Sailing to Cartagena de Indias

Pegasos Monument, Cartagena, Colombia

Pegasos Monument, Cartagena, Colombia

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.

The lighthouse, Santa Marta's landmark

The lighthouse, Santa Marta’s landmark

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…

Fata Morgana sailing wing-on-wing

Fata Morgana sailing wing-on-wing

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.

Fishermen near Barranquilla's Magdalena River delta

Fishermen near Barranquilla’s Magdalena River delta

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…

Another fishing boat on our way to Cartagena

Another fishing boat on our way to Cartagena

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.

Castillo at Boca Chica entrance

Castillo at Boca Chica entrance

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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.

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

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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.

Sailing into the Bay of Cartagena

Sailing into the Bay of Cartagena

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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 Old City

Cartagena Old City

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.

The walls of Cartagena

The walls of Cartagena

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.”

Cartagena old city

Cartagena old city

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.

Castillo de San Felipe

Castillo de San Felipe

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.

The Clock Tower

The Clock Tower

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.

Maya at Plaza de la Aduana

Maya at Plaza de la Aduana

Metal sculpture Plaza de San Pedro Claver

Metal sculpture Plaza de San Pedro Claver

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.

Botero's Fat Woman Monument, Cartagena

Botero’s Fat Woman Monument, Cartagena

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.

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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

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Maya in Cartagena

Maya in Cartagena

Cafe Havana

Cafe Havana

Holy Inquisition graffiti

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Frozen yogurt

Frozen yogurt

Orange juice seller

Orange juice seller

Maya in the tree

Maya in the tree

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Plaza de la Aduana

Plaza de la Aduana

Early morning anchorage in Cartagena

Early morning anchorage in Cartagena

Ivo and Maya with the pineapple woman, Cartagena

Ivo and Maya with the pineapple woman, Cartagena

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Santa Marta and Aracataca

Santa Marta anchorage

Santa Marta anchorage

Santa Marta was our home for a month and the base for a few thrilling inland explorations to other parts of Colombia. It was not a perfect home, yet one we will always remember with much tenderness.

Notorious for its violent winds gathering speed down the slopes of the highest coastal mountain in the world- Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta- the place was nicknamed “La Loca” (The Crazy One).

Santa Marta was extreme heat day and night, loud music booming until the morning hours from the terrace of the restaurant facing the anchorage, the trades carrying coal dust from the commercial port which is upwind from the anchorage, covering the entire boat in a thick black layer of dirt.

Fata Morgana at anchor downwind from the commercial port in Santa Marta

Fata Morgana at anchor downwind from the commercial port in Santa Marta

But Santa Marta was also a safe place to leave the boat at the marina and fly to Bogota or go hiking and camping in Tayrona for a few days, or even leave the boat at anchor for a few hours and go on a daytrip to Minca’s Waterfalls; a town with a big market and lots of shops within a walking distance where we could stock up the boat with provisions for the remote San Blas islands.

Sunset in Santa Marta

Sunset in Santa Marta

Santa Marta is the most ancient European settlement on the South American continent, housing the oldest church built by the Spanish colonizers in the center of the city. In the 16th and 17th centuries it was the most important port for the Spanish galleons landing here in search of gold, but after numerous pirate attacks, Cartagena de Indias became the main port on the Caribbean cost.

The oldest church in South America in Santa Marta

The oldest church in South America in Santa Marta

Santa Marta is also the final resting place of Simon Bolivar- the most important figure in Latin American history who brought independence from Spanish rule to the entire region. Bolivar liberated Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and Colombia from the Spanish monarchy and founded the first union of independent nations in Latin America, Gran Colombia, presiding over it from 1819 to 1830. He died on December 17th of 1830 in Santa Marta’s Hacienda Quinta San Pedro Alejandrino, today a museum and a botanical garden.

Street in Santa Marta

Street in Santa Marta

Santa Marta of today is a noisy busy town with crazy traffic and insane scorching-hot-windy climate. It is a major port where big cargo ships arrive daily to load tons of coal and tons of bananas – some of the region main products of export. The streets are populated by a mixture of locals, tourists and indigenous Arhuacos and Kogis, descendants from the Tayrona people who ruled the highlands before the colonization. They live up in the mountains in traditional communities cultivating potatoes, pumpkins, corn, beans, yucca, guava, oranges and coca (which they us for tea and chewing and for traditional ceremonies). They also make traditional bags knitted from wool and sell them to tourists. We got one for our collection of traditional bags from different places of the world. The Arhuacos and the Kogis still dress in the clothing of their ancestors, which they make themselves, and when they visit the city on business, they walk the streets proudly wearing an expression of disgust from modern civilization. I asked many if they would kindly allow me to take their picture, but except of a couple of rare occasions, they usually refused very annoyed and I had to steal a few portraits from far away.

Street life in Santa Marta

Street life in Santa Marta

Images from Santa Marta

The lighthouse, Santa Marta's landmark

The lighthouse, Santa Marta’s landmark

The poor neighborhoods in the hills of Santa Marta

The poor neighborhoods in the hills of Santa Marta

A ship waiting at anchor near Santa Marta Port

A ship waiting at anchor in the bay near Santa Marta Port

An Arhuaco in Santa Marta

An Arhuaco in Santa Marta

Santa Marta beach

Santa Marta beach

Street in Santa Marta

Street in Santa Marta

Santa Marta downtown

Santa Marta downtown

There is a fruit or juice stand at every corner in Colombia

There is a fruit or juice stand at every corner in Colombia

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Ivo and Maya refresh

Ivo and Maya refresh

Watermelon juice

Watermelon juice

Lemon-squeezing device

Lemon-squeezing device

Honey

Honey

Cheese and meat

Cheese and meat

Market in Santa Marta

Market in Santa Marta

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Индианци от племето Арауако на посещение в Санта Марта

Arhuaco Indians in Santa Marta. The tiny bag contains coca leaves.

There was one last place we had to visit while in Santa Marta before we continue sailing to Cartagena and then on to Panama. Aracataca.

Aracataca is a river town founded in 1885 in the Department of Magdalena, 80 km south of Santa Marta. In the late 19th century, the infamous United Fruit Company supported by the Colombian government colonized the land and started cultivating bananas in the wide region, exploiting and terrorizing the local workers, marking forever the history of the place with violence and injustice. After the downfall of the company because of the worldwide recession and the WWI, the town remained hidden behind a curtain of forgetfulness.

Aracataca

Aracataca

Aracataca also happens to be the birthplace of a monumental literary figure as well as the inspiration for the fictional metaphorical town of Macondo. Gabriel García Márquez was born in this hot dusty village surrounded by banana plantations in 1927 and grew up in his grand-parent’s big old house listening to the fantastic stories and superstitions of the ever-present Guajiro Indians employed there as servants. These stories, along with his grandfather ‘s tales of the horrors of war and his grandmother’s way of transforming the fantastic and the improbable into the irrefutable truth, left a great imprint on his mind and later influenced his writings.

Márquez became journalist in Bogota and wrote short stories and non-fiction works, as well as novels, which brought him international acclaim and immortal fame. He introduced a new style in literature labeled as “magical realism” – using magical, surreal elements in realistic or even historical situations and events, transforming the extraordinary into something perfectly natural. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982 and became one of the world’s all-time best authors and “the greatest Colombian who ever lived” (Juan Manuel Santos, president of Colombia).

The only regret I will have in dying is if it is not for love- Garcia Marquez

The only regret I will have in dying is if it is not for love- Garcia Marquez

He also became the reason why I learned Spanish and was finally able to read my favorite books in their original language. These books have had an enormous influence on my life, on the way I perceive the world and reality, and the way I feel. Nothing else has thought me more about myself than the stories and the characters created by Gabriel García Márquez.

I was 16, back in Bulgaria, when my mother gave me a book to read, her favorite book. It was a Bulgarian translation of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. It changed my life.

The story took me to, a village consisting of “twenty houses of mud and canabrava, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs”, a place that didn’t exist in a world “so new that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point”–like a child. Like an early ancestor lacking language. A place I was drawn to ever since. I have been away from home and homeland for many many years, yet my most tangible nostalgia has always inexplicably been for Macondo.

Aracataca

Aracataca

So you can imagine what it meant for me to visit Aracataca. It was my personal pilgrimage, in search of the reality behind the magic. And vice-versa.

In Aracataca I didn’t expect to find blue dogs and very old men with very big wings. There is nothing extraordinary about Aracataca, except the unbelievable heat. The most surreal thing we encountered there was a 60-years old truck transporting tons of bricks and its 60-years-old truck driver both still in good shape. I just wanted to feel the dusty air, the extreme dry sun of many summers full of mangoes; to occupy and to go through the space of other times.

Inside the house-museum Gabriel García Márquez which was reconstructed after the original house has decayed, I cried in front of a quote on the wall from One Hundred Years of Solitude like someone who has found something only to realize it is lost forever. I wept until I felt a great burden had fallen off my chest and I was ready to go on.

Images from Aracataca

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Mira at Gabriel Garcia Marquez house-museum

Mira at Gabriel Garcia Marquez house-museum

Mira at Gabriel Garcia Marquez house-museum

Mira at Gabriel Garcia Marquez house-museum

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Ivo cannot believe this 60-years-old truck!

Ivo cannot believe this 60-years-old truck!

The 60-years-old truck driver

The 60-years-old truck driver

magical realism

magical realism

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Turtles Gone Wild

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One cloudy day we got up early and took the bus to Rodadero, a few kilometers from Santa Marta. There we met our Colombian friends Cata and Sebastian at the Deep Coral dive shop, and together we drove to Casa Grande Surf Beach in Tayrona. There were a lot of people already there and more were coming in, as the day was special. A special event was going to take place, and tanks to Cata and Sebastian who invited us, we became a part of it.

С Ката и Себастиян

With Cata and Sebastian

Every year hundreds of juvenile loggerhead sea turtles are released in the sea thanks to a local program for sea turtle conservation- Programa de Conservación de Tortugas Marinas –a program of the aquarium Acuario Mundo Marino together with the UTADEO university, sponsored by PETROBRAS- one of the biggest petroleum companies in the region.

Casa Grande Surf Beach

Casa Grande Surf Beach

The beach was occupied by children of all ages awaiting the arrival of the turtles. We were all very excited. I met and interviewed Esteban Andrade from the sea turtle conservation program and he answered my many questions.

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The sea turtle release program started in 1999 with research and in 2004 the first 154 turtles were introduced in the sea. Since then, every year the scientists, university students and volunteers excavate between 100 and 300 turtle eggs (1-3 nests each containing about 100 eggs) at the beaches in Tayrona, Colombia. The eggs hatch in the aquarium in Rodadero and the babies spend their first 6-8 months in the care of the marine biologists. After they are bigger and stronger, they are released in the sea- a total of 1,517 so far. Thus their chances of survival in the first critical weeks of life are much higher. The survival rate of new hatchlings in the aquarium is about 97% as opposed to about 55% in the wild.

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The program’s mission is not only to help the loggerheads’ reproduction rate, but also to educate and raise awareness of the importance of sea turtle conservation among the local community and most of all- among the children. Each year, the day the turtles are released at sea is a huge organized event focusing on the kids.

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Even though killing loggerhead sea turtles for meat, eggs and other products is forbidden by an international law, there is no defined local legislation regulating the hunting and consumption of sea turtles in Colombia. The locals here as in many other parts of the world still kill and eat sea turtles and their eggs without legal consequences.

Рибари в Ст Луша и част от техният улов- обезглавена морска костенурка  снимка- октомври 2014

St Lucia, October 2014

Рибари в Ст Луша и част от техният улов- обезглавена морска костенурка  снимка- октомври 2014

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Рибари в Ст Луша и част от техният улов- обезглавена морска костенурка  снимка- октомври 2014

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We didn’t have to wait for long. Soon the little reptiles arrived by truck and volunteers helped to unload them.

Иво помага за пренасянето на морските костенурки

Ivo helping with the unloading of the turtles

The containers were placed under a shed and filled with fresh seawater.

Иво с кофи

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The kids piled around to take their first look at the baby-turtles. And even though they were all from the same species and had hatched at the same time, some had yellowish shells, other red-brown, others- dark brown and some were significantly bigger than others. It turned out that sea turtles, like children, are different from one another. Some are blond, others are dark-haired, and the ones who eat more get bigger. Who knew!

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Мира и Мая

Mira and Maya

The loggerheads are the second largest hard-shelled sea turtles reaching 1 m and 140 kg with some individuals reaching 3 m and 450 kg. with an average lifespan of 47-67 years. They are found throughout the world in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, as well as in the Caribbean and Mediterranean seas. With massive powerful jaws they eat not only sea grass and jellyfish, but also fish, lobsters and conch.

"Супа" от костенурки

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Костенурка "Карета" на 8 месеца

8-month-old loggerhead sea turtle

Unfortunately, these sea turtles have low reproductively which combined with many other factors has caused the steady decline of their numbers. The females reach sexual maturity only at 30-35 years of age and ley about 3-400 eggs every 2-3 years. But the main reasons for their declining numbers are loss of habitat due to residential and commercial building, their hunting for meat and eggs, pollution of the oceans. People keep taking over their nesting beaches, eating them and using turtle products such as grease and shells for cosmetic and traditional medicines. Hundreds of thousands of sea turtles suffocate and die each year caught in the nets of commercial fishing boats. A big part of their eggs gets destroyed by wild and domestic animals and men before they have a chance to hatch, and the baby hatchlings often become pray to crabs and fish in the first moments of their lives.

Иво държи новоизлюпено костенурче. Опитахме се да го спасим от едно коати- животно подобно на ракун (миеща се мечка) в мексико, август 2013

Ivo is holding a newly hatched turtle we found wounded by a coati on thе beach in Mexico and tried to save in August 2013

The moment everyone has been waiting for came- the release in the sea of 300 8-month-old turtles. First the sponsors and organizers said a few words, then the kids formed a queue at the release area and the parents like paparazzi with photo and video cameras besieged the section on the beach designated for the turtles. There was even a music band playing live music right on the beach!

Оркестър на плажа

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The release of the turtles happened in stages. Groups of kids would line up facing the sea, then they would be given instructions and a turtle each and wait for the signal to place them on the sand and let them go.

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It was like a horse race but slower. The turtles would hurry down the beach before disappearing in the waves, every time accompanied by jolly music.

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Maya also had a chance to release a turtle. For your information her turtle was the fastest and bravest and after a few-second demonstration of impressive sand-swimming skills she won the race. The others didn’t have a chance, not that we are bragging about it…

Мая с морска костенурка

Maya with a sea turtle

Групата на Мая

Maya’s group

We felt happy and satisfied. Not only because Maya’s turtle won the race. Imagine: this day Maya’s school was once again the sea and beach. A biology class. A lesson in marine life conservation. And not one but 300 little teachers who are now swimming in the seas, traveling the world.

Костенурка "Карета" на 8 месеца

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Minca’s Waterfalls

Водопад Маринка

Marinka Waterfall

At the heart of the world, on the edge of the Caribbean Sea, rises Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, an isolated mountain in the shape of a pyramid with high snow-covered peaks reaching 18,700 ft. This is the tallest coastal mountain in the world. Source of 36 rivers and home of 30,000 indigenous people from the Arhuaco, Wiwa, Kogi, and Kankuamo tribes, as well as habitat for countless rare, endemic and endangered species of plants animals and birds, Sierra Nevada, covering a territory of 17,000 sq km, is Colombia’s finest national park, designated a Biosphere reserve by UNESCO and the world’s most irreplaceable park for threatened species.

Индианко селище в подножието на планината Сиера Невада

A Kogi village in the Sierra Nevada

Here, deep in the impenetrable jungles, rest the ruins of La Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City), founded 650 years before Machu Pichu by the Tayrona people. Today the archeological site is a national heritage comprising hundreds of stone steps and terraces carved on the mountain side (it resembles Machu Pichu but in a far smaller scale). Visitors can go there only with an organized excursion and only if they are in a good physical shape, as the hike is 4 to 6 days and is rated moderately difficult. Such a trip starting form Santa Marta costs $300 per person and includes a guide, food and water, and sleeping accommodations along the way. But unfortunately it was too expensive for us, even though we really wanted to go and tried to find ways of getting there without an organized excursion, on our own. But this is not an option. The only legal and safe way to visit the Lost City is by joining an organized trip, as the trail passes through indigenous territory and the organizers of the hike have exclusive rights to be there. There are even signs on the entrance of the villages: “Access to non-Indians forbidden”.

Индианци от племето Арауако на посещение в Санта Марта

Arhuaco Indians visiting Santa Marta

Instead, we visited Minca, another popular tourist destination in the Sierra Nevada, a trip we organized ourselves and it cost us $20 for the three of us (transportation and entrance fee).

Minca is a small mountain village at 650 m altitude and to get there you need a 4×4. You can take the public transport there for $3 per person- jeeps starting at the market in Santa Market but they only leave when they collect at least 7-8 passengers. We had to wait for 1 hour for the vehicle to get full before we started for the mountains.

"Автобусът" до Минка

The “bus” to Minca

Soon after departure, the jeep left the highway and the landscape around us changed. The dry lifeless hills of Santa Marta- yellow thirsty grass and low cacti- ended. Bamboo forests, banana and coffee plantations and thick tropical forests rose around us. The green became thick and intense and after an hour on the bumpy mountain road we arrived in Minca. We were greeted by a few local people and dogs sitting at the terrace of a small restaurant. A few houses, a couple of hostels and restaurants, a deserted football field and the inevitable church.

Църквата в Минка

Church in Minca

Минка

Minca

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Деца в Минка

Kids in Minca

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Руини край Минка

Ruins near Minca

We started for the first waterfall, la Cascada Marinca. We walked past fincas and coffee plantations, through a shady forest filled with sounds of tropical birds and insects. Hidden in the trees, thousands of cicadas were adjusting their string instruments getting ready for a concert.

Сикади

Cicadas

The area around Minca is world renowned bird-watching destination and we spotted many colorful birds we never seen before, including a toucan!

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Тукан

Toucan

Семка?

Seed?

After an hour and a half we got to the first waterfall hidden in the jungle, Cascada Marinca, with two terraces forming two pools of fresh water one on top of the other. There was a shed overlooking the falls where we had to pay entrance fee – $1 per adult, free for kids.

Водопад Маринка

Marinka Waterfall

Водопад Маринка

Marinka Waterfall

Иво и Мая

Ivo and Maya

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We spent some time at Marinka Falls, chilling, resting, eating our sandwiches for lunch, and then returned back to the village from where we took another trail to another river guided by a random dog who self-appointed himself to be our Minca guide. He took us to El Pozo Aul, a series of cascades, falls and pools on Minca River with delicious transparent cold waters.

Иво си суши косата... И той е човек...

Ivo drying his hair…

On the way there , about two hours of hiking through beautiful hilly countryside, we were once again offered spectacular panoramic vistas.

Черно и бяло

B&W

Бамбук

Bamboo

шапчици

Little “hats” (we didn’t know this tree is poisonous and the flowers are used to produce a horrible drug named Devil’s Breath…

As we approached the river we heard the muffled booming sounds of the waterfalls. There was a group of tourists with rented bikes at the first pool, so we decided to keep going and find a more secluded spot upriver. Our guide, Mister Perro, took us climbing on the muddy shores, jumping over rocks, waiting for us patiently, as we were a lot slower than him.

With our guide El Perro

 

Група велосипедисти

A group of tourists with bicycles.

Our efforts were rewarded at the end. We got to a small waterfall with a nice deep pool surrounded by flat big rock walls- perfect for jumps. Ivo and Maya never skip an opportunity to work on their jumping and flying skills, demonstrating supreme grace and elegance in mid-air before splashing in the water below.

Иво- "летящият чук"

Ivo- “Flying Hummer”

Мая в полет

Maya in flight

Tired but satisfied we walked the two hours walk back to the village center, where our awesome guide El Dog left us unceremoniously, the same way he had joined us, not looking back. And we kind of missed him… Good bye, Mister Perro! Good bye Minca! In our memories we will always keep the freshness of your waterfalls.

Мая и Мира

Maya and Mira

Ivo

Ivo

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Diving in Colombia

Водолази

Scuba divers

Underwater the world is different. Dark, cold, dense, slow and mysteriously silent. You hear only your own breathing. You hear your thoughts. You hear muffled sounds sometimes- faraway thunders and gentle bells- but it is hard to determine where they come from. Yet, most of the time the underwater world is mute and silence is undisturbed even in the busy coral cities during the peak hour of the traffics of hundreds and thousands of darting fishes. It is strange.

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The first time with goggles and a snorkel underwater is unforgettable. Often, those who enter the sea for a first time return panting to shore- wet and cold and completely enchanted. And cannot stop dreaming of the deep, of being weightless again- like flying- inside this alien world of strange colors and shapes.

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It happened to Maya. She came back enchanted one day two years ago when she peeked under the water surface in the shallows of a small uninhabited island in Key West, Florida. There, at two meters depth, lied the skeleton of an old ship, its dark rusty bones overgrown with corals and barnacles, inhabited by small fishes, shrimps and crabs. Since then, Maya became a water creature and would snorkel and free-dive all the time, every time going deeper, holding her breath longer.

Мая

Underwater Maya

But her dream to breathe underwater – where the lobsters, the stingrays, the eels hide- without having to come out for air, only came true recently, after we met Cata Aponte Bohoquez and Sebastian Hernandez Gaviria. A cruiser we met in October 2013 in Rio Dulce, Guatemala- Dale McDaniel- told us his brother-in-law live in Santa Marta, Colombia with his girlfriend. “If you pass through there call them, they are great people and could show you around.”, Dale said and he was right.

Cata and Sebastian, a young couple who just got married a week before we met them, welcomed us in Santa Marta, drove us around town to all the travel agencies and the airport and helped us find and buy cheap airplane ticket to Bogota, took us to their favorite restaurants in town and to the place where they work.

It turned out they are both professional scuba-divers and scuba dive instructors, the owners of a scuba dive shop Deep Coral near the aquarium in Rodadero- one of a few dive shops in Santa Marta area. With 15 years of diving experience all around the world: Indonesia, South Africa, Europe, The Bahamas, many of the Caribbean islands and USA, and with an ever-growing passion for the underwater world, Cata, along with her partner Sebastian, is the best scuba diving instructor on the entire Caribbean cost of Colombia.

It also turned out that both Cata and Sebastian love the idea of sailing and dream of someday cruising and living aboard a sailboat. And just a few hours after we met, the idea that was brewing inside our heads after realizing that we would love to scuba-dive and they would love to sail, became a plan.

After returning from the three-day visit to Bogota and three-day camping trip to Tayrona, we organized our next Colombian adventure: an epic sailing-diving-beer-drinking trip with our new Colombian friends Cata and Sebastian.

Ката и Себастиян на борда на Фата Моргана

Cata and Sebastian aboard Fata Morgana

We went shopping, loaded the scuba-diving equipment, 15 scuba bottles, many bags of food and countless cases of Colombian cerveza Agila aboard Fata Morgana, and set sail for a lonely little bay on the southwest shores of Tayrona, only 4 nautical miles north of Santa Marta.

Гости и провизии

Guests and provisions ready to go

15 бутилки с въздух в камбуза....

15 air bottles in the galley

We dropped anchor not far from the rocky shores where the last hills of Sierra Nevada plunge in the Caribbean Sea.

Фата Моргана на котва в Тайрона

Fata Morgana at anchor in Tayrona

The land here is wrinkled with soft hills, thirsty and desolate, covered with yellow grass, withered cacti, and scorched spiky trees, lifeless, sun-eaten victims of the constant hot dry winds. The hills wake up from their coma only once every 1-2 years, Cata told us, when from the east the rain approaches. Then the grass gets drunk on green juices, the cacti are full like balloons and covered in flowers, and the branches of the dark dead trees become alive adorned with tiny green leaves. It is really beautiful, a brief spectacle, Sebastian said, the land celebrates and nature triumphs. And then everything dies again after the rains…

Брулени хълмове

Burnt hills

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A few days of dreams-come-true followed. Our friends learned some basic things about sailing and navigating and experienced life aboard a boat, and we learned to scuba dive, to breathe underwater.

Мая и Ката

Maya and Cata

Мира

Mira

Иво

Ivo

Иво и Мая водолази

Ivo and Maya

Ivo and Maya together with Cata and Sebasian did 2-3 dives per day, every time learning some new skills: to breathe without holding their breath, to equalize regularly, to regulate their buoyancy, to remove and put back on their equipment underwater, to simulate emergencies and share air underwater, orientation with a compass, helping the other diver, communicating underwater etc. Back on the boat, they had to read and study for hours the theory for their PADI Open Water Diver exam. It turned out scuba diving is not so simple and can be dangerous if you don’t follow the rules.

Мая и Ката правят подводни упражнения

Maya and Cata practicing new underwater skills

Мая

Maya

Мая

Maya

I did less dives and didn’t go as deep, nor learned all the skills besides the essential safety ones, as unlike Ivo and Maya, I did not have the ambition to obtain the Open Water Diver certificate at the end of this crash course, but only wanted to do a few fun dives.

Мира

Mira

Мая

Maya

Иво

Ivo

When we were not diving, we were preparing food, eating it and drinking lots of beer.

Ката и Себас правят гуакамоли

Cata and Sbastian: The Making of The Guacamole

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Иво , Себас и Ката

Cheers!

The last day we decided to sail to the next little bay where a small fishermen’s village popular with tourists and backpackers has a strange reputation. Taganga.

Рибарска лодка в Таганга

Fishing boat in Taganaga

Индианци от племето Коги на плажа в Таганга

Kogi indigenous people in Taganaga

At the foot of the burnt hills, on the edge of a shallow sandy bay we were greeted by a row of a few houses, shops and restaurants, two or three hostels facing the sea, lined up along the main street. The street runs parallel to a long beach populated by colorful fishing boats. Tourists and sun-stricken dogs roam the town in the heat of the day.

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Таганга

Street in Taganaga

In the late afternoon, the fishermen emerge from the sea and like fathers extremely proud with their kids (unless they are disappointed with them for some unrealized expectation) they arrange and exhibit their catch for all to see. Small noisy groups of men holding beers form under the palm trees, discussing the sea, the fish, the football and all other existential universal cosmic problems of the world.

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Рибари и риба

Fish and fishermen

It was burning hot in Taganga. All the thick good shades under trees and roofs were occupied by sleeping heavy-breathing dogs and sleeping heavy-breathing homeless people. Our only chance for survival was near the ventilator of a cozy little restaurant serving ice-cold beer and sea-food delicacies. Food in Colombia is notoriously good, yes it is. We still keep the memory of the stuffed avocado and roaster royal shrimp…

Авокадо пълнено с морски дарове

Avocado stuffed with sea-fruits

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Себастиян

Sebastian

Ката, Себастиян и Иво с бири в Таганга

Cheers from Taganga!

At night Taganga transforms. We were warned not to roam the streets after sunset if we were to avoid trouble. The small quaint fishermen village where time almost stops in the heat of the day, becomes the playground of drug addicts, gamblers, and prostitutes, we were told. All sorts of criminal activities were taking place in Taganaga each night. (The only uncertain proof of that fact we could find during the noon hours was an enslaved paranoid rooster on the beach waiting for his next fight.) As we were drifting to sleep in our beds that night we listened tensely for any distant symptoms of criminality.

За бой с петли (нелегално)

Rooster ready for the next illegal cock fight victory

Around three o’clock I awoke with a start. I heard voices. Intruders had boarded the boat! Maya saw dark feet passing outside her window. Ivo darted out to investigate and defend. Three drunk English-speaking tourists, a woman and two men, had decided to swim from the beach to the only anchored yacht in the bay (Fata Morgana), because they could see the lights of the boat (like moths attracted by the lamp?), explained the girl shortly after Ivo popped up to check what’s going on. This was of course a very bizarre explanation and an unacceptable reason to board someone’s boat at night, unless you are properly drunk and/or high. Angry Ivo sent them back swimming to the beach. Freaks.

Таганага след залез слънце

Taganga after sunset

These three days full of so many shared emotions and new experiences were the best most fun days of our visit to Colombia. For Cata and Sebas the time spent aboard Fata Morgana was an inspiration and a dream-come-true. For us learning to scuba dive was also a dream-come-true as well as a unique opportunity for Ivo and Maya to take the course, pass the exams and obtain an international scuba diving certificate (which normally costs hundreds of dollars). This will assure not only many more underwater adventures to come but also gives Ivo and especially Maya another valuable skill for the future which they can develop to a professional level. For this we are forever grateful to Cata and Sebastian.

IMG_5334

ll of us

 

*If you ever visit Santa Marta be sure to call Cata and Sebastian at Deep Coral and organize a fun dive in Tayrona or get PADI certified with the best diving instructors in the area. Add another unforgettable experience to your Colombian adventures with Deep Coral!

 

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Camping in Tayrona

Tayrona

Тайрона, Ел Кабо

Tayrona, El Cabo

As we approached the shore sailing to Colombia I felt the familiar burnt smell of dry old land.  I inhaled deeply, tasting with much pleasure and for the first time in my life the bitter dust of the New World. What cities, what people, what nature is expecting us? I couldn’t wait to get to know the country carrying Columbus’s name, the narrow busy streets of Santa Marta, the museums and cathedrals of Bogota, the hot native village of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the waterfalls in the Sierra Nevada, the architecture of Cartagena, the wild beaches and the monkeys in Tayrona. One month is not enough to see all Colombia has to offer to the dusty traveler, even a year will probably not do. We didn’t have a minute to spare.

Парк Тайрона

Park Tayrona

We came back from Bogota to Santa Marta late in the evening and the very next day we got up around 6 a.m., packed three backpacks with a tent, sleeping bags, food for three people for three days and lots of water, and we took of for Tayrona. We still had three more paid days in the expensive marina and decided to take advantage of the fact that the boat is safe. We went camping in one of the most beautiful and bio-diverse areas in South America.

Парк Тайрона, плаж Аресифе

Park Tayrona, Arrecife Beach

From the marina we walked to el mercado (about 10-15 min) and there we hoped on a bus to Park Tayrona (6 000 pesos= $2.50 per person), and after about 30 minutes we were there. Entrance fee for adults is 35 000 pesos or about $15, which is a lot for Colombia and 20 000 pesos or about $8 for students and kids. This entrance fee is valid for any period of time, so if you stay longer it’s more worth it. There were a few more backpackers who came at the same time we did and they took a small bus (3 000 pesos= $1.20) from the entrance of the park to the end of the road, deeper in Tayrona- the last place accessible by car. Maya and I also started for the bus, but Ivo stopped us.

– No bus! We are walking!

– It’s just a dollar and it will save us at least an hour of walking in the heat, don’t be ridiculous, everyone will think we are crazy!- I tried to argue but in vain; Ivo values each dollar and if he can save it- he does!

Пеша из гората с тежки раници

Maya and Ivo walking with heavy backpacks

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We started walking and the tourists loaded in the little bus watched us probably thinking we are crazy, as they passed us down the road. The humidity was intense and soon we were drenched in sweat. We walked with our heads down under the weight of the packs surrounded by thick jungle. Maya was carrying all the clothes and two bottles of water, I was hauling heavy canned food and two more water bottles, and Ivo was loaded up with the tent and the sleeping bags, plus two more bottles.

Синя пеперуда Морф- мъртва край пътя

Blue morph butterfly we found dead on the side of the road

Suddenly we heard the familiar roar we first heard about two years ago up the Polochik River in Guatemala- the Howler Monkeys. Their deep menacing bellows make me shiver every time. It is as if a sick angry monster is vomiting, Maya said. These are the loudest dwellers of the jungle and their infernal cries which can be heard from miles away are meant to warn intruders off their territory. We kept going with eyes wide open, listening, while the roars got louder and soon the family of howlers were directly above us! There is not more magical than returning the stare of a wild animal,, even if it is an unfriendly angry stare of the black howler monkey.

Черни ревящи маймуни

Black Howler Monkeys, Colombia

A bit further down the road we heard other more gentle, more discrete voices and we saw in the trees all around us the tiny cute titi-monkeys, like kittens with hair like Einstein. Unlike the howler monkeys found throughout Central and South America, these cotton-top tamarin or titi monkeys can be seen only in the northeast part of Colombia (or pretty much only in Tayrona) and nowhere else in the world. They are in the list of critically endangered species. We have never imagined or hoped to see and hear them in the wild, even to photograph them from a few feet!

Маймуна-тити

Titi-monkey, Colombia

The little Einsteins seemed worried and were jumping nervously left and right in the trees, stopping briefly, giving as an angry look and making shrill sounds like when you are trying to clear the food stuck in your teeth. They were jumping around us but did not go away, always keeping an eye on us. I would stay with them. Forever. How can one leave behind these adorable elusive little guys if they are not the ones to leave first?

Тити

Titi monkey

We kept going.

-Who is crazy now? We or the bus people who didn’t see a single monkey, I bet!- said Ivo.

Тити

Titi

And he was right. If we hadn’t started on foot, heat or no heat, we wouldn’t see the black howlers nor the titis, nor  a big red spider, nor a blue morph butterfly dead by the side of the road, probably killed by the bus… Only when walking the road awards you rewards.

Маймуна-тити

Titi-monkey, Colombia

More than one hour had passed when we got to the end of the road, the place where the foot-path begins. The rest of the backpackers were long gone, and once again they didn’t have to walk, as from here on people usually rent horses for less than $20 per person. We could also rent horses, they even offered us a discount, bt Ivo just pointed to his feet and didn’t have to say anything…

Кон под наем

Horse for rent

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Two more hours passed. we were walking in something like a canyon formed by the horse traffic in the soft sandy ground, across grey boulders, fallen trees and the winding paths of the leafcutter ants.

Каньон

Sandy canyon

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Мравки листорезачи

Leafcutter ants

Мравки-листорезачи

Leafcutter ants

Noon passed. The heat was unforgiving even in the shade of the jungle. We were dripping with sweat- big droplets were flowing down forming streams on faces and arms. Soon our clothes were completely damp. Good thing we hod lots of water to keep us hydrated.

Мая

Maya

зеленина

green

We met another kind of monkeys who were busy taking down dead palm leafs, dropping them on the ground next to us, and picking the bugs found at the base.They too were screaming at us. Ivo and Maya tried to communicate with them and very successfully if you ask me; I hope we didn’t offend them…

Маймуна

Monkeys

Besides these unexpected meetings with monkeys we also stumbled upon a small indigenous settlement, a place where the rental horses don’t go, of course. Our curiosity led us to a small hidden footpath away from the main road.

Индианско село

indigenous settlement, Tayrona

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Suddenly- two hens digging in the ground for bugs, not paying attention to us. Farther- a fireplace and clothes set to dry on some big bowlders. A few round and one square mud and wood houses with cylindrical thatched roofs. An indigenous guy sleeping in a hammock in the shade! From one of the houses came out a young girl in a white robe and two little kids who were watching us with curiosity and suspicion. Just standing there looking at us, saying nothing, ready to get back in the hut.

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Индианци от племето Когуи

Indigenous people in Tayrona

We were not supposed to be there and we didn’t want to disturb the secrets of this enchanted place. Quickly we returned to the main trail. By then we were so stunned by so many unexpected sudden encounters with wild animals and people that we wouldn’t be surprised if a jaguar, a dinosaur or an extraterrestrial jumped out of the forest in front of us.

Мария- от племето Когуи. Вървеше в гората успоредно на пътеката и излезе, когато я извиках с думите: Чоколате? С нея имаше още едно дете, което не посмя да излезе от гората. Мария обеща да раздели шоколада със сестричката си.

Maria was walking in the forest parallel to our trail and came out when I called her with the words: Chocolate? There was another shy kid with her who didn’t come out of the forest. Maria promised to share the chocolate we gave her with her sister.

Finally we got to a clearing with a few tents and hammocks, This is the first of a few camping sites in Tayrona. We rested for while in the restaurants sharing an expensive coke, and we walked around the Arrecife Beach deserted, as swimming here is forbidden because of the hundreds drowned in the strong currents and big waves of this part of the coast.

Първи къмпинг

First camping site

Душове

Showers

Мая в ресторантчето

Maya in the camping restaurant

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We continued on to another beach, La Piscina (the Swimming pool) – a lagoon surrounded by reefs breaking the waves, perfect and safe for swimming. Here we took one-two hour break cooling down in the pleasant waters of the Caribbean Sea. There is nothing more refreshing after a long hike in the heat and dust than the sea. Here we also started meeting the others Tayrona visitors.

плаж Ла Писина

La Piscina Beach

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хубава гледка...

Nice view

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Брадорасло

Seaweed

Around 3 p.m. we put back on our sweaty clothes, socks and heavy shoes and refreshed but exhausted from too much walking with big backpacks we continued on. After half an hour through a coconut palm forest we got to our final destination- El Cabo.

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Кокосова гора. Тук видяхме най-много кокосои орехи не едно място

Miles of beautiful coconut forrest

Мира и Мая

Mira and Maya

Tayrona is a national park with 12 thousand hectares of pristine territory in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, with 3 thousand hectares of the most bio-diverse wild coastal zone in the Americas. With many deserted sandy beaches, beautiful Caribbean waters, tropical jungles and rainforests home of thousands of animal and bird species, this is one of the wildest most stunning corners of South America.

Мая и Иво

Maya and Ivo

And El Cabo is the crown’s jewel.

Ел Кабо

El Cabo

Къмпинг Ел Кабо

Camping in El Cabo, Tayrona

– We build here!- said Ivo and the two with Maya started setting up the tent, while I had the the task to document the events with my camera.

Мая и Иво опъват палатката

Maya and Ivo setting up the tent

Мая и Иво горди

Maya and Ivo proud tent-builders

Мая се чекне в палатката

Maya in the tent

Мая оправя спалните чували

Maya unpacking

Only three more backpacker-couples had brought their own tents. Everyone else, some 30-40 visitors from around the world, mostly Germans and Australians, instead rented a tent or a hammock. The “coolest” spot to rent a hammock was the small open shack on the rocks surrounded by the sea- Tayrona’s most popular landmark.

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Ел Кабо, Тайрона

El Cabo, Tayrona. This is “the coolest” spot to rent a hammock

To rent a tent is about $15 per person per night, a hammock is about $10 and we, even though we brought our own tent, had to pay around $6 per person (Maya- free) for the privilege to set the tent up in El Cabo.

Нашата палатка нощем

Our tent at night

And even though we didn’t like the fact that we had to pay yet again, it was worth it. In Tayrona we lived the most beautiful, the most happy, the most perfect days in our lives.

Иво и Мая край огъня

Ivo and Maya by the fire

Мая хапва равиоли от консерва

Maya eating ravioli from a can

Мая с маршмелоу

Maya with marshmallow

Къмпингът се събужда

The camping is waking up

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Мая и Мира готови за поход високо в планината до Ел Пуеблито (половин ден)

Maya and Mira ready for another hike up in the mountains to El Pueblito

Иво помага на Мая през канарите

Ivo helping Maya

Мая

Maya

Мира и Мая

Mira and Maya

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Иво обича да бере диви портокали

Ivo likes wild oranges

Черно колибри

a black hummingbird

Мира и Мая обичат да прегръщат големи дървета

Mira and Maya like hugging trees

Пуеблито е малко изоставено индианско селце (не живеят индианци), където туристите от Тайрона могат да се разходят и да видят къщите на индианците. До тук се стига за 2-3 часа стръмно изкачване- труден терен с канари през цялото време; вертикално катерене.

Pueblito is a small uninhabited site of an old indigenous settlement in Tayrona. The hike there is steep, hard and takes about 3 hours.

Пуеблито

El Pueblito, Tayrona

Номадите в Тайрона

The Nomadiks in El Pueblito

обратно на плажа

back at the beach

Иво си почива след дълъг изморителен поход до Пуеблито

Ivo resting on the beach after the hike to El Pueblito

Мая прави пясъчен октопод

Maya making a sand octopus

Иво реже кокоси

Ivo opening a coconut

Мая пие кокоси

Maya

Червена катерица в палмите

A red squirrel

 

Мравки-листорезачки

Leafcutter ants

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Залез. Втора вечер

Sunset. Second night in Tayrona

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Още една рядка птица

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Тайрона, Ел Кабо

El Cabo, Tayrona

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Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira

Zipaquira

Our last destination while visiting Bogota was Zipaquira, 50 km north of the capital, one of the most ancient human settlements in the Americas where the Muisca people used to live before the Spanish conquest, and the place where we found “The Number One Wonder of Colombia”.

From the hostel near La Candelaria we took a TransMilenio bus to Portal Norte (1,800 pesos= $0.70) and from there we hoped on a smaller bus to “Zipa” (5,000 pesos= $2.50). After an hour drive we found ourselves in a small picturesque town in the Eucalypt forests of the Andes. Narrow streets, some closed for car traffic; old houses with freshly painted doors and tiled roofs overgrown with moss.

Уличките на Зипакира

Street in Zipaquira

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We headed for the central plaza- a big plaza occupied by pigeons (like all the plazas in the world) with a few tall palm trees sticking out of the ground, their roots pushing the pavement up creating gentle hills of yellow cobblestones. The plaza was surrounded by two-story buildings with wooden balconies laden with flowers and old clay-tile roofs. The Municipal Palace with its Classic French architecture and Gothic elements, as well as the imposing Cathedral of San Antonio de Padua built between 1805 and 1916 in Classic Colonial style, were standing out.

Кметството на Зипакира

Municipal Palace in Zipaquira

Катедрала Зипакира

Cathedral in Zipaquira

We didn’t expect to find such a colorful neat little historical town with 300-year old houses declared National Monuments, set among the green hills of the Colombian countryside. We were immediately charmed by Zipaquira, even before we got to our destination- the Salt Cathedral, which is the chief reason why hundreds of visitors flock here each day.

Зипакира

Zipaquira

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La Caterdal de Sal

The Salt Cathedral in Zipaquira declared “The First Wonder of Colombia” is one of the most unusual, most astonishing cathedrals in the world. It is built 200 meters underground inside the tunnels of an old salt mine, deep in the belly of a big salty mountain. Everything in this cathedral is made of salt.

Солената Катедрала

The Salt Cathedral

The salt (or halite) deposits of Zipaquira were formed 250 million years ago, and were pushed up high above sea level with the formation of the Andes mountain chain. The Muisca people of Colombia were the first ones to take advantage of the rich salt deposits, long before the Spanish arrived in these lands. They were mining the salt and trading it for other goods with various other tribes in the region of the Andes.

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сол

Salt

Later, the European settlers began exploiting the halite deposits, digging tunnels in the mountains. In one of the mine shafts they built a small sanctuary for prayer and worship before each long day of heavy labor and danger under the ground.

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In 1950, inside the mine tunnels, some carved by the Muisca people, begun the building of the big underground cathedral, which opened doors on August 15, 1954 and was dedicated to Our Lady of Rosary, Patron saint of miners. But its location in an active at the time mine created some safety issues. The cathedral was closed and later rebuilt deeper, under the old one. The Salt Cathedral in its present state was completed in 1995.

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After we bought our tickets, about $12, we waited at the gates leading down, in line with about twenty more visitors, for the next guided tour. We left behind the light of day and entered the under-earth starting in a cave-like corridor reinforced by large eucalyptus logs, with walls and ceiling covered in a thick layer of salt, like snow.

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We walked down for a very long time stopping often, 14 times to be exact. On both sides of the main tunnel there were 14 chapels each containing a large cross carved out of the halite floor and walls, representing the Stations of the Cross of the last journey of Jesus, La Via Dolorosa.

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After about half an hour we got to the cathedral itself at the center of a labyrinth of corridors, caves, shafts and balconies. It is monumental, 75 meters long with 18 meters high ceiling, four huge halite columns and capacity for 8,400 people. Here, amidst blue and yellow lights illuminating the rough salty walls, and the sound of Ave Maria, we found the largest underground cross in the world!

Мира и Мая на фона на най-големия подземен кръст в света (направен от сол)

Mira and Maya with the biggest underground cross in the world, made of salt

Before the end of this journey we joined a small group of enthusiasts who wanted to find out how the salt was being mined in the old times. We were given helmets with lights, we told a prayer to Our Lady of Rosary, Patron saint of miners, and we had to walk through some narrow low completely dark corridors holding on to a rope until we got to the place where a bunch of old rusty extremely heavy pickaxes were waiting for us. Ivo and Maya got to work straightaway and managed to dig out some halite from the walls of the mine. The miners in the old times were paid very little per kilogram of salt. And what we managed to dig out was not worth even a penny… We kept the little pieces of rock which we tasted to make sure they were salty (yes they were!) as souvenirs.

Мая и Иво- миньори

Ivo and Maya- miners

Иво копае каменна сол

Ivo mining halite

Край на работното време

End of the workday

Back in the light of the day. It was cold and drizzling outside. We found a cozy little restaurant with a big fireplace and ordered sopa de costilla (soup with ribs) and a big portion of sausages with baked potatoes and salad- the local delicacy. A portion of grilled meat with sides, soup and juice costs between 3 and 5 dollars in Colombia and the three of us usually share two portions, as they are huge. I get full just with the soup.

Край камината

By the fireplace

We sat next to the fireplace smiling contently and while enjoying the hot spicy soup and the fresh sausages, Maya started telling us with excitement how she loved the Salt Cathedral, but she wouldn’t go in the mines all by herself (it would be way too scary) and how she can’t wait to build herself an underground Salt Cathedral in Minecraft.

Мая със статуята на миньора

Maya with the Statue of the Miner (“This is not how you drop anchor”)

Статуя на миньора  в Зипакира

Statue of the Miner in Zipaquira

I too liked the Salt Cathedral, more than I expected. I didn’t imagine such a huge underground labyrinth spanning for a few kilometers six stories under the surface of the earth, with so many dark shafts, corridors, rooms and crypts; so many details, crosses, statues and frescoes all carved out of salt! It’s a large scale work of art and an authentic historical monument to the people of the Salt Mountains, a journey we will never forget.

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Monserrate, El Dorado and the Museum of Gold in Bogota

Monserrate

The second day of our visit in Bogota started with a very steep hiking up Mount Monserrate, 3152 m, one of Bogota’s symbols.

Monserrate, Bogota

Monserrate, Bogota

In the early years of the 17th century the mountain becomes a favorite place for pilgrimage for devout Catholics and in 1650 begins the building of a temple, which still receives hundreds of pilgrims and visitors each day.

Мая срещна лама по пътя към Монсерате

Maya met a llama on the way to Monserrate

Besides the 3-kiometer pedestrian path, there is a cable car to the top, for those who cannot make the journey by foot, as walking up Monserrate is a very physically-challenging tradition. There are sportsmen running up, pilgrims crawling on their knees and visitors like us walking slowly and resting every now and then. It’s a popular thing to do for locals and tourists any day of the week. To visit Bogota and not climb Monserrate is like visiting Paris and not going up the Eifel Tower.

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After two hours of sweating and heart-pounding climb we finally got to the top of Monserrate. We promised ourselves we would never do it again. The altitude change is 500 meters and even though there is a paved path with steps (and we love hiking up mountains) this was one of the most tiring and difficult “walks” ever. But it was rewarding too. From the top the capital in our feet looked like an endless lake of tiled roofs spilled among the slopes of the surrounding mountains.

Изглед към Богота от връх Монсерате

View of Bogota from Monserrate

Besides the church, there is a nice restaurant among gardens with mountain flowers and old trees, with a terrace and stunning view of the city, where we had traditional hot chocolate.

Мая пие горещ шоколад на връх Монсерате

Maya is having hot chocolate on top of Monserrate

The walk down was as painful for our muscles and joints, but faster and without as many rest-stops, so we were back in Bogota, back in the city traffic and crowds by noon. And even though our legs hurt, after a short lunch break in a small restaurant where we enjoyed a traditional Ajiaco soup, we found some more energy and visited another stunning site.

Мая хапва супа Ахиако (гъста пилешка супа с 4 вида картофи и специфични подправки)

Maya is having Ajiaco soup (thick chicken soup with four types of potatoes, cilantro and other herbs and spices)

 

El Dorado

Once upon a time, deep in the mountains of an unknown faraway land, in a temple built in the middle of a big city, there lived the son of a powerful ruler. He possessed the sight of the bat and the wisdom of the eagle. In his veins the strength of the jaguar was flowing.

The day of his transformation approached. Secluded in the dark belly of a sacred cave for many days, days that appeared like an endless night without the light of the sun, without salt in his food and without a woman at his side, the prince was getting ready for the transformation.

In the day of the ceremony, the shamans of the big city gathered near the sacred lake without bottom- the portal to the Lower World ruled by the goddess of the waters. They made fires of wood and tree sap whose blood-red smoke consumed the sky and sun. They placed on a big raft made of trees and decorated with feathers of all colors and jewels, the most intricate objects made of gold. They painted the naked body of the cave-prince with gold dust, from head to toes.

They placed the golden prince on the raft and in his feet they put the objects made of gold and emeralds- offerings for the underwater lake-goddess of the Lower World. The four most distinguished shamans were also on the raft standing in its four corners, wearing heavy crowns, earrings, bracelets and necklaces of pure gold. When the raft reached the center of the lake, silence fell. The golden prince began throwing one by one the rich offerings in the lake- the portal to the underworld, and the shamans did the same.

When the raft came back to shore the prince entered the waters of the lake and washed the gold off his body. He was greeted by all with songs, music and dancing. He was the new ruler of the people. He was El Dorado.

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The tale of the golden prince and the lake full of precious gold offerings gave birth to the legend of El Dorado- a city of gold full of unimaginable riches hidden deep in the jungles of the unexplored  New World, a city so many conquistadors searched for in vain in the 16th and 17th centuries. And even though the City of Gold was never found and remained just a legend, the sacred lake where the Muisca people from the high Andine plateau near today’s Bogota performed the ritual of the initiation of their new ruler does exist. The high mountain lake Guatavita at 3100 meters is round and resembles a crater with 1.5 km in diameter and about 25-30 meters deep. Today it is a major tourist attraction not far from the capital of Colombia.

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After a few failed attempts in the past to drain the lake and find the gold on its bottom, the lake has been declared National Patrimony and today it is forbidden to swim, dive or excavate it.

Museum of Gold

But instead of climbing another mountain, tired from our hike to Monserrate, we decided to look for gold in another place, where we knew we would find hips of it – the Museum of Gold.

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The museum has displays on 3 floors and its collection of 55 thousand gold and other pre-Colombian objects is the biggest in the world. It is the most famous museum in Colombia and one of the most impressive museums in all of Latin America. The entrance fee is 3000 pesos (less than $1.5) for adults and free for children.

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We were absolutely amazed by the scale of the museum, by its rich gold collection separated by time periods and regions of the findings, by the intricate work of the gold objects, some so miniature they were placed under magnifying glass, by the style, complexity and beauty of the ancient art.

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We watched a film about ancient metals and how they influenced different cultures around the world, we learned about the life and culture of the pre-Hispanic peoples of Colombia from miniature models depicting scenes of their daily lives: agriculture, burial rituals, crafts, building of houses etc. Maya loved these small scale models as they resemble little toys and dolls.

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Миниатюрни модели на мумии, които бивали погребвани изправени

Miniature models of mummies buried standing up underground

But what impressed us the most were the figurines of mixed animals and people: the jaguar-frog, the eagle-man, the bird-woman, the vampire-man, the snake-shaman, as well as the golden treys used in rituals involving hallucinogenic plant-powders made from coca leaves and from Yopo collected from the Anadenanthera tree, which the shamans inhaled using a small spoon or a hollow bird bone from treys depicting animals and conjured up images of the transformations that were experienced.
“When the shaman was under the effects of plants that gave him power, he connected the various worlds. He journeyed through the middle, upper and lower worlds, linking all their beings.”

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Bird-woman

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Jaguar-frog

Тавичка и тръбичка за наркотици

A tray for inhaling coca

On the third floor we entered the Offering room. Darkness fell upon us and we heard the sounds of water and faraway songs of shamans. When the faint flickering light came back we saw hundreds of golden objects floating in a glass round lake in the middle of the room and all around us. The singing got louder. We found ourselves in a whirlpool of gold, a glittering distant unreality…

Церемониалната зала

The Offering room

We spent the entire afternoon in the Museum of Gold, captivated by the beauty of the craft of the ancient civilizations inhabiting these lands before Columbus. We learned Fascinating details about their culture and history, their life and rituals.

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The Hostel

Extremely exhausted we returned to our little hostel, where a private room was vacant for us. Instead of sleeping in the dorm with 6 beds we got a room to ourselves with one double bed and one bunk-bed, with a TV set and hot-water shower! Plus, the nice little lady at the reception agreed to rent it to us for $30 per night.

But this room too didn’t have any windows. Why, we asked with curiosity. “Ah, The story of this building is long. It was built in the 17th century and was the house of a general. Then it became a convent, then a school, and finally, before the present owner bought it and made it to a hostel and before the digital era, it was a photo studio with dark rooms, where they used to develop films. That’s why- no windows.”

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We took a hot shower and fell under the blankets. We slept like dead not knowing if it was dark or light outside, in our room without windows, in the small hostel in the center of the city. We still had one more day in Bogota ahead of us, another day filled with discoveries and adventures before we would go back to our boat in the heat of Santa Marta.

Обратно в хостела

* Read Visit to Bogota Part One and find out about La Candelaria, Botero Museum and the Bogota Cathedral.

 

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Canadian Passports in Colombia

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Arriving in Colombia by sailboat may turn out to be a very costly experience, especially for those holding Canadian passports, like us. For the first time since we left Florida almost two years ago we had to pay so much to check in a country (even the Bahamas – 300 US$- was cheaper). Actually, our Canadian passports which expire in three months were the main reason to come to Santa Marta and immediately fly to Bogota, to one of the three Canadian Embassies providing passport services in the Caribbean region (the other two are in Panama and Barbados). But aside from the fee we paid at the embassy for renewing our travel documents, our Canadian passports were the reason for an unforeseen unexpected expense as soon as we checked-in in Colombia.

Apart from the 90 $US for a 60-day temporary cruising permit, which is being charged to all foreign vessels entering Colombian waters, we were served a juicy bill of 80 US$ per person (a total of 240 US$ for the three of us) an immigration fee. (Later we found out that the fee should not be charged to kids under 15, but we still have to sort out this information). It turned out that since a few months now there is a new law targeting only Canadian citizens. All other citizens don’t pay. This new Colombian law has been introduced in response to the new Canadian law, according to which all Colombian citizens have to pay 80 US$ per person immigration fee when traveling to Canada… I suspect this “reciprocity fee” will greatly limit visits to Colombia by cruising Canadians . For the first time we regretted not having renewed our expired Bulgarian passports…

Santa Marta Anchorage

Santa Marta Anchorage

On top of this, it turned out that the only marina in Santa Marta, where we had to dock our boat for a week while traveling to Bogota, charges catamarans almost double, “because they are wider and take up more space” (even though there were enough empty berths at the marina). Today, it is not as dangerous to visit and travel in Colombia as it has been a few years ago, but it is still not a good idea to leave a boat at anchor in a lonely anchorage near a small town full of poor people for a few days and nights. Robberies in Colombia are still common events. The marina with its 24-hour security and locked gates was our only safe option. But our bill was 250 US$ for a week (no water and no electricity included) instead of 150 US$ per week, which a monohull the same length would pay.

Thus, our total bill for checking-in in Colombia and staying at the marina in Santa Marta was $580. But this is how a positive crew should rationalize the situation: We have been cruising all over the Caribbean since two years now and the only other time we had to pay for a marina was in July 2013 in Havana Cuba (anchoring is not permitted anywhere near Havana). So, we didn’t have big marina expenses per month for the last two years, if you look at it this way. Moreover, we didn’t have to pay any entry fees for the past five months in the islands we visited: checking-in in French St Marten and Dutch Aruba was free and there are no visa or checking-in fees for Canadians in Puerto Rico. Therefore, our huge checkin-in expenses in Colombia were compensated by the zero checking-in expenses for the past 5 months. Thus we tried to think positively…

Marina Santa Marta

Marina Santa Marta

And finally, in the days before arriving in Colombia we have received a few donations in our blog by our generous readers, which covered the marina fee. There is probably no better way to show you our gratitude except to mention here how much your generosity has made a difference, P. Vachkov, B. Pavlov, I. Russev, A. Grigorov, H. Hristov, S. Apostolov and K. Mirchev- we thank you!

Immediately after landing in Santa Marta we researched which would be the cheapest way to get to Bogota, some 1,000 kilometers in the interior of Colombia. A rental car is about $50-$60 per day and gas is about 3.50 per gallon. Plus, the highway is paid. A rental car would cost us over $400 for 4 days and two of those days we would spend driving. The bus to Bogota is 50$ per person in one direction and it takes 20 hours to get there. It turned out that travelling by airplane is not only faster, but also the cheapest way to get around in Colombia. There are a few airline companies but we found the cheapest to be Viva Colombia. You can buy round trip tickets Santa Marta-Bogota-Santa Marta for as little as $40, as long as you get them in advance and if you are traveling light- not more than one 6-kilogram bag. We paid $90 per person for a round trip as we got the tickets in the last minute and it was still the cheapest, fastest and best option.

After one hour and a half flying over mountains, fields, villages, rivers and lakes we landed in Bogota- Colombia’s capital and one of South America’s biggest cities which surprised us and charmed us with its colossal scale and unique historical and cultural attractions: numerous world-renown museums, ancient cathedrals, plazas and colonial buildings not only in the old district but all over the city. Visiting Bogota was worth all the hassle.

 

Bogota

Bogota

 

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Passage from Aruba to Santa Marta

Passage from Aruba to Santa Marta

Passage from Aruba to Santa Marta

Passage from Aruba to Santa Marta

On our way from Puerto Rico to Colombia we decided to stop in Aruba (after three days and two nights of sailing) for a quick couple of days, to rest, check the weather and keep going. A month later we were still in Aruba, reluctant to leave.

Fata Morgana at anchor in Aruba

Fata Morgana at anchor in Aruba

This small vacation island, its clean manicured capital Oranjestad, its sparkling resorts and world-famous beaches, its many natural wonders, and its welcoming people became one of our most favorite Caribbean destinations. It was free and easy to check in and out of Aruba, and free to drop anchor anywhere in its many protected bays on the south shore. We met and befriended a wonderful local family, who welcomed us in their home and helped us enormously; we met Tony, Armando and his buddies who started Ivo kitesurfing; and Maya began windsurfing. It felt like a vacation. But mostly, we stayed longer than anticipated because we decided not to sail until we get favorable winds, so our passage to Colombia would be safe. Safety first.

Colorful fishing boats in Aruba

Colorful fishing boats in Aruba

A month passed and the trades finally calmed down a bit. It was time to lift anchor. The 260 NM passage from Aruba to Santa Marta, Colombia is notorious for being one of the most dangerous passages in the Caribbean, as the winds near the Venezuelan gulf and the Colombian capes are often violent, accelerated by the effect of high pressure colliding with low pressure from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range. Reaching an altitude of 5,700 m (18,700 ft) just 42 km (26 mi) from the Caribbean coast, the Sierra Nevada is the world’s highest coastal range creating this problematic for navigation area in the south Caribbean Sea, a so called “compression zone.”. It’s a spot on the charts not to be underestimated. We read all the information we could find online about how and when is best to sail there, and as soon as PassageWeather promised 3 successful days of maximum 15 to 20 knots east winds, instead of the usual 25 to 30 knots, we sailed.

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In the morning on April 17th we left our anchorage in front of Palm Beach and went to the docks at Oranjestad to check out from Aruba. It took about one hour of waiting for the officials to show up, bring the paperwork, stamp their stamps and let us go. The process is painless and we didn’t have to leave the boat, as the customs and immigration- very pleasant smiling, good-natured people- came from Barcadera, where they are in the process of building the new port, to Port of Oranjestad, bringing the necessary forms right up to the boat without boarding it. It felt like drive through.

Фата Моргана на док в Аруба

Fata Morgana at Port of Oranjestad

Around 9:30 a.m. we were off with a strong puff behind us- 30 to 35 knots. We reefed and we worried. There were no such numbers predicted by PassageWeather… But as soon as we were well away from the shores of Aruba, about 10 miles, the wind dropped to 8-12 knots and with it, our speed. We were sailing wing-on-wing, full sail, doing 4 to 5 knots. But we didn’t complain. Better slow and safe than fast and stressful. Later in the afternoon the wind picked up to comfortable 16-20 knots and the boat was doing 5-6 kts. Thus, the first day of the dreaded passage passed by with very relaxed wind, sea and crew.

It was late in the afternoon when we had crossed the entrance of the Gulf of Venezuela and we spotted the small twin-rocks which really are in the middle of nowhere, 50 nautical miles from Aruba, territory of Venezuela-Monjes del Norte, where an anchorage is marked on the charts and some people stop overnight. But the wind and sea were great and it didn’t make sense to stop, plus we had read a few accounts of terrible experiences by cruisers there, according to which stopping at Los Monjes should be only in case of emergency and in bad weather conditions. We kept going.

The night fell. Clear skies but no moon at this time of the month. Total darkness descended and we sailed in the blind. We were just passed the first Colombian cape, Punta Gallinas, reefed, expecting accelerated puffs, but nothing like that happened. All night Fata Morgana was galloping lazily, close to shore, about 5-6 miles, and the sea and wind remained calm, between 10 and 18 knots all night.

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On the second day things changed. The wind picked up in the late morning as we approached the area directly under the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and the sea rose. We reefed the jib and the main and even then the boat was going uncomfortably fast with 9-10 to 11 knots surfing down the waves. We furled the jib and kept sailing only with a reefed main in winds 25 to 30 knots directly behind us. And we were still doing average of 8-9 kts speed.

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At one point a pod of dolphins came to escort us. They usually show up when the sea is calm, and glide near the bow for a few minutes, but this time they came jumping out of the big waves all around us demonstrating awesome skills: jolts, pirouettes and splashes- a full program. Then we caught a nice juicy blackfin tuna, also called “football” due to its plump rounded shape and we had food for the next few days.

Ivo with a football tuna

Ivo with a football tuna

Then, we experienced something we had never experienced before and understood what people meant by “strong puffs”. They are not squalls that last for 10 -20 minutes, but extremely brief, sudden puffs from 12 to 28 knots for 2-3 seconds and back to 12 knots. It’s really weird, completely unpredictable and annoying. And there is nothing to do, but reef and get used to it.

The second night, sailing close to shore in about 3-600 feet of depth, the wind like a mad person who remembered to take his medication before bedtime, calmed down and became steady and sedate again. Ivo was sure this is the katabatic land effect which we witnessed on the north shore of the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Guatemala – the nearby landmass cooling at night cancels the wind near the shore just after sunset- but we cannot guarantee that the wind always dies out at night near the shore here, nor can we advise cruisers to sail close to shore. That was our experience and this time we felt we were lucky.

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As soon as the sun came out on the third day, the strong wind returned, doing its temperamental thing again, but we had just a few more miles left to go. The last cape to round was Cabo de la Guaja, couple of miles before Santa Marta, and Ivo decided to “cut the corner” and to pass just feet away from the rocks. We had full jib out and reefed main, wing on wing, and suddenly the waves rose big and steep, the wind behind us going up to 35 knots, Ivo hand steering, the boat surfing with 12 knots downwind for the longest few minutes during this passage. That was scary.

Note to ourselves: Next time do not cut the corner, go at least 3-4 miles away from the cape, try not to have the wing-on-wing sail combination when in doubt, and reef in time!

But we passed the cape OK and we found ourselves in calm water finally, heading to a small noisy town at the foot of dry hills, with lots of bus and taxi traffic and some tall buildings near the beach, a busy commercial port, a lonеly anchorage with lots of small fishing boats and just two sailboats, and a brand new modern marina sheltered behind a rock wall. We dropped anchor near the marina.

Statue of Tairona woman in Santa Marta. Fata Morgana at anchor in the distance

Statue of Tairona woman in Santa Marta. Fata Morgana at anchor in the distance

Many sailors stop once or twice on this passage in one of the five small bays along the Colombian coast between Aruba and Santa Marta, but in bad weather they becmoe dangerous to approach and are not exactly “protected”. This passage can be broken up in 2-3 legs and one can only sail during the day and anchor at night, or sail at night and anchor during the day. But we wanted to get it over with as soon as possible and not have our weather window close, so we sailed non-stop.

We arrived in Santa Marta Sunday, April 19th, after 48 hours of relatively “smooth sailing”.

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