Santa Marta to the San Blas Islands

John & Susan Simpson
Sun 5 Mar 2023 03:34
I always imagined that Christopher Columbus was the first European to set foot in Colombia and that was how it got its name, but it seems that it was in fact Alonso de Ojeda who arrived first in 1499.  A Spanish settlement was established in Santa Marta in 1525 and by 1549 the region was the headquarters of the Spanish empire in the New World.   The name Colombia was coined by a later revolutionary who used Colombia as a term for 'Spanish America'.  After General Simon Bolivar secured release from Spanish rule in 1819 the name came to refer to the new country of Gran Colombia (roughly equal to today’s Colombia, Panama, Ecuador and Venezuela).  Colombia eventually emerged from that group as a separate country.

Santa Marta sits on the northern coast of Colombia in the Caribbean Sea.  Despite the Caribbean connection, Santa Marta couldn’t have been less like the Caribbean islands we had just left.  Independence from Spain might have been achieved in the early 19th century but the ambience was much more mainland Spain than Caribbean island, helped of course by Spanish being the local language.  We loved the nightlife in downtown Santa Marta.  Lots of interesting bars and restaurants in narrow streets in the old town, with rooftop bars up rickety staircases everywhere it was possible to build one!  Street musicians play Latin music on every corner and people break spontaneously into salsa dancing as they pass by.  The cacophony of noise on the streets reminded us of New Orleans but with a Latin vibe.  We ate some beautiful food, all astonishingly cheap, and enjoyed the relaxed attitude of the restauranteurs.  In the first restaurant we visited they had run out of bottles of red wine, but the bar next door had some and our waitress summoned her next door neighbour to pass a bottle over the fence.  When we came to pay, we paid our waitress for our food and her neighbour for the wine.  A similar thing happened later when we asked for ice cream for dessert.  We were directed to buy some from the Gelataria down the street and bring it back to the table where we’d eaten our meal.  Oh, and at that restaurant I also ended up playing percussion with the singer busking next to our table!  

We took part in a couple of World ARC tours whilst we were in Santa Marta.  The first took us to the place where Simon Bolivar died in 1830, the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino.  This had been a country estate producing rum and honey at the time Simon Bolivar was visiting, and we toured the farm buildings as well as the house where he had been taken ill.  Simon Bolivar is a revered figure in South America so the Quinta has been turned into a museum with monuments commemorating the man as well as some artefacts from the time he was there.  One interesting fact we learned was that in times gone by in Colombia the size of the lock on a door gave an indication of how wealthy the owners of a property were.  The Quinta had a very impressive padlock!

The second tour we took was to a charity funded community project which the World ARC has been supporting for a number of years.  The Fundehumac project supports women and children who have suffered domestic abuse, particularly rape.  The project supports them with education and development of life skills so they can support themselves and others.  The woman who founded the project spoke with pride about the 60+ professionals they have educated in the past 10 years, including teachers, lawyers, nurses and engineers.  Some of these people were from ethnic groups where education is frowned upon and she was particularly pleased to be able to send out teachers able to teach in their local languages.  We were saddened to hear that the impact of Covid has been that many patrons have died but domestic abuse increased with self-isolation.  The charity is therefore struggling to support more women and children on less money.  As we arrived, children dressed in local costume danced for us and then invited us to dance with them.  We learned about their history and aspirations for their future through paintings on giant canvases hung on the walls.  At the end of the visit they invited us to join them in painting a record of our visit, which gave us a fantastic opportunity to talk with the children and for them to ask us questions about our lives and how we got to Colombia.  Google Translate proved to be a very useful tool!
Chatting and painting with children at the Fundehumac project

I imagine that when Alonso de Ojeda rounded the headland into the Santa Marta bay in 1499 he was mightily pleased to find shelter as the wind blows hard along that coast, seemingly all the time!  We entered Santa Marta in 30-40 knots of wind and so it was when we left.  The journey from Santa Marta to the San Blas Islands off Panama would only take us a couple of days but the first 24 hours was in very strong winds and difficult seas.  We needed to arrive at the San Blas Islands in daylight as the islands are low lying amongst coral reefs and charts aren’t necessarily accurate to the level we are used to.  The 12 noon start time and 280 mile course meant that we would arrive in darkness if we sailed Casamara at normal speed so we used only a tiny amount of sail area to sail as slowly as possible and kept a close eye on the arrival time on our navigational instruments.  As it was, we crossed the finish line at 4.00 am and loitered about until 6.00 am when we were able to see well enough to enter an anchorage and see where we were going.  
Arrival in San Blas

So here we are in the San Blas Islands, anchored behind an atoll called Ordubb.  Amusingly, if you look for it on Google Maps it is marked as a caravan park.  Someone has a sense of humour!  There is one dwelling on the island, inhabited by a lady who makes beaded jewellery.  We sat on Casamara having dinner this evening speculating on what it must be like to live on an island so small and with no water or electricity.  What a life that must be.

There are about 380 islands in the San Blas archipelago in an area of roughly 100 square miles and most of the islands are uninhabited.  The San Blas is an autonomous territory of Panama, occupied and managed by the native people, the Kuna.  They prefer to use the name Kuna Yala, “Land of the Kuna”.  Unsurprisingly, the arrival of a fleet of 30 yachts bearing foreign tourists is an opportunity for the Kuna and within a few hours of arrival a small boat came by selling fresh fish and lobster, swiftly followed by one selling Mola (hand made embroidered textiles), later followed by one asking to trade fish and coconuts for petrol!  We bought two enormous Red Snapper, one for the freezer and one which we barbecued in the evening.  It was delicious!

We were joined in the anchorage by friends on other World ARC Pacific boats: Walkabout, Into the Mystic, Berlinetta, Mary Doll and Kaimin.  Even in the short time we’ve been here we’ve enjoyed an evening drinks party on Into the Mystic and an afternoon game of beach cricket played with much laughter and camaraderie.  We are so fortunate to be having this experience, despite the wild and windy weather on the way!
Earnest conversation as the rules of beach cricket are agreed!