Colombia’s Perfect Pit Stop
by Brenda Webb
Colombia is an obvious stopover for sailors heading from the ABC islands to the Panama Canal. Who doesn’t want to explore the spectacularly restored Spanish colonial city of Cartagena?
However getting there can be a bit tricky and my husband, David, and I had to cool our heels in both Curaçao and Aruba until Caribbean weather guru Chris Parker gave the green light. We’d become so used to hearing his daily report of 30-plus knots in the “typically windy area of Colombia” that we wondered if we’d ever get there. But wait long enough and fair winds will come and so it proved and Bandit had a lovely run from Aruba in 20 knots.
Friends weren’t quite so lucky. Seasoned Kiwi sailors who had already crossed the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, they struck their worst seas ever, with five-metre swells and more than 40 knots of wind. We listened anxiously for them on our morning SSB net and were relieved when they made it to Cartagena, exhausted but unscathed.
Cartagena was our planned destination as well, but their reports were anything but glowing, saying the marina was old and rough, boat wake constant and annoying, and the long dinghy ride ashore a pain.
So we opted for the city of Santa Marta and it proved a perfect pit stop. It had everything cruisers need — a safe and secure marina with efficient, friendly and helpful English-speaking staff, a relatively painless check-in procedure through an English-speaking agent (arranged by the marina) and great facilities including clean and modern showers and cheap washing machines and driers.
Fantastic provisioning was only a few blocks away at a modern supermarket while the street markets had fantastic fresh and cheap produce including wonderfully creamy avocados, juicy mangos and delicious persimmons.
We had considered stopping at several anchorages before Santa Marta, however the weather window dictated otherwise and we headed straight for sheltered Santa Marta. As we dropped our mainsail in the bay the wind gauge showed gusts of up to 30 knots — we’d made it in the nick of time.
Plans were to explore Cartagena and Santa Marta by land and then provision and head out to an anchorage for a few days, but our helpful agent put paid to that, pointing out the long-winded formalities necessary for anchoring. We’d also heard about a few security incidents and, in fact not long after we left Santa Marta for Providencia, a yacht anchored in Taganga Bay (near Santa Marta) was boarded and the occupants robbed.
That may have been an isolated incident, as the Colombian Coast Guard does regular patrols, but much of the nice anchoring area was further west than we planned to go. Fellow Kiwis Amanda Church and Mark Farrell on Balvenie, who were with us in Santa Marta, did spend time in the Rosario Archipelago on their way to the San Blas and enjoyed it.
Complicated formalities curtailed our stay in Colombia to ten days — any longer would have involved more expense and more paperwork. As it was, we had to temporarily import Bandit — unbelievably, stays more than five days require that.
Our agent organized everything for us, albeit at a hefty fee, and it seemed, as in so many Latin American countries, that this was the only way to do things. He did an enormous amount of running around for us with endless visits to officials and back to Bandit and in the stifling heat we were happy to pay him to do so. In the scheme of things it wasn’t a huge cost. Often such situations and costs are fluid, so check updated information before you go.
Santa Marta was a great spot to base ourselves and we were surprised to see so few other foreign boats in the marina. Admittedly it’s not one of the Caribbean’s cheapest marinas but the facilities, helpful staff and security measures more than make up for that.
Travelling in Colombia was easy, although we cursed our lack of Spanish (we didn’t learn it until later in the season in Guatemala). As we stuttered our way through a few basics with a particularly friendly taxi driver we kicked ourselves for not having a better grasp.
One of our best adventures was a trip to the coffee (and apparently cocaine) growing area of Minca in the Sierra Nevada mountains. It took a bit of effort to get there but was well worthwhile. The aforementioned taxi ride took us to the other side of Santa Marta to what we thought was a bus station. No — just more taxis, even more run down than the city one we’d just used.
Sitting in the beat-up Chevette with mismatched doors, leaking windows (we were there in rainy season) and a driver with slick shades and a heavy foot, we wondered if we’d made the right decision. We tore our way up the rutted, metal road through the rainforest hearts in mouths.
Minca was a sleepy village but it had a fantastic coffee shop — well, they do grow it here. It was a wonderful relief to get out of the intense heat in Santa Marta and up into the cool air of the rainforest. It lived up to its name, though, and our afternoon hike to the waterfalls was curtailed due to torrential rain. One advantage — the rain did slow our driver down on the return trip as torrents of water made the road treacherous.
Cartagena was fascinating and we spent several days just wandering the streets and soaking up the amazing sights. UNESCO money has enabled plenty of restoration work to be carried out but it doesn’t take long to find gritty side streets that haven’t been airbrushed yet.
Getting there was simple: the marina organized it all for us and for a few dollars extra we got a “door to door” service. Blame it on translation but somewhere along the way the return driver missed the “door to door” bit and dropped us a few miles away from the marina. It was pointless arguing — he wasn’t going anywhere. But the extra taxi ride cost less than US$2.
Taganga is an old hippy haunt, now hip backpacker hangout, over the hill from Santa Marta and worth a day trip for the scenic bus ride alone. From Taganga it’s possible to take a local boat to a nearby beach, which was a pleasant way to spend the day.
Fellow cruisers we met in the marina had just completed the gruelling five-day trek into Ciudad Perdida, the “lost city” built by the Tayrona people in the 11th century and only re-discovered in 1975. Said to be more authentic than Machu Picchu thanks to a complete lack of tourists, we were tempted to tackle it.
Further research revealed that the walk took hikers through thick bug-ridden jungle, through multiple river crossings — some deep — and up hundreds of steps. Call us unadventurous, but we’d already missed the dry season and the thought of slushing and sliding through mud in inadequate footwear put us off. Any cruisers going to Santa Marta would be advised to check this hike out, as it receives glowing reports.
Before we reluctantly left, we filled our freezer with cheap eye fillets of beef and whole chickens while the fridge was overloaded with wonderful fresh produce.
Colombia was a worthwhile stopover and, if cruisers can negotiate their way through the formalities, it’s definitely worth visiting for longer than our ten days.
Brenda Webb is a New Zealand journalist who, with husband David Morgan, took time out to go cruising. They bought their Moody 46, Bandit, in the Mediterranean in 2006 and are slowly en route to New Zealand. Share their adventures at www.yachtbandit.blogspot.com.
For an update on renovations at Club Náutico Cartagena visit www.noonsite.com/Countries/Colombia/cartagena-club-nautico-an-update-on-renovations.
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