April 15, 2006
Cartagena, Colombia
09º 23.169 North
076º 10.457 West

Traveling Down the Colombian Coast

By Douglas Bernon

For a number of years, while the Colombian narco-traffikers and guerrillas controlled large chunks of Colombia, few cruisers ventured outside Cartagena, other than jet flights through the capitol city of Bogotá, and brief trips to the Rosario islands — just 20 miles from Cartagena. Even fewer cruisers went anywhere near other Colombian offshore islands, or to those islands along the west-southwest route along the Colombian coast on the way to Panama, which is the direction most of them were traveling. Today, with President Uribe gaining impressive control of his country, and with the guerrillas more restricted to the inland regions they still call their own, there’s greater opportunity to travel safely and widely. Increasingly, cruising boats are day-hopping down Colombia’s Caribbean coast on the way to the San Blas, which is what we decided to do.

When we began toying with this idea, we spoke first to Lee Miles, the American-Cartagenero who is not only president of the Cartagena-American Chamber of Commerce, but is the city’s welcoming embrace to all cruisers. If any cruiser needs something in Cartagena, Lee is the go-to guy. An active sailor and cruiser himself, he’s plugged in everywhere, goes out of his way for cruisers, and has become a good friend to Bernadette and me. When we approached Lee and asked him about cruising down the coast, he got excited.

At the Rosario Aviary

“Oh man, you gotta do this trip. I started sailing those waters 25 years ago, but recently haven’t been able to. I’d love you to see more than just the Rosarios. The stop after the Rosarios is the San Bernardo islands, and they’re gorgeous, and after that, Isla Fuerte is unbelievably cool—my favorite. You just have to go to Sapzurro at the border with Panama. It’s becoming a tourist town for Colombianos from Medellin and it’s fantastic there. I’ll check with my buddies at the Coast Guard and see what they say about security.”

Lee emailed us back in two days: “Come on over for dinner on Wednesday. I’ll go over the charts with you and fill you in on what the coasties are saying. But briefly, Marcos Antonio Olier, the new port captain at Cavenas in the Gulf of Morrosquillo, says that he’s happy you guys are headed his way and confirms the safety of Isla Fuerte. He’s notified the coast guard guy in that area to be on the lookout for you, so don’t be surprised if you get some friendly visits by the gray steel boats.”

At the Rosario Aviary

The Coast Guard’s green light was good news. While Captain Olier assured us that the Rosarios, the islands of the San Bernardo chain, and Isla Fuerte were all safe, he told us to give a wide birth to the villages around Arboletes. “We don’t patrol that area,” he advised Lee. “Also, it’s not a good idea for your friends to stop in the anchorage behind Cerro del Aguila on the northeast corner of the Gulf of Urabá. In fact, they should stay out of the Gulf all together.” He suggested to Lee that if we sent him our itinerary he’d make sure his guys in the area were on the lookout for cruisers. Lee explained to him that cruisers rarely have an itinerary. In the company of Doug and Linda on Que Linda and Lisa and Cade on Sand Dollar, we felt our little armada was safe.

Getting to the Rosarios is a simple day trip. The only hard part was saying goodbye to Cartagena. As we motor-sailed down the eight-mile channel from the anchorage to the sea, neither Bernadette nor I spoke much, and when we passed the Port office and radioed our intention to clear out, each of us looked at each other with sadness. Three hours later we were approaching the Rosario islands. The water is clear and everyone leaving Cartagena and heading to the San Blas islands stops there at least long enough to clean their bottom after sitting for very long in the extra-ordinarily foul Cartagena water, either chiseling off firmly entrenched barnacles or sponging the slime if they’ve just had a bottom job in Cartagena. The highlight of being in the Rosarios is to dinghy over to a privately owned exotic-bird aviary owned by a wealthy Colombiano whose passion is birds. He welcomes the public to stop by and visit. He employs a slew of local men and women to build giant cages around trees, maintain ponds for the ducks, care for the birds, and tend to the pristine grounds. There’s no fee for admission and we went there several times to see magnificent birds we’d never seen before.

At the Rosario Aviary

We remained in the Rosarios for several days because Sand Dollar had their dinghy engine stolen there. Cade and Lisa put out word of a reward, but had no luck. Worse, their transmission began slipping, and they had almost no forward weigh at all. The debate was whether to return to Cartagena and make repairs or sail on and find a quiet anchorage in which Cade could take it apart and put in new seals. He elected the latter.

At the Rosario Aviary

The six San Bernardo islands are only 25 miles from the Rosarios. Tintipan, the largest, is two miles long by a half a mile wide and totally uninhabited except for a handful of private homes that look like large thatched-roof resorts, complete with giant palapas on the shoreline. There’s a good anchorage on the south side and good snorkeling on the north. Just to the west of Tintipan is tiny little Islote, a postage-stamp-size islet packed cheek to jowl with people. We went there for cold beers in the afternoon and to top off our veggie supply. Little kids swarmed us, grabbed our hands and took us around the few streets as if we were prize pets on parade.

The urchins who adopted us at Islote and gave us the full town tour.

We wanted to do some spearfishing, but the reef at Tintipan was pretty well fished out by the guys at Islote, so on we went to Isla Panda and Isla Mangles, two stunning little spots, but to our disappointment, neither had anchorages we liked very much, so we pressed on to Isla Palma, where there is a gargantuan thatched hotel and eco-park. The hotel holds up to 100 guests in rooms that look out over the bay through stained glass windows. It’s a nifty spot, but the winds had been strong and the water was well churned, so with mediocre snorkeling we saw little reason to stay much longer. Sand Dollar still had no engine they could rely on. Cade decided he would attack the beast the next day when we ducked in behind Punta San Bernardo — a totally protected point on the mainland only six miles away, a place he felt the boat would be safe with a disabled engine in case the wind piped up. The spot, which we’d figured was going to be just a work stop, turned out to be gorgeous, one of our favorites on the trip.

In the two days that followed, while anchored in the protection of Punta Bernardo, Cade totally took apart his transmission, searched for the problem, cleaned it out, put in new seals, cranked her up, and declared victory. It was an awesome accomplishment in short order. The only problem he ran into was that one bearing was stuck. Ideally he would’ve used a hydraulic press to press out the bearing, but without that, he made do by constructing an ingenious Spanish windlass, and exerting pressure by twisting ropes until he had exerted sufficient force to break free his jam -- engineering creativity at its best.

This is the press that Cade fabricated to free a stuck bearing.

Staying at Punta Bernardo was no hardship. Just a mile down the mainland from us was the “Sanguare” resort, an elegantly rustic hotel that caters to Colombianos who want an out of the way place to dive, hang-out, enjoy mountain-biking into the hills, and relaxation. There were only four guests there the first day – young men drawn to “the extreme sports” as they described it -- and the day after that the resort was empty. Still, we were welcomed by the staff to come in, and use the lovely veranda, the hammocks, the picnic tables near the toucan aviary. On the day that Cade was victorious over Sand Dollar’s transmission, the three boats brought to Sanguare our own picnic of curried rice salad with veggies, rich Colombian salami, an assortment of cheeses, wine and, thanks to Linda, a loaf of freshly-baked bread. We spread out our feast under the gigantic mango tree, which had a deck built around its trunk, and enjoyed our feast. Afterward, we rocked away the afternoon in hammocks, watching the toucans that were resting just a few feet above us. Bernadette had a birthday while we were at Punta Bernardo, and we celebrated with a night of Cosmopolitans, lavish appetizers, and Latin music.

With our little fleet up and running again we left before dawn and sailed the 36 miles to Isla Fuerte. We knew we’d be anchoring at mid-afternoon on the east side of the island, and sailing into the sun, so we wanted that early start.
There’s no reason to go to Isla Fuerte except to be there, and soon we found that’s reason enough. The predominant sounds at Colombia’s gentle little Isla Fuerte are donkeys and diesels. Perched atop wooden saddles, boys and girls clip clop down the dirt paths that lace the island. Squealing kids and braying burros punctuate the air. At other moments there’s a rhythmic background of phut-phut-phut-phut-phut as single-piston diesels pump water and make power for individual homes. There are no cars on the island, and for that matter, no roads – only footpaths.

The sign on a guesthouse at Fuerte.

Fewer than 10 miles off Colombia’s Caribbean coast, this coral outcropping of less than two square miles has good anchorages on the east and south side of the island, depending on conditions. As we approached we saw two large shrimpers parked here, one tugboat, a few dilapidated wooden trading boats that ply the Colombian coastal waters, and some stunning wooden lanchas -- some 10 feet long, others a dramatic 30 feet. Dead atop the reef at the northeast corner of the island was a giant steel fishing boat that only three days before had crashed there when the pilot reportedly nodded off. We watched a massive but futile effort by one shrimper and the tug, each with long cables, but they couldn’t budge the boat an inch. It appeared totally intact, but was high on the rocks, reminding us of the realities of our cruising world, when things go wrong -- not a pretty sight.

At the Rosario Aviary

The island, though, is a very pretty sight. When we walked the perimeter of Fuerte we looked up to see trees full of bananas, mangos, papayas, oranges, limes, and of course coconuts. When we looked down there was frequently a glitter to the ground where shards of quartz break through the coral and sometimes shoot prisms of color in random directions.

This dragonfly caught a ride with us one morning, perched upon our mainsheet.

In addition to the usual collection of finely crafted bamboo and thatched native huts, which are everywhere, there’s been some investment here from people living in Cali and Medellin. Dotting the promontories are a few vacation homes with sweeping panoramas — some very simple and low key, others rustically elegant; one was three stories of verandas overlooking the sea, another had a 10-foot tall set of carved wooden doors depicting Don Quixote and his trusty sidekick. Bernadette and I have often said if we found a good spot we’d consider buying land, and this is one that actually entices us seriously.

In the bay where we anchored, local fisherman came out to greet us, brought us fruit and showed us a good spot to drop the hook. They were looking for, and received, a small tip, which was fine. The next morning one of them paddled back and said he and his wife are care-takers of one of the homes on shore, and if we’d like dinner there, she'd make it for us for $4.50 a piece. We signed up immediately.

Two of the contestants being introduced to each other.

He also told us that this Saturday night would be el pelea de gallos en el pequeno coliseo, the cockfights in the little coliseum, an aptly-named, open-air, thatched-roof amphitheatre designed and built specifically for this event. There’s a hard-packed, dirt floor inside an octagonal ring 10 feet across, surrounded by a two-foot, outward sloping, wooden, containment wall and ascending rings of rough-hewn benches. Bernadette gave me a horrified look when I brightened at the possibility of staying long enough to attend the event. I knew I wouldn’t need to get her a ticket.