Santa Marta, Colombia:
The Newest ‘St. Somewhere’
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune…
— William Shakespeare
The local media attention and official welcome given to last month’s finish of a transatlantic yacht race at Santa Marta, Colombia was a potent sign that this country — the fourth-largest economy in South America, with 1,584 miles (2,549 kilometres) of Caribbean seacoast — is positioning itself to be a player in regional yachting tourism. Colombia’s Deputy Minister of Tourism, Sandra Howard Taylor, hails from Providencia. She tells Compass readers, “I’m from a Caribbean island. I love the sea, sailing, boating and diving, and I want to share Colombia’s waters with visitors who share these passions.” Meanwhile cruisers are finding this historic Caribbean seaside town, equipped with a modern marina and an abundance of attractions, a worthy new destination.
The Gran Prix del Atlantico is a yacht race that has run from Spain to the Caribbean every other year since 1995. Previous finishes were in San Juan, Puerto Rico; Havana, Cuba; Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic (twice); and Le Marin, Martinique (twice). This year’s arrivals, crossing the finish line in late January and early February after a January 4th start from the Canary Islands, were welcomed at Colombia’s two-year-old Marina Santa Marta.
Marina Santa Marta was officially opened in December 2011 with just two of its 256 slips occupied. Last month half the slips were filled and so far the marina has seen occupancy of up to 70 percent.
Gran Prix del Atlantico 2014
For the few but hardy participants in Gran Prix del Atlantico 2014, arrival was especially sweet after a challenging 3,600-mile non-stop ocean passage. They experienced atypical conditions that ranged from gales to calms, and northwest to southeast winds. The largest Gran Prix fleet to date was 42 boats in 2001, but this year organizers blamed bad weather for preventing many from getting to the starting line at Lanzarote, Canary Islands. An optimistic pre-registration list of 35 was ultimately whittled down to a fleet of seven boats that made the scheduled start. A few others started late. Ten days after the official start, one boat sank after hitting an unidentified object, and the crew was rescued by a vessel bound for Antigua. The only “gate” on the race course was the channel between St. Lucia and Martinique, and other competitors ended their race on those islands to deal with repairs or medical problems.
Ultimately, only four “Gran Prix” boats reached Santa Marta. Yet the event was prestigious enough — its honorary president is King Juan Carlos I of Spain — to garner media attention and raise public awareness. A celebration was held in which the winning skipper, Enrique Curt, was given “the keys to the city”, an indication of Santa Marta’s appreciation of the inherent importance of international sailing events.
Line honors in the eighth “Gran Prix” went to the Hanse 461 The Best Skipper. Captain Enrique Curt says that in mid-ocean, winds were so high that The Best Skipper (named for two of the Curt publishing company’s magazines) spent a day under bare poles, moving at seven knots. Those winds were from the northwest, so they backtracked until conditions improved. Nevertheless, they made the non-stop passage between Marina Rubicón and Marina Santa Marta in 24 days, four hours, 20 minutes and 45 seconds. Enrique says the key factor in his fast passage was that “We are racers. Most of the others are family boats. Our intent was speed. The six crew are strong young men who have been sailing since childhood.” He adds that although his crew was “stupendous”, he did the cooking: “Young people can eat, but they don’t know how to cook!” Enrique has competed in the French single-handed Solitaire du Figaro “when I was younger”, and this was his ninth transatlantic. The Gran Prix del Atlantico was a family affair for Captain Curt: his son, also named Enrique, is the event’s organizer.
The captain plans to enjoy Colombia until April, then sail direct to the Dominican Republic, from there to the Virgin Islands, and then home to Spain.
Marina Santa Marta
Marina Santa Marta is very much the brainchild of native son Manuel Dávila Abondano, executive president of a Colombian group of companies producing organic sugar and palm oil. Being in a location out of the hurricane belt and convenient as a staging point for boats heading for the Panama Canal were no doubt factors in his decision to create an international-standard marina in his home town, but Manuel says, “Really, I just love boats.” Although his family owns the commercial port, there were formerly no facilities at Santa Marta for recreational vessels. First inspired by the marina at Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic, Manuel proceeded to study marinas worldwide during his business travels and then worked closely with professionals to design this marina. When the banks wouldn’t provide a loan (“At that time, they didn’t know what a marina was”), he found investors, got planning permission (“They never thought I’d really do it”) and built the marina right in front of his parents’ shoreside house.
The marina is a consumer-driven work in progress — clients are asked what they would like to see added. (Cruisers are even providing advice on making the clearance forms easier to understand.) Safety being a primary concern, two slips were assigned to the Coast Guard, and two Coast Guard runabouts are permanently based there. A fuel dock with gas and diesel is a recent addition, and a haulout facility with 60-ton travelift is currently under construction, as are spaces for ancillary services such as engine, sail and fiberglass repair. A chandlery is also in the works.
English long-time cruiser Mike Davies on Conari says that the marina is “brilliant. It’s not only an oasis in a very rough stretch of ocean, but the rates are competitive, it’s really yachtie-friendly, and it’s a good base for visiting Cartagena or exploring the surrounding countryside — or even all of South America.”
Mike’s wife, Ineke, adds that owing to the constant breeze there are no mosquitoes in Santa Marta. This breeze deserves special mention. It is something all Santa Marta is proud of, and indeed it creates a refreshing climate. The bay of Santa Marta is at approximately 11°14’48”N, 74°13’00, facing west. The tradewinds, on their way there, pass over the dry Guajira Peninsula and then the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains, the world’s highest coastal range. (Sailing 15 to 20 kilometres off this tropical coast in the early morning, you can often see the snow-capped peaks of Colón and Simón Bolívar.) By the time the breeze arrives (often strongly) it has been purged of salt and humidity. Mildew and rust are rare here.
Downsides are occasional noisy parties at night (“but it’s happy noise”) and the fact that the water in the marina — in fact, in the whole city — is currently not potable, reportedly owing to problems at the filtration plant. Hopefully this will soon be resolved. Clearing in is currently expensive, as yachts are required to use an agent, but as this is being written, the marina is waiting for permission to act as a clearance agent so their clients won’t have to pay the US$100 agent’s fee.
It is possible to anchor in the wide bay, outside the shipping lanes, but fierce winds can spring up. One cruiser said, “We had 37 knots one night, and although it made the boat heel over we were glad we were in a slip so we wouldn’t drag” — she recommends not leaving anchored boats unattended.
Destination Santa Marta
More than one cruiser has described Santa Marta as “a complete surprise”.
Founded as a seaport for the Spanish treasure fleets in 1525, Santa Marta lays claim to being the oldest city in South America. But soon, the harbor of Cartagena, being more easily defensible than Santa Marta’s broad bay, became the major colonial port. Today, Santa Marta is better known as a laid-back seaside holiday town with a historic quarter and the usual modern amenities, plus a whiff of Colombia’s magical realism. Unlike the more famous — and more touristy and gentrified — Cartagena, this city of 500,000 is very much itself.
A few steps from the marina is a waterfront avenue whose broad sidewalk provides spots for snack vendors, a stop for the colorful chiva buses, and al fresco seating for a variety of restaurants.
Spreading inland is a grid of narrow streets lined with former Spanish colonial buildings and 18th century townhouses, where you’ll find cafés and shops, cathedrals and handicraft vendors, parks and plazas. Between their recently renovated sisters (now chic restaurants and tiny boutique hotels), faded old buildings yearn for restoration. A few years ago El Parque de Novios (Sweethearts’ Park), in the city center, was a seedy no-go area. Now clean, well lit and home to several good bistros, it is a popular place to gather in the evening for a drink, a meal or just a stroll.
Sundays are quiet, but the rest of the week Santa Marta is vibrant. Yes, there is poverty and you’ll see gaminos, or homeless boys, but there is also lively commerce and an attitude of optimistic progress.
In the local Caribe Explora magazine, editor Lucas Echeverri Roblado writes: “Santa Marta experienced an explosion of investment in 2013 and it’s only starting,” involving both Colombians and foreigners, and giving the city an international air. “The marina is one of the important focal points that increases the strength of the city, and where visitors are welcomed.”
Cruisers in Santa Marta report that beer is cheap (the equivalent of US$1 at a sidewalk bar), and the supply of meat, fruit and vegetables is good. Seafood and beef are first rate. Restaurant prices are similar to those in the Eastern Caribbean. The city should be famous for its fresh fruit smoothies alone. (Colombian coffee? Say no more.) If you haven’t developed a taste for the sweetish local bread, try the French bakery, Canoa, on Calle 18. Cruisers advise stocking up on staples in Aruba, and topping up on fresh groceries in Santa Marta.
Medical care, including dentistry, is good and inexpensive, and some doctors will make “boat calls” at the marina.
British cruiser John on the Rival 38 Kika, bound for New Zealand, says, “I’ve been here five or six days so far, and couldn’t have had a nicer time. If you can’t find something at the marina, the people in town go out of their way to help you,” noting that once he was virtually led by the hand from the wrong place to the right one. He adds, “It’s early days as a cruising destination, but you can find the necessary services, such as machine shops. Santa Marta was a huge surprise. I couldn’t be happier that we stopped — it was a bonus to the whole trip.”
French cruiser Lionel says he first visited Santa Marta in 1992 while riding around South America by motorbike, returned by boat in 1996 to anchor in the bay, and now he and Yamilé, aboard Rebelle, are ensconced in the marina. “I’ve been traveling for 30 years, and this is the best place I’ve seen in my life. It’s a place I love; the most important thing is the mindset of the people. In all my travels I’ve never met more friendly, open and attentive people.”
Don’t expect many people to speak English, but grab your copy of Spanish for Cruisers, try a few words, and people will be happy to help.
Surrounding Santa Marta
“Within a very compact radius around Santa Marta there is a wide portfolio of activities and places to visit without repetition,” says local nautical tourism specialist Carlos Socarrás. “There is history, culture, and a rich natural environment ranging from dry coastal areas to deep jungle to snow-topped mountains.”
On the outskirts of town, visit Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, the former sugar and rum producing slave estate where Simón Bolívar died in 1830. You’ll gain insight not only into a vanished lifestyle, but also appreciate the reverence in which South Americans hold the Liberator who freed what are now the countries of Colombia, Panama, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru from the Spanish Empire.
You can get to the funky diver/backpacker scene at Taganga and back to Santa Marta the same day. Trips to stay a night or two in the hip mountain village of Minca, or at Aracataca — the birthplace of Gabriel García Márquez and the supposed setting for One Hundred Years of Solitude — can be done by bus or collective taxi.
To get to Ciudad Perdida, the Lost City, however, means a three- or four-day hike in and a three-day hike out for the very fit, or enough pesos for a helicopter ride. Some 650 years before the better-known settlement at Machu Picchu, another ancient city was built, perched on 169 terraces carved into a steep, remote Sierra Nevada mountainside. The site, believed to have been abandoned during the Spanish conquest, was rediscovered in 1972. The wooden structures are long gone, but the intriguing stone terraces remain.
Many cruisers at Marina Santa Marta mention that one of their prime reasons to visit Colombia was to see the famous walled city of Old Cartagena, a UNESCO World Heritage Site — but they didn’t want to take their boats there. Facilities in Cartagena for visiting yachts are limited, the harbor fosters bottom growth and ferry wakes can be a problem for anchored yachts. Régine, circumnavigating with Bernard on the Ovni 43 Freevol, says, “We left the boat at Santa Marta because we wanted to see Cartagena with peace of mind.” Mike Davies notes that the bus from Santa Marta is only US$21 and the trip, although four-hours or so, is “door to door”.
There are anchorages with sandy beaches near Santa Marta at Taganga and at Bahia Concha, Gairaca, Neguange and Cinta within Tayrona National Park. These could be good stops en route to Santa Marta from the ABCs, but it might be hard work to get back to them heading north and eastward, unless you catch a sporadic south wind in the summer. Cruisers say that if your zarpe says “Cartagena” you will likely be allowed to stop in these places for a short period with the Q flag up, but if your zarpe says “Santa Marta” you should proceed directly there.
The Safety Question
German cruiser Mickaela on Meri Tuuli, circumnavigating with her husband, Ulf, echoed the experience of many when recounting her first Skype home after arrival: “You’re in Colombia? Are you safe?” Her answer was, “Yes, and we’re safe and happy.”
Thanks to improved security throughout the country, Colombia went from receiving 600,000 tourists in 2000 to nearly 1.7 million in 2012. Reports of crimes against yachts in Colombian waters in recent years have been few, mainly citing dinghy and/or outboard theft, or attempted theft, from Cartagena and its nearby Islas Rosarios. Normal precautions should be taken.
Colombian Coast Guard Lt. Commander Jesús González tells Compass readers that “Colombia is a maritime country and the government is looking at the development of all maritime sectors, including shipping, fishing and yachting. Our coast guard vessels are working for security, communications for safety, search and rescue, and the protection of all boats in Colombian waters.”
Mickaela says, “We will recommend to every sailor to come here.”
Riding the Rising Tide
While cruisers are spreading the news about Santa Marta by word of mouth, Colombians in the private and public sectors have been working to develop nautical tourism, and international boating interests are taking note. Nineteen US companies and the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) will host a USA Pavilion at the second annual Cartagena International Boat Show this month, from March 22nd through 24th. US industry leaders visited Colombia last July to explore potential opportunities in the increasingly attractive market. From the February 2014 edition of Soundings Trade Only magazine: “We believe there are significant opportunities to be had by US companies there,” says Julie Balzano, director of export development for the NMMA. “By setting up shop early they can build success and become the recognized brand in the industry. During our trip we noted that the Spaniards, French, Canadians and other European brands are already beginning to solidify their key relationships in this emerging industry.”
According to Colombia’s Minister of Trade, Industry, and Tourism, Santiago Rojas, nautical tourism has become an engine for tourism development in the country. The government has embarked on a program of 22 nautical tourism projects, including development of marinas and other recreational boating facilities along the country’s Caribbean and Pacific coasts over the coming 15 years, which is expected to generate more than 13,500 jobs.
Colombia has also been proactive in producing a free cruising guide (see footnote) of the country’s entire Caribbean and Pacific coastlines, which includes excellent charts from the Colombian Hydrographic Service, plus waypoints, a service directory, and general information provided by various sources including cruiser Constance Elson of S/V Tashtego.
For Santa Marta as a burgeoning sailing destination, the finish line of the Gran Prix del Atlantico could be just the starting gun.
The cruising guide to Colombia is available free at
Chart updates are available at www.cioh.org.co “Avisos a los navegantes”.
(There’s rumored to be a version in English but we could only find the Spanish one, although charts are of course the same.)
For more information on the Gran Prix del Atlantico visit www.granprixdelatlantico.com.
For more information on IGY Marina Santa Marta see ad on page 5.
Many thanks to Manuel and the Davila family for your gracious hospitality; to Mauricio for everything; to Diana I and Diana II, Jonathan, and the rest of the staff at Marina Santa Marta for making my visit so enjoyable; to Stewart for safe landings; and to all the cruisers and officials who generously gave their time to talk. Kudos to La Casa del Farol in Santa Marta and Anandá in Cartagena. And finally, special thanks to Mike and Ineke on Conari for fixing my shoe.
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