Often bypassed by cruising sailors in a hurry to get to the South Pacific, the coast of Central America has its own allure
Cruisers call it the “forgotten coast,” both because it’s off the beaten track that leads to the islands of the South Pacific and because coastal cruisers rarely make it further south than Mexico. For many, the Pacific coast of Central America conjures up visions of corrupt governments and guerilla warfare, but for others it means palm trees and pristine beaches. Some cruisers who’ve been there tell of great people, good anchorages and fantastic inland travel. Others report petty theft, bureaucratic hurdles and outrageous prices. We sailed our 51ft cutter Mermaid down the Pacific Coast to the little latitudes to see for ourselves.
We had cruised the Pacific side of Mexico for a couple of years, so we started our Central American voyage from the southernmost Mexican port of Chiapas. Guatemala sits immediately south of the Mexican border and, as the center of the Mayan culture, has a rich heritage, but the coast has little to offer for cruising boats, so we planned an overnight trip to Bahia Jaltepeque in El Salvador. The navigation was straightforward—keep the land on your left. It was a sunny afternoon with a nice sailing breeze, the peaks of Guatemala’s volcanoes were sliding by, and the sea life was spectacular. We couldn’t have ordered anything better than this.
We encountered the usual sea turtles, boobies and dolphins, and also saw a huge manta ray jump out of the water a boat length off the starboard beam, as well as a marlin jumping high in the air. The abundant sea life unfortunately also attracts local fishermen streaming the dreaded long lines that are common along this coast. During the day we kept a sharp lookout for them. At night things got more interesting. Often the lines are marked with a black flag and a strobe light, but some have only with a few plastic bottles tied to the ends, making them almost impossible to spot.
We got a practical lesson in this shortly after sunset. We’d headed farther offshore to round a point with many offlying rocks and encountered a group of 20 or so pangas that appeared to be working together. The open fiberglass boats were in a long line with about 100 yards between them, so we set a course to stay clear. Just as we were passing by, an unlit buoy with a black flag materialized out of the darkness and passed only a few feet to starboard. We held our breath and turned to see if we had snagged the line. We hadn’t. It took some time for our adrenaline levels to return to normal, but the rest of the night passed uneventfully.
Surprises In Salvador
Bahia Jaltepeque is a large estuary with an entrance guarded by a large area of shoals covered with breaking waves. We needed a pilot to guide us in, and the bar can be crossed only in daylight, on a high slack tide, so we anchored in the roadstead off the beach and waited. Running the entrance here can be a hair-raising experience when a large swell is running, but after our pilot lined us up, waited for a lull in the swells, and told us to gun the engine, it wasn’t long before the radio crackled, “Welcome to El Salvador! You’re over the bar.”
We spent most of our time in the estuary anchored out, but that first night we headed into the marina at Bahia Del Sol, a cruiser-friendly hotel and marina that is home to the Cruiser’s Rally to El Salvador. The port captain and immigration officer have an office in the hotel, and our first order of business was to clear in. Latin American countries are famous for their red tape, so we expected to spend hours filling out forms in Spanish and having our paperwork stamped multiple times by various officials. In El Salvador, however, clearing in and out proved to be painless.
When we arrived, the Cruisers Rally to El Salvador, an annual monthlong event, was just getting started. This is a terrific event filled with parties, inland touring and opportunities to meet other cruisers as well as many locals. The estuary, composed of miles of twisting mangrove-lined tidal channels, is a great place for dinghy explorations. We enjoyed the numerous float-through restaurants built on sand bars in the middle of the estuary. We’d tie up, select some fish or shrimp for our meal from a cooler, and kick back in a hammock, sipping a cool beverage, while our meal was prepared over an open fire.
We’d assumed Central American culture would be similar to Mexico’s, but that notion was quickly dispelled. For example, hot and spicy food rules in Mexico, but not in El Salvador. Instead, the national dish is the pupusa, a masa ball filled with beans and cheese and your choice of meat that is shaped into a thick tortilla and grilled before it’s served with a tomato sauce and a condiment made from fermented cabbage. Pupusas were delicious, cheap and as common as tacos in Mexico.
Bahia Jaltepeque is the kind of a place that many cruisers get to and never leave. The estuary and the people are great. The camaraderie fostered by one-dollar beers around the Bahia Del Sol pool is hard to beat, but the clear water farther south was calling us, and when the weather looked good we headed that way.
We wanted to stop in Honduras, where we heard that the people were welcoming and checking in was free and easy. But we bypassed the Gulf of Fonseca, bordered by El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, in order to get through the area affected by the Papagayo winds while the forecast was favorable. The Papagayos are Caribbean winds that are accelerated through low gaps in the mountains that run the length of the Central American isthmus. When conditions are right the winds reach gale force and raise large, steep seas on the Pacific side. Fortunately, reasonably accurate forecasts allow cruisers to avoid the worst periods.
We left with a forecast for an offshore breeze of 15 knots, but we’d heard that you should add 15 knots to the forecast in southern Nicaragua. This turned out to be true, and we encountered 25 to 30 knots of wind with gusts of up to 40 knots as we clawed our way through. Since the Papagayo is an offshore breeze, staying close to shore minimizes the height of wind-driven waves. We stayed a mile or two offshore, reefed down and barreled through, encountering seas of around two feet high at the most.
However, things didn’t go without a hitch. While off Nicaragua we needed to stop to make a minor repair. We pulled into the large protected bay at El Astillero, where we got things in order. Because it was dark when we were done we decided to get some sleep and head out early the next morning. We awoke with the wind still howling, and as we were getting ready to leave a naval officer in an panga pulled alongside. He came aboard, politely asked to see our papers, and after a quick look around told us to have a nice day and departed.
Costa Rica, a Real Stomping Ground
The bureaucracy storm started when we got to Costa Rica. We’d heard that checking in at Playa Cocos, the northernmost port of entry, where we planned to clear in, could be problematic. We showed up ready to dance the paperwork tango. We had multiple copies of all our documents, smiles on our faces and the skipper even had on his big-boy pants (some officials take offense at people wearing shorts and t-shirts in their offices). We started at the port captain’s office early in the morning. After a thorough examination of our papers there, we headed down the street to immigration, filled out a few forms (in Spanish of course), handed over a bunch of copies of our paperwork and watched as they were duly stamped.
From there, the next stop was at customs at the airport in Liberia, about a half-hour cab ride away, where we filled out more forms, received more stamps and were issued our cruising permit. Then it was back to the port captain for more form-stamping. The process took all morning, and we spent a bundle on cab rides, but we were so pleased we celebrated with a nice lunch at a fancy seaside resort.
The bureaucracy isn’t limited to just checking in and out of ports. We needed some gas for the dinghy when we were down the coast in Quepos and popped into the fuel dock at Marina Pez Vela. Because we weren’t staying in the marina, a 20-minute round of paperwork ensued, along with a call to the port captain, before we could purchase two gallons. The marina manager was friendly and helpful and sheepishly explained that since the marina was an official port of entry they had to collect detailed information on any visiting vessel, even our dinghy.
There are many anchorages in Costa Rica, as well as several very nice, very expensive marinas. The marinas cater to sportfishermen and are a safe place to leave your boat while visiting the primordial forests and volcanoes inland. We left Mermaid in Marina Papagayo for an inland trip, and though it was expensive, the service was fantastic, and our trip to the cloud forest was remarkable.
We spent most of our time in Costa Rica day-hopping down the cost from anchorage to anchorage. The anchorages had clear water and nice beaches, but were often a bit rolly. A couple of exceptions were Bahia Santa Elena, near the Nicaraguan border in the north, and Golfito, near the Panamanian border in the south. Santa Elena is a secluded bay in a national park that can be affected by the Papagayo, but stays flat even when the wind howls. Golfito, formerly a company town for the banana plantations of the United Fruit Company, has a great natural harbor and was one of our favorite spots in Costa Rica.
We took a mooring at LandSea, a small, funky marina owned by a couple of ex-cruisers that has three moorings and room for a couple of boats to tie up to the dock. Tim, a free spirit, runs the sea part and Katie runs the land part, where they have a few rooms to rent. This just may be the most cruiser-friendly place on the planet. The prices are more than reasonable, there’s good Internet access, laundry service, a nice shower and to top it off, the beers are $1. You keep your own tab by marking how many beers you get from the fridge on the white board in the Cruiser’s Lounge. Tim lives on his houseboat and keeps a weather eye on all the boats to make sure that nothing gets ripped off. They have about half a dozen dogs that bark ceaselessly if they don’t recognize you, but are friendly as soon as Tim gives you the OK.
Tim really is a character. He spent years as a charter captain and has many stories of past adventures. He’s also a nature-lover who likes to point out the scarlet macaws flying overhead and feeds a sea turtle that has been coming by a few times a week for several years. Who knew that sea turtles liked bananas? We spent our days there reprovisioning and doing boat chores before heading in and enjoying a cold one with Tim and the other cruisers on LandSea’s porch overlooking the moorings. Katie told us about a small restaurant on the beach across the bay and joined us when we headed over the next day. We dined on whole grilled lobster, fried plantains, beans and a salad for $6. Most things are a bit more expensive in Costa Rica than in the U.S., but look hard and don’t be afraid to go off the beaten path and some bargains can be found.
And So to Panama
After checking out of Costa Rica in Golfito, we continued down the coast into Panama’s Gulf of Chiriqui, where we encountered another big change in culture. The towns on the Costa Rican shore were primarily tourist towns filled with surfer dudes. By contrast, the Panamanian coast was wild and undeveloped. The only populated areas were isolated fishing villages, and much of the area was national park. We were looking forward to spending time in Coiba National Park, a large island with good snorkeling and diving. However, we decided to give it a pass when we learned the fees for anchoring there would be $180 a day, plus $10 per person. The fee for boats less than 50 feet is “only” $60, but this keeps practically everyone away from the park. We did enjoy the pristine waters and beaches of Islas Secas, where we found tide pools brimming with life and orchards along the beach, as well as the calm waters in Bahia Honda, before we headed off towards the Gulf of Panama.
On our overnight passage into the Gulf of Panama we found that Punta Mala, or Bad Point, is aptly named. We encountered large swells and squalls all night long as we dodged the parade of ships coming out of the Panama Canal, but our effort was well rewarded. The following day we anchored in the Las Perlas Archipelago, an excellent cruising ground. With over a dozen mostly undeveloped islands, there were many anchorages to discover. It’s the kind of place where the days melt into each other. Lazy afternoons filled with beachcombing and dinghy adventures slid by. We often flagged down a local fishing panga and bought whatever they had caught for dinner. Usually that meant lobster, which we paid a few bucks apiece for. However, we also got a sierra, a very tasty mackerel, and one day brought home an octopus. We also scored enough mangoes, avocados, bananas and coconuts to open a small produce store.
Finally the time came to head for Panama City, the final stop on our Central American voyage. After anchoring out in secluded anchorages in western Panama and the Perlas Islands for many weeks, our first sight of the skyscrapers of Panama City was a shock. Mermaid motored in from the Perlas through flat, calm seas, and we settled in on a mooring at the Balboa Yacht Club. The moorings are just outside the Bridge of the Americas and only a few hundred yards from the ship channel that leads to the canal, so it was a fantastic place to watch the world go by. The bar is also a great place for people-watching. Here you can meet sailors transiting the canal and an eclectic mix of ex-pat boat workers, canal agents and bar-flies. Panama City is a place where no matter what spot you visit you inevitably trip over history. From the ruins of Panama Viejo, the city built by the Spanish in the early 1500s, to the recently restored Cacso Viejo, where the city was rebuilt after it was sacked by Henry Morgan in 1671, there was something of interest everywhere we turned. We spent our days touring the city and preparing for our canal transit into the Caribbean.
Cruising the Pacific coast of Central America is rewarding and challenging. As in any isolated area, security is a concern, but it shouldn’t be a reason to avoid the area. Reasonable precautions, such as hauling the outboard aboard at night and traveling with a buddy boat, reduce the threat of theft and violence. The farther south you venture, the more tropical things become, with the resonating call of howler monkeys and the squawking of parrots routinely echoing through the anchorages. Tropical rain showers become a daily occurrence, and the shore is transformed into impenetrable jungle. There are tranquil, idyllic anchorages to treasure, but also the fierce Papagayo winds to deal with. No, Central America should neither be forgotten nor missed.