Feel Free Sails to Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico
By Liz Tosoni
Sailing along the coast of Nicaragua close to shore was fast, exhilarating. Our log book indicates that from Bahia Santa Elena in Costa Rica, and all the way to Corinto, Nicaragua, said to be the northern end of the Papagayo wind area, a distance of about 150 miles, we got nothing less than 15 knots, often 20- 25 knots, gusting to 30 and 35, occasionally 40.
A constantly changing, moving picture show of sand dunes, jutting cliffs, hills the color of rust, small rural settlements and bold volcanoes was always on view to starboard. It was not possible to just gaze and daydream at this scenic world though, as if watching a movie screen; a careful watch had to be maintained for fishing boats along with their attached nets and floats, not to mention the wildlife features that popped up unexpectedly.
- Birds, birds and more birds: pelicans, cormorants, boobies, gulls, terns, tropic birds, even swallows. Fine feathered friends became our constant companions. They don’t seem to care about strong winds or rough seas. They just go with the flow. We could learn from them.
- Dozens of manta rays rising clear out of the water in unison, then flopping with smacking THUDS right back down, again and again, and then, nothing. Short but exciting displays of mysterious behaviour. Did some submarine conductor give them a command “Let the show begin!” just for our benefit? Were they avoiding predators? Just having some fun? Getting their daily exercise? Getting rid of a parasite?
Turtles, hundreds of them, all migrating the same way, swimming slowly but surely, determinedly, as turtles do through sometimes rough seas. We were in the midst of a turtle highway. Where were they going? Back home to their native beach? To lay their eggs? To the same place where they were hatched? How far did they have to travel?
-Tiny fish, flying fish, leaping clear out of the water, resembling small birds, staying aloft for up to a minute, covering perhaps 300 feet! They get to the surface, then fan out their “wings” (pectoral and pelvic fins) as they leave the water. Then they accelerate in the air by frenetically beating the tips of their tails back and forth on the surface of the water with a sculling motion. I read that they glide a few inches above the waves at speeds of five to eight knots and that flying helps them to escape their predators.
The plan was to sail right on past the Gulf of Fonseca which shares borders with El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, making landfall in Bahia del Sol or Barillas in El Salvador. Approaching the Gulf of Fonseca though, we got a message on the morning Net from Shannon on Sweety, and then Deb on Lion’s Paw: “Why don’t you stop at Isla el Tigre only a short distance up the Gulf, in Honduras? It’s a sweet spot — friendly people, no tourists, easy and free entry, good hiking and don’t forget your camera.” That did it. We had to go.
- El Tigre itself was the central command post for Sir Francis Drake’s Pacific fleet which sailed the coast from Peru to Baja Mexico.
- In 1849 the US proposed a canal through Honduras from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific which then prompted the British to occupy El Tigre Island.
- The CIA maintained a small outpost on El Tigre to observe El Salvador and Honduras.
- A lengthy dispute over the gulf and the islands between El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua was finally resolved in 1992 by the International Court of Justice who drew up the new boundaries. The dispute was primarily between Honduras and El Salvador who have been at cultural odds for a long time. El Salvador was awarded Isla Meanguera and Meanguerita, and Honduras received Isla El Tigre.
So, this little island we were heading to has an interesting little history.
Into the Gulf of Fonseca we steered, and soon the seas became completely calm. As it turned out, our one and only stop in El Salvador was the tiny island of Meanguera where we didn’t even go ashore, just relaxed at anchor, enjoying the peace of the curved shore, observing the quiet village life, where dogs barked, children swam, their little heads dotting the sea, and people went about their daily business.
Next morning it was a short and easy eight nautical mile motor sail to the cone shaped jungle island of Isla El Tigre. Absorbing the scene after anchoring, surrounded by this picture postcard setting off the small town of Amapala, almost encircled by several other volcanic islands, made us think “how many people get the chance to visit this faraway, magical looking corner of the globe?” I wanted to etch the scene in my brain so as never to forget it, drink it and swallow it whole.
The Port Captain and Immigration officers treated us like old friends “Welcome to Honduras. How long you like to stay? Have a good time.” The check-in was probably the easiest in the history of check-ins.
Wandering through the sleepy fishing village is like being in the old west. Quaint, one-story, wood buildings painted in every colour of the rainbow line the clean, cobbled avenues. Tiny mototaxis from India and bicycles are about the only vehicles to be seen, and nobody is in a rush.
Ingenuous children thrill to have their pictures taken. There are plenty of elderly people, and old thin, women, beautiful with long grey braids, come face to face, staring brazenly, inquisitively, as if you are from another planet. Well, I guess we were.
Of course, the defining physical element of the island, the (inactive) volcano itself, had to be climbed. Scaling the dizzying peak of 783 meters (2,544 feet) in the hot and sultry climate proved to be tough, sweaty, but immensely satisfying. What a view with a 360 degree panorama of Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador.
All good things must come to an end, though, so after our short but sweet encounter with our one and only Honduran landfall, the anchor was up again and Feel Free was on the go for Mexico.
I almost always want to stay longer in places we love. The dialogue usually goes like this:
Tom: I think it’s time to move on Liz. How about getting ready for departure at the crack of dawn?
Liz: But I just love this place. Why don’t we stay just one more day? There’s lots more to see and do here.
Sometimes we stay one more day but usually, the next day, we head out. Practicality prevails. After all, we have many miles to go in the season and we have to make tracks. I know, but yet.........
Guatemala was the next country along the coast. We’d made the decision to bypass it altogether as the grapevine informed us that harbours there were not “cruiser friendly”. Next landfall- Puerto Chiapas, Mexico, about 300 nautical miles away.
As is often the case on passages, this three day/two night one was characterized by a very mixed bag of conditions, some light winds, some strong winds as high as 25 knots, some motoring, some sailing, some lumpy seas, some seas as smooth as satin, some contrary current, some favourable current, some fish boats to avoid, some freighters in the distance.
One shrimper aimed directly for Feel Free at fast speed, appearing to wish to sell us some shrimp, gesticulating loudly. We would have liked to buy some but what was he thinking? How did he think he could possibly make the transfer without destroying our boat was beyond us. His 70 foot lumbering steel behemoth with spreader bars extending 25 feet off either beam and huge metal otter boards swinging off the spreader bars looked like a giant floating wrecking ball. “No, gracias!” was our reply.
Our pals the dolphins joined us off and on, of course, to keep us from getting lonely. At one point, six of them gave us a private showing for our evening entertainment, leaping repeatedly, right out of the water, ten feet in the air. There were more turtles too, parading along, ever tenacious in their long, slow journey, like a troop of marching soldiers, to who knows where. Oh, and we caught a nice fish.
In short, the trip was eventful but uneventful. We sailed out of Honduras and El Salvador, through Guatemalan waters and then we were in Mexico. The southernmost port of Mexico is Puerto Chiapas, up a short but wide and straightforward estuary. We were totally tickled to drop the hook in the lovely anchorage, a ring of gulls screeching in welcome overhead as we arrived just after sunset, in the country we had visited and departed from aboard Feel Free some 13 years earlier. It would be some miles before reaching Manzanillo where the circumnavigation would be complete but that didn’t matter. It was definitely something to toast about and so we did.