Colombia has a reputation as a wild and dangerous place, and cruisers have been reluctant to visit. But is that fair? Toby Hodges finds out as the World ARC makes its first stop
Colombia has an air of mystique about it. Of all the places I’ve been lucky enough to visit, sailing in Colombia certainly aroused the most interest among family, friends and colleagues – everyone really wants to know what it’s like.
Many cruising sailors would like to visit, especially considering the hundreds of miles of unspoilt Caribbean coastline it offers, but remain reserved about how safe and easy it is and what the facilities are like.
Pitstop to Panama
If you are sailing from the Caribbean to the Panama Canal, Santa Marta on Colombia’s north coast makes the ideal pit-stop. It is one of the only places to pull in conveniently, in fact, between the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao) and Panama or the San Blas islands. And the fact that is within easy reach of the Caribbean, yet nestles out of the way of the hurricane belt is a big draw. There has reportedly been only one hurricane since 1851, but even then the town was protected by the Sierra Nevada mountains behind.
The charms of Santa Marta run deeper than merely that of a convenient stopover. The culture is fascinating and, for those seeking longer-term exploration, it is a gateway to explore the neighbouring national parks, mountains or rainforests.
I had the chance to visit to meet the World ARC fleet, which made a stopover here for the first time in January. The brevity of my visit meant I didn’t have time to hike in the mountains or explore the coffee plantations, but I did have the opportunity to check out the new marina and local facilities, and I left with a wish to return.
A melting pot
Santa Marta is Latin America’s oldest town. It’s colourful, loud, fast and brimming over with culture, a compact melting pot and a colourful snapshot of South America. Arriving fresh-faced from London – there are now direct flights to the capital, Bogota – I found it a lot to take in.
It’s vibrant, historic, dusty, hectic, happy, intriguing, exotic and electric. With the cooling breezes, bright flowers, noisy taxis, blaring music, street food, brightly coloured houses and colourful cuisine, there is a carnival atmosphere, but you are soon aware of the immense cultural divides.
Nearly ten per cent of the population still lives in extreme poverty. Slums are found on the outskirts of town, along with abandoned construction sites, as well as signs of the destruction that guerrilla fighting has brought in the past. But there are mega-rich here too – Colombia is the third largest producer of oil in South America.
It can be daunting at first walking the teeming streets, confronted by all this energy. However, it didn’t feel unsafe. Broad smiles soon make you welcome and it doesn’t take too long to settle into Santa Marta’s busy pace. The old town near the marina was bustling during the public holidays in January. Streets were lined with vendors, each competing to play the loudest music, while families flocked to the uninviting-looking town beach, before carrying sleeping children home through makeshift market stalls.
The imposing Sierra Nevada mountain range, with its peaks snow-capped for over 250 days a year, forms a powerful backdrop to Santa Marta and shapes the local climate. These are claimed to be the highest mountains closest to the sea in the world – one 5,700m peak is just 26 miles from the coast. The locals say the Sierra Nevada saved them from their only recent hurricane threat in 1993, diverting the path of the hurricane offshore.
La Brisa Loca
The proximity of the mountains helps explain the consistently strong winds that blow around the headland off Santa Marta. Referred to as La Brisa Loca, meaning the ‘Crazy Breeze’, this clean, dry, cool wind (which prevents humidity and rust) blows down from the mountains, coming from the north and sweeping round offshore.
During my visit conditions seemed ideal: the World ARC yachts had had a downwind passage from Saint Lucia and, when they left, a similarly good run on towards Panama. But for the two weeks before my arrival it had been blowing 50-70 knots in Santa Marta.
Five years ago, only a small breakwater punctuated the beach lining Santa Marta town’s foreshore; now there is a 256-berth marina. Although the perfect sunsets above the township are now spoilt somewhat by the construction that has happened here, it is hoped the tourist draw of this relatively vast harbour is worth the inconvenience.
The Colombian government has stated that it wants 21 new marinas, ten of them on the Atlantic coast. Currently there is only Santa Marta and Puerto Velero, further down the coast near Barranquilla.
Santa Marta’s marina is privately funded, part of the exclusive IGY chain, and looks as if it could belong in Florida or the south coast of Spain. Described as a ‘full service’ marina, it offers facilities that include a fuel dock, pump out, showers, laundry, gym, restaurants and wi-fi. A boatyard and chandlery are planned and a swimming pool will become available in the 150-room hotel under construction.
That there is no hard standing or chandlery yet serves to illustrate the lack of visiting yachts so far. The marina does have a potential 3,000m2 of hard standing if permission is granted, but it’s quite exposed, so those considering leaving yachts here during the hurricane season may prefer to keep them afloat in the marina.
“Of the vessels that we receive at Marina Santa Marta, 80 per cent have come from the ABC islands,” says marina manager Mauricio Cucalon Micolta, indicating the convenient link this makes between the Caribbean and Panama Canal. The marina is gated and guarded, so feels secure and well-equipped and the multi-lingual staff are friendly and efficient.
New restaurants and services provide western-style creature comforts, but the heart of the old town is only minutes away. “To go one street back and pay 50p for a bowl of fresh fish soup with the locals is what it’s about,” declares yachtsman Chris Mole. “There are still many poor areas, but that’s the heart of the place.”
I caught up with Mole who, together with his wife Jaana and three children, James, Charlie and Alice, had spent nine months living on their Swan 53, Moody Finn, in Santa Marta. The Moles have cruised extensively in the Caribbean and have spent ten years living in Grenada. They seek stable destinations for home schooling and found a settled lifestyle in Santa Marta. They plan to move on in March.
“Sure if you want to go on holiday for two weeks there are better places, but Santa Marta has so much to offer,” maintains Mole. “It’s rough and ready, and the people are really nice.”
The World ARC participants, meanwhile, were overwhelmed with the welcome they received and said it made for a fantastic first stop on this fifth edition of the rally.
World Cruising boss Andrew Bishop says: “We received a tremendous level of support – including special clearance of yachts into the country.”
Santa Marta facts
- Founded 1525
- Population 650,000
- Exports bananas, palm oil, coffee, cocoa
- Top tourist attractions include:
Tayrona National Park
Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino – the home and last resting place of Colombia’s liberator and first president, Simon Bolivar
Santa Marta cathedral
Sierra Nevada mountains
The waterfront of the town is now dominated by the marina, constructed four years ago. It’s an ideal safe haven for visiting yachts seeking to shelter for the hurricane season. But with a tower hotel and apartment block in build and plans that include a potential cruise ship dock, the current drive for tourism will alter the look and feel of this vibrant town. www.igy-marinasantamarta.com
Useful tips for visiting sailors
Provisioning It is quite an expensive, but certainly well-equipped marina. However, provisioning in town is very good – there are vast American-style malls and supermarkets a cheap taxi ride away. “You can get most things,” says Chris Mole. “It’s not good on chandlery, but the backstreet shops can fix anything.”
Immigration “This needs to be sorted out; at the moment you have to check in at every port,” says Mole. But, reports WCC’s Andrew Bishop, Santa Marta marina has recently introduced a system whereby it can act as an agent for any visiting cruising yachts, which should save time and money clearing in.
Importing spares Getting spares is easy from the US, but import duty is a whopping 30 per cent. “The duty for my new vang bearings was US$450!” declares Chris Mole. “There are no spares in the shop fronts so you have to buy them in, but yachties can’t afford that sort of import duty.”
See also: How to prepare a yacht for a circumnavigation – six World ARC skippers describe how they did it