Written by Patrick
When we left Santa Marta to embark on our road trip around Colombia all the friends we had made there were still planning their travels, but when we got back there was no welcoming committee – no gang of mates for us and the kids to retell our tales of great adventure to, as they were all off having their own adventures. So after cleaning ourselves, our clothes and trying to sort out the few jobs that needed sorting we decided to cut our losses and run to Cartagena. Santa Marta, much like most cities in the developing world I expect, has a system where each area specialises in a certain thing. Specific to the point of surreal, you go to the cheese area for cheese, or the shoe area for shoes, or the floor standing fan area for a – you guessed it….! So it should be simple enough to find a few items of chandlery before we left, right? Despite the most helpful people on Earth spending 2 full days trying to understand and assist the Spanglish speaking sweaty man they and he eventually agreed to go our separate ways, and we had to leave without spare gas bottles or the stainless steel bits we needed; but we did manage to get a mobile phone and make it work (for a bit!), buy and fit the necessary bits for filtered water, ready for collecting rainwater, and fix an SLR camera (don’t take them zip-lining), although I’ll never quite know how.
We found a good weather window (not much wind around this time of year – unlike usual, when we’re waiting for the wind to drop) in a few days time, so we popped up to Tayrona National Park for a night in the very beautiful and unspoilt Bahia de Concha to escape the heat, and then headed back to the city to stock up at the great Jumbo Supermarket, have a night out with our Norwegian friends on Kata Mi, and then fuel up and head….
We caught the weather perfectly, charging off on a broad reach at 8 knots so we could make it across the allegedly treacherous mouth of the huge Ria Magdelena in the daylight – it spits out fresh water and strange currents, large tree trunks and other unsavoury obstacles which we wanted to be able to avoid on our way past. Unfortunately Colombian Customs officials had other ideas. About 2 hours out of Santa Marta a high speed patrol boat called us up on the VHF, despite being within arms length, and demanded that we stop for officials and a sniffer dog to come aboard. We did what we were told and took down all but half the main, holding steady for them to come alongside. However, the swell and interesting manoeuvring were giving the poor pooch other ideas about abandoning his state of the art DRY motorboat for a bucking yacht with a very bedraggled looking crew. This reluctance spread to the officers, and we were instructed to return to Santa Marta to receive the boarding party. An hour or so later we were in calm enough water for two of the officials to make it on board. They did a very brief inspection, after which our lack of a common language and the insistence by the kids that they must bring the dog on board before they were allowed to get back on their boat sent them home to the safety of drug traffickers and people smugglers.
And so we set off again, with the wind dropping and darkness falling. What turned out to be a calm and uneventful sail at 6-7 kts got us to Cartagena for breakfast. We motored in as the last of the wind disappeared, past the Skyscrapers of Boca Grande and into the stifling heat of the inner harbour. The contrast of the old and new was striking as we anchored between huge glass towers to our west, and thick ancient stone walls to the East. We headed east.
The hoards of tourists piling into the walled city seemingly disappeared as we entered the cobbled streets and were immediately absorbed by the beautiful old colonial buildings, modern restaurants, impressive Plazas and Iglesias, and ICE CREAM. This first day in Cartagena set the trend, and we spent the next few days soaking up the great history which oozes out of your surroundings. We swatted up on Drake and his adventures in this part of the world. We should have left it there and scarpered with our English heads held high, but we decided to explore the mighty Castillo San Felipe, and discovered that after El Drago’s magnificent tactical assault, his successor, Sir Edward Vernon did less well. After Drake’s ransoming of the city, the Spanish reassessed their defences and rebuilt many of their Caribbean fortresses, including Cartagena, so when Vernon’s troops arrived in the mid 18th Century they were unsuccessful. The British overconfidence (still so often apparent on the sports field!) was our final humiliation. Admiral Vernon sent a message home to the Royal mint asking for a coin to be circulated proclaiming the victory before the battle had been won, and this is what is proudly displayed under the statue of the Spanish leader Don Blas at the entrance to the castle.
After the roasting hot days, the Getsemani area between the walled city and the castle was a great place to hang out in the cool evening. We loved being able to wander about the small streets, getting a cold beer from the corner shop and chatting to locals in Plaza de la Trinidad while the sounds of football-mad Colombia vs Peru were ricocheting around us from every bar and home – a fantastic atmosphere to be able to soak up.
And so we loved and left Cartagena. The heat of these Colombian Caribbean cities is something else in September and October, but much like the rest of the country, the people and atmosphere in these cities were just the right mix of exciting and welcoming, and more than made up for a few sweaty nights on board. Again, a weather window presented itself, and we continued south west towards the border town of Puerto Obaldia and our next country, Panama.
We got a last hurrah from Colombia as we picked our way across to the border between large and ferocious thunderstorms. The wind died within a few hours of our leaving Cartagena, and was soon replaced by the eerie calm interspersed with nerve-wracking thundery squalls as we motored through the night. We survived unscathed, and arrived in Puerto Obaldia in time to check in with the reluctant officials in this one horse town, who despite their reticence to deal with us still managed to relieve us of $450 before welcoming us into their country! But we had arrived, and despite one more rolly and thundery night in a not very sensible anchorage, we were very excited to be heading north again and into the Kuna Yala territory that we had first heard about over 12 years earlier….