- Constance Elson (SY Tashtego): Sailing the Caribbean Coast of Colombia, Caribbean Compass October, November, and December 2011.
- Lourae and Randy Kenoffel (SY Pizazz): Cruising the Coast of Colombia, Caribbean Compass June 2001.
Our sailing yacht, Pitufa, is 41 feet long and has about 2.15 m draught. We enjoyed visiting Colombia a lot and would like to recommend this country to other cruisers. Colombia has wonderful landscapes and an interesting culture, but few yachts come here and so you’ll have many beautiful anchorages all for yourselves.
We sailed along the Colombian coast in August 2012. At this time of the year there are usually still strong trades around the Guajira peninsula but almost no wind around Cartagena and further south. Colombia is an ideal cruising destination to spend the hurricane season in, because it is well south of the hurricane belt. The climate in the north is dry and the landscape almost desert-like. Further down, around Santa Marta and the Tairona Nationalpark the vegetation is similar to the ABC islands (cacti and thorny shrubs). The south (Darién) is covered in dense rainforest. During the rainy season (June to December) the weather from Cartagena south to the Panamanian border is hot with light, variable winds and frequent, sometimes violent thunderstorms.
We used CM93 and Garmin charts and found both not reliable in many areas. Even when there is a higher detail level, many soundings are wrong and some reefs are not shown at all. Navigation around reefs should be avoided unless one has reliable waypoints and the sun high in the sky to eyeball through.
The crime situation in Colombia is comparable to other countries in the region. As everywhere you should take precautions and listen to the advice of locals. As everywhere in the world there’s more crime in the cities than in the countryside. We heard of two break-ins into yachts, but did not experience any problems ourselves. We have safety bars on all hatches and lock the boat whenever we leave, but also during the nights. The locals were friendly in all places we visited and we felt welcome.
The fact that Colombian authorities don’t deal directly with cruisers is a bit of a pain. You have to hire an agent to deal with the paperwork. Most people clear in either in Santa Marta or Cartagena. The situation changes frequently (new laws, different interpretations of laws, etc.), but at the moment we’d recommend Cartagena. Friends who experienced the bureaucracy in Santa Marta complained about high fees, complicated procedures, customs visited the boat and it took three weeks time until they had everything. Additionally Santa Marta and Cartagena lie in different districts, so when visiting both you have to deal with bureaucracy twice.
We opted for clearance in Cartagena, our agent dealt with all paperwork for us (Manfred Alwardt, firstname.lastname@example.org, ++57 311 400 6394). As we only wanted to stay in Cartagena for about two weeks and then cruise the coast for another three weeks he recommended to stay officially 10 days in Cartagena (to avoid having to buy a cruising permit which is necessary for longer stays) and getting the international zarpe (exit document) when leaving Cartagena. Officially that means that you should leave the country immediately, but in reality the only ones who might check yachts along the coast is the coastguard and they’re more interested in drugs than in paperwork. We were never checked, but other yachts were visited by coastguard problems frequently without having trouble with their papers. We only heard of one yacht who was told to leave immediately.
We got visa for 90 days, a temporal importation of the boat (important, otherwise the custom may chain up the boat) and an international exit zarpe to Panama. On our immigration papers it says “Puerto Obaldia y escalas intermedias”, so we had some legal basis to stay in anchorages on the way.
We paid 150.000 + 60.000 COP (= 117 USD) to the agency.
We left Spanish Waters in Curacao in the evening with about 20-25 kn from NE and kept an eye on the option of a stopover in Aruba if conditions got rough. Before dawn we passed the shallow zone with lots of anchoring freighters and tankers south of Aruba with steady winds and a favourable current of about 2 kn, so we continued on to Los Monjes, a few uninhabited rocks off the coast of Colombia that belong to Venezuela. We reached Los Monjes del Sur in the afternoon in 30 kn of winds with stronger winds forecasted, so we got into the shelter of the two little islands connected with a dam and tied to a rope that spans the bay in the northwest. The bay could accomodate about 5 boats on this rope, but a weather buoy occupied the center of the bay when we visited. Fortunately we were the only boat there, as otherwise space would have been tight.
The island looks spectacular: white barren rocks, a futuristic looking round building next to the bay (the old coastguard station, now the fitness center), lighthouse on the top, birds, but little else. The coast guard insisted on a “safety inspection.” Apparently the station has no boat there (weird for a coastguard station…), so we had to pick up an officer by dinghy who looked at our papers but didn’t inspect anything. There were no fees to pay, we could stay as long as we liked, and we got a guided tour of the island and the station.
Peninsula de la Guajira and Cabo de la Vela
We departed from the Venezuelan coast guard station on Monjes del Sur at early dawn in order to reach the anchorage at Cabo de la Vela during daylight. We had plenty of wind, first 20-30 kn from the E, later 25-30 kn from ESE and finally from ENE, and a slight favourable current of 0.5 kn on average, so we had a fast passage (7 kn on average). We rounded the desert-like peninsula rather close to shore on about the 50 m depth contour where the waves were moderate (2-3 m) and no problem on our downwind course. Exactly 12 hours and about 80 nautical miles later, we approached our anchorage after giving the rock Cayo el Morro off the Cabo de la Vela a wide berth (we didn’t believe the 8 m sounding claimed on CM93 as the waves were breaking between the rock and the Cabo) and anchored in 5 m sand at N12°12.24′ W072°10.61′. The next morning the wind blew strongly from ESE which made the anchorage unsafe because of the choppy seas that built in the fetch of the wide shallow bay. So we moved further E closer to the village and anchored at N12°11.87′, W072°9.37′ in 3.5 m sand. Along the sandy beach kite surfers enjoyed the strong wind more than we did.
Passage to Cartagena
From Cabo de la Vela we set a course towards the Five Bays to have the option of anchoring there. Unlike other cruisers, we did not experience any noticeable countercurrent. When reaching the bays after a night sail on a dead-downwind course with about 20-30 kn, the weather forecast said favourable winds for the next day and no winds thereafter, so we decided not to stop there but sailed on. Because we had to pass the estuary of the River Magdalena during the night, we kept a distance of 12-14 nm to the shore around Barranquilla to avoid treetrunks or other floating debris. We had to motor the last 25 nm, entered the bay of Cartagena at the small-craft entrance Boca Grande which is a buoyed, 3.5 m deep opening in the 2 mile long underwater wall. We anchored in front of Club Nautico in 10 m mud.
Cartagena is a modern city with a beautiful historic town centre, good restaurants and supermarkets. There are two marinas in the harbour (elegant and expensive Club Pesca, cheap and neglected Club Nautico) a petrol station for boats at Club Pesca, when anchoring you can get access to the jetty at Club Nautico plus free water for 20 USD per week and wifi for another 10 USD.
Isla Grande (Islas Rosarios)
The Rosarios are pretty, but crowded little islands with lots of tourist boats from Cartagena. We used them as a stopp-over on the way and as an opportunity to clean hull and propeller that were completely overgrown after two weeks in the harbour. The anchorage in the north of Isla Grande is a bit tricky to get into, but well protected during southerly thunderstorms.
Approach (see also sketch below, click to enlarge): towards concrete post (WP1) N10°11.08′ W075°44.48′, through “gate of posts” straight ahead until (WP2) N10°11.00′ W075°44.65′, turn south (left) until (WP3) N10°10.96′ W075°44.64′, anchorage around N10°10.87′ W075°44.42′
Isla Tintipan (Islas San Bernardo)
Another convenient stop on the way south. The islands would be interesting to cruise in and also for scuba diving, if detailed charts were available. Without good charts the maze of far outreaching reefs is quite scary. We anchored south of Tintipan N09°47.28′ W075°50.04′. During thunderstorms and southerly winds, the choppy seas made the anchorage very uncomfortable. Fortunately the holding in sand was good, or the leeshore behind Pitufa’s stern might have become dangerous. We tried to find a safe anchorage on the northern side, but couldn’t find a way into the deep water behind the far outlying reef.
We exited the archipelago in the south via the wide and deep Canal Herrera. Friends exited via the Tashtego WP in the southeast and were fine as well.
Another island surrounded by reefs. We sailed close by, it looked nice, but we continued on. The Tashtego guide mentions a tricky entrance into the reef and an anchorage in a tiny bay close to shore. Friends anchored off the reef.
A gorgeous, well protected bay with wonderful nature and a relaxed little village. The villagers collect 15 dollars to stay an unlimited time, water is included. Garbage is theoretically included as well, but hard to get rid off, as the village has no road and no garbage collection system. There are several minimarkets and a veggie-shop, at the northern side of the bay is even a new petrol station for boats.
The approach is straight-forward. The waypoint mentioned in the Tasthego guide is wrong! just stay in the middle of the bay, C map is quite o.k., to give you a clue, even though some 5 meter shoals are not mentioned.
We anchored in 8 metres sand off the beach at N08°39.39′ W077°21.84′ (far enough out to avoid mosquitoes) and used a stern anchor to be aligned to the swell that made it into the bay sometimes.
You can hike through the jungle to neighboring Capurgana or to La Miel in Panama. We liked the bay and the village so much that we stayed 3 weeks.
On the way to Colombia in July 2012 we stopped at the Venezuelan coast guard station on the tiny island Los Monjes del Sur.
Cartagena de Indias
End of July 2012 we reached the beautiful city of Cartagena with its interesting contrast between the historic town centre and the surrounding skyscraper districts. Anchoring in the middle of a city was a new experience for us.
Down the Colombian coast
In August 2012 we explored some islands and bays along the Caribbean coast of Colombia. From the popular weekend destination Islas Rosarios via the more quiet Islas de San Bernardo to Sapzurro, the idyllic border town in the unspoiled nature of Darién.
See also our blog entries in the archive from July and August 2012.