We liked our El Salvador experience. It is hard to say what the formula is for taking to a place. For sure geography makes a strong first impression, and the coastline of eastern El Salvador as dawn revealed it, presented an appealing line of volcanoes the color of a lion's pelt with a belt of green mangroves below. Our thirty-hour trip from Nicaragua across the mouth of the Gulf of Fonseca had been very smooth, with a full moon for the night hours, no traffic anxieties, and very little wind. We were quite mellow as we glided up to a rendezvous waypoint where a panga from Barillas Marina met us to lead us in through the barrier reef and ten miles up a maze of sandy islets and mangrove waterways.
Barillas Marina is a very new facility, not yet two years old. It is not precisely what we think of as a marina. There are no docks or slips, but rather a mooring field lining the sides of a long mangrove channel. A quite ambitious mooring field in fact with seventy-five balls available! On shore there is a perfectly manicured compound with a pool, a big jacuzzi, poolside palapas (little thatch "umbrellas") wired for laptop Internet hook-ups, a restaurant, a tiny convenience store, an air-conditioned computer room with at least a dozen machines, a fuel dock and a laundry service. While much of this is targeted to transient cruisers, Barillas is also a retreat for privileged Salvadorans (including the President who was around when we arrived New Year's Eve and who personally greeted the cruisers who came in two days before us.) There are extensive locking sheds for locals to dry-store their power boats along with a very well conceived launching system, there are rooms somewhere, and there is a helicopter pad and a grass airstrip so the owner and other members can fly in. All this is enclosed by high fencing and is patrolled by armed guards (especially, of course, when the President is here.)
In a part of the world that cruisers have traditionally passed by in long multi-day passages, Barillas' reputation obviously spread quickly through the grapevine as a good place for a rest. Marketing-wise management was very shrewd offering free mooring to the first hundred cruisers to stop. This drew in many yachts, most of them southbound from the West Coast.
Then, last January and February two devastating earthquakes struck the country. The January 13 quake registered 7.6 on the Richter scale and thousands were left homelss. At Barillas, the cruisers rallied to set up a major relief effort with fundraising tentacles that reached out north and south on the radio nets. This led to an ambitious construction effort where North American cruisers organized, instructed, imported materials and equipment, and even labored alongside the locals to build new, earthquake-resistant housing for families left homeless who not only would have had no other source of help, but who in fact had been turned off the land where their homes originally had stood by property owners who didn't want them to rebuild. Obviously, this relief effort was an impressive investment of time, energy and emotion, keeping many cruisers involved for months.
There was a small backlash from this, a sense by those cruisers of being caught in a golden cage. The marina, set amongst the mangroves and surrounded outside the fence by a huge agricultural plain, is a long way from anywhere. And, although the daily mooring fee was very low, prices for services - laundry, Internet, food, etc. -- were not so low. It's an old story. Now, too there is competition from Bahia del Sol, a resort farther west, with a reportedly more laid-back attitude and much quicker, cheaper and less-controlled access to the city of San Salvador. Its chief problem is a seriously risky entrance through the surf for slow moving sailboats.
So, we weren't at all sure of how we would react to Barillas, but I must confess, we liked it right well, golden cage and all. To start with the boat sat quietly 24 hours a day, with very cool nights making for exceptional sleeping. With coffee we could enjoy a fabulous parade of bird life - great egrets, snowy egrets, little blue herons, tri-colored herons, kingfishers, whimbrels and sandpipers -- working the mud flats around the mangroves very near at hand. Several mornings Don and I went in and walked outside the compound along the ready-to-harvest sugar cane fields and through old coconut plantations with hump-backed cattle grazing below. In the afternoons, all the cruisers present would gather at the pool to sit in cool water and sip cool beverages. Twice a week, a free shuttle would convey us into Usulutan, a bustling provincial town with a decent supermarket, a fabulous maze of streets stalls selling everything including nice vegetables and unusual eats, and a good chicken "fast-food" restaurant. All in all it was quite addicting and the days just slipped by.
One reason we chose to go to Barillas was its reputation as a secure place to leave the boat while doing inland travel. We had heard a great deal about Guatemala and how it shouldn't be missed, but we had also heard that stopping in Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala's Pacific port, entailed extremely expensive fees. Barillas had a tour operator they endorsed and we coerced Patricia and Don of the southbound yacht Ragtime to test them out with us in a day trip to San Salvador.
Celina and Max of Discover El Salvador turned out to be the absolute highlight of our visit. No sooner was their nice new air-conditioned van outside the gates, than Celina's articulate and passionate understanding of her country and its history made itself evident. We started simply with a lesson on sugar cane, how it is planted (Sections of cane containing two nodules are planted in the ground, and new plants sprout from the nodules.), how it grows (A cane field is harvested once a year for four years before replanting.) and how it is harvested (They burn the field in the afternoon to rid the cane of its razor sharp foliage and the snakes and tarantulas that thrive there, before the harvesters, men and women swathed head to toe in clothing, come in the next morning to cut the canes with machetes.) Anyone cruising in Central America in the dry season quickly becomes familiar with the fallout from this burning, large tendrils of black ash that accumulates in maddening piles all over the boat.
Our next lesson became a bit more complicated as she went into the history of the land we were driving through. All of it, from the mangroves to the base of the volcano, surely thousands of acres, once belonged to one family - the Wrights. El Salvador, like its other Central American neighbors (including Mexico, of course) has a history of serious economic stratification, with the educated rich getting seriously richer and the indigenous peoples getting increasingly disenfranchised. Prevalent throughout Central American history are stories of greed and corruption enhancing this trend. This, and racial hierarchy, are the simple foundations of the tides of repression and revolution that have swept this part of the world since the takeover by the Spanish in the 16th century. I'm not going to touch here on the politics or human rights violations that raged here in the recent war years. It is truly frightening to try to comprehend. But during that time were also enacted land reforms, where much property was confiscated by the government from landowners and redistributed, at least in theory, to cooperatives among the poor. On paper, it has a ring of justice. And indeed many of the former plantation owners were guilty of abusive use of their labor. But not all. The Wrights, by all accounts, were different. Their plantation was a model of progressive practices, using relatively modern agricultural techniques and taking good care of their workers and their families, including providing schools and clinics. None-the-less their land and their homes were taken from them, and given to the cooperatives (and, of course, to cronies of those then in power). It is clear that farm buildings that were once fine are falling into disrepair. The cooperatives do not have the capital, the education, the vision or the management skills to keep things up and to grow. Juan Wright, the son, has since made efforts to get some of his family's property back, and this includes the mangrove land on which he has built Barillas Marina. However, further efforts to reacquire agricultural land, which is coming up for sale by the failing cooperatives, has been blocked. We, of course, had met Mr. Wright, known by his first name and well-liked among the cruisers, and we had heard only good things about his support of the cruisers' relief efforts after the earthquake.
All this was food for thought as we arrived in the capital city of San Salvador. We were surprised to find it an attractive, fairly modernized city, threaded through by small parks and rotaries with old and new sections, and, of course, rich and poor sections. We had a sampling of El Salvador's handicrafts at an artisan's collective, a very important section of which was inspired by an artist named Fernando Llort in a village in the northern part of the country called Las Palmas. Celina took us to Llort's gallery in San Salvador in preparation for seeing his restoration work to the façade of the Catedral Metropolitana in the city's center. We did other tourist type sightseeing (including a stop at Price Smart near the American embassy) before ending up for lunch at Patty's Pupuseria, an unpreposessing eatery high atop a hill overlooking the city. Here we got to try the best of an El Salvadoran staple, pupusas. Pupusas are a sort of fat corn tortilla stuffed with meat, cheese and/or beans and eaten with scoops of a pickled cabbage salad. We even got to go back into the kitchen to see how they were made.
Over our pupusas, we finally got Celina's personal story pieced together (Max, who drives the van, is actually Italian and only three years in El Salvador) which added depth to everything we were seeing. Celina's father, educated as an engineer, was mayor of San Salvador during part of revolution. After three unsuccessful assassination attempts, he and his wife were spirited out of the country by the CIA. America apparently believed unrealistically that the El Salvador "situation" would be resolved in several months, so the children were left behind. However, after an unsuccessful kidnapping attempt, their aunt got them out to the US, where Celina and her family lived for six years. Although trained as an engineer, her father could not get any work better than construction rehab, and chemicals he was exposed to brought about a serious downturn to his health. Because the doctors thought he was dying of leukemia, he took the first opportunity after the war to return to his homeland with his family where, miraculously he recovered totally!
Celina and Max work very hard at presenting a totally professional impression, but we ladies put two and two together to figure out that Celina and Max were, in fact, a couple. This led us to learning a bit about their lives, their children, about local education, and their struggle to make their business a success. Meanwhile, in the front seat, Don discovered that Max had recently gotten his private pilot's license and was chipping away at higher ratings when funds allowed. This past year has been very tough on them with the first earthquakes quashing the spurt of reservations they had building and more recently the general slowdown on travel resulting from 9/11. I think we cruisers were profoundly struck by the fact that two such hard-working and educated people had no guarantees of a smooth road. Despite economic stratification, there certainly are some people caught in the middle.
After our San Salvador outing, Don and I were very keen to do a trip to Guatemala if we could make it happen with Celina and Max, but unfortunately the economics of a tour for just two of us wasn't feasible and we couldn't get any of the other cruisers in the marina interested. The only alternative for us was either long hours on the bus or pricey air flights, neither of which held the same attraction. Plus, it was never far from our minds that the crossing of the Gulf of Tehuantepec still stood between us and our continued passage north. The Gulf of Tehuantepec is the Pacific side of the low, narrow isthmus at the southern end of Mexico across which infamous winds of gale force blow formuch of the dry season (Decem ber to April). Our delay in getting through Costa Rica positioned us to face this crossing at just about the worst time of year possible, since pilot charts predict gale force wind at least twenty days out of the month in January. From Barillas, it would be, at best, a four day trip.
However, analysis of weather faxes was suggesting a weather window might be opening up at the end of the week, and although we thought it unlikely we would get all the way, it looked a good enough opportunity that we had to turn away from temptations and face practicalities. I can't tell you how hard it was for us to pull away from the settled nights and the poolside social life. You would think we would have gotten bored with it, but honestly we hadn't. It didn't hurt, of course, that most the cruisers we'd been hanging out with also were seizing the weather window opportunity to move on, and the clincher was that one other boat was going our way, giving us a buddy with whom to make this next, potentially challenging leg.
Before we close,
we need to add, that the 2Cs did not leave El Salvador without making
what contribution we could to the still ongoing cruiser-based relief
program. The housing construction project, under the direction of
a cruiser named Dennis of the sv Knee Deep, is still in progress.
While we were there, it was in a lull while waiting funds to make
their way through complicated international banking networks, or
else Don would have been out there getting his hands dirty. Instead
we decided to make a donation to the local school. Although elementary
education is free in El Salvador, the textbooks and required uniforms
amount to about $35 per student per year, which, considering that
a typical daily salary is $4/day, stands in the way of many children
attending. We donated $200 to the local school earmarked to be spent
on just those kids (the $200 will fund approximately 7 students
for one year that might not otherwise get to go!). We also donated
a box of "Tackless-II-sailed-through" pencils. We can't
imagine a better use for them.
Meanwhile, the building program can still use help, so if any readers feel so moved, we are including donation instructions here. An 18' x 20' single-family dwelling can be built for $2000 and takes a cruiser team approximately one week to erect. Such a dwelling has neither electricity or plumbing, but it is a huge improvement over what they are accustomed to and of much sounder construction. Dennis is expecting the current round of funds to clear within the next week or so and a new influx of cruisers to implement them over the next few months.
INFORMATION FOR THE BARILLAS RELIEF PROJECT