Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Honduras – February 19–29, 2016

For anyone interested in off the beaten path travel here's a report on our time in western Honduras. Though the Bay Islands of Caribbean Honduras are very popular with sailors, western Honduras is so not a Gringo Sailing Trail destination that one can become a minor sailing celebrity just by being (a) extranjeros (foreign) and (2) on a sailboat. Here's a report on our short time as (very) minor sailing celebs . . . and, as an added bonus, a report on an Adventure in Anchoring. 

Isla El Tigre – February 19 – 22

In their “bible” of Central American cruising guides, Explore Central America – Part 1, the crew of s/v Sarana describes the Honduran island of El Tigre in the Golfo de Fonseca as “. . . a picture perfect base if you’re an evil genius or perhaps just a CIA operative.”

Isla El Tigre

And while we don’t think any James Bond style evil geniuses have ever used this island as a base it was used by the CIA. In the 1980’s during the U.S. government’s support for the right-wing militias (contras) working to overthrow the democratically elected Nicaraguan Sandinista government, there was a CIA observation / communications post at the top of the island. 

          How We Got To El Tigre

First we had an eight hour / eight nautical mile sojourn from Isla Meanguera, El Salvador to the Playa Grande anchorage at Isla El Tigre, which went something like this:
  • 09.50, anchor up at Isla Meanguera;
  • motor eight nautical miles through choppy and shallow (26 feet in spots) water;
  • 12.30, anchor down off the public pier at Amapala on Isla Tigre;
  • flag down a lancha (the Central American term for a panga) for a ride to shore;
  • sign in with the Port Captain and get cleared through immigration;
  • arrange for the guide hanging out at the pier to take us on a tour of the island the next day;
  • get some lempira (1L = approx. 5 cents; $1 = 20 L) from the island’s one cajero (ATM);
  • pick up a map from the tourist office (where they already knew we were from the sailboat in town);
  • buy some fruit from some street-corner vendors and a gallon of drinking water from the biggest store on the island (need a couch or pair of pants with that purified water?);
  • arrange for a return lancha trip; 
  • anchor up and motor through the chop to the west side of the island; and
  • 16.10: anchor down at the somewhat calmer anchorage of Playa Grande.

[Confession and Travel Tip: We may have irreparably skewed the island’s lancha prices. We arrived without any lempira or small denomination U.S. currency. It seemed more prudent to hire a lancha to shuttle us to shore given the windy and choppy conditions and the very rough looking local pier (we feared for the life of our dinghy). However, we mistakenly hired what turned out to be a stinky fishing lancha piloted by a not-fully-accredited 14-year old. We paid $5 (our smallest bill) for the one-way trip, thinking that was better than having to take a return trip with him. The word quickly spread that really stupid, crazy-rich gringos were in town. When we tried to hire a lancha to return us to Abracadabra a real shouting match erupted on the pier – everyone wanted a chance to make $5! To avoid grossly over paying like we did consider (1) bringing lempira or small denomination U.S. currency with you (though good luck finding lempira before you get to Honduras) or (2) arriving on a calm day and deploying your own dinghy (don't forget fenders - the town pier is very rough and see (1) because you will likely want to tip someone offering to watch your dinghy).]

          Life At El Tigre

We anchored for three nights at Playa Grande. The anchorage was calm and the restaurants were closed at night, so our only evening entertainment was the singing and fiery sermon emanating from the evangelical church on the hill. 

On our first morning we took the dinghy to shore and had the perfect beach landing experience for people as out of practice as we (our last beach landing was probably at Acapulco in 2014!). The surf was very gentle and we were met by a fisherman/restaurant waiter who agreed to keep watch over the dinghy while we toured the island in Carlos’ moto-taxi (the tour is described below).

On our second day Bryce rowed the dinghy to shore and left Molly to face one of her deeply held cruising fears: a case of tourista + marine plumbing. Her case turned out to be fairly mild and was soon corrected but being left alone with her bottle of Pepto Bismol certainly made her recovery easier on both of us. Bryce spent his afternoon trying to politely ignore the group of gangsta-looking guys who took over the restaurant he had chosen for his mega-seafood lunch. They were shocked when he told them he preferred Frank Sinatra to their rap music and began to call him Mistah. Everyone parted amicably, but we don't think they'll seek Bryce out for future social engagements.

           The Island Tour 

The Island Tour was a 20+ kilometer drive along the road that circles the island. We began with a stop in Amapala where we saw the primary municipal buildings, some of which were architecturally charming.

The Gargoyle Hotel
Street Scene
The Market and Moto-Taxis
Municipal Building
Cultural Center - A Pretty, But Gutted, Building

We spent some time in the main square – the source of free Wi-Fi for the island teenagers and the crew of Abracadabra:

Captain Bryce, Checking Wi-Fi

We stopped at the miradores (direct translation: see outs) along the island’s ring road which offer spectacular views of the gulf.


From time to time our guide diverted from the main road to take us to a beach. A big component of his island tour was pointing out the different types of sand at the different beaches. We are sure a geologist would find that portion of the tour fascinating.

One Beach - Light Sand
Another Beach - Darker Sand

We stopped for a very good fried fish and fried green bananas lunch (don’t knock the green banana thing unless you’ve tried it!) at Playa Negra (with sand that didn’t quite live up to the negra (black) label but was darker than the sand of other beaches). The proprietress of the restaurant was kind enough to bring out the wooden-boxed mandolín that the cook used to slice the bananas; more 19th century Provençal than Williams-Sonoma.

Playa Negra

We were disappointed to hear that neither the ruins of the CIA post at the top of the island or the remains of the U.S.-built heliport were part of the tour. Some tourist literature suggests that local trucks can drive to the top of the island, but Carlos told us that the only way to get there was to hike up the volcano. The tourist office map also showed access to the top of the mountain as a hiking trail and it was clear that Carlos’ little moto-taxi wasn’t going to make it beyond the main ring road, so we resigned ourselves to not seeing the observation point ruins on that particular day. The tourist office map didn't show the heliport location and when asked about it Carlos just waved vaguely towards . . . someplace. It didn't seem accessible to the public. In sum, his tour wasn’t everything we had hoped for but we enjoyed the day.

Bryce's First Port Royal Export
(The Beginning Of A Wonderful Relationship)

As usual, our favorite part of the tour was the opportunity to learn about our guide. Carlos was happy to tell us about his work “up there” (aka the U.S.): demolition work in Baltimore and cooking and roofing in Denver. He liked cooking best and thought Denver was very clean and beautiful. He and some friends are planning another trip “up there” later in the Spring. We hope he uses some of his hard earned money to repair his moto-taxi’s transmission!

San Lorenzo – February 22 - 29

After three nights we left El Tigre and motored up the 24-mile long, clearly marked shipping channel to Honduras’ only Pacific port, Puerto Henecán. Our destination was the town of San Lorenzo, which we expected to be a very sleepy little backwater town.

Honduran Navy

About one nautical mile before Puerto Henecán, we turned north-west off of the shipping lane. This turn is not marked; visiting sailors will benefit from good charts or waypoints from a cruising guide. We threaded our way through some mangrove swamps to San Lorenzo and anchored off a row of picturesque restaurants. Apparently in the last several years San Lorenzo has become less sleepy, and is now a popular day trip for visitors from the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa. There are now three nice restaurants and a hotel on the waterfront and several other restaurants on the other side of the three-block "tourist zone".  

San Lorenzo's Tourist Waterfront

           Edward – Our Man In San Lorenzo

Soon after our anchor was set we were greeted by Edward the local English-speaking lancha driver. Edward picked up English when he was a kid, swapping Honduran watermelons for U.S. military MREs (meals, ready to eat). His watermelon customers were there as support for the CIA on El Tigre. He had also met some of our sailing compañeros (apparently San Lorenzo sees a sailboat every three months or so) and purported to be well-versed in taking care of visiting sailors. We weren't completely convinced because his ability to bring his lancha along side Abracadabra in wind and current never really improved over our week's acquaintance.  

Edward arranged for water delivery (via horse drawn cart and then lancha). He found a driver to take us to the grocery store. He even arranged for the immigration officer to meet with us very early on our departure morning thus allowing us to leave at high tide. Molly sweetened the deal by baking the very nice officer some cookies as a thank you . . . ah, Central America - the land of purported bribery.

Water Delivery

Edward - The Man

We also relied on Edward to taxi us to shore almost every day. The tidal change in San Lorenzo is about 10 feet which would have called for some significant dinghy dragging up a muddy municipal beach. We took the lazy sailors’ approach and hired Edward’s Iancha. And as we saw more than one poorly anchored lancha swept off the beach by the changing tide we were happy with our choice.

Lancha Beach At Low Tide

Edward also gained indirect benefits from Abracadabra’s presence in San Lorenzo. His primary job is taking national tourists on tours of the estuary and the nearby port. Abracadabra became part of his tour and on occasion we were celebrity passengers as he diverted his tour to take us to shore. Any time a tour passenger knew English they were very kind to talk to us and ask us where we were from.

Honduran Tourists Waving To U.S. Tourists

Abracadabra became such a fixture that when Edward was touring DJ’s from a Choluteca radio station he talked us into letting them come aboard and dance on Abracadabra’s deck for the station’s videographer

Dancing DJs

We took some video of the event but the station’s video is much better – and we like their soundtrack (though we are still trying to figure out what a flippergram is . . . ). Check it out on YouTube here!  We each received a La Bomba 103.1 t-shirt as a thank you. 

Edward’s greatest kindness was to send his charming ten-year-old son, Joseph, to assist Molly on her trip to the Port Captain in Puerto Henecán !

Joseph (Right) and His Buddy

Bryce enjoyed talking to young Joseph (aka Neno) so much he gave the lad some binoculars that had been given to him when he was Joseph’s age – along with very explicit instructions on how to take care of them because they were muy viejo - uno antiguo (very old - an antique)! We hope Joseph enjoys them and that he watches the stars and looks at the moon as he said he would. Bryce’s suggestion that birds were fascinating to watch did not seem to interest him much.

[Travel Tip: Edward worked for tips and asked to be paid on departure. We became a sort of savings account for him. We decided to pay him $15 a day and then threw in the last of our lempira as we were leaving the country for a total of about 2,000 lempira or $100 for eight days.]

          Life In San Lorenzo

Most of our time ashore in San Lorenzo was spent at the tourist restaurants along the estuary, eating seafood, people watching and checking weather on the internet. But we did make a few trips into town.

Parroquia and Fisherman Statue

We stopped into the parroquia (parish church) and walked through the main square. Our primary destinations were the Claro cell phone office in a failed attempt to purchase a data package and the local supermercado (a Despensa Familiar - Family Pantry – the same grocery chain we had used in La Herradura, El Salvador).

San Lorenzo was nicest in the cool morning as the horse-drawn wagons delivered water and the children were walked to school.

          Adventures in Anchoring

But even with all the help Edward provided not everything went smoothly for us in San Lorenzo.

We were very happy with our initial anchoring spot in the shallow (20 – 30 foot maximum) and narrow (roughly 150 yards) estuary. It was scenic and relatively quiet (there was a karaoke bar, but it was at a distance). For four days Abracadabra swung securely up and down the estuary on the changing tide, somewhat closer to the mangrove swamp on the south shore than to the scary-looking concrete piers of the restaurants and hotel on the north shore. Life was good.

Anchorage One

And then the wind began to blow strongly from the north – one of the dread papagayo winds (called norteros by the locals) blowing out of the Caribbean. As we’ve said elsewhere, we don’t have a working wind speed indicator at the moment so we may be over estimating the speed of the gusts, but they were very strong and felt like 35+ knots to us.

Over several days of swinging in an ovoid pattern in response to the tidal changes the anchor chain had stretched to its full 100 feet and when the wind shifted and strengthened Abracadabra began to sail at the end of the full 100 feet of chain, toward the southern shore.

It was like a train wreck in very, very slow motion. 

We watched as Abracadabra sailed and swung ever - so - slowly toward the mangroves. We looked from the shore to the dropping depth gauge and back to the shore. We took turns looking at the electronic chart, measuring and re-measuring our distance from the line that represented the lowest depth in front of the mangroves. Was this what it was like to drag anchor? We didn't think we were dragging. Could we up anchor and motor to a deeper spot in this strong wind and against the current? That seemed problematic. At one point Molly went below and washed the lunch dishes – the sailing equivalent of making popcorn during the scariest part of the movie. 

And then, as we reached seven feet on the depth meter (Abracadabra draws 6’6”) the tide turned. Just. Deep. Enough.

Until the next day.

As the tide dropped again and the wind continued to push Abracadabra toward the mangroves we realized that she had swung just enough to be sailing toward a particularly shallow spot. Eventually she touched bottom. A muddy / sandy bottom – but bottom. Our first grounding. Not something we had been looking forward to. 

Afraid that now that Abracadabra's keel was touching the continuing strong wind would push her onto her side and cause damage, we decided that it was time to try to move. When the next high tide went slack, and we had only the wind to deal with, we raised anchor and motored into the wind to a new anchoring spot about a quarter of a mile further into the estuary.

Anchorage Two

Right next to the 24-hour shrimp packing plant, the public pier . . . 

Public Pier and Diving Platform

P1030717 (2)

and a disco. On Friday night. The wind dropped soon after we re-anchored so we decided to live with the disco . . . and there we remained until we left for Nicaragua.

We think the moral of our anchoring kerfuffle is to apply the “reef when you first think of it – it’s not going to get easier” rule to re-anchoring. Going forward we will likely re-anchor earlier rather than take the wait-and-see-how-bad-it-really-is attitude we applied in San Lorenzo. But then – we won’t know until we get there and things change, will we?

Next: At the Dock in Nicaragua. 

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