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Sailing to Colombia from Jamaica

by Chrissi

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Sailing to Columbia from Jamaica

by Chrissi

Strong winds and high seas confronted us on our sail south to Columbia. It was a rough wet ride but the only scare we got was when a large container ship failed to see us even after we contacted him on the radio. We were within a mile of the big ship and still he could not see us visually or on radar.

Cartagena is a modern metropolis complete with tall buildings and dirty water. We could hear the low endless hum of hundreds of thousands of machines as we approached, the heartbeat of this busy South American city.

Back as early as the 1500's an incredible series of defenses were built to protect the city. It was from here, Cartagena de Indias, that Spanish treasure ships sailed, their holds filled with silver, gold and emeralds. Most of those defenses are still intact including a submerged wall that blocks the entrance to the harbor. The break in the wall is narrow and poorly marked and only with great care can small boats pass through. Further south is another waterway access, this is the one the larger boats and commercial ships must use. It is a narrow channel guarded on both sides by stone fortresses bearing cannons. As we made our way further into the bay we saw more forts, more battlements, more cannons. Directly across from the walled city of Old Cartagena is the biggest fort I have ever seen. Its huge grey mass takes up several city blocks and towers over the millions who call this place home.

There are still plenty of treasures to be found as thousands of tourists who come here will attest, but the cannons and defenses are now obsolete. A modern military now guards the city and its wealth. When we arrived, the numbers of uniformed troops carrying heavy automatic rifles in the streets near the marina were staggering. Directly across the bay from Club Nautico is a large naval base, home to many large war ships and several submarines. There was plenty of activity at the base, the military seemed to be on alert for potential problems due to the inauguration of the newly elected President. A government building had been bombed the day we arrived and people were advised to stay in their homes. Welcome to Columbia.

(Here’s the part where I write about something that I know nothing about.) The county of Columbia is in a political state of turmoil. There is the democratically elected government supported by a strong military, and there is the opposition, the revolutionaries known as the F.A.R.C. (Revolutionary Armed Forces Of Columbia) and the E.L.N. (National Liberation Army.) These two radical groups, the F.A.R.C. and the E.L.N., strive for a more socialist county and have control of about a third of the nation. Rural and urban fighting between the government and the revolutionaries has been an ongoing dilemma for at least thirty years. Then throw in the paramilitary death squads, a clandestine arm of the right wing military police that the government in power seems to have lost control of. Caught in the middle of this violence are the poor people of Columbia. This is where my darling Jack sailed me to.

We were assured by many that we were safe here in Cartagena but that it would be risky to travel outside the city limits. Over time the military presence in the streets decreased but never disappeared.

I must be a trouble magnet or, perhaps like a moth to flame, I just find the forbidden too irresistible to ignore. Kayaking in the harbor one day I inadvertently paddled too close to the navy base. I wasn’t exactly spying, I just wanted to see what was going on over there. Some soldiers saw me, called me over and told me in no uncertain terms to keep away. Of course I left, but not before my kayak was searched and they had my name, the boat’s name, and which marina we were at.

A few days later while paddling around, I saw what looked like an old great-house on the point of a peninsula. The well kept grounds and palm trees around it gave it the look of a private home. I thought it was a historical sight of some kind and went in for a closer look. I was about twenty feet from the beach, about to take a picture, when an armed soldier appeared, his gun not quite pointing at me but not at parade rest either. He told me to go away. “O.K. me voy.” (I’m leaving) But first I wanted to find out what this place was. I think he said it was a military armory. “No pictures?” I asked. Cute man but not very friendly. I paddled further down the shore far enough away so as not to appear threatening (like right, this gringa in an orange kayak with a floppy sun hat looks like a real threat.) All along the shore were satellite dishes, radio antennas and more armed soldiers, incongruous with the beautifully maintained tropical landscape.

I must have mistakenly taken a ‘stupid’ pill instead of my vitamin C that morning because what I did next was really dumb and dangerous. I kept on kayaking past the commercial piers where the big ships moor, then under a bridge, and found myself in a large mangrove lagoon. The smell of sewage was powerful and the water was slimy with filth. On the bank far to my right was a huge open air market, busy with fishing boats unloading their catch. The shoreline was piled high with garbage and the smell was awful. Although I paddled a little closer, I didn’t get out of the kayak and go ashore. I kept on going and a shiver of fear ran up my spine when a pirogue filled with hard looking men passed close by. And still I kept going. I went past shanty towns sinking into the muddy banks and under bridges so low I had to duck my head to pass under.

This was not a place for tourists. What was I doing here I asked myself. Too stubborn to turn around and curious to see what was up ahead, I kept on paddling along the narrow canal that snaked through the mangroves. No other boats were coming in this far and I wasn’t sure if I could get out by going this way or if it was a dead end. The water splashing on me from the paddles was nasty and fetid. Running through my mind was what I would do if someone tried to swim out to attack me. I obviously didn’t belong here and the people I passed looked hungry, desperate and dangerous. I squeezed under one last bridge, so low that I had to lay down in the kayak to pass under, and I found myself in a familiar branch of the harbor near the old walled city. With a sigh of relief I headed home to tell Jack of the mornings adventures.

The public transportation in Cartagena is colorful, gaudy, fast, reckless, fun and exciting; like a carnival ride. The buses never seem to come to a complete stop, and the man who takes the fares stands near the door and often has to grab a hold of passengers to help them inside as the bus zooms on to the next corner, the next waiting passenger. Disembarking is just as tenuous, although the drivers do seem to slow down a little more for the women passengers.

I jumped onto one of these brightly painted deathtraps for a 300 peso tour of the city. (exchange rate approx.3000 pesos=$1.00 US) The bus ride showed me many faces of the big city. I saw the prosperous suburban area called Manga where middle-class Columbians live, shop and walk their dogs. We drove through Isla Grande with its high-rise condominiums and hotels, strip malls, fancy restaurants, tourist shops and expensive boutiques. Then through the walled city with its sidewalks crowded with masses of humanity walking, pushing, loitering, and hurrying, the musical cadence of the Spanish language a loud indecipherable babble. We drove past food vendors and shoe repairmen, banks, bars and churches, dress shops, shoe shops and hardware stores.

I jumped off the (still moving) bus and walked along the waterfront road toward the huge open air market called Bazurko. The smell of garbage and rotting fish permeated the humid air. As I made my way further into the market complex the smell became more pleasant, one of citrus, spices and wet earth. The market is a rabbit warren of stalls selling all the wonderful colors and flavors of the Caribbean; banana, plantain, oranges and root vegetables, mango, pineapple, sweet peas and limes. The squawking of live chickens competed with the calls from the vendors. The number of stalls and variety of goods was astounding. Everything was for sale here, dry goods, household goods, bath products, clothes, shoes and more.

Jack and I spent many hours walking in the old walled city of Cartagena. There are many parks and plazas where the Columbians congregate to drink, relax and mix with their neighbors and friends. Our favorite was a shady green plaza with park benches and a beautiful stone fountain called Plaza Bolivar. This pretty park lies right next to the Palace of the Inquisition where many people were tortured and slain for their religious beliefs or lack of them. The tallest buildings in the old city are the banks in the business district but the many domed cathedrals and churches run a close second. The walls that enclose a large part of the old city are perhaps twenty feet thick and many of the homes and businesses have walls three to five feet thick. It made we wonder who or what was so threatening that such defenses needed to be built. Walking along the narrow streets we were commonly set upon by swarms of wandering vendors, men women and children selling t-shirts, fake designer sunglasses, beaded jewelry and other tourist geegaws. Often we were accosted by tourist guides and jewelry store hawkers, and nobody seemed to understand the word NO.

There were many open air cafes and expensive restaurants that catered to the tourists but our favorite restaurants were the ones where the locals dined. These low priced eateries all feature a daily special called ‘corriente’ that consists of a hearty soup appetizer, then rice and beans with beef or chicken and a salad. It’s a huge meal served at mid-day and costs 3000 pesos or less. One night we dressed up and went out for a ‘night on the town’ and we found a strip of bars, restaurants and night clubs along the waterfront. Here we found some nice live music, a talented band that played traditional folk songs. We stopped in a night club that featured salsa and watched as couples gracefully danced together to a sexy Spanish beat. Jack and I are determined to learn these simple dance steps and plan to take Spanish dancing lessons when we return to Cuba.

The treasure that filled the holds of Naga when we departed Columbia wasn’t gold, silver or emeralds. I found a different sort of treasure; beautiful cloth creations called ‘molas.’ Molas are sort of quilt-like applique’ works of art. They are meticulously hand stitched multiple layers of fabric with intricate designs cut out through the different layers showing the colors beneath. Molas are made by the Cuna Indians who live in the San Blas Islands, 175 miles southwest of Cartagena. I searched the gift shops and tourist boutiques for these treasures but bought the majority of my stash from boat boys and wandering vendors. I incorporated the molas into my own creations - computer bags, tote bags, backpacks and pillow covers. I have been selling them like mad and turning a wonderful profit.

One of the reasons we decided to go to Cartagena was so we would have a safe and inexpensive place to leave Naga while we flew to Europe to visit Jack’s brother. The marina we chose, Club Nautico, was a little on the run down side but the security there was good and the management and staff were wonderful. I made friends with the marina manager’s wife and gave her sewing lessons in exchange for two beautiful molas. Every Wednesday and Saturday the women at the marina would get together for a dominoes game called Mexican Train. For hours we would slap down our tiles while gossiping, giggling, arguing, and drinking lemonade. One of my favorite characters at the marina was an old grey haired sailor that was once a part of a radical group of American dissidents who used to sabotage the war effort in the sixties and seventies. I loved listening to tales of his sordid past. We made lots of new friends, and after our return from Europe, I was able to work and earn some money repairing canvas and sails.


Our sailing adventures in photos and textEvery kind of helpful resource for sailors and travelersWeather for sailorsMaking a living onboard or on the roadLinks to friends and related sites




Cartagena Colombia multihull trimaran sailing cruising page.