UPDATED CRUISING GUIDE FOR THE COAST OF COLOMBIA
Part Four: Provisions, Supplies and Shoreside Attractions
by Lourae and Randy Kenoffel
We, Lourae and Randy Kenoffel on Pizazz, are pleased to provide this "guide", a collection of our personal experiences, to fill in the blanks between Bonaire and Panama. If you are going east from Panama, just reverse the sequence. Please refer to Doyle and Fisher's Guide to Venezuela & Bonaire, as well as the new (March 2006) Cruising Guide to the ABC Islands by Waterson/van der Reijden; and refer to Zydler's Guide to Panama.
The information that follows is our personal opinion only. We provide the essentials of cruising; that means "where to find what you need when you are in new places". The information is sorted by category and we will give you data by location.
Pizazz, a Beneteau 500, has day-sailed along the Colombia coast four times: twice going west (in November 1997 and October 2000) and twice doing the impossible by going east (in early May 1999 and October 2005). Four trips have given us experience BUT we do not claim to be experts. Some people say "you shouldn't stop along that coast", including some guides that say your chances of survival aren't good. However, we believe there are more risks off-shore to your boat or your crew. This guide describes safe anchorages to rest and enjoy, wait for weather, and make repairs, if needed. You will see some beautiful spots along the coast and meet some very friendly people, or you can by-pass all the wonderful anchorages and go direct to Cartagena or the San Blas Islands. You make your choice.
Notes of Caution (a.k.a. "CYA")
All GPS readings vary slightly depending upon your equipment and selective availability of satellites, as well as input error. The GPS waypoints given in the previous parts of this guide are listed in degrees and minutes with hundredths of minutes (not seconds). These are waypoints for places to head towards or near anchor spots; they are not designed for you to connect-the-dots (do not go from waypoint to waypoint without checking your charts). People, USE YOUR CHARTS AND USE YOUR EYES!
Here are a few important factors to remember. One, be realistic and do not set a schedule that you cannot meet. Second, watch for the right weather windows (see WEATHER section below). Third, PREPARE YOUR BOAT AND YOURSELF for downwind sailing in heavy seas ó tacking downwind is easier on the rig; it helps prevent accidental gybes, broken booms and poles; and is often faster and more comfortable. Be careful. Going east will be primarily a motor sail.
Weather (the Most Important Issue)
The key to cruising the Colombia coast safely and comfortably is weather. This is especially important if you plan an off-shore passage but is also important for coastal cruising.
The entire Caribbean has two seasons: Wet Season is June through November; Dry Season is December through May. If you travel in the months between the seasons - late March through early June or late September through November - you are likely to have calmer conditions. Our four passages have been completed during the so-called "change of seasons".
Generally, the farther south you go, the lighter the winds. These 400 miles between Aruba and Cartagena are known for the worst weather conditions in the Caribbean and for being among the top five worst passages around the world. Over the years, sea captains have learned that this Colombia coast is prone to strong winds and abnormally large waves. Look at the Pilot charts for each month and you will easily see the few times when the conditions are calmer. So plan ahead and watch for calm predictions; and, always add a minimum of five knots to any forecasted weather.
The "weather gurus" almost always say to stay at least 200 miles off-shore (they base this not on weather but upon a fear of the coast). We have found that the conditions off-shore can be bad, resulting in stories of boats getting pooped, having torn sails and scared crews. By staying close to shore (within five to ten miles, or closer) you may experience some land effect on the weather, often beneficial for your cruising; at times it is possible to use the currents and counter-currents; and, as mentioned above, you can always stop for needed rest or repairs (not an option on an off-shore passage).
Part One of this updated guide, in the May 2006 issue of Compass, covered anchorages from Bonaire to Cabo de la Vela. Part Two, in the June issue, covered Anchorages from Five Bays to San Blas. Part Three, in last month's Compass, covered Clearance, Security and Services. See footnote at the end of this article for information on accessing the entire guide.
Your provisioning for food, beverages, etcetera will depend upon your cruising time between Trinidad and Panama. Trinidad is best for tins, dry goods, spicy foods, etcetera. In Venezuela, Margarita is a good place with good prices to re-stock, as the prices in the ABC islands are high although the selection is better. Puerto La Cruz is also a good place for grocery shopping. The prices are reasonable in Cartagena, Colombia, but selection is limited. The San Blas Islands have very limited supplies of everything. In Colon, Panama, the prices and selection are excellent.
There are several supermarkets: Cultimara is past the movie theatre; Tropical Flamingo is behind Napa Auto Parts; Bonaire Warehouse and the Cultimara Warehouse are farther along the road towards the airport. Most shipments arrive on Thursdays and most fresh stuff is gone by Monday. The Venezuelan veggie stand always has the basics. Selections always vary, but usually there are plenty of Dutch foods (particularly cheeses) and US goods.
One of the local markets provides a shuttle bus six days a week from behind Sarifundy's and twice a week from Seru Boca Marina. There are also several "warehouse" type stores on the island, best accessed by rental car. The Venezuelan veggie boats are docked northwest of the bus station, and there is a local veggie market next to the bus station. Curaçao is next best place after Margarita or Puerto La Cruz to re-stock with most of your favorite items.
There are four markets just north of Orangestad, easily accessible by bus from the hotel anchorage. There is a good selection of goods but you'll pay above US prices, as Aruba is a "holiday island" catering to American tourists.
The convenient Carulla supermarket is one block from Club Náutico and there's also a small Carulla market about a block from Club de Pesca. The Olympica store is next to Home Mart (a taxi ride from the marinas). Also, the market chains have locations all around town, both in the Old City and in Boca Grande. Prices are good on Colombian items, but selection is limited. Imported goods are over-priced.
For a stay in the San Blas, you need to bring almost everything you normally use. Some villages have small tiendas selling rice, flour, butter, some tinned goods, and basic veggies such as potatoes, onions, cabbage, and sometimes tomatoes; availability depends upon the arrival of the local veggie boat. In some anchorages, a few Kunas paddle out from their village to sell some veggies. Julian, an enterprising man, now provides almost daily or weekly grocery shopping service by boat to the islands near Nargana (Rio Diablo). You can even order special items from him.
Once you get to Colon on the Panama mainland, there are several very good markets close to the yacht club, or "warehouse" type stores via a bus to Panama City.
Stock up in the duty-free port of Margarita, Venezuela. Prices are higher everywhere else, except Panama. Fill up the bilges!
We have a few specifics and some general comments. Don't hold us to these prices (given in US$); they can, of course, change at any time.
Amstel, Heineken, and Polar beer are about $20 per case; wines are around $7 per bottle.
About the same as Bonaire.
Romar Trading (two blocks behind Kong Hing market) is a distributor. We got Chilean case wines for $3.50/bottle and mostly under $4.50 in supermarkets. Beer prices were the same as Bonaire and Curaçao.
Aguila beer is $11 to $13 per case. Wines and liquors are cheaper in the "contrabano district", yet wines were $6 or less and vodka was $9.
You can buy Balboa beer in Rio Diablo, or have it delivered to your boat, for $11 per case. However, the place to re-stock all alcoholic beverages is in Colon. The markets have decent prices (the same as or cheaper than Margarita) but the best prices are in the Free Zone in Colon or the Mega Depot store in Panama City. We have purchased beer for $8, wines for $2.50; rum for $3; and vodka for $5.
As almost everyone knows, Trinidad is the place to have marine parts shipped in. The next place to ship parts into is Curaçao, and then Panama. In between, there are some places to buy locally and shipping-in is more difficult or costly.
There is a small marine store at Harbour Village Marina. One block from the waterfront, you will find Napa Auto Parts next to Budget Marine. And, if you check around town, there are a few hardware-type stores.
If you look, you can find a few stores for basics. Most cruisers get things shipped in. There is a Napa store on the island and Budget Marine has a store next to the supermarket (which supplies the daily bus).
Very limited selection as this is a tourist island, not really a cruiser hangout.
There are a few "marine" parts stores but an unlimited supply of "auto" parts (12-volt) stores. The Home Mart or ServiStar are places to visit if you need tools, garden items, household goods, lamps, etcetera. MultiElectrico (on the side street across from Home Mart) can take care of alternator repairs and parts, bulb replacements, wires - virtually anything electrical. Ignacio Sierra (just over the bridge from Club de Pesca on Calle Larga on the right) is the place for nuts, bolts, screws, cutlasses, plumbing pieces, etcetera; if they don't have it, they will make it. There are many cruisers in Cartagena who have been there many years; they can direct you where to go for whatever you need.
There are some stores in Colon, but in Panama City you can find anything you need. Budget Marine has a store in Panama City and the manager, Marco, will even ship stuff to the San Blas Islands. (Pizazz bought a new outboard motor from Marco and he shipped it to us in the San Blas Islands before we were "officially" cleared in.)
The currency here is NAF (Netherlands Antillean Florin) which exchanges at 1.75 NAF per US$1. You can use US dollars here or your credit card (with no problems) and you get change in US dollars and NAF coins. The official exchange rate varies, of course, but ATM withdrawals or VISA advances from the bank give you a better rate than stores or restaurants. It's small island with several ATMs around.
The same situation as on Bonaire. Use up all of your NAFs here, as there are no other places to the west to use them.
Although part of The Netherlands, Aruba is no longer associated with the Netherlands Antilles. They have their own Aruba paper and coin florins and won't accept NAFs from Bonaire or Curaçao. However, the exchange rate is the same - 1.75 per US$1. As we mentioned before, Aruba is a tourist island, so ATMs are everywhere and all those tourists use credit cards (no credit card fraud that we know of).
The official currency is the Colombian Peso which was exchanged at over 2,300 per US$1 in October 2005. Some stores take US dollars but give you a lower exchange rate. Most places use a rate of 2000 per US$1 (as it is easier to calculate than 2300). Your best deal is withdrawal from an ATM; they are everywhere. If you have the time to wait in line, you can go inside the bank for VISA advances. Cruisers have used credit cards here with no bad experiences. When you are ready to leave, spend all your pesos (except some to spend at Islas Rosarios - the aquarium is 10,000 Ps per person; locals sell fish, lobster and necklaces).
The official currency is the US dollar although prices are quoted as being in "balboa". The paper money is US dollars and coins are the Panamanian "balboa" (which are exactly the same size and value as US coins).
Have lots of small-denomination US dollars for the San Blas. In the past, you could trade flour, sugar, coffee, toys, etcetera for molas; but nowadays they want those pictures of dead US Presidents. There are no ATMs, no credit card usage, no cash advances in the San Blas. However, those services are available in Colon and Panama City.
The scuba diving, which is spectacular, is the primary reason to stop here. If you are a diver, you will love it. If you snorkel, you will love it. The Marine Park has well-marked mooring buoys all along the coast and around Klein Bonaire for diving/snorkeling. These are well maintained and offer a variety of sites, all within a short dinghy ride. Since most tourists are on "dive holidays", there are many good restaurants but you will pay vacation tourist prices. There are restaurants at most of the dive resorts as well as many in town; all within walking distance. If you need a movie fix, there is a cinema but it costs US$8/person per movie. A rental car ride around the island is nice but the island is small and the drive only takes two or three hours.
The sight-seeing downtown is very nice; lots of colorful buildings. There are a few scuba dive sites just outside Spanish Water, within dinghy distance. Farther up the west coast there are a few dive site moorings (if you anchor up that way), or rent a car and visit sites by shore dives. There is a nice Seaquarium on Curaçao, but cruisers see those fish all the time. There are a few cinemas in Wilhemsted that show current movies. Rent a car to see the island and do some provisioning. Sarifundy's has a good restaurant and special happy hour on Monday and Thursday. In town, there are many eating places from fancy to McDonald's.
This "tourist island" has many expensive shops and restaurants. All the hotels have casinos. Aruba has many condo/timeshare resorts for all those tourists. Take a few hours to listen through the "sales talk" and you could get a rental car for two days or a $100 dinner certificate - just don't buy a timeshare! With the rental car you can see the island and do some provisioning. If you need a burger fix, there is a selection among Wendy's, Burger King, and McDonalds. And shopping galore! There is a cinema here that is expensive.
If you stop at Monjes, hike to the top for a tour of their radar station and view of "the rock". At other anchorages, walking the beach and snorkeling are the main activities; these are places to relax and catch up on reading. You will find small beach restaurants in the Five Bays. In Bahia Guayraca, Reynoldo will give you a tour of his archeological sites; he can also take you to Santa Marta or get you anything you need. Rodadero is a resort town with beach restaurants and water activities. Nothing else until Cartagena.
This is a great city. The Old Town (known as "Centro" to locals) is a fabulous place. The old buildings are now small stores, restaurants, and museums. It is very busy during the day - people all around selling everything. At night, take a taxi to see the sights and try all the wonderful restaurants. Lots of old forts to explore. Try a tour of the city and beyond. If you'd like a mud bath, visit the volcano outside the city. Shopping is good in Cartagena; you can find almost anything you need.
Club Náutico has a small, very reasonably priced restaurant (daily specials are the best: $1 for breakfast; $2.50 for lunch; $8 for dinner). There are many reasonably priced (around $10 for dinner; $5 or less for lunch) eating places within walking distance of Club Náutico. Check with other cruisers for their favorites. Some cruisers spend weeks or months in Cartagena and never cook a meal on their boat.
Get away from the big city and enjoy! The attraction here is the clear water for swimming and snorkeling, after the filthy stuff in Cartagena. The aquarium at the west end of the island group is a must-see for 10,000 pesos (less than $5). There are a few small hotels that will serve you a beer and/or a meal.
Not much here except clear clean water for great swimming and snorkeling.
SAN BLAS ISLANDS
These islands are a wonder in themselves. The Kuna villages to the east are "traditional" with only some outside influence. Each village will provide you with a different experience. These people are happy and friendly. Expect visitors to your boat, primarily to sell you molas, but the fishermen sell fish, crab and lobster. If you wish to have gifts for the people, bring candy for the kids; men always appreciate extra fishing hooks, etcetera; the women can use sewing needles, fabrics and reading glasses.
Now you have all the information you need for cruising the Colombia Coast. All you need to do is pull up that anchor. This is a great area to cruise that is still somewhat undeveloped and off the beaten path. We strongly recommend this coastal cruise before transiting the Panama Canal or heading to the Northwest Caribbean. It's not really a bad way to get to Trinidad from Panama.
We want to thank our fellow cruisers for their input and comments. We welcome e-mail messages at [email protected] with your questions, comments or requests for copies of this guide. We encourage everyone to pass on this "guide" to others behind you. If you are located in any of the popular cruiser spots, post this on a bulletin board. Write to us with your experiences and we will get them in the next update.
Have fun and enjoy this wonderful cruising area. All the best for a safe passage!
Pizazz's updated Cruising Guide for the Coast of Colombia is now available on the Caribbean Compass website www.caribbeancompass.com. Or anyone can write to Pizazz at [email protected] for Lourae and Randy to send it to you; the files are big, so you must have a land-based e-mail address to get all of the information.
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