Carnival in Oruro

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Declared one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001 by UNESCO, the Oruro Carnival is Bolivia’s most celebrated festival taking place for two weeks in February each year. It is a massive event in which more than 150 groups with 30 thousand dancers and 10 thousand musicians take part- an impressive procession of color, sound and movement spanning across the length of a few kilometers.

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We have never heard about nor did we plan to go to Oruro for the carnival, until our new Chilean friends told us about it. Visiting this part of Bolivia in the beginning of February is an example of being on the right place at the right time, we thought. So from Uyuni, we head to Oruro, for the carnival.

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The town of Oruro is a big blunt Bolivian town with not a single tourist attraction, not a single site of interest. Not a single tourist visits it, except in February, when the place becomes suddenly flooded with over half a million people from all over the world, here for this ancient religious festival- a tradition dating back more than 200 years.

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It started with the Uru indigenous people in the area once called Uru Uru- “Sacred Mountain of the Urus”, a place for religious pilgrimage and spiritual center of the Andean world. But soon after the arrival of the Spanish colonizers, the indigenous celebrations were banned and replaced by catholic rituals and iconography. For the conquered Uru people, the only way to survive and to preserve their tradition and culture was to accept the new religion and to blend their old beliefs, symbolism and customs with the new ones. Thus, Christian icons and saints were used to conceal Andean divinities. The Virgin Mary became Pachamama (Mother Earth) and the Devil from Catholic teachings was absorbed into the local idea of Tio Supay (Uncle or God of the Mountains).

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The carnival is a bright example of this tradition-blending in Bolivia. The main character of the event is El Diablo (the devil) and the main event- the Diablada- the leading traditional Dance of the Devil.

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Our bus drops us off in Oruro in the middle of the night a day before the beginning of the carnival, only to realize, that all hotels and hostels are full and their prices are not double but triple, at places quadruple than normal. “It’s because of the carnival”, they tell us shamelessly, and there is nothing to do but to pay the price.

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We check in a cheap hotel, in a room with two beds and we pay only $18.00 for the first night, but we are asked to pay $60.00 for the second (when the carnival officially starts). Luckily, we meet again our Chilean friends from the group in Uyuni, and we “invite“ them in our room to share the cost. The hotel owner agrees to bring two more single mattresses in the already small room, and we somehow manage to place them between our two single beds. This, we sleep seven people in a room for two for $15.00 per person…

We are also shocked to find out that the entrance fee for the carnival is $20.00 per person- a small fortune in Bolivia, and we are told, that if we don’t pay, we would not be able to enter and would not be able to see anything. Well, this is one of those Once-In-A-Lifetime things, so we pay…

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Thousands upon thousands of people in elaborate colorful costumes and masks dancing with unlimited energy to the sounds of traditional music- the Oruro carnival is truly a glorious monumental event.

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But for us, spending so much money for the hotel and for the entrance fee is a BIG MISTAKE!!! Not because you can enter for free and watch the carnival, like half the people do, but because the same groups and the same people dressed in the same costumes perform the same music and the same dances for free in the center of Bolivia’s capital La Paz, a few days after Oruro.

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So we watch the carnival twice- once in Oruro and once in La Paz, where we go after Oruro, and we have much more fun in La Paz.

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In La Paz, after the carnival, groups of local women dressed in their best polleras(traditional skirts and shawls) decorated with their best top hats, gather and occupy the space in front of small corner-stores, furnished with chairs, tables and cases of beer. And begin drinking. I have no idea where the men go.

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If you pass by and smile at them, they will smile back. And if you are in their range, they will pull you in and before you know it, you will have someone’s glass in your hand, full of beer.

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You will have to drink it at once, and they will laugh at you and poor you another shot.

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This is what happened to us in La Paz. More than once. At the end of the street, we are slightly drunk and covered with colorful paper garlands. A very drunk woman tried to kiss Ivo. More than once…

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Now that is a carnival we really enjoyed, and it’s not the one in Oruro…

ORURO CARNIVAL PHOTOS

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Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia

Not far from the Atacama Desert in Chile, we prepare to visit another unique natural site- El Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. At 3,600 m (12,000 feet) above sea level, the world’s largest salt flats are a dry ancient lake part of the Altiplano- a high plateau in South America formed during the uplift of the Andes Mountains.

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From San Pedro de Atacama, we hitchhike to the town of Calama- a big regional city near the Chilean-Bolivian border, where we look for the cheapest bus to Uyuni. But there is a problem. There are no buses going from Chile to Bolivia, because of the roadblocks. The truckers and transportation workers in Bolivia are on strike demanding better pay and working conditions, and have blocked the major routes and border-crossing points to the country. All buses have been canceled until further notice. Apparently, this is a normal routine event for Bolivia (like volcanoes erupting in Nicaragua) and we are the only surprised people without a plan B. We walk from one bus company to another in desperation, until we find a company selling tickets for a bus leaving after two days, when the roadblock is expected to be lifted. Not many seats left. We buy three tickets and look for a hostel. Then we meet again the two young backpackers from Chile, whom we first met in San Pedro hitchhiking on the same spot like us. They tell us, that one bus is leaving tomorrow and will be crossing the border through a checkpoint, where the roadblock has already been lifted. But this bus is full, no places left, and we already have tickets for another bus… Yet, we plead with the woman at the terminal to sell us “passillo” tickets- no seats, we will be standing up. She refuses at first, but then tell us to show up at 06:00 a.m. the next morning, when the bus is leaving, and promise to get us in. We hurry back to the other bus company to try to return the tickets we already got. We can return them, but there is some 20% penalty fee, so instead we sit in the waiting room and sell our tickets directly to passengers. Within one hour, we sell our three tickets for the full price. Now we worry that we might not be able to get on the 6 o’clock bus the next morning, and we don’t have our tickets for the day after.

We sleep in a cheap hostel disturbed by a group of Chilean students on vacation high on marijuana who party in the room next door all night (we remember how much better is on the boat), and early in the morning we show up for the bus to Bolivia. We are not the only ones without tickets who hope to ride this bus. Our two backpacker friends and four more tourists are hoping to get on it too. The woman from the agency collects some extra cash from all extra passengers right there on the street, and everyone is off! Standing up or sitting, in seats or on the floor, we are all heading to Bolivia! Nine hours…

There are no cars on a road winding through land with no nature. We are climbing higher and higher across the barren dusty mountains of the Altiplano. It’s getting colder. We spot families of lamas on the side of the road and pink flamingoes in distant lakes. We reach the border- a couple of trailer-like buildings next to an abandoned train station with a rusty dead locomotive. There is no roadblock. All bus passengers line up for customs and immigration. After about an hour, we board another bus. The one from Chile has to return in Chile and a Bolivian bus is picking us up for the rest of the trip.

a lama on the road

a lama on the road

We begin seeing the first Bolivian villages, like scenes from the past, or the apocalyptic future: poor huts made of clay and salt bricks, dirty streets without pavement, very few old cars, large stray dogs scavenging for scraps of food in piles of garbage, women with long black braids with top hats and long skirts carrying huge bundles on their backs, men chewing coca leaves sitting in corners.

Bolivia

Bolivia

We arrive in Uyuni. The driver of the Bolivian bus tries to extort all extra “passillo” passengers for some extra cash (as we paid half price), but we all refuse to pay and are ready to call the police if he refuses to give us back our luggage. Thanks to this little episode, we make new friends with the passillo-passengers from the bus- mostly 19-year-old Chilean students on vacation, and we find a great deal as a group of 12 people: one night in a hostel with breakfast included plus tour of the Salt Flats with lunch included for $22.00 per person. We are all set for tonight and for tomorrow.

The tour takes all day. We split in two groups riding in big 4×4 jeeps. We meet Domingo- a 50-year-old super friendly and funny guy. He is our driver and guide and we are lucky to have him. The other group gets the boring quiet type, who skips one of the sites- the Incahuasi island.

First, we visit the train cemetery, about 3 km outside of the city. Built by British engineers in the end of the 19th century, the train system, used by mining companies to transport minerals to the Pacific Ocean ports, collapsed in the 1940s and was abandoned.

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Train Cemetery

From there, we drive to a village with houses made with bricks of salt where we have lunch- tasty lama-steaks with quinoa and steamed vegetables.

Lama chops with quinoa

Lama chops with quinoa

 

From there, we head for the main attraction- El Salar de Uyuni, with a first short stop at the “salt mountains”- small stacks left to drain and dry before harvesting the salt.

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Maya’s Bubba at Uyuni salt flats. He is coming everywhere with us since Maya was a baby

Formed by the transformation of a few prehistoric lakes some 30-40,000 years ago, surrounded by mountains with no drainage outlets, El Salar is today a vast dried lake covered by a flat salt crust thick several meters at places, spreading over more than 10,000 sq. km (4,000 sq. mi)- 100 times the size of the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. This flattest white region on the planet is so big, it’s visible from space, and contains the largest deposits of lithium on Earth.

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We drive for an hour on top of a thick layer of salt further and further in the interior of the Salt Flats. At first, this lifeless monotonous landscape is dry, but then a thin layer of water filtering through the salt transforms this vast white field into the biggest most beautiful mirror in the world, in which the gods to contemplate themselves.

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The world transforms into an endless heavenly blue liquid sky, above and below us. We walk on a sky of water!

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From here, we head even further towards the center of the lake. Our guide is slowing down and is very cautious, as splashing in the salty water is not good for the vehicle. We reach the Incahuasi Island covered by giant cacti- the remains of the top of an ancient volcano submerged in the lake.

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The next stop on our tour is El Palacio de Sal- a hotel built in 1995 entirely from salt in the middle of the Salar. Due to sanitation problems, the hotel no longer accepts guests and has been transformed into a museum. There, we find the Rally Dakar monument also made from salt.

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We watch the sunset reflected over a shallow pool of salty water before we head back to the city to catch another overnight bus to another extraordinary place.

Salar de Uyuni Photo Gallery

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Atacama Desert in Chile

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Atacama Desert, Chile

We leave the boat at anchor in font of marina Puerto Amistad in Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador. For $5.00 per day while we are away, the marina staff will watch over Fata Morgana, clean the green vegetation and logs floating downriver catching on the chain, and provide a 24/7 security service. They will contact us if anything comes up, and will deal with any issue while we are miles away. It is important to know that the boat will be OK while we are backpacking in Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador for about two months; to have peace of mind, even if it costs us a little something.

We take the bus to Guayaquil in Ecuador, then the bus to Lima in Peru, then the bus to Arica in Chile and then the bus to San Pedro de Atacama. A total of four endless days and nights, riding the cheapest possible busses, waiting hours in bus terminals or walking kilometers from one terminal to another with heavy backpacks, sleeping in bus seats, listening to terrible music and watching horrible films, wearing the same stinky clothes, shoes and socks, no shower, using pubic and bus bathrooms, eating whatever we can find around the terminals as long as it’s cheap and not too suspicious…

It’s a long trip- over 4,000 km. The plan is to get to the farthest point of our trajectory as fast as possible and then slowly to start returning towards the boat. This is Ivo’s plan and he doesn’t care if it sounds more like torture than a trip.

As soon as we cross the border from Ecuador to Peru, the landscape becomes monotonous arid desert unchanged for thousands of kilometers.

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On our right is the blue of the Pacific Ocean, on our left is the ochre of the rocky desert sprinkled with small poor villages of tiny straw houses and big dusty cities with unfinished brick buildings. Nature remains dry and lifeless all the way to Chile.

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Hungry, dirty and exhausted, we arrive in San Pedro de Atacama- a town made of red clay in the middle of the desert, dominated by the Licancabur volcano.

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Licancabur Volcano

The town, which begun as an oasis in the high plateau of Bolivia at about 8,000 feet (or 2,400 m), is today part of Chile (after the War of the Pacific), and is constantly invaded by tourists and backpackers; there are more hotels and hostels than private homes and everything is extremely expensive. We find a hostel on the outskirts of town- $40.00 per night is the cheapest option!!! We get a nice room with private bathroom and hot water. We feel like spoiled kings. First thing’s first- we collapse on the beds. We haven’t been in a lying position since over 100 hours. Next- we take off our shoes and toxic socks, we remove our clothes which smell of lamas, and one by one we hit the shower. There, in the shower, we find paradise…

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Maya enjoying her comfy bed in Hostal Licancabur

But we have no time to loose. It’s still morning and even though we are super tired, we cannot afford to spend more than one night in this expensive place, so a soon as we check in the hostel and after a short rest, we walk to town to decide which of the many tourist attractions to visit before we continue on to Bolivia- a much poorer country, where everything is much cheaper.

•Church of San Pedro, National Monument, built with adobe, a building material used in the colonial times

Church of San Pedro, National Monument, built with adobe

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Adobe houses in San Pedro

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San Pedro de Atacama

San Pedro de Atacama is strategically located near various sites in the Atacama Desert but for most you have to join an expensive tour, as there is no public transportation. A visit to Chaxas Lagoon in Los Flamencos National Reserve, Salar de Atacama, home of pink flamingoes, or El Tatio geyser field with over 80 active geysers are very attractive places but will ruin our budget. The cheapest option is to rent bikes – $6.00 per person per day and bike to the Valley of the Moon- El Valle de la Luna, 13 kilometers (8 mi) west of San Pedro.

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In the heat and salty dust (the exhaustion continues), we ride our rental bikes to one of the strangest most desolate places on the planet, with such an otherworldly appearance, it actually reminds us of another planet- inhospitable, burning, red.

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Situated in the two-sided rain shadow of the Andes and the Chilean Coastal Range, which prevent the arrival of moisture from the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, Atacama is the oldest driest desert on Earth, stretching for over 1,000 km (600 mi), west of the Andes Mountains. Rain is the rarest of occurrences here, and some parts of the desert have never ever seen it at all! This vast stretch of dry land has been covered with nothing but rocks, salt, lava and sand for the last 200 million years- a phenomenon called hyperaridity, making it the oldest continuously arid region in the world, rivaled only by Africa’s Namib Desert.

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The Salt Caves

We enter the Moon Valley National Park. Stone and sand formations, salt caves and dunes colored in yellow orange and red, carved and shaped by wind and ancient water. Not a blade of grass, not a single flower, not a bird, not one tiny creature can survive in such alien environment. In fact, the driest parts of the Atacama Desert, one of which is The Valley of the Moon, have been used by NASA to test instruments for future Mars missions and the location has been used by Hollywood for filming Mars scenes in films like Space Odyssey and others.

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And there, amidst this dry hot lunar landscape devoid of any life form- the loneliest saddest of places on Earth- we suddenly hear a familiar language! A group of tourists walking on the road are speaking BULGARIAN! Now, this is impossible! How often you meet Bulgarians? In the desert? Twenty of them! A group of adventure-travelers from the Adventure Club in Sofia touring Chile, Peru and Bolivia. Our reaction to this miracle, as well as to any other sudden unexpected wonderful miracle, is utter surprise and happiness. We lough, we scream, we hug each other like old friends. Some of the guys in the group recognize us as “the Bulgarian family who lives on a boat” and we make plans to meet with them for dinner.

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An unexpected meeting with 20 Bulgarian travelers from the Adventure Club

And even though we dream about the moment when we will hit the beds for the first time in five days, as soon as we return from the bike trip- we find our compatriots’ hotel and they take us to a nice restaurant in town where we celebrate with delicious local meals and beers the most surprising of meetings in the Atacama Desert. Thank you friends!

 

Sites of interest near San Pedro de Atacama:

  • Church of San Pedro, National Monument, built with adobe, a building material used in the colonial times.

  • Chaxas Lagoon, part of Los Flamencos National Reserve in the Salar de Atacama, inhabited by pink flamingos.

  • El Tatio, a geyser field with over 80 active geysers.

  • Llano de Chajnantor Observatory, a radio-telescope site, home of “ALMA”, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array.

  • Laguna Miscanti (Miscanti Lagoon) and Laguna Miñiques (Miñiques Lagoon), two neighbouring altiplanic lagoons at the altitude of 4,200 m (13,500 ft).

  • Licancabur, a notable volcano near San Pedro de Atacama.

  • Pukará de Quitor (Fort Quitor). A fortification built by the Atacameño people in the 12th century.

  • Puritama Hot Springs

  • Salar de Atacama, a giant salt area (3,000 km² / 1,864.11 mi²) in the middle of the Atacama Desert.

  • Valle de la Luna (“Valley of the Moon”), a moon-like landscape with ruins of old Chilean salt mines, and worker huts.

  • Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley): a valley where gigantic dunes and rocks abound.

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Passage from Panama to Ecuador

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After cruising for many months all over the Caribbean Sea, visiting hundreds of tropical islands and beautiful beaches, we passed through the Panama Canal and found ourselves on the Pacific Ocean side with its extreme tides and calm seas. We spent a few months in Panama and went backpacking in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Then, we sailed again. From Panama, south to Ecuador, we covered over 650 nautical miles and we crossed the equator! It was an epic record-fast passage complete with a small crossing-the-line celebration. (YouTube video available Sailing from Panama to Ecuador

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Before you sail, and especially when you are planning a big ocean passage, you have to prepare the boat and stock up provisions. We haul out Fata Morgana to do a quick bottom job. This means- to clean and sand the hulls and then paint them with a fresh coat of anti-fouling paint. It is a requirement when you are visiting the Galapagos Islands, which we are planning to visit, and it has to be done anyways every 2-3 years.

We found a haul-out facility near Panama at Puerto Viequez and based on Eric Bauhaus Panama Cruising guide’s information, we thought this would be the cheapest option to do the bottom job. BIG MISTAKE! It turned out this is the most expensive option, where you pay separately for the haul-out, for the preparation of the platform, plus per day and electricity fees; there is a fish and shrimp processing plant inside the boatyard, which stinks of rotten fish, thousands of feral dogs and no showers; as well as no access to town. To go there you have to go through all the process of obtaining zarpe, visiting the port captain, the customs and immigration (all in different far-away locations), paying port fees and the whole thing is just a big screw-up. We regret we didn’t research better before we showed up there, based on old information in the Panama cruising guide… It is much cheaper with way better facilities to haul out at the fancy Flamenco Marina on Amador, and for smaller boats even cheaper option would be the Balboa Yacht club.

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Ivo during the haul-out

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Fata Morgana haul-out at Puerto Viequez, Panama

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Maya taking a “shower” in the botyard

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Painting the hulls

After the paint job, we go shopping. Panama City is great for stocking up, with so many shopping malls, stores and markets filled with cheap good quality merchandise, thanks to all the ships arriving here from all over the world to transit the Panama Canal, bringing goodies. Our friends living in Panama help us enormously driving us around the city and bringing all the stuff back to our boat. We get tons of long-lasting food provisions and fresh fruits and vegetables for the journey south.

On January 15th 2016, we say good-by to Panama City and sail 34 nautical miles south, where the Gulf of Panama is dotted by over 200 mostly uninhabited islands of extraordinary beauty, named Islas de las Perlas (The Pearl Islands).

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Sailing in the Gulf of Panama

In Las Perlas, we meet our Canadian friends on yacht Daybreak, who were our neighbors for a while in Panama! Maya and Lea are good friends and they spend the next day playing together!

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Fata at anchor in Las Perlas

Maya and Lea, reading at Las Perlas

Maya and Lea, reading at Las Perlas

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Maya and Lea

On January 17th, we sail again starting in the evening- 600 nautical miles ahead of us. The north winds pick up a lot behind us as soon as we get out of the Gulf of Panama and the sea rises. Ivo reefs the sails and still Fata is running with 10-11 knots. The waves are big and we feet seasick. We keep a course south and south west, well away from the Colombian cost. The second day of the passage, January 18, the wind gets even stronger- 30-35 knots behind us- and the waves are as big as hills and foamy. With reefed sails Fata is surfing with up to 16 knots- a speed record for us! It is scary, but with time we get used to it. By day 3 we are all pretty used to this fast downwind sailing and even start to enjoy it. We prepare quick meals, which can be a challenge in a moving boat.

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In the morning on the third day, January 19, about 200 miles from the Columbian coast, 2oo miles from Panama and 300 miles from Ecuador we approach Malpelo Island- a sinister and forbidding rock formation plunging vertically into the depths of the Pacific Ocean, renowned for its abundance of sharks. But there is no anchorage here as it is very deep close to the island and in rough weather conditions the uninhabited rock is unattainable. So we sail by it adjusting our course south-southeast, direction Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador.

In the late afternoon that same day, the wind starts dropping down and we can finally relax. The fast part of the passage is over, 160 NM to destination and two more fishes in the fridge. That day, we have an anniversary- 23 years since Ivo and Mira met and we make a mountain of sushi to celebrate.

Ivo and Mira 23 years anniversary

Ivo and Mira 23 years anniversary

About 80 miles before the equator, we reach the doldrums- a no wind zone, where the winds kind of switch from north to south with periods of total calms. This is weird. Suddenly the wind stops completely and rain starts pouring vertically down in total silence. It washes the boat and we collect rainwater in buckets. We take down the sails and we drift for a few hours waiting for the wind to comeback. But the north winds never came back. Instead, winds from south gently pick up in the evening and we are on our way again!

On the fifth day, January 21st 2016, at about 8:00 o’clock in the morning, we are slowly approaching the equator. The sky is covered with clouds.

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Crossing the equator for the first time by boat is a big deal. Until then, you are a Slimy Pollywog but as soon as you cross the equator you transform into a Trusty Shellback. And so we organize a small Crossing-the-Line ceremony to celebrate this unique event. As soon as all the numbers of our latitude become zeros, we offer Neptune a pineapple (and if he wants to, he can share it with Sponge Bob under the sea) and Maya gives him some of her goldfishes thanking Neptune for the fishes he has given us. We make a toast, we drink seawater, and we danced. We organize a little dancing challenge- who is going to fall down first! It is strange dancing in the cockpit of a moving boat and it is not easy at all to keep your balance while the boat is dancing on the waves too.

We imagine the equator as a bright red line, about two meters wide, shining on the surface of the water, or a sort of an ocean underwater rainbow. But we don’t see any line and nothing really changes when we pass from the North Pacific Ocean into the South Pacific Ocean. Except later, we feel the heavy sea-turtle shells growing on our backs. We are now officially Trusty Shellbacks!

We see the western shores of South America for the first time shortly after we cross the equator. We arrive in Ecuador in the evening of the fifth day of this passage, after exactly four days of sailing and we drop anchor outside the bay, at the entrance of a river delta. For the entire passage, we never turned on the engines, including when we picked up and dropped anchor, zero fuel was spent.

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In the morning, instead of contacting the port via the VHF radio and requesting a pilot boat to lead us through the shallows and reefs for a $20 charge, two fishermen passing by in a small motor boat agree to lead us, for a few dollars and a couple of beers. We motor up river, where all the other sailboats are moored, protected from the ocean waves. This is going to be Fata’s new temporary home for the next couple of months. It is one of the most protected anchorages, were the wind rarely jumps above 5 kts, there are no squalls, no lightning storms and the marina Puerto Amistad provides 24/7 security, dinghy dock, bar and restaurant, fresh water, fast wi-fi internet, clean hot water showers and a wonderful atmosphere. The city of Bahia de Caraquez itself is a small tranquil place on the shore of the ocean, of friendly welcoming people, cruisers and ex-pats. We have a good feeling about it and we are ready to leave the boat here for a couple of months, and visit the many wonders of Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador by land.

Watch our YouTube video  Sailing from Panama to Ecuador.

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Making a deal with the fishermen

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The fishermen leading us through the shallows of the river delta to the anchorage in Bahia

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Lighthouse in Bahia de Caraquez

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Anchorage in Bahia

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Mira with the Galapagos turtle- a resident in the local school

 

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Watch us on YouTube @Fata Morgana

 

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