Cruising Columbia

THIS IS AN ARTICLE I WROTE LAST YEAR THAT I”VE JUST GOT AROUND TO POSTING

After two seasons cruising the Eastern Caribbean aboard La Mischief, our Lagoon 421 catamaran, it was time to look westwards and check out the “other” side of the Caribbean. When we heard about the Ocean Cruising Club’s Suzie Too Rally from some of our cruising friends, we jumped at the chance to explore this part of the world in the company of both old and new friends.

Suzie and David

The Suzie Too OCC Rally is the brainchild of Suzanne and David Chappell, who first ran the rally in 2016. Our rally started in November 2018 from Curaçao, visiting Aruba, Colombia, San Blas, Panama, San Andres, Providencia, Roatan, and Utila before finishing in Belize in April.

The first major leg of the rally was the passage from Aruba to Santa Marta in Colombia, which has the reputation of being very challenging. Trade Winds funnel across the top of Colombia and the waves have a very long fetch in which to build up size. Folklore has it as being one of the five worst passages in the world. But having researched and now done it, I believe that the Rally got it right; and you can dramatically improve your chances of a pleasant non-eventful passage by planning to go at the right time of the year – before the Christmas winds kick in;  penciling in an optional rest stop at Cabo De La Vela; staying close to the coast to make use of the beneficial land effects; and applying a little patience to wait for a good weather window.  

Setting off from Aruba at 5pm with my partner DeAnne, and our crew of Richard and Christy, we ended up having rather benign conditions all the way to Cabo De La Vela (the Cape of the Wind), with an annoying one knot current against us, instead of with us as advertised. Progress was slow but okay, made worse by our overly conservative sail plan, choosing not to deploy our parasailer when conditions were perfect. The folklore had got the better of us! 

As we left Cabo De La Vela, we pulled out the light wind gennaker for a few hours until the wind built to 20-25 knots as dusk approached. Down the gennaker came and in went a reef into the mainsail. Around midnight the wind completely died and on went the motors so that we could see the sunrise over the Sierra Nevada mountains, which run down to the sea and are very spectacular. These are the only mountains in the Caribbean where you can see snow on the mountain tops. 

The approach to Santa Marta is stunningly spectacular. As we approached the headland, distracted by the snowcapped mountains, the wind picked up and the waves grew in size. We were having a great downwind sail, but we needed to reef. As we were close to Santa Marta, we decided to drop the mainsail instead of going through the rigmarole of reefing. We turned into the wind to lower the main, just as a large wave broke over us thoroughly soaking DeAnne as she stood on the coach roof to help with the sail drop. 

Santa Marta Marina was fantastic. Kelly, who manages the office, is awesome. Colombia requires that you use an agent to clear into each port, and Santa Marta Marina provided us with an agent free of charge because of our extended booking. We soon discovered the famous Santa Marta katabatic winds that appear every afternoon and blow around 40kts. A good reason to be tucked up in the marina rather than out at anchor with reputedly dubious holding. 

We spent two weeks soaking up the sites, culture and food in Santa Marta, which was celebrating its 500-year anniversary. We hired a car and drove the countryside. We spent two days exploring Tayrona National Park, which has some great walks and beaches. We checked out the Caiman crocodile floating in the river just behind the Park’s most popular swimming beach. Yikes. The marina also arranged three complimentary buses for the rally to go to another part of Tayrona for a wonderful beach day. We spend the night up at Minca in the mountains and did a wonderful motorbike tour to several waterfalls; an old coffee plantation; and Casa Elemente for lunch, complete with giant hammocks, a swimming pool and a view to die for. We went river tubing on Rio Don Diego and visited the bohemian hangout of Palomino. 

Rally members organized regular rubbish cleanups to do our bit to try and clean up the ocean; Spanish lessons were organized; we had some OpenCPN sessions in readiness for the San Blas; and Suzanne had organized for the rally to donate heaps of children’s clothes, toys and school equipment to a local charity. 

We also took the opportunity to do some provisioning. We found the supermarkets to be very good, with the exception of canned fruit and vegetables that some cruisers wanted for the San Blas, which they had to get in Curaçao beforehand. This was entirely understandable as the fresh produce in Colombia was extensive and of high quality. 

But by far and away the best part of Colombia was its super friendly people. They loved helping, even if they couldn’t speak any English and I couldn’t speak any Spanish. Luckily, DeAnne was fluent in Spanish and loved practicing with the locals. 

Two weeks was not nearly long enough and before we knew it, we were at the farewell party put on by the Marina and on our way at first light the next morning. 

The leg from Santa Marta to Puerto Velero was more like what we had heard about. Very lively with big following seas. We got caught out when a big breaking wave came over the back-starboard steps and into our cockpit, before proceeding through our open door into our saloon.  From there we watched in stunned silence as it went down both sets of steps and into each of our hulls before we were able to pull up the floor boards for our bilge pumps to do their thing. We spent the next 30 minutes mopping up and rinsing everything with fresh water. Needless to say, the saloon door was pulled shut to avoid any repeat performance.  

Once we got close to the mouth of the Rio Magdalena, we had a new potential problem to contend with. Rio Magdalena is the biggest river in Colombia and spits out large logs, whole trees and all sorts of large debris. As the water color dramatically changed, we were on the lookout for anything big that could ruin our day. On the plus side, the river water seemed to dampen the waves, making for a more comfortable ride. 

Turning the corner shortly after passing the river mouth provided further relief from the large seas and we had a wonderful sail down to Puerto Velero, where we anchored for the night, under the watchful eye of our friends from the Colombian Coast Guard, who were escorting us right through Colombia, with their boats patrolling our various anchorages night and day. We felt very honored and safe in their presence.

We were off again at first light and this time the wind was nowhere to be seen. We motor sailed in calm seas, with winds less than 10kts towards the Rosario Islands, instead of heading directly to Cartagena, where you normally have to go first, as the Rally had got special dispensation for a three day stay in these islands, something that is not normally allowed. 

The Colombian Islands aren’t to be missed and we were allocated an anchorage off Isla Grande in the Rosario group. We had a pleasant three days, swimming in crystal clear waters and exploring the island with its interesting pathways and beach bars. It felt good to get back to a bit of island life between city stops. 

Refreshed and relaxed, we all set off together, proceeding in single file into Cartagena. It was quite a sight with 38 boats following Suzie Too past the forts and into the inner harbor. We felt like Sir Francis Drake as we lay siege to the city. We had a choice of two marinas (Club De Pesca and Club Nautico) or an anchorage that the coast guard had set aside for the Rally, just outside the old city walls. Colombia has a great attitude towards cruisers and is trying really hard to realize the potential that visiting cruisers represent.  

Cartagena itself is one of the great cruising destinations in the world.  It’s a must see with its old city, its magnificent fort and its wonderful architecture. And it does Christmas incredibly well with its many beautiful churches, its great decorations and a festive atmosphere unlike anywhere else.  The Rally celebrated Christmas at Club De Pesca with a Pot Luck lunch and a bit of fun with a Secret Santa session, where fishing lures seemed to be the catch of the day.  

New Year’s Eve in Cartagena is also an event not to be missed. Half of Colombia seems to descend on Cartagena for the festivities. To accommodate the crowds, all the restaurants spill out into the streets, and pop-up restaurants appear across the city. The Rally booked various restaurants around the town, before spilling out onto the streets to watch the fireworks at midnight. DeAnne and I then spent several hours walking the streets listening to the music and soaking up the festivities.  

Colombia certainly impressed us, and we wished we could have stayed a little longer. But with the New Year upon us and the San Blas Islands calling, it was time to head West.   

Ten Tips for Colombia

  1. Try and make it to Cartagena by Christmas to avoid the Christmas Winds.
  2. Christmas in Colombia is awesome. New Year’s Eve in Cartagena is also an experience not to be missed. 
  3. Brush up on your Spanish. Not many locals speak English. 
  4. Don’t go too shallow. The charts don’t have all the rocks. Locals suggest staying 5nm off the coast on approach to Cartagena. 
  5. Visit Colombia’s Islands – Isla Rosario, San Bernardo Group and Isla Fuerte before departing for the San Blas.
  6. Take advantage of the cheap airfares and accommodation to fly to some of Colombia’s amazing inland cities and attractions. Medellin, Bogotá, and the Amazon Jungle are all worth considering. 
  7. Hire a Car in Santa Marta. There’s so much to see and do. Do a Motor Bike tour in Minca, go river tubing on Rio Don Diego or Palomino, and visit The Tayrona National Park, staying overnight in small hotels. Or take a four-day hike to the Lost City. 
  8. Soak up the culture in Santa Marta and Cartagena. These places are full of history.  
  9. Get a 10USD steak dinner at 13 Reses in Santa Marta. Eat out at many fantastic restaurants in Santa Marta and Cartagena. 
  10. Look at joining the next Suzie Too OCC Rally, you won’t regret it!