Having been sailing within islands since leaving Gibraltar 12 months earlier, our arrival at Cartagena was something of a culture shock. Cartagena is a major port, with container ships and tankers constantly on the move. As one moves north through the harbour, high rise apartment blocks are on both shores, reminding us of Miami Beach – something we were not used to!
Club Nautico, where we anchored is at the opposite end of the spectrum. The “pontoons” are fixed concrete that is an advanced state of decay, the club has been demolished and unfinished concrete piles rise to a height of about 10 feet, with plastic and tarpaulins slung between to provide some form of shelter from the constant rain. John Halley, the excellent forever helpful dockmaster has an office within a shed, and the owner of Club Nautico, an elderly woman, is we understand fighting the Mayor, also female, and now the Port Captain, who are both doing their best to ensure the new clubhouse is not built at all!
Meanwhile, at anchor barnacle growth proliferates in next to no time on hull, propeller and mussels attack anchor chain if left unattended! Huge clumps of grass also constantly float around the harbour creating a hazard for vessels and humans alike (sea snakes live within them). The water is so filthy that we could not use the watermaker as the filters would clog up almost immediately. Happy days!
Yacht security can also be quite an issue with numerous dinghy thefts complete with outboard being reported, so forewarned being forarmed, we hoisted ours each night and chained outboard to dinghy to Pipistrelle. Early one evening we also received an unauthorized visit from the Coastguard! He came alongside, alone but in uniform in his fair sized rib, tied up and asked in Spanish to come on board…..as soon as we asked for his identification and the whereabouts of his colleagues (they normally patrol in pairs or more), he left, promising to return, but we never saw him again.
The clearing in process to Colombia was relatively quick and easy, thanks to the charming, informed and efficient Paula and Jessica who acted as our agents. This contrasted greatly to the experiences of Pipistrelle’s previous owners, Stephen and Katherine whose agent is now barred from Club Nautico. He operates from a nearby internet café attached to the Carulla supermarket! We spent several hours there both provisioning and enjoying the airconditioned environment to use the internet, updating the blog and making numerous Skype calls.
We arrived just before Halloween, and having walked and then climbed the steps to the main fort above the city during the day, we returned on foot to the old town in the evening. We were surprised to find that most of the city was partying, with clubs having an external black and orange makeover for the event, and queues of the young and beautiful in fancy dress for the occasion! We found an excellent restaurant where we enjoyed one of many superb meals over the next fortnight, for under £10 per head, including wine!
The old town just oozes atmosphere, with most buildings being hundreds of years old, constructed of timber and brick. The various different trades have their own quarter where they are grouped together, and every now and then one chances upon delightful squares with fountains, trees and benches to rest ones legs, or a square full of restaurants round the outside, with diners sitting at tables in the centre!
There is also an amazing assortment of anchored yachts off Club Nautico. Catamarans mainly run by Germans ply between Colon (Panama) and Cartagena for the backpacker trade, as there is no road or rail connection between the two cities. A considerable number of cruisers like ourselves were anchored there along with the longer term sailors who have either decided it is a convenient place to stop, or have started a business of one form or another.
In between visiting museums and seeing more of the city, we were also trying to get our radar set repaired, which had been a victim of the lightning in Curacao along with the VHF. This entailed a hoist up the mast, to remove the antenna from within its radome, while Pipistrelle was gently rocking to and fro!
We were able to enjoy the Independence Day celebrations, on the 11/11, which is a major festival in the Columbian calendar. We were taken by taxi to a vantage spot to the north of the city, and were able to watch the carnival procession which was colourful and lively. Cartagena used to have a major security problem but now there are 2000 police constantly patrolling the city, and we felt comfortable and safe, but were also streetwise. The carnival was the only time we witnessed theft, with youths armed with spray cans of foam temporarily blinding their victim and stealing cameras and wallets.
As soon as the weather allowed we sailed south to Baia de Cholon, some 15 nm away, and spent a very happy 24 hours in idyllic natural surroundings, a huge change from Cartagena.
We also met up with Jackie and Adrian on Oceans Dream, who had sailed in company with us from Aruba. A weather window appeared, and we set sail direct for the San Blas, arriving safely at Puerto Escoses at the eastern end of Panama. We had the bay to ourselves for 24 hours, which provided the opportunity for Bob to don diving gear, and clear both our hull and Oceans Dream of barnacles accumulated in Cartagena. They have to be the worst we have seen anywhere.
More to follow on the San Blas, or Kuna Yala as the Kuna Indians call the region, in the next blog!