Captain’s Log January 31 to February 4, 2011
The Great Mango Run – Huatulco, Oaxaca, the Gulf of Tehuantepec, and El Salvador.
After anchoring the evening of January 26, we moved to the Marina Chuhua the next morning. The marina is in the county of Huatulco, which is in the State of Oaxaca. Huatulco is an area that is being developed as a tourist destination by the Mexican federal government. It is a beautiful area with broad boulevards appointed with Royal Palms and Bougainvillea, fine roads and lovely hotels and beaches. There are several small towns in the area, and all cab rides are 20 pesos, or $1.75. An area encompassing about 20 miles of the coast and inland about 5 miles has been designated as a national ecological park, the largest national park in Mexico. The government bought the land from the inhabitants in exchange for new homes, cash, and the development of a tourist industry here to replace traditional ways of making a living. The nice thing about this place is that it doesn’t look like a big resort. It looks like a really nice small town, and the people couldn’t be nicer. This project was begun in the mid 1980’s and is now substantially complete. In my experience, this is the best beach vacation spot in Mexico.
We stopped in Huatulco for several reasons: we needed a rest stop before crossing The Gulf of Tehuantepec, it has a great marina, and there are many U.N. World Heritage Sites that we wanted to visit, particularly the spectacular Indian ruin of Monte Alban near the City of Oaxaca. The first day in port we rested and had lunch in the little town of La Crucecita. This area of Mexico is known for its mole – negro, red, yellow, and green, a dish that I love. While in town, we arranged for an eco-tour to the cloud forest for bird watching, and a two day trip to Oaxaca. The next day at 6:15 AM, our guide Alberto picked us up and we were off on a bird watching expedition. We drove up into the Sierra Madres to an elevation of about 5,000 feet. The San Andres Fault lies just off shore, and you can easily see the result of the colossal tectonic forces at work. High in the mountains are the remains of coral reefs and sand bars that were under water millions of years ago. The sand was perhaps the finest I have ever seen: silky fine gold-ivory sand. Alberto told us that the area experiences about 300 tremors a year: quit a shocking revelation! (I‘m sorry). The principle bird life we saw in addition to parakeets and magpies was the emerald toucanette (sp). This bird was unbelievable; it is about 18 inches long, with a huge black and yellow toucan bill, the eyes are yellow, and body and tail are emerald/lime green. It was breathtaking in its beauty. After bird watching all morning, we stopped by the little town of Santa Maria with the Ave Maria church to see a local coffee roaster. Mexico grows a lot of coffee in this region, and the flavor did not disappoint.
The next day at 6 AM we left for Oaxaca, about 150 miles away (5 hours). Again we crossed the Sierra Madres, this time using a tortuously twisted road that rose 7,000 feet before dropping into the Oaxaca Valley. During the trip, we stopped for breakfast at a little village high in the mountains. The buildings were made of wood instead of the cement of lower altitudes. It gave it a sort of familiar look. This particular village is often visited by Europeans who are aware of the shaman that uses a special hallucinatory mushroom as part of a religious experience, in addition to special cleansing baths and other practices. The Beatles and other celebrities have visited here.
The main attractions of Oaxaca are the ruins of Monte Alban and Mitla, the colonial section of the city, Iglesia de Santo Domingo, and the black pottery of Dona Rosa. I have posted several pictures for you to see. Monte Alban lies atop a mountain just outside the city. It was built over a period of about 1,300 years, beginning in 500 BC. It served a combination of purposes including a celestial calendar, ceremonies associated with rain prayers, a university with a medical school, a sports arena and ball courts. Evidence shows that explorers from distant lands such as the Vikings, the Chinese, and others may have visited Monte Alban. Mitla is a similar ruin, but built at a later time. Here, the Spanish partially destroyed the Indian monument and used the stone to build a Catholic Church. Monte Alban was saved because it was overgrown with vegetation. After visiting these ruins, we stayed in a beautiful hotel in the colonial section of Oaxaca. The hotel building was originally a convent that was built in 1560, and confiscated by the state after the revolution of 1810. While staying there, we saw a very lively and entertaining display of traditional dances, and shared our dinner table with some very interesting people. One lady, a clinical psychologist and her granddaughter, related fond memories of Ann Arbor where she lived for nine years while her husband taught at the medical school.
The next day we walked around the lovely city center (Plaza de Armas) and enjoyed seeing families out for a stroll, a cup of coffee, or a balloon for the kids. Music could be heard everywhere, and the center city with its square has a distinct European flair. Around the square are the main cathedral and the very special Iglesia de Santo Domingo, which dates to the time of Cortez. It is a fabulous church that competes with any historical monument in terms of gold per square foot. It is simply unbelievable! After lunch we went to the central market which occupies at least a city block: there we bought some mole, mescal, and chocolate.
After another 5 hour car ride back to Huatulco, we needed a day to recover. Buddy and Kathleen were leaving the next morning, and we needed to check out with the port captain and immigration authorities prior to our departure Monday afternoon. After completing all the tedious details with the authorities and a final shopping trip, we cast off about 5:30 PM. Omni Bob predicted smooth sailing and he was correct, thank God.
Our trip to El Salvador was a little less than 500 miles. Our course took us across the Gulf of Tehuantepec, down the coast of Guatemala, and then to El Salvador. Because our next port lies about 7 miles up a river and requires a pilot to meet us before entering the bay, we planned our arrival for 9:30 AM Thursday morning. Rebecca and I were doing it ourselves, and this 3 night cruise is the longest single offshore cruise we have done alone. We generally do two six hour watches at night, and nap during the day as needed. During this cruise there has been no moon. The sea is obsidian black, but you can tell the horizon because the star canopy begins there. The brighter stars and planets cast a radiant beam across the ocean’s surface. The plankton sparkles on the sea like lightening bugs, and sometimes like a green florescent light flickering beneath the surface. Occasionally a ship passes, but we have seen only three on the entire voyage. The weather was very warm and humid during the day, and refreshing at night. The daytime sun is very intense and the humidity equals the temperature, about 90 degrees. Of course in the middle of this passage our pilothouse air conditioner ceased to work properly, but the others are, so we will get by until we can find a repairman. During the day I put out fishing lines. Today I caught (and released) two huge sail fish. What a thrill!
We arrived at Barillas, El Salvador on time and the pilot met us at 10:30 AM to guide us past big sand bar and a reef just offshore. Barillas is located about 7 miles up the river in a mangrove forest. Tiny fishing villages dot the intermittent beaches. Several very high volcanoes and steep mountains rise above the country side inland from the sea. After about an hour of traveling up the river we reached Barillas, a small development with perhaps twenty mooring balls anchored to the river’s bottom. Rebecca ran Odyssey as I worked with the panga pilot to secure a line to the ball. A few minutes after we were tied up, a panga full of officials arrived: the port captain, the harbor master, an immigration official and two customs inspectors plus one policeman with a very big automatic rifle. All of them covered their shoes and crammed into our salon. I guess it was a day trip for them, an adventure of sorts. After looking through our papers and the cupboards on the boat we were asked to accompany them to their offices where we repeated the same paper work and left $50 in fees. The port captain asked us to fly a Salvadoran courtesy flag, which we promptly hauled aloft. At the small café across from the pool, we had a pleasant lunch. We met the owner’s son, John, a handsome young man just back from George Washington University in Washington D.C. We talked about his family and his life. His parents were displaced during the revolution in the early ‘70’s. The government took all their land and distributed it to the poor. Apparently that was a disaster for the country. His parents returned later and they have been buying back their land. They raise sugar and cocoa, in addition to running this small marina. John lives with his parents in San Salvador, and flies back and forth a couple of time each week. It is only 85 miles to San Salvador. This weekend there will be a triathlon taking place here. We asked John about our safety and travel conditions. He said Guatemala was very difficult, Honduras is better in places. Crime is worse in the cities, but you have to be careful everywhere. He changes cars, routes, and time of travel so as to avoid a routine that criminals could target. We went back to the boat about 3 PM and slept until the next morning.
When we got up this morning we saw black oily flakes all over the boat. We couldn’t figure out what it was. We hosed down the boat, and a dugout canoe passed with three Indians in it. Later I learned that they were burning sugar cane in the area. This week we will rest and relax here. We will probably go to San Salvador early next week. Maybe we’ll take a walk in the forest to see the spider monkeys.
Wish you were here.