For tens or even hundreds of years, Colombia has been a very dangerous country to visit, by land or by sea. In recent years, however, the bad reputation has lifted (Venezuela took over) and every day a constant stream of backpackers explores the region. Many cruisers follow suit, especially since Colombia is nicely on the way to Panama and its amazing San Blas islands. It is the perfect place to break up the long sailing trips west.
Cabo de la Vela, Colombia ©Liesbet Collaert
Cabo de la Vela
Cabo de la Vela on the northeastern tip of Colombia is the first decent anchorage when coming from Aruba and a great harbor to rest up after the 140 mile downwind sail. In our case, the massive, flat bay was a welcome sight after a slow day with little wind and confused seas, followed by an invigorating night full of squalls, a bumpy ocean, high speeds – and concentration. The hills looked attractive under the blue sky and on shore a small settlement housed fishermen living in hut-like structures. Even though we didn’t know it yet, we had gained an hour because of the different time zone. When 5pm came around (no cocktail this day, because we had another big trip the following morning) local boats full of people circled Irie and the two other cruising boats in the harbor for a curious look at the vessels and their crew. Some women even took pictures with their cell phones. For once, we were the subjects and not the other way around!
Christmas decorations in Santa Marta ©Liesbet Collaert
Santa Marta, 140 miles southwest of Cabo de la Vela, is a must stop for yachties. The safe and brand-new Santa Marta Marina with its friendly staff, clean facilities and state-of-the-art bathrooms and laundry room, offers affordable rates and is the place to be for a week (or, for many, much longer). The wonderful and vibrant historic center lies within walking distance and so do the modern supermarkets, colorful local markets, banks, money changers, restaurants and bars. A taxi throughout the city costs the equivalent of US$2 and buses drive to all other desired destinations. The beaches are quite unattractive, but you come here for the architecture, South American culture and fun atmosphere. The Christmas period is a great time to be in Santa Marta, which is also a perfect base to discover Cartagena and the rest of the country. It is possible to anchor in this busy port to rest up, but extended stays are not recommended.
Colorful street in the center of Cartagena ©Liesbet Collaert
Cartagena is the historical beauty of a battered and violence prone country and it has its forts, cannons and old walls to prove it. A stroll through the city encourages picture taking, gazing and enjoying. The churches are awe-inspiring, the parks and plazas offer an air of peace and contentment and are a great place to sit down on a bench and take in the scene (lively at night), and the many other restored buildings have you stumble over uneven sidewalks and bumping into other pedestrians from looking up and down, left and right too much. Street food is tasty and cheap and a walk over the walls is a must for couples in love… Castillo de San Felipe is an interesting destination with underground tunnels and good views. The only negative for a cruiser in Cartagena is the very dirty, rolly and busy harbor, where one has to drop the hook. To avoid this unattractive and uncomfortable anchorage, visiting the walled city from Santa Marta is an option. Cartagena and Santa Marta are both ports of entry and an agent is required to take care of paperwork and procedures.
One of the many picturesque churches in Cartagena ©Liesbet Collaert
Cholon, only 20 miles south of Cartagena, presents a totally different view of Colombia. It is a beautiful place to relax, swim off the boat again (finally) and explore all the little mangrove islands by dinghy. No big cities, smog, noise or discomfort here! There are a few more bays along the Colombian coast going southwest, but none are as calm or pretty as this one. Read a good book in the cockpit, plot your next course and prepare for the long journey to the magnificent San Blas islands with a good night’s sleep.
The anchorage of Cholon ©Liesbet Collaert