From Colombia to Kuna Yala

Last time we took you from Santa Marta to Cartagena. Fasten your lifejackets and get ready to sail to our next destination: The San Blas Islands (or Kuna Yala) in Panama!

A beach in Kuna Yala

A beach in Kuna Yala

It was one of our strangest passages so far. One of our “longest” passages too. After over a year island-hopping in the Eastern Caribbean, where the average distance between islands is 20-30 NM, and you can almost see your next destination before you lift anchor, 200 NM is “a long passage”…. It should take us 2 days to get to the San Blas Islands in Panama.

We start on sail at 7 in the morning from the sleepy anchorage in Cartagena and very slowly head for Boca Chica, the southern exit channel from Cartagena. The current inside the bay is strong against us, and the wind (2-3 knots from northeast) is not helping us much. After 4 hours we are only 3 NM closer to destination, barely out of the channel, it’s almost noon, but Ivo is proud that we didn’t have to use the engines at all.

We first head for Isla del Rosario, a small uninhabited island archipelago in Colombia only 17 NM southwest of Cartagena, where we plan to spend a day or two, but when we get there at around 4 p.m. after a very pleasant slow sail with the wind 12-16 kts on a beam reach, we cannot find a good place to drop anchor. The island is low, covered in tangled bushes and trees, with a small sandy beach on the south side. It looks like rocks and coral heads everywhere all around it though, and as there is no cruising guide information about this place, no detail depths and coral head areas, we decide not to risk getting closer to shore and wreck the boat, so we just keep going- 180 NM more to San Blas.

Small private island near Isla del Rosario

Small private island near Isla del Rosario

The wind picks up at night- 18 to 24 kts from northeast and the swell is 2 to 3 meters. The sky is covered with clouds and in the distance orange heat lightings illuminate the southern horizon. Then the wind drops to 10 kts and shifts from southeast, the swell still 2-3m from northeast and the ride gets bumpy. I feel seasick, which doesn’t happen normally. But the next day it gets worse. We are 100 NM from destination and 100 NM from the closest land, north of Golfo de Uraba in Colombia. The swell is still big and utterly uncomfortable, the wind dies and not only our speed drops to 0, but a 1 -1.5 kt current starts pushing us back to where we came from. Normal people turn on the engines in this sort of a situation and keep going to destination. That’s NORMAL people… Ivo, who is not part of that group, drops all sails and starts hand-steering trying to keep the boat into the current so our drift back would be as slow as possible. Thus we drift for almost 6 hours, from noon to 6 p.m., very slowly going backwards. Before the wind picks up, and not much but just enough for the boat to start moving forward again, we have lost 2 NM going backwards, and half the day.

The second night we are rewarded with a very pleasant 12-18 kt wind from northeast and just about 1 m swell and Fata Morgana is back in business doing 6 kts. By sunrise we have only 30 NM left to San Blas, two tunas in the freezer and everyone is feeling great.

It’s noon, the sky grey-and-blue with scattered clouds, the wind still about 20 kts and the sea 1-2 m when we spot the first of about 340 islands covered with coconut palms, home of the Indigenous Kuna people. We clear the reefs where the waves crash with violent roar and beyond them begins paradise- serene, blue, enchanted world of sea-stars and little dark people in small dugout Cayucos.

A Kuna sailing a dugout cayuco

A Kuna sailing a dugout cayuco

We arrive in San Blas without ever turning on the engines, we tack between the reefs in a shallow channel and around 2 p.m. we finally drop anchor (on sail) next to Banedup, an island part of the Cayos Holandes island chain, in a place popular among cruisers as The Swimming Pool, for its waters are as shallow and clear and as deliciously blue as the waters of the most luxurious swimming pool on earth.

Maya aboard Fata Morgana at The Swimming Pool, San Blas

Maya aboard Fata Morgana at The Swimming Pool, San Blas

San Blas is the official name given by the Spanish of this vast archipelago stretching near the eastern largely uninhabited and partly unexplored shores of Panama. But for centuries, the local Kuna people have used a different name for their islands which are today an autonomous territory within Panama- Kuna Yala. And so, we decided to respect and use the indigenous name.

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Kuna Yala is mind-blowing, really. Nothing could have prepared us for the beauty of the place. Fenced behind a long barrier reef which breaks and calms the waves of the Caribbean Sea creating a vast lake of flat crystal blue water- an absolute pleasure for cruising, lie hundreds of small flat islands of fine white sand and tall coconut palms. Some of the islands are uninhabited, others are home to not more than one or two Kuna families living in huts with roofs of palm leaves near the beach, without electricity and running water, very much the way their ancestors used to live for centuries before the first European ever set foot in this part of the world. Others yet are heavily populated by dense communities of hundreds of Kuna people, who have lost to some extend their traditional ways, enjoying much of the advancements of modern civilization. And beyond the many islands rise the jungle-covered mountains of Panama’s mainland cut through by rivers providing much of the potable freshwater to the islanders.

A small inhabited island in Kuna Yala. Panama mainland in the background

A small inhabited island in Kuna Yala. Panama mainland in the background

We spent a month in Kuna Yala completely removed form modern civilization (no internet…), sailing between islands, enjoying the absolute tranquility of the most remote anchorages near uninhabited islands, the exceptional snorkeling in pristine waters and stunning coral gardens, a number of wild kayak expeditions to neighboring islands and rivers of clear waters full of crocodiles and stingrays; we met and befriended a few of the Kuna families in some of the smaller islands and we visited some of the bigger Kuna communities, learning about their history and culture.

Kuna women in traditional costumes, Kuna Yala

Kuna women in traditional costumes, Kuna Yala

It was not all 100% pink and positive, though. We became also very much disenchanted, especially Ivo, with the way the locals, especially on the bigger islands, have become greedy for money and are treating us visitors- tourists and cruisers- as “gringos”, trying to squeeze another dollar out of our pockets, like everywhere.

Ivo in his state of perfection: perfect temperature, perfect water, perfect beach, perfect island, perfect palm tree shade... All in one- Kuna Yala

Ivo in his state of perfection: perfect temperature, perfect water, perfect beach, perfect island, perfect palm tree shade… All in one- Kuna Yala

Yet, of all the Caribbean destinations we sailed to, Kuna Yala is by far the most beautiful, authentic, and interesting one. No wonder some cruisers spend here many years, others return again and again. No wonder, I have so many, many stories to tell from the land of the Kuna Yala, and I can’t wait to share them with you!

Mira in San Blas

Mira in San Blas

 

To be continued….

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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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