Through the Canal – Part Deux
August 20, 2017
After our last trip through the Panama Canal on Kya, our other crew mates Rob and Becky from the sailboat Manatee asked us if we would help crew on their boat to go through the canal as well. They didn’t have any crew yet and were hesitant to hire some local people that they didn’t know. We were happy to help.
When we arrived in the Las Brisas anchorage in Panama City we immediately spotted another boat we knew – Wahkuna! We hadn’t seen Robert and Dephine (and their dog Guero) since Nicaragua back in April. We thought for sure that they were already through the canal and on their way back to Ireland. Well, like most boats, plans change. They were still planning to go through the canal and then decided to ship their boat to Ireland from the USVI next spring.
We knew Rob and Becky needed two more crew, so we introduced them to Robert and Delphine on Wahkuna. Everyone hit it off immediately and Wahkuna agreed to help crew on Manatee through the canal.
We all spent the night on Manatee the night before we were to go through the canal. We were supposed to meet the pilot boat to get our advisor at 5:30 a.m., so we were all up at 4:30 to pull up anchor and arrive at the designated spot. Leaving the Las Brisas anchorage in the dark was our first interesting task. There are so many sailboats, fishing boats, dredges, tug boats, mooring balls, and other hazards in the anchorage and many are not lit. At one point I was at the helm with two people on the bow as lookouts yelling at me to maneuver to port or starboard to avoid an unlit boat.
After arriving at the meeting spot, we contacted Flamenco station and dropped anchor. Although we were supposed to start at 5:30, we were told it would be 7:30, then 9:45. I think it was actually almost 11:00 by the time the advisor finally arrived. As the time got pushed back further, we realized pretty quickly that we were not going to go through the canal in one day. This was going to be a two day affair.
We didn’t see any other yachts waiting to transit, so we kept speculating on how we were actually going to go through – center chamber? rafted? side tied? Then word came down that we were going to tie up to a tug boat who would be tied along side the wall of the lock. We weren’t going to have to man any of the lines while inside the lock. We would just have to tie and untie to the tug through each lock.
Rob had the hardest job of all at the helm. We had a large ship that would go in first through the “up” locks, then we would let the tug boat tie to the wall and finally we would come along side the tug and tie up. The most difficult part was going from lock to lock as there was substantial prop wash from both the ship and the tug. The locks are narrow and you have to go slow. If you’ve ever helmed a sailboat with no bow thruster, you know that you do not have much steerage without speed, and the prop wash, current and wind will blow you all over the place. Rob did a fantastic job though, and I just kept telling myself how happy I was NOT to be the one at the helm.
We got though the three up locks and into Lake Gatun. By this time it was already mid-afternoon and the skies were starting to look ominous. We had 29 miles to go to get across the lake to where we would moor for the night. On a good day, that is a five hour motor for a sailboat. Then the rain came. And the lightening. Having been up since 4:30, several of us went down below to get some rest. We didn’t get much rest though when we heard the thunder literally shake the boat. There was almost no visibility through the rain and there were several bolts of lightening that hit the water just a couple hundred yards away. It was pretty frightening.
Finally we arrived where the moorings were at the other end of the lake. It was pitch black and raining. Finding those moorings with a spotlight was pretty difficult. At one point Mike & I were on the bow with the light searching for them. I still couldn’t see them until a bolt of lightening lit up the sky and we both screamed, “we see them!” We tied up to the mooring and all crashed for the night.
Our advisor told us that we would get our new advisor at 6:00 a.m. the next morning to go through the three DOWN locks. It didn’t make much sense to any of us, including the advisor, as these locks usually go northbound in the afternoon. Well, someone somewhere obviously made a mistake. It was 1:30 in the afternoon before our advisor arrived the next day.
There was no tug this time, but we ended up rafting up to a 50 ft sportfishing boat, and had essentially the same procedure as the day before. Luckily, the DOWN locks were uneventful and we finally made it out again into the Atlantic!
Manatee tied up to the fuel dock at Shelter Bay Marina. We all said our goodbyes as we piled into the car to take us back across to the Pacific. We had another fascinating experience crossing the canal. But, we are going to miss Rob and Becky. We’ve had some great times with them here in Panama. I just hope our paths cross again someday. Sigh.
August 15, 2017
A friend recently left a comment that Panama was a “boat killer.” I don’t think I would go quite that far, but it definitely has been an “electronics killer” for us. I’m not specifically blaming Panama, but it has been a rough month for our electronics!
When we first arrived in Panama and were preparing to leave the boat to fly back to the States, we pulled out our power cord to plug into shore power. We hadn’t been in a marina to get shore power in quite some time. But, in the event that there was no sun or wind to keep our batteries charged while we were gone, we thought the safest thing was to plug in while we were away. Well, that plan shortly went out the window when we discovered the day before we were to leave that we weren’t getting any AC power in.
After some trouble shooting, we determined that it wasn’t the power cord but it seemed that the battery charger itself had decided to die on us. I’ll back up here and explain a bit about how we get power…
We have a bank of batteries that power all of our electronic equipment, from lights and fans to our chart plotter and autopilot. There are quite a few ways that we keep our batteries charged up. First, we have solar panels and a wind generator. In sunny Mexico, we relied almost exclusively on the solar panels. But, if there is no sun or wind, we still have to be able to charge the batteries. If we are running our diesel engine motoring from one place to the next, the alternator will charge the batteries. But, if we don’t want to run the engine, we have a portable gas powered Honda generator. (We mainly use the Honda just to run our water maker.) And, finally, if we are in a marina, we can plug into shore power directly.
I’ll save you a boring diatribe about AC power versus DC power and how we have to use an inverter to convert from one to the other. But, our battery charger also acts as an inverter to allow us to plug in regular electronics, such as a computer to the wall sockets (AC power). When the battery charger went kaput, it prevented the AC in from the shore power and the Honda generator, but we could still charge from solar, wind and the alternator. Luckily, we had friends watching the boat while we were away who could run the diesel engine if necessary to keep the batteries charged if there were a few cloudy days in a row (very possible during rainy season here.)
After returning to Panama, we went on a hunt for a new battery charger/inverter. We found a guy in Panama City who could order us a new one. Of course, this was a $1,200 expense that wasn’t originally in our budget, but that’s what happens on a boat! A week later we had the battery charger and Mike spent the better part of a day dripping sweat in the heat and squeezed into a tiny compartment to get the new charger installed. Whew!
The next electronic mishap was all my fault. It was a gloomy afternoon when we saw the dark clouds coming our way in the anchorage. After the rain started, the lightening soon followed. As I’ve mentioned before, lightening on a boat is not our friend. There were some strikes pretty close, so we put our portable electronics, such as our computers, tablets, etc. in the oven, which we hope would act as a Faraday cage in the event of a lightening strike. After the storm passed over, we started to get ready for a quiet evening. I went to make us some dinner and pulled the computers, etc. out of the oven since I was going to roast some vegetables to have with our chicken.
After a few minutes, we started to get some weird smoke in the galley. I knew it wasn’t the chicken and went to check the vegetables in the oven. I looked in the back of the oven and discovered I had missed pulling out our Iridium Go satellite phone that was in the back of the oven. Ugh! I grabbed a hot pad and yanked it out as melted black plastic was dripping off of it. There were many obscenities being yelled by me. Of all of the electronics we had put in the oven to stay “safe” this was by far the most expensive one.
Mike very nicely told me to calm down and not freak out. He waited some time for the Iridium Go to cool down and decided to see if it still worked. Unbelievably, it still works! I have no idea how, as the front of it is completely melted and mangled. But, I guess they make these things pretty tough. So, it may look funny, but at least it works!
After the last two electronic issues, I was really not happy to find out we had a third problem. We pulled up anchor to move the boat while we helped our friends on Manatee go through the canal and discovered that our B&G system with our depth sounder and wind indicator wasn’t working. It was getting power to the system but no data. We really can’t go anywhere without the depth sounder.
So, Mike got to work trying to troubleshoot this issue. I’ll spare you the details of how the network works and why you have to have terminals on each end, blah blah blah. It gave me a headache to have it explained to me. Anyway, after disconnecting and reconnecting every connection and a climb up the mast, Mike was able to get the depth sounder working. BUT, the wind indicator at the top of the mast, which has a 60 foot cable running down inside the mast to the network was not functioning. Ugh. It’s nice to have a wind indicator that gives us wind speed and direction, but technically we can live without it. At least we have the depth again! We’re looking into getting the new anemometer, which will have to be installed on the top of the mast and a new cable run inside (no idea how Mike plans to do that), but it will be another $500 unexpectedly added to the budget.
We’re not sure why the wind indicator decided to fail on us. Another boat suggested that it is possible one of those close lightening strikes in the anchorage put off enough of a charge to kill it. I guess anything is possible. Maybe Panama really is a boat killer… We’re hoping our boat karma changes soon as we prepare to head out to the Las Perlas islands!
Though the Canal
August 11, 2017
Our friends Mike & Katie on Kya were leaving Vista Mar before us and headed into the city to get ready to transit the Panama Canal from Pacific to Atlantic. Before their departure, they asked us and Rob and Becky on Manatee if we would be interested in being line handlers for them through the canal. We jumped at the chance.
The day before Kya was scheduled to go through the canal, Rob, Becky, Mike & I got a ride over to La Playita Marina to spend the night on Kya. Kya is a 68 foot Nordhavn motor yacht. She is beautiful, and a completely different experience from our modest 41 ft sailboat! It was a fun change of pace to hang out on a boat with all of the amenities of home, such as air conditioning, couches, a dining room table, a full size refrigerator, dishwasher, microwave and washer/dryer! We came bearing bags of food and drinks and immediately made ourselves at home in the galley.
Upon arrival we were introduced to Mike & Katie’s friend Andrew who had arrived from Australia to also help go through the canal. We all went out to lunch and started discussing what was going to happen the next day as we prepared to go through the canal. We had all planned on making it an early night knowing we had to get up in the morning, but we collectively blew that plan after a few cocktails and glasses of wine. Good friends make good company and not always the best decisions…
So, when the alarm went off at 4 am the next day, we all rushed for coffee. Despite the impromptu party the day before, the excitement of the canal crossing got us up and running around like busy bees. Kya was off the dock by 5 am with lines being placed in the right spots and the tire-fenders being strung on the sides of the boat. We motored in place outside the canal entrance as the sun began to rise over the high rise skyline of Panama City. We met the pilot boat to pick up the canal pilot who was required to be on board for the transit.
We finally got the go ahead to start making our way under the Bridge of Americas toward the first lock. We had been told that we were going to go “center chamber” which means that we would not be rafted to other boats and would have four lines (two bow, two stern) holding us in place in the lock. Suddenly word came down that we would be rafted to a catamaran and sportfisher that were already rafted together, and we quickly started pulling out more fenders and dock lines scrambling around the boat. No one was happy about being rafted up. Apparently the pilot argued with the canal authorities and got them to agree to let us not raft up and just to tie up to the port side. (Apparently, the canal did not have enough line handlers to let us center chamber on the first two locks.)
So, plans changed again and we prepared to tie up to the port side. Mike (captain) didn’t want to tie directly to the concrete wall (understandably), and did his best to use his bow and stern thrusters to keep us off the wall as the water in the locks came rushing in. What a job he did, because Kya came through those first two locks without a scratch. By the time we got to the third lock, apparently there were now enough canal workers to let us center chamber our way through the rest of the canal.
Basically, what happens in each lock is that a canal worker throws a thin line down to each of the four line handlers on the boat. Each line handler ties the thin line onto a much thicker dockline on the boat. The canal worker then pulls the thin line up in order to hook the thick dockline around a cleat at the top of the lock. As the water starts to fill in the lock (or come out of the lock, on the way down), each line handler on the boat either has to let out or take in the dockline to keep the boat steady in the lock. You need gloves, a decent grip, and to know how to lock a line around a cleat. Luckily, all of us line handlers on Kya had plenty of experience handling lines on boats that we made it look easy! Not all boats are so lucky, as we watched the catamaran/sportfisher raft-up lose a line coming into one of the locks, get turned sideways and end up along the concrete wall. We hope they didn’t have any damage!
After making it through the first three UP locks, we arrived at Lake Gatun. It was time for us line handlers, who had been out in the sun for a few hours, to have some lunch and rest up in the air conditioning. I think the five of us all passed out for at least an hour of the two hour transit through the lake.
Once we were all rested, it was time to get back to work. Mike (captain) had been making some great time through the lake to get us to the final three DOWN locks. This is where some sailboats run into trouble. If you can’t get through the lake fast enough to the second set of locks, you will be required to spend the night in the lake and wait until the next morning. Kya had some speed through that lake, and we made it in time to do the whole transit in one day.
After making it through the last three locks, the final doors opened and we sped off into the Atlantic. What an experience to cross between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans in the same day! Kya made her way to her slip in Shelter Bay Marina just as the sun was setting, and Mike (Adagio) got to work in the galley making his special sausage bolognese sauce. After a long day of hard work, we all enjoyed a big pasta dinner and crashed for the night.
Everyone slept in the next morning and Katie made us a wonderful lunch as we prepared to say goodbye to Mike, Katie and Andrew. We hired a car to drive the four of us the three hour trip back to Vista Mar. By the time we made it back to Adagio, we were pooped! But, we chatted about how much fun the experience had been with Manatee. They were still working on getting a date themselves to go through the canal. We must have been decent line handlers, because Rob and Becky asked us if we would help take Manatee through the canal as well. How could we say no? They still don’t have a date yet, but we’re hoping it will work out for us to go through on Manatee.
August 7, 2017
We left Golfito for the 300 mile trip to San Carlos, Panama. With no wind and an adverse current, we spent three days slogging our way to Panama. The trip was relatively uneventful other than having to dodge some squalls (always at night, always on my watch!) and a few fishing boats.
As we got closer to Panama City and the Canal, the clearly marked shipping channel on the charts began to look like a super highway out on the ocean. We stayed clear of the shipping lanes, choosing to stay on the shore side of the channel. As we were making 5-6 kts, decent given the conditions, the container ships and tankers were making 2-3 times that speed. The last thing we ever want to do is play chicken with the big boys! But, it was certainly fun to see them light up the horizon at night and create multiple AIS targets all over our chart plotter.
We rounded Punta Mala and headed north toward San Carlos on our last evening at sea. There had been some debris in the water earlier in the day, which was mostly logs and other plant debris clearly runoff from the rains. But, just as we sat down to have some dinner in the cockpit that night, we heard a big thud on the bow. We started looking around and grabbed the spotlight. What we saw floating in the water was some kind of big white, metal box. It wouldn’t be until we got into the marina in daylight that we saw the huge scrape in our paint on the starboard bow. Ugh. There are hazards in the ocean you can see and some you can’t. It’s the ones you can’t see that are most worrisome. We’re just glad it was only cosmetic damage and not something more serious.
We arrived the next morning at Vista Mar Marina in San Carlos, greeted by our friends on Kya and Manatee, who we hadn’t seen since El Salvador. A couple of months earlier, we had decided to travel back to the States to attend a family wedding and started searching for a safe, and reasonably priced place to leave the boat while we were out of town. I had emailed Katie on Kya, who I knew was already in Panama, to ask if she had any suggestions in Panama. She let me know that they were at a new marina in San Carlos called Vista Mar with Manatee and sent me the pricing info. The price was right, so we made a plan to head to Vista Mar.
We were happy to see our friends on arrival and started preparing the boat to leave for 10 days. Rob on Manatee was nice enough to volunteer to look after Adagio while we were gone. This was such a huge benefit to us, as the big tides in the area create a large surge into the marina. The dock lines have to be checked and adjusted daily to try and keep any chafing to a minimum. Also, given the humidity in the rainy season, we really needed someone to open the boat for a couple of hours each day to air it out and try and prevent any mold from growing.
We got everything situated and packed in two days and made our way two hours to Tocumen airport in Panama City. After a fabulous 10 days in New York, Connecticut and Vermont with family, we were ready to get back to Adagio.
Upon our return, we were introduced to a new group of friends that Becky on Manatee had made while we were gone. We met a great group of expats from the US, Canada, Mexico and Argentina who were living in the area and happy to show us around and throw a few parties. Vista Mar is a really nice marina with a golf course and beach club, but there is not much of a town that you can walk to if you want to get to a store or restaurant. As much as we loved the fun times and great company, I could not thank our friends enough for running errands for us like taking us to grocery stores and letting us do laundry at their house. Seriously, thanks again Aurora, Marcelo, Janet, Judie and David!
Golfing in Panama…
While in Vista Mar, we took a few trips into Panama City, played golf at the local golf course and rented a van to drive up to El Valle de Anton. El Valle is up in the mountains about 45 minutes from Vista Mar and a completely different climate. The city is actually in the caldera of an extinct volcano! After piling in the van, we stopped at a hiking trail that took us through the rain forest to a beautiful waterfall and natural swimming pool. Very cool!
After our hike, we stopped for lunch at a beautiful hotel and started looking for some other sight seeing activities. Janet had the driver stop at another little restaurant off the road while the rest of us waited in the van. She came back a few minutes later and told us all to follow her as she handed us each little bags of dried corn kernels.
We walked through the restaurant and across the street to a wooden fence. On the other side of the fence were ducks, geese, chickens and turkeys. As soon as they saw us with the bags of corn, the entire flock of birds came rushing towards us. It was hilarious. We all acted like kids throwing the corn at the birds who quacked, squawked, chirped and clucked at us. So funny.
We’d had a great time at Vista Mar, but it was time for us to move on. So, we said our goodbyes and assurances that we would keep in touch and left Vista Mar for the big city of Panama!
August 3, 2017
We were on a bit of a time crunch now to get to Panama. So, we scooted on down south to Bahia Drake (pronounced DRAH-kay), where we once again met up with our friends on Kini Popo. Drake is on the Osa Peninsula, which has its own weather systems. The books describe the two seasons here as wet, and wetter. It was definitely that…
We headed in towards shore and decided to check out the estuary to see if there was a place to tie up the dinghy rather than go through the surf and do a beach landing. We found an awesome eco-resort with their own dock who were very welcoming and let us tie up. We returned the favor by sitting in their open air bar with some mojitos just as it started pouring rain.
One of the reasons that we wanted to stop at Drake was that Isla Cano is not far off shore and supposed to have spectacular diving. But, as we were approaching Drake from miles offshore, everywhere we looked was green, silty water. Because it is the rainy season, there is so much runoff that the silty, brackish water travels miles from shore and sits on the top of the water column. Concerned that there would not be too much visibility until perhaps we were fifty feet down or so, we nixed paying to go out there. (Dan and Susan eventually went out there after we left, so hopefully we’ll here the water clarity was better than we thought at the time!)
Diving off the table, we decided to see what else we could do in Drake. The little town was great with dirt roads and small outfits offering eco-tours. Mike and Dan disappeared into one of these little shops and came back to tell us that we were signed up for a Canopy Tour the next morning. If you don’t know what a canopy tour is, you are in good company. It is a series of zip lines that take you over the canopy of the rainforest.
The next morning we piled into the back of a pickup that took us down those dirt roads and even through a (shallow) river (apparently the bridge was out), until we arrived at the Corcovado Canopy Tours. Corcovado is a national park of rainforest that covers most of the Osa Peninsula.
Once we were suited up in our helmets, harnesses and gloves, we marched off into the rainforest to ascend the first of THIRTEEN platforms that would take us high above the trees. Mike had the GoPro, so we got some great pictures and video of the four of us flying over the rainforest. It was so much fun, and a great way to see the rainforest from a completely different perspective.
The next day we decided to take some of the trails that began right outside the eco-lodge and headed along the coast into Corcovado. We were doing so much hiking at this point, that a few hours traversing mud and rocks was not all that physically challenging but allowed us to really take in the beauty of our surroundings in nature. I know I’ve said this before, but it is amazing how much healthier a lifestyle we have here on the boat!
We had packed as much into Costa Rica as we could in two months, but we really had to go. We said goodbye to Kini Popo and departed for Golfito. Golfito is the last port of entry in Costa Rica and where we had to check out of the country.
Our sixty mile trip to Golfito was an all day trip, as there was no wind and we were fighting an adverse current. We arrived in Golfito at dusk, just as the rain came pouring down. It was hard to see through the rain, as I stood on the bow looking for hazards and trying to find the anchorage. But, we were able to anchor just fine and get a good night’s sleep.
The next day we set off to provision for our passage to Panama and to see all the officials to check out of the country, as we planned to leave early the next morning. Those plans changed a bit when the immigration official told us we had to come back the next day. But, we got our groceries and filled up with diesel. The forecast (and season) did not look great for wind, but we had to go. Topping up with diesel was an imperative.
After finding the immigration office, customs, the bank (to pay for the exit zarpe) and the port captain the next morning, we finally had our zarpe to leave Costa Rica. We pulled up anchor around noon and departed for the three day journey to Panama! But, more on that next time…
Don’t Drop Your Keys!
July 31, 2017
I’m a bit behind on the blog, but I have a few posts to catch you up…
After leaving Islas Tortugas we spent a couple of days at Bahia Herradura reprovisioning and getting some laundry done. Then, we were off to Punta Quepos. We really wanted to go to Manuel Antonio, which is probably the number one tourist attraction in Costa Rica. It is a beautiful National Park and wildlife refuge right on the water. I had visited Manuel Antonio over 15 years ago, but Mike had never been there.
You can anchor at the park, but you get charged for anchoring. The fee wasn’t really the problem though. Because we would be anchoring inside the park, you are supposed to get the permit and pay the fees before you get there. In order to do that, you would have to go into Quepos, bus over to Manuel Antonio, pay the fees, and then move the boat from Quepos to Manuel Antonio. That seemed a bit ridiculous to us, so we decided to anchor around the corner about 6 miles away at Punta Quepos.
Punta Quepos was a beautiful little anchorage away from the town of Quepos. In order to get to the small beaches around, you either had to hike in or come by boat. The first day we were there the anchorage was nice and calm. We had a fun time paddle boarding around and checked out the beaches. We asked some locals who were renting kayaks on the beach how we would get to Manuel Antonio. They said we could hike out, walk to the main road and easily catch a bus. So, that became the plan for the next day.
We dropped the dinghy in the water the next morning and rowed to shore. The “hike” out of there was definitely that, with a rough and ragged trail up to a road. From the road we started walking in the direction we were given to get to the main road to catch the bus. What we didn’t know was that this was about a mile and a half of a windy, uphill road. By the time we finally made it out, we were a hot, sweaty mess.
We stood on the corner for a minute looking for a bus when Mike suggested we try and hitchhike. We’d had pretty good luck with hitchhiking in Costa Rica so far, so it was worth a shot. Immediately a car pulled over and we piled in. Our new friend was a 20 yr old college kid from New Jersey named Mohamed who was on vacation by himself and also headed to Manuel Antonio. He seemed glad to have the company, and so off we went to explore Manuel Antonio.
It is amazing how many people visit this little park, which is a well protected piece of rainforest that opens up onto a beautiful beach. It is also a wildlife watcher’s paradise. We saw all kinds of monkeys, sloths, iguanas, coatis, raccoons and birds. There are beautifully marked trails that take you to waterfalls and overlooks that give you fantastic views of the ocean.
After roaming around in the park for a few hours, we grabbed some lunch with Mohamed and invited him to come back to the boat with us to hang out for the afternoon. We hung out for a while and Mike jumped in the dinghy to row Mohamed back to shore so that he could find his hotel before it got dark.
I was starting to think that it was taking an awfully long time to get him back to shore when Mike suddenly appeared and said, “We’ve got a problem…” Apparently, when they were about 20 feet from shore (in about 7 or 8 feet of water), Mike suggested that Mohamed take his phone and wallet out of his pocket and set them in the dinghy, so that when they jumped out to pull the dinghy ashore they wouldn’t get wet. (There was a bit of surf on this beach and we definitely got wet getting in and out.)
When Mohamed went to pull the phone out of his pocket, the rental car key flew out and plopped down in the ocean. They quickly borrowed a mask from someone on shore, but they weren’t having any luck finding the key. So, Mike rowed back to grab his mask and fins. I grabbed mine as well and we headed back to shore.
All three of us began frantically diving down looking for the key. The main problem was that because of the surf, the sand and silt were stirred up and there was zero visibility that close to shore. We would dive down and really were only able to see the bottom when we were a foot above it.
Mike and I looked at each other thinking this was a pretty futile exercise. It was a needle in a haystack, and we had no idea what Mohamed was going to do if we didn’t find this key. He had rented the car in San Jose, hours away, and all his luggage was in the car. So, we had to find the key.
Just when we were about to give up, I made one more dive down and Voila! The key magically appeared on the ocean floor a foot away from me. I popped up and yelled, “I found it!” Mike and Mohamed both looked a bit shocked, but we were all pretty ecstatic that it turned up. Mike kept shaking his head at me the rest of the night saying, “I still can’t believe you found that key…”
So, the moral of the story is, make sure I’m around if you lose something in the ocean. Just kidding…
June 26, 2017
After leaving Bahia Ballena, we arrived at Islas Tortugas, which are a pair of islands not far off shore in the Gulf of Nicoya. The islands were absolutely beautiful, and we were excited to be at such an awesome spot. We had read that there was good diving and snorkeling around the pinnacle islands, but we were a bit concerned about the water visibility. The water looked pretty green, and we were only two days since the big storm that washed all the silt and debris into the water.
Dan and Susan on Kini Popo decided to do some reconnaissance snorkeling, while Mike and I had to do some work on the boat. After sitting in the brown bay of Bahia Ballena with the runoff from the storm, we had two issues to deal with. First, the waterline of the boat looked horrible. We had to jump in and do some serious scrubbing to get the dirt and growth off the paint. And, second, somehow our salt water intake was clogged up, probably from the debris after the rainstorm. Unless we unclogged the saltwater intake, we were not going to be able to use the watermaker.
After scrubbing the waterline, Mike jumped in with a long drill bit and dove under the water to the thru-hole for the salt water intake. I was monitoring the hoses on the inside to see if he could shove the drill bit up high enough to dislodge whatever was clogging the intake. Sure enough, a bunch of wood chips got dislodged and made their way up to the filter. After several cleanings of the filter, we were good to go with the salt water and could run the watermaker again.
Dan and Susan returned with the bad news that the water visibility was horrible. There were lots of fish, but you couldn’t see them unless they were right in front of your face. We decided to make a Plan B. The Curu Reserve Park was on the bay just around the corner from Islas Tortugas. We decided to dinghy over to the park the next morning to go exploring.
The Curu Reserve Park used to be a family farm and was slowly converted to a park and received protective status in the 1980’s. It is a natural tropical forest and wildlife reserve. So, we were definitely on the lookout for the wildlife.
After paying the small fee, we received a map of the trails and set off to wander into the forest. Although we saw signs warning us of crocodiles near the estuary and lagoon, we didn’t see any crocodiles.
We did see all sorts of birds (well, mainly heard them in the trees) and lots of different lizards and iguanas. We even saw some small deer. But, the highlight was definitely the monkeys!
We were about half way through the hike when the sounds of the howler monkeys started getting louder and closer. We knew we were on the right trail. As we craned our necks to look into the tree tops, the howler monkeys were jumping from tree to tree coming toward us. The larger and vocal males were clearly first. Then the rest of the troop of females, juveniles and even some babies started following. There must have been at least 40 monkeys in the pack. We stood there for about 30 minutes just watching them. It was awesome!
After making our way a little farther down the trail, we started seeing a bunch of capuchin monkeys. These are the little, white-faced monkeys you’ve probably seen on tv or in the zoo. They don’t growl like the howlers but make some small squeaking noises when trying to communicate. These capuchins did not seem to be traveling in a pack like the howlers. Each of them we saw looked pretty solitary.
One of the capuchins was sitting on a branch not that high up off the ground eating a mango. He was clearly watching us below him but didn’t seem too bothered by us. There were a ton of mango trees, and the monkeys were making meals of the mangos as we saw numerous half-eaten mangos all around the trail. The mangos were also huge – much larger than what we find in the grocery stores. Mike and Dan started to walk under the tree to check out all the mangos that were littering the ground. The capuchin seemed quite interested in what they were doing and started following above them in the tree. Then, the monkey started picking the mangos and dropping them down on Mike and Dan! It was hilarious. Luckily, none of the mangos hit the boys. I’m not sure if the monkey was trying to be nice and give them some mangos or was being naughty and trying to hit them with the mangos. Either way, we got a good laugh.
We kept on the trail and saw some more capuchins, one little guy looked so sleepy just relaxing on a branch. We snapped his picture before he shut is eyes to get a nap in.
Toward the end of the trail, we came upon a lagoon (again, no crocodiles in sight) that was quite beautiful. There were water lilies floating on the water, some interesting ducks lingering around, and so many beautiful flowering plants surrounded by butterflies. Fantastic!
After a full day hiking in the rainforest, we headed back to the boats for a quiet evening with plans to depart the next day for Bahia Herrradura across the Gulf of Nicoya.
June 21, 2017
After a few fun days in Tamarindo, we decided to head south to Bahia Ballena in the Gulf of Nicoya. Bahia Ballena was about 90 miles south, so we left in the afternoon on an overnight passage. The wind did not really cooperate with us, so unfortunately we motor-sailed most of the night. We had to dodge a squall and a fleet of fishing boats, but otherwise the passage was uneventful.
We still hadn’t had much luck fishing in Costa Rica, so we were pleasantly surprised to catch a Sierra as we were coming into the anchorage at Bahia Ballena. It was definitely the largest Sierra we have caught. I would have snapped a picture, but between Mike trying to get the fish on the boat and clean it and me steering us into the anchorage, we had our hands full. But, that fish made some great ceviche and fish tacos that we shared with our friends on Kini Popo who joined us on the trip.
Our first night in Bahia Ballena brought some pretty good rain overnight. We didn’t think the storm was all that intense, but it must have really come down over the land. When we woke up the next morning, the entire bay was brown and full of debris. In fact, we woke up to a clunking sound on our hull and realized large logs floating in the bay were hitting up against the hull. The rivers on land of course wash out into the ocean, and this storm dumped a ton of silt and plant debris into the water.
Mike and I had read about a small town called Montezuma not far from where we were that had a cool waterfall hike, so we set off to try and find it. We pulled the dinghy on shore and walked into the little town of Tambor to try and catch the bus to Montezuma. Apparently the storm had knocked out the electricity in the entire area, so no stores or restaurants were open. But, we found some nice people around town to give us information on the buses and give us some change, because all we had were large bills. The information we got from the locals was that the bus didn’t necessarily arrive at a particular time. It all depended on when the ferry arrived in Paquera from Puntarenas. The bus waits for the ferry passengers and then begins its route around the peninsula. So, it was possible that we could have to wait a couple of hours for the bus.
After about an hour with no bus, we spoke with young woman who got dropped off at the bus stop. I think she was German, but she lived in Montezuma. She said that she hitch hikes to get around and that we’d probably have better luck getting there by trying to hitch a ride with someone. I certainly would never think to hitch hike in the States, as we’ve all been told since we were kids how dangerous that is, nor would I pick up a hitch hiker. But, attitudes are definitely different here as we soon found out. We got three separate rides, pretty quickly, that got us to our destination. People were so friendly and just wanted to talk to us and perhaps practice their English, curious about where we were from and where we were going. One gentleman was an exporter of pineapples and one woman owned a hotel. Super friendly and wanted absolutely nothing in return.
The hotel owner told us how to find the entrance to the trail to the waterfalls once we reached Montezuma, and so we were off. It was clear immediately the storm was going to have an impact on our waterfall hike. Not too far into the hike we came upon others doing the same thing. That’s when we discovered that the part of the trail that is likely a walk over a small creek would instead be crossing a raging river! There was a guide there who was helping direct people across. The difficult part was really not the strength of the flow of the water, which was manageable, but the fact that the river was so brown that you couldn’t see where you were stepping. You had to feel around for a substantial rock to step on and get good footing. Most of the crossing was not deeper than knee depth, but at one point I was in the water up to my waist.
After crossing the water, there was a muddy trail to follow around to the large waterfall. The amount of water coming over the falls was impressive. We definitely got the impression that this was an unusual amount of water flowing due to the rainstorm. Mike hiked up a steep trail to see if there was another part of the falls to reach. There were falls farther up, but they were impossible to reach given the current depths of the water and the strength of the flow of water. It definitely was too dangerous to go further, but I’m sure in the dry season there is an even longer hike.
We enjoyed the hike and the falls and eventually made our way back into Montezuma for some lunch. Montezuma is a really cute, small town which looks like it caters to the hippie, backpacker crowd with various hostels, bungalows and surf tour operators. It looks like it would be a fun place to stay if you are looking for a really laid back town surrounded by jungle and trails to hike.
After heading back to Bahia Ballena, we made a plan with Kini Popo to depart the next morning for Isla Tortugas. But, more on that next time…
Afraid of the Dark?
June 17, 2017
We’ve had quite a few water adventures the last month in Costa Rica, but we hadn’t had the opportunity to do any inland travel. We read about the Santa Ana Ice Caves in the Barra Honda Parque Nacional about 1.5 hrs from Tamarindo, so we rented a car with our friends on Kini Popo to check them out.
We arrived at the park, which was absolutely beautiful and green! I’m not sure if it is technically a rainforest, but that it what it seemed like. We told the administration that we wanted to see the caves, and they explained that the caves were a drive farther into the park and that we had to have a guide.
We paid the fee and piled our guide, Miguel, into the car with us. We were pretty happy we had a four wheel drive vehicle because our car barely made it up the steep, muddy and rocky roads. We even had to reverse and get some greater momentum to make it up one of the hills.
We arrived at another small parking lot where we would begin our hike up to see the ice caves. The hike was a good workout, especially because the amount of mud that caked to the bottom of our shoes felt like weights we were carrying around. Miguel pointed out various plants along the way that were used for cooking or medicinally, such as aljillo and anise. We could hear the howler monkeys in the distance but unfortunately did not see them.
We finally arrived at the descent into the cave. We all had helmets to put on and some very worn harnesses. Then we saw where we were going to descend! There was a single guy belaying a rope through a ring attached to our harnesses while we had to go down about a four story ladder. The ladder looked like old Home Depot ladders that were just lashed together at the joints. There was so much mud on them that you had to be careful not to slip and had to hold onto the sides rather than the rungs. We all laughed a bit and said this would not be Cal OSHA approved!
The top of the ladder…
View from the bottom of the ladder looking up…
One by one we made it to the bottom of the ladder where Miguel gave us all headlamps. The caves were damp and muddy and required some serious negotiating of where you stepped. But, the scenery was fascinating. The long stalactites and stalagmites gave the cave its name, as it did look like icicles all around.
We wandered further and further into the cave, admiring the interesting structures and contemplating how mother nature can create something so incredible. Finally we reached a dead end in a big open part of the cave. Miguel had us all sit down and together we turned off our headlamps.
Have you ever experienced real darkness? There was not a hint of light in this part of the cave. It was so dark that your eyes almost play tricks on you making you think you can see something. We sat in silence for a few minutes just listening to the drips of water echoing from somewhere in the cave. The dark and silence creates a surreal sensation of almost floating. I admit I am not really a fan of the dark, but this wasn’t scary. It was one of those experiences that makes you aware of your senses and makes you feel alive!
We made our way back through the cave to the ladder that we now each had to climb up to get out of the cave and back into the sunlight. We hiked back to the car and stopped at a lookout where we could see the green valley below the park and the Gulf of Nicoya far in the background.
It was a fun trip to see something unique in nature, and we were all happy to have a day out of the water!
June 12, 2017
There wasn’t much opportunity for surfing where we were in Mexico, but now that we’re in Central America the surf beaches are everywhere. Mike had done a little bit of surfing back in California but really considered himself a beginner. If Mike is a beginner surfer, I don’t even know what that makes me considering I had never tried surfing in my life! We didn’t exactly have an ocean nearby where I grew up in Texas.
After talking with friends back in Mexico, Mike decided he wanted to get a stand-up paddle surfboard. We found a great used board in Punta Mita (Mexico), but Mike hadn’t really had the opportunity to try it out yet. We are still hanging out with our friends on Kini Popo, and Dan was into surfing too. So, it was time to go find the surf beaches!
Our first stop was to actually head back up north toward the Nicaragua/Costa Rica border where there is a famous surf spot called Ollie’s. I have no idea if this is true, but our guidebooks say that Ollie’s was named after Oliver North because this is the spot where he smuggled arms to the Nicaraguan Contras. Crazy.
Anyway, Ollie’s Point is in Bahia Potrero Grande. Like any good surf beach, there is quite a bit of swell coming into the bay. That means a bit of a rolly anchorage for the boats. But, it is a huge advantage to be anchored there as the only way to reach the surf spot is by boat. On days of good surf, tourists pay several hundred dollars to rent a panga and take them out to Ollie’s for a few hours.
Mike and Dan got to catch a few good waves the first day, but Mike ended up ditching the paddle and regular surfed the new board. With a SUP board, you either have to have enough volume on the board to keep you afloat or you have to get some speed going to keep you on top of the water. The board floats me just fine, but Mike has about 50 lbs on me. Until he gets quite a bit more practice under his belt, the board is going to have to be a regular surf board for him (more on that later.)
Dan, getting his surf on…
Later on we all headed back to the surf spot, and I ended up playing around on our board in the baby waves by the shore while Mike took Dan’s longboard out for a spin. Susan and I were on shore while Mike and Dan were farther out in the wavers when we noticed dark, ominous looking clouds coming our way. It became clear that a storm was quickly approaching. The dinghy was anchored on the other side of the breakers, but the sailboats were clear across the bay. As we had left the boats when it was sunny, both boats had all the hatches open.
I grabbed the board and started paddling as quickly as possible for the dinghy. Susan didn’t have a board and was going to have to make a pretty long swim. As I got closer to the dinghy, I saw Mike and Dan paddling quickly to meet me. Susan was still trying to negotiate the waves on the shore as the three of us piled in the dinghy and the rain started. Dan yelled at Susan to stay on the beach. We would have to come back for her, but we needed to race to the sailboats or everything was going to be drenched. The boys dropped me off on Adagio and grabbed some fins from Kini Popo. The boys raced back across the bay to get Susan. Dan swam the fins to Susan to help her swim out past the surf and into the dinghy.
It was probably only 10 minutes or so after the boys and Susan got back that the storm really hit. And, it hit hard! We’ve had a ton of rain the last month while we’ve been here, but usually there isn’t too much wind with it. This time was different, as we saw about 40 kts of wind! Mike was out in the cockpit and yelled at me to open the thru-holes and give him the engine key. We were not too far from the rocky shoreline and if our anchor started to drag we needed to be ready to start the engine quickly. We have a cool app on our ipad with an anchor alarm that I could monitor by GPS where our boat was and if we looked like we were moving at all. Thankfully, our trusty anchor held us once again.
The winds weren’t our only concern of course, the lightening is always the biggest worry. And, boy did we have a light show. All we can do is stay away from anything metal in the boat and keep our fingers crossed that today is not our day! We cheated death once again as the storm finally passed.
After a couple of days at Ollie’s we headed south toward Tamarindo. Although, we started calling it “Tamagringo” because there are probably more gringos here than locals. Not many cruising boats stop here, because it is a rolly anchorage. Again, another surf beach so lots of swell. But, the little town is actually pretty fun and there is a ton of surfing. In fact, I think every third store in town is a surf shop.
Both our inflatable paddle boards blew out in the last couple of weeks, and Mike decided if he really wanted to SUP surf, he needed to start on a board with more volume. So, we were on the lookout for another used board. We happened to meet a guy in a bar with a SUP rental place who said he had some used boards for sale that might be perfect for what Mike wanted. We met him the next day and found another board for a great price. We now have two SUP boards again!
After talking to some locals about the fun surf beaches around, we were recommended to go to Playa Avellana. We knew we were in for an adventure when we told the guy at the rental car place where we were going and he said we needed 4 wheel drive.
Avellana isn’t that far from Tamarindo, but you have to wind around and ultimately get on a dirt road that arrives at an idyllic, unspoiled beach. The swell was up and the boys were ready to get wet! Susan and I found a great little spot shaded by a tree to set up our beach chairs and watch the action.
The waves were pretty big and a bit intimidating to me, so Susan and I did a bit of relaxing until lunchtime. Meanwhile, Mike & Dan tackled mother nature. We got to watch them catch some really good rides, but we also saw them take some big hits, especially Mike who got pounded a few times. Dan’s comment was, “Mike has more muscle than sense.” Hilarious, and true, but I’m proud of him for getting out there and trying. It is hard work!
The boys took a break and we got some lunch at a fantastic spot on the beach called Lola’s.
After some much needed food, we headed back to the water. The tide had gone out quite a bit and the waves were much smaller. So, Mike offered to help me try to catch some waves, since I really have no idea what I’m doing. They might have been tiny, baby waves, but I stood up twice and rode a wave into the beach. It was so much fun!