Sailing the Caribbean Coast of Colombia
Part Two: Cartagena and the Southern Islands
by Constance Elson
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.
This is Part Two, covering Cartagena and the offshore islands along the southwest Caribbean coast. Part One, covering northern and eastern Colombia, was published last month and Part Three will cover the remainder of coastal Colombia and information on governmental regulations.
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.
Cartagena: Who doesn’t want to see this jewel of Spanish Colonial and Baroque architecture and seasonal playground of the world’s wealthy? It is surprising how unappealing the options for bringing your boat to Cartagena are at present, considering its importance as a destination. The only marina open to transient boats is Club Náutico and it is in a state of neglect that has “progressed” from decrepitude to pigsty. However, they do provide a dinghy dock, WiFi and a water faucet for about US$3.50 per day. The long-time cruiser community still runs a net on VHF 68 at 8:00 every morning, offering lots of advice and help if you need it. If you are willing to spend a few nights in a hotel (all price levels are available) you can see Cartagena without bringing your boat there: leave your boat safely in Santa Marta Marina and take a four-hour bus ride ($13) or else anchor your boat in Cholon (see below and also section on governmental regulations in Part Three next month) and return to Cartagena using the 5:30AM launch ($7, one hour and a trip in itself!) to spend a few days feasting on the sights.
If you arrive in Cartagena by boat, the Pizazz waypoint (10°23.45'N, 75°34.47'W) is very helpful for entering Cartagena Bay via Boca Grande because the buoys on either sides of the opening are inconspicuous until you are very close. Once in, you sail along the western shore of Cartagena (Castillo Grande), dumbfounded at the wall of condominium “stalagmites”, before turning into the bay proper. Avoid the buoyed shoal near the statue and anchor near Club Náutico (10°24.68'N, 75°32.50'W).
It is also possible to enter or leave the bay using the marked ship channel at Boca Chica, but we were advised to do so only in daytime.
There are good haulout facilities and long-established recreational marine services in Cartagena Bay. The Club Náutico website (www. ClubNauticoCartagena.com) has a tab labeled “Cruiser Guide” that lists all kinds of information and services for cruisers.
Cholon: Older maps may not show it but there really is a Bahia Cholon, about 16 miles south of Cartagena near the southern tip of the Baru Peninsula. It is a long narrow bay completely protected from the ocean by mangrove islands. The following waypoints will bring you safely through the only sailboat-accessible entry, the first waypoint being very conservative:
Navionics chartware will tell you that you are sailing over an island. It is wrong. The last two points mark a 20-foot-wide channel with a sandbank to starboard and happy motorboaters med-moored at a beach bar to port. This is not a time to watch bikinis!
Anchor anywhere in the bay where there is adequate depth. Cholon and all of the Baru Peninsula is vacationland for Cartagenans; fast launches provide transport for day-trippers. Long stays are possible here once you learn to ferret out local services; cruiser cognoscenti hang here for entire seasons. The town of Baru can be reached with a two-mile dinghy ride along mangrove channels — hire someone local to guide you the first time. Baru offers fuel and water, a variety of local food, domestic and hardware items, and an ATM machine that accepts international credit cards. Stock up if you need pesos; you won’t see another one until Portobelo, Panama, where the currency is dollars.
The entire shoreline of Cholon Bay is privately owned and only a few places allow you to use their waterfront dock. One of these is the charming Sports Baru, near the cellphone tower. Well-behaved cruisers are welcome to use their bar or restaurant — their second-floor verandah is a sybaritic place for sundowners.
Wind permitting, it is also possible to anchor in very shallow waters off the southern tip of the Baru Peninsula at 10°07.74'N, 75°41.26'W. The on-shore resort there is welcoming and the mouth of a short dinghy channel into Baru is nearby at 10°08.09'N, 75°40.70'W.
A unique way to return to Cholon from a trip to Cartagena is to go to the chaotic mercado, catch a local bus headed to the town of Pasa Caballos, get off and walk two blocks to a ferry, ride it 250 yards across El Dique (a ship channel built to connect Cartagena with the Rio Magdalena, its modern incarnation was dug in the 1950s) and then catch a ride with one of the motorcycle-taxis who will take one of you back to Cholon or Baru for about $13. It’s a bit strenuous but a real hoot.
Rosario Archipelago, Isla Grande: There are several possible anchorages in these islands; good sketch maps are said to be available at Club Náutico in Cartagena. We anchored only at Isla Grande. We passed through its breaker-outlined windward reef safely with good light, relying on the Pizazz waypoint (10°11.18'N, 075°44.45'W), left the drab hard-to-spot concrete post to starboard and eyeballed our way in to anchor at 10°10.90'N, 75°44.39'W. The anchorage was somewhat bouncy when the wind piped up because the protecting coral reef appears to be completely dead, but we had its turquoise waters all to ourselves the four days we were there. The tiny (one cottage) resort La Coquera let us tie our dinghy to an onshore tree and walk across their property to the main path.
The northern coast of this island is proudly Afro-Colombian — imagine an island with only footpaths and not a single road, palm tree groves and a small village whose residents decided to own all their land in common to be able to control further development. Along the paths the houses were minimal (think of a stereotypical Caribbean shack) but the yards were swept and the islanders invariably greeted us with smiles and a “buenos dias”. When we circumnavigated the island by dinghy we found two brightly colored luxury resorts and aggressively ostentatious homes on the leeward side, a jarring contrast with two quieter (also expensive) eco-tourism resorts on the windward side. There might be private desalinization plants at the resorts, but for everyone else water comes from cisterns that fill during rainy season; when the cisterns run dry, water is purchased in five-gallon bottles via a Cartagena launch. Dry latrines, with unique walls made of adobe and Coke-bottle bottoms, provide sanitation for most of the islanders.
Everything on the island had two price tags: local and outrageous. This is a consequence of the island being a favorite day-trip and weekend getaway for Cartagenans and an eco-holiday for well-heeled northerners in the know. The fishermen who came to the boat wanted 20 dollars for crab and lobster but we weren’t buying. There is a Nature Center on the island and in their log the Bernons, whose blog is noted in the sidebar, mention a private-but-open-to-the-public aviary I wish I had known about. We saw another sailboat anchored near 10°10’N, 75°45’W. Circumstances had us exit the Rosario Archipelago using a waypoint (10°08.21'N, 75°43.30'W); it involved ghosting across 12-foot sandy shallows for a quarter mile. The deeper channel to the west, through 10°09.02' N, 75°44.08' W, looks preferable.
The Rosarios archipelago was our introduction to an economic and cultural offshore world that stretches from Cartagena to Porvenir, Panama. It consists of local residents who live in tranquility and security, entirely without cars, having very few material possessions other than a cell phone and TV (ubiquitous everywhere except in conservative Kuna villages), and who are warm and courteous to strangers. In the Colombian islands the shorelines are almost all the property of well-to-do absentee owners; shoreline “ownership” is different among the Kuna of Panama, of course.
San Bernardo Archipelago, Tintipan: We anchored off the leeward shore of the largest island, Tintipan, in the clearest, most beautiful water we had seen since leaving Bonaire. In an effort to anchor in sand we initially were rather close to shore but an onshore wind shift made us move 100 yards out to the waypoint 09°27.47'N, 75°50.18'W.
Tintipan must be entirely owned by a very few individuals because the only structures we saw on the south shore were two large homes, each sporting a thatch-roofed palapa built out over water for shady lazy pleasures; the palapas were huge, each easily big enough to accommodate a party of 100 people. The local fishermen and their families all live about one mile west on a rocky treeless island (Santa Cruz de Islote) that a Colombian guidebook claims has the highest population density in the world. It is reachable only by dinghy and the local lanchas. The Bernons describe some of the other islands in the archipelago, including La Palma, which has an aquarium. On our second evening in our peaceful anchorage we were approached by a small boat with five men aboard whom I had watched fishing farther offshore for several hours. After we got past the 20-dollar lobster offering, I said what I really wanted was just two small red snappers (pargo). They couldn’t figure out how to price such a small ordinary item so we settled on four dollars and everyone was happy.
We motored away on a flat calm sunny day, exiting the island group near 09°43.35'N, 75°50.15'W. There is said to be good snorkeling on the north shore of Tintipan; I don’t know if the north shore also offers adequate anchorage when the wind is from the west.
Isla Fuerte: This island is almost entirely surrounded by shallow reefs and we were grateful to two local men in canoes who offered to guide us into a small quiet bay near the southeast tip of the island. It is big enough to accommodate three boats that coordinate their anchoring. The waypoints to enter (at one point you pass over a bar of coral rubble only eight feet deep) are:
We anchored in 15 feet of water at 09°23.18'N, 76°10.46'W and got permission to use the tiny dock belonging to the last house on the point and cross the property to reach the public path.
The alternative if the wind permits is to anchor well out, off the town beach, about half a mile to the southwest of our small bay. If you are traveling in unfavorable weather, you may not find good anchorage and should be prepared to sail onward — which would be a great shame because Isla Fuerte was a surprise and deserved more than the two days we spent there.
As you approach you can see that the island has huge trees growing on it. Much of the shoreline is given over to discreet weekend waterfront homes (belonging to antioqueños from Medellín, at a guess). Aside from caretaker families for those homes, the full-time residents almost all live in the town of Puerto Limón. A pleasant tree-shaded 15-minute walk, sharing the path with tiny donkeys carrying laughing groups of children or impossibly big loads, brings you into town. The surprise is how many of the small houses were carefully finished, at no small expense, and there were paved sidewalk-streets along the shorefront. The town sports a tiny tienda, a restaurant, and a friendly mayor. The Bernon logs, about their week on Isla Fuerte in 2006, are a good resource (see sidebar).
From Isla Fuerte we sailed 80 miles directly to Sapzurro, which will be discussed in Part Three, next month.
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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