Aruba - Cartagena
5th December - 31st December 2022
Despite our rather disorderly get away from Aruba we were soon flying along passing the top end of the island and out into the open waters of the Caribbean sea again with Curacao visible off our port beam.
We had fine conditions for most of our passage to Cartagena and enjoyed a good run. For the first 48 hours we had mostly Force 4 - 5 winds; as we closed the coast of Colombia these increased to Force 6 - 7 and by the time we began our "descent" into Cartagena we had a solid Force 8 gusting well into the high 30s and we handed the main and sailed under reefed headsail. Despite the heavily shortened canvas we were still rocketing along at 7kts. This last 15 hours or so of the passage was by far the most exhilerating and Jamie described the feeling of Warrior rocketing along as "like an over-excited dog on a leash"... although what he actually wrote in the logbook read "its like a fucking rollercoaster"!
We had 3 nights at sea as we traversed approximately 500 miles of water. During this time we were treated to some stunning sunsets and a bright full moon in the night sky which made night watches all the more enjoyable.
Due to the elevated risk of piracy off the coast of Venezula and some parts of Colombia we sailed well offshore and kept our AIS transmitter turned off during this passage so that we were not easily visible. With a reasonably high amount of shipping in the area this meant we had to keep a vigilant watch for other vessels at all times. When we later discussed the risk of piracy in this area and the precautions we had taken we noted that the strong winds and sea conditions were probably as good a deterrent as it is possible to have against being boarded. We also agreed that we would both rather sail in rougher conditions that were not conducive to boardings than to ever have to deal with any incidents of piracy.
At about 4 o'clock on our last day out I was sending Garmin updates to the family when a massive pod of dolphins came through. There must have been 40 dolphins and we watched awestruck as they raced past. Some were jumping out of the water on the big waves and some just swimming alongside and firing off into the sunset. We looked down into the water and saw scores of them racing the boat and diving under the hull, reappearing on the other side. After watching them for 5 or 10 minutes I decided they were hanging around and went below to get my camera. Of course they all disappeared at this point and the best footage I managed to get was a solitary dolphin off in the distance. I'm glad I watched them though. Sometimes the urge to get photographs means you don't actually experience the moment and it was such a special moment. After nearly 3 days at sea suddenly being surrounded by all this life and activity was truly magical. Shortly after this the water turned from deep blue to muddy brown and the wind began to increase. We wondered if the sea change was due to a tributary flowing into the sea from one of the Amazon-like rivers that run down to the coast off the South American mainland. We later learned that was exactly what it was and is a well documented phenomenon. The wind increased and the sea state rose with it; this was when we took in the main and checked the furler on the headsail which had been playing up. This was the point that we reefed the headsail; still making 7kts of speed over ground.
Racing along under the bright full moonlight with the stars twinkling and the lights of Colombia off our port beam was quite magical and it was thrilling; if exhausting, sailing. During this last leg I managed to get a bit of rest but Jamie didn't sleep much and by the time we approached our destination he was getting very tired.
As we closed Cartagena the twinkling lights became an incredible cityscape of towering skyscrapers; quite breathtaking. We approached the "Boca Grande" channel which marks a safe water passage into the harbour through some submerged masonry and radioed the coast guard for clearance to pass though it. We dropped our sails; switched on our engine for the first time since leaving Aruba and stood off waiting for instructions from the coast-guard. By this time we were both exhausted and just wanted to drop our anchor somewhere and get some rest. It had been a really exhausting end to the passage; as we had predicted it would be, and we had read up carefully about the procedure when we arrived hoping that being well prepared we'd be able to get cleared in and settled without too much fuss. As it was we had nearly an hour trying to raise the coastguard and gain clearance to proceed into the harbour... which felt more like 4 hours when you are tired and salty and just want to get to bed. The delay meant that it was nearly daylight by the time we cruised into the anchorage and as we passed the massive skyscrapers we watched the yellow moon sink between two buildings and the night slowly turn to day. It was spectacularly beautiful but we were too tired and concentrating far too much on spotting channel-markers to really appreciate it. Off in the distance over the city we could see the fireworks for "little candles day" which officially mark the start of the Colombian Christmas; we had timed our arrival here well for the start of the festivities. We dropped our anchor amongst a small collection of other boats between the two marinas and with the cityscape to one side of us and the massive cranes of the commercial port to the other. Advice here is not to set the anchor immediately using any reverse propulsion as the holding is soft mud and the anchor will just pull out; so we dropped the anchor and 50 metres of chain and turned in to our bed at last leaving Meep on deck to enjoy his fill of the flying fish that had made their way on-board during the passage. It was about 6.30am on the 8th December and we had finally arrived in Colombia.
After getting a few hours rest we once again tried to raise the local marinas on the VHF. The clearance to enter the harbour; when it had finally come, was relayed to us via the commercial pilot captain. He was translating a message for us from the coastguard and his closing comments were to anchor in the harbour and "await the authorities". We had been in the harbour for several hours now flying our yellow Q flag and trying to make contact by radio. Eventually we abandoned protocol and decided to take the dinghy ashore and locate the agent we had arranged clearance with. This is pretty standard procedure here in Colombia and we had contacted the agent some weeks previous to check what documents were required and arrange clearance, immigration and the temporary import permit for Hamble Warrior. We rowed the dinghy across the choppy little harbour with various day boats blasting around and eventually located the secure dinghy dock inside the marina. We spoke to the security guard on duty and took a seat where they directed us looking out across the marina while we waited for the agent. We eventually managed to get some Wi-Fi access and check what communications we'd had the last few days. Eventually the agents assistant "Nicole" came to meet us and shortly after was joined by an official in "Armada" uniform. After handing over all our boat documents and passports we were told to return in an hour so we went for a short walk to the local supermarket and spent some time admiring the beautifully constructed displays of goods and the variety of products; and the reasonable prices - before returning to the marina with a pack of cold beers and sitting enjoying them as our official "welcome to Colombia" drink.
A short while later Nicole returned with our passports all stamped up and explained that the import permit for the boat would follow in the next week or so. We paid her some of the monies we owed so far and then relaxed and enjoyed the rest of our beers and our wonderful view.
Over the next few days we ventured to the large mall about a half hour walk from the marina where we located a phone shop and bought ourselves a data plan for the next month. We wandered a little bit around the area between the mall and the marina and found a few supermarkets and restaurants. Generally though we did not do much in those first few days. The city is oppressively hot and wandering around during the day isn't very comfortable unless you are inside the cool airconditioned interior of the mall or a supermarket. Added to the heat was the fact we were still quite tired from our trip here. So we ended up having a few quiet lazy days on-board Hamble Warrior; dozing in the saloon with the fan churning away cooling us down and occasionally popping ashore once the sun went down to buy bread or basics from the local supermarket.
On that first Friday night we were stealing ourselves to head out and go drinking and see what all the fuss was about. As it got later we were procrastinating over whether to go out or not. We finally showered and dressed when there was a knock on the hull and it was our neighbour from the anchorage. This was the first time we met "Rob" an American single-handed sailor on SV "Lena Rae". We invited him aboard and spent the next few hours drinking beer and rum and talking about sailing plans and boats. It was a lovely way to spend an evening. Rob was preparing for his onward trip to Panama where he was meeting up with his brother for a week or so and then heading onwards to the San Blas islands. We saw each other for a few beers again before he left and exchanged contact details promising to email him when we arrived in the San Blas islands the following month.
On the Saturday night we finally hit the hotspots of Cartagena. We left our dinghy at the marina dock and walked towards the old town; crossing the big bridge over the water and entering the fortified city walls. We wandered through the old city square with its many monuments, statues and busts where a winter wonderland of light displays and street vendors was in full swing. With all the many Christmas lights and decorations; small kiosks and even horsedrawn carriages it felt very reminiscent of the Christmas Fair at Potsdammerplatz in Berlin where my Sister's family relocated some years back - only a tropical version! Instead of everyone wandering around in hats, gloves and scarves clutching steaming glasses of mulled wine they were dressed in skimpy dresses; shorts and t-shirts eating cups of dressed fresh mangos from the carts laden with fruit.
We strolled towards the steepled building demarking the entrance to the walled city which looked like a Disney castle surrounded by all the lights and festivities (and an actual Mickey & Minnie mouse wandering about infact!) Inside the walled city we looked at a few bars and Restaraunts and settled on a place we liked the look of with a bit of a Celtic vibe. We knew that the street food would be better value but we had decided to treat ourselves to a meal at a restaurant to celebrate our arrival and we weren't disappointed with our choice. Jamie had a plate of ribs and I had a delicious piece of grilled salmon with a passion fruit glaze (a local speciality which goes very well with fish or as a salad dressing) Jamie's dish came with chips and mine with roasted yuca - which instantly became a firm favourite of ours.
After dinner we wandered through Plaza de la Trinidad which is busy square bustling with street food vendors; street performers and revellers. Off the square in the area known as Getsemani are side streets lined with tiny bars and everyone crammed in the street seated at small plastic tables or just on chairs perched on the curbside. On many tables card games are going on; there is a smell of cigar smoke in the air and vendors carrying trays laden with cigarettes; vaping products, cigars, gum and lollies wind their way through the crowds with their goods perched high on their shoulders. We chose to stop at a bar called "Cocktail la Nina" boasting a sign reading; "Aqui las que mandan son las mujeres" which translates to "here the ones that rule are the women". We found a table in the street and ordered two Cuba Libras (Rum, Coke & Lime) which were on happy hour offer for 18,000 pesos (£3 for two). This was to become our favourite bar over the next few weeks and I never did see it when happy hour wasn't running! As we drank the crowd around us buzzed with energy which became more frenetic as the evening passed. The music here is very intoxicating and it's impossible not to find yourself moving to it. The later it got the more the music ramped up and more people would push their plastic chairs to one side and start dancing. The couple sitting behind us jumped up and started dancing and insisting we join them. It didn't take much to persuade us and soon we were all gyrating to the Latin beats. The couple introduced themselves as Juan & Maria. Dancing with Maria was probably equivalent to a two hour zumba class! Her signature move was to grind herself down to the floor shouting "down down down down" and flicking her long hair around then she would grab each of us in turn and down we all went. The music kept playing and after multiple "down down down down" songs there was a brief break whilst the DJ loaded up his next set; we went to take our seats again when suddenly the music fired back up and Maria burst back into action this time jumping up and down yelling "jump jump jump jump"...! Forever more when we hear this music Jamie and I will yell at each other "down, down, down, down" and "jump, jump, jump, jump"! The South American way of dancing is every bit as energetic and provocative as the West Indian pulsating vibe but it is definately harder on the thighs and knees! We have enjoyed several more nights at this bar which has become our firm favourite in Getsemani and we rarely pass an evening there without dancing for at least some of it. So we are very grateful to Juan and Maria for the early lessons!
It hasn't taken us long to pick out our favourite songs and we often hear these played on the party boats that fire past Hamble Warrior in the anchorage at night whereby we find ourselves dancing in the cockpit! This music; like the SOCA of the West Indies, will stay with us now - forever reminding us of our time here.
After our first big party night we took Sunday at a calmer pace. We went to pick up some nice food to cook aboard from the fabulous supermarket just a few minutes walk from the marina and then found a nice bar for a few beers and messaged our friend Rob to join us. We didn't stay out late and returned to Warrior to finish putting out the Christmas lights; put the festive tunes on and enjoy a delicous home cooked meal of steak, salad and our new favourite - yuca!
Over the next couple of weeks we explored a little more around Cartagena and spent many an evening in Getsemani where we would sit in Plaza de la Trinidad watching the street performers; drinking cold beers that we buy for 4,000 pesos (60p) from the street vendors and eating chicken skewers, pastries and other delicious treats from the stalls and vendors surrounding the square. The street food is amazing and astonishingly good value. Jamie tends to be more adventurous than me so I get to try his food without committing myself; it's always delicious but usually incredibly messy to eat! Even a "burger" or a "hotdog" doesn't taste like we are used to at home. Jamie ate a £2 chicken burger that had been cooked and then steamed and declared it the best burger he has ever eaten. Undoubtably it would have been £18 in a gastropub back home. This thing was enormous and apparantly there was a £4 version too - whatever size would that have been?!! Later in the evening we head to Cocktail la Nina for Cuba Libras and it is always the early hours of the following day when we finally wend our way back over the bridge to the marina and row ourselves home.
During our daytime wanders in those first few days we discovered the small coffees available from street vendors carrying large flasks of this strong sweet delicious drink. These "Tinticos" cost the equivalent of approximately 10p each and are a great caffeine boost on a hot day; especially if you were up dancing and drinking until 2 or 3am!
We explored further afield too and discovered that if we walk out the back of the shopping mall we step into a very different Cartagena; much more like the city I imagined it to be before we arrived. A busy dusty road jammed with traffic honking and a street lined with huge fabric stores and discount clothing shops and rammed with stalls and vendors all pushing their wares. This whole area backs on to an enormous market selling literally everything from meat and vegetables to clothes; hardware and anything else you could think of. Inside the market is a rabbit warren and you could easily get lost amongst the stalls and carts. Stray cats crouch between crates of goods and circling overhead are the ever present birds of prey which float on the thermal currents by the dozen watching the maelstrom of life going on below them.
By contrast on the other side of town we walked to the "old town" within the walled city and wandered through beautiful streets of ancient buildings with boutique shops and fancy Restaraunts. Here local ladies dress in traditional costume carrying baskets of fruit on their heads and pose with tourists for photographs and payment. Clearly big business it was hard at times to take photos of the architecture without one stepping into frame and glowering when you decline to purchase a photo opportunity! Everywhere are hat sellers and beautiful carts laden with carefully arranged fruit making it a very photogenic part of town; in stark contrast to the area behind the mall! This is where the cruise ship passengers come to see Cartagena and the prices reflect that. This was not a place for us to be eating, drinking or shopping but we walked around enjoying the atmosphere and taking photographs and wandered along the outter city wall looking across the water with the same magnificent birds of prey watching over us from their great height.
After leaving the walled boundary of the old town we bought 2 dishes of traditional colombian fayre from a street cart for £1.30 each and sat with the locals enjoying our lunch while a very impassioned preacher talked in rapid Spanish about the true meaning of Christmas.
Returning to the "Manga" area where the marina is it struck me how many different cities are rolled into the one in Cartagena; each area is so different as to be nearly a city in its own right. From the historic tourist areas through the party plazas to the manicured modern marinas and the sweaty dusty market streets with hollering vendors and barefoot beggars.
Throughout the city motorbikes and rickshaws weave between the traffic and it would be inadvisable to take a pedesrian crossing at face value even if the universally recognised "green man" is present. Some parts are trickier than others for navigating on foot. The busy main road leading down to the shopping mall is especially challenging and crossing it during rush hour is pretty high-adrenalin stuff. We got very lucky on our last attempt as there were a couple of guys selling fireworks at the side of the road and by pure chance a car in the middle lane decided that they wanted to buy some just as we were looking to cross so just like magic three lanes of traffic ground to a halt while the transaction took place through the drivers window giving us the perfect opportunity to cross the road! It says a lot about the priorities of the drivers that anyone attempting to change lanes; join the traffic, or cross the road is blasted with a cacophony of horns but some fella wants half a dozen firecrackers for new years eve and everyone amicably comes to a halt and waits for them to make their purchase!
One of our favourite surprise gems of the city is the Parque del Centenario located just beyond the "winter wonderland" square near Getsemani. Here we discovered a beautiful tranquil space right in the middle of all the chaos of Cartagena. This park has a few extra special treats though. Amongst the trees and fountains; between the monuments and street vendors selling cold drinks and ice creams are families of small monkeys swinging between the branches of the trees; red squirrels scuttling around and if you are lucky and look in the right place you might also witness the incredible sight of a sloth hanging from the upper branches of a tree snoozing away! We stood and watched for quite some time whilst one hung by his back legs completely static. Eventually he began a lazy armpit scratch which appeared to stop halfway through when he fell back to sleep again mid-scratch. Later that evening whilst drinking beers in the plaza de la Trinidad we saw the street vendor that had pointed the sloth out to us. He told us that he came down out of his tree and even took some pet later in the afternoon!
The sloth wasn't the only creature to come down to earth that day; whilst wandering the old city we saw several of the enormous birds of prey just wandering around on the ground near a food stall. We have seen them from a distance before picking at a dead pigeon in the road but these guys were literally just strolling around browsing for dropped food like the seagulls on Brighton seafront! The birdlife here in Colombia is pretty spectacular; especially to see so much in the city - I can only imagine what treasures the jungles of South America hold. Out in the anchorage we have the familiar Frigate birds soaring over-head and Pelicans which cruise past the boat on a regular basis and have set up a bit of a colony on a neighbouring abandoned vessel where they perch sometimes 7 or 8 at a time on the bowsprit and transom; they are very photogenic the way they pose like figureheads although closer inspection of the hull tells me they have been perching there for a very long time!! Early evening the telephone lines overhead in the streets are filled with colourful little parakeets and the noise of parakeets is prevelant in the trees throughout the city most of the day. Whilst tying our dinghy up in the Marina one day two spectacular parrots flew overhead - the bright colours and tailfeathers made them very distinctive and easy to identify. They looked so out of place with the tall buildings behind them rather than some luscious Amazon rainforest setting. Similarly the enormous iguanas we watched chewing lazily on grass amongst fly-tipped rubbish by the river again looked out of place. We have become accustomed to seeing them in the islands of the Caribbean but in far more pastoral surroundings; then again to have seen my first Sloth in a park in the middle of a city I guess I shouldn't be surprised by anything here!! Last but by no means least are the magnificent Vultures that we occassionally spot perched on rooftops. Whilst these are not everyone"s favourite birds and certainly not the prettiest I find them fascinating creatures. I had the pleasure of flying one in captivity during a "hawking experience day" many years back and learned a little about these amazing birds. As carrion feeders able to process high levels of toxins that are deadly to other species these birds are essentially nature's bin men; consuming the diseased flesh of dead animals and making them an essential part of the ecosystem. They are quite characterful and again I was delighted to see them in the wild although I was not expecting my first encounter with a wild Vulture to be in a big city!
We have been enjoying the aspects of city life that have featured less in our island travels this last year. We have browsed the mall as well as the busy area behind it for a few new clothes as life aboard is tough on any wardrobe. It is a difficult thing to describe to anyone that hasn't lived aboard but boats "eat" clothes! Obviously the damp conditions created by Mediterranean winters and the humidity of life in the tropics mean that however frequently one washes their clothes a liveaboard sailor is destined to always smell faintly musty! However carefully you stow clothes I can promise you that immaculate white t-shirts will come out of the cupboard yellow and anything with elastic in it from the waistband of pants to leggings will just perish in time. For this reason there is no such policy as saving clothes "for best" on Hamble Warrior. Saving an outfit to be brought out for special occasions is simply making a date with disappointment. So I take the mantra "wear your best dress today" very literally! We were very aware arriving in Cartagena though that we looked very scruffy compared to the beautifully presented party-goers of the bars we drank in of an evening. So now was a perfect time to take advantage of the inexpensive shopping available and get ourselves a few new clothes. My envy at how our drinking companions were turned out didn't end with their clothes; the Colombian women have beautiful long dark hair which is tossed in every direction when they dance. "I want to be a tosser" I thought; so I bought myself a wig. For a couple of weeks it was a wonderful insight into human nature as we roamed around all of our favourite places; buying beers off our favourite vendors in Plaza de la Trinidad; visiting our favourite food stalls and going to Cocktail la Nina for Cuba Libras.. some days I would have long dark hair; a full face of make up and my tight black jeans on; other days it would be my customary close-shaved crew cut, a little mascara and a loose fitting dress. You get an opportunity to see how observant people are in these situations and also how they react when they think something is going on that isn't. I was tickled by how many of our new friends gave Jamie a fist bump before they noticed that his wife and mistress had matching tattoos!
After a few weeks we are now familiar faces in the Getsemani area and our little routine of sitting in the plaza drinking beers with the beautiful church lit up behind us as the street artists perform their customary nightly gyrations and then heading down to La Nina for Cuba Libras is punctuated with greetings and embraces from now familiar vendors; bar owners, staff and locals. It has taken us a little longer to penetrate through the rank of tourist here but we are now flourishing - bearing in mind we are in a big city and not a small island.
Christmas snuck up on us despite the constant reminders of lights and revellery everywhere. We bought the trimmings for a special Christmas dinner onboard and on the afternoon of Christmas eve we hit the mall to buy each other a couple of gifts to exchange on Christmas morning. On our return we stopped off at a bar in Manga for a few cold ones and in doing so discovered an alternative to the party-fuelled drinking in Getsemani; one for quieter evenings perhaps!
After getting home and completing our final bits of pre-christmas prep we sat in the cockpit listening to festive songs and watching the late night party boats cruise past. At midnight the fireworks signalled the start of Christmas day and we knew from what we had read about Colombian Christmas that already the nocturnal natives would be laying out their Christmas spread and tearing open presents with their families in huge numbers!
We spent our Christmas day onboard enjoying a lazy morning and special breakfast with our little gifts to open. Then much of the day was passed talking to our friends and family and being very grateful that having access to data and a decent internet signal meant we could join in with Christmas celebrations around the world. The party boats continued to ply the waters around us through the day and with all the music and the partying going on around us it never really felt like a quiet Christmas.
Now we are approaching New Years Eve and it seemed appropriate to try and post my final blog update of the year and bring us up to date with our travels. I have absolutely no idea who reads these posts other than a small handful of close family members but if you are reading and you have been following our travels then thank you for taking an interest in our little (sometimes very long) stories. On behalf of the tiny crew of Hamble Warrior I wish you all a peaceful and a blessed 2023 and hope that you look to the horizon and follow your dreams.
As a bit of an end of year round-up I offer the following summary of our 2022 from 1st January when we set out into the Atlantic from Tenerife on a 21 day ocean passage that ended in Martinique. Since then we have sailed approximately 5000 nautical miles (or 5750 miles), we have made landfall in 10 different countries visiting at least 15 different islands and raising 9 different courtesy flags. We have spoken English, French and Spanish. We have learned a little Dutch and a little Papiamento. We have tried dozens of new foods and have collected many new recipes and ingredients. We have bought goods from hundreds of stalls, shops, shacks and vendors and paid in Euros, east Caribbean dollars, US dollars, Antillean Guilders, Aruban Florins and Colombian Pesos. We have continued to hit our goals for a sustainable sailing plan with our fuel consumption for the year being approx. 80 litres of diesel in total. We have not spent a single night in a Marina in 2022 although we have utilised mooring balls on a few occasions when it was necessary to do so. Otherwise every night was spent either hanging off our anchor or on passage.
There were far too many highlights for the year to even imagine we could pick a few. I attended my first Test match and Jamie fulfilled a lifelong dream to watch England play cricket in the West Indies having sailed himself across an ocean to do so. It was a 40th birthday he will never forget. Of all the highlights to this incredible year though it was the new friends we made that will live in our hearts and our memories the longest. Many you will have read about in my blog posts and many that didn't get a mention - not because they were not worthy of writing about but simply because sometimes those most pure and uncomplicated little acts of friendship once written down look diminished compared to the way they made you feel when you experienced them. To record each and every gesture of goodwill reduces an act of kindness to something of a list; a dossier of evidence that humans really can be kind and wonderful creatures. I am far too much of a romantic to want to itemise these friendships in such a way but I hope that some of the stories I have told give you an idea of how lucky we have been to meet so many special people. As nomads roaming the world thousands of miles from our families to have been shown so much love and kinship from the people we have met has been; without doubt the most valuable gift we could have recieved. We leave 2022 behind far richer than we could have ever dreamed