A country with a huge smile factor, Colombia is welcoming and safe, quite contrary to its image, finds Alan Ryall

If I asked you for five words to describe Colombia I bet they wouldn’t include ‘welcoming’, ‘safe’, ‘fun’, ‘sophisticated’ or ‘beautiful’. I bet you’d be surprised if I told you that cruising here is far better than in the Eastern Caribbean. But it’s true. This is a country that has been defined by a single issue projected by Hollywood and the world’s media and the reality couldn’t be further from that outdated image.

For my wife, Terry, and I the adventure started when we turned the stern of our Island Packet 465, Seminole Wind, to the Eastern Caribbean. We left Union Island with steady tradewinds in the high teens, just occasionally tipping over 20 knots true with squalls strangely absent. We sail two-handed so our weapon of choice for downwind sailing is a huge Parasailor with no pole to wrestle with on a rolling foredeck.

Just for once the weather was stable enough to fly it all night so a hoist off Union and a drop approaching the mooring in Bonaire two days later gave us two back-to-back 200-mile days. For a long keeler designed for comfort not speed, an 8-knot average is a rare treat and made for a glorious final passage, probably the best I’ve had in a lifetime of sailing.


Seminole Wind made 400 miles from Union Island to Bonaire in 48 hours

We had sailed west to join the Ocean Cruising Club’s 2018-19 Suzie Too Rally from Curaçao to Belize via Aruba, Colombia, San Blas, Panama San Andres, Providencia, Roatan, and Utila. There were over 70 crews in two groups, all experienced sailors, but for many of us this would be our first rally experience.

Suzanne and David Chappell on Suzie Too have created a unique model that has little in common with the big commercial rallies. With no employees, no entry fee and exclusive to OCC members, it’s simply a large group of like-minded people benefitting from their experience and superb organisational skills.

After haul-out at Curaçao Marine, an excellent, well-managed yard with modern equipment and bonded, secure storage, the first hop was down to Aruba. It was an easy downwind drift but the next step can be a big one.

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The north of Colombia has been compared to the coast of Brittany, and with good reason. Given some planning and a careful weather slot selection it’s a pussycat; on a bad day it will be a wild tiger and bite you hard. Thankfully at this time of the year, just before the Christmas winds set in, weather slots are regular and storms few so the sail around the Peninsula De La Guajira was another downwind run but with the Parasailor bagged each night.

I try to avoid two-night passages for the reason that it takes me some time to settle into a three-hour watch pattern – so a one-nighter is no worse than a redeye flight and after three I find my rhythm. On this passage you can break the trip by dropping into one of the small bays with great holding for a peaceful night’s sleep and avoid the dreaded second night.

Welcomed by the Armada

Nothing prepared us for the Colombian experience. “Seminole Wind, Seminole Wind, this is Colombian warship Victoria. Welcome to Colombia.” We’ve been hailed by naval vessels from the USA, UK and a host of other countries, but I don’t recollect any of them saying welcome, and the conversation that followed was extraordinarily friendly.


They advised us that a US hospital ship would be crossing our path then asked what channel we were using and advised that they would be on station all night if we needed help. The watch officer then went on to wax lyrical about his country and his home base in Cartagena before wishing us a good night and safe passage.

This was the first of many encounters with the ‘Armada’, both Navy and Coastguard, who were a constant, supportive presence throughout our stay. The local naval commandant came to our welcome party and made it clear that Colombia wants cruising sailors to come and will do everything they can to keep us safe and happy.

Lieutenant Morales was introduced as the young officer charged with looking after us on his last assignment before rejoining his wife and family in Canada, and he was not going to let anything spoil our stay – not on his watch.


Alan and Terry Ryall at the helm of their Island Packet 465 Seminole Wind

The big question, though, is: it safe here? Well, we walked the streets of Santa Marta and Cartagena, hiked in the mountains and anchored in remote Islands and at all times felt safe. Sure, there are street traders and taxi drivers that approach but a polite refusal is all it takes and you’re left alone.

The Santa Marta IGY marina proved to be one of the friendliest marinas I’ve experienced on either side of the Atlantic. This story sums them up. A woman on a boat just down the pontoon from us was taken ill. The marina sent for a doctor who came immediately, treated her with drugs and rehydration and the following day she was well on the road to recovery.

Her husband was told there would be no bill, it’s part of the service and they want their guests to be happy and healthy. Kelly on the front desk speaks good English and nothing is too much trouble for her or the rest of the team. They arranged shipments, agents, trips, repairs, dinners and even a sound system for our jam nights.


The marina at Santa Marta

Ashore in Santa Marta

In addition to the welcome and farewell dinners, trips and support they organised for us at their expense they invited us to bring any school supplies, toys, games etc. to donate to their adopted charity Funde Humac. We arrived with a small mountain of stuff and spent a brilliant, inspiring day visiting one of the projects.

Poverty and domestic violence are a universal evil and Colombia has its fair share of both. Humac’s mission is to provide kids with opportunities to learn, grow and aspire to something better.

Many of the young volunteers are now studying at college and were helped by the projects to get on the right track. The people here have huge hearts, boundless energy and a love for kids. The kids spoke no English, and most of us spoke no Spanish… but so what?


Photo: Nick Baylis / Alamy

We took a three-day trip to the mountains safe in the knowledge that Seminole Wind would be looked after while we were away. The contrast from the city to the quiet valleys and high peaks was incredible.

Accommodation is simple, clean and cheap but the roads up here are fit for dirt bikes and 4WD vehicles only. When we do this again, we’ll stay for longer, go further up the valley on the back of one of the taxi dirt bikes that operate from Minca.

So it was with some regret we left Santa Marta for Cartagena with a stop off at Islas Rosarios, a gorgeous anchorage nestled into a small group of islands, to relax and recharge before the festive season in the city. The passage crosses the entrance to Barranquilla at the mouth of the mighty, Rio Magdalena, which carries whole trees out to sea.

The river and seawater meet with a dramatic change from brown to blue and the inshore overfalls reminded me of the Alderney Race with wind over tide. Best to give it a healthy offing and stay at least half a mile outside the brown water.

Rosario is a lovely anchorage nestled between protective reefs that are easy to spot. There’s plenty of coral around but the sand strip runs along the length of the beach, is easy to find and, once set, our trusty Rocna was left with a tiny bit of roll-bar peeping out of the sand.

The short upwind 12-mile sail from Rosario to Cartagena was the only time the whole of group one sailed in company. Together with the port authority and the Armada we’d planned a grand entrance and just over 40 boats sailed through the main ship channel and across the five-mile-wide harbour in line astern with rally flag flying. We were met with a helicopter fly-past and escorted to an anchorage reserved for us, a magnificent sight and a first for Colombia.


The Suzie Too fleet gathers in Curacao

A walled city

I’ve spent Christmas and New Year in many places, but this has to be one for the memory book. Cartagena has an 16th Century, largely intact walled city at its heart surrounded by 11km of defensive walls, and with a Manhattan-esque skyline just across the bay.

As you sail into the huge natural harbour the first buildings you see are the glass and steel towers along the beach, but then you find yourself anchored beside 16th Century walls. The Christmas light show matched anything I’ve seen in Europe and with the medieval backdrop it was stunning. Walking around the walled city at night was magical: bars, restaurants, shops all ablaze with colour, live music and light.

We were welcomed and supported by the Club de Pesca, a private members’ club in the old mansion district. They couldn’t provide slips for all the boats but there’s a huge safe anchorage right next to it watched over by the Caribbean headquarters of the Navy.


Cartagena has a unique blend of the ancient, modern and colourful

In Cartagena provisioning is easy, plentiful and cheap. The markets and the shops in town are fascinating and there is just so much history. Some 16 intact defensive forts dominate the bay and at the top of Mount Popa the convent Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria de la Popa, now a museum, has views almost to Panama.

But the jewel in the crown has to be the narrow streets of the largely intact walled city. On New Year’s Eve the roads are closed, the streets fill with tables and the biggest street party you can imagine ends with a spectacular firework display over the harbour.

Leaving Colombia was hard. We lingered in the islands of the San Barnardo archipelago but then had a weather window we could not refuse. Winds had been light, but a decent breeze was promised to take us just over 200 miles south to San Blas.


The San Bernardo Islands have everything from reefs to mountains

Our leaving was not without drama. As we came into the protected anchorage, our Australian friends John and Sal on Capel Mara, a Beneteau Sense, were just returning under sail with an overheated engine. Deprived of cooling seawater, the engine overheated fast and by the time the overheat alarm went off the damage was done.

Why boatbuilders don’t fit raw water alarms I don’t know; we added one to Seminole Wind with an exhaust temperature sensor as soon as we bought her.

The plastic water trap that prevents water back-syphoning had melted. The nearest spare part was in France and they were faced with plugging on or returning against the wind to Cartagena without an engine. With fickle light winds until we cleared the islands, we came up with a plan to tow them out through the reefs until they could sail safely in company.


Parasailor is the downwind weapon of choice on Seminole Wind

Then we would get through to other rally boats as soon as we were within VHF range and have some dinghies standing by while they anchored under sail. It was a three-hour tow before we got enough wind and safe water to drop the tow and then we had another glorious overnight passage to arrive two hours earlier than planned.

A bump in the night

This wasn’t the only drama. On a pitch-dark night in the Bernardino anchorage at 0430, our other sailing buddies Maggie and Al on Sweet Dreams were jolted out of bed by a huge bang. Al jumped up, got tangled in the bedsheet and went full length, banging the side of his head in the process. A local fisherman had run at full tilt straight into the side of their boat, damaging the glassfibre and cracking one of the portlights.

The fisherman too had been thrown the length of the boat and was badly shaken but appeared to have no serious injuries so after a while he headed off uttering apologies in Spanish. Sweet Dreams was properly lit but the lesson is to leave an additional big light at deck level fore and aft in remote anchorages. An anchor light at the top of the mast is easy to miss, solar lights tend to go out before dawn and with LEDs the power draw on deck lighting is minimal.


Photo: Jon Arnold / Alamy

So now we had a wounded Sweet Dreams and a broken Capel Mara in the San Blas, the remotest islands in the Caribbean. The damage to the hull of Sweet Dreams was ugly but not structural and some judicial application of Gorilla Tape ensured the window didn’t leak.

I had a faint recollection that you can bypass the anti-syphon box and we were able to confirm that, providing the seacock is turned off at the same time as the engine and only turned back on as the engine is started, it would not back-syphon, get water in the cylinders and goodbye engine.

After four hours of wrestling with a 1m long plastic box that had been fitted before the rest of the engine using bent studding to fix it in place, we got the thing out, but only after taking a hacksaw to the fixings. Another rally member, Rob on Alia Vita, recovered a suitable exhaust joint from the depths of his bilge, demonstrating once again the value of a rally.

I came to Colombia with reservations, but I left with none and a determination to come back for more. This a big country with a coastline on two oceans, mountains, jungles, lost cities, rivers and lakes. It has culture and history, great cruising and your budget goes a long way.

But, best of all, they want us here and are investing time and money to make it even more attractive. On behalf of the 200 or so sailors and guests of the rally, who enjoyed the hospitality of this beautiful country and its lovely people, I’d like to say a huge ‘Gracias amigos’.

Come here with an open mind. I think you will love it.


Idyllic island anchorages lie in the national park only a two-hour sail from the city

Hints and tips for cruising Colombia

  • People are generally open and helpful but few speak any English, iTranslate/Google Translate makes communication fun and works great but a few words of Spanish goes a long way.
  • The charts are generally good here, but there are some isolated uncharted hazards. Check Active Captain for updates.
  • Give the river outlet at Barranquilla a good clearance: whole trees wash down it and seas can kick up where fresh and seawater meet.
  • Stay in deep water for the passage down from Punta Faro (Barranquilla) to Cartagena – there are some isolated rocks around Punta Santa Rita south-west of Isla Arena in 12m of water.
  • ‘Lift it, lock or lose it’ is the mantra of the whole region – here is better than many places but no exception. The last time someone tried in earnest to steal our dinghy was in Cowes, UK.
  • Light up your boat in dark anchorages – the anchor light at the top of the mast fitted to most modern boats is simply not enough.
  • Anchor in the islands south of Cartagena during the week – N.B. you need permission to anchor overnight in the Islas Rosario national park, but the anchorages are idyllic. Weekends get busy with day boats and sound systems, weekdays are quiet and peaceful with a couple of bars and restaurants – but no shops.
  • Internet and communications are generally good in the cities, patchy outside. Claro seem to cover everywhere, they are not customer friendly however. Take your passport to buy a SIM and you can only buy 2GB of data at a time and only from a shop – data renewals are not available online.
  • Roaming plans work fine.
  • Local currency is easy to get through the many ATMs and is used everywhere.
  • For $US you have to buy local cash then change at the bank or the exchange shops so if you’re going on to Panama take $US with you and if you are going on through San Blas take lots of small denomination dollar notes.

First published in the July 2019 edition of Yachting World.