Sailing the Caribbean Coast of Colombia
Part One: Islas Monjes to Cartagena
by Constance Elson
As a cruising ground, Colombia gets a bad rap. Insurance companies impose a surcharge if you wish to sail in Colombian waters, and blanket warnings persist (e.g. The Panama Cruising Guide, fourth edition 2010, page 398: “…most cruisers prefer to give Colombia a wide berth”). In the 1980s and ’90s Colombia definitely had major problems with guerrilla groups on the left and the right that kept prudent sailors far from its shores. But after a decade of serious effort, with US support, Colombia is presently very stable and la violenza has been reduced to levels typical of other South American countries. Criminal problems with narco spin-off gangs of former guerrilleros do continue but only in very specific regions; for Caribbean cruisers the one area that warrants caution is the bottom of the Gulf of Uraba.
Twenty-first century Colombia is a fascinating, dynamic and incredibly beautiful country, with reasonable aspirations of soon joining Latin America’s small club of First World nations. The benefits of its robust economic growth are relatively widely (by Latin American standards) enjoyed. Colombia offers unusual cruising destinations and experiences, and its coastal inhabitants who proudly call themselves costeños are warm, helpful, friendly and gracious. A little-appreciated fact is that modern Colombians are enthusiastic tourists in their own country, in the mountains and along the coast. A consequence of this is that all its cruising waters also have small hotels, hostels, and resorts catering not to wealthy North Americans and Europeans, but to middle-class and affluent Colombians and to adventurous young backpackers from many countries.
Between November 2010 and May 2011, my sailing partner and I sailed almost the entire length of the Colombian Caribbean coast from the Guajira Peninsula in the northeast to Sapzurro on the Panamanian border. The places we stopped at are all well known to the set of cruisers who sail Panama and Colombia routinely. Good sets of notes exist for separate portions and are listed in the sidebar, but there is not yet a really comprehensive cruising guide for the entire Colombian coast.
At the risk of seeming presumptuous in writing this based on quite limited experience, I will describe our trip and provide descriptions and anchoring details. Our information is current and I will also point the reader to sources of information for harbors and anchorages we missed. I will also say a little about governmental regulations, which seem to be in a permanently transitional state. I offer this as a travel aperitif — with the hope that someone will write a complete travel guide to Colombian waters soon.
Our travels north of Santa Marta took place in November; travels south of Santa Marta took place in April and into May. These “between-season” times may be optimal traveling times; they were certainly good for us. In a month traveling south from Cartagena to Sapzurro, we saw exactly one other sailboat other than at Cholon. I felt I was seeing a glimpse of what cruising in the Caribbean was like 30 years ago: unspoiled, un-gringoed, requiring enterprise and an openness to the unknown, and entirely blissful. So I write this article with mixed feelings. The desire to see others enjoy an overlooked cruising ground and become acquainted with a gracious hospitable people is tempered by the recognition that many of the anchorages I have listed for these waters are fairly small and will not accommodate large numbers of boats.
• WEATHER AND WIND. Yes, it can blow really hard, especially along the northern half of the coast and especially during January into April. It is a very bad idea to try to travel these waters on a tight schedule. But all year long, at least once every ten or 12 days, the near-shore winds let up for two to four days at a time, producing manageable, in fact enjoyable, sailing. From May to September almost the entire southwest Caribbean Basin has long periods with much convection and little or no near-shore wind and you can motorsail in almost any direction you choose. Early fall can provide occasional strong westerlies interspersed with calm periods. In the event of a really strong westerly wind, get into a protected anchorage or get offshore. As a general rule, winds and waves are lower very close (less than five miles) to shore. With a relaxed schedule and the assistance of custom weather information, such as provided by Chris Parker, it is quite reasonable to expect to be able to be entirely non-heroic while cruising along the entire Colombian coast.
• LANGUAGE: The political problems of the 1980s and ‘90s left Colombia isolated. For a fairly well educated people, surprisingly little English is spoken. Your trip will be much easier and more rewarding if you are willing to speak some rudimentary Spanish; costeños cheerfully will speak slowly if you remind them to. “Hable despacio por favor” is a useful phrase to learn.
• NAVIGATION: When I give coordinates as four digits, dd°mm' representing degrees and minutes, the purpose is only so you can locate the general area on a map. Coordinates given as six digits, dd°mm.mm', with precision to hundredths of a minute, represent accurate positions for navigation. A warning about chart software: south of Cartagena many popular electronic charts are extremely inaccurate. According to our Navionics Gold charts, on several occasions we were anchored a quarter mile inland — disconcerting until we learned to turn the thing off.
• PROVISIONS: The only places where you can get fuel and water dockside are at the marina in Santa Marta and at Club de Pesca in Cartagena, but you can jerry jug diesel and water everywhere. On the southern offshore islands water might be unavailable in dry season. Big cities have big supermarkets and in even the tiniest communities, small tiendas sell potatoes, carrots, cabbage, local fresh food in season, tinned food, often good bread and — of course — beer. Cell phone minutes are universally available and if you have a cellphone or 3G modem, you can enjoy WiFi everywhere in Colombia. ATM machines (cajeros) that accept international credit cards are available in the cities but are uncommon elsewhere. Banks and a few tiendas in smaller communities will sell you Colombian pesos for US dollars.
Los Monjes: The Islas Monjes are Venezuelan, but we include them because they are so often used as a stepping-stone to Colombia from the ABCs. The anchorage (12°21.45'N, 70°54.18'W) is on the southwest side of Isla Monje del Sur. You moor to a two-inch polyester line attached to the sides of an artificially created bay with room for five or six boats. Unless you are absolutely certain the wind will stay north or east, it is wise to drop a stern anchor in 50 feet of water to prevent your boat winding up on the shore side of the big polyester line (as happened to us). The young Venezuelan soldiers who come to your boat to write down your information are stationed there for three-week stints, are polite and will gratefully accept an offer of cold juice or soda. There is no charge for the mooring. An easy hike to the top of the rock provides a great view.
Guajira Peninsula: It is a good idea to get a reliable weather forecast before rounding this cape. We stayed six to 12 miles offshore in eight-foot regular seas and 17 to 25 knots of wind, diminishing to ten knots later, and sailed the 78 miles directly to Cabo de Vela, arriving at the reliable Pizazz waypoint (see Cabo de Vela) after dark. We have no first-hand knowledge of the two possible anchorages along the peninsula at Bahia Honda (12°22'N, 71°47'W) and Puerto Bolivar (12°15'N, 71°47'W) but we know sailors who stopped at Bahia Honda for the night and found it adequate. Heading north it would be a very convenient stop. Puerto Bolivar is Colombia’s largest coal-shipping port and cruisers are not encouraged to stop there but friends who entered because of engine problems received assistance and were cordially treated. It is well lit at night, with channel markers.
Cabo de Vela: Go inside or outside the small island Cayo del Morro to reach the Pizazz waypoint (12°12.25'N, 72°10.69'W) for an anchorage that normally gets you out of the swells. For really bad weather or a longer stay, move in toward the beach keeping well away from the many small plastic bottles which we later learned mark a complete maze of fishing nets and traps of the local Wayu fishermen. We anchored for three days in nine feet of water at (12°12.00'N, 72°09.38'W) during an offshore trough. There was no protection from the northeast wind but the water was completely calm and the holding good. The local fishermen were friendly and curious and the dark huts along the north shore turned out to be mostly posadas for adventurous eco-tourists. Check out the surprising Posada Jareena. We had no pesos but bought some from Colombian tourists to buy beer with. The desert landscape invites cross-country hiking. This bay offers no protection in southwest or west winds.
Cabo de Vela to Santa Marta: The rhumb line is a 124-mile passage that puts you 25 miles offshore at times. It is possible to anchor at the town of Rio Hacha, the tourist gateway to the Guajira, but it is an open roadstead and only suitable in light or moderate conditions. Hot tip: if you time your trip so that in the hour before dawn you are about ten miles offshore sailing along 73°40'N, 73°50'W, you may get to see the 18,000-foot snow-covered peaks of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Once the sun rises, these peaks usually disappear into mist. It is an amazing sight.
The Five Bays: From east (11°20'N, 74°04'W) to west (11°19'N, 74°10'W) these are Cinto, Nenguage, Guayraca, Chengue and Concha. These steep-sided bays are part of Tayrona National Park and are now (somewhat) regularly visited by the increasingly professional Coast Guard boats from Santa Marta. If your zarpe says Santa Marta you will be asked to clear in at Santa Marta before you can return upwind and upcurrent to stay here. If your zarpe says Cartagena you will be probably be allowed a one-night yellow-flag stop. In either case you will be permitted to stay if you can realistically plead really bad wind and seas.
International visitors to the park must each pay US$17 at park entrances on land, so don’t be outraged if you are asked to pay that. Apparently it is now possible to reach all of these bays by four-wheel-drive vehicle, so if you see a few folks along the shore, they are either indigenous people (usually dressed in traditional white clothing) visiting ancestral holdings or they are tourists who paid an eco-tour operator a lot of money to get there.
Santa Marta: The new Marina Santa Marta is physically beautiful and gives excellent access to the very likeable city of Santa Marta. Entry is at the north side of the extensive breakwater (11°15.00'N, 74°13.01'W) and it is advisable to e-mail the office your arrival plans (info@marinaSantaMarta.com.co) in advance. The marina monitors VHF 68; if no one answers, tie up at the fuel dock at port side of the entry channel and await instructions.
A great deal of money has been spent on docks, plaza, bathhouse and security, all of which are superb. All the staff who work directly with cruisers are welcoming and eager to please. However an ongoing problem is that no one presently associated with the marina has any cruising knowledge and experience; indeed, it is not clear what role serving the cruising community will play in the long-term plans for the marina. We stayed in the marina four months, from December to April (see article in the February 2011 issue of Compass). At times the winds blew 40 knots in the marina, placing real strain on the docks. We were glad to be in safe harbor.
Depending on the wind direction, it is possible for a few boats to anchor outside the marina, staying clear of the shipping lanes used by the commercial port. Boaters who choose to anchor out should contact the marina to see whether use of a marina dinghy dock will be permitted; government regulations make this simple courtesy complicated.
Currently there are only two marinas open to transient cruisers along the entire Caribbean coast of Colombia: Club Náutico in Cartagena and Marina Santa Marta. Santa Marta is by far the nicer of the two. Its excellent security makes it the ideal base for land and air travel and Avianca has several daily flights to Bogotá from the local airport. However for extensive boat repairs or haulout, you should go to Cartagena with its better-developed recreational marine industry. For an informal cruiser’s guide to the town and environs of Santa Marta see www.sailblogs.com/member/tashtego “Guide to Santa Marta”.
Taganga and Rodadero: These two bays on either side of Santa Marta are popular beach resorts. They make a very nice day outing from Santa Marta by boat (a zarpe may be involved) or by land (a ten-minute bus ride costing 60 cents). Taganga (11°15.94'N, 74°11.60'W) is fun and funky, well advertised in Lonely Planet but still very low-key. There is an active scuba there. Rodadero, also known as Gaira, (Pizazz waypoint 11°12.10'N, 74°13.75'W) is Colombia’s version of Copacabana Beach. By day both anchorages require firm discouragement of youthful swimmers or paddle-boaters. By night only Rodadero is a “secure” anchorage. While Santa Marta is now the main northern entry port for clearing in to Colombia it is apparently possible to do so at Rodadero at somewhat lower cost — contact email@example.com.
Magdalena River: This river is 950 miles long and drains a quarter of the landmass of Colombia; 66 percent of Colombians live in its drainage basin. Offshore an abrupt color change tells you when you have entered its outflow. Some boats cross its mouth (74°51'N, 11°06'W) only two or three miles offshore, keeping close watch for floating debris, cows, etcetera. We remained about nine miles out. We attributed the increasing seas to the river but they turned out to be the beginning of a bad blow that we would have avoided had we remained flexible about our departure date from Santa Marta. (Re-read my weather advice above.) Various entrepreneurs speak about developing facilities for cruisers in Barranquilla but the formidable Magdalena doesn’t make that seem very realistic.
Punta Hermosa: This quiet bay behind a long sand bar is conveniently located 16 miles southwest of Barranquilla. Coming from the north the safe waypoint for turning to enter the bay is 10°56.07'N, 75°03.22'W. This is almost a mile west of the waypoint given in the Pizazz notes; the sand bar appears to have swallowed up an entire island. Once inside you can proceed north almost to the top of the bay in nine to 12 feet of water. We anchored at 10°56.66'N, 75°02.12'W. There is almost no wind protection but the water is calm and the holding good. It is wonderfully empty, with only a few kite-surfers, weekend sightseers, and a couple of intermittent beach bars.
Next month, Part Two: Cartagena and the offshore islands.
Sources of Information
Sailing the coast of Colombia is not a trip that you lay out in detail months before you do it. In the absence of a comprehensive guide, it works better to let your plans evolve as you travel, using information gained from various sources, especially other cruisers who have sailed these waters. Here are the resources we used for our trip.
• Pizazz Cruising Guide for Coast of Colombia. For their latest edition contact Lourae and Randy Kenoffel, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Log of Jarandeb, 1994-95 circumnavigation of Caribbean. Contact Dick and Jane Rogavin, email@example.com.
• In 2006-7, cruisers based in Curaçao put together extensive information for Cartagena, Curaçao and San Blas. It was assembled and written up by Rija on S/V Queen of Hearts, firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are many good sources of information and trip descriptions on the web:
• Cruisers_Network_Online, www.yahooGroups.com is a great resource with up-to-date firsthand information from a variety of perspectives.
• The Bernon essays, especially Logs 16 and 17, are thoughtful and relevant: www.BoatUS.com/cruising.
• I have written more informal commentary about portions of our trip: www.sailblogs.com/member/tashtego.
Finally I thank the many, many cruisers from Trinidad to Panama who freely shared information and advice based on their experiences in southwestern Caribbean waters.
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