SAN BLAS ISLANDS, PANAMA - CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA Feb. 2007
After transiting the Panama Canal with Scott and Kya over the Thanksgiving holidays, my brother, Rick, and another friend, Megan, met me in Colon where we, after shopping and getting our clearance documents in order, set sail for Cartagena with a planned stop over in the San Blas Islands.
The sail to San Blas was pleasant, with a nice breeze and favorable current. We had planned on arriving in the morning after daylight but instead arrived well before the sun. I was very reluctant to be making a night approach, as the prevailing advice is not to. We slowly approached Chichime with clear skies and a bright moon shining. The sky was so bright that we could make out the palm trees on the distant islands. Using all our electronic charting and radar and having a visual on the islands, we eased in a little closer. The deciding factor turned out to be the guide book written by Eric Bauhaus entitled The Panama Cruising Guide, A Complete Sailors Guide to the Isthmus of Panama, which had a perfect overhead photo of the islands and reef, as well as detailed instructions for entering the anchorage, along with the GPS coordinates for dropping anchor. With the bright moon, we could see exactly where to go. No problem and we were anchored. After some good sleep, we woke to find ourselves between two small palm covered islands, clear water and gorgeous white sand beaches. After taking in the sights over coffee and a light breakfast, three Kuna Indians paddled out in their dugout ulu wanting to sell us some molas. The molas are multicolored clothes sewn together with abstract stitching of different things such as birds, fish or different animals or even just abstract designs that they will tell you has some special meaning. I have to say, I was a little suspicious of all the meaning they were placing on these random designs, not to say that they weren’t beautiful, but I’m just not so sure they really had the meaning they were claiming. It was very interesting and we did end up buying a couple of molas each. Shortly after these Indians left, a couple of more paddled up offering to sell us some small lobster they had caught out on the reef which we declined because they were so small.
After lying around here for half the day, we decided to pull anchor and just motor up through the next few islands before heading on to Cartagena which was our primary goal. Rick and Megan only had a week before needing to fly out, so we really didn’t have the time to stay and enjoy San Blas and spend any time in Cartagena. I wasn’t too concerned because San Blas is right on the way when sailing from the Panama Canal to Cartagena and I knew that I would get another chance to see the islands on my way back to Panama. As we were motoring through these beautiful islands, Rick was about to go crazy because we didn’t have any surfboards onboard and the surf around the islands was absolutely fantastic looking. Rick was constantly “I can’t believe we don’t have any surfboards”, at every island and every reef. We all agreed that we could have spent the entire week there in the islands and loved it, but it was time to move on to Colombia. As we left San Blas and set our heading for Cartagena, the wind was blowing fairly stiff right at us. It was decided that rather than sail off course, we would motor on course for a while and hope that the wind would clock around some and allow us to sail. The wind kept increasing with no shift. Before long we were motoring into increasingly strong seas and more wind. Nightfall came and still no let up or wind shift. The wind was coming from exactly the direction we wanted to go. Before the night was over, we had 30+ knots of wind and heavy seas. Shortly after daybreak we did get enough of a shift to sail the final short distance into Cartagena. What a rough trip!
It was really exciting to be sailing into Cartagena, Colombia. We entered at Boca Grande and sailed past all the new high-rise condos along the waterfront and then right up to the old city with all of its cathedrals, old colonial architecture, domed buildings and old fort. It was cool. The anchorage was surprisingly full of sailboats from around the world. There was also a strong Colombian Naval presence giving the place a true sense of security. Our first stop was at the Club de Pesca Marina fuel dock. While fueling and arranging to get our papers in order, Rick found a local guy around the marina to come over and spend a couple of hours or so cleaning the boat, which it definitely needed. After this we anchored in the bay and went to shore in the dinghy, tying up at the Club Nautico dinghy dock. It is here that we met John and arranged for a slip the next day. Even though we were all exhausted from the trip, we couldn’t resist the urge to see the city. The first evening we spent a couple of hours walking all through the old walled city. It was beautiful with all the plazas, the flowers draping over the balconies of the old homes, all the shops, restaurants, and bars. The place seemed really alive with activity. Did we feel safe? Absolutely. There is good security throughout the old city and all the people seemed really beautiful, friendly and very welcoming. The old city is one of the most beautiful and interesting cities in the Americas with over five hundred years of rich history. It was great walking into the places with huge wooden doors and grand stone entrances that lead into beautiful courtyards with balconies and flowers all around. The people would proudly point out all the original architecture and old walls that were over five hundred years old. They are proud of the city and love their country. Seeing this place and being around the people, you just have to wonder how so much of the country could be suffering through a forty year civil war. Don’t get me wrong, not all of Cartagena is so nice or even safe for that matter. Once you leave the city and venture out toward the suburbs, you quickly see and feel the poverty. It is estimated that half of the one million population live in dire poverty, many of the people displaced by the violence of the civil war. Rick and I joined in with several of the other crusiers donating to help with the expansion of a small educational facility set up in one of the poorest barrios to help young impoverished kids at risk. The man running the facility truly cares and is making a genuine effort to give some kids hope. He is working hard to give them the tools, confidence and pride to participate in society. We wish him the strength to continue on and only hope that others will join him.
The Club Nautico Marina has been a great place to keep the boat. Security is 24 hour and the staff goes all out to make sure you have everything you need. John, the dockmaster, will gladly help arrange any type of work you need on the boat. There is always a group of cruisers hanging out here and the marina does everything it can to promote the social activities. This is definitely a recommended safe place to keep your boat. I flew home to Houston for the Christmas holidays and John arranged for a local guy with the marina(Kiko) to watch my lines and wash the boat once a week while I was gone. I came back to a clean boat just the way I had left it. The price was really right.
The neighborhood around Club Nautico is called Manga and it is a nice 15 – 20 minute walk, mostly waterfront, over to the old walled city. After walking for a while, you cross a bridge and arrive at the first section of the old wall. This first part of the wall is waterfront and when you go up the stairs to the top, there is a very nice open bar which looks out over the bay full of boats on one side and the big fort on the other. Rick and I sat at this bar for happy hour drinks one early evening and after enjoying the final orange glow of sunset over the bay, we saw the huge full moon coming up over the old fort. The fort sits up on a hill and is lit up so as to be visible around the city at night. I have to say, with the full moon, it was a very relaxing and beautiful place to be. From here, we walked on into the old city for a great steak dinner at a place called Quebarracho, which serves several fine cuts of meat, light live Colombian music and great service. This was just one of many nice nights out in the city.
I was always very curious as to what it would be like visiting Colombia and I have to say that I have been very pleasantly surprised at how much I like the country. It’s been a pleasure being here and I have felt very welcomed by the people, not only in Cartagena, but also for the days spent in Bogota, as well as the day spent at a local village an hour bus ride out of Cartagena, (interesting stories as well).