Our Diary Colombia

Colombia, drug capital of the world - with bandits, armed to the teeth, at every corner; squalor everywhere; murder commonplace; kidnapping and extortion a way of life. Just the place to visit and spend some time! Fellow cruisers in Curaçao looked at us sideways, crossed themselves and whispered "They're going to cruise the coast of Colombia!" Most cruisers sail the 600 miles direct from Curaçao to San Blas Islands, Panama. Mountainous seas and gale force winds are commonplace and the trip is ranked amongst the worst five passages in the world.

Something seasoned cruisers learn - don't believe everything you hear at "Happy Hour"; make your own decisions; take your own counsel, and check the weather yourself. Go, have fun and take what you get. After all, those blank spots on the charts marked "uncharted" just beg to be looked at - and there are a lot of those around this neck of the woods!

So we finally escaped Puerto La Cruz - so pleased to be on our way that it brought tears of joy to Christine's eyes. First stop was at Los Tortugas - one of several groups of islands along the north coast of Venezuela. We spent a lovely few days exploring these island chains - and got weathered in at Les Aves along with Rob and Denise on Simplicity. During the strong winds, one of the local fishing boats got swept onto the reef - and watching the other fishing boats raise it and nurse it into the lagoon was a lesson in expert seamanship. Within 12 hours they had the boat re-floated and temporary repairs made to the hull. We were so impressed with their skill and hard work that we took them over a crate of beer to congratulate them!

Our next destination was Bonaire which we loved. It has a real "European" feel and was great after 4 months in Venezuela. The water was crystal clear blue and the snorkelling and diving superb. I partnered up with Charles from Blue Moon (Swiss) and we managed to go diving nearly everyday for ten days. The reef is great; colourful, lots of fish and safe and easy. Not since Cuba had we seen such good sea life. The whole of Bonaire is geared

up for diving with well-marked dive sites and easy entry from land or sea. Just diving off the boat provided spectacular snorkelling and diving - in fact, we often had divers from the Dive Schools swimming under the boat!

On Christmas Eve lots of cruisers got together and enjoyed champagne and nibbles at a local beach resort bar. Christmas Dinner was a fun "pot luck" ashore, and on Boxing Day we did a dinghy drift over to Klein Bonaire ending with a great snorkel and stroll along the beach. A lovely way to end our stay there.

Curaçao, the next island in the Netherland Antilles (just 30 miles away) was a lovely sail in lightish winds and sunshine, allowing us to get out the gennaker again. We entered the huge natural harbour of Spanish Waters mid-afternoon and met up again with the westward-heading group of yachts. New Years Eve was approaching and we were keen to checkout the party scene. Something was certain - with all the fireworks on sale and the street parties, the people of Curaçao go in for New Year in a BIG way.

Curaçao, the capital of the Netherland Antilles has all the benefits of Holland but in a tropical setting. As in Bonaire, the Dutch have maintained the colonial ambience with lots of traditional buildings. Its history and prosperity revolved around the slave trade and it was an important stopping point from Europe to Central and Southern America. (It was also a great place to plunder the Spanish treasure ships heading out of Cartagena.)

New Year is an important festival for the businesses and people of Curaçao. It is very much a family time and a time to drive out the "bad spirits" of the previous year and ensure that they do not spill over to the new. This is generally done using fireworks!! Throughout the build-up to New Year businesses held staff parties outside their buildings culminating with the encircling of the buildings with firecrackers and letting them off. 200,000 firecrackers were the norm, with some up to a million - deafening! And the next day all the streets were littered with the red paper remnants of the millions of fire crackers…

Our plan for New Year's Eve was to go to the cinema in the afternoon (a birthday treat for Keith and see Harry Potters latest), an early birthday meal then off to join the other cruisers at a local bar to celebrate New Year. This was foiled when we found out that everywhere is closed on 31st December - including most of the restaurants! So our celebrations were staggered over a few days - no bad thing. One day at the cinema, and the next evening a lovely meal with Brent and Tanya from Wild Wind.

Another Curaçao New Year tradition is the consumption of vast quantities of "Olie Bollen" deep fried sweet dough filled with fruit and spices. Lots of calories, but very more-ish. So, armed with a birthday cake and olie bollens, we headed for Der Klein Werelde, a local restaurant. Normal celebrations ensued and at midnight the fireworks!!!! The whole island exploded with rockets, firecrackers, etc., spectacular!!! It's said that the small island of Curaçao spends more on fireworks for New Year than the whole of Holland… that I CAN believe.

Celebrations over we started to make preparations for our trip to Cartagena, Colombia. The weather in this region is notorious; with a semi-permanent low just to the north, the wind is squeezed by the high pressure over the continent - 40 knot winds and high seas are the norm. Sailing tactics depend upon either going north around the low - or just waiting for good weather, which could be a long wait. We had heard that the land effects often keep the winds more moderate closer in shore but few people take this route from fear of the Colombian reputation - and no support from insurance companies who put Colombia off limits. One boat, Pizazz, had written an article about cruising coastwise to Cartagena and it sounded interesting. This is the route we decided to take.

We talked to many of the cruisers in Curaçao, trying to interest them in coming with us…but we were on our own. However Blue Moon was interested; Charles had Emanuel and Bigna on board as crew. They were on an extended holiday between college/jobs and were planning to back-pack around Equador. However, Charles decided to leave his boat in Curaçao and fly back to Switzerland to join Maria, his wife, skiing. Over a few beers we offered to take Emanuel and Bigna with us, which they readily accepted. With a strong crew and well-found boat we were now ready for the passage. (For the benefit of fellow cruisers who would like to follow in our footsteps I have included our waypoints in the text.)

We were late in leaving on January 4th and decided to head up the coast of Curaçao and anchor in Boca Santa Cruz overnight. This is a well-protected anchorage and easy to enter or leave, although we raced a little and motor sailed the last bit to beat the sunset, we anchored (12°18.37N, 69° 08.82W) in clear water in sand. We tried to get in closer but the bottom appeared hard. Keep to the left for deeper water. It was a lovely anchorage, with beach and bar - and a great way to start the trip.

Our departure was timed to coincide with a weather window of lightish easterlies - and to take advantage of this we left early the next morning. We set the gennaker in 8 kts of wind, however by midday the wind increased and before we could get the sail down a panel ripped from end to end. Back to the poled out genoa…

Our next planned stop was the lagoon at Sint Nicholaas, Aruba. We passed this at sunset. The anchorage was not inviting, surrounded by an oil refinery. The wind was 12 knots easterly and we were sailing nicely at 5 knots. It was only 60 miles to our next stop Monjes del Sur, so we decided to keep going. We settled down for our first night at sea; with four on board watches were easy and the weather was easy. We arrived at Monjes Del Sur at 9 am and were instructed to tie up to the jetty just below the Coast Guard station (12° 21.6N, 70° 54.2W). Again a lovely protected anchorage, between two islands linked by a causeway. It is a military/coastguard outpost of Venezuela. About 12 men spend 30-day rotations here - they are pleased to see you and, including the necessary form filling, are more than helpful. 20 minutes walk around the island (mostly rock) does it all, but the snorkelling in the bay is delightful. Lots of fish and many barracuda. The shore is littered with caves and you can snorkel into many of them. Christine took the opportunity to repair the gennaker on the quayside.

We left at sunset heading for the Colombian coast, planning to anchor at Cabo de Vela 80 miles away. Our tactic was to keep within the 100m contour to avoid the really big rollers. As it turned out we had a lovely night sail and ended up motoring when the wind dropped. The wind eventually increased a bit so with sails set we decided to bypass Cabo de Vela and to keep going to the Five Bays, a further 127 miles west. So we settled down for another day at sea. I just re-visited our log and the only comment was "another calm night watch". As we approached the Five Bays the wind started to strengthen to around 26 kts and the seas did get a little lumpy (about 3-4m). We checked out the first two bays but decided on the third, Guayraca Bay, anchoring at 4pm in 10 meters of water. A very pleasant sail.

The anchorage was in a lovely bay surrounded by mountains. A notable characteristic is the tremendous williwaws (katabatic winds) that come storming down through the mountain valleys with tremendous force around midnight. One such blow (of 40knots+) sent us dragging towards the shore; a little extra chain and we stopped (although Keith spent the night in the cockpit just in case)! The next morning we moved to the west side of the anchorage which appears to be the best spot. (11° 19.2N, 74°.06.5W).

We were now on Colombian soil. Sorry - no stories of bandits, no drugs - just ordinary friendly fisher folk. In fact, Guayraca Bay is a favourite holiday spot for Colombians and backpackers. It is in the heart of Santa Marta province - an area steeped in history. The surrounding mountains are littered with "lost cities" many only discovered in the last 30 years. This area was the centre of culture for South America and the builders of places such as Machu Pichu came to Santa Marta to learn their trade. Unfortunately the Spanish, in their thirst for gold, destroyed most of these towns and cultures.

We were greeted at Guayraca Bay by Reinaldo the local archaeologist/fisherman/lovable rogue. He showed us around and arranged a meal for us next to the Coast Guard station. There was very much a party atmosphere around and the generosity of everyone was great. Emanuel and Bigna spent an afternoon with some Colombians on the beach and came back a little shaky after trying the local beverages. In all we spent 3 days here just relaxing and playing cards. Bigna is an expert at a variety of Rummy which she taught us - great to add another game to the repertoire.

The wind that brought us in blew stronger and we were pleased to be where we were. (We later heard that Altair had anchored in Guayraca Bay and had bent their anchor in one of the Williwaws!) The wind eventually abated and the seas outside looked calmer so we headed out to move around the headland to Taganga, mentioned by a local as a good anchorage. This was only 10 miles away so, if conditions were bad, we could run for it. The wind was less than twenty knots so we had an easy sail - although the passage between the mainland and Isla De Aguja was a little hair-raising. Just keep to the island side of the channel and avoid the breakers in the centre!

Taganga is another holiday destination and is a great protected anchorage. A local fishing boat guided us in and indicated we should anchor off the Casa Blanca Hotel in 5m on a sandy bottom (11° 15.9N, 74° 11 7W). It is only a short bus ride to Santa Marta town if you wanted to stay longer. Our biggest difficulty was getting local currency. There is no market for US dollars and the only place to get pesos is from a bank. There is no bank in Taganga. Emanuel managed to persuade a businessman from Bogota in a powerboat to change US$10 so we could get a beer. A visit from the local Coast Guard boat reassured us that the area was well monitored and, apart from recording our boat details and crew list, we didn't need to formally check in. (Fortunately we were all on board at the time of their visit, and we still had our Q flag flying.)

With no cash there was little to keep us in Taganga. The next leg was across the mouth of the Rio Magdelena and then around the point to Punta Hermosa (65 miles). We left at 6.30am only to hear a call on the VHF radio from the Coast Guard (in English) asking us to delay our departure as there was a large tow in the vicinity. After a little discussion they agreed we could alter course to pass north and seaward of the obstruction. The wind and seas were a little stronger than we had been getting and we sailed under reefed main and genoa in 20 knots of wind. The seas were broadside around 2-3m. Off the light brown muddy river mouth, the chop got shorter but not unmanageable. As we crossed the west end of the river mouth there was an amazing demarcation line between the muddy waters and the blue Caribbean - it was as if someone had drawn it with a pencil.

We then turned south and headed for a lagoon, unmarked on the chart, and relying on Pizazz's waypoints. The sun was setting as we spotted the breaking waves and it soon became obvious that their waypoints were ambiguous. With Bigna and Emanuel on the bows we felt our way around the lagoon and entered on the south side. An easy entrance when you know how! Once inside the reef you can anchor any where although it does get shallow at the edges. We anchored in 5 m. in mud. (Our waypoints were: entrance 10° 56.4N, 75° 02.9W, reef edge 10° 56.3N 75° 02.7W (to be avoided!), anchorage 10° 56.6N 75° 02.2W.)

Again a protected anchorage. The lagoon is surrounded by "beach huts" with local bars and restaurants. Not a place to spend lots of time; there appeared to be some rogues on shore. We managed to change some money from "Jabba the Hutt" as we called him - a very large local bar owner who seemed to spend all day (and night probably) lording it in a hammock. We were asked "to pay our respects to El Jefe" before sitting in his bar. The beer was good and the food was better and a lot more than expected - but so was the bill! Heated negotiations with Jabba ensued and an agreeable settlement made (he accepted ALL our Pesos!). This was a good time to up anchor - before we had an unwanted visit for the rest of the payment! (All friendly enough, although we were later informed that it is still bandit territory).

The next leg was to Cartagena - another 60 miles west. We decided on an overnight passage to arrive mid-morning the next day. It was blowing easterly 20-25 kts so we sailed downwind under genoa alone. We left at 10pm and were anchored off Club Nautico by 9am the next morning. We were very pleased to have chosen the coastal route to Cartagena - the sailing was great and so were the people and the scenery. The boats in Cartagena who had done the "direct" trip all had horror stories to tell of 30-40 knot winds and 4-5 meter seas!

Cartagena is delightful. Another impressive Spanish Main city (the main three being Havana, San Juan and Cartagena) it has largely been untouched by urbanisation. The city walls, castles and churches are intact and many of the houses and streets haven't changed in 200 years. It is a very safe city to wander around in with many restaurants and bars and shops, and the streets are remarkably clear of rubbish. You can still get lunch for US$2, although the tourist restaurants are quite expensive. The anchorage is good and Club Nautico caters well for cruisers with water, showers, laundry and internet readily available. So far our experience in Colombia has been very positive and, in some ways, we feel a lot more comfortable here than in Venezuela.

We have taken the opportunity to catch up on lots of maintenance before heading towards San Blas, still populated by Kuna Indians. Then into the Panama Canal Zone, where the next chapter will begin.

Hope you have a great 2006.

Keith & Christine