The time came to sail again – 100 nautical miles from Santa Marta to Cartagena, along the Caribbean coast of Colombia, past the dreaded Barranquilla Cape and the Magdalena River delta. We waited again for the best possible weather conditions – light 15-20 knot winds and 1-2 meter waves for 2-3 consecutive days. In this part of the Caribbean Sea low pressure meets high pressure and messes up the entire situation. Wind gets crazy strong, sometimes unpredictable and squally, waves pick up height, it’s nasty. Many say that this spot can actually be the worst sailing experience on your way around the world, so we grab the first opportunity we get in a month to sail in calmer conditions.
We start early in the morning on May 20th lifting anchor on sails, as we usually do. This time it is easy, because there is no one else in the anchorage in Santa Marta but us, and we have lots of space for maneuvering. First, we hoist the main sail, then Ivo slowly starts pulling up the anchor with the electrical windlass, Maya is ready on the jib, and I am steering. As Ivo is lifting the anchor, the boat is heading forward and I am steering slightly in the direction we want to turn. Anchor out, the boat is at a small angle to the wind, Maya pulls the jib fast. We drift for a few seconds backwards until the angle to wind is bigger, then Fata Morgana picks up speed forward and we are off! But there is no wind in the bay that morning. When lifting anchor on sail, no wind means nothing can go wrong, but it also means, that we have to drift and tack back and forth for 4 hours just to get out of the bay and into open sea, less than 2 NM…
Finally we clear the small island with the lighthouse and the wind picks up from east at around 10 a.m. Fata Morgana is moving with 4-5 knots towards destination. We head straight across the gulf of the Cienaga Grande de Santa Marta for the Barranquilla cape. This should be the worst area we sail through in the entire Caribbean and a friend told us to make sure we pass it in daylight, as there might be large debris dragged down from the river into the sea- big tree trunks, dead cows, entire rooftops. We approach it around 3 p.m. The waters near the delta of the Magdalena River, Colombia’s main river, gradually become the color ochre. The wind picks up reaching 30 knots, and the sea meeting the river waters becomes agitated, with confused quick 3-meter waves and weird currents. We reef the sails and we surf down murky brownish waters foaming at the top. We watch out for debris, but instead we almost run over a small blue fishing boat with a bunch of people in yellow rain suits busy doing something out here in the biggest mess of a sea. I wonder what are they looking for exactly here? But the sea and wind are actually not as bad as we expected thanks to the fact that we waited for calm weather, and we are quickly behind the cape, the worst over. From now on we keep near the shore in shallow waters, the wind behind us, the sails wing-on-wing, Fata Morgana moving slowly.
Then we pass directly over a spot where on the charts a wreck is indicated and we hook something on the fishing line. We hope it’s a fish, but it could be the wreck, as Ivo is unable to bring it in and we end up losing the lure and the entire fishing line… This puts us in a bad mood. Not only we didn’t catch a fish, we just lost about a hundred dollars’ worth of fishing gear…
It is close to midnight as we approach the lights of a big city. The wind drops and we decide to spend the night at anchor at the entrance of Boca Chica channel, next to the walls of an old fort.
The next morning, May 21st, we slowly sail in the bay of Cartagena. Large ships circulate in channels indicated with red and green buoys, small fishing boats cross our path, and cayucos with homemade sails glide like ghosts in the shadows of the cold stone walls of a big old fort. In the distance ahead of us, standing tall, still and sparkling white on the edge of the morning seashore, the skyscrapers of a giant young city are greeting us. What an awesome view is Cartagena, what a dramatic moment is sailing in the bay for the first time! Emerging from the barren monotony of the sea- huge buildings- straight vertical and parallel lines reflected in the mirror of the still waters; glass, concrete and iron, looming over the world like the mute and mysterious Easter giants of the Rapa Nui, forever watching the western horizons.
It was slow getting to the anchorage on sail in the bay where the wind almost died and we had to tack many times inside the wide shipping channel. At the end, just before we dropped anchor between so many other boats, we saw the pointy roofs and cupolas of churches sticking above the red clay tiled rooftops of old colorful buildings- our first glimpse of the old colonial city of Cartagena de Indias, hidden behind the tall modern skyscrapers of Cartagena’s downtown.
We spend the next couple of days roaming through the plazas and narrow busy streets of the old walled city in the shadows of museums, cathedrals and fortresses, among waterfalls of purple flowers cascading down from balconies of historical buildings housing galleries, boutique hotels and restaurants.
Cartagena de Indias was founded by the Spanish conquistadors in 1533 and thanks to its strategic location, the large bay with its many islets and inlets, became one of South America’s most important port where gold and other precious plunders found in this New World were loaded up on Spanish galleons and transported across the Atlantic Ocean to Spain. Soon pirates attracted by this movement of treasure begun attacking and robbing the city and the ships. In 1586 the infamous Sir Francis Drake from England ransacked and destroyed part of Cartagena. The Spanish crown then invested in the city’s defense and built the largest fortification walls in the Americas- a masterpiece of Spanish military engineering.
With independence, Cartagena fell into disrepair. Many rich families left the area and the poor settled in. Many of the centuries-old colonial buildings were abandoned and in ruins until a long-term restoration project begun in the 1950s to transform the city once again into the breathtaking global destination which Cartagena is today- a “city for lovers” and the setting for Gabriel García Márquez’s novel “Love in the Time of Cholera.”
From the anchorage we walk 10 minutes, past the 17th century Castillo de San Felipe, heavy up on its hill like a dinosaur standing watch over the city, and over a bridge that brings us to the walled city covering an area of only about 1 square mile in the northeast corner of town, filled with plazas, churches, museums and monuments.
Straight ahead, through narrow streets, across the Centenario Park, past the Pegasos Monument we reach the Clock Tower at La Paz Square surrounded by congested yellow taxis. We walk through the gates and we now stand at Los Coches Square full of tourists and locals selling hats and other things, offering to be our guides or to give us a ride in a carriage.
Next is the old city’s largest plaza- Plaza de la Aduana surrounded by shops. We turn west and after a few more steps we arrive under the heavy cathedral at Plaza de San Pedro Claver near the Museum of Modern Art with fun little metal sculptures in front depicting scenes of everyday life in Colombia.
We turn right and walk two blocks to Plaza de Bolivar where under the shade of old trees we buy a refreshing slice of pineapple from a street vendor woman dressed in traditional creole dress. The heat is intense and we find shelter inside the Palace of the Inquisition– a museum filled with instruments of torture used by the Holy Inquisition against witches and infidels. Another museum nearby offers displays of pre-Colombian gold objects- The Museum of Gold, and further down the road we reach Plaza de Santo Domingo and the Santo Domingo Church. Here we find Botero’s Fat Woman monument.
We buy a couple of lifesaving cold beers for Ivo and me and a lifesaving ice cream for Maya and keep walking until the street ends into the large stone city wall. We climb the steps and walk on top of the wall- the Caribbean Sea on our left, a sea of old Cartagena’s tiled roofs on our right- until we get to Las Bovedas– 23 dungeon transformed into tourist shops.
We are absolutely amazed. Cartagena de Indias is our favorite of four Caribbean Queens, as I nicknamed the four major colonial capitals in the Caribbean: Havana, Santo Domingo, San Juan and Cartagena. There are places we couldn’t visit in Cartagena, like the Popa Monastery up on a mount overlooking the entire city, as we were pressed for time and had to lift anchor in just a couple of days and leave Colombia, because our exit papers from Santa Marta had Panama listed as our next destination and not Cartagena, which could become a major problem if we decided to stay longer. But even this short visit was enough to stock up provisions for our long stay in the remote paradise of the San Blas islands of Panama, to fill our propane tanks, and to fall in love with the old walled city, promising- we will return some day.
Colors of Cartagena de Indias