Bueno El Salvador, says cruising sailor
El Salvador is a growing market for cruising sailors who are looking for an inexpensive but beautiful place to ride out the hurricane season, says a Canadian long-term sailor.
“If you build it, they will come. Offshore sailors are now spending hurricane season there,” says Pamela Bendall, who lives full-time on sailboats. She stays with her partner, Henry, on his large catamaran that is based in Central America, and summers on her 47 ft. steel-hauled sailboat called Precious Metal which is based on the B.C. coast.
Pamela has been visiting El Salvador for seven years, many of those with Henry, where the couple is based during the winter months.
The attraction for them – and for a steadily growing community of other long-distance cruisers — is the rustic beauty of the area, the beaches, and the growing variety of services for cruisers.
“Some people, including offshore cruisers, are settling there. It’s a safe place to leave your boat.
“I think that El Salvador is Mexico 25 years ago,” says Bendall, who has been cruising for many years, often solo after her marriage broke up.
She flew to Canada early this year to participate in a Women’s Day program for boaters at the Toronto International Boat Show held in late January, and was to return to El Salvador.
She says there are few places on the Pacific coast through Central America which offer a safe haven for cruisers during the summer storm season. El Salvador is less wet during the rainy season than nearby Costa Rica or Panama, and offers tourists picturesque beaches, mountains, lush rainforests and wildlife.
Bendall has spent about five years sailing solo along the Pacific coastline and into Mexico and Central and South America, before meeting Henry after her yacht was hit by lightning while she was sailing 200 miles off the coast of El Salvador.
The lightning strike caused a fire, fried all of her onboard electronics and exposed her to toxic smoke. She was injured and limped into the nearest port for help. That’s when she first met Henry, a fellow solo sailor who just happened to have stopped at the same place to rest.
The two solo sailors became one team, and they’ve been together now for many years.
Over the years, Bendall has been a charter captain, has her captain’s license and enjoys being on the water full time, living aboard both boats in different parts of the world.
She first took to the ocean in the 1980s, when she and her then-husband and two young children took off for the big cruise of a lifetime. Her kids were 10 and four at the time. They made the trip and returned to Canada. Bendall jumped back into the hectic business world. She was a stock broker for 15 years.
After her marriage failed — “I got the boat,” she notes with a smile — Bendall made plans to set off again in 2008 after buying her boat, Precious Metal. She’s been going ever since.
“I was in my 50th year and found that I was no longer married. I was divorced and it was to be the darkest period of my life,” she says. “I realized that I’m the happiest on my boat,” she adds. “I said to myself, “Pamela, put on your big-girl pants and that cruising lifestyle is my future.”
Her favorite haunt while in El Salvador is the Bahia del Sol, which is now attracting a growing cruising community.
El Salvador has less tourism infrastructure than some other countries and, although the government has been slow to build things like marinas and boatyards, private interest has jumped in to fill the void.
A U.S. cruising couple visited the area on their boat about a decade ago and liked the place so much they ended up staying. They set up shop along that country’s waterfront and have installed safe moorings for visiting yachts and have encouraged a budding marine industry for boat storage, supplies and repairs.
Visiting sailors often bang on the front door of the couple’s house to ask if they can charge up a communication device, and cruisers gather at the end of their dock for a sundowner drink at the end of the day. There is a real community feel to this gathering of sailors, says Bendall.
“They are the Mother Theresas for local cruisers,” Bendall says of Bill Yergen and Jean Strain, who now live in the country and set up 14 mooring balls and spawned a local marine industry.
It’s not that expensive to cruise the area, and repairs are reasonable, considering most locals get paid about $25 for the whole day.
Bendall has travelled extensively throughout the country and began some years ago to help the locals clean up the beaches. She noticed when she first arrived that there wasn’t any system in place to control litter, or to haul away garbage after locals or visitors to the country spent a day at the beach.
“There was a lot of garbage on the beach but it was not their (local residents) fault…there were no garbage bins.
“We need to put garbage infrastructure in place in Third-World countries. It’s not a sexy topic but it is important.” She added: “No one wanted to do anything about it.”
The area surrounding Bahia de Sol features large vacation homes that are owned and used by local residents from the nearby city of San Salvador. There is a small contingent of Canadian and American property owners, as well, but it’s not as large as in neighboring countries like Costa Rica or Panama.
Bendall has involved a Rotary Club from Vancouver B.C. in her environmental programs, and together they have raised upwards of $45,000 for garbage-control measures in El Salvador.
“We trained the local people to do all of this,” she says. The locals now have the machinery and supplies to equip their local beaches with refuse receptacles.
Garbage cans were purchased and cemented into the ground near the country’s beaches, and other waste-control measures such as landfill operations were commenced, as well. To date, about two-thirds of the county has been introduced to these initiates, and only four more beaches still need remedial work.
Bendall is fairly fluent in Spanish and has started teaching English classes to adults in a restaurant that doesn’t open until supper time. She also works at a company that offers insurance against health problems for those who are travelling. This firm can arrange air evacuations back to Canada or the U.S.
She also keeps busy while at anchor with some exercise and once a month she and her partner, Henry, rent a car and drive to different places in the countryside for a day of exploration.
El Salvador is easy to visit for tourists, says Bendall, and sailors check in at a nearby hotel which has its own marina, and pay only $1 per day during their stay in the country. Other countries can charge upwards of $300 or more for a visitor’s permit that is required by sailors.
The country gets a “bad rap” for its higher murder rates, but Bendall says many of the official murder statistics are connected with a government crackdown on gangs and their members. She says that the country may be safer than nearby Costa Rica, which is popular with Canadian tourists.
“El Salvador gets a bad rap everywhere for being dangerous. In the seven years here for me I haven’t heard of anything happening to anyone.” She adds: “I’ve travelled to every corner of the country and I get treated like royalty wherever I go…these are beautiful people.”
Skippers should consider the source of the information before deciding what to do and where to go, she says. The U.S. government has in the past issued a travel advisory or warning for travel to El Salvador even though the people “are the most wonderful,” says Bendall.
“Consider your sources. Everyone is going to have their own opinions.”
There are a few rallies held early in the year that can bring 150 boats or more through El. Salvador, including an event called the Panama Possy. Local cruisers organize events for the visiting sailors, and it’s a hectic week or activities, Bendall says.
The country has the second-largest U.S. embassy in the region, and offers to tourists some great beaches, good shopping, a few wine stores and great hotels, restaurants and beach bars. But tourism infrastructure and growth in that industry may take some time, she admits.
“I think it’s still going to take awhile. There is still not enough infrastructure for the average groups…but tourists would love it. I think El Salvador would be the best place for tourists to go.
“El Salvador hasn’t drowned in tourism money yet. People are still so happy to help you.”
Bendall has made plans to attend to attend a guitar festival later in the year in Mexico, and that means a two-week sail through some treacherous waters around Tehuantepec where winds can be funneled across the thin landmass in Central America from big weather systems in the Caribbean Sea.
“There can be up to hurricane-force winds and there may be huge seas,” says Bendall. There are two routes – the longer route around the bay, which avoids some of the fierce winds, or getting the timing right on the passing weather system and sailing directly across the bay.
The couple have made some plans to leave El Salvador in the next year or so, and will sail to Colombia, which has settled some internal political problems recently and is becoming popular with cruisers, says Bendall. The trip will take them through the Panama Canal and into the Caribbean Sea.
She has been through the Panama Canal before, but isn’t looking forward to some rough weather on the way south to Mexico. She says she’s excited by visiting a new place, and getting involved in the local culture and activities in the country.
“A lot of boats are going to Colombia. It’s a common place and there are very friendly people.
“We will have to say goodbye to El Salvador for a while. We would only leave when we are ready and we know that it will take a couple of years. And we will be back.”