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 Nariño, 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.