February 15, 2006
Cartagena, Colombia
10° 24.388 North
075° 31.576 West

Great Treasures In Foul Waters

By Douglas Bernon

One of the sweetest contradictions of Colombia, a country roughly the size of France, Spain, and Portugal combined, is that the nation is named after Christopher Columbus, who never spent so much as a minute here. (That said, Admiral Columbus never made it to the capitol of Ohio either.)

The Spanish conquistadors, who controlled early European exploration of Colombia, were searching for El Dorado, the legendary city of gold. In that quest they failed, but they found instead the opportunity to loot entire civilizations; plunder, and then melt down mountains of Indian religious artifacts made from gold, and extend the reach of their sadistic tribunal of political correctness, the Inquisition. All in all, by their standards, the work was a boffo success. Their man Don Pedro de Heredia founded the city he called Cartagena de Indias - as opposed to Cartagena de Espana - in 1533, and the town proved to be a terrific distribution center to unload thousands of enslaved Africans. That same year Heredia is credited with a personal best in the Serious Booty Haul: eight gold ducks-each more than three pounds, and a giant, solid-gold porcupine that weighed in at a hefty 132 pounds.

In 1610, Spain designated Cartagena to be the New World's home for the "Punishment Tribunal of the Holy Office," a task force that didn't get its doors slammed shut for 201 years. With such a long run, the Tribunal proved many souls to be heretical, blaspheming, witches. On the walls of the Museum Of The Inquisition in Cartagena are a series of posters that list the questions to which suspected witches had to reply. Here are the first five, in order.

1. When did you become a witch?
2. Why have you become a witch?
3. What has made you a witch?
4. Who are your fellow witches?
5. What is your name?


La Creacion by Sofia Urrotia hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in Cartagena.

To be suspected of being a witch, all you needed was someone who wasn't crazy about you to decide to teach you a lesson. He or she could deliver a damning note at the Office Of The Inquisition, day or night, where -- in a burst of architectural genius that foreshadowed drive-in banking -- the drop-off window was built at the height of a typical horse-back rider. These people knew how to plan. They also knew how to execute.

Door knockers in Cartagena. Photos courtesy of SV Lisa

The history of this city is rich in both the gory and the glory of bygone days, and Bernadette and I love being here. For far, considering our travels throughout much of North and South America, we rate the old town of Cartagena is one of the prettiest cities we've seen, Remnants of forts from the 1500s still stand proud. Old homes with magnificent interior courtyards are shaded behind massive doors and windows that are sometimes elegantly simple, other times fancifully decorated. Substantial bronze doorknockers, in whimsical designs, are a competitive art form. Giant bougainvillea plants, billowing down from second- and third-story balconies, drape some homes. At night, the town is lit magically, and around many corners one stumbles across live music, sidewalk cafes, and street entertainment.


Throughout the city there are streets and courtyards bright with candles.

Many evenings two mimes entertain the crowds outside the Cathedral at the Plaza de San Pedro de Clavier. They stand beside each other, perched atop wooden crates. Often dressed as nuns in long, contrasting black and white habits, depending on how many pesos you drop into their cups, they move mechanically for several seconds to a minute, and then re-freeze in new positions, waiting for the next contribution to continue their drama.


Some evenings we have seen both these men on giant stilts dancing in traffic. Photo courtesy of SV Lisa.

Despite Colombia's reputation for drugs and violence - mostly a problem in the interior of the country - Bernadette and I have felt completely safe wandering the streets late into the evening. Perhaps, because we like it so here, we're always looking for good news from Colombia, but in recent years there have been far fewer problems reported in the major cities. Yes, Colombia has had a frightful history of violence, kidnapping, and poisonous class wars. In Cartagena, though, there is a seductive and comfortable air of carnival, elegance, and luxury.

Everywhere in the city great doors give way to stunning courtyards, often with gardens and fountains

It may now be that the bigger danger to cruising sailors in Colombia is anchoring. Regardless of your ground tackle and chain size, regardless of how much scope you put out, regardless of how good a job you do backing down on your anchor, everyone worries about dragging here, with good reason. It's not just your boat you have to watch out for. It's the guy next to you, and the one in front of you, and the one in front of him. The guy I worry most about is the one who brags, "In all my years of cruising I've never dragged." When I hear this, I conclude he's probably always tied to a dock, or he's telling a big one. Either way I'd rather not be swinging next to him, especially with the creatively named Culo de Pollo, a monster wind that rocks this place from time to time. Translated literally as "wind from a chicken's ass," the Culo de Pollo is a sudden onset of high winds out of the south, sometimes ramping above 50 knots, lasting for 10-20 minutes, and then leaving clear skies and a rolly, shaken anchorage with rolly shaken sailors. These are most common during the rainy months of May to November.

Cartagena's bottom is viscous and foul. Those who've dived it - no thank you - say that the thin, soft mud is as much as four feet thick in places, which means anchors settle slowly. Plus, ships have been clawing furrows here for more than 500 years. You've got a reasonable chance of snagging anything from a bronze cannon to a rusty refrigerator. The anchorage also varies considerably in depth. We dropped our hook in 38 feet, but we also knew where the underwater topography slopes here, and when we were stretched back fully, with more than 200 feet of chain out, we were only in eight feet of water. If we're going to drag, we'd much rather do it uphill.

Other than the risks of anchoring, we feel safe in the Cartagena anchorage. The Colombian navy has a major presence here: battleships, cruisers, submarines, launches, go-fast drug interceptors, and not a heck of a lot to do in port, so there are guys patrolling regularly. Only rarely have we heard of people having odds and ends stolen in the anchorage, although it happens in all big cities. Like most cruisers here, as a precaution, we hook our dinghy to a three-point bridle and hoist it to deck-height every night. We do this for security and also to keep our dinghy's bottom clean; dinghies that sit in this water get fouled within a week.

Cartagena's harbor is essentially a closed basin, keeping the sea inside calm and tranquil, but also making it a constant slosh of sewage and industrial pollution. The water is so biologically hot that in fewer than two weeks you can have a bottom pocked with barnacles and bearded with thick grass. On boats with anti-fouling paint, it's bad enough, but on dinks, where there's generally no added protection, cutting in half the amount of time the duck is being nibbled on helps a great deal.


One-year's growth of barnacles on a sailboat bottom in Cartagena.

Most cruisers avoid contact with harbor water at all costs. Bernadette and I pay local divers to scrub Ithaka's bottom every 10 days -- really, every 10 days! -- to give our anti-fouling paint a fighting chance. Folks who don't pay the modest fee (about $15) to get the work done, and who don't do it themselves, find that once they leave Cartagena, anchor in clear water, and try to clean their hull, they actually need paint scrapers, hammers, and screw drivers to bang loose some of the creatures that aspire to permanent residence. Mauricio LeMaitre, who owns Manzanillo Marina Club (a boatyard and repair facility in Cartagena that has a travel lift he uses at will) told me there's no way any paint can stand up to the demands of Cartagena harbor. He repaints the bottom of his sailboat every eight months. (For questions about boat work in Cartagena you can reach him at mmc@enred.com. Mauricio speaks sophisticated English, and we've seen fine work come out of his yard. We'll be using Manzanillo to haul Ithaka soon and we'll have a first-hand sense then of how it is to be there.)

As we prepare to haul for our paint job, we've been cleaning things out of the boat. One way we're doing this is by hauling extraneous stuff to the monthly "Treasures of the Bilge" swap meet held at Club Nautico's bar. Our goal at these events is to return to Ithaka with less in our dinghy than what we had taken ashore. This time we lugged in some extra dinghy locking cables we'd bought at a swap meet in the Rio Dulce in Guatemala four years ago, a set of computer speakers, a 266 computer I'd bought in 1995, a 14-year-old foul-weather jacket that had seen better days, some lures that hadn't caught any fish, a windscoop, a single VHF speaker, two fenders, and a matching set of eight green-glass dessert plates that Bernadette had brought aboard when she was not in her right mind; we've never used them.

Two guys on a 68-foot Danish boat brought in a stove so huge that had we been in the States I would've bought it in hope of re-selling it to a restaurant. They also dinghied in a lounge chair for which they had five matching units. Both guys wore Viking horns as part of their marketing presentation. It was only 9 a.m. By 10 a.m. they were ordering beers for the fleet.


The entrepreneurial spirit was evident in everyone's dress-for-success wardrobe.

An Italian couple that was house-sitting for a very large boat, whose owner was away, brought in some first-rate diving gear, a beautiful Penn international reel, and a bunch of other stuff that was of suspiciously high quality.

Lutz and Krina, on Topaz, an exquisite 34-foot German steel sloop that they've been cruising for 24 years, were selling their former manual windlass. It was the finest manual windlass I'd ever seen: two gears, totally accessible, built with off-the-shelf parts, elegantly constructed. Lutz told me that he was parting with it under duress. He'd built it the year they left, and rebuilt it for the first time just two years ago. His wife had pressured him into an electric model, so he'd be more careful of his back. I came within a millimeter of plunking down $100, but wondered where I'd put it and why. I'm still lusting after that beauty.


This is the most elegant manual windlass I've ever seen. I fell hopelessly in love with it, and I'm still pining that I let it get away.

At the end of the swap meet we'd sold the computer for $75, the cables for $10, the foul weather jacket for $25, and the speakers for $10. Bernadette ended up giving away the green plates to a Colombian woman she'd befriended. I'd only bought a couple of beers and exerted breathtaking self-control in the face of that windlass. Granted, we didn't make as much as Don Pedro de Heredia, but no blood was shed either. We took our new riches and went downtown for a good meal. We were in a beautiful city, among friends, and had plenty to be happy about.