. As I continued reading about Ixtapa, the Guide authors nonchalantly pointed out that, “Shops, eateries, hotels and golf courses circle the marina, but keep Fido aboard; crocodiles grab small dogs on the dock.”  Wait, what? I felt like a sentence of this magnitude needed further elaborate details, such as how big the crocodiles were, or the frequency of such incidents, or perhaps what kind of small dogs they were talking about here. But none were given; we were left to our imagination. There were signs by the dock gate warning us not to get into the water since los cocodrilos were found in this area, as it was a tidal estuary before it was a marina.  Even though I loved the wildlife sightings we’ve had so far, I was not particularly inclined in catching a glimpse of el cocodrilo. Needless to say, precautions were taken such as limiting nighttime bathroom walks and making sure Gidget never approached the edges of the docks. However, we didn’t think the iguana-eating crocodiles were that big or even a huge issue here, seeing that people were wandering around the docks and cleaning up the boats all the time.  It seemed just like any other marina save for the signs.

Then the last night of our stay came.

As we were walking back to our boat, my eyes caught a shadow on the water on the slip next to ours. It was a black, long silhouette floating on the water like a log…  That’s odd, I thought, why on earth would there be.. and this was when I realizIMAG1020ed that I was looking at a crocodile! El cocodrilo floating around near our boat! I semi-ran and jumped back to the boat as my heart was racing, then I made sure Gidget also got back on the boat. The crocodile we saw was probably about 5 feet (150 cm) long, maybe even longer. It was far from the small crocodiles we thought lurked in these waters. Then Jerrad, of course, decided to grab a flashlight and look for more. I walked cautiously behind him, dead-centered on the dock, and found three other crocodiles around. Jerrad shone his flashlight at one of them; we could see it clearly from the tip of its mouth to its tail, as it was quietly swimming around in the marina. I gave a little shudder and headed back to the boat. It was clear to me Gidget wasn’t going to sleep outside on the cockpit that night.

Sunrise came along, bringing our last day of stay in Ixtapa. It was quite a relief for me since it meant goodbye to the crocodiles. It was one of the oddest feeling I’ve had while staying in this marina, with a golf course behind and five-star hotel resorts around it, yet crocodiles were swimming around in the waters. Perhaps, if there is next time, we will opt to anchor in Bahía Zihuatanejo instead.

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