Happy New Year to everyone! Today is the start of our next adventure ..... sailing west to Panama and then hopefully north along the West Caribbean coastline as far as Belize. We shall post our diary as often as is feasible but if there are long periods without news, it's because we are too busy having fun!
What an amazing start to the New Year. A wonderful Safari Party with fellow OCC Rallyers based in Seru Boca and Santa Barbara Marinas. We started the evening with appetizers on Ocean Rainbow (15 in the cockpit – we had to climb uphill to get to the forepeak!) then on to Makuni where we were treated to an excellent risotto and garlic bread before hitching a ride to Santa Barbara for desserts on ‘Echo’. We went to the beach for midnight, sang Auld Lang Syne, drank champagne and watched a rather slick firework display then we repaired to ‘Echo’ for a 360˚ view of the fireworks being let off all over Willemsted. It really was quite something. We then all went to bed to get a bit of sleep before setting off on the first leg of the OCC Belize Rally.
Our plan was to sail up to the north of Curacao, drop a hook and have a good night’s sleep and then make our way across to Aruba where we would drop a hook in a little bay, sleep and set off early the next morning. Great plan, but it didn’t happen! Our overnight stop at Santa Cruz was lovely and we shared supper with Makuni who came across to us with their contribution of leftover risotto. (Why can Italians make risotto taste like nectar and Brits just make it taste like a nice rice dish?) The next morning we set off just after dawn and headed across to Aruba. A lovely sail which we really enjoyed. We found the little anchorage that had been recommended – St Nicholas’ Bay – and duly entered (looks a bit like Mad Max country with the refinery and wiring) dropping our anchor in the lagoon. No sooner was the anchor down than we were aware of another boat speeding up to us – the Coastguard! We were not allowed to anchor overnight and leave at dawn, we had to come into Aruba and check in with customs and immigration. We could have just weighed anchor and set off there and then but we were sailing in company with Moody Mistress, Balance and Bla Elinor so after discussion we decided to ‘go with the flow’ and stop off in Aruba.
Customs and immigration were very, very helpful. All the boats were searched but it was so quick and the gentleman doing the searching was very chatty so we didn’t feel we’d been invaded. Then it was off to the ‘Airport Anchorage’. On route there we actually ducked our heads as a jet roared over the top of us! It was a bit like being back in Gibraltar with the roar of aircraft and smell of aviation fuel as planes came and went. That night we were woken to the most amazing wall of sound blasting the boat and causing her to vibrate from bow to stern. It was the first night of Carnival and the parade was going down the ‘boardwalk’ into the town centre. If we’d had the dinghy blown up we would have gone to investigate but as it was we had to content ourselves with looking at the coloured lights through binoculars. Luckily the ‘row’ subsided after a couple of hours and we were able to get back to sleep – goodness only knows how people on the street survived the sound … we must be getting old!!
We went ashore to investigate Aruba. It is colourful, full of trendy shops, restaurants and casinos and nothing much else. Luckily it was Sunday so we were spared temptation! We were glad to have stopped off to see the island but it isn’t somewhere we would ever need to visit again!
On Monday morning we set off for Columbia in the company of Moody Mistress, Balance (Staffan and Kiki from Sweden) and Malika (Brigitte and Michel from France). We made a nice little group and Claire had her linguistic skills put to the test as she translated the various English conversations into French for Malika. James managed to catch a beautiful Dorade with his new fishing rod on our second day at sea so we had a sumptuous dinner in Ensenada Huaritcheru, our first stopover anchorage. We shared the ‘goujons’ with Malika who came on board for a quick planning chat but the marinaded fillets we kept to ourselves! Huaritcheru was a very bleak stopover but that didn’t seem to stop tourists who climbed to the top of the hill in droves – we can only assume to watch the sunset. James discovered there were jelly fish in the water – a nasty sting on his arm – but it didn’t spoil the refreshing swim too much!
Wednesday morning bright and early we were off again. The winds weren’t quite so kind on this second leg and we struggled to keep going in very light breezes but we didn’t have to resort to the engine so we were pleased. No fish on this trip and no dolphins either although a couple of the other boats who were further out to sea reported they had dolphins on their bow. We made it into Ensenada Gayraca in time for an early cup of tea. What a gorgeous bay with a lovely sandy beach and a few houses dotted amongst the trees around the bay. It is part of the Tayrona National Park and looks a wonderful place to visit once we are officially allowed on Columbian soil. Moody Mistress were already in the bay and we were joined later by Horizons. We didn’t feel in the least bit threatened but it was nice to have a little group of us should anything untoward have happened.
On Thursday morning, after a leisurely start, we headed off to Santa Marta. From the protected bay we had no idea that we were about to go out into white crested waves with winds blowing plus of 35 knots! It was really exhilarating to find ourselves surfing down waves at 11 knots and then to turn around and find dolphins following in our wake. A great little sail to Cabo de la Aguja and then the winds died and we had to motorsail into the bay and wait our turn to be berthed in the marina.
We are now settled in Santa Marta and ready to explore a little bit of Columbia.
It’s action packed on a Rally. First you try to see as much of the country you are visiting as possible, then you party with fellow Rallyers and finally you have to make the boat shipshape and replenish the stores before setting off to the next destination. With only a 5 day stop in Santa Marta we had to get our skates on or, in our case, our bikes out! A great way to get a feeling for the town and the people. The roads are in bad condition so it was a bumpy ride, the traffic is fairly chaotic with much tooting of horns but we didn’t have any mishaps and the police (who are out in droves) didn’t seem to mind us going the wrong way down/up various streets. We cycled out beyond the ring-road passing donkeys pulling carts loaded with builders’ rubble or piled high with rubbish (there is a regular refuse service so we think the carts were carrying rubbish that could be recycled and sold on). There appears to be a great bus service which we have yet to try out … one bus stopped and offered to takes us and the bikes on board. Taxis are numerous and cheap. The people are incredibly friendly and helpful so we have managed to find our way around and eventually found the covered market where we stopped for lunch. Prices are very low here but we are having difficulty with the mental calculations into pounds or dollars as the amounts we are dealing with are so great and we are struggling with the language! 1 million COP (Columbian Pesos) is the equivalent to £200 which means that 500 COP is only 10p. All the notes are in thousands but the maximum note is 50,000 so we have to carry a big wodge when we go shopping. Claire had a testing time buying fruit and vegetables trying to make sense of both the language and the money. It’s loads easier just to go to a supermarket but not so much fun!
Santa Marta is where Simon Bolivar was buried (later moved to Caracas) and Simon Bolivar, in case you don’t know, was the military and political figure responsible for establishing Columbia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia as independent states. We duly made a visit to the church and inspected numerous statues bearing his name. One thing that we have found somewhat strange is the fact that virtually all the houses are behind high bars. There is a little yard behind the bars and in front of the house and that is where the families sit with children playing. We feel it must be a tradition leftover from troubled times as we haven’t felt in the least bit threatened here.
We went on an excursion on Monday (a Bank Holiday in Columbia) and had intended to visit the Tayrona National Park. However, having got up at 5am for a 6am departure, the bus was late! Then, when we did get to the Park the queue to get in was so long our guide suggested that we visit Quebrada Valencia and then go on to Taironaca instead. What a great decision, although we weren’t too sure when we arrived at the first location after a 30 minute walk through the forest. The rainy season in Columbia has been very short and the rivers, as a result, are not very full. Quebrada Valencia is known for its crystal clear waters and waterfall – well, the riverbed was dried up and the waterfall was merely a trickle but our guide told us to climb up the rocks to the top pool. It was well worth the effort, we had a wonderful refreshing swim. We were having such a lovely time the guide had to come up to ask us to get a move on as he wanted to have enough time to enjoy Taironaca. After a 30 minute bus ride we set off for another short walk through the forest to the archaeological site of Taironaca where our guide explained the customs of the indigenous Indians while walking us around the remains of the houses. The Kogis have not moved with the times (their women are barefoot, walk behind the men, are forbidden to cut their hair, must produce as many children as possible and the tribe are predominantly illiterate) whereas the Arhuacos have embraced education are the movers and shakers of Columbian society. Our approach to Taironaca took us through a Kogi village and what we saw led us to think that the guide had not exaggerated their way of life.
The next activity was ‘tubing’. It wasn’t exactly shooting the rapids, more a gentle drift down the river watching all the wildlife, including howler monkeys. That was a real treat and we haven’t seen howlers before – only heard them, in Guyana. Needless to say we also had some fun – James found round fruits drifting in the water and started a little war (as is his wont!) throwing them back up the river at fellow ‘drifters’. All good fun, as was his attempt to stand on two tubes … his efforts were rewarded with a serious dunking. Sabrina (crew from Makuni) was somewhat more successful! The trip ended at the mouth of the river where we were towed to the shore and then boarded a boat to return upstream to the Taironaca Hotel and our lunch. With the river very low in places it was necessary for the boat boy and driver to hop out and pull the boat over the bottom – we offered to help but were told very firmly to stay in the boat! We were all starving after our 3 hour expedition so our lunch was all the more welcome – and it was delicious. Then we returned to the river for a boat trip back to where we had left our transport. A really nice touch as it would have been a bit of an anti-climax to have retrace our steps through the rainforest. We got back to the marina at 5pm (having had a little zizz on the route home) so we were all ready for the next social event!
So, onto socialising ….. we have not changed our habits and have been having a super time. The Marina threw a welcome party for us the day we arrived, with wine and some typical Columbian nibbles which was lovely. The next night 3 boats donated their excess fish catch for a BBQ. We all took various dishes and had a veritable feast. Afterwards we threw caution to the wind and went out on the town with a group of fellow cruisers!! We found a great little bar (Saute) in one of the side streets and drank Mojitos while enjoying music from a street band and being entertained by street artists. We returned home rather late (or should that be early!!) We’ve had the Suzie Too Sunday Beach party (not quite Santa Barbara quality sand or location but it was fun), been to Malika for sundowners (speaking French the whole evening J), enjoyed a ‘jam session’ on Monday night and on Tuesday evening we had a pot luck supper with Colombian music and dancing. Tuesday, itself, was spent on Ocean Rainbow doing chores … de-rusting the brightwork, washing, cleaning etc so it was good to have a fun evening.
Our last day in Santa Marta was a bit of a rush as we tried to cram everything in, including a last minute clothes shopping session for Claire (in retrospect should have bought more as Cartagena doesn’t have the same range, nor the same prices!), then we had our last run ashore with Makani and Arkouda to enjoy the street musicians and the cocktails of ‘In and Out’. Early to bed and ready for a 5.30am start – well, that was what we intended. Unfortunately it was an even earlier start thanks to our alarm clock which was still set to Aruba timings!! We made the most of it and skyped the family before setting off in light winds towards our overnight stop in Puerto Valero.
After a very gentle start, we had a lively little sail which culminated in the breaking of the spinnaker pole mast bracket. Such a bore as we have really enjoyed sailing downwind with the headsail poled out and the flapping and banging of the sails minimised. Now we are waiting in Cartagena for a new bracket to be made and just hoping all will be well by the time we need to leave on the 20th. But, back to our passage and Baranquilla where the Ria Magdalena rushes out to meet the sea and causes a quite extraordinary dividing line between muddy river water and bright blue ocean. Our struggles with the spinnaker pole meant that we missed the best shots but if you look carefully you will see – on port side – the brown waters of the river contrasted with the ocean. From a distance we had actually thought we were heading for land because the river water looked so brown … so there was a bit of a commotion on board while we double checked our position and correctly interpreted the ‘mirage’. We made it into the anchorage as dusk was falling – it was quite a sight to see all the OCC boats. The bay at Puerto Valero looked like a very full car park!
The next day we set off very, very early and sailed to Cartagena. The winds were light and we did wonder at one stage if we would make Cartagena in day light. On the trip we had success and failure – the success was to catch a huge fish (honest!) which broke our rod (yes, we do mean rod and not line) and got free with one of our precious lures ergo failure. The success was to catch and land a much smaller fish – as yet unidentified … and ever will be as we have eaten it! But, back to basics – our sailing. Thanks to a “northern passage” entry to Cartagena Bay, we did actually get to the anchorage in good time and precision anchored according to the Columbian Navy’s pre-allocated position. We are extremely safe here with no less than 3 submarines and 4 warships anchored nearby. The Navy are patrolling our boats as added security! It is truly an amazing anchorage in the heart of the city. During our stay here, we are guests of Club Pesca who have given us access to their showers, dinghy dock, water, fuel and WiFi facilities. They also hosted a welcome party for us and invited us to join in one of their sailing races – this one sponsored by Coors (suppliers of low alcohol beer and high octane Margueritas!). James represented Ocean Rainbow while Claire went off with Jon from Oystergo for an exploration. We all met up in the late afternoon for another reception and ‘get-together’.
That evening (Saturday) we went for an exploration and got our first experience of Cartagena nightlife. We walked the back streets and were greeted by families simply sitting outside their front doors (not in their courtyards behind bars as in Santa Marta), listening to music and chatting. We passed a ‘baby shower party’ all along the pavement of a main road – the next morning there was no sign of the party and everything was clean and tidy. Talking about tidy: the streets, parks and beaches are constantly being swept and cleaned, even on a Saturday night - there is very little rubbish, everything is collected by little people in luminous green outfits. We tasted lots of little dishes (empanada con huevo – corn fritter with cheese filling, carimanolas – fritters of ground beef with cheese centre, patacones – deep fried battered plaintain) from the street vendors, including a hardboiled egg that was peeled to order, sliced and seasoned with mayonnaise and lime juice! We finished our evening with totally delicious crepes (waffles van had just shut) from a van just outside the entrance to the sailing club.
On Sunday we got out our bikes and cycled around the old town taking in all the sights. The city really is fascinating and so colourful. Beautiful flowers, carved wood, courtyards, sculptures, statues, parks, cobbled streets, mosaics and music. Despite the fact that there were two cruise ships in the port we didn’t feel totally overwhelmed by ‘tourists’ – something we have felt in other cities we have visited on our travels (e.g. Lisbon, Porto, Gibraltar). If you haven’t visited Cartagena – then perhaps now is the time!! However there is one place you need to consider carefully before visiting – the little shop at the tip of Boca Grande owned by Leland Childs, otherwise known as Mr Emerald! Lee has been helping the Rally with various arrangements; stainless steel guy for us, tour guides for others, propane gas supplier, canvas repair experts etc. He invited us to call in at the shop to chat about anchorages in the San Blas islands which we duly did. He was a mine of useful information but we walked out with rather more than we’d expected. Not only lots of helpful advice about islands to visit but also a pair of earrings for Claire!
Sunday evening we helped Sabrina – guest on board Janine and Claudio’s catamaran Makani – enjoy her last night as a cruiser before returning to Switzerland. The whole rally are sad to see her return to her normal working life as she has been so much fun and we have really enjoyed her company. Together with Claudio & Janine (Makani) & Jon (Oystergo) we set off to wander around the town (fortified by Ocean Rainbow sundowners) to find a suitable place to eat. We found Basilica and enjoyed some delicious pizzas and sangria in a lovely square complete with sculptures and murals. We then wandered into Plaza de Trinidad and enjoyed the atmosphere there before heading off in search of some dancing music. Colombians love their music and so do we. They also love to party and in addition to party boats they have party buses which tour the city with flashing lights and dance music pounding out. We gave the buses a miss, instead we found our music in a nightclub called Taboo! What an experience - we entered minutes before 10pm and found seats. By 10.30pm the place was rammed with dancing Colombians …. we all had a go at emulating the locals with mixed results but it was such fun! Thank you Sabrina for leading us astray.
Monday and Tuesday we’re back to admin ready for our departure on Wednesday to the San Blas islands where we anticipate being without WiFi and provisions other than fish and local fruit until we reach Panama around the 22nd February. A bit of stocking up, laundry, souvenir shopping and some minor repairs plus the spinnaker pole mast fixture and we should be ready. We are leaving 2 days earlier than the main rally in the hope that we can meet up with Carango (Peter and Vicky Forbes) who we missed by 12 hours in Santa Marta!
20th – 27th January
We weighed anchor in Cartagena at 9am having had our last run ashore – primarily to collect our exit papers but Claire also managed a bit of last minute fresh fruit and veg shopping with our remaining pesos. With everything stowed we set off back through the northern passage into the Caribbean Sea, hoist all sails and began our passage. We started with light winds but gradually they strengthened until we were heavily reefed and still galloping along averaging 6 knots. James managed to catch a beautiful dorado which provided us with supper for both our nights at sea. What a treat. Our new fishing rod is definitely earning a place on the Team – next thing you know we’ll be giving it a name! Although we made really good time for the first 24 hours we realised that we wouldn’t make it to Porvenir in daylight unless we used our engine. That wasn’t an option! We’re a sailing boat! So we reduced sail and speed and gently sailed towards Porvenir finally making our way down the approach channel at 0600 on Friday 22nd. We dropped our anchor at 0700, tidied up the boat, pumped up the dinghy and went ashore at 0830 to clear customs.
It is expensive (from a yachtie perspective) to visit the San Blas Islands. Normally we expect to pay if we are in a marina but we don’t expect to pay anchoring charges unless we are in a Nature Reserve when we pay around US$20 maximum. The San Blas Islands are very special but the charges have risen astronomically over the years until each yacht arriving in the San Blas will pay a minimum of US$400 no matter how short their stay. The cruising permit (which is valid for a year) costs US$193, immigration and customs charged us US$210 (for a 40’ boat) and then the Guna Administration charged a further US$60 plus US$1 to photocopy our Crew List! Add to that the anchorage charges of US$10 per area and it mounts up. There had been talk by the Guna Administration of raising their charges to the US$4000 mark (for a 40’ boat) but that, thankfully, has been squashed for the time being.
The Guna people are very small, very colourful and very friendly but they know the value of a dollar. After checking in to the islands we had a wander around Porvenir – an airstrip and two hostels plus the customs and immigration post. That was it! At the airstrip hostel/hotel there were a few stalls selling molas and other Guna handicrafts so we were able to get a feel for the prices and the things available. We then went off by dinghy to the neighbouring island of Wichubhuala, landing at the back of the island in amongst a pile of plastic bottles and non-bio-degradable detritus. Not a pretty sight. Nor was the tiny island on the approach where two locals were working on the hull of a boat surrounded by plastic and rubbish. As with many of the islands, there was evidence of man-made attempts to keep the land above sea level. Stones, dead coral and all manner of solid objects had been used to shore up the sides. Every year, we have read, a handful of islands disappear to become just another reef.
Wichubhuala is a large community with swept sand streets dividing areas of houses – well huts. The homes are constructed from wooden poles of all shapes sizes and lengths, lashed together with bits of string and then covered with palm fronds. The roofs are watertight and last for up to 10 years which is more than can be said for the corrugated roofs you find elsewhere in the Caribbean. We found a number of shops selling a variety of goods from crisps, cold drinks, rice, onions and tinned beans with hotdogs. 5 onions were priced at US$4.50 so we’re thankful we have enough supplies to keep us going until Panama! The big success of the visit was to find a lady sitting in one of the back streets who rushed into her home and came out with a gorgeous mola depicting a jaguar. After a pantomime of ‘how beautiful’, ‘how much’, we were allowed to take a photo and purchase the mola for US$15. The hunt is now on for more molas depicting other animals. Just for information, molas are oblong pieces of material that are intricate and highly coloured pieces of embroidery. They can be made into cushion covers, wall hangings etc and are a very popular souvenir from this part of the world. The guna people use this style of embroidery to enhance their own highly coloured layers of clothing and to make their headdresses.
We then headed back to the boat, weighed anchor and sailed 17nm to East Holandes Cays where we stopped to await the arrival of Carango (Peter and Vicky Forbes with their crew of Richard and Trish Morris). The first night we went to sleep with 3 other boats in the bay, we awoke to find over a dozen boats had arrived in the night and were anchored behind us. The World ARC had arrived! Carango was one of the boats so we made the most of our opportunity to catch up on the previous 20 years! We had coffee on board (with banana muffins straight from Ocean Rainbow’s oven), then Peter, Vicky, Richard and Trish came across to us for sundowners before we all returned to Carango for a delicious dinner of freshly caught Mahi Mahi. An all too brief encounter but it was wonderful and well worth leaving Cartagena early to make sure we caught up with them. On Sunday, Carango left to explore further afield and we remained to enjoy East Holandes Cays.
That evening we invited Jalan Jalan, Paul and Liz, on board for sundowners and a Warrior appreciation gossip. They have a Warrior 38 which we had spied in the anchorage and had popped across to see the previous day. They have also spent a long time in the San Blas so were a fount of useful information. Sadly all Paul’s tips on how to catch lobsters have yet to bear any result … but we live in hope. Later on Makani came over for supper having arrived in the bay after their crossing from Cartagena. The first of the OCC Rally boats to arrive, by the next day a large group had gathered and the following day the Rally was ‘all present and correct’ although spread around the islands.
We enjoyed East Holandes Cays enormously. We snorkelled in all the different areas of the Cays, enjoying the reef in front of our boat most of all. We visited all the islands and had a lovely time wandering around Tiadup which is the only inhabited island in East Holandes Cays. We had gone ashore with lollipops and biscuits for the children which was very popular. It would have been possible to barter for fish and maybe some plaintain had we needed them – other boats had been successful the day before trading coffee, sugar and rice – but our stocks are still very full so we shall leave the bartering game for another island.
28th – 31st January
On Thursday we ‘bit the bullet’ and decided to move. We set off for Coco Bandera Cays and found ourselves a desert island complete with coconut palms, deserted anchorage with reefs all around, wonderful snorkelling, rays and ….. a shark! It’s amazing how time flies when you do nothing! We swam miles around the reefs, went ashore to Orduptarboat and chatted with the Guna family (and bought another mola), walked around the other two deserted islands and read books. We did a little bit of cleaning to keep the salt and rust at bay but otherwise we were in holiday mode. However, tempting though it was to stay at our little island we decided to move on and investigate a little further afield.