The navigation from Los Roques to Cartagena was okay until we reached the point of Barranquilla, where we experienced the worst conditions of this trip so far. With about 30knots of constant wind or more at times and waves that filled up the cockpit once in a while, we didn’t sleep much that night.
Cirrus finally entered the bay of Cartagena passing in between the two buoys of Bocagrande which mark the gap on an underwater barrier designed by the Spanish to defend this entrance, so that the ships had to enter by Bocachica on the South side of the island of Tierra Bomba. Nowadays the Bocagrande pass can only be used by small boats as it is quite narrow.
We dropped the anchor in front of el Club Náutico in Manga. Manga is a rich residential neighbourhood on an island connected by bridges to the rest of the city.
In the evening our friend Big Ben, who lives in Cartagena, took us accross the bridge to Getsemaní, the old popular, nowadays bohemian neighbourhood which is also full of travellers (there are many hostels for backpackers). We instantly got charmed by the atmosphere: coloured houses with flowers everywhere, with open windows and doors to get the night air in (couldn’t resist to look through and see the beautiful patios), and a lot of people on the street terraces and on Plaza Trinidad, the main square.
The day after was paperwork day. – Warning! Skip this pharagraph if you are not planing to arrive by boat, it is quite boring! – In Colombia everyone who arrives by boat needs to get in contact with an agent to do the paperwork. If you plan to stay 5 days or less this consists in getting an entrance paper by the port authority, and the passports stamped by inmigration. To do so the agent asks you for anything in between 110 – 140 US dollars. It gets more complicated if you want to stay for more than 5 days. I wasn’t able to find clear information anywhere and I write this info based on our experience. If you want to stay for more than 5 days (or actually a week because weekends don’t count) you also need to do:
- A temporary importation of your boat at the Customs office (DIAN). The agent can do it for you for another sum (50-100 US dollars) or you can do it yourself for free by going to the DIAN with 2 photocopies of each of these documents: the entrance paper issued by the Port Authority, the page on your passport that has the inmigration stamp as well as the page that has your photo, the boat papers, a photo of your boat where its name is visible. At the DIAN you have to visit two desks (you just say that you are coming to do the importation (importación temporal) – and they will guide you around the office, speaking Spanish helps a lot). At the first desk you have to present your photocopies and they will fill up the Aviso de Importación, or Importation Notice, on a computer, give you a copy of this and stamp all your photocopies. Then you have to proceed to another desk to do the temporary importation. Here you will receive a paper to fill up with your boat details and they will ask you for one set of photocopies (stamped). They will tell you that they will visit your boat for inspection before signing the paper that you just filled up. If your boat is at anchor, they will most probably not come onboard and just ask you to come againg to the DIAN office, where you can collect your signed paper.
- Get a cruising permit. We found this a very subjective procedure because the amount of time you can stay without a permit depends on who is in charge of making your entrance paper at the Port Authority. Some say you have to get one after 5 days, others after 8 days and others after 15 days. The cruising permit costs 100 US dollars that you have to pay via transfer to the Port Authority. On our paper it said we had to pay it after 5 days. We stayed 15 days and thanks to the dealing of our agent we didn’t have to pay for a cruising permit.
When you are about to leave you just have to contact your agent again and he will get your passports stamped at inmigration and your “zarpe” or exit paper from the Port Authority. A good lesson learnt from all this is that in Cartagena (almost) everything is negociable but it requires time and patience.
For me, the highlight of our time in Cartagena was my family coming over to visit. They stayed at the only one store hotel in Bocagrande, otherwise a neighbourhood full of skyscraper hotels. Coming from rainy Bilbao, they enjoyed the long beach on the outer side of the bay every morning. This beach is everything but quiet. Actually Cartagena is everything but quiet. Vendors pass every minute saying “a la orden” (at your command), a way to catch your attention to try and sell you drinks, ceviche, massage, mango, bracelets, selfie sticks, shoes, coconut biscuits, excursions, hats, tattoos, etc. On the first day we ended up spending our cash in all sorts of things, like newby tourists, but by the last day we had learnt how to manage the situation.
I haven’t yet talked about what in my opinion makes Cartagena such a special city: the old colonial neighbourhood, “centro histórico”. The colonial buildings and plazas with a feel of decadency surrounded by city walls made of coral rock take you back in time and make you wonder how it was in the times when Cartagena was the richest city in South America.
Unfortunately, like in many places in the World, mass tourism has its effect here as well. As we walked around the pebled streets we constantly got offered the same things as on the beach in the morning, to the point that it became quite annoying. However it is also true that those vendors give some ambiance to the streets and for example the fruits sold by the palenqueras or the fresh limonada de coco are very appreciated in the afternoon heat.
A good way to realize how big the whole city is, was to go up to Convento de la Popa, the only hill in the otherwise flat Cartagena. The view from the top of the hill is amazing, and the convent itself is very beautiful.
We also had the visit of Raph, Gaspar’s friend from Brussels who is travelling around Colombia by bike. All his stories made me want to discover the inland of this beautiful country, which weather, landscape and people apparently change dramatically depending on where you go.
With Raph we went to the buzzing Bazurto market. Here you can buy anything from shoe laces to refrigerators and of course a large variety of amazing fruit and vegetables at very low prices. Be ready to negotiate and keep your head clear while your nostrils get used to the strong smells filling the air and your ears try to hear above reggaeton at high volume.
Another day we took my family and Raph for a sail to Playa Blanca, 14 nm from Manga. We exited the bay at Bocachica, a pass between two forts made of coral rock: Fuerte de San Fernando and Fuerte de San José. Here is where the Basque commander Blas de Lezo defended the entry to the bay from the English under the command of admiral Vernon. They fought with 6 boats and 3,000 men against a fleet of almost 300 boats and 10,000 men. After six days of battle, Vernon’s army entered the bay and the Spanish retired to Castillo de San Felipe, from where they ended up beating the English. We found ourselves three centuries later sailing the retreat way with Cirrus, which is registered in the UK, hence has got an English flag.
A couple of hours of saling later we dropped anchor in front of a small beach past Punta Gigantes, far away from the packed Playa Blanca, where thousand tourists come everyday on motorboats from Cartagena. Our spot was perfect with turquoise water and white sanded little beach just for us.
In Cartagena we also met back with our Norwegian boat friends Inga and Peter, whom we hadn’t seen since Las Palmas. A couple of days after my family left, we left together to Isla Grande, in Islas del Rosario. We found a beautiful snorkelling spot just North of Canal Ratón, between Isla Grande and Isla Naval, where there is even a wreck of a plane!
After Isla Grande we sailed to the archipielago of San Bernardo, where we anchored South of Isla Tintipan. Almost all the inhabitants on this archipielago (about 600 people) live in a tiny island called El Islote and there are no houses on the other islans, apart from hotels and some private villas.
Tintipan is just stunning. It has got an inner lagoon surrounded by mangrove where you can enter with a yacht, but we preferred the anchorage outside to avoid the mosquitoes, and we went exploring the lagoon by dinghy. Two locals from El Islote, who called themselves Pantera and Cremoso, came to sell us coconuts, fish or beer, and we ended up inviting them onboard and sharing the fish that Gaspar and Peter had just catched. The day after in exchange Pantera showed us the North side of the island and took us fishing inside the lagoon.
Overall the Caribbean coast of Colombia left me a very good impression and that is also thanks to Big Ben who helped us discover Cartagena and Pachi and Lee who gave us many tips for the islands and also for San Blas, our next stop. Thank you to my sister Lucía for taking the photos.