Despite the warnings, sailing Colombia proves to be a hidden treasure for Max Campbell and the crew of Elixir

‘Take care sailing Colombia,’ was the general theme of our farewell conversations as we prepared to leave the flat, arid island of Curaçao. There was something unsettling about the string of casual warnings that led up to our departure; stories of political unrest, corruption, and near-constant gales that whistle along the coastline.

The sprawling lagoon of Curaçao’s Spanish Water is full. A growing fleet of cruising yachts have ventured south to seek shelter from the imminent hurricane season. Despite the short sail, few seem interested in passing the season in South America.

We’ve met some sailors who have shared stories on the character and richness of Colombia. They spoke of the country like a hidden treasure – passionate and heartfelt accounts that were impossible to ignore: “You can’t miss it. There’s so much to see, it’s like the whole world in one country.”

I’m joined aboard Elixir by two girls from Los Angeles. Hannah has been on the boat since Grenada, but Ximena is new to sailing. Rounding the notorious Cabo de la Vela isn’t the best introduction, but the forecast looks good. Ximena is positive and eager and quickly adjusts to the constant roll of boat life.

Birthday greetings

We leave Curaçao at dawn, a stiff current dragging us through the narrow channel between Aruba and Venezuela. At dusk, the soft orange light does its best to flatter the silhouette of an oil refinery. As the sun dips into the horizon, we settle in for our first night of downwind sailing.

The next day I turn 26, and my first gift comes from the sea. We reel in tuna on the hand line and spot the faint etching of the La Guajira peninsula in the distance. A mountain range backs a sweeping desert, but instead of the notorious acceleration zone, we’re met with headwinds and calms.

Colourful Cartagena

Our first Colombian sunset sets the standard for the next few months. The day ends in a smouldering palette of purples, yellows and oranges, setting fire to everything and drenching the ocean in colour. A gentle easterly carries us through to the morning, where the shores of Colombia spread out in front of us. Behind the rocky coastline lies a vast tract of wilderness. The arid, orange landscape resembles that of the Canary Islands: steep rock formations and a landscape stripped of almost all vegetation.

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With a fresh breeze, Elixir creeps up to hull speed. Pulsing flashes of lightning over the continent replace the sunlight. It’s an epic scene. There’s phosphorescence in the absence of the moon, scattering pulses of lightning in the distance, but above us a clear sky occasionally marked with the strike of a shooting star. Ximena has been blessed for her first offshore passage. “This is the most beauty I’ve ever seen, how have I only found out about this now?” she exclaims.

Sierra Nevada

For the next 24 hours we skirt Colombia’s Caribbean coastline. Santa Marta hides peacefully around the corner from the nature reserve of Parque Tayrona. Behind the reserve, the world’s most elevated coastal mountain range, The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, watches over the city.

Within 10 miles of the coastline we pass beneath a dark cloud. Again, everything around us is electrified with splintering bolts of light. I struggle to contain my fear when three blinding rays strike the water somewhere between us and the mainland. The lightning seems to be a permanent feature where the clouds bunch up around the flanks of the mountain range.

Heading in to Ensenada de Cinto. Photo: SV One Life

In the morning, the sunrise is pink, revealing the immense green valleys that cascade into the water. Five extensive, sprawling bays extend like fingers to the heart of the national park. The landscape is empty and wild. The majestic hills dress in a blanket of thick jungle and hide behind layers of a soft cloud.

Behind the headland of Parque Tayrona, Santa Marta nestles between the broad shoulders of the surrounding hills. After the endless expanse of wilderness, the city seems vulnerable, removed and out of place. The stiff breeze dwindles as we broad reach into the bay. We thread through a gap between two islets and drop the sails in the seaward gaze of a line of apartment blocks.

It’s been a while since we’ve stayed in a marina, but in Santa Marta, there isn’t an alternative. After stumbling in Spanish over the VHF we’re met by a RIB which leads us to our berth. As we reverse into the narrow slip, I’m a little confused as to why 10 people are standing around on the pontoon. It adds to the pressure, why are they there? We tentatively back in, before 10 helpful sets of hands take hold of whatever rope, stanchion or fender they can. Ten warm statements of ‘Bienvenidos a Colombia’ follow, and we’re taken aback by the most genuine welcome we’ve ever had.

Entering Colombia doesn’t require a test or quarantine, and later that evening we wander through the lively streets of Santa Marta. It’s an instant assault on the senses. All of a sudden, the laid back vibes of the windward islands have been replaced with the life, clamour and noise of South America. There are a lot of people moving quickly, at a city pace, something I’ve almost forgotten about after eight months on tropical islands. As we walk along the waterfront and onto the main street, dust whips into my eyes. I smell husky wafts from the grills of the street vendors who call for corn and arepas. There is the brightness of the buildings, the style of the whole country. Musicians, singers, breakdancers and artists vie for our attention. The first few steps in Santa Marta are almost too much. Have I ever been surrounded by so much life?

Exploring Colombia

We discover that Colombia’s wealth lies in its people. Never have we encountered such a concentration of warm, friendly locals. There is also a massive variety in nature. The balmy waters of the Caribbean coast are a world away from the chilly Andean mountain range, and the dense tangle of the Amazon rainforest.

Sunrise near Santa Marta. Photo: SV One Life

We leave Elixir safe in the marina and take off on some inland adventures. From Santa Marta it’s possible to walk through the thick jungle of the Sierra Nevada to La Cuidad Perdida (The Lost City). The ancient civilization is 650 years older than Machu Pichu and is only accessible by a four-day hike. The trail takes us through several indigenous territories, and we learn about the country’s long history of violence.

In the frigid climes of Bogata, 2,600m high in the Andes, hoards of indigenous treasures are displayed in the city’s museums. The gold creations grant an insight into the ideas and beliefs of pre-Hispanic cultures. Almost 2 million indigenous people still inhabit Colombia, made up of 87 distinct groups. We meet members of the Wiwa tribe. This indigenous community steadfastly rejects the comforts of modern life. The Wiwa live a harmonious existence, focused on meditation and protecting the natural world. Wads of the sacred coca leaves poke from their cheeks, as they scribble meditations on their poporos. The dried, hollowed-out gourds contain the powder of finely crushed shells. A small wooden stick is used to transfer the crushed shell from the poporo to the mouth, and the alkaline shell reacts with the coca leaf to extract as much of the active ingredient as possible.

Spanish colonists drove away the native inhabitants of The Lost City and it wasn’t rediscovered until the 1970s. A group of Colombian farmers turned grave robbers, hunting for valuable indigenous treasures, stumbled upon a large stone staircase leading up to the settlement. Ongoing political conflicts between left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries then kept tourists at bay for 30 years. Only recently has the hike become a popular attraction, and tourism has come to replace the farming and production of coca. As we settle into our first night, in a small camp originally designed to manufacture cocaine, the perpetual noise of the jungle echoes around us.

Escape from the past

Crewmates Max, Hannah
and Ximena. Photo: SV One Life

Next is the colourful city of Medellín – once the most dangerous city in South America. Now safe, it’s a living celebration of Colombia’s hard won transformation. It lies on a trafficking route between the Amazon and Colombia’s Pacific coast. Paramilitaries and guerrillas once fought over ideologies, each with roots in the illegal drugs trade. Meanwhile, Colombian military strikes attempted to drive them out.

Despite the shocking history of violence that has dominated the area, every Colombian we meet is warm and open. Back in Santa Marta we become friendly with Laura, the manager of the marina’s restaurant. After borrowing her brother’s car, we spend a day driving through the mountains to stay in her uncle’s Finca. We’re gifted mochilas, the typical Colombian style shoulder bag, indigenous jewellery, and countless meals. The surroundings are breathtaking. Cool, glacial rivers cut through the undulating landscape, and inhabitants of the small mountain towns gather on street corners in their ponchos.

Laura is excited to share her country with us. “I love Colombia. Yes, the history is heavy, and I can remember it, but things are different now. Colombia is safe,” she tells us.
Once back in Santa Marta, we slip the mooring lines and leave the marina for five days. Ximena leaves for California, and we’re joined by Rhys. Slowly, my mostly Californian crew is becoming Cornish again. Five big, empty bays lie 15 miles to the north of the city. None have road access, and each bite deep into the jungle.

Along with four other cruising yachts, who we befriended in the marina, we spend the morning tacking upwind to the farthest, Ensenada de Cinto. The bay is sheltered, the holding is good, and the surroundings exceptional. At sunrise, it’s bizarre to see the snow-covered peak of the 5,700m Pico Cristóbal Colón from our balmy, Caribbean Sea viewpoint.

Tayrona National Park has been cordoned off as indigenous territory. There are only a few discreet houses, and expansive views of untouched jungle. The majority of the nearby mountains are lost in the clouds, and all around the shoreline the towering hills brood over the bay.

The jungle is impossible to ignore – everything about it is dense, intense and beautiful. It spreads out around us, and at dusk, a cacophony of croaking of insects ring out across the water.

A strip of bleached sand stretches out beneath a line of palms, and in the evenings we cook fresh fish over an open fire. Five glowing anchor lights hang motionless in the night sky. On the journey home, magical green sparkles of phosphorescent plankton decorate the dinghy wake.

Sailing to Cartagena

From Santa Marta we sail 120 miles along the coastline to the old colonial city of Cartagena. Laura comes too. After showing us the diversity and richness of her world, the least we can do is share a little bit of ours. We work our way out of the wind shadow in the lee of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and pole out a headsail through the soft morning haze.

sailing in northern Colombia’s Tayrona National Park. Photo: SV One Life

The brilliance of the sea is almost too much, and it’s hot. A strong counter-current makes progress slow, yet after half a day of sailing, we dip into the murky brown outflow of the Rio Magdalena. On the shoreline, the urban skyline of Barranquilla pokes through the clouds. The river’s collection of branches, logs and green vegetation litter the surface.

We spend two nights in a spacious, empty anchorage before continuing to Cartagena. We raise the anchor at 0500 and spend a day and most of the night tacking against wind and current. It’s slow progress, and at some point in the night we’re saved by the bittersweet sight of a thundercloud. The intimidating cloud helps us along with an aggressive shove. It concludes the final 20 miles and deposits us in front of the gleaming stare of the city.

Tall buildings stand shoulder to shoulder with their toes lapping in the sea. Reggaeton echoes out across the water, and there’s something novel about the abrupt edge of the city. It feels like something big is living, breathing and staring down at us. We bob on the oily glass, awestruck at the glowing presence of Cartagena.

Taking in the stunning Colombian scenery. Photo: SV One Life

Santa Marta felt like a lively city, yet it was only a warm-up for Cartagena. Two marinas and a large anchorage sit surrounded by a mixture of modern, high-rise buildings and colonial architecture. Inside the city’s historic centre a range of street vendors sell cigars, fruits and grilled arepas. It’s intense, but it doesn’t feel dangerous. From Cartagena, we cut the corner to Bocas del Toro, Panama. Our final stop in Colombia is the Islas del Rosario, a small collection of protected islands and corals, a day sail away.

Everyone on board Elixir agrees that we couldn’t have chosen a better place to spend hurricane season. We struggled to squeeze into the popular anchorages in Carriacou, Grenada and Curaçao but in the quiet harbour of Santa Marta it was an exciting event each time a new cruising yacht pulled into the marina.

Throughout our four month stay, we were constantly blown away by the beauty of the surroundings, and the energy, warmth and openness we received from almost everyone we met. It seems to us that an outdated reputation of Colombia still exists, encouraging many cruisers to dodge the risk and head straight to Panama.

The concrete skyline of Cartagena fades into the distance as we begin our passage to Panama and we muse on how our Colombian experience has changed us. We’ve experienced indigenous communities, cities built on illegal trade, Latin culture, true jungle and the electric terror of lightning storms. We all agree that Colombia has expanded our view of the world.

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