It was early the morning of March 25th, and we were en route to Isla Meanguera from the Tamarindo estuary. The northeasterly winds were perking up for their morning blow, and the tides were beginning to ebb strongly; we were waging an increasingly slow battle against both. Even though we had just a few miles to go, we tucked into Meanguera’s southern bay to seek refuge for a few hours until conditions became more favorable.Rocky arms encircle a long, volcanic beach, empty save a few modest huts. The winds abated as soon as we nestled into the bay and dropped our hook in 20 feet of water. Our anchor set immediately, and we began contemplating a bath, while we soaked in the sun.
From two lanchas (i.e., open-top fishing boats; called pangas in Mexico) near the shore, enthusiastic waves erupted. The young fishermen pulled alongside The Red Thread, greeting our sweaty smiles with their own. We saw the faces of two pretty women aboard the boats, a first for us, as usually only men are seen fishing. New friends?
Making friends and making plans
During the next 30 minutes, we shared laughter and tidbits of information about ourselves with one another. One of the women, Joanna, speaks English fluently, enabling us to share dialogue more complex than would have been possible had we been limited to our feeble but evolving Spanish skills. The fruit of our conversation was an invitation to meet for pupusas in Pueblo at dusk. After our new friends sped off to continue fishing, we tackled a few projects (including finally hoisting our El Salvadoran courtesy flag) and then hurried to make ourselves more presentable. The water in the bay was warm and inviting, as we freshened up with a back-of-the-boat bath.In the late afternoon, we moved The Red Thread to the anchorage off Pueblo, the same spot where we’d spent our first night after sailing from Costa Rica. We found our friends returning to the dock and wrapping up their work day aboard Paulita. Paulita, the diminutive of Paula, was named in honor of their hardworking mother. They adore their lancha and deservedly so; they built her with their own hands.
Our friends had been netting sardines in shallow waters all day, and now it was time to unload their haul. We did our best to be of more help than hassle, as we carried rocks and helped to stretch and secure tarps on which the day’s catch would be strewn to dry beneath the waning sun.Dinner at the hotel
The evening was balmy as we rambled toward a multistory building, The Hotel. We never figured out whether it was actually a hotel, but we did learn that the best pupusas on the island are served there! Two women stood behind an outdoor grill shaping and frying the El Salvadoran delicacy, a round corn tortilla of sorts stuffed with cheeses, beans, and/or meats. Each hearty pupusa was served with a generous helping of tangy cabbage salad.We were grateful for our new friends’ kind invitation and insisted they let us buy dinner. With some convincing, they agreed. For less than $10 USD, we enjoyed a delicious meal of pupusas and Coca Cola! That was the first of three consecutive nights we’d share meals with Tanya, Rigoberto, Kevin, Joanna, Jayleen (their daughter), and an assortment of their friends. We took turns treating each other with delights of our unique worlds: pupusas, wafer cookies, fruits we’d never seen before, watermaker water.A cohesive community
Isla Meanguera’s remoteness has shielded it from many of the advances and atrocities of the last century. Running water does not exist here and continues to be drawn bucket-by-bucket from stone wells with ever-present mild salinity. Pure drinking water is hauled by boat in 5-gallon jugs from mainland La Union, some 90 minutes away by boat. The island and its peaceful people survived the devastation of the Civil War that ravaged El Salvador during the 1980s and early 1990s relatively unscathed (visit the link for information abut the war and post-war periods).
Kevin described Isla Meanguera as todos unides, totally united. People take care of each other and are, in turn, taken care of. Marriages and babies come early, practical education is valued over formal, and day-to-day life revolves around the cycles of the sea. Interestingly enough, Facebook has arrived here, as have all of the popular sport brands (e.g., Adidas, Puma). With all the fervor of twenty-somethings in metropolitan USA, young people here share the stories of their lives online via cell phone apps, thanks to a tower erected 10 years ago high above the village.On the path to Salvadorcito
We savored the next two days. We fried an omelet from the handful of sardines we’d been given (best enjoyed by those who love fishy fish!), explored Pueblo, watched stray dogs meander the streets, and hiked to the overlook that offers a beautiful vista of the southern bays on the island. On the evening of our second day, we walked the track to Salvadorcito. The honey glow of a languid sun cast shadows across the two-wheel cement track that hugged the steep crags of the island’s eastern face. A gang of boys on bicycles began to accrue behind us, curious about the gringos who were venturing along the path toward Salvadorcito. Salvadorcito is the only other settlement on the island and is situated some 2 kilometers from the main township of Pueblo. A couple of the boys go to school, one works with his family on a fishing lancha, and another is a vaquero (i.e., cowboy). The latter held a long wooden staff as we followed his family’s small, lackadaisical herd of brahma cattle.
The sound of a dog barking echoes into the darkness and melds into the howls of another somewhere along the hills of the Pueblo. It’s nearly 11 pm, and the lights of the homes that line this fishing town have long ago dimmed. Life stirs early on an island where the lifeblood of its people, its fish, wake before the dawn.
We launched our dinghy and rowed to shore before the lips of dawn had yet to kiss the horizon. The sky was black, and I did my best to illuminate our path with a flashlight, as Neil maneuvered through the maze of nylon stern anchor lines that stretched along the town’s only cement boat ramp. It was just before 5 am, and we were intent on catching the taxi lancha to La Union.
I threw my bare legs over the freeboard of our dinghy and into the tepid water. Neil hardly had a chance to ship the oars before six El Salvadoran men were at our sides hoisting our boat from the water and trucking it toward the shore, to the location where we’d tethered our little boat during the three preceding days. The men were awake early, bound for the fishing grounds that surround the island, and is characteristic of the people here, their kind faces and helpful hands were immediately at our side, undaunted by the ungodly early hour. They gave us a hearty “Buenos días”, wishing us a good morning, when we felt “morning” was hardly an appropriate adjective.
To La Union we go
We climbed among the other early birds traveling to La Union. Most were seeking supplies or groceries or the company of family on the mainland. We were venturing to the Capitania de Puerto and Migracion to get clearance to travel to Honduras the following day. The waters were calm, making the early morning journey muy tranquilo. We watched the crimson sun break over the volcanic cone of Honduras’ Isla El Tigre.By 7 am, the town of La Union was a-bustle with smartly uniformed school children and women wearing ornate aprons and peddling pastries. The presence of the police and Navy are strong here, the only indication of the town’s rough reputation. A truckload of soldiers rolled down a narrow street, high-caliber firearms slung over their shoulders, and armed officers strolled the streets.
With others’ shopping trips complete and building winds and swell, our late-morning return was a bit more entertaining. On our lancha alone, some 15 or so people were piled among sacks of potatoes, mangos, and other produce; a few hundred bricks, some lumber, and several sheets of metal siding; countless large jugs of water; a refrigerator and a chest of drawers; and a small pot of flowers, among other things. As waves began to splash around us, throwing spray into the sloshing boat, a man climbed over the cargo, passing me the end of a large black tarp. Being that Neil and I were seated nearest the rear cargo, we began tucking the big, plastic sheet protectively over the goods. The older women further back began to protest, motioning for us to continue to extend the tarp over all our heads; literally. Before we knew it, Neil and I were cozied with our El Salvadoran comrades in the dark womb of the lancha, now dry save our own sweat. I lay my head back on a rucksack of cabbage, lulled ever so slightly by the hum of the 75-horsepower outboard engine and the aggressive thrust of the lancha over the waves.
I knew the end of our ride was near when I peeked beneath the black tarp under which we were all stowed and saw the callused toes of one of our two pilots scooting along the gunwale as he clung to the metal arch overtop on his way to collect the fare (I recognized his toes from our morning ride).
To the summit
During our final afternoon on Meanguera, we summited the hilltop where the island’s cell tower is located, led by our friends. The vistas from the apex were stunning! To the northwest, mainland El Salvador. To the east, the shores of Honduras. To the southeast, a hazy Nicaragua. To southwest, the magnanimity of the Pacific. Three countries sharing one large bay.
At once, my heart is overflowing and aching. I’m leaving a piece of my heart here in Meanguera. In the span of a year our new friends estimate that fewer than 20 sailboats drop anchor here. When they do, they rarely explore the village. We’re the first sailors our new friends had ever met.
An inevitable goodbye
On our last night, we had our new friends aboard The Red Thread for boat-baked bread, pasta with a scratch arriabiata sauce, and a special bottle of wine. Some six months after departing Seattle, we finally opened the bottle of wine our friend Kristina sent with us when we went to sea. It felt right to share a special bottle of wine with our friends, people who had welcomed us to their close-knit island as if we were their own. Our realities were so delightfully different, but the things that mattered most to each of us were identical.
Tanya’s fingers wind the strings of a fluorescent bracelet around my wrist; Tanya’s name is etched on one side of a silver heart charm; Rigoberto’s on the other. It is a timeless dance of friendship: smiles, understanding looks, exchanges of treasures and mementos. They want to be remembered by us as much as we do by them. To say I feel touched is an understatement.
The capacity for rich, meaningful relationships to be cultivated during abbreviated periods of time has always amazed me. It’s one of the distinctive powers of traveling and, at times, almost feels poetic. Tears were shed when we finally hugged goodbye and untied Paulita from our stern.
Both our families expressed a great deal of concern about our traveling in El Salvador. While other regions of El Salvador may lend themselves to security concerns, the island of Meanguera can be considered a notable exception. We felt very comfortable leaving our boat all day, save to check that we weren’t dragging anchor. Traveling via early-morning lancha only cost $3 USD each way and saved us the trouble of anchoring in the busy port of La Union where we were urged by the local authorities to have one person remain on the boat at all times since crime, theft specifically, is a notable concern. Riding aboard the lancha chockfull of locals was a wonderful experience!
The greatest challenge we discovered in the bay of Fonseca is anchoring. Setting our anchor has generally required more than one attempt, four on one occasion, which we attribute to a fine, silt seabed composition. Morning winds from the northeast and afternoon gusts from the southwest cause anchorages to be bumpy, particularly in concert with swift currents due to tidal shifts as great at 10+ feet.
Isla Meanguera southern anchorage waypoint: 13°09’.996 N 087°42’.499 W
Isla Meanguera anchorage waypoint off Pueblo: 12°10’.957 N 087°41’.724 W