Sailing the Caribbean Coast of Colombia
Part Three: Sapzurro to Puerto Obaldia, plus Governmental Regulations for Cruising in Colombiaby Constance Elson
This is the third of a three-part series about cruising the Caribbean coast of Colombia that has recently appeared in Caribbean Compass. Part One, covering northern and eastern Colombia, appeared in the October 2011 issue. Part Two, covering Cartagena and the offshore islands along the southwest Caribbean coast, appeared last month. Part Three covers the remainder of coastal Colombia and information on governmental regulations.
Between November 2010 and May 2011, my sailing partner and I sailed our Lord Nelson 41, Tashtego, 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 of the coast and these are listed in the sidebar along with other sources of information, 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 anchoring details. Our information is current and I will also point the reader to sources of information for harbors and anchorages we missed. I offer this as a travel aperitif — with the hope that someone will write a complete travel guide to Colombian waters soon. (I recently learned that the Colombian government is developing a marine guide for the entire coast of Colombia. It may be available by summer 2012. Cruisers who wish to contribute useful Colombia cruising information can contact Omar Bechara at samantha.CosmoImageBank@gmail.com.)
After leaving Cartagena, during six weeks traveling south to Sapzurro we saw exactly one other sailboat except while 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. Many of the anchorages I have listed for these waters are fairly small and will not accommodate large numbers of boats.
NAVIGATION: When I give coordinates as four digits, ddmm, representing degrees and minutes, the purpose is only so you can locate the general area on a map. Coordinates given as six digits, ddmm.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 almost 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.
Sapzurro and Capurgana: It was a thrill to sail into Sapzurro, the end of our Colombian odyssey. The jungle-covered hills in front of the much higher mountains of Darien, and big swells crashing into the cliffs on both sides of the bay, added to our exhilaration. Aside from the swells, entry was straightforward up the middle to waypoint 08°39.85'N, 77°21.61'W. Cruisers have anchored off the town dock but we anchored off the small, wonderfully tropical beach to port at 08°39.32'N, 77°21.79'W, in water that became the color of bean soup after each big rainstorm. Two neglected boats tied to trees on shore reduced the limited available space. One day during our stay, surge and currents had us rolling heavily so we too tied a line to shore to hold the bow into the swells.
Our arrival euphoria was slightly dented by a young man representing the “Junta Accion Comunal” who arrived in a launch requesting approximately 15 dollars, ostensibly for a fund to install moorings in the bay, for garbage services (which concept I enthusiastically support) and for unlimited water (which turned out to be had for free at the town dock faucet). We ante-ed up and when the garbage service did not materialize after several days, I located the head of the group at his mother’s house and handed him our bag of plastic and paper garbage to be burned with their household garbage. Which somehow is Sapzurro in a nutshell.
We stayed a week and in retrospect we should have stayed longer. Sapzurro is described in numerous guidebooks and in recent years it has become a travel destination for people from Medellín and Cali, as well as backpackers crossing the Darien Gap by coastal freighter or sailboat.
Sprinkled among the very basic concrete-block houses of original residents are the equally small hostels and guesthouses built by newcomers and sporting amusing artistic, architectural and landscaping flourishes. Be sure to eat a meal at Doña Trini’s; she cooks possibly the finest fried fish in the Caribbean.
And watch for a white-haired, brown-skinned man looking like a Colombian version of Gandhi walking along the stunningly beautiful jungle beach where your boat is anchored. He lives in a palapa on the beach, without any walls, and anyone who needs a place to sleep can use a hammock in the adjacent palapa. Isn’t that sweet? Do not be fooled: born in Sapzurro, Jorge had a full career in Panama as an architect, has published seven novels, two of which were translated into English, and he and his brother will sell you the entire south wall of Sapzurro Bay, from the waterfall to the headland, for a mere 40 million US dollars. Jorge was just one of several interesting people we met in Sapzurro.
At 08°39'N, 77°21W, Capurgana is about a mile and a half south of Sapzurro as the crow flies. For the earthbound, it is a two-hour walk up a gorgeous jungle trail over the ridge that separates the two towns, or a 12-minute launch ride around the south headland into a harbor that looked way too shallow and rocky for sailboats. Capurgana has an airstrip, has more space to grow than does Sapzurro, and is further along the tourism-development path, but the ambience of both towns is very similar.
Other locations along Colombia’s southern Caribbean coast: Currently, most cruisers traveling between Cholon and Sapzurro only stop at the offshore islands described in last month’s Caribbean Compass, as we did. The adjacent mainland consists mostly of long high-surf coastlines but there are a few anchorages that would be useful to know more about, if only for emergency use. We offer the following scraps of information gleaned from other sailors and from Colombian sources, and whose accuracy we cannot vouch for.
We look forward to a time when reliable information about the entire coastline is widely available.
• Punta Bernardo: 09°41'N, 75°42'W. The Bernon Log #16 reports good anchorage in calm waters, helpful people, and an excellent nearby adventure resort, Sanguare Resort.
• Tolu: 09°31'N, 75°35'W. A popular beach destination for folks from Medellín. I don’t know if there is any safe anchorage when the waves are high, but in times of quiet waters there are many piers where you can bring your dinghy in.
• Coveñas: 09°25'N, 75°41'W. Another popular beach-holiday area and also an important oil trans-shipment port. There is said to be a protected anchorage there big enough for three or four boats.
• Isla Tortuguilla: 09°02'N, 76°20'W. A very small one-owner (absentee) island with friendly local caretaker. Not sure whether there is any good anchorage because of the coral reefs encircling the island (see Log of Jarandeb, referred to in sidebar).
•Arboletes: 08°52'N, 76°26'W. A bit of a mystery. The town is a hub of a cattle-growing region but it is not clear whether it is also a port. The Bernons were advised against traveling there in 2006, possibly for safety reasons.
• Laguna del Aguila: 08°32'N, 76°55'W. Appears to offer protection from prevailing northeast winds and waves. In 1994 Jarendeb called it “desolate and remote” with no dwellings on shore. It is a 27-mile sail from here to Sapzurro across the mouth of the Gulf of Uraba. The Bernons were advised to avoid the area near Cerro Aquila a few miles to the north.
• Necocli: 08°25'N, 76°47'W. Some lanchas carry tourists between Sapzurro/Capurgana and this small town. It is an open beach offering no protection if waves are high.
• Turbo: 08°03'N, 76°45'W. Located rather far down the Gulf of Uraba, this is the main connection point between Sapzurro/Capurgana and the rest of Colombia, with several lanchas making the 35-mile trip every day. There is enough water to anchor near the Colombian Coast Guard/Army station and you are advised not to anchor elsewhere. One long-time cruiser in Colombian waters says that the coastline from Turbo to Capurgana is the most beautiful in Colombia. However, be sure you understand what the current security situation is before you travel there.
Puerto Obaldia, Panama: We began this coastal journey in Venezuela and we end it in Panama. The anchorage at 08°39.84'N, 77°25.33'W is an open bay offering no protection when waves are from the northwest. If the water is too rough, postpone the whole check-in procedure until you arrive a few weeks or months later in Porvenir, Portobelo, or Colón. In Kuna Yala no one is interested in whether you have cleared into Panama because the Kuna barely acknowledge the existence of Panama. Hot tip: if your Colombian zarpe lists your destination as Puerto Obaldia and weather prevented you entering there, your situation will be treated with sympathy in Portobelo. Check with other cruisers you meet in Kuna waters to see whether that also applies to Porvenir.
To clear in at Obaldia, row in, tie your dinghy to any tree along the beach, and show your passport to the strong-looking but very courteous guys at the police stop; then proceed past an army post and over a footbridge to the Immigration and Customs offices. When we were there in May, we were told only “two or three” cruisers arrived per month. We were processed efficiently and the Customs office even stayed open an extra ten minutes after closing time (!) while I retrieved my “radio license” (VHF callsign) from the boat. This extra information was necessary only because I had requested a cruising permit as part of clearing in.
A Panama cruising permit may be optional in Puerto Obaldia but eventually you will have to get one in Porvenir, Colón or Bocas del Toro: the nearly 200-dollar Panamanian cruising permit is needed for all dealings with marine authorities. Be sure to check that the end date on your cruising permit is for a whole 365 days and not just for the remainder of the calendar year — the mistake can be corrected in Colón but it is a nuisance.
Puerto Obaldia is dominated by a military/police presence because inland the Darien border between Colombia and Panama is a major drug-smuggling highway. The town is not cute in the way that Sapzurro is but seemed relaxed and practical. We stayed only one night, watching dubiously as the passengers on a decrepit Colombian trading boat nearby became noisily drunk; the flashlights of the police stationed in the beach outpost were reassuring. It was our introduction to these coastal traders, many looking barely able to remain afloat, that bring commerce to all of Kuna Yala waters. We acquired real respect for them as we sailed up the coast of Panama. But that is another story.
Governmental regulations for cruising in Colombia: Every cruising guide for a country should explain the basic arrival and departure requirements. That this is surprisingly hard to do reliably is a comment about the nascent and underdeveloped state of marine tourism in Colombia. Take the information offered here with several grains of salt — talking about Colombian regulations is like picking up jello with your hands — and check the internet resources and with other cruisers for changes and updates.
ENTRY: Colombia’s entry procedures for yachts are more complicated than those of nearby countries and seem to have been adapted from commercial shipping regulations, without much understanding of the differences between commercial shipping and recreational cruising. For an extreme example of how ludicrous this can be, some of the first boats clearing into Santa Marta in the fall of 2010 were asked to supply the vessel’s pest management plan and clearance papers from the previous ten ports visited!
There are at present three ports of entry in Colombia: Santa Marta (or Rodadero), Cartagena, and Capurgana. The first two require you to use an agent; the last one does not. Clearing in involves three governmental entities: DIAN, who are concerned with the boat; DAS (Immigration), who are concerned with the people aboard (and who may be undergoing a change of acronym), and possibly the local port captain. According to the DIAN and DAS officials I spoke with, they charge NOTHING for a boat and its crew to spend up to 90 days in Colombia. If this is correct it means that the approximately US$75 to $100 entry fee you will be charged in Santa Marta and/or Cartagena goes entirely to the agent and to port captain charges, whatever they may be.
LOCAL CRUISING PERMIT: If you are based in Santa Marta or Cartagena and wish to visit nearby bays, islands or anchorages, you are required to purchase a local cruising permit. The Cartagena version has been in effect for some time, costs $75 and is good for 60 days. The Santa Marta version was instituted in April 2011, costs $90 and I do not know the time restrictions on it. If the permit is required for day-anchoring, our carefree afternoon spent in Taganga Bay, four miles from our marina slip, would have cost us $90! That’s not exactly conducive to development of marine tourism.
DEPARTURE TO ANOTHER COUNTRY: When departing a Colombian entry port bound for another country, the cost of your exit zarpe should be included in the agent’s initial fee. Verify this when you arrive. If you ask for a zarpe that states “y puntos intermedios” (“and intermediate locations”), you can stop anywhere along the coast of Colombia and stay reasonable amounts of time, provided you leave the country within 60 days and provided your location is a plausible “intermediate” point. The chances that anyone official will ask to see the zarpe before you reach your stated destination are very small, at least at the present time, but there is peace of mind in having it.
DEPARTURE FROM SANTA MARTA TO CARTAGENA OR VICE-VERSA: You must get a travel zarpe specifically for this. At the present time, this means that in addition to paying an anchoring fee for the second port, you will also have to pay an agent fee all over again. This perception of paying a “double entry fee” is self-defeating for the Colombian marine industry. Because of it, many cruisers avoid Colombia altogether or limit the ports they visit in Colombia. One can hope that with better computer record-keeping by DIAN and DAS, persons interested in growing Colombia’s marine industry will see the wisdom of removing or significantly reducing the “double entry” cost of visiting both Santa Marta and Cartagena by yacht.
CUSTOMS CHARGES: Although not a problem on entering the country, these become a big headache if you want to have work done on your boat while in country — or stay long enough that you want mail or need to have boat work done. Every personal or boat-related item with declared value that enters by air is charged 27 percent duty, with an additional $30 fee for the paperwork. All air shipments arrive through Bogotá and Bogotá does not recognize ‘yacht-in-transit’ status for boat-related items. (Shipments arriving by sea are charged less, which is how the Cartagena shipyards manage.) Such high fees are extremely counter-productive: boats always need repairs, almost no marine parts are available in Colombia, and few transiting cruisers want to wait six or eight weeks for parts shipped by sea. Our first (and only) mail shipment cost us so much it literally would have been cheaper to fly to Miami and pick the mail up ourselves! The situation is so bad that the advice offered by long-time cruisers in the southwest Caribbean is “have everything shipped in to Panama and then take it to Cartagena to have the work done.”
For the record, I must state that we did not have any trouble clearing in or out of Colombia. We contacted the Romovela Limitada agency (email@example.com) in advance, paid Edgar Romero US$100, and were completely satisfied with the efficient and trouble-free service he gave us. Because we decided to visit Cartagena by land, leaving the boat in Santa Marta, we entered and exited Colombia from Santa Marta. Our exit zarpe for Panama stated “y puntos intermedios”, which allowed us to make the short stays along the Colombian coast described in these notes, all the way to Puerto Obaldia. Cartagena, of course, can’t be claimed an “intermediate point” but we got away with yellow-flagging it for just one night on our way south, just in order to experience sailing into historic Cartagena Bay.
In summary, it is fair to say that in the area of governmental regulation, some of Colombia’s bad rap is self-inflicted. There is a need for careful, informed restructuring of regulations and fees to bring them into line with neighboring (and competing) countries, for accessible publication of the regulations in a simple and clear format, and for consistent and transparent enforcement of the rules. Such reforms will greatly reduce cruiser anxiety about coming to Colombia. I hope that this guide will also reduce anxiety about visiting this wonderful, vibrant country.
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 are thoughtful and relevant: www.boatus.com/cruising/ithaka/logbook.asp.
• 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.
Dear Compass Readers,
Because my knowledge is decidedly fragmentary and because the marine industry in Colombia is in such transition, if you will please send corrections, additions, and updates to me at email@example.com, I will organize them for publication in a future issue of the Compass.
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