Colombian drug lords, boat hijackings, drug running, bombs exploding on the streets of Cartagena… these are the first images which come to mind for many which were told of our plans to visit Colombia. It is the Colombia of the Harrison Ford movie, “Clear and Present Danger.” (Which we watched again last night.) Thankfully, nothing could be further from the reality of present day Cartagena. All of my prior research proclaimed the waters off the coast of Colombia to be among the safest waters in the world. This is due, primarily, to the significant U.S. Coast Guard presence over the past many years. It would not be at all surprising to be boarded by the USCG while sailing along the coast of Colombia.
We love Cartagena! By the way, is is pronounced Car-ta-hey-na and not Car-ta-hey-nya, a pronunciation which is irksome to many Colombians. The latter, erroneous pronunciation owes its popularity to Michael Douglas’s character in “Romancing the Stone.” His error has been cemented in the minds of all Americans who now regularly mispronounce the name of this great port city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. It has nearly one-million inhabitants. The walled Old Town was founded in the 16th century, with squares, cobblestone streets and colorful colonial buildings. It truly is gorgeous.
As we arrived in the inner harbor on Thursday morning, it seemed we were cruising past Miami Beach. The high-rise buildings lining Boca Grande were reminiscent of what we experienced in southeast Florida. We dropped anchor in a perfect spot, right in the middle of this large city. I spent the first part of the morning trying to contact our agent for clearance into the country. This is the first country we’ve visited in which we were required to hire an agent for customs and immigration clearance. Red tape and bureaucracy abounds. Just before noon, I reached him by phone. We had contacted him a week prior and had emailed all our information before arriving. He had set up an appointment with the officials for the next day to begin the clearance process. In the meantime, we were free to roam around the city.
In the evening, we took a taxi into El Centro (the walled old town) at a cost of 7,000 pesos. At first glance, that may seem an exorbitant amount, but in reality it is less than $2.50. I withdrew 300,000 pesos from an ATM, which including the fee, came to $108.00. This place is really cheap compared to other places in the Caribbean. Before visiting El Centro, we had our taxi driver drop us at a restaurant that he recommended for dinner. The food and setting was nice, and once again, was cheap. Once in the old city we wandered the streets taking photos of beautiful old buildings. We splurged for a carriage ride around town for 60,000 pesos (about twenty bucks). Then, before returning to Beatitude, we enjoyed some traditional native dancing in the Plaza de Bolivar near the Catedral de Santa Catalina de Alejandria (St. Catherine of Alexandria). It was an enjoyable first evening in the country.
On Friday, the first task was to ascend the mast to investigate the non-functioning roller furler for our genoa. Much to my dismay, I could not find a simple cause such as a halyard interfering with its performance. That means the furler itself is the problem. I’ll need to hire someone to investigate, repair, and/or replace it. Since I had the bosun’s chair rigged to go up the mast, Cindy wanted to give it a try to experience being hauled up high. She did well, but decided she didn’t want to go all the way to the top. Maybe next time.
Fellow cruisers here have been great. We’ve met several, mostly through their offers to help us. When we first came in to anchor, some folks from the U.S. advised us to avoid anchoring in a certain spot we had chosen because of poor holding. When trying to figure out the problem with the furler, Bert, from Just Now, dinghied over to offer his help. He directed me to Tony and Lisa on another vessel who’ve been here a year and know who and where to call for help. They’ve contacted someone for me at this time to address the furler problem.
At 11:00, I showed up at the Club Nautico Marina dock as instructed by my German agent, Manfred. There we sat and met with 2 or 3 Colombian officials signing paperwork and completing the formalities. A little later in the afternoon, we taxied over to El Centro once again for a few hours. We again walked around the old town, this time in the daylight, thoroughly entranced by the beauty of the old buildings and their floral balconies overhanging the cobblestone streets. We visited the 17th century, San Pedro Claver Church and Monastery. San Pedro Claver was a Jesuit priest who was a “slave to the slaves,” dedicating his life to defending and educating the many slaves who were brought to Cartagena. He is said to have personally baptized over 300,000 African slaves in the city. He is now the patron saint of Colombia (and also of seafarers!). Afterwards, we stopped off in the Emerald museum. Colombia accounts for up to 90% of the world emerald market. Emeralds have been among the most valuable stones for the past 4,000 years. The museum was small, but interesting, and led to, of course, a jewelry store full of emeralds on the way out. I did buy a small emerald necklace for my wife for our upcoming anniversary in less than three weeks.
For dinner, we visited the Hard Rock Cartagena in the old town and flagged down a taxi for the short ride back to Club Nautico. Upon returning, we popped “Clear and Present Danger” in the dvd player. At first, I questioned the wisdom of this move since the opening scenes show a cruising vessel hailing from the U.S. which has been captured by drug lords and in which the entire family had been murdered. For all future cruisers to Colombia: You may not wish to allow your wife to see this movie.