Captain’s Log February 4 to February 21, 2011
The Great Mango Run – El Salvador, Guatemala, and Northern Costa Rica
Shortly after arriving in Barillas we met John T. Wright S, scion of one of the most influential families in the country. John is a very handsome, friendly and charming young man, who has been educated in the U.S. and, like other members of his family, holds citizenship in both the U.S. and El Salvador. He offered to take us for a walk in the forest to see spider monkeys. During our walk, John told us the history of how his family came here two generations ago, focused their efforts in agriculture, gradually bought land, and eventually built a sugar mill. During the revolution of the early 80’s the government confiscated their property. John’s grandfather, Billy Sol, was abducted by revolutionaries, shot, and thrown into solitary confinement. After his release a year later, the family fled to Florida where they remained until conditions changed. At some point they regained ownership of their sugar mill, but not their land. Over the last 25 years they have been investing both in the sugar mill and in repurchasing the land that was confiscated.
As we walked into the forest, we met an elderly man who was familiar with the monkeys. He found some bananas and called out for Poncho and Maria. Soon the troupe appeared; Poncho was the alpha male and Maria was the senior of 24 females. Spider monkeys are about two feet tall, dark in color with a white face, and long, almost stringy appendages including a prehensile tail. As they moved from branch to branch you can see how they got their name. It was explained to us that as long as Poncho is “strong”, that is he can complete his connubial duties with all the females during each full moon, then no other males are tolerated. In the event that a male baby is born, it is taken from its mother by the other females and dropped from the highest tree. As Poncho ages, one or two males are tolerated until at some point they battle each other and another alpha male is crowned. Occasionally the troupe visits with a neighboring troupe. They apparently party for a day or two and exchange females. As long as Poncho remains strong, he is entitled to another perk: he eats first!
We asked John about touring the country. He suggested that the best way for us to see things was with him, and he arranged a fascinating trip to San Salvador and Guatemala for us over the next two days. Bright and early the next day, Heriberto (the very friendly and capable marina manager) drove us about an hour and a half past farms situated on the slopes of volcanoes to the capital, San Salvador. The city lies in a valley surrounded by volcanoes, the sides of which flow into the San Andreas Fault. It is a bustling, modern city of 2.5 million set in a spectacular setting. Many of the major streets are boulevards that lead to rotaries, at the centers of which are lovely pieces of statuary. Modern, architecturally pleasing buildings abound, and development is apparent everywhere. Many foreign companies are building plants here, particularly Japanese and American companies. Ubiquitous cement slab buildings are dominant along the side streets and in the older areas of the city. San Salvador also has its barrios and impoverished areas. As Heriberto turned off the freeway onto the side street we passed a monumental stone Mormon Temple under construction, a new enclosed shopping mall, and several high rise apartment buildings. A few minutes later we turned into the gated entrance of beautiful high-rise apartment building. The armed guard checked our credentials and opened the steel gate. John came down from his parent’s 12th floor apartment and greeted us. We took the elevator to the top of the building for a panoramic view of the city, then to his family’s beautiful apartment for refreshment, and then to his armored car to begin our tour.
El Salvador has a terrible crime problem. Gangs roam the city preying on people from every walk of life. All substantial buildings and many small restaurants have guards standing outside armed with machine guns. People who can afford to do so hire armed guards to accompany them everywhere. The gangs practice everything from extortion, to kidnapping, to the more familiar crimes of prostitution, drugs and murder. As John described things, the gangs seem like the Mafia of old. Juan Wright, John’s father, told me that the situation is improving, but that the genesis of it was in the revolution. The revolution spawned lawlessness, weakened judicial institutions, and forced migration to the U.S where many found their way into the barrios of LA and its gangs. When caught, they were deported back to El Salvador, but now with more experience in criminal activities.
John is a very busy and remarkable young man, yet he generously carved two days out of his schedule to show us his country and take care of us. In addition to managing the Barillas investment, John is preparing to move to Spain and study for an MBA later this year. John took us first to his family’s sprawling sugar cane mill. The plant is very modern and impressive by any standard. Trucks line up day and night bringing sugar cane from around the country to the mill. Some of the cane comes from family land, but much if it is purchased from other growers. The name of the corporation is Ingenio El Angel, and is owned by John’s extended family with his father as president. The business seems to be the epitome of an enlightened business: efficient, environmentally responsible, and socially conscious. Operationally, the cane is brought in by trucks and dumped onto a conveyor. It is moved by conveyor to a series of crushers that mix the cane stalks with water and squeeze the sugar into a slurry, then to an evaporator, crystallizer, and to a bagging operation. The waste pulp is burned in a furnace (with stack scrubbers) to create steam that powers a generator. The power runs the plant and they are able to sell 12.5 megawatts of surplus power. Operation of the plant is scientifically managed. The employees are unionized, but management is benevolent providing medical insurance as well as a clinic, a retirement plan, school subsidies for the children of employees, , and other community programs.
After touring the sugar mill, John drove us to his grandfather’s coffee plantation high on the side of a volcanic mountain. John’s grandfather, Billy Sol, is a legend in El Salvador. Although he was born in Iowa, he came to El Salvador as a young man and built a large and successful agribusiness. During the communist revolution of the 1980’s, his land and family business was expropriated; he was shot and thrown into prison. After a few years in Florida, he returned to El Salvador and worked to rebuild the country and his family business. His autobiography, Sun and Steel, is being published this month. He was a delightful host, showing us his African trophies, his home and giving us an understanding of life during a volatile period of his country’s history. We gained valuable insight into what it means to put your hands in the soil and build a big life and a country.
That night we returned to our five room boutique hotel/gourmet restaurant that was recommended to us by John’s mother, Carolina. The next morning John picked us up in the armored car and we proceeded to the airport for our trip to Guatemala in the family/business plane. Flying between San Salvador and Guatemala City took about an hour and gave us a view that was simply fabulous: volcanoes, crater lakes, sweeping vistas…breathtaking! Guatemala City, like San Salvador is built around a fault in a valley between active volcanoes. Optimism abounds as highways and subdivisions are built on the fault itself, and they experience hundreds of tremors a year. The runway is built above the fault on a plateau, but in landing you can see the steep hillside drop away and on it are built hundreds of makeshift homes comprising a crowded barrio. If a plane ever undershot the runway it would be a terrible disaster. Guatemala City is about twice the size of San Salvador and has many high rise, attractive buildings. Like most of Central America, crime is a serious problem and guns are present everywhere. After clearing immigration, we hopped in a pre-arranged cab and headed for Antigua, a World Heritage site about 25 miles away.
Antigua was the original Spanish capital of Central America. It is a beautiful intact colonial city that now is a tourist destination. The pictures that we posted on the web describe it best, but if I were to visit it again I would definitely stay at Hotel Casa Santo Domingo, which is built on the ruins of a convent and is an absolutely beautiful setting. The town offers many interesting shops that display the art and crafts of Guatemala, which are impressive indeed. So are the two fiery volcanoes just outside the city.
That evening, back at our beautiful hotel in San Salvador, John’s parents Juan and Carolina joined us for dinner. After spending so much time with their wonderful son, meeting Carolina’s father Billy, and seeing the fruits of Juan’s business career, it was very exciting and a privilege to meet them. They are remarkable people and we feel very fortunate to have met them.
The next day we provisioned the boat and drove back to Barillas and Odyssey. We spent the day at the pool talking with other boaters and learning what they had discovered in their travels. One of the sail boats had picked up two attractive young European women who were boat-hiking around the world. They literally walk the docks asking for a ride in the direction they want to go. Sailboats are small, and with three men and two girls aboard showers often are taken from the hose at the dock and legs get shaved there too, all while wearing a bikini. Blond hair, blue eyes, tan, beautiful… and I spent 65 winters in Michigan!
The next day new friends from San Clemente joined us for our trip to Costa Rica: Gus and Lyle Gialamas. Gus is an orthopedic surgeon and Lyle is a nurse practitioner. We met them in Dana Point; they had a boat moored next to ours and its name was Odyssey also. In their spare time Lyle and Gus volunteer with Operation Rainbow, which recruits doctors and nurses to help the victims of natural disasters like the Haiti earthquake. They have been there twice, as well as many other places.
They flew overnight from LA and landed the next morning in San Salvador. Heriberto picked them up at the airport and brought them to Barillas. Gus and Lyle love boats and were anxious to make the two day passage to Costa Rica with us. Gus is also an experienced fisherman, so I was looking forward to seeing an expert in action. I wasn’t disappointed as Gus came equipped for some serious fishing. After we left Barillas the next day, we put out our lines and started catching fish: about six good sized Skipjacks (good for cat food) and one very large Wahoo – maybe a 40 pounder – good for dinner! Gus had trouble getting it aboard as it was so heavy. The weather was beautiful for most of the first day, but late in the afternoon the wind began to pick up and by sunset we were burying our nose in 10ft to 15ft seas. It was unpleasant, but by the next day things had settled down. Then, late in the second day as we approached the coast of Costa Rica the wind picked up to above 30 MPH. At this point it was nearly 6 PM and we were within an hour of our anchorage, so we hoped for a calm and protected bay. No such luck! The sun sets at 6 PM sharp, and it is dark by 6:30. We really don’t like entering a harbor at night, and in a 30-35 mph wind it is even worse. We started to anchor, but I decided that it would be better to tie up in the nearby marina. It was a Hobson’s choice – anchor in the dark, maybe hit a rock and/or blow around all night on a potentially dragging anchor, or enter a marina at night in a big wind with a lack of sea room and limited control and maybe hit another boat. But the marina had 340 slips and almost no boats inside. Thank goodness there was plenty of room for us and we had no trouble tying up.
The next day, Sunday, we slept in and waited for the local officials to come aboard and clear us into the country. About 9 AM five of them plus our agent arrived. $561 later, we were cleared into Costa Rica. What a rip off! But we weren’t completely finished with officialdom: the next day our agent took me, the captain, to the airport so that I could pay the boat importation fee and sign important papers at that office. It took me a couple of days to recover my good humor.
Over the next few days we had a great time: we enjoyed a Valentine’s Day dinner at the Four Seasons nearby; we rented a car and drove to the Rincon de la Vieja volcano for a day of canopy walking, hiking, and hot spring baths; we took the tender to deserted beaches for snorkeling and swimming in the 79 degree beautiful ocean water. A great time was had by all. One of the most interesting things around here is the Howler Monkeys. They are larger than Spider Monkeys, and the males really make themselves heard. Rebecca’s research revealed that Howler Monkeys make the loudest sound of all land animals, which reportedly can be heard for three miles.
The area here is very beautiful. The inlet from the ocean forms a very large bay with several smaller bays inside, all of which can be used as anchorages. Most of the bays have little villages or resort communities. One is occupied by Playa Coco, the largest town in the area. The hills are covered by a sort of jungle, which at this time of the year is dry and denuded of most of its leaves. Many trees have a flower in bloom of either a lavender or yellow color. Some bear fruit that the monkeys eat. The temperature at night is pleasant, but the days are hot and often humid. The sky is blue and clear with puffy cumulous clouds. There is almost always a breeze or wind. It is a beautiful place. The standard of living in Costa Rica is very high compared to the other countries we have visited, and we have not seen any armed guards or policemen with weapons during our travels here.
Astern of us in the marina lie four very large yachts, the Utopia at 234 feet, its sister ship Ocean Victory at 248 feet, Exuma at 150 feet and Were Dreams at about 150 feet. The first two are the largest yachts that Feadship has built. Exuma is notable for its fresh design. I wondered how the person who owned the 234 footer felt when is jet touched down and saw his boat’s big sister tied up in front of him(…always, there will be bigger and better!).
This week we will be touring Costa Rica. We’ll let you know what we have found in our next installment.
Thanks for looking in on us.
R & R