Colombia July-December 2008
spent the end of June and the first half of July,
2008, enjoying the little backwater of Isla Mujeres, Mexico and
reveling in all the things we hadn't had in Cuba, such as good American
cheeseburgers and the availability of refrigeration parts. By July
9, we'd eaten our share of American and Mexican food, drunk our
share of Mexican beer and margaritas, seen the Mayan pyramids, repaired
the fridge (again) and caught up on our e-mail.
We were enjoying life in Mexico, but Hurricane Bertha was in the
offing, and we needed to be south of about 12 degrees North when
she got to the Caribbean. So we stocked up on supplies and set off
for Cartagena, Colombia, 1000 nautical miles to the southeast. If
the easterly tradewinds held, the passage would be a fetch, barely.
If the wind came any further south or we visited any of the cruising
spots to leeward of the rhumbline, the rest of the passage could
easily become a beat to windward. So we skipped the Bay Islands,
Providencia, and San Andres and headed direct for Cartagena.
Eight days later, we crossed through the narrow break in the undersea
wall constructed four hundred years ago to protect the Cartagena
harbor from marauding English pirates. After a brief inspection
by the Guarda Costera, Akka came to anchor in the totally protected
waters off the Club Nautico de Cartagena. This anchorage would be
her home for the next 5½ months, with a short break to get
her bottom painted at a local yard, and a couple of weeks at the
Club Nautico docks while we traveled to Peru (see our adventure
As soon as we had a chance to get some rest, we took the 15-minute
walk into the Old City, which turned out to be as pretty as we had
heard. Completely surrounded by the original defensive walls, it's
really more of a town than a city, with narrow winding streets,
overhanging balconies and flowers everywhere.
Also, emeralds. Colombia is, of course, known for its emeralds,
and Cartagena is where the tourists come, so
to walk down the principal streets of the city without being accosted
by touts for the various emerald shops. After successfully fending
off several of them, we finally succumbed to a Juan Valdez look-alike,
who turned out to be the owner of the shop he led us to. Our overall
impression was that we were back in a rug shop in Turkey or in the
bazaar in Jerusalem. There was the same offer of something to drink
(tea in the Mideast, coffee in Colombia), the same assurances that
there was no obligation to buy, the same friendly instruction in
how to spot quality pieces, and even the same format, with a subordinate
to lay out the wares in front of us and the proprietor maintaining
a lively patter, calling us his "friends" and complimenting
us on our incredible perception of quality. And as in the Mideast,
the prices were "so low, they're almost free!" Andi finally
ended up trying on a beautiful set of earrings and matching pendant,
set in white gold. All for only $1,300, a price which, Juan Valdez
assured us, was the lowest they could possibly sell the set for.
We feigned indecision, then reluctantly turned down this fantastic
deal. As we went out the door, the price dropped to $1,200. Don't
get us wrong, here - the experience was delightful and the pressure
was very low.
We were to spend many hours wandering around in the Old City, always
delighted by the charming atmosphere of narrow streets and overhanging
wood balconies dripping with bougainvillea. We were less delighted
by the heat, which was, especially in the summer months and especially
within the confines of the Old City wall fortifications, stifling
A major drawback of Cartagena, from the cruiser's point of view,
is that the heat can't be beat by swimming: the harbor is filthy
and unsuited for swimming. Not only that, the harbor water is of
a composition that nourishes and encourages marine growth on boat
bottoms and anchor lines. Anchoring in the harbor is free, but it
is necessary to hire a fearless diver every two weeks to scrape
the bottom of your boat. Leave it for 3 weeks and the barnacles
are too well attached to remove. In four weeks, the anchor chain
is no longer recognizable as chain. When boats leave at the Club
Nautico Marina, they either abandon their lines or hire a marinero
to scrub them. (These various jobs cost a mere $20-25 a shot, so
it's not too much of a hardship, and the workers seem quite healthy,
though we noticed that they shower immediately and thoroughly after
every dive into the harbor!)
Cartagena has only a few tourist sights, but each has its own fascination.
Rising high above the city on a lone bluff called La Popa (because
of its resemblance to the "poop" or stern of a ship) is
a lovely convent, dating from 1609. The trip to the top must be
made by taxi because the neighborhood at the foot of the hill is
said to be the most dangerous in the city. But the cool peacefulness
of the convent (it's still a monastery, occupied by a half-dozen
monks) and the fabulous views of the city are worth the trip. The
Castillo de San Felipe is in fact a fort. It's a huge, brooding
structure designed to defend in many directions, but also designed
to shoot on itself and even to blow itself up in case it is successfully
attacked. It was famously defended by the local hero: Blas de Lezo,
who, despite missing an eye, an arm and half a leg, led a small
group of soldiers and slaves to victory against a huge English force,
at worse than 10-1 odds. The British were so sure of victory that
they had commemorative coins struck before the battle. The best
part about the coins was that they showed Lazo on his knees before
the conquerors, with all his appendages intact. The Brits wouldn't
want to think of themselves as beating up on a cripple! Of course,
they didn't beat up on anybody, but despite this crushing loss,
Lord Vernon, the British general in charge, was so admired in the
British Empire that George Washington's family named their plantation
Like much of Latin America, Cartagena is obsessed with beautiful
women. And it's got more than its share. Of course, not all of this
beauty comes naturally, so plastic surgery is a big business and
a way of life. (It's said that for their "quince años"
(fifteenth birthday), many girls are given trips to plastic surgeons,
to get their breasts enhanced.) Beauty pageants are the natural
byproduct of this obsession, and the Miss Colombia pageant, which
takes place in Cartagena in November to coincide with the national
celebration of Independence Day, is a Big Deal. For at least two
weeks, the local daily newspapers feature pictures of the contestants.
And because everyone loves a parade, there are dozens of beauty
processions during Carnival, each with a theme, but each featuring
float after float with scantily clad beauties.
Naturally, the Miss Colombia pageant draws contestants from all
over the country, each representing her province or city. These
contestants are generally light-skinned Latinas from the upper classes
or Landed Gentry. The working class Cartagena locals, being more
dark-skinned and descended from slave-Indian roots, hold a simultaneous
local beauty pageant featuring girls from the various locales within
and around Cartagena.
We attended a couple of the parades that honor local contestants.
These turned out to be a celebration of the heritage of music and
dance from the area of Costeña (the coastal region that includes
Cartagena). What a delight to see young people preserving their
heritage! There were dozens of small groups, dancing folk dances
in colorful traditional garb. Wonderful make-up, and great cowboy
hats in a number of different traditional weaves.
Lacking a car, one gets around in Cartagena by -- in order of decreasing
cost -- taxi, bus and moto. Motos are motorcycles that carry passengers
astride the back; they are identifiable by the spare motorcycle
helmets on the drivers' arms. By and large, these motos became our
transportation of choice. Fares ranged from about US$.30 to US$1.00,
anywhere in the city (except the Old City, where they are not allowed
We soon grew to know Cartagena as at least three separate cities.
There is the charming Old City, the high-rise steel and glass Boca
Grande, and the hot, dusty areas of mom-and-pop stores, car repair
garages and machine shops, with the noise, bustle and traffic of
a busy town. Like most Latin American cities we've seen, there's
a huge contrast between rich and poor; we saw people who have no
running water living within view of skyscrapers with million-dollar
condos. There are two first-class universities in the city, but
at the same time there's no compulsory education, and we saw lots
of poor school-aged kids in the streets when school was in session.
If there's one thing the Cartageños seem to have in common,
it's an antipathy for the FARC, the Communist guerilla resistance
movement, which depends largely on kidnapping to fund its efforts
and to apply pressure on the government. Every couple of months
there is a "Parade for Peace" that draws tens of thousands
of people wearing T-shirts with slogans like "I am Colombia!"
and "No to kidnapping!" The president of Colombia, Alvaro
Uribe, has done an incredible job of rallying the citizens in the
cause of destroying the FARC and restoring security. Four or five
years ago, the national bus system had virtually come to a stop
for lack of customers - nobody was willing to take the chance of
the bus being hijacked, so the rich traveled by plane and the others
stayed put. Now, long-distance bus is the preferred travel method
and Colombia is in the process of completely revamping the system,
with new busses and terminals and (hopefully) roads all over the
Many American and European products are available in Cartagena,
but when something is not available, it's totally not available.
For example, there's no blue masking tape. When we hired some guys
to put anti-fouling paint on the bottom of Akka, they used the old-fashioned
tan tape. The paint job took several days (with rain delays), so
when it came time to peel off the tape, the painters risked pulling
the paint off with it. They understood that, and carefully applied
thinner to the tape to loosen it up and then again to clean off
the residual glue. This was a time-consuming and worrisome job,
because if any of the thinner were to run down onto the new bottom
paint it would make streaks. So it took them more than an hour to
remove the tape. They could have just ripped off the blue 3M masking
tape in seconds, with no worries about hurting the paint underneath.
So Rob brought a small roll of blue tape that we had aboard Akka
and showed it to the painters. They knew of it, and acknowledged
that it would have been better to use it. But, they said, "No
hay": There is none. And when we inquired further, it turned
out, they were right -- unless they the tape was provided out of
a cruiser's private stock,, they couldn't get it in Cartagena. The
irony is that the brown tape they used was made by (you guessed
The painters also gave us two new jokes. The first is that Cartagena
is the City of Tomorrow. Why? Because nothing gets done today. Bah-da-boom.
The second is an insight into the meaning of "mañana",
which translates literally into English as "tomorrow".
But that's not what it means, they insisted. What it really means
is "not now". So something promised by "mañana"
isn't necessarily expected tomorrow, or even expected at all. It's
simply not available now. An awareness of this meaning has made
life a lot less frustrating -- no longer do we rail about the workman
who promises to do the work "mañana" and then doesn't
show up the next day. He really didn't mean he'd be there tomorrow,
just that he couldn't make it today.