#34—Costa Rica, Central America
Sailing From El Salvador to Costa Rica
Monday evening, June 12th we detached the mooring buoy at Barrillas Marina and motored out through the waterways that returned us to the Pacific for the 206 mile passage to Costa Rica. We decided to skip Nicaragua this time, but hope to spend ample time on that country's eastern coast.
The name Costa Rica, literally "rich coast," was bestowed by none-other than Christopher Columbus, who sailed Costa Rica's eastern shore in 1502. Spanish conquistadors followed starting in 1561. Spanish rule ended in 1821, and for three years Costa Rica became a part of Mexico, and after that, part of the United Provinces of Central America from 1824 to 1838. Dictatorships prevailed throughout the remainder of the 1800s, after which democracy followed in the 20th century. In 1948, Costa Rica abolished the military when the PLN, the dominant political party, came to power. Consequently, Costa Rica has enjoyed 50 years of stable democratic government.
Like other Central American countries, Costa Rica's 3.6 million people descend primarily from Spain. Similarly, most of the population, about 96 percent, is either white or mestizo (people of mixed Spanish and Native American ancestry). But there is also a small black community of Jamaican origin.
Forests cover one-third of Costa Rica's geography, which is comprised mostly of land above 3,000 feet. But for cruisers, the exiting part of Costa Rica is, as Christopher Columbus expressed it, the "rich coast." Our passage to Costa Rica was uneventful, and on Wednesday, June 14th we arrived in Bahia Santa Elena. Bahia Santa Elena's large protected bay sheltered us completely from winds and waves, and gave us a two-day rest after our three-day passage.
We arrived in Bahia Santa Elena, Costa Rica, on Wednesday the 14th. Charlie's Charts of Costa Rica, a cruiser's guide with descriptions and sketches of hospitable bays, illustrated Santa Elena's surrounding flora as palm trees. No palms to be seen. Instead, lush leafy trees and brush covered the surrounding mountains with a vibrant green. Parrots squawked unseen in the foliage, and sometimes vibrantly colored pairs flew overhead. Charlie's informed us that five different kinds of cats lived in the surrounding jungle, including ocelots, jaguars, and pumas. Punctuating the still evenings, dozens of small bait fish frequently exploded from the placid water, skipping outward in star like patterns to avoid larger fish searching for food.
Bahia Murcielagos—The Bat Islands
Thursday, June 15th, after a tranquil rest, we sailed southwest to Bahia Murcielagos, where we encountered the Papagayos—strong winds that whip down from the coastal plains and mountains. Sailing along with full sails in 17 knots of wind we rounded Cabo Santa Elena and turned south towards the Murcialagos. Within minutes, the Papagayos blasted down from the moutains and hit us with a burst approaching 30-knots. We quickly learned to sail Northwestern Costa Rica with reefed sails.
Our anchorage at Bahia Murcielagos (Bat Islands) afforded us fantastic snorkeling and diving, including aquarium-clear water, warm temperatures, and even a school of 50 or more Manta Rays.We anchored in a small cove during the night, but the frequent Papagayos made for a bumpy ride.
Friday afternoon we decided to sail to our check-in point in Playa del Coco, but had to wait for the winds to abate before crossing the Gulf of Papagayo. Finally, we hauled anchor at 17:00 and departed for the crossing. We arrived at Playa del Coco that evening. Fortunately, the Papagayos gave us a break; we crossed the gulf in calm weather.
Playa del Coco—Official Port of Entry
Canopy Tour, Arenal Volcano, and Tabacón Resort
Thursday, June 22nd, we rented a Rav 4, suitable for an inland tour of the country with its many non-paved roads. Costa Rica might have the most stable political system in the region, but its substandard road system leaves a lot to be desired. It seems as if every 10-foot stretch of pavement has an equal number of patches.
We drove east from Playa del Coco to Liberia, and then north for perhaps five miles. We then turned east, towards the mountains, for a 30-minute drive on gravel roads that sorely needed more grading. We arrived at The Original Canyon Tour, which operates something called the Kazm Cannon in the Rincón Volcano National Park. Essentially you strap into a climbing harness and ride through the canyon on a series of cables strung between platforms.
Expert guides help you along the way. Each guide receives 100 hours of training before working with customers. It's evident that the company emphasizes safety and equipment maintenance. None of the harnesses or ropes showed any sign of wear, and the metal gear was spotless and rust-free.
There's a moment of truth as you hear the carabiner snap onto the cable over your head. You either trust in the guides and the equipment, or you don't. Should you decide to turn back, no one will attempt to question your machismo, or coerce you back onto the launch platform.
With no more than a momentary second thought, I soon found myself sliding down the cable between the canyon walls. The wind blew into my ears while the streambed underneath my feet rushed toward me. You have to let out a yelp while you're doing this because the burst of adrenaline that accompanies your launch must find release somewhere.
After a few slides, a cross-canyon tarzan swing, and some steps and ladders, it was suddenly over, just as I hit my stride with my new dangling skills. I found myself wishing for a longer run.
We had breakfast at the lodge and then boarded our Toyota Rav for the drive south and then around the northern and eastern side of Lake Arenal to the Talbacon Resort and Spa, and Arenal Volcano. As the Rav gained altitude and worked its way inland around the lake, we entered tropical rainforest, along with solidly overcast skies and continual rain. It struck me as ironic that I escaped the overcast skies of the Pacific Northwest, sailed down to Central America in the summer, and once again found myself enveloped in gray, rainy skies and cool temperatures.
The main attraction in this region is active Arenal Vocano (shown at left from a scanned postcard). Arenal exploded in July 1968. About 90 people died from the blast. Over 4,000 people became homeless. The eruption covered the surrounding cattle grazing lands with volcanic ash. The destruction of the grazing land forced local ranchers to slaughter 80,000 cattle, and to move 100,000 to other pasturelands. Volcanologists think that Arenal could have another large eruption at any time. In the interim, small eruptions and lava flows occur daily.
Low rain clouds obscured the volcano for us. However, as we drove along through the night, off to the side we spotted bright red-orange lava spilling down the mountain, beneath the cloud layer. We stopped at Restaurante El Novillo, an unassuming steak house with a fantastic view of the volcano only two miles distant. Seating for the entire restaurant is outside to accommodate volcano watching. We settled into white plastic chairs and enjoyed grilled steaks while we watched the lava flow down the mountainside.
Thursday evening we attempted to stay at the Tabacón Resort and Spa. They were completely sold out. However, Tabacón Lodge did have a package with the nearby Volcano Motel that included a very nice clean room, and two day access to the Tabacón Spa, with breakfast included.
The Spa at Tabacón Lodge is an amazing landscaping and engineering project. Natural hot springs have been diverted into 20 or more terraced swimming pools, hot baths, and natural-looking ponds, flowing with thermal water heated by Arenal Volcano. The hot water creates clouds of steam that permeate the air with a slight trace of sulphur. Waterfalls run through many of the pools, creating many different sounds of rushing water, that fill the Spa.
Temperature varies from pool to pool. It surprised me that the largest swimming pool—with submersed bar at one end, and a water slide at the other—appeared to be the hottest of all. I climbed the stairs for the water slide with the intention of sliding down into the pool. When I reached the top and sat down in the rushing water, I couldn't believe the temperature. It was well over 100º F, and almost too hot to sit in. Actually, it was too hot to sit in. I slid down this scalding water chute, anticipating relief at the bottom, only to plunge into ... more very hot water.
Other pools, however, offered more soothing temperatures. Just across the main bridge, and to the left, a 15-foot long and seven foot high waterfall spilled into a warm natural gravel-lined pool. You could stand in the waterfall (difficult), sit underneath it (uncomfortable), perch on a sitting-ledge behind the waterfall (private, but extremely noisy), or just lie in the pool as the steamy water flowed by. I chose the latter option.
One muscular fellow stood under the waterfall striking provocative manly-looking poses as his wife or girlfriend captured his interpretive god-like image on an entire roll of film. There was the 'puffed chest' shot. And then the 'twisted torso' shot. And then the 'partial chest and thigh with half-buttock protruding through waterfall' shot, followed by the 'straight-on water pouring over head and shoulders' shot. After they departed, I duplicated some of his poses for the camera. But all of the photos came out looking like 'skinny guy drowning in a waterfall' shot. One of the guests threw a life ring at me. A large Spanish-speaking nurse dashed towards me from the vicinity of the massage area. I quickly emerged from the waterfall and demonstrated that I could still breathe, of my own volition.
Friday morning we drove back north along Lake Arenal. Along the road we spotted a sign that advertised Costa Rica's largest butterfly farm. Unable to resist false advertising, I mean, this unique offer, we stopped and paid $5 each to gain entry. What we found inside surprised us: in addition to eight butterflies and four moths, we discovered Costa Rica's largest mosquito farm.
The stop did have some highlights however. As we approached the large enclosed butterfly tent we heard a large group of howler monkeys making deep, low barking noises in the adjacent trees. Most of them were in a cluster of trees hidden from our sight. One, however, sat placidly within view. I only had the video camera, and the intensely bright backlight made it difficult to get a good shot. But shutting down the exposure enabled me to capture the image at left.
A parrot inside the butterly tent provided another highlight. This parrot had learned to talk by listening to people walking at a distance. He spoke few words that you could actually understand. Instead, he mumbled. If the proprietor had replaced the 'butterfly farm' sign with another that said "Costa Rica's Mumbling Parrots," I'm convinced that he could have doubled his market.
Click here to hear mumbling parrot impression. (185k download)
That evening, when we returned to Playa del Coco, we took advantage of the Rav 4 to fill our two diesel jugs and add more fuel. Over the past several days I had run the engine to power the watermaker, and the fuel gauge read empty. I added the contents of both jugs and discovered that, with 12-gallons, the fuel tank read 55% tank capacity. This with a 110-gallon tank.
Saturday, June 24th, we returned the rental car, purchased groceries in Playa del Coco, and motored south to Flamingo Bay, where we needed to take on fuel. We departed Playa del Coco at 16:16 and arrived at 18:30. Sunday, in Flamingo Bay, we filled the fuel and—what a luxury—the water tanks.
Snorkeling and Friends in Bahia Brasilito
We left Flamingo Marina at 13:00 on Monday, the 26th, and sailed around Catalina Island with the hope of finding a place to anchor so that we could dive the island's perimiter. No such luck. The depth sounder registered 90 feet only several hundred feet from the island's shore.
Instead, we sailed further south to Bahia Brasilito where we met Jeff and Ann Brooke on High Drama, a Passport 51. It turns out that I had met Jeff and Ann previously when their boat broker, Vickie Vance, invited them to travel through the Seattle locks with me on Andanté, just after her commissioning in May 1997.
Tuesday morning we snorkeled the rocks and reefs at the entrance to Bahia Brasilito. Later in the afternoon Jeff and Ann invited us on board, along with Joe and Lisa Gerardin form Net Result. We had previously met Joe and Lisa at Barillas Marina in El Salvador.
Return Sail North to Bahia Murcielagos and Bahia Santa Elena
Wednesday morning, June 28th, we departed Bahia Brasilito for a return trip to the Murcielagos, or Bat Islands. It required about four hours to cross the Gulf of Papagayo. Throughout the trip we were frequently accompanied by dolphins—perhaps 50 or more in 6-8 pods. At one point we slowed to less than 2 knots while they floated gently along with us.
That afternoon, at 16:00, we anchored between Isla San Jose to east and Isla Cocinero to west. Heavy winds blew in late afternoon, and remained all night long, with bursts up to 27 knots. We set out our small Bruce stern anchor to hold us into the wind, but the Bruce just doesn't hold back there. We have decided to replace it with a 25-pound West Marine High Performance anchor.
Thursday morning, the 29th, we took the dinghy out into the channel between Isla San Jose and Isla Cocinero to snorkel, as we had done almost two weeks ago. This time a heavy 3-4 current streamed in between the islands, making it impossible to snorkel. Instead, we beached the dinghy on the east side of Isla San Jose, and snorkeled along the island's rocky shore. Fast current and heavy waves made it very difficult.
In the afternoon we hiked the western ridge of Isla Cocinero. Beautiful views of the bay and surrounding islands appeared in every direction. On our way back to the boat, fishermen anchored off of Isla Cocinero gave us two fresh snapper and a lobster.
As we prepared to leave, the Bruce anchor did prove to provide some value by dragging up 10 lbs. of old fishing net encrusted in barnacles. Trying to untangle the mess, I dropped the Bruce onto the cap rail, creating a nice gouge in the varnish. I was tempted to throw Bruce over the side right then.
We departed at 15:00 and sailed out of Bahia Murcielagos with reefed headsail and main under strong winds. North of Cabo Santa Elena the Papagayos gusted to 30-knots, accompanied by much pounding and spray coming over the bow. Eventually we dropped the sails and motored directly into the wind, and then anchored in Bahia Santa Elena at 19:00.
As reward for an afternoon of upstream beating, I prepared lobster for dinner—sauteed in olive oil and butter, with garlic and red peppers. At a critical moment, just before adding the lobster, the propane gave out. Empty tank? Turned out to be the solenoid—the third failure in 12-months. It would be nice if I could figure out how to mount the solenoid in the propane locker somwhere where it had a tendency to stay dry. Fortunately, we had a spare solenoid on board. But it required almost two hours to replace it, in the dark, with a flashlight, and little metal spare parts rolling around on the deck. I resumed preparing dinner at 22:15.
Bahia Santa Elena rewarded us with a calm peaceful night. No winds. No waves. No surge.
Bahia Potrero Grande
We departed Bahia Santa Elena at 13:45 on the 30th for the return trip south. Andanté sailed beautifully with reefed main & genoa in winds ranging from 26-32 knots. Around 17:00 we checked out an anchorage at Key Point near the Murcielago, but the winds howled dramatically through the anchorage. So we headed off to Bahia Potrero Grande, six miles to the south. We anchored there at 19:00, and spent a calm night. But the winds picked up again in Saturday morning, and our anchorage turned into another roller coaster.
Bahia de Culebra
We hauled anchor from Bahia Potrero at 13:39 Saturday afternoon, July 1st, and sailed further south to Bahia de Culebra. We had a beautiful genoa-only sail under gentle breezes in De Culebra Bay before we anchored at 18:20. In the anchorage the next day, we reconnected with Chuck and Jeanette Stockon on their Nordhaven 51, La Vagabunda del Mar. We had met them in Acapulco, and then later in El Salvador.
Playa del Coco, and Back to the US
We sailed back to Playa del Coco. I returned to San Diego on July 6th. I will remain there until I return to Andanté in September. Then we sail to the Cocos Islands, and on to the Panama Canal towards the end of the year.
Access & Resources
Click on this link for information about The Original Canopy Tour, with five locations throughout Costa Rica.
Restaurante El Novillo Steak House. Miriam and Benedicto Ramírez. Located just south of Tabacón Lodge. From within Costa Rica: 460-64-33.
Click here to find out how to pamper yourself in the volcano-heated hot springs of Tabacón Resort. (Don't miss the high-resolution 3D panorama in their picture gallery, and the web cam of their ultra-hot swimming pool.)
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