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The Two Captains


Volume 60
30 December 2001

On Boxing Day, December 26th, we poked our noses out of Bahia Santa Elena to find seas like glass for twenty miles north to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. The coastal landscape was low but pretty with no sign of the mountain ranges we were used to in Costa Rica, so that the abrupt high bluffs framing the entrance to the bay were particularly striking.

San Juan del Sur (11*15N; 085*52W) is a beach resort town as reminiscent of the Caribbean style as anything we have seen on the Pacific side. The beach curves in a long caramel arc with beachgoers bobbing and laughing in the waves as they roll ashore. At the south end is a big port facility catering to the fishing industry; to the left of it is a colorful town behind a string of tidy beach restaurants; further along is an empty stretch of beach where a small river interrupts the sweep of sand, beyond which stretches more beach with fancy houses behind. The harbor is mostly filled with fishing vessels from pangas, to sportfish runabouts, to shrimpers. Visiting sailboats like Tackless II are relegated to the outer fringe. Its a little strange to bob at anchor gently behind the roar of the breakers!

The Port Captain and his aide came out to the boat to check us in. Many people skip this charming anchorage because they dont want to deal with the hassle of clearing in and out, Nicaragua being a country you can sail right through in a day and a half. Had we just wanted to stop for the night, and maybe take in a dinner at a seaside restaurant, I think the Port Captain would have waived the paperwork, which would have saved us some fees. However we were so taken with the prospect before us, especially with New Years Eve seeming close at hand (the Port Captain assured us there would be a fete with fireworks) that we hemmed and hawed our way into making a real stop of it.

You may recall that Nicaragua was embroiled in the Contra War as late as the late 1980s. Or you may not recall. Or you may not have ever really understood what was going on down here. We certainly didnt. Even with the crutch of the summary in our Lonely Planet Guide, it is not easy to sort out. Suffice it to say, US/Nicaragua relations were not wonderful back then, with unpleasant embargoes, CIA manipulations and, of course the infamous Ollie North Iran-Contra arms deal. Given all this, you might wonder what kind of reception Americans might expect.

The Port Captain and his aide WERE in fatigues, blue camies to be precise, giving a very military first impression, and they did conduct a pretty thorough search of all closed spaces on Tackless II, in particular those below the floor boards. However it was all done in a most friendly manner, over a couple of Coca Colas, and although their Spanish was particularly opaque, we clearly got an impression of hospitality and welcome.

Indeed ashore we found many Americans, some young backpacking touristas but others well-established residents! We were surprised by this, although as it is a fairly short hop from Northern Costa Rica which is very Americanized, perhaps we shouldnt have been.

Upon arrival in the anchorage we were adopted by Sid of sv Ivy Rose. Sid is an American sailor who has found himself single-handing thanks to late-in-life circumstances, a situation that we are seeing more often on this coast than we did in the Caribbean. Sids solution is to hire on crew - either single ladies over thirty and under fifty who answer his ads in sailing rags back home and are willing to fly off to parts south OR, when all else fails, young backpackers looking for some adventure. For one reason or another, hes been in this area long enough to know his way around, and he walked us around the charming town taking us to his favorite restaurants, tiendas and bars all of which were run by women! At the end of our first afternoon with Sid, however, we discovered the one hitch to San Juan del Sur. Although the harbor provides a launch (read tippy little one-lung-er wooden fishing boat encircled in fenders) to ferry you in and out from the port, the launch ceases running at 6pm! Your alternatives are to launch your own dinghy and deal with it in the breakers on the long tidal beach, stay ashore for the night (which involves not only a hotel room but the hiring of a cuidadore to stay aboard and guard your boat while you are absent) OR to be home by sunset! Suddenly, New Years Eve at San Juan del Sure was losing its draw.

Still, the next morning we met our cab driver for a 30-minute trip to Immigration at the frontier to complete the formalities of entering into Nicaragua. What might seem like it would be a real inconvenience, was in some respects a highlight of our trip, because I got my wish to see Lake Nicaragua. Lake Nicaragua, covering 8624 square miles, is the largest lake in Central America, the third largest lake in Latin America, and was a major, if not the leading candidate ( along with Panama and the Tehuantepec) for the location of the trans-isthmus canal project in the late 19th century. Connected to the Caribbean by the navigable Rio San Juan, the Lake Nicaragua was separated from the Pacific by only 20 miles of low hills. Before the Panama Canal was built, miners bound for the Gold Rush in California routinely cruised to Nicaragua and up the river to the lake, descending to San Juan del Sur by railroad. It truly seemed the most logical place to build a canal. One of the arguments that really put paid the idea was that Nicaragua was a land of volcanoes. Stamps displaying Nicaraguas volcanoes spewing forth were sent to all the members of Congress prior to the vote. As the highway our taxi was following south swung lakeside, we were treated to the striking view of two very impressive volcanoes, Vulcan Concepcion and Vulcan Maderas rising straight up out of the lake itself! (In actuality they share a small island.) It was a vista well worth the price of the trip.

We ended up staying in San Juan del Sur four days. We walked the beach, we bought vegies at the central market, negotiated for the local Flor de Caqa rum at corner teindas, watched the college students of Nicaragua act like holiday-ing college students anywhere, and ate seafood dishes at beachside palapas. As charming as it was, we couldnt last until New Years.

So, two days before New Years Eve we checked out and sailed north along the coast, in the first and only drizzly day we have seen in hundreds of miles, dodging daisy chains of fishing pangas hand-lining for red snapper and admiring the parade of conical volcanoes rising inland. Twenty six miles along, we ducked into a cruiser refuge for a nights sleep at anchor, before continuing on the next day on a 166-mile, 30-hour leg that would bring us to El Salvador.


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