Toward the crown of an estuary: Puerto Barillas, El Salvador
In preparation for an early morning passage, we caught the afternoon ebb and motored across the Golfo de Fonseca, crossing the saltwater border between Honduras and El Salvador. As we cruised the gap between Islas Conchguita and Meanguera, we decided to give The Red Thread a little polish. Music up, we were on the bow shining the stainless when an El Salvadoran Navy boat appeared out of nowhere and sped toward us.Having Naval authorities pay us an unexpected visit feels akin to being pulled over by a police officer. Even when I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong, my stomach tightens as if I’m guilty of something. We passed our paperwork between our boats, so they could confirm our intentions and be certain that we had the appropriate permissions to return to El Salvadoran waters. Ours was the only sailboat we’d seen in the Gulf. When we were in La Union, we had learned that we cruisers are quite a novelty, making us a prime target for inquiry. After a brief conversation, wherein our documents seemed to satisfy their curiosity, the officers kindly waved us on with big smiles and well wishes.
We anchored in the shelter of Punta Amapala and waited for dawn to come. We had become accustomed to being a lone boat most of the time. The last sailboat we’d seen had arrived in the late afternoon and weighed anchor before dawn in Bahia Santa Elena. That was 12 days and nearly 300 miles ago. The passage ahead would yield more of the same. Just the two of us, a fishing trawler, and trillions of gallons of cruiserless ocean.Aweigh we go
Daybreak flushed the landscape with light and we pulled our anchor from the depths. Our passage that day was beautifully uneventful. Skies were blue, seas were lovely, and a steadier-than-predicted breeze kept our sails full. We sailed the entire way to Bahia Jiquilisco and hauled in a lovely Sierra for supper, my favorite.We had jotted down the waypoints listed on Puerto Barillas’ website, however, we were not so brazen as to try to navigate the entrance to the Bahia Jiquilisco estuary on our own. As we neared the estuary, we hailed Puerto Barrillas to inform them of our arrival. By the time we reached the designated meeting spot an hour later, we had lowered our sails and were bobbing unpleasantly about in a heavy running swell. We watched our pilot, Jesus, race toward us from the invisible mouth of the estuary.Over the bar and into the mangroves
Shifting sandbars along the El Salvadoran coast make the risk of running aground a very real possibility. With Neil at the helm, we followed Jesus closely and watched our depth sounder with tense bellies. The waves were sizeable, at least six feet, but manageable. It was impressive to watch as Jesus maintained an upright stance and a firm grip on his outboard tiller as his lancha roared up and over the waves. We saw depths as shallow as 10 feet, but we trusted that Jesus’ local knowledge would lead us safely through the treacherous points.
One of the more disconcerting aspects of entering Bahia Jiquilisco estuary was that the entrance wasn’t visible until we were nearly on top of it. As soon as we traversed the sandbars, the water grew calm and the depths plunged to between 30 and 60 feet. Sweet relief; we were in!
The estuary was a beautiful maze of vines and mangroves that appeared to go on endlessly. We motored nearly 10 nautical miles into its heart, following the brackish veins that branched from the estuary’s main artery. We kept our eyes open for crocodiles but didn’t spot any.Over two hours later, as we rounded the final bend in our tour of Bahia Jiquilisco, Puerto Barillas came into view. Rather than traditional docks, the marina is a fields of moorings, more than 50 of them, all reportedly tethered to cement-encased tractor engines sunk in the seabed. We had hoped to meet other sailors, but alas all we found were two empty vessels, whose owners were storing them there for the long-term. One grand powerboat was tethered several boat lengths ahead of us. Spanish club music reverberated through the air as the crew scampered about cleaning and polishing the monstrosity. Ahead of the powerboat were several derelict fishing trawlers at varying stages of internment.From the bow of his lancha, Jesus helped to secure our bow line to the mooring ball, The Red Thread’s new home for the forthcoming weeks. Several minutes later, he returned with crew aboard. Emerita, the lead concierge of Puerto Barillas, introduced us to the Capitania de Puerto, the Migracíon Official, Aduana, and an officer in the Navy. While the sun broiled our skin, we quickly signed the necessary dotted lines to grant us re-entry into El Salvador and a safe haven for Red Thread.
Barillas requires boaters to utilize a taxi service to-and-from the moorings and offers a host of amenities, including hot showers, a fine restaurant, and a pool surrounded by tiki-top picnic tables. We were happy leave Miss Sassy secured to the deck but needed to head to shore to pay clearance fees. We hurriedly threw together a few toiletries and a change of clothing. We hadn’t taken any sort of a shower in a solid week, and interacting with anyone, including each other, was starting to feel embarrassing.
So fresh and so clean, clean, we saddled up at the restaurant for a fancy sundowner on the house, a generous gift from the marina. As dusk crept forth, so too did the jejenes (aka no-see-ums). We swatted the nasty little biters until their nuisance overpowered the sweetness of the view beneath the palapa. The only active visitors at that moment, a taxi lancha quickly ushered us back to The Red Thread, where we experienced the only other drawback to being nine miles up an estuary: utter lack of breeze. My Lord it was hot. We had packing to do. In less than 48 hours, the CA-4 inland trip we’d coveted would become a reality.Cruising commentary
We have a couple tips for other mariners whose cruising plans will take them down this stretch of coast. First, some fees in El Salvador must be paid at each port visited, namely the Migracíon fees for checking in and out. El Salvador requires a national zarpe to move a vessel between domestic ports, and you have to pay entry and exit fees each time you move. Our understanding per the officials is that regulations for large cargo ships have not been modified to serve the needs of small cruising boats, like ours. Thus, boaters will be required to pay for entry at each El Salvadoran port until legislation tailoring the regulations is established. The good news is that changes are in the works to help encourage naval tourism.
In addition, the CA-4 (Central American-4; Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua) tourist card, which is required for each person aboard ($10 USD), only has to be purchased once, so long as you cross CA-4 borders by land. When borders are crossed via the sea, however, that card is voided and a new one must be obtained. We didn’t know that until we were stuck buying a second one in Barillas. Interestingly enough, Honduras did not impose the same requirement. Officials there accepted our CA-4 tourist cards without question and welcomed us without duplicating fees. Thus, if you plan to visit multiple El Salvadoran ports, you might consider doing so consecutively. We visited Isla Meanguera and the Tamarindo Estuary (clearing in via La Union, El Salvador), then we traveled to Isla El Tigre, Honduras, before sailing back north and clearing in at Puerto Barillas, El Salvador. Perhaps they would have been less stringent had we not elected to sandwich Honduras between our El Salvadoran ports?
Punta Amapala anchorage waypoint: 13°10′.821 N 087°54′.438 WPassage perks
Point of departure: Punta Amapala, El Salvador – 03/31/15
Point of arrival: Barillas, Bahia Jiquilisco, El Salvador – 03/31/15
Distance traveled: 49 nautical miles
Total time: 10 hours
Engine roaring: 7 hours
Sails soaring: 3 hours (traveling up the estuary)
Average speed: 4.9 knots
Jessie’s musings: Even more salient in my memory than surfing the waves into the estuary was our view from offshore. Volcán Conchagua towered over salty waves that hurtled toward palm-tree strung beaches. A stunning vista shielding an entrance to a serene network of canals. The estuary was mesmerizing. Small villages were perched along sandy stretches of shore and lanchas buzzed through the channels. Being the crew member with the sweetest meat, however, I was brutally mauled by jejenes. Drats!
Neil’s reflections: Going up the estuary was pretty incredible and the sandbar crossing was less nerve-wracking, given that we’d recently crossed the Tamarindo estuary bar, though the waves entering Barillas were much larger. It was beautiful to see the artisan fishermen fishing for snapper in the estuary, throwing their nets and paddling about in canoes. That night we had a lovely introduction to the living nightmare that is jejenes. These biting bugs will drive a sane person truly mad, and risking heat stroke by battening down all of the hatches is a necessity.
10 thoughts on “Toward the crown of an estuary: Puerto Barillas, El Salvador”
“Ahead of the powerboat were several derelict fishing trawlers at varying stages of internment.” Love it.
“That night we had a lovely introduction to the living nightmare that is jejenes.” Lived it.
Thanks for taking me back. You guys are really exploring some tucked-in places.
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Thanks for the compliment, Jeff! Given how much I enjoy your writing and your approach to sailing, your kind words truly mean a lot to me. How are things in Oregon? Any plans to visit Seattle? We’re still crossing our fingers that we get to meet you two! ~Jessie
The writing makes me feel like I’m right there with you!! such fun adventure!
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Great post once again! Love the date for reference up top. 🙂 Do you guys have screens for your ports and hatches? Or do the little bugs come right through? Looking forward to meeting you two in person soon!
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Yes, we do have screens, though these little demons are tiny enough that some still seem to sneak through. I highly recommend getting screens when you two head south. The temperatures skyrocket and keeping the hatches closed all the time would be unbearable. Fortunately, we’ve had fewer battles with bugs than we thought we would, perhaps in part due to our screens.
Looking forward to meeting you as well!
Thanks for the answer – we will have to engineer screens for our ports and small hatches!
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