Suzy Carmody stumbled upon a sociable cruising community as she explored El Salvador with its colonial cities, Mayan ruins, volcanic craters and black sand beaches
We dropped anchor in the middle of the night and waited until daybreak for our rendezvous. We were at the agreed point to meet our pilot who would safely see us into Bahia Jaltepeque, El Salvador.
The long sand spit that protects the lagoon at Bahia Jaltepeque also creates a zone of dangerous shoals and breakers at the entrance, and it is strongly advised not to try and cross the bar without a local guide. The surf breaks continuously across the sandbar and the safest time to cross is at high tide.
Before leaving Huatulco in Mexico we had emailed Bill Yeargan, who lives in the bay and helps coordinate between visiting cruisers and the local pilot. Arrangements were made, and early that morning the pilot arrived in their highly mobile panga, to guide us through the channel while Bill’s reassuring voice on the radio directed our course.
We stuck to the pilot boat like glue as it disappeared below the swell and rose up on the next wave. Surf was crashing in front of us, and we were surrounded by white froth. Distant Drummer, our Liberty 458 cutter-rigged sloop, topped 14 knots as we surfed down the front of a roller. It felt like a sleigh ride: fast and exhilarating but nerve-wracking as we concentrated on the helm.
When we had originally planned our cruising season in Central America we were in two minds about visiting El Salvador. El Salvador’s Pacific shoreline is famous for its surf breaks, and the two most popular cruising destinations in the country are estuaries protected by sand bars. The thought of crossing shoals and breakers was a little off-putting.
However, as we waited in Mexico for a weather window to cross the Tehuantepec Gulf we met several north-bound cruisers who waxed lyrically about the wonderful time they’d spent in El Salvador.
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Assured that the sandbars were not a problem as long as you used the services of a local pilot, we let serendipity (and the pilot) guide us and enjoyed three fantastic weeks anchored in Bahia Jaltepeque.
There was no shortage of interesting destinations to visit; colonial cities and Mayan ruins, volcanic craters and black sand beaches, coffee plantations and local markets. At Bahia del Sol we crossed paths with the Cruisers Rally to El Salvador and enjoyed exploring the mangroves, surfing at the river mouth and hanging out by the pool with new friends. With its dramatic landscapes El Salvador is a captivating place to visit and well worth a stop-off on your cruising itinerary.
Dodging the T’peckers
The Tehuantepec Gulf between Mexico and Central America is famous for its violent, squally Tehuantepec winds, or T’peckers as they’re affectionately known. Strong northerly winds, associated with high pressure systems in the Gulf of Mexico, funnel through low points in the isthmus and shoot across Tehuantepec like a jet flame.
These gales blow for three or four days at a time, often reaching storm force conditions, and kick up a short, steep and generally nasty swell. However, T’peckers can be reliably forecast so planning a crossing of the Gulfo de Tehuantepec is quite straightforward.
Huatulco is a popular place to wait for a weather window. This area of southern Mexico was developed for tourism in the 1980s. The craggy coastline is indented with small, pretty inlets whose golden sandy beaches are fringed with palm-fronded palapa restaurants and ringed with luxury resorts.
However, gunkholing along the coast is not for the faint-hearted; many of the bays have narrow entrances that are strewn with rocks and navigating in and out can be slightly nerve-wracking, and definitely best not attempted in a serious swell.
Once inside the holding is good but the most sheltered spots are often filled with pangas (local fishing boats) leaving visiting cruisers to roll in the swell. The weekends are often hectic with tourists but we enjoyed a few quiet weekdays rocking on the pick before going into the marina in the town of Le Crucecita to complete our checking out formalities.
It was a four-day passage from Huatulco to Bahia Jaltepeque. The first two days were spent crossing the Tehuantepec Gulf before the next T’pecker blew through. As we departed Huatulco a 20-knot breeze was blowing from the south-west, this is quite common during the periods between the T’peckers and allowed us to fly across the dark blue water on a starboard reach.
We lazed in the cockpit under an azure sky and baking sun to revel in the pleasure of life at sea. But, nothing lasts forever. During the night the wind dropped to turn off this welcome turbo-boost and the following day we motorsailed until the wind veered to the north-east ahead of the T’pecker. We were then able to raise the asymmetric spinnaker as we crossed the border into Guatamalan waters.
Quetzal is the only port of entry on the Pacific coast of Guatamala. It’s a large commercial harbour and we’d been warned by other cruisers that it is not very welcoming to visiting yachts. Noonsite reports that the clearance charges are significantly higher than in other Guatemala ports of entry and the soot from the ships and the power plant combine to make it a fairly unattractive spot.
So we decided to give Quetzal a miss and passed it by on our third night of the passage, as a series of powerful squalls kept us on our toes. Fork and sheet lightning flashed across the sky as we used the radar to help us navigate a path between the storms.
Surfing the bar
We entered El Salvador at Bahia Jaltepeque. Also known as Estero Jaltepeque, it is the meeting point for many small tributaries into the Rio Lempa basin, creating a large lagoon. Having safely surfed into the lagoon we turned west and tied up behind the sand spit at the Bahia del Sol Hotel marina.
We received a hearty welcome and a delicious rum punch from Bill and his wife Jean who also assisted us with check-in. There are no customs requirements for yachts entering El Salvador and the immigration office is in the hotel grounds so formalities were soon taken care of. We chose to anchor out and found a nice sandy spot opposite the marina.
El Salvador is well off the beaten track so we were a little surprised to find quite a gathering of cruising boats in the marina. We soon discovered that we’d gate-crashed the Cruisers Rally to El Salvador. This was a destination rally organised by Bill and Jean. There were yachts that had arrived southbound from Mexico and northbound from Costa Rica and Panama, as well as several cruisers who left their boats at Bahia del Sol during the hurricane season.
Although we’d arrived independently, we were made very welcome and included in the fun and games, dinghy raft-ups and happy hours which Bill and Jean’s sailing community enjoy. Today, they organise the ‘Cruisers Vacation in El Salvador’ for independent cruisers and boats arriving with rallies such as the Panama Posse.
The estuary at Bahia Jaltepeque stretches west from the entrance for more than 10km before the waterway peters out into tendrils among the mangrove islands. The nearest grocery store is in the town of San Luis la Herradura, a 20-minute dinghy ride away.
An early morning provisioning trip gliding through the mirror-smooth lagoon, listening to bird song and the wake sloshing quietly against the mangrove roots, was a memorably serene shopping experience. Dogs playing on the sand banks at low tide were a good indication that crocodiles were not active in the lagoon, and on further enquiry we discovered that crocs were not a problem: they’d all been eaten during the civil war of the 1980s and ’90s.
Volcanoes and Mayans
El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America; it takes just five hours to drive the 300km along the Pan American highway from the western border with Guatemala to the eastern border with Honduras. Although most destinations are possible as a day trip from Bahia del Sol, we decided to hire a car and discover the country at a more leisurely pace.
A chain of more than 20 volcanoes forms the backbone of El Salvador with some of the highest peaks in the western part of the country. Where the flanks of these mountains plunge directly into the Pacific Ocean the coastline is deeply incised with rocky headlands and black pebbly inlets. A steady Pacific swell lures surfers to the numerous shore and point breaks along the coast.
We followed the road west from La Libertad, hugging the contours of the shoreline as it curves around the bluffs before stopping for the night in el Tunco, a surfers’ hangout, and enjoyed a rum punch or two watching the last of the action on the waves as the sun went down.
The next day we turned inland and climbed up into the interior highlands. Dense arid bush covers the lower slopes but higher up the patchwork fields of coffee plantations decorate the landscape. The villages are poor; adobe huts line the road with small shops selling handcrafts, phone cards and pilsner beer, as skinny Brahmin cows wander along the verge.
The larger towns are a bustle of dirty streets clustered around a market, usually under the imposing white façade of a church built long ago by the Spanish invaders. We crossed a chain of volcanic peaks that includes Volcan Izalco, a volcano so active in the last 200 years that sailors nicknamed it ‘The lighthouse of the Pacific’.
Into the volcano
Mayan people lived in the volcanic area from 1,200BC and ruins have been discovered there. We visited Tazumal, an archaeological site that has been extensively unearthed and restored. The centrepiece is a 23m-high step pyramid, amidst a complex of platforms and buildings: a flight of steep stairs runs up to the pillared first terrace and a second longer flight leads up to an altar, which looks very much like a butcher’s slab. The site is certainly evocative of blood crazed priests and cruel, malevolent gods.
Our last stop before reaching San Salvador was a short hike up the Volcan de Salvador. The road to the top was not very easy to find but after a few dead ends and enquiries of bemused locals we were able to drive almost to the rim of the crater. Then a short walk took us to a viewing platform from where it was possible to look down into the crater itself and see the ash cone.
The capital city of San Salvador is a shopping mecca for commodity-starved cruisers. It has several Western-style malls and many well known American stores and food outlets. The centre of the city is not as attractive as Santa Ana; fire and earthquakes have destroyed many of the historical buildings and tussling with the traffic can be quite challenging. So we decided instead to wander around the cool, quiet galleries of the Museo de Arte to understand El Salvador’s turbulent recent history.
Back in Bahia del Sol we found Distant Drummer was now also home to a pair of mangrove swallows who’d decided to nest under our sail cover. The social activities of the rally were in full swing and failing to show up for sundowners in the hotel pool was almost an offence! Bill and Jean invited us to their house for drinks followed by pupusas, the national dish of El Salvador, which is like a cross between a taco and a waffle stuffed with a meat or cheese filling; a bit stodgy but very moreish!
One morning we set off with two other dinghies to surf the river mouth. The mighty Rio Lempa is the country’s longest river and the lifeblood to more than three quarters of El Salvador’s population in providing water and electricity. Our directions through the mangroves were somewhat vague, but we only ran aground once before we made it through.
The surf breaking on the bar was wild and boisterous but the waves inside were smaller and offered some enjoyable surfing. The only negative we noted was the amount of plastic bottles and flip flops that decorated the beach: littering sadly seems to be a national problem.
For a cruising destination El Salvador has much to offer. As it lies below the hurricane belt, the country can provide safe haven all year around. With the help of the pilot, crossing the bar was unconcerning, and once inside the lagoon provides a calm anchorage with good holding even in the strong tidal currents.
Alternatively marinas and moorings are available in both Bahia Jaltepeque and Bahia Jiquiliasco. The country has a wealth of history and natural attractions, great rum and kind-hearted people. We are so glad we changed our plans to visit the smallest country in the Americas.
About the author
Suzy and Neil Carmody have spent 14 years living aboard Distant Drummer, cruising south-east Asia, Australia and New Zealand. They sailed down the west coast USA and Central America and are now in the Caribbean. You can read their blog at: carmody-clan.com
First published in the October 2020 issue of Yachting World.