The Middle of the Forgotten Middle
Amapala, Isla El Tigre, Honduras, Golfo Fonseca
All marinas have some location for cruisers to leave books or gear that other sailors may want. Harbour Cruises Marina in Vancouver had a small box with a partial roof so it generally was not that great a source of treasures. But several years ago, while we were finishing Kanilela, someone left a well-worn copy from the early nineties of “The Forgotten Middle” by Roy and Carol Roberts. They cover the five countries between Mexico and Panama. I was so intrigued by their trip into Golfo Fonseca to the Honduran coastline that I was immediately drawn into the saga. The description of traveling up a shallow river to the small, remote, fishing town of San Lorenzo interested me to the point that I had to go to Google Earth to see where this was. Amazingly there was a photo of an anchored sailboat attached to the satellite image. It was a “gotta go there” moment.
|The Mangrove channels are a bit stylized but the map generally shows Fonseca
Much later, in Mexico, after consulting the Raines’ Cruising Guide they made no mention of Honduras at all and only a passing mention of two possible temporary anchorages near the entrance to Fonseca to avoid storm conditions. I was certain that the river must have silted in and San Lorenzo was no longer accessible. Fortunately we got the Sarana Guide, no one should cruise the Central America coast without it, and once again Honduras became a destination.
I do not
know when the last sailboat came into San Lorenzo but clearly is has been quite
a long time. The town, though a little dusty, is thriving with commerce
everywhere. We had excellent meals on the river at La Playa restaurant and Los
Mangles Restaurant. The tourists, mainly from the Honduran capital,
Tegucigalpa, plied us with questions. It was fun.
Luckily, on our trip south, the Papagao Wind abated and let us get into Golfo Fonseca.
|The church and Plaza at Amapala
The Gulf is an indent in the Central American Pacific coast with an entrance approximately seventeen nautical miles wide but inside is about forty miles by 20 miles. It is unique in that it is shared, not always peacefully, by three countries, El Salvador, to the north, Honduras, the center, and Nicaragua, the southern portion. To end the last war between El Salvador and Honduras, the World Court gave El Salvador three good sized islands and Honduras got Isla El Tigre. We had checked out of El Salvador so unless we had weather or mechanical problems to justify stopping at the El Salvador islands, we had to get to the town of Amapala on El Tigre to do our Honduran entry paper work. The island is set deep in the center of the Gulf in shallow water with some surprising winds and tidal currents so navigation is a concern.
|CIA Post was on the peak of the mountain
El Tigre, a near perfect volcanic mountain island, has had a recent colourful history because the top of the mountain was a secret CIA base. From there, the Americans could watch all three countries, but they mainly orchestrated the Contra war against the far too leftist, (in Ronald Reagan’s eyes) but freely elected, Sandanistas of Daniel Ortega. Yes, it’s all coming back now…. the Iran-Contra affair with Ollie North as the puppeteer of world politics. About sixty miles south of here, Ronald Reagan authorized the mining of the Nicaragua’s only deep sea port, Corinto. And, at the time, who knew? Well, the World Court finally did and felt the economic devastation wrought by the US was worthy of an $18 billion fine. Unfortunately, it has never been paid.
|The old port warehouses
In its earlier history Ampala, the small town on El Tigre Island, was the sole Honduras port on the Pacific coast with ships unloading their cargos, only to be reloaded on pangas and transported through the shallow estuaries to the mainland. Eventually a channel was dredged to create a commercial port on the mainland and since that time Amapala has been forgotten to most of the world. The streets are narrow and the buildings mainly wood construction but they exude a pride of character of an earlier, prosperous time. The people are friendly. Our first contact was immediately after anchoring both Genesis III and Kanilela were boarded by a members of a Honduran Navy patrol boat. After a fairly comprehensive search, based more on friendly curiosity than exercised authority, we were permitted to go ashore to report to the Capitàn del Puerto and Migracìon. Both were exceptionally friendly, providing all of our requisite entry paperwork and a promise of a domestic cruising permit to be issued the next day, all for zero cost!
We anchored off the old stone and concrete pier that has all of the government offices for entry and departure to Honduras and leads straight into the pueblo. The plaza beside the church, one block up from the port, has free wifi and we were able to check mail and weather. The people were quietly friendly and quite curious. It was apparent that we were the first boats for several months.
|A fortunately dead coral snake
After a day relaxing we took a motorciclo, a three wheeled open taxi with a bench seat behind the driver, around the island. Carlos and Marcos, our two drivers, were great. Carlos has good English and if you arrive on the pier he can generally be found there waiting for business. Marcos quickly recognized my interest in the local trees with construction uses and was a font of knowledge as well as pointing out numerous bird species and one very dead coral snake. The beaches are not the most pristine water but all have palapa restaurants serving excellent seafood.
|Genesis III and Kanilela at anchor San Lorenzo
The Papagayos were picking up so we decided it was time to get into the relative safety of the mangrove lined river and headed up to San Lorenzo. The Gulf is so shallow that we had to retrace our route south around El Tigre back close to the Nicaraguan shore to pick-up the start of the dredged freighter channel that goes to the new Puerto Henecan. The fourteen mile channel is well marked but the buoys are spaced far apart and some are missing so good attention is needed. Just as the freighter dock is close you turn north into the river to travel the final unmarked two miles up to San Lorenzo. Entry should only be attempted on a rising, near full tide as there are shallows that could put one aground.
|Eduardo and Joseph with friend in the middle
After the final turn, San Lorenzo lines the one side of the river bank. There has been considerable restaurant and hotel construction since the description in “The Forgotten Middle” was written, but we continued past the new sites and anchored in the river in front of the old Hotel, just as Roy and Carol had instructed. A local panga crewed by a father, Edward, and nine year old son, Joseph offered to both shuttle us back and forth from the shore and provide security for Kanilela and Genesis III. Although there is a tourist trade in town, virtually none of it comes from out of the country and even less comes up the river. The last time Kanilela was so photographed was probably after we went from San Francisco up the Sacramento River to downtown old Sacramento!
|Main Street San Lorenzo
|The new restaurants on the river are interesting construction
We arrived on a Friday and left Sunday. Unknown to us on arrival, the old hotel, looking rather worn, has addressed the challenge of the new venues by playing their music louder and later than any other establishments, Friday night went to 3:00 am Saturday. After discussions considering moving, it was decided Saturday night would end early with the good people of San Lorenzo having to get up to go to church on Sunday. Although the good people of San Lorenzo were in church on Sunday morning, we heard the bells for the first mass at 7:00 am, the not so good people of San Lorenzo were still partying hardily until 5:00 am with the music vibrating in Kanilela’s rigging. Aah, the tough life of a cruiser.
|Coming into the protected anchorage of Playa Grande
We travelled back down the river and channel and anchored for a couple more nights at Playa Grande, about two km southwest of Amapala, out of the winds that were buffeting the town. We were adopted by restaurant owner Sonia and her daughters, fifteen year old Valerìa and four year old Bellica. The food was excellent, the beer frosty cold and they were great fun. Bellica especially, charmed her way into two grandmother’s hearts.
|The little charmer with my hat and glasses
A weather window opened and Nicaragua beakoned. We returned to the Capitàn and Aduana, paid our $1.25 for our International Zarpè and we were off to Puesta del Sol.
Although we have not travelled extensively in Honduras, it has been a great place to visit for us. We went to the Mayan ruins in Copan, Honduras, on the earlier Guatemala road trip and the Fonseca Gulf ports by boat and the people have been fabulous. It is a must see destination.