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A Nightmare in Nicaragua

By Sue Richards last modified Jun 12, 2012 01:51 PM

Published: 2012-06-12 13:51:44
Countries: Nicaragua

El Bluff, Nicaragua

We are four sailing yachts who have been see-sawing the waves together for the last 2 years and 12000 miles, visiting 30+ countries in Europe, Africa, south and central America and the Caribbean. Most of the time the authorities were welcoming and courteous, but what happened to us in Nicaragua is worth a story to be told to warn people thinking of visiting this country.

We left Cayman on the morning of June the second 2012, bound for Panama. The weather forecast made us choose a route which brought us close the coasts of Honduras and Nicaragua. We had also investigated the immigration regulations (including Noonsite) for Nicaragua as a possible stopover in case of unforeseen situations. As we sailed down the Nicaraguan coast, all 4 yachts had developed some problems which warranted a pit-stop to limit the possible breakages in the next 350 miles to Panama. In addition, the crew of the mono-hulls would have liked to have a good night sleep in calm waters.

El Bluff

We decided to turn in at El Bluff. As we approached the entrance we (the only fully fluent Spanish speaking crew among the four yachts) called the port authorities on our hand held VHF, as the replacement for our failing fixed VHF was impounded by the customs in Havana (another story).

The port captain did not respond to our multiple calls before we had passed the first red buoy in the entrance channel. We felt this was quite normal as most marinas are using hand held VHFs and do not hear us behind the hills or other obstacles. We later learned that they do not have hand-held VHFs, but a powerful one with a huge mast on the top of the hill, which can cover at least 18 miles out to sea. So why had he not answered before we were in the channel?

We answered his questions on last port of call and the next, etc. He told us to proceed until the port. When we arrived in front of the port we told them about our requirement for draft of the mono-hulls, and that it was only a technical stopover for 24 hours. Due to the draft requirement the port captain sent out a barque to guide us to a mooring, as a larger cargo ship which had been turning around in front of the entrance was about to come in. He told us that we had to do a full international entrance clearance as we had not called them on the VHF 72 hours ahead (= 500 miles at our speed) and that we had not declared technical problems before we entered the channel, which they consider as inland waterways. Hence we had violated the laws of the country.

We were told later that we could also have done a declaration by internet, but non of the 15+ officials we met were able to tell us where on the internet you could do such a declaration.

The tone of the voice of the port captain declaring our violation of the laws made us request further information as to what a full procedure involved, including any costs. After his explanation (which included 135 USD in fees and a lot of time wasted - see below for full details) we discussed it between us and considered leaving again straight away, without doing any repairs or going ashore. When we told him about our preference to leave, we were told that this was not possible as we had violated the laws of the country and our options were to proceed with full immigration or prison plus fines!

We were now hostages of the Nicaraguan government, with a declared ransom of 540 USD! As some of the crews would not take the chance to be shot at if we just turned around and left, we told him that we felt taken hostage and chose the lesser of two evils, full immigration.

Entry Formalities

After they had processed the cargo ship, an old barque with 8 people on board approached, and boarded our boat with their dirty heavy military boots. They sat down and started their procedures without any small- talk. None of these officials, nor any other in the multiple offices we later had to visit during the day, ever wished us welcome to their country! This is the very first time since we started sailing.

Here is the list of officials we encountered and associated costs:
- Customs: 10 USD for entrance and 20 USD for leaving - never paid.
- Immigration (called Migration): 1107 cordobas or 48 USD.
- Maritime Transport Authority: 1147 cordobas or 52 USD.
- Ministry of Health: 435 cordobas or 20 USD.
- Ministry of Environment: 435 cordobas or 20 USD.

Two Navy guys and the driver of the barque also came on board. The representative from the Ministry of health said, while she was on the second boat, that she had not charged us enough, it should have been 40 USD, which we had to pay without receipt. Some receipts were in cordobas and some in USD. The bill from the Customs we only got once we left the next day.

The guided visit of the boat for the Navy guys was so superficial that had we wanted to hide something, or even somebody, they would never had found it.

Once they had finished with the three other boats we were told to follow them over to the marina in El Bluff and then further on to Bluefield, as we had to visit the offices of Migration and Maritime Authorities. We took our dinghy and went over to the marina, but after a long search someone told us that they had already left for Bluefield without waiting. Three of us set off in our dinghy for the 4 mile journey and midway in the lagoon they were waiting for us.

We had been told by the guy from Migration that we should not leave our dinghy unattended and that we could not expect to find anybody trustworthy to guard it in Bluefield. Once we arrived there the local fishermen were all willing to guard the dinghy, and we let one of them place it in a convenient place for them. I took a picture of him in the dinghy and told him we now have a proof of who is responsible. I have used this trick several times and never had problems, touch wood, even with the most dubious looking guy.

We were told by the guy from Migration to take a taxi to his office, which was a ten minute drive away. We asked the taxi to wait as we expected it to be a short stop before we returned to the dinghy. As we entered the offices we found three female officers each in their rocking chair in the waiting room. Our guy finally arrived on his motorbike and proceeded slowly to calculate the bill. They took all our passports and one of the girls left the building with them, we presume it was to make some photocopies in a shop nearby. They could not accept dollars and told us to go next door to the petrol station to change our money, which we did and got a better rate than at the bank (23.50 vs 23.06).

Once all this was settled we were told we had to visit the Maritime Transport Authority. Another five minutes in the taxi and we arrived in a most run down bungalow with an atrium. We were led to the commissionaire who told us that the cost would be 1147 cordobas, again for each yacht, but that he could not accept money. He never told us what the fee was supposed to cover, but one can suspect it was for maintenance of the maritime signalling system. We had to go down-town again to a bank and do a deposit on an account. Arriving at the bank, by taxi, a long queue of people outside did not stop us being accepted into the same length queue inside. After a while we discovered there were a teller dedicated to elderly, pregnant etc. This being the case for one of us we immediately changed queue and got served promptly and efficiently by a young and smiling lady, the only smile we had all day. Arriving back at the maritime transport authorities by taxi, nothing had been prepared and we had another half an hours wait to exchange our proof of payment at the bank by a hand written receipt.

Our watches were showing 16:30, nine hours after our first successful radio call with the authorities! We could not do anymore today, the checking out was for tomorrow. As the taxi arrived back near the dinghy he wanted 30 USD, another one that tried to take us for a ride! I gave him a 10 dollar bill and left, and with another two dollars from my wife he left on his own. The guy from Migration had told us to pay a maximum of 1.50 USD per trip.

We had hardly been able to start the repair-work we came in to do. So far we had paid 170 USD each yacht of the 135 USD they told us about, and we had been told there was another 30 USD to pay the next day for the marina. We were all furious and decided to refuse to pay any more fees.

Departure

Around 2PM the following day we had finished our work and were ready to leave. We went to what we were told was the marina offices. When they said the fees would be 90 USD per boat (not the 30 declared the previous day) the 6 or seven officers present were told loud and clear in no uncertain terms in both English (they had one guy who translated for the others) and Spanish, that we were extremely unhappy about our hostage-taking and general attitude of the officials, as well as the additional fees, and that we had no intention of paying any more, not one cordoba! We also told them we did not need their zarpa (clearance), as we still had the one from Cayman, which was valid until Panama. Everywhere else this has been taken off us on arrival.

They actually showed some sympathy and indicated that they understood our frustration and fury, and when we left the office they wished us a good journey. We felt that we had won at least one battle, although the war had already been lost.

As we motored out of the channel and were close to the famous red buoy, a barque with five men in navy uniform, each with their kalachnikov in ready-to-shoot position, approached and told us to turn around as we had not paid all the fees and we would get in trouble later if we did not have their zarpa. We told them too, loud and clear and in no uncertain terms in both English and Spanish, that we did not need their zarpa and we had paid more than the port captain has told us as the maximum amount. When I continued forward they made signs to board us, which I clearly indicated would not be tolerated. When they insisted with their attempts to board us I got my machete out (kept in its sleeve). This seemed to make them understand that I meant what I was saying and they were not welcome on board.

As they turned back, another barque with even more kalachnikovs and men to handle them arrived with the boss, the Port Captain, who had received, not welcomed, us the previous day.

I gave them the same reception as the previous one and they backed off. My wife did not like the situation and in discussions with the other captains they decided to accept to pay the additional 200 USD in fees. I called the barque over, which had been kept at a distance, and accepted that they held on to my boat (the machete was still visible on the aft deck table) while my wife very calmly, but firmly, explained the situation to the Port Captain, who was now also in navy battle gear and with his kalachnikov. He asked to see the receipt for what we have paid already and seemed puzzled and became less aggressive. With his change in attitude and as the other three captains had agreed to turn around and anchor where we had been, so did I.

A small delegation consisting of my wife, the Spanish speaker, and another Captain, was sent ashore with our clearance from Cayman. Half an hour later they came back for the boat papers, as they had not noted down the official registration numbers the previous day. My wife managed to negotiate our departing with a payment of 35 USD instead of 90, which shows clearly that they find a law and fee structure they want. The 35 USD was 10 for the buoys in the channel and 25 for the port.

In total we had paid 820 USD for the four yachts, not including taxi and bank commissions etc., split between seven different offices of the same government! We were free, a real relief, but one we could only really saviour once we had passed their 24NM limit!

The next day, while still 40 miles outside the Nicaraguan coast, we had three times visits of barques similar to those used by the Navy in El Bluff. Each boat came on its own, 3 men on-board, turned around us and between us and several times stopped. As soon as we saw the first one approaching we tightened up the ranks to only a few hundred meters between us. We did not like this and we shared the visual and radar watches between the 8 of us.

Conclusions

My advice to anybody that should be so unfortunate to have technical or other problems along this coast are:
- Make sure they acknowledge on the VHF that they have understood that you are only stopping for technical reasons.
- Make sure they accept your request to enter, if not they consider you as an illegal immigrant.
- Negotiate any fees before entering, but do not bet on it.

Do all this while you are well outside, several miles. They can hear you and probably have been following you for the last few days.

I do not have any advice to people who willingly want to visit this place.

We were also told that Bluefield is not a port of entry, anyhow you can only get there if your draft is less than 50 cm.

Ivar & Asuncion (Swiss & Spanish)
SY Paloma of Gibraltar

The other three boats were: Pacific Cool, Carajan La Rochelle and Hasta Luego of Valetta (all Crew French).

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