Tuesday 1st May - Reflections on Cartagena and onward to the San Blas Islands

Jon & Carol Dutton
Tue 1 May 2012 18:04

09:35.36N 78:40.52W

Tuesday 1st May -  Reflections on Cartagena and onward to the San Blas Islands


On arrival at Cartagena we made our way through the small boat channel and turned to port to follow the stunning display of sky scrapers that line the western shore of the port (Castillo Grande).


As regards facilities for yotties there, the extremely useful information on cruising in Colombia published on the Noonsite website sums up the position nicely: 

“Who doesn’t want to see this jewel of Spanish Colonial and Baroque architecture and seasonal playground of the world’s wealthy? It is surprising how unappealing the options for bringing your boat to Cartagena are at present, considering its importance as a destination. The only marina open to transient boats is Club Nautico and it is in a state of neglect that has “progressed” from decrepitude to pigsty.”


                                                One section of the dock – no H & S concerns here, then!


                                                The Club House bringing a new meaning to the term “airy”!

Armed with that information we chose not to go into the Club Nautico marina but to anchor off it.  We joined a fair number of other boats in doing so.  That was fine and we’d recommend it.  But, it’s worth pointing out the surprising speed at which boats’ bottoms seem to become fouled in the harbour.  We were able to confirm at first hand the accuracy of the assessment above regarding the Club Nautico facilities.  Apparently some long-running dispute over planning or some such has resulted in its becoming extremely run down although there were signs of a small amount of work being done to at least make the docks themselves safer.  The club house is a building site on strike and consists of a series of pillars designed to hold up roofs and walls, presumably.  However, there are no roofs or walls.  Plastic agricultural mesh strung atop the pillars provides a degree of shade to a few wooden tables and filthy plastic chairs beneath.  There is an office which occasionally opens, two primitive showers and two chemical portaloos.  Electrical sockets on flying leads lie in pools of rain water, but treated with respect allow use of the surprisingly available WiFi.  As might, perhaps, be anticipated in such a bomb site, the staff generally were pretty under-motivated.  There were some exceptions.   Their dinghy dock is adequate and those at anchor can contract to use it for $20US a week.  That’s necessary since there is nowhere else very obvious that you can take your dinghy – it appears that there are no facilities for docking such anywhere nearer town.  We did bring Arnamentia into the marina dock for our last two nights because we wanted to take on water and boost the batteries.  Our draught (2.4m or 8’) limited the options here and our berth was, frankly, dangerous (to Arnamentia).  So were the arrangements for getting on and off the boat (to us).  As for the dockmaster and his electrician sidekick . . . wow!  However, Arnamentia survived and so did her crew despite having to “walk the plank”!


                                                                        The sophisticated boarding method

On the upside, as our American cousins would say, there is a very good, large and well-stocked supermarket within 200 yards of the marina.  That got our custom.  It also provided a bit of practice at mental arithmetic and the accurate placing of decimal points given that there were around 2,750 Pesos to the £.  So, a 50,000 Peso note was worth about £18 and a total individual worth of around £365 made you a Peso millionaire.  Provided, of course, that you could get the Pesos.  The cash machines were temperamental with regard to our Visa cards.  Some didn’t like them at all; some picked and chose when they did.  No idea why.

There is an alternative marina – Club Pesco – half a mile further up-harbour and similarly closer to town.  It’s beautiful, it’s chi chi, it’s got a marina dock that looks the business (unsure about draught here and it may vary quite a bit from berth to berth), security up the Ying Yang, smartly dressed and attentive staff, a lovely restaurant and club house and all the rest of it.  But, it doesn’t cater for scruffy cruising yotties – although happy to take their money in the restaurant and bar.  The marina facilities are part of a very up-market club – not the other way around.  It is just about possible that there may, occasionally, be a berth to spare but not this time.  A fellow cruiser at Club Nautico did tell us what he’d gathered the Club Pesca membership joining fee was (leave aside the annual subscription).  It was outrageous – far too large to be repeated here with any hope of retaining credibility with our esteemed reader.

Customs and immigration clearance in Colombia is expensive.  The Colombian government insists that you do this through an agent.  We got one via the security guard at Club Nautico who rang up a man who could.  The charge was 150,000 Pesos (around £55) for clearance in and out provided that we didn’t stay for more than 8 days.  Then some other cruising permit would have been required.  Actually, we got around that given that we were leaving at a weekend.  But, the process means surrendering your passport to the agent for two 24 hour periods.  And, without a passport, many shops will not accept credit or debit cards.  As elsewhere, all that is involved in clearing in and out is filling in a couple of forms (perhaps twice - once in and once out) and hence obtaining evidence that you have cleared in and subsequently cleared out.  It’s sometimes a bit tedious but it is not complicated and most yotties could think of better ways of spending the cash.  We did meet a single-hander one evening on his way back from Panama (sooner him than us) who had been approached by an agent as he came to anchor and been told that the charge would be 250,000 Pesos (around £90).  Not unreasonably he decided to forgo the whole business, upped his anchor and buzzed off on his journey back to the UK the next morning.   

We’d come to Cartagena not merely because it was en-route to the Panama Canal.  We’d come to see the place.  And, it was well worth the effort.  The historical walled city is a mile or so from Club Nautico and it is stunning.  It has some similarities with St Malo – one side overlooking the sea, the other an internal harbour, many streets focussing on extracting pesos from tourists in exchange for souvenirs of varying attractiveness.   The pleasure, though, is walking through the narrow back streets and admiring the old buildings, many with delightful balconies festooned with bougainvillea and creepers.  The unexpected is around many corners – a beautiful bookshop where a coffee can be had – nothing new there, but beer and cocktails were also on offer!  In the early afternoon heat, we stopped for a beer and found ourselves having a fantastic lunch of seafood ceviche.    Several boutiques with beautiful dresses – the work of Columbian designers – that would not be out of place in Bond Street.

On the cultural side, a museum of Columbia history is housed in the Palacio de la Inquisiciòn.  It’s a beautiful building, which also houses a small exhibition as a gruesome reminder of the atrocities that took place four hundred years ago.


                                                                Pleasant Interior of the Palacio de la Inquisiciòn ……


                                                                ……. and some of the not so pleasant exhibits

Across the delightfully shady Plaza del Bolivar, a far less grizzly display of exquisite ornaments was to be found in the Museo del Oro.  Dating from about 2000 years ago were beaten and cast gold buckles, brooches and earrings of the finest filigree alongside a variety of funerary figures.  Breastplates figured highly in this latter category – the size and shape related to how important one had been – and bore no relation to one’s actual physique.

The Cartagenians are big on street art, in one case, literally, as can be seen below!







What is really quite interesting is the way in which the features of most locals reflect the extensive inter-mixing of African, Spanish and Amerindian blood.  This contrasts starkly with the distinctly Spanish features shown in all of the many marble busts in Plaza de los Martires commemorating the city gentlemen who were put to the firing squad in 1816 for daring to declare independence from Spain.

There was much more we might have seen given time.  We knew perfectly well that we’d merely scratched the surface of Cartagena and that Colombia generally has a massive amount to offer the inquisitive traveller.  However, we needed to move on soon if we were ever going to.


At around 1840 on Saturday 28th April we hauled up our anchor, slipped our stern lines and headed off for the San Blas Islands on the Caribbean Sea coast of Panama, east of the Panama Canal.  These islands (over 340 of them in all, spread over more than 100NM of coastline) are renowned for their beauty, the extraordinary culture of their people, the Kuna, their coral reef protected anchorages and their clear waters.  The journey to the Eastern Holandes Cays (a group of 21, mainly uninhabited, islands towards the western end of the archipelago) was about 200 NM and the plan was to anchor initially deep inside the reefs that guard that anchorage from the Caribbean Sea.  That meant arriving somewhere between 0900 and 1500 to be able to see where the reefs are by judging the colour of the water.  You trust your charts and your chart plotter with the fine detail at your peril here – “inadequate survey” is a term that adequately describes the situation.  You navigate by what you can see.  So; sun high in the sky, please, and someone well forward in the boat – preferably well above deck level – charged with spotting the light blue or brown stuff.  Normally that 0900 “not before” arrival time would have indicated a departure time from Cartagena of perhaps late evening – perhaps midnight – with the aim of arriving in the morning of the next day but one.  However, the forecast was for very light winds.  Hence our rather earlier departure that evening. 

For the first 24 hours the journey was as frustrating as we’d anticipated.  Initially the wind was light and from dead aft.  We dug out Percy the Parasailor but no sooner had we got him on deck but the wind took fright and ran away completely.  So, Mr Perkins was awakened from his slumbers and asked in the nicest possible way if he could please get on with it.  Moreover, could he please do so for an extended period without running a temperature, bleeding, being sick or depositing any other bodily fluids in the engine bilge that might indicate the need for medical attention.  Incidentally, he was as good as gold – by the end of the voyage his bilge was as dry as it had started.  During the afternoon of Sunday the 29th the wind gradually filled in from the NNE allowing us to persuade the sails to fill on a reach and give Mr Perkins an easy time in keeping our speed above about 5 knots.  By 1900 we had around 10 knots of breeze from the NNE.  That gave us a 5 knot reach under sail alone (“Thank you, Mr P, you may now sleep awhile again in your hot little artisan’s cubby hole”) with the apparent wind on or a little abaft the beam and with about 70NM to go.  So, provided it stayed that way, we’d be on our final approach to the Cays at about 0900 the following morning.  That looked perfect and so it turned out.  At 1010 on Monday 30th April, having woven our way through the various reefs on the approach, we dropped the hook in clean white sand in the most beautiful anchorage imaginable with one foot of crystal clear water beneath the keel.  It was barely necessary to put on the mask and snorkel to check that the anchor had dug in.  We are surrounded on 3 sides by tiny uninhabited islands (none much more than about half a mile long or wide – mostly less) covered with palm trees.  Our bow points to the fourth side where we look NE, to windward, out over the Caribbean Sea.  We are protected from it by a reef a good half mile deep and can see the sea exhausting itself uselessly on it in trying to get at us. 




                                                The view to starboard  of the anchorage off Banedup islet


                                      Dues duly collected, the Harbour Master paddles off in his dugout