Cartagena – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

OK, OK it’s not very original and there’s not a lot of bad or ugly about Cartagena but the title sounded cool and was obviously enough to get your attention.  So, if you’re a morbid person just skip to the bottom now to see the bad and ugly. If not, let’s start with the things we really like about Cartagena.

The Good

First and foremost, it’s a beautiful, historic city that is truly one of the jewels of the Caribbean and, for you history buffs, a UNESCO world heritage site. The short history lesson is it was Spain’s key shipping port for pillaged gold and treasure and, consequently, was a major target for attacks by foreign nations, pirates and buccaneers. As a result, Spain built numerous forts and ringed the city with a protective wall that made the city virtually impregnable.

San Felipe3 San Felipe2 Walled City2 Walled City4

Today, the walls and forts are in remarkably good condition and the city has expanded beyond the walls to become a large urban metropolis – with all the amenities of a large city – and a major tourist attraction. Those amenities include not only grocery stores, shops, restaurants and theatres but, from our perspective, a well-protected harbor along with good boating facilities and services.

Night1 Celebration1

The boating facilities that we took advantage of included: Club Nautico, a secure marina/yacht club that is walking distance to the walled city and where we were able to anchor the boat and pay a reasonable fee (approx. $30 week) to dock our dinghy, dispose of garbage, fill our water tanks and use their restrooms; David  Arroyo, the shipping agent we used to check us in with Immigration, Customs and the Port Captain since they do not deal directly with boaters in Colombia; Renzon Herrera, the sailmaker, who repaired our torn mainsail (for the second time); MultiElectricos, the company that rebuilt the electric motor in our windlass that crapped out just as we got to Cartagena; and Sven at Labratario Electronico Aleman, who diagnosed all the other components of the windlass system to determine that the motor needed to be rebuilt; plus the numerous local chandleries for smaller items like courtesy flags for Aruba and Curacao – our next destinations.

Club Nautico1 Club Nautico Dinghy Dock Club de Pesca Sail1

Having the boat in a safe, secure location gave us “piece of mind” (I’ll get to this later) to be able to leave the boat and enjoy some of the amenities. One of our primary objectives was Spanish lessons (finally) so we ended up taking a one-week intensive course at Nueva Lengua that was comprised of 4-hours of lessons each morning followed by Spanish activities in the afternoon. These activities included salsa dancing and cooking lessons, trips to the Botanical Gardens and to Castillo San Filipe, and a barbecue at the home of one of the teachers. Let’s just say Audrey is a much more advanced student than me and leave it at that…

Richard in front of Neuva Lengua School1 Salsa Lessons San Felipe1

Once we had the boat safe and repaired, and our Spanish lessons behind us, it was time to enjoy the city. You’d think we’d start with the many tourist attractions, right? Nope. If you’ve been reading our posts to this point, you’d know that we tend to be a little more social and less touristy when we get to these places so we started with a happy hour on Celebration with fellow students from our Spanish school then proceeded to become intimate with an area called Getsemani, which is chock-a-block with bars, clubs, hostels and good, cheap restaurants (e.g. $3 for a lunch that included soup, salad, chicken, rice, beans and plantain plus $1 for a beer) and home to Plaza Trinidad, the local hub for hanging out, live entertainment (not necessarily good entertainment) and cheap shots that they set on fire with no precautions that we could see other than their V for Vendetta masks.  We even got Audrey to stay out really, really late to party at Mister Babilla’s, a Getsemani nightclub where she got up on stage for free drinks from the staff that dresses in a different theme every night.

Shots Happy Hour1 Plaza Trinidad1 Plaza Trinidad Auds at Mister Babilla Lunch

Eventually, we did get to some of the tourist attractions including the Botanical Gardens, Castillo San Filipe and the beaches of Boca Grande. But, in our opinion, one of the main attractions to Cartagena is just walking around the beautiful old city and seeing the architecture, churches, shops and the people. In fact, this is one place where the pictures really do speak for themselves and I’m sure we didn’t even see a quarter of the old city.

Walled City1 Streetscape6 Streetscape Plaza Bolivar Graffiti1 Graffiti Getsemani Sculpture in window Fruit Stands Flower Market Clavier San Pedro Boca Grande Bar in Old City

Now, before we get to the bad and the ugly, the other good for those who are considering a visit to Cartagena is safety and security. We can’t speak for everyone but our experience has been excellent. We walked everywhere – even at 2 o’clock in the morning –and never felt threatened once. It may seem odd to visitors but there are police everywhere, however it appears that they are more a deterrent than a security issue as we never saw them arrest or detain anyone. Hell, we were anchored right across the bay from the navy base and even had submarines to protect us.


The Bad  

Contrary to what some might think, this is a short list and most of the items aren’t really Cartagena’s fault. However, we thought we should let you know, especially if you are considering a visit. First, besides the areas within the walled city, which is a major tourist destination, Cartagena is a large South American city that has its fair share of socioeconomic problems e.g. large poor population, dirty streets, inadequate infrastructure, etc.

Donkey on the Street

Second, the water in Cartagena Bay, which is where we had to anchor is dirty, muddy and a foul greenish color. It’s so bad that we got really thick growth on the bottom of our boat within 2 weeks and had to have a diver clean it since I had no intention of jumping in. Consequently, we didn’t do any swimming. Plus, the water on the Caribbean side (outside the bay) is not that great either as it gets the runoff from the Rio Magdalena, one of largest rivers in the country. There are better beaches with cleaner water off the islands, e.g. Isla Rosario, that are about one hour by speed boat from the city but if you are thinking of a blue-water, Caribbean beach vacation, you may want to go elsewhere.


Third, and this is by no means Cartagena’s problem and very unique to a small percentage of visitors, is the boat services that I mentioned earlier are not up to world-class standards yet. For example, we had the mainsail repaired and it appears that it will do the job but the panels don’t fit well and could end up jamming in our in-mast furling system once we get underway. And, the rebuilt electric motor for the windlass initially didn’t seem strong enough but after using it a couple of times it seems to be getting better (???). Not sure if that’s good or bad but I went back and talked to them (in my poor Spanish) and I think they said there was nothing more they could do. In their defense, you can certainly purchase new sails and new windlasses here – if you are willing pay the duties and wait for a month or so. The fact is they don’t have anywhere near the number of boats that we see in the US or Mexico so the options are limited.

Finally, and this is more humorous than a problem, but you better walk around with a calculator if you plan to visit Colombia as the exchange rate is approximately 2,400 Colombian Pesos (COP) to 1 US dollar. Yes, do the math and you’ll see why an “expensive” lunch we had at La Cervichera in the old city cost 100,000 COP. On the other hand, we felt rich when we went to the ATM and withdrew 1,200,000 COP!!!

The Ugly

Yes, we’re on an extended sabbatical and life is good BUT we did have two events that on any scale were very ugly.

First, the holding for anchors and moorings in Cartagena Bay is terrible and for some reason we became the target for dragging boats and bad anchoring. We “rescued” 2 boats with no owners onboard that broke off their moorings and dragged close to us. Another one actually hit us causing minor damage to our toerail. Then, Audrey had to jump onboard a fourth that nearly hit us when the parents left their 11-year old daughter to look after it while they went shopping. The final incident (we hope as we’re leaving tomorrow) occurred when a boat anchored much too close to us and when we complained they said it was fine but the next day we had to fend them off to prevent them from hitting our boat. In short, if you’re planning to visit by boat and anchor in Cartagena Bay, make sure your anchor is really set, put out as much scope as you can, AND watch out for other boats.

Rescue1 Boat Dragging

The other much more serious “ugly” occurred when I (Richard) nearly choked to death – seriously – at the teacher’s barbecue that I mentioned. It was probably my own fault as they were serving large pieces of steak with plastic knives that couldn’t cut it so I figured I’d just chew it. You can guess what happened next and I can assure you that it’s completely different from what you see in the movies. People tried hitting my back and doing the Heimlich maneuver but it didn’t work so I gasped for air for what seemed like 10 minutes while the hosts called an ambulance. Fortunately, the steak worked its way out after a scary amount of time and the hosts were able to cancel the ambulance. It’s a good thing it did because nobody seemed confident that the ambulance would show up in time and many of the parents and older generation at the BBQ were actually praying. In the end, it was a close call and we are very happy that it worked out but from now on I will be chewing the shit out of my steaks and you should too…

We Love Cartagena

In the end, even with the bad and ugly experiences, we love Cartagena and highly recommend it as a destination for boaters and non-boaters. In fact, it’s the first place that we’ve gone to on this adventure where we’ve said we could actually live here. We’re not sure where we will end up but we’ll always keep Cartagena in mind as we travel through the Caribbean and back to Miami. Who knows, we could end up back here one day.

Walled City3 Streetscape5 Streetscape2 Streetscape1 Night1 Graffiti2 Door Clock Tower and Square1


Welcome to the Caribbean Mon

They say the grass is always greener on the other side but so far the grass is just as green and the water is bluer on this side. We’re referring, of course, to life on the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal versus life on the Pacific side.

Don’t get me wrong, we loved Mexico and had a wonderful time in Costa Rica and on the Pacific side of Panama but, with the exception of the Sea of Cortez and a few anchorages along the way, we haven’t really had that crystal blue water experience that we anticipated. You know the one in the postcards where you see the starfish under your boat and you’re surrounded by palm covered islands.

San Blas Anchor1

It’s only been six weeks since we transited the canal (on March 24) so we can’t rush to judgment, but we’ve already found crystal clear water and uninhabited cays in the San Blas Islands and, with that, our early impressions of the Caribbean side have surpassed our experiences in Costa Rica and Pacific Panama.

The San Blas Archipelago is a chain of islands just 70 miles or so from the canal. Sounds simple and we’d normally cover that distance in a day (a long one). But, now that we’re on the Caribbean side where the prevailing north east winds (which are very strong) along with the waves (which can be very big) and the current (which coincides with the wind and waves) are all against us, making passages is much more challenging as we have to wait for “weather windows” then hop to the next spot before the window closes. With this in mind, along with the fact that we have no schedule and want to see anchorages along the way, we took almost two weeks to travel those 70 miles.

First, we hung out in Shelter Bay marina with our intrepid crew of line handlers (John and Lynda Kooymans and Paul and Jean Swenson) before their departures back to Toronto and Los Angeles. John and Lynda had to leave relatively soon but Paul and Jean had a few extra days so we did a quick trip to Isla Naranja, where we swam, bought fresh lobster from a couple of fishermen and Jean gave Audrey a haircut. We also tore the top loop on our headsail but we knew that Shelter Bay had a good sail-maker so we were happy that it happened there and not in the middle of a crossing or somewhere that we couldn’t get it repaired.

Line Handlers1Lobster PaulLobster Fishermen

After our wonderful but short stop at Naranja we headed back to Shelter Bay where we said goodbye to Paul and Jean, got our sail repaired, stocked up on supplies (there are no grocery stores in the San Blas Islands), then bashed east toward the San Blas Islands. Our first stop was back at Naranja, since we knew the way and that it was a well protected anchorage but we just stayed one night since we were anxious to keep moving.

The next stop was Portobello, a small town in a well protected harbor that was once a Spanish outpost for galleons taking ill-gotten booty back to Spain. The village was surrounded by what was left of battalion walls and had a small fort on the east side, where we anchored. We’d heard a lot about Portobello from fellow cruisers and figured we’d stay a few days but Mother Nature was not on our side as the wind was “blowing like stink” so we ended up staying for a week while waiting for a window. This turned out fine though because, once we got to know our way around, we found a few charming restaurants, four little tiendas (known as 1,2,3 and 4) where you could pick-up most staples, and we got back to our routine of me kayaking in the mornings while Audrey turned the salon into her mini gym. Funny enough, we actually got to “unwind” from what was a very busy time for us since, along with the transit and our crack crew of linehandlers visiting, our friends Sharon and Graeme from Toronto had also spent two weeks with us in Panama City.

Portobello 14 Portabelo4 Portabelo5 Portobello 22 Portabelo2 Portabelo1

After a week of howling winds in Portobello, Mother Nature gave us a weather window so we headed to Isla Linton, a short hop just 20 miles away but even with the window it was an upwind bash that took 5 hours.  Needless to say, it was a welcome respite. It’s a resort area where Panamanians spend vacations and not only was it a well protected anchorage with normal beach stuff but the island had a gaggle of monkeys and one of the small resorts on the mainland had a compound with emus and horses just off the beach. They were also building a new marina which should be completed this year (they already had some boats on docks but no power or water).

Linton1 Linton2 Linton4Linton3

We could have stayed longer at Isla Linton but we were getting really anxious to get to San Blas and the next stop was supposed to be an anchorage just 10-12 miles away. Yes, I said “supposed to be” because after bashing upwind we got to the so-called anchorage at Turtle Cay (where there is also supposed to be a marina) and the only thing we saw were huge rolling waves heading into the bay that our guide book says is a “good all-weather anchorage”. I won’t tell you the words that were coming out of Audrey’s mouth (we’re PG) but we were not happy as our choices were to turn around and go back or sail through the night to San Blas.

Fortunately for us, there was another sailor looking at the same anchorage and he appeared to know the area. He just charged into the waves then, after a while, miraculously disappeared into what we finally saw (with binoculars) was the very small channel into the marina that was hidden amongst the trees. So, we figured, if he could do it we could do it. We did but there were a few nervous moments because there were huge breaking waves on both sides of the bay and the waves didn’t abate until you got really close to the marina entrance. Eventually, we did get into the marina and by that time it was like an oasis in the desert. We just tied the boat to a dock then broke out the happy hour drinks. The other plus is it was inexpensive – just $20/night – so we stayed an extra night, enjoyed lunch at the little restaurant on the beach, watched movies on our big TV (we normally watch on the computer to save energy) and even did a little laundry.

Green Turtle Marina Turtle Cay Turtle Cay1

The next morning the winds subsided and we motored out of the marina to relatively calm waters that were not even comparable to what we experienced while entering. We motor-sailed for a while then actually sailed most of the 33 miles from Turtle Cay to Porvenir, the first (westerly) island in the San Blas Islands, where we dropped the hook in beautiful blue water and spent a couple of days getting oriented.

By the way, the San Blas Islands are technically part of Panama but they are governed by the Kuna Indians who have lived on the islands since before the Spanish conquered Panama.  They are a maternal society that still lives simply, making their livelihood fishing from dugout canoes, making and selling molas (ornate handmade fabrics with hand stitched designs) and selling fruits and vegetables to boaters.

Kuna Sailing 7Kuna Sailing 5

Porvenir is the “busiest” island in the archipelago as it has a small airport with customs and immigration along with a small hotel/restaurant. It’s also dinghy distance from the Kuna island of Wichubhuala that has a small tienda for basic supplies.

Porvenir 4 PorvenirMuseo

But, we didn’t come to San Blas for the airport or store. We came to spend time swimming, snorkeling and kayaking in the crystal clear waters so we pulled up anchor and spent time in the Holandes Cays, Coco Banderas Cays, and the Lemmon Cays. I won’t even try to describe the water or the spectacular scenery. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves and even they probably don’t do justice. All we can say is that the San Blas Islands surpassed our expectations and we understand why some boaters spend months or years cruising these waters.  It’s certainly in our top 5 places to sail and we hope to return one day.

Swimming Pool 8 Swimming Pool Starfish 1 Swimming Pool 7 Swimming Pool - Banadup 4 Swimming Pool - Banadup 1 Swimming Pool - Turtle Island 22 San Blas Mast2 San Blas Mast

As you can tell from these pics, we wanted to spend a long time in San Blas before heading east to Colombia but, as I mentioned, our route goes against the prevailing conditions and we needed to take weather windows when we get them. Of course, we happened to get one less than two weeks after arriving. And, since our next stop was Cartagena, 180-miles away and an overnight sail into the prevailing winds, we had to take it. So, with deep regret we left the beautiful San Blas Islands in very calm conditions and motor-sailed the entire distance to Cartagena, where we are now anchored walking distance from the spectacular walled city of this UNESCO World Heritage site.

Cartagena1 Cartagena2

We’ll say more about Cartagena in our next post but I should let you know that Mother Nature didn’t completely smile on us during the trip. As I said, we motor-sailed the entire overnight trip under calm seas but when we were approximately 30 miles from the harbor entrance we got hit by a blinding squall that packed 45-knot winds. It only lasted about an hour but it seemed much longer and by the time it was over, it tore our mainsail (which we had just gotten repaired in Panama City) and damaged our windlass , which we didn’t discover until we were anchoring in Cartagena. Still, we made it to Cartagena safely and the sail and, hopefully, windlass are being repaired as we go to press. Stay tuned…