Thursday, December 5, 2013

Panama (2013)

We set out from Santa Marta, Colombia early on September 10th to make the 286 mile trip to the San Blas islands of Panama.  After watching the weather for several weeks prior, we came to the realization that there would be little sailing on this passage.  During this time of year, the trade winds just don’t make it this far west.   The best we could hope for was flat seas, a favorable current and a quick two day trip. 

We were able to maintain 6 knots for the first few hours, but then our speed started going down.  By noon, it was down to a measly 3-4 knots with a light 5 knot breeze right on the nose.  During the first night, there was a lightning storm off on the horizon.  It turns out this would be the case every night for the next three months.  Conditions would be generally clear and sunny during the day, and then as the sun was setting, thunderheads loomed overhead.   We were fortunate to miss most of them and their many lightning bolts, but it made every night watch more intense.

In preparation for this, we had our jumper cables attached to the shrouds and stays that we could drop in the water to help with the grounding, and we stowed our computer, spare GPS and handheld VHF in the oven.  In theory, the oven would act as a Faraday cage and protect those electronics if we were struck by lightning. 

Early the next morning, before the sun rose, we started to see a string of lights on the horizon in front of us.  This is a busy shipping route, with freighters coming across from the Panama Canal regularly, but these did not appear to be moving.  When the sun was up, we could see seven large warships lined up in front of us.  We passed each one, and they disappeared behind us, only to appear in front of us again a few hours later.  Several helicopters circled the boat, and a plane made a few passes as well.  We could hear them on the radio, and they were US warships.  One of them followed us for an hour or so, but never attempted to make contact on the radio.  

During our first 24 hours, we made only 89 miles.  By the second night, our speed was down even further to 2-3 knots thanks to a ten knot head wind and a little bit of swell that we were motoring into.  We started to wonder if our problems were due to countercurrent, or if the hull and prop were just really dirty from sitting in the marina for a month.  Andrew debated going overboard and giving the prop a quick scrub, but first we decided to stop the engine and see how strong the current was.  We coasted to a stop and then started drifting NE at 2 knots.  The problem was definitely the current and a quick calculation showed that we would be well short of the San Blas islands before running out of fuel.  The forecast showed more of the same, and we wouldn’t be able to make any headway under sail with a light headwind and two knots of current against us.  So we decided to alter course and make a detour to Cartagena, 53 miles away in the wrong direction. 

The next morning we were just outside Cartagena at sunrise.  Rather than go all the way around Isla de Tierra Bomba, we decided to take a 12 mile shortcut to the inner harbor by going between the island and Bocagrande.  This route involves going over a one-mile long undersea wall that was built between the two land masses in the 18th century to protect the city from siege.  Ships still can’t go over the wall, but shallow draft vessels can pass over it in a certain area.  It made us a little nervous, but as we went over it, the depth sounder never showed less than 10 feet.  A few days later we met some sailors that attempted to go over it in a boat with only six inches deeper draft, and they hit the wall twice before turning around and going around Isla de Tierra Bomba. 

Since we had been to Cartagena a few weeks before, we were relatively familiar with the harbor and had a general idea where to take on fuel.  We hoped that since we had already cleared out of the country, they wouldn’t ask to see our papers at the fuel dock.  It would have been really annoying (and expensive) if we were stuck in Cartagena for a week just clearing in and out so we could take on fuel.  Fortunately, nobody asked, and we filled up and headed out.  Less than an hour later, we were clear of the undersea wall and again on our way to the San Blas islands.

Just outside Cartagena, more warships dotted the horizon.  We passed through a group of four much smaller ships, and later that afternoon they hailed us on the VHF.  This time it was the Colombian Coast Guard who was apparently doing exercises with the US Military.  They told us to clear the area as another fleet of warships would be passing through in a few hours.  We told them that the 3.5 knots we were going was our maximum speed, but we would keep a look out. 

The next day, Andrew spotted a suspicious looking boat on the horizon, towing a dinghy behind.  We became especially concerned when it passed by a couple hundred feet away and then turned around to follow us.  We had read about some very crudely built wooden boats that are used by the Colombians to trade with the Kuna Indians in San Blas, and thought maybe it was one of those.  We increased the RPM’s a little and kept on eye on them.  The boat seemed very heavy and we thought maybe we could outrun it, but they were towing a big dinghy with an outboard.  This seemed especially strange since we were over a hundred miles from land.  It was a stressful few hours, but eventually they disappeared on the horizon behind us. 

It took twice as long as planned, but after four days, the San Blas islands were in our sights.  This archipelago stretches 110 miles along the coast of Panama.  There are 378 islands in the group, of which only 49 are inhabited.  They are beautiful low lying islands with white sand beaches, and we were happy to be there.  Our first stop was in the Holandes Cays, where we dropped the anchor in ten feet of crystal clear water surrounded by little islands on all sides. 

Shortly after we were settled, a couple of Kunas paddled up in their ulu (dugout canoe), to sell lobster (5$) or fish (2$).  Fresh lobster for lunch is a great way to celebrate a landfall.  The Kunas come out from the mainland, or other inhabited islands in the area to pick coconuts, fish or collect conch, lobster, crabs and other seafood.  They arrived in the area several hundred years ago when they fled from mainland Panama during the Spanish invasion.  The territory they now occupy, which also includes the rainforest along the coast is called Kuna Yala, and although it is officially part of Panama, it is ruled autonomously by the Kuna Indians. There are about 50,000 of them, and they live mostly the same way they have for many years. 

In addition to the men selling their catch of the day, women would paddle out to sell molas.  The word mola means clothing in the Kuna language, and the blouses the women wear are made by cutting and sewing different layers of cloth together.  Each color in the design is made from another piece of cloth and some of the ones we saw would have seven or eight layers sewn together.  They now sell these mola panels to tourist, and they would come and lay them out all over the decks so we could see them. 

In our first anchorage, we met Gene and Celia aboard Last Laugh, who we enjoyed hanging out with.  Gene showed Andrew how to clean conch, which we had never done before, and made a really good ceviche with it.  There was plenty of conch in the various anchorages, or you could buy it from the Kuna’s for a couple dollars. We bought one and made some delicious conch tacos, although cleaning these bizarre looking slimy creatures can be very messy. 

a Kuna using a machete to crack open the conch, which we cooked for dinner
A few days later, we were happy to see our friends aboard Vanish as we pulled into the Coco Bandero Cays anchorage.  We met Maynard, Vicki, and Mike in Colombia, and had hoped we would see them again in the islands.  Vanish is a 76 foot motor yacht, and they were kind enough to host us for dinner and drinks in the refreshing air conditioned cabin.  They also replenished our depleted water supply with 30 gallons of water from their water maker, which meant we could stay and play in the islands longer than we had planned.

During our time in the San Blas, we anchored in five or six different spots.  It is definitely the quiet time of year here, and we often had anchorages to ourselves.  It was nice to have some swinging room during the squalls when the winds picked up.  The lightning was a daily feature, but thankfully only a few squalls brought scary lightning bolts and deafening cracks of thunder where we cowered down below hoping we would not be hit.  One boat was hit in an anchorage near us, but they didn’t have any damage.

There were so many reefs and places to snorkel here that we never hit the same spot twice.  There was some impressive coral, but like most of the Caribbean that we saw, not many fish.  We did see lots of rays though, especially our favorite, the spotted eagle rays which were all over the place. 

After ten days in San Blas, we went to the island of Porvenir to officially clear into the country.  We heard that clearing immigration and getting a cruising permit was much easier and cheaper than on the mainland.  After we cleared in, we headed to our last island of Chichime, which was the only crowded anchorage we saw while there.  We wanted to check out the island, but rowing in the choppy conditions didn’t sound appealing, so we just snorkeled around the reefs instead.  We waited for a couple days for it to clear up, but the winds just kept building.  Reefs or islands surrounded us on all sides, and we weren’t sleeping well at night in the tight anchorage.  Instead of spending another night, we decided to pull up anchor late that afternoon and sail through the night to Colon.  We only spent two weeks in the islands, but it seemed like enough.  It was a beautiful place, but there are only so many nights we need to spend worrying about lightning strikes. 

We made the 71 mile sail to Colon through the night and actually had nice sailing for part of the trip.  Our eyes were glued to the horizon, as there were countless ships passing by.  By sunrise, we could see around 50 freighters anchored outside Colon Harbor, Latin America’s busiest port, waiting for their turn to go through the canal.  We passed through the entrance to the Cristobal breakwater and into the Shelter Bay Marina, where we would spend a week before going through ourselves. 

Our biggest priority in Shelter Bay was preparing Saviah for her transit of the Panama Canal.  We had a few projects we wanted to do, but first we needed to start the process for the transit.  It is possible to handle all of the paperwork yourself or you can hire an agent to do it.  Doing it yourself can be frustrating and time consuming, as you have to run around to various offices in town, waiting in long lines and dealing with taxis and busses.  We decided to use an agent and had a recommendation from some other cruisers for a good one.  

On Monday morning a guy came out from the admeasurer’s office to fill out the paperwork and measure Saviah.  Our agent was also there, and the two of them gave us a rundown of what the transit would be like and answered our questions.  We also set a date for the transit which we decided would be one week out, which would give us plenty of time to get ready. 

The week was spent working on boat maintenance and replacing our navigation lights, and some engine maintenance.  Andrew went aloft to inspect the rig, clean the mainsail track and replace a spreader light.  We also cleaned out our water tank, topped off our propane tanks and made some trips into town to provision for the next few weeks.  The marina is a bit removed from everything on the other side of the canal, but they provide free daily shuttles into Colon, and drop you off in a shopping center and pick you up a few hours later.  This made it easy to get groceries and supplies for a few projects. 

The marina also had a nice air conditioned lounge where we could escape the heat and spend some time on the computer doing research for our trip up the coast.  There was nice group of cruisers there, fitting out their boats in preparation for various destinations, and we enjoyed hanging out with them and swapping stories in the evenings.  Our week there flew by, and on Monday afternoon, it was time to head out. 

Our agent came out to the marina and brought us eight big fenders and four 125-foot long lines that are required for the passage.  We also met our line handlers, Jose, Miguel and Reggie.  During the transit you are required to have four people to handle lines and one to drive, so we needed an additional three people to go with us.  Reggie was a local cab driver who had done the transit many times before, and the other two were young guys with not much experience.  Our agent did the clearance paperwork for us and with our Zarpe in hand, our little over crowded boat headed out of the marina. 

From the marina, we motored over to the Flats anchorage and dropped the hook around 3 pm.  Our tentative time to start through the locks was 4 pm, but first a launch would arrive to drop off yet another person, as if we had any more room on Saviah.  That additional person is the pilot, who provides instruction to us and communicates with the lock personnel throughout the transit.  There was another sailboat in the anchorage waiting with us, which we were happy to see.  It was the Swiss boat, Olimir, and having them there would make our transit a bit easier.  Since there were two of us, we would be rafting together while going through the locks.  This meant we would go through in the center of the chamber, which is preferable to the other options, tying off to the wall or to a tug.  It also meant handling only two lines per boat instead of four and that we could use our engines together, providing more maneuverability in the chambers.  

Around 5 pm, Reggie noticed the launch heading in our direction and told us to start pulling up the anchor.  This turned out to be rather difficult.  We were anchored in water 40 feet deep, which is much deeper than we prefer since we don’t have a windlass.  Andrew went up to the bow to pull in the 150 feet of chain.  The first 50 feet was easy, but after that it was covered in thick slimy mud which made it really slippery and messy.  It took about ten minutes to get it up and by the end of it, the bow of the boat and Andrew were covered in mud. 

Our pilot boarded Saviah during this process and after the anchor was up, we motored towards the Gatun Locks.  The Gatun locks are the first set on the Caribbean side and raise vessels a total of 84 feet between three chambers.  On approach to the first chamber, we came alongside Olimir and tied together bow and stern lines and a couple spring lines as well.  A big ship led the way and pulled to the front of the chamber, with our nested boats following slowly behind. 

These big ships are tied with a cable to locomotives on either side of the chamber, and they pull them through.  For small boats like us that are going through center chamber, we run long lines from the bow and stern to cleats at the top of the chambers on each side.  In order to get the lines there, the lock employees throw messenger lines down to us from up on the chamber wall as we are approaching.  These lines have monkey fist knots on the end, which just add weight for heaving purposes.  After they have tossed them onboard, we tie them to our much stronger lines, which they bring back up and wrap around a cleat.  You have to pay attention when these lines are being heaved, as you don’t want to be hit with a monkey’s fist.  We also covered our solar panels, so they wouldn’t get broken if they were hit. 

By the time we reached the locks, the sun was setting, and we were glad to have our new working running lights.  With our lines secure, they closed the massive lock doors, and water flooded into the chamber.  There is a bit of turbulence from the nearly 27 million gallons of water that come into the chamber, but our line handlers did a good job of keeping the boats steady.  Most mishaps occur from this turbulence, especially on the way up, but since we had four line handlers on board for two lines it was easy to keep the boat in-place and bring in the lines as the water level went up. 

After the water level rose, the forward gates opened, we brought in the lines and motored forward to the next chamber.  We passed by a building on the center wall with a big sign commemorating the centennial anniversary of the locks next year.  The US Government starting building the locks in 1903 and the first boat transited in 1914.  It took over ten years to build it, at a cost of almost $400 million and the labor of 75,000 men.  Over 27,000 lives were lost in the process of building it due to accidents and disease, although 80 percent of these were during the first attempt by the French some years earlier.  Since its opening, 900,000 ships have passed through.  The canal was owned and operated by the US Government until it was transferred to the Republic of Panama on December 31, 1999.   

All went well with the first three locks, and by 8 pm, we were in Gatun Lake.  Since our top speed is only 6 knots, we would have to do the transit over two days.   Once we were in the lake, the pilot directed us to the mooring where we would tie up for the night, and then the launch pulled up alongside to pick him up.  We tied both boats up to this large mooring ball with a web of lines, which would have been a disaster if we had a big squall in the night.  The three line handlers remained on board for the night, and we cooked dinner for everyone and went to sleep around 10 pm.  Five people are way too many for little Saviah in the tropics, and it was cramped and hot. 

The next morning, a new pilot arrived at 7 am, and we were underway again.  It was 28 miles to the next set of locks, and the pilot informed us that we needed to be there by 11 am, meaning an average speed of 7 knots was necessary.  We told him we wouldn’t be able to make it, but thanks to some favorable current, we were able to maintain enough speed. 

The first part of the trip that morning was the 20 mile crossing of Gatun Lake.  This is a man-made lake that extends most of the way across the isthmus and was formed by erecting a dam across the Chagres River. The watershed around the lake is a diverse ecosystem with lots of animals, including crocodiles, sloths, monkeys and jaguars.  There are also many species of birds as well, and we saw a dozen toucans flying around one of the islands.

The pilots that provide instruction throughout the transit are employees of the canal that do this as a side job on their days off to make a little extra money.  The first day our pilot was a tug operator and on the second day, we had one of the security guards.  We really liked both of our pilots, who doubled as tour guides and gave us all sorts of information about the locks.  They told us a bit about the history and the major expansion that is currently underway. 

Right now, there are two sets of locks on either side, and they are building a third, which is supposed to open in a couple years and is estimated to cost over $5 billion to build.  As ships are getting bigger, they are trying to keep up, and the new one will have lock chambers that are 1,400 feet long, 180 feet wide and 60 feet deep.  These big ships pay according to their tonnage, and the cost of the transit for many of them is several hundred thousand bucks.  We thought the $800 required for Saviah was steep.

It took a few hours to get through the lake, passing by all sorts of ships coming the other direction, including huge car carriers, cruise ships and tugs that threw up a 5 foot wake.  After the lake is the Gaillard Cut, which is where most of the excavation took place during the building of the canal.  This narrow section stretches for seven miles before reaching the Pedro Miguel locks, where we arrived right on time at 11 am.  We went alongside Olimir again and tied up to get ready for the next lock transit.   

Everything went smoothly for our first down lock, and we came out on the other side to Miraflores Lake.  We stayed tied up as we motored through this small man-made lake and then headed into the Pedro Miguel Locks.  Again, we had it easy while the line handlers tended the lines and the water level began to lower. 

The last lock is the highest, due to the more extreme tidal variation in the Pacific Ocean, and we were a little nervous as this is where most incidents happen from turbulence.  We almost had an incident when the door was opened, the water was swirling around and the lock employees untied only three out of four of our lines.  After the lines are off, you want to get them onboard quick and get the boats moving to get steerage.  We were just sitting there starting to drift sideways as they realized the mistake and slowly walked over to let the last one go.  Fortunately we were able to straighten the boats out using the engines together.  It would have been a bummer to end the transit with the bowsprit getting slammed into the wall. 

After we motored through the last gate, we untied from Olimir and breathed a huge sigh of relief.  We were excited to have completed the transit without issue and be back in the Pacific again, 15 months after leaving it.  We motored out into the canal and after the launch boat picked up the pilot, we pulled off to the side near the Balboa Yacht Club, where another launch picked up our three line handlers and all the lines and fenders that we borrowed from our agent. 

We made our way to the Flamenco Marina, where we topped off our fuel tanks and then around the corner where we dropped the hook in the Las Brisas anchorage in front of the huge skyscrapers lining the waterfront of Panama City.  We had originally planned on staying a couple nights and making a trip into town, but there was stiff breeze in the bay and way too much chop for us to row to shore against.  So we spent one night at anchor and the next day, October 9th, we headed up the Pacific coast, unsure of our next destination.    

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Colombia (2013)

On July 29th, we bid farewell to the Dutch Caribbean and set our course for Santa Marta, Colombia.  The 300 mile passage is known for being a tough leg, with trade winds often blowing 25-30 knots and rough seas.  The forecast called for two days of easterly winds at 20 knots, and increasing again after that, so we decided to go for it and sail as far as possible before conditions deteriorated.   Some people are concerned about pirates due to the close proximity of Venezuela, but the rough sea conditions usually make attacks very unlikely.   

The trip started off with nice sailing wing-on-wing in 15-20 knots, but it quickly built to 20-25 knots.  We dropped the main and sailed under poled-out jib alone, and Saviah flew along at 6.5 knots.  We watched the seas steadily build from eight feet to twelve feet during the first night, and by day two they were up to 15 feet.  During this stretch, we encountered the biggest seas we’ve seen yet, with several 25-30 foot waves rolling through every hour.  Fortunately, they were long period waves and weren’t breaking.  We did get the occasional wave that would come out of the north and hit us on the quarter, bringing hundreds of gallons of water over the cabin top and into the cockpit. 

Conditions finally began to moderate during the second night, and by dawn, the Colombian mountains were visible.  As we neared Cabo de la Aguja, the winds dropped to 10 knots, the seas calmed and our speed slowed significantly.  By noon on day three, we sailed into the calm waters of Bahia Santa Marta.  Landfall is always a high, but especially after a rough passage!

Most cruisers who visit Colombia seem to make one stop in Cartagena, the beautiful colonial city 100 miles further down the coast.  Although we wanted to visit Cartagena, we had been warned that it is a less than ideal place to visit by boat.  Many cruisers reported that the water in the anchorage is filthy and foul smelling, the holding is lousy, and the hot and humid air can turn the cabin into a sauna.  We also heard that the marinas there are subpar and really expensive to boot.  Santa Marta on the other hand has an almost new marina at very reasonable prices, and this seemed like a good base for some land travel.

We were happy about our decision as soon as we arrived.  The marina was very nice with all the amenities, including an air-conditioned lounge where we could use wi-fi and a small store on-site.  They had really friendly staff and armed guards patrolling 24/7.  On our arrival, one of the marina staff arranged for an agent to come out to the boat to handle the clearance formalities for us.  Colombian regulations require the use of an agent, and they charge around $100 for the service.  Later that day, Jose and Rafael came out to the boat to collect our papers and passports. 

Santa Marta isn’t really a tourist destination.  It’s a bustling port city with a population of about half a million people.  It is the oldest city in Colombia, established in 1525, but unfortunately the structures were not preserved, like some of the other colonial cities in the country.   There are supposed to be some beautiful beaches on the outskirts of the city, but we’ve seen plenty of beaches and opted to hang out in town. 

Since food was generally inexpensive and it was often too hot to cook, we ate many meals ashore.  There were dozens street vendors selling empanadas and other fried food really cheap, including Andrew’s favorite, a ball of mashed potatoes, stuffed with rice and meat and then fried.  Juice stands were also very busy in the heat, making all kinds of refreshing cold drinks.  One thing we found a little unusual is the popularity of soup in the restaurants.  Although they were quite tasty, the idea of eating hot soup when the air temperature was so hot was not appealing. 

It was affordable to get around town, with a taxi ride costing 5,000 pesos (about $3).  It was the same price to go around the block as it was for a 30 minute ride across town.  So we took some trips around town to see the central Mercado, where the outdoor stalls have everything for sale, from meat and vegetables to auto parts.  The cheap taxis also made it easy to reach the big mall, which had a nice grocery store and a big home improvement store where we found supplies for a few boat projects.

Santa Marta
After five days in the country, a customs official finally showed up at the boat to do an inspection and complete the final paperwork.  At that point, we were clear to do some traveling inland.  Although Colombia has a reputation for being a dangerous place, the situation in the country has improved significantly over the last decade and in most places, as long as you’re careful, it is generally safe to travel.  So we decided to see some of the country and started off with a short trip to Minca, a small village in the nearby Sierra Nevadas at almost 2,000 feet of elevation. 

The cheapest way to reach Minca was via a collectivo, which is basically a shared taxi that leaves when the car is full.  So, we made our way to the central mercado and waited for the next available one.  Ten minutes later, the driver had enough people to make it worth the trip, and six of us piled into a small five-seater car.  It was a sweaty and bumpy hour on the partially paved road into the mountains.  The driver seemed to be trying for a new personal speed record while swerving from one side to the other to avoid potholes, but we somehow made it in one piece. 

Only a few years ago, Minca was occupied by a paramilitary group and occasionally the FARC guerrillas before that.  They left in 2006, and now it is a scenic little village with temperatures at least 10 degrees cooler than Santa Marta.  We spent three days there relaxing at a hostel, Casa Loma, high on the hillside.  Getting to the hostel involved climbing 200+ steps, but the rustic place was charming and had great views all the way back to Santa Marta and the ocean beyond.  The showers were only one temperature which was ice cold, but we quickly learned to take them right after the climb up the stairs and then it was quite refreshing.  The owner of the hostel was very helpful, and there was a good group of international backpackers there that we enjoyed hanging out with in the evenings. 

We spent our days exploring the area, walking through the village and visiting some of the nearby waterfalls.  There was one viewpoint where you can see the snowcapped mountains in one direction and the sea in the other, but it was a long uphill walk along the road.  Rather than spend an entire day getting there and back, we decided to hire moto taxis for the way up and then just walk back.  We both hopped on the back of a motorcycle, which turned out to be an adventure in itself, as the drivers navigated the bumpy dirt roads.   The view wasn’t great due to the clouds, but the walk back was nice. 

On the way back down, we stopped by a coffee plantation, which turned to be the highlight of the trip to Minca.  Although this is a long way from the main coffee growing region in Colombia, there is a small plantation here called La Victoria, which started in 1892.  We just showed up and one of the employees took us on a tour.  Although the coffee beans wouldn’t be harvested for a few months, she showed us around the facilities and how the process works. 

All of the beans on the plantation are hand-picked.  They then go through a series of machines that are powered completely by the water flowing down the mountain in the nearby river.  After the beans are deposited into the first machine, they don’t need to touch them until the end of the processing.  The flow of the water brings the beans from one machine to the next and even sorts them by weight.  These machines are now almost 120 years old and still work the way they did when they were originally installed.  The water also flows through an old generator, which provides enough electricity for the facilities and all 20 of the homes on the plantation.   After the tour, we hiked up the plantation road to see the coffee plants, fruit trees and the little houses built into the hillside where the employees live. 

Back on the boat in Santa Marta, we worked on planning a longer trip inland to see more of the country.  For trips covering a long distance, it costs the same to fly as to take a bus and would save us about a day of travel time. So we booked flights and rooms at a few hostels, and on August 9th, we started a 16-day trip with a flight to Bogota, the capital and largest city in Colombia with over 8 million residents.  The city is at an elevation of 8,600 feet, and it was refreshing to step off the plane into the cool mountain air.  We actually needed jackets for the first time in a while. 

At the airport, we piled into a cab and headed into downtown.  On the way in, traffic slowed, and we came to a stop on the highway.  Our cab driver quickly leaned over and locked all of the doors.  It was a reminder that we would have to be a bit more careful during this part of the trip.  Although Bogota has made some big improvements from the 90’s, when it was considered to be one of the most violent cities in the world, it still has a way to go.  We were told not to have a camera out in plain sight and while we were there, we didn’t see another tourist with an expensive camera around their neck. 

We stayed and spent most of our time in Bogota in the La Candelaria neighborhood near downtown.  Bogota is an old city, founded in 1538, and this neighborhood is one of the oldest, as well as the location of most of the cultural activities and sites.  There are some well-preserved homes over 300 years old, as well as some really good museums.

La Candelaria neighborhood, Plaza de Bolivar, guards at president's mansion
We spent several days walking around this area and seeing the sites.  There are some beautiful old buildings, especially around the Plaza de Bolivar, including churches dating back to the 16th century.  This is also where many of the government buildings are located, one of which is the Casa de NariƱo, the home and office of the president.  As we strolled around this area, we were obviously doing something wrong, but couldn’t figure out what the machine gun wielding guards were telling us.  Eventually we learned that visitors are only allowed to walk in the street around the capital, not on the sidewalk. 

During our stay in Bogota, it rained every day and was quite chilly.  It felt like Seattle in the fall, which was a nice change from the heat down on the coast.  None of the buildings had heating, including our hostel, but that was ok since we had eight blankets on our bed. 

One of the first things that a visitor notices in Bogota is the graffiti, which is everywhere.  Not just tagging of walls either, but huge murals on buildings.  There was an advertisement for a graffiti tour in our hostel, so we signed up.  It turned out to be the most interesting things we did in Bogota.   

The tour was led by an Aussie named Christian who called himself a “street artist” and moved to Bogota a few years earlier because of the lax graffiti laws in Colombia.  He took us on a walking tour where we went through various streets while he explained all about street art.  He told us about the various kinds of graffiti from the hoodlums that do tagging, to the individual artists and big crews that do murals.  Some people do freehand spray painting, or use brushes and quite a few actually use stencils, from poster cutouts to computer images projected onto a wall.  Some of the stuff is political, some goofy cartoons and now they even have rogue advertising, where businesses actually pay people to spray paint their product logos on the side of a home or business. 

Graffiti is not permitted in Colombia, but not really considered a crime either.  Occasionally these guys will be stopped by the police and asked to pay a small fine (more of a bribe), or possibly spend the night in jail.  But this is rare and usually they aren’t bothered by the police at all.  Many of the building owners don’t want their walls tagged, so they ask local artists to paint murals.  Generally, once a mural is up it won’t get painted over or tagged, so this is preferable to them.  Many of the local people are quite proud of the street art, and artists come from all over the world to paint here. 

Another popular tourist attraction in Bogota is a trip up Monserrate peak, which towers over the city at 10,341 feet.  On the top is a church with a statue of the Fallen Christ dating from 1650.  Lots of the locals make the pilgrimage up to see the statue, which sits at the altar of the church, and it was quite crowded when we went up on a Saturday.  You can walk up to the top, which involves going up 1,500 steps or just take the cable car up for a small fee.  Since there have been reports of attacks and robberies on this trail, we decided to just take the easy way up via the cable car.  We spent an hour at the top walking around and checking out the various statues and well maintained gardens and enjoying the views of city below. 

After three days in the big city, we were ready to move on.  We took a nice big air conditioned bus for the first few hours to the city of Tunja and then switched to a smaller crowded bus for the last hour to Villa de Leyva.  At 7,000 feet of elevation, the temperature here was about perfect. 

Villa de Leyva was established in 1572.  There are less than 10,000 people in this well preserved colonial town with cobblestone roads and whitewashed buildings.  It was a pleasant change from Bogota.  The local people were very friendly, and there is little to no crime.  It was nice to break out the camera and not have to constantly look over our shoulder.

We did a lot of walking around to check out the town and stopping to eat baked empanadas and drink tinto (local coffee).  There was also a short hike that we did a few times up a nearby hill with great views of the surrounding countryside.  We spent much of our time sitting in the Plaza Mayor, just people watching.  This is the largest town square in the Americas.  The church on the plaza, Iglesia Parroquial, was built in 1608 and still has mass on most days.  It is kind of an unusual plaza in that it is completely open, no benches or trees, just a single fountain in the middle.  It was a popular place for the locals to hang out at night and a good place to fly a kite on the weekends.  The square is the hub of activity, with something different going on every time we passed through. 

Four days flew by, and we were on the road again.  After the bus back to Tunja, we switched to another big luxury bus for the four hour trek up to San Gil.  Unfortunately, we were the last ones to board and had to take the only two open seats in the very back by the toilet.  This did afford us front row seats to some engine repair, when one of the employees came back with a wrench and screwdriver and removed a large floor panel, part of which was under Andrew’s foot.  A big wave of hot air hit us when the panel came off, and there was the engine, and the highway below, going by at about 50 mph.  The guy hung down with his tools, made some adjustments and put the floor panel back like it was no big deal.  Not sure exactly what he was doing. 

From San Gil, we took another small bus to Barichara, arriving seven hours after leaving Villa de Leyva.  Barichara is another beautiful colonial city.  It was founded in 1705 and many of the buildings look like they were just built.  This is a town of about 7,500 people.  It was starting to warm up again as we moved down to about 4,400 ft of elevation, and it was hot walking around on the hilly streets.  The cobblestone streets here were different than Villa de Leyva, as they were made from big rectangular boulders.  It is hard to imagine how long it must have taken to build those roads.    

streets of Barichara and Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepcion
While in Barichara, we did the five mile walk on the historic El Camino Real.  This is stone-paved road that was built by the indigenous Guane people centuries ago.  It goes from Barichara, down the rim of a canyon and then through the valley to the village of Guane.  After we arrived, it only took about 20 minutes to walk every street in the tiny village.  We were happy to discover a bus going back to Barichara, so we didn’t have to make the uphill trek back. 

El Camino Real and Guane
In Barichara, we stayed at a new hostel on the outskirts of town that is owned and recently built by a Frenchman.  Some of his friends from France, who were involved in music and theater, had spent the last month in Barichara, teaching some of the local children about music and theater and doing some performances.  We were lucky enough to see some of the performance and spend time with them at the hostel, which was certainly a highlight of our stay there.  The last night we were there, they had a grande fiesta, where many locals turned out bringing their musical instruments and dancing until the wee hours.    

After four days in Barichara, we were back on the bus for a four hour trip to Bucaramanga.  This is a bustling city of about a million people, where we spent one night before catching an early flight the next morning.  After a quick stop in Medellin to change planes we arrived in Cartagena de Indias, the last stop on our trip and by far the most popular tourist destination in Colombia.

Cartagena is a beautiful, well preserved colonial city with a rich history.  It was founded by the Spanish in 1533 on what was the former location of the indigenous Caribbean village called Calamari.  There was much gold here to be plundered from the indigenous people and the city grew fast because of this.  It quickly became the main Spanish port on the Caribbean coast, serving an important role in the administration and expansion of the Spanish empire.  It was also the place where this newly found treasure was stored until it could be shipped back to Spain. 

Because of these stockpiles of treasure, Cartagena became a very tempting target for pirates, including Sir Francis Drake who sacked the port in 1586.  In response to these attacks, the Spanish needed to protect the town and built several forts and surrounded the town in Las Murallas, thick walls stretching eight miles around the city that took almost two centuries to build. 

Today, Cartagena is still a major port and an important city on the Caribbean coast.  There are around a million people in the city, which is an interesting contrast between the old town inside the wall and high-rise buildings and luxury condos that stretch to the south in the area of Bocagrande.  The old town is well preserved and a big part of that is because after a big fire nearly wiped it out in 1552, the only building materials that are permitted are stone, brick and tile. 

Just outside the walled city is the Castle of San Felipe de Barajas.  This is the greatest fort that the Spanish ever built in their colonies and it sits on nearby San Lazaro Hill, looking down over the city.  Construction started in 1657, and it was later expanded in 1762.  The fort was stormed many times over the years, but was never taken.  We spent one afternoon here and brought a flashlight to explore some of the unlit tunnels that go through it. 

Castle of San Felipe de Barajas
Most of our time in Cartagena was just spent wandering around the narrow streets and alleys of the old city.  There are many beautiful old churches, interesting museums and homes hundreds of years old.  We especially liked the big decorative doors that you could drive a car through, with little doors cut into them for people.   There are also some great restaurants here, and we had some delicious seafood dishes.  We found a nice little hotel right in the middle of everything, which fortunately had air conditioning so we could escape the heat.  This was one of the hottest places we’ve been yet. 

We spent four days in Cartagena before taking the three hour bus ride to Santa Marta.  Back aboard Saviah, we started to get ready for our next passage to the San Blas islands of Caribbean Panama.  We made a few trips to the grocery store for provisioning and knocked out a few boat projects, including some varnishing and engine maintenance.  We also had purified water delivered in 5 gallon jugs which we dumped into our tanks.  We didn’t realize when we arrived in Colombia that the water was not potable.  We filled our tanks from the hose at the dock and about four days later, our stomachs were feeling a little funny, so we decided to confirm with the marina that the water was ok to drink.  Apparently, it isn’t. 

While preparing to leave, some other cruisers in the marina were relaying stories about the San Blas Islands that were a little disturbing.  We heard from three different boats about 70 knot winds in the anchorages there and boats washing up on the beach.  They also spoke of the daily lightning storms, and many boats were reportedly getting struck.  A week before we left, a boat came in from San Blas that left after they were hit twice by lightning in about ten minutes.  This didn’t give us much motivation to head out, and we started to drag our feet a little.  This time of year was supposed to be the worst for lightning, and it would be getting better in a month or two. 

We did some research on the internet about ways to protect the boat, but the more we read the more confused we were.  One source suggested attaching jumper cables to the shrouds and stays and dangling them in the water to ground the boat.  We decided this was one simple cheap solution to try, so we bought some.  In the end, we decided that even though this is one of the worst places in the world for lightning, the odds were in our favor that we wouldn’t get struck and decided to go for it.

So on a Thursday, we decided to leave the following Monday, assuming the weather forecast held.  Another boat in the marina was also planning to leave that day.  They had just called their agent and recommended that we do the same, even though we were told he only needed 24 hours advance notice.  So we did, and Jose came out to the boat a few hours later, and we told him of our plan.  He said would come out the next morning to collect passports and documentation and clear us out. 

The next day he didn’t show up until noon and informed us there was a soccer game that afternoon and all the offices would be closed at noon, meaning he wouldn’t be able to clear us out in time.  An hour later we ran into our friends who had just received their clearance documentation and were ready to go.  That is when we realized we ended up with the wrong agent.  We should have used Dino, the better agent, but it was too late to switch at this point. 

The next day Jose came back, again about three hours later and this time said he needed more money.  We told him about our friends who had no problem clearing out and refused to give him more money.  This really upset him, and we started to wonder if we were ever going to get checked out. 

Fortunately, our French friends that we met in Barichara were traveling through Santa Marta at this time, and the delay gave us time to hang out with them.  Two days later Jose showed up again, collected our documentation and headed out to the offices.  Later that afternoon, we received our clearance papers, without paying any more money and with lots of thank you’s for using his service, and would we please recommend to him to all of our friends.  Early the next morning, on September 10th, we set out on the 290 mile passage to the San Blas islands.