Friday, 27 April 2012

Cruising Colombia's offshore islands ….. April 2012

19 – 26 April 2012P4190084
The Overnight Passage South

We untied from the Santa Marta Marina at 9.30am on a murky Thursday morning.  The forecast was for reasonably light winds from behind, so we were prepared for a slow trip overnight the 135 miles down to our destination of Isla Grande in the Rosario Archipelago, a small off shore island group around 20 miles south of Cartagena.  We motored away from land the first hour then picked up enough breeze to jog along in fairly comfortable conditions.  We were wanting to pass the mouth of the Rio Magdalena before dark, it is infamous for it’s dirty colour, large logs and other debris that come down from the mountains (well it does drain off around 1/4 of Colombia’s land mass), and busy shipping into the port.  Except for the very brown water that we sailed through for about 3 hours, we passed it by without incident.
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View out our front window in the anchorage at Isla Grande, Rosarios – great to have blue water again

The Rosario Archipelago
The wind died away again as we made our final approaches towards Isla Grande and we motored the last hour in calm seas.   We navigated in through the reef entrance very pleased to have flat water, sunshine and other cruisers notes to help us safely enter.  Colombia is one of the few places we have cruised that there is no published cruising guide, but a handful of cruisers have published their notes on the web for the rest of us to use, inspired by them we decided to come and explore this interesting area.  P4210007  P4210008
Two sides to Isla Grande - the locals in dugout canoes and a rather empty tourist resort

We spent three nights in this calm anchorage, however it wasn’t as quiet as one would have hoped.  On Saturday around 4pm the “music” started – from somewhere afar, heavens knows where – but it continued all night and till around 7pm Sunday.  There was no one around, just what it was for was totally beyond us but without it this was a beautiful tranquil spot and we appreciated the silence when it finally stopped.

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If you ever wanted your own private island – look no further – Colombia is the place!!!

We took a very long dinghy ride one afternoon and circumnavigated Isla Grande and several of the outlying islands.  Perhaps island is an overstatement for some of them as several were no more than a teeny rocky outcrop, but amazingly most had some sort of structure on them, from simple thatched roof shade houses to palatial mansions set back hidden in the palms, the whole area was just littered with pocket sized islands, quite amazing.  On the southern side of the island there were a couple of small scale resorts but there were very few people or boat traffic to be seen – maybe in the busy season.
For another excursion we did a drift snorkel along the outside of the reef.  The water was exceptionally clear and just so warm.  There was an interesting range of fish and a seabed resembling an Aladdin's Cave of nooks and crannies, overhangs and tunnels, unlike anything we have seen before.  The sea life had so many places to hide it is amazing we saw anything at all.

We shared a beach bar-b-que with a French boat we helped navigate through the reef entrance in poor light, just as we were leading them in after our snorkelling they hooked a good sized fish so kindly invited us to join them ashore.  It’s a very long time since we have enjoyed a bar-b-que on a quiet little beach with fish caught less than 2 hours previously, it was great.

The San Bernardos ArchipelagoP4240037

We moved on another 30 miles south to Isla Tintipan in the next island chain, the San Bernardos.  The island was very long and skinny and it appeared to have a handful of very upmarket houses lining its southern shore.  Some had long docks with thatched roof palapas built over the water, great spot for those late afternoon cocktails with 50 of your closest friends!! 

The thunder and lightening settled in over night and the winds weren’t looking too favourable for our passage to Panama in the morning so we had planned to stay another day.  We had a 6am wake up call from some armed and uniformed men, possibly Coastguard but we really weren’t sure.  They were very polite and courteous, just wanted to check our paperwork and were happy for us to stay another night.  They left just as the next shower poured down and we went back to bed!! 
The rains stopped mid afternoon so we took the chance to do a dinghy excursion along the shore.  We headed west along to Santa Cruz de Islote, this is where the way less wealthy Colombians in the San Bernardos group live, squeezed into this shoebox sized island,.  To be honest it really did not look like the sort of place to want to move to – they must look over at the huge houses on Tintipan that probably only get used a handful of weeks a year and wonder what went wrong!   P4240035

Overnight to Panama
The weather was looking much clearer the following morning so we departed Colombia and headed west, destination Isla Pinos in the Kuna Yala  Island Chain, an autonomous self governed region of Panama, much better known as the San Blas Islands.  We would be headed slightly southwest, the winds were forecast to be northwest during the day, going northeast overnight, not more than 15knots.  Perfect conditions one would think, however one should know better by now!!!  The day was ok, we pointed below our course to keep the wind just aft of the beam, thinking that when the winds eased and clocked overnight we could point higher.  But something went wrong with the forecast and the winds went further west and increased, haven’t had a bash to windward for a while and our clean boat got covered in salt water – again.  And of course we had pointed lower so the bash was even worse, oh well all that downwind sailing was great while it lasted.  We covered the 136 miles in 25 hours,  we had arrived in Panama.

Our first anchorage in the San Blas at Isla Pinos near the bottom of the chain

For in depth info on our landfall into the San Blas and details of our anchorage click here .
For all the notes for Colombia and the Colombian offshore islands including waypoints click here.  They are all on our Cruising Info Blog. 

Friday, 20 April 2012

Santa Marta and Surrounds ….. April 2012

07 – 19 April 2012P4140062

The new marina in Santa Marta, Northern Colombia was a great place for us to park Balvenie for 12 nights and take some time to do those always present boat jobs and to have some time out to explore a little of this area of Colombia.

Maintenance and Chores
First up was repairs to our reasonably new (purchased in Turkey 2008) hot water cylinder.  We had noticed that the generator had started to make different noises to normal and on further investigation discovered that the hot water cylinder was leaking all over it …… always something!!!  So it was out with the cylinder, the marina organised a welder who promptly arrived and took it away for repairs to a pinprick leak.  He was back with it the following morning, the weld looked good but the thread for the element look compromised and on trying to insert the element our suspicions were confirmed – back it went for rethreading.  It returned again, just not quite right, and many many hours were spent by skipper, upside down in the engine room in over 30c of very sticky heat while he installed, filled, fitted and gooped it all together (several times) until it didn’t leak anymore. P4140055 Meanwhile I entertained myself by washing and drying nearly everything onboard Balvenie, it’s a long time since we had affordable self service laundry facilities at our fingertips so I kept out of skippers way and washed everything in sight ….. and then you wonder what we do all day!!!!   

Heading for the hills and rainforest
We took time off one day and headed with David and Brenda on Bandit into the hills.  Firstly we got a local taxi to the “terminus” for transport to Minca.  The transport of the day was this very beat up old Renault, door linings and handles missing, tyres looking very much in need of retreading, all in all it didn’t look capable of getting the 4 of us plus driver up the windy road into the hills – oh well here we go.  Amazingly it did make the journey and our young driver knew where every pothole was enroute and did a sterling job of missing most of them. P4140069

The tiny village of Minca is set high up in the coolness of the hills and was a welcome change to the heat of Santa Marta.  We found an eco-resort/cafe and relaxed over excellent Colombian coffees then set off for a walk into the jungle along one of the paths.  Our plans for a pleasant stroll to a nearby waterfall with maybe a quick dip in a refreshing pool followed by our picnic lunch didn’t quite go as planned.   The heavens opened and we were reminded that we were in a rainforest, shelter was found – eventually - under a derelict building, and while the water fell down in bucket loads we stood and enjoyed our soggy picnic lunch – well at least it was warm rain!!!  

It was rather a muddy walk back and our enthusiasm was dampened somewhat for a further excursion to a a nearby coffee plantation, we retrieved our taxi driver from the local bar where he was happily playing pool and embarked on our adventure home.  Old cars always manage to go much faster downhill and we all were worried about the flooded roads, swimming pool sized potholes and squeaky brakes but we arrived back in Santa Marta unscathed – it was an entertaining outing.  

Dropped back in Santa Marta within the local market area we took the time to explore some hardware stores where we found all sorts of goodies we needed at very reasonable prices then we strolled through all the stalls – there was not much at all you couldn’t have got here if you looked hard enough.

Seaside lunch excursion
On another day we caught a taxi out to the neighbouring bay of Taganga, our 18 year old Lonely Planet describes it is a quaint fishing village with a couple of shacky cafes.  It’s still a laid back cruisy place, but the locals have made way to tourism -  it is now the backpacking centre for this area with access to the Tayrona National Park and starting point for the 4 day hike to Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City).  Several restaurants' lined the waterfront, tastefully set under thatched roofs with open sides to catch the sea breeze.  We enjoyed a stroll along the waterfront followed by a lazy lunch in the shade as we looked out over the pretty bay.

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The weather offshore was settling again and it was time to farewell Bandit, they had been waiting for a weather window to head across to Providencia then onwards to Guatemala where they will leave Bandit for a few months while they return home.  We have decided not to head for Guatemala just yet and will head further down the Colombian coast and across to Panama and cruise there for a couple of months before heading north.  We have had a great time in company with David and Brenda and hope to share many more anchorages with them next season.

For our cruising notes on Colombia including waypoints click here for our cruising info blog


Thursday, 19 April 2012

Where do the days go? ..... April 2012

Old and new at Santa Marta 
06 - 18 April 2012

This is what you could call an "express" update.  We are leaving the marina here at Santa Marta in Colombia tomorrow morning after 12 nights here.  Good grief, just what have I been doing for 12 days?  Well there was the trip by bus down to the wonderful city of Cartagena for a couple of nights, then there was a day drip to neighbouring Taganga, another day trip high up into the hills and the rain forest to Minca.

However I haven't yet done any blog updates, and now we are heading off to places where maybe there isn't even phone coverage, let alone internet - do those places really exist still?  We will find out soon enough.  So all will be updated at a later stage, it will be old news, but never mind. 


Monday, 16 April 2012

Cartagena – the Colombian one ….. April 2012

10 – 12 April 2010

About 9 years ago, just after we had bought Balvenie and she was sitting down in Picton Marina while we were in Auckland working hard to make our dreams come true, P4100020we were introduced to an Irish cruising couple, Pat and Olivia Murphy who were on their yacht Aldebaran in Auckland, half way around their circumnavigation of the world.  They inspired us with their stories of exotic places they had travelled to, sights they had seen, so many of which you can not do without your own boat.  But the highlight of their journey so far, they recalled, was spending Christmas and New Year in Cartagena, Colombia.   We were amazed that such a “normal” couple had even ventured into this land of drug barons and cocaine dealers, lived to tell the story and spoke so highly of it.  We filed it away in our memory bank under “possibly but probably not”, but here we are – in Colombia.

With Balvenie and Bandit safely tied up at the new marina in Santa Marta about 3 hours north, we decided to catch a minibus down to the UNESCO World Heritage City of Cartagena de Indias.

The road goes down the coast, the terrain was flat and all quite uninspiring, no lush tropical jungle to the waters edge here, just flat plains and scrubland.  We passed several "shantytown" villages of one room corrugated iron shacks,  they lined the road with swamp lands behind them.  I imagine in the rainy season they are constantly awash and plagued by mosquitoes, they looked very bleak but there is probably nowhere else for them to go.

Arriving into the old walled town of Cartagena was like taking a weekend mini-break back to Europe.  The Spanish certainly performed some atrocities in the countries they “conquered” but they sure left behind some wonderful architecture, and Cartagena is overflowing with it. P4110024There were plazas with ancient trees providing much needed shade, handsome buildings housing government offices, banks, museums, palaces, churches and large mansions and then there were all the streets, a feast for the eyes in every direction.  Flowering vines and bougainvillea clung to old plaster walls, some freshly painted – some showing signs of centuries of peeled paint, wooden balconies perched out above, every street was a scene out of a movie set. 

We had unintentionally timed our visit at quite possibly the safest time you could ever have visited.  Cartagena was in the final preparations for a summit to be held in the weekend, with over 30 Heads of State partaking, including President Obama, There were thousands of police in town, including armed police in our hotel, security was at an all time high.   There were also hundreds of street cleaners (not normal I am sure), and many buildings were getting a very quick lick of paint to tidy them up.  We may have seen a very sanitized version of Cartagena but our memories will be of a very safe, secure, clean, tidy and beautiful old walled town. 

Outside the main walls life was going on as normal, the “new” old town of Gétsemaní hadn’t been “airbrushed” for the visit and as we walked through some of its streets we decided that a return to the safer area might be a sensible move! 

We took a minibus the short distance out to Bocogrande, it wasn’t far but the heat was sapping our strength and the buses are really rather entertaining.  Bocogrande is a long stretch of high rise buildings set along the waterfront on the peninsular, the Caribbean on one side and the harbour on the other.  These are not the Caribbean beaches of brochures with crystal clear water, palm trees and white sands, come to Cartagena for the culture and history, not for a beach holiday!  

We spent some time in the Museo del Oro y Arqueologia, it houses a collection of gold and pottery from the Zenú culture (the Spanish must have missed this lot), there was also an excellent video on how the Zenú farmed the swamp lands successfully hundreds of years ago, they dug over 750,000 hectares with canal systems to control the water flow in the rainy season.  It appears modern day man has learnt nothing from their successful ways.
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We wandered the streets day and night, sampling street food and enjoying cool lime juices from vendors, it is a old city to stroll around, take your time, find a shady spot, people watch, vendor watch, police watch.   We enjoyed our “minibreak” immensely.2012 Colombia
Collection of wonderful street art around the cathedral
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Street scenes of Cartagena

For info on how we got to Cartagena and where we stayed click here for our cruising info blog.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Just One Night in Aruba ….. April 2012


04 – 07 April 2012

We had seen and done all there was to do in Curacao and  the best weather window so far this year was forecast for us to move further west, firstly to Aruba then onto Colombia.  Several cruising friends had done this journey within the last 6 weeks, and all had experienced very high winds and up to 5 metre seas, and it is reputed to be the 5th worst area of water in the world.  Yes - we really were looking forward to this one!!! 

However Jimmy Cornell's cruising bible “World Cruising Routes”,  recommends the passage should be made in April, May or November – it was now April, the forecast looked steady with nothing over 20 knots and 2 metre seas.  Fingers crossed.


Still in company with our kiwi friends on Bandit we lifted anchors at first light. Skipper was happy to raise our mainsail after having it in semi retirement for many miles now, we poled out the headsail then pointed towards Aruba, around 70 miles away, it was going to be a long day.  

A long day it was, but it was the most comfortable sail we have had since sailing from Morocco to the Canary Islands, that was way back in October.  We had steady winds and current with us and we rounded the southern end of Aruba with daylight to spare.  The entrance to our chosen anchorage at the bottom of the island was squeezed between an oil refinery and some tiny islands fringed with sandy beaches and turquoise waters, what a contrast!  P4050022

We came to Aruba on holiday nearly 20 years ago and weren’t too impressed with it then  - this time the adjacent oil refinery, a slight chop overnight in the anchorage, the requirement for having to berth at a yacht unfriendly dock for checking in and the continuance of a settled weather window all swayed our decision – it wasn't going to be a weeks visit again this time, it was just a one night stand!  The fastest rise and drop of a courtesy flag in Balvenie’s voyage so far, 14 hours. We were on our way to Colombia. P4060034

We went back to our normal downwind sail plan of headsail poled out to windward and staysail poled out to leeward, it worked well for the first two days with winds around 15 knots from directly behind us.  The sea was quite flat most of the time but we got long periods of adverse current which slowed us down, and even with the light winds chopped the seas up.  We could certainly see that it could turn into a nasty piece of water with strong winds fighting against the current and were grateful for the conditions we had.

Day turned to night, back to day, back to night.  The full moon was just magical, almost bright enough to read by.  Even with peaceful conditions we both struggle to sleep on these short passages, there was a reasonable amount of shipping to keep us alert, and we needed to make two course changes to avoid container ships.  You really have to wonder in these days of AIS if there is any watch kept at all by eye - they just steam on, heading straight for us, still it is much easier for us to see them than the other way round, so we always change course and keep a very good watch, especially in busy coastal waters. 

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Needing all the sails up in light winds approaching Santa Marta

Day three dawned and the wind dropped to below 10 knots, time to play with Big Red again, he needed the cobwebs shaken out as it has been too windy to fly the MPS (Cruising Chute) for months.  The sea breeze arrived as we were making our final approach, it made for quite a challenging drop of Big Red, rather a handful to douse as the wind gusted around the headland to 22 knots.  So now we are tied up in the new marina here in Santa Marta, Colombia – who’d of thought we would ever sail to Colombia!!!!

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Monday, 2 April 2012

Colourful Cocktail of Curacao ….. March/April 2012

24 March – 02 April 2012
P3260047  Curacao Roti Place at Spanish Waters P3260032
P3260041 We are in the area of the Caribbean known as the Dutch Antilles or the ABC’s.  Having spent an enjoyable 9 nights in the “B” island of Bonaire, snorkelling every day and slotting easily into the very laid back atmosphere of the island we knew it was time to move west and on to the next letter of the alphabet!, and so, along with our cruising buddies on Bandit, we were headed for the “C” island of Curacao just over the horizon.  We had a very pleasant sail, blue skies, 15 – 20 knots from the east, 1.5 metre seas. We both made the comment that had this been in the Mediterranean we might still have considered this a sporty days sail, but after the seas and winds we have become accustomed to in the Atlantic and Caribbean it was positively lovely. Bandit once again took line honours…(Skippers note…more blatant use of  illegal sized headsail…sigh !!!)    P3260035

Our ABC Island Cruising Guide mentioned the entrance to our chosen anchorage of Spanish Waters as being deceptively small…. well there was no deception there – it is very small (and no channel markers)!  Add to that the fact that the Hyatt Hotel has popped up since the guide was written and “built” a beach with swimmers happily paddling around as well as installing some docks with large boats tied up, then there are the shallow spots to avoid and, as luck would have it, a stream of large power boats out enjoying the sunny Saturday afternoon and they all wanted to pass – at speed.  Oh well!,  there was nothing for it but to breath in and hope for the best.  As is often the way all went without incident but it sure kept us on our toes for a while. P3260044

We thought in Bonaire there was a touch of Holland, well in downtown Willemstad  the capital of Curacao you truly could be forgiven for thinking you were in Holland.  Our first day trip into town was to complete Customs and Immigration procedures, all straightforward but we got in plenty of exercise walking from one to the other, then we didn’t quite time it right for the Harbour Authorities lunch break so had to go off and have our own lunch break and return to them later.  We normally allow a day to check in to a country,  if its quicker then that is always a bonus.  

Wandering around Willemstad is a very colourful experience.  Candy coloured buildings line the harbour on both sides. P3260042Cafes with umbrella shaded outdoor tables serve a blend of Caribbean, Dutch and American food.  Venezuelan vendors run a floating market on a nearby canal – their stalls were overflowing with fresh produce of all shapes, sizes, flavours, colours and prices.  Both sides of the harbour are connected by the unique swinging, floating Queen Emma Bridge.

Then there are the people - what a diverse cultural blend.  Initially, way back in the year dot the Arawak Indians lived here, then along came the Spanish in 1499, followed by the Dutch in 1634. Both tried to do what the Europeans were so good at doing during that time of new world discovery …. attempt to wipe out the indigenous race and steal anything worth stealing!!!  So not many Arawaks survived which created a manpower shortage duly solved by shipping African slaves to do all the work.  Curacao then became a major port for slave trading for many years.  P3310007More recently you need to throw in a few Venezuelans, well it is just down the road and major oil refineries were built here for processing Venezuelan Oil, hence importing Venezuelan labour.  So all in all it is somewhat of a melting pot culturally speaking, and if you sit back and people watch you would never ever guess what country you were in.

We spent a day out and about exploring by hire car, we shared it with Brenda and David from Bandit again.  The island is much bigger than Bonaire, but the vegetation and landscape are very similar.  We found some wonderful sheltered coves on the northwestern coast, the water so clear, the sand a brilliant white, the surrounding colours so sharp they almost didn’t look real.  We stopped at Playa Knip for a picnic lunch, followed by a snorkel and swim, the clarity of the water was outstanding, there were some lovely corals and a good selection of tropical fish to entertain us for quite some time. P3310019

Across on the windy east coast at Shete Boca National Park it was an entirely different picture.  No shelter from the 25–30 knot trade winds here. We visited an impressive natural bridge carved and shaped  by the relentless ocean waves crashing onto the rocky shore line.  The surrounding landscape felt weather beaten and raw, only cacti and thorn bushes thrive here. It seems everything comes with sharp edges in such a hostile environment.  What a contrast to the sheltered western coastline just 10 miles away. P3310043

We ended our sightseeing day with a little luxury, Curacao cocktails on the terrace of the Hyatt Hotel.  Brenda chose a Blue Curacao Margarita while I opted for a Roman Crush with Orange Curacao as an ingredient.  Well …. when in Curacao it would be downright rude not to drink Curacao (the liquor)!  They were both excellent.  Luckily for the budget David and Mark stuck to beer.

We have enjoyed our time here and will move on in a day or 2, we plan to have only a short stop in the “A” island of Aruba before heading to Colombia.  We have a relatively settled weather window coming up and want to make the most of it, hopefully getting to Colombia for Easter.  
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