Ah, Cartagena!


Latitude 10 deg 24 N, Longitude 75 deg 32 W
Cartagena, Colombia

Liz Tosoni

Legendary Cartagena was shrouded in a blanket of haze and fog as we approached from the north northeast. Blinking our eyes, we could barely make out the long row of forts, castles and modern buildings piercing the morning sky.

To wall a city, fortify it with castles, crisscross it with tunnels, and trick the enemy with underwater walls constituted a challenge to human ingenuity yet somehow the Spaniards managed to do it. It took them 200 years and 50 million gold pesos, a lot more than King Philip had initially allocated to the project, but the expense paid off.

I was imagining the day back in 1741 when no fewer than 186 British ships were anchored in a line exactly where we were, readying themselves for a massive assault on the city, with 2,070 canons and more than 23,000 troops waiting for orders. Little did they know about the wall, a powerful concoction of cement, seawater, sand, wood, and beeswax lying underwater at the Boca Grande entrance. This was part of the complex of fortresses and walls of Cartagena, the greatest engineering achievement of its time, and the most complete in the Americas. Nor were they aware that forts had been reinforced by a chain stretching clear across the main, narrow entrance, Boca Chica, preventing entry.

The Spaniards, outnumbered seven to one but with 158 canons and the formidable fort of San Felipe de Barajas, its walls ingeniously slanted to counter the impact of iron bullets, held firm. Every guide tells you the story of how Spanish commander Don Blas de Lezo and his men resisted the attacks for months, eating the last rat in the castle to survive.

In the end, Edward Vernon, the British commander, who had had a medal struck commemorating victory so sure was he of it, retired in humiliation to Jamaica, his troops having succumbed to malaria, dysentery and yellow fever.

Because of its wide, secure bay, and strategic position at the top of South America, Cartagena was the exit point for immense riches plundered from the Indians and bound for Spain. It must have been a sight to behold, a fleet of galleons, loaded with treasure, setting sail twice a year protected by an armada of warships. No wonder this key commercial post had to be defended at all costs.

Its one of those legendary places that you conjure images of in your minds eye as you hear tales and read accounts, imagining what it will be like when you finally arrive there. Like Mexico, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, and Turkey, its a kind of mecca where you can find cruisers lingering not just days, weeks or even months, but for years. Arriving in Cartagena for the crew of Feel Free meant another important landmark in our long circuitous voyage had been reached. How did we feel upon arrival at this storied landfall? Elation? Excitement? Exhilaration? All of the above!

And to top off this happy arrival, it was reunion time with Steve and Eva of Music, good pals we hadnt seen since the Canary Islands one year ago when we set off for Barbados, they for Brazil. There was much catching up to do.

So whats the big draw to Cartagena these days for cruising boats? Well, for starters, the harbour itself: large and well protected, with plenty of room for ships large and small. Freighters, container ships, cruise ships, naval vessels, war ships, Coast Guard vessels, charter vessels and sailing vessels from every corner of the globe rest side by side in this dynamic port of call, encircled by high rise edifices, like sentries watching over the bobbing boats, as well as ancient forts, cathedrals and monuments, steeped in history.

Okay, I have to tell you, the waters of the harbour can be brown and muddy, not clean enough to swim in, sadly for us. No doing laps around the boat for fitness here. But we werent there for the swimming.

Then, theres the bienvenido! you get. Club Nautico is a marina like no other, dedicated to the needs of cruisers and renowned for the welcome mat it lays out.


Rather dilapidated it is, even a little hazardous, but the funky, Popeye the Sailor Man atmosphere gives the club a character and charm all its own as it goes through a major reconstruction process. These cruiser kids are brave running along the docks and the marina office with outdoor shower stalls to the right isnt exactly five star!
John Halley the dock manager/dockmaster has been part of the marina for years yet his brimming enthusiasm and willingness to share his wide knowledge and expertise, answer questions hes doubtless heard a million times, make a phone call or draw a map for you, were totally refreshing.

Cartagenas Port Captain doesnt deal with yachts directly, insisting on the use of an agent and check-in procedures were made easy, well, sort of easy, through David, our genial and easy going agent. Welcome to Cartagena. How long would you like to stay- a few days? a few weeks? a few years? he greeted us, good naturedly.

He seems to follow the laissez-faire way of doing things- that is, telling you things in stages rather than up front.

The agents fee is only $75 for checking-in and out.

Alright, even though we had already paid $100 for checking in and out at Santa Marta. Then a couple of days later,

You must pay $30 for the temporary importation of your boat because you are staying longer than eight days.

Okay, no worries, if thats the law, thats the law. A week later, I asked him if we could have our temporary importation permit.

Oh no, that will take another 10 days. (What if we wanted to check out before then? Luckily, we didnt.)

Then comes another whammie in another couple of days,

$80 is the charge for your cruising permit. Can you bring it on Monday? If you dont have it, and the Coast Guard stops you, you could get a fine.
Oh really, what would the fine be?
About $1,000.

Yikes! Better get that cruising permit.

And of course, there are no receipts offered for any of the transactions. They seem to be an unheard of commodity.

Anyway, what does that all add up to? Just $285. Of 47 countries weve sailed into, this would be the highest amount paid for checking in. Ah, Colombia! Welcome to Latin American bureaucracy. If wed had to pay that amount in entry fees to every country (some countries, two or three times), the total would be upwards of $20,000. Thankfully, most countries charge nothing or next to nothing for entry and exit.

Club Nautico publishes a cruisers booklet unmatched anywhere for information on anything and everything a sailor could possibly want to know about life in Cartagena, parts and services, entertainment etc. The morning Net on VHF channel 68 is also an invaluable source of info.

Cartagena besides being the largest port in Colombia, is probably the safest place in the country and Club Nautico is located in a nice suburban neighbourhood, just three or four blocks away from the biggest police station in the city, and less than half an hours walk from the famous city.

Safe though it is, dinghy theft can be a problem however, but only if you dont take the necessary precautions: Dont just lock it, lift it and lock it, or lose it is the motto around here. A couple of days ago a cruiser was visiting a friend on a large power boat in the anchorage. He tied and locked his dinghy with 15 hp outboard to the stern of his friends boat when he arrived but when he went to leave it was gone! The cunning, not to mention cheeky thief managed to cut the painter, drifting off silently with his new vehicle while the hapless owner was enjoying an evening drink.

Another Cartagena draw is The Things You See, surprises every way you turn. How considerate of a city to provide a doggie poop station! This one is in a park just minutes from Club Nautico. We had never seen full breasted mannequins but in this land of sexy women and busty babes, they are aplenty. And coming across prettily costumed dancers who are happy to pose for you can be an everyday occurrence.
Then theres the fruit, the luscious fruit- papayas, pomellos (pamplemouse, a large, sweet grapefruit, my favourite), mangos, bananas, pineapples, apples, oranges, mandarins, watermelons, avocados, strawberries, berries I dont even know. Mounds of beautiful, colourful, juicy fruit, fruit juice shops, donkey carts of fruit, strong, colourful mamas with colourful fruit baskets balanced on heads. In Cartagena you are in fruit heaven.
The comida corriente or everyday meal is a remarkable thing. For about $3 you can have a hearty meal of soup, rice, banana or cassava, potato, lentils, small salad, plus your choice of meat, chicken or fish and a local drink- very wholesome and very filling and found in hundreds of restaurants all over the city.

The Things To Do are another huge Cartagena draw. Tonight there is a concert in the auditorium of the San Felipe De Barajas Fort. Its a laser video on a wide screen featuring, among others, Placido Domingo and Sarah Albright. Are we going? You bet, in fact, Id better get ready! Tomorrow night there will be a live performance at the same locale- the Cartagena Philharmonic Orchestra will accompany the Cartagena Coral Singers. And on Friday a classical guitarist will be playing at La Recula del Oveja .................. and theres a temporary exhibit of indigenous art at the Museum of Modern Art and, and, and...................................