Route planning can sometimes be more about what you choose to miss rather than what you include. Time in country can be surprisingly short for many cruisers, as seasonal weather requires you to plot a destination and move toward it on a relatively strict timeframe. Often you leave little room for detours and deviations. If a country isn’t on your track, it is left in your wake forever.
The problem is, unplanned destinations often crop up and fitting them in can become a priority. Colombia was never a name on our cruising destinations list until we arrived in the Southern Caribbean, but the closer we got to South America the more frequently the name Cartagena cropped up. At the time our focus was on transiting the Panama Canal and cruising the remote Pacific Islands, so detouring to a big city didn’t appeal. However, we were going from low-key islands in the Atlantic to low-key islands in the Pacific, so an injection of high-speed would be a nice change of pace. With a large, sheltered bay, busy metropolitan city, UNESCO World Heritage Site and the vivacious Latin culture, Colombia was our unexpected add-on.
As the date for our transit to Colombia neared, rumors started to spread concern. We heard reports of strong winds, poor anchorages and crime off the north coast of Colombia, as reasons to avoid the country. The winds that funnel around the coast create a wind acceleration zone, resulting in high winds and steep seas. Would we be driving our boat Aeta into a chaotic washing machine? Colombia has a history of violent crime. Would we lose everything not padlocked to the deck or hidden on our bodies? Everyone spoke of rough anchorages and the need to stay in marinas. Could our budget survive?
The more we heard of Colombia, however, the more the sense of adventure outweighed calls for caution. As sailors, how could we not be drawn to a city steeped in piracy, conquest and gold? As travelers, how could we not fall under the spell of a vibrant city thriving behind old, fortified walls? Plus, we’d get a break from our lazy sun-drenched Caribbean beach days to drink “aquadentes” under the twinkling lights strung above Cartagena’s rooftop bars and dance until dawn in the city’s famous salsa clubs. We re-drew the travel plan for the season and decided to sail for Cartagena.
Cartagena’s dramatic high-rise skyline rose up on the horizon as we closed our two-day passage from Bonaire to Colombia, giving our first indication of the different pace that lay ahead of us. As we entered through the eastern entrance to Bocagrande, our echo-sounder bounced from 10 to 3 meters, registering an underwater breakwater that was built in the mid-1700s to close off the northern entrance to the bay and force access to Cartegena by sea past the heavily fortified southern entrance.
Old military forts that once protected the Spanish from foreign invaders now stood idle, welcoming inbound traffic from all over the world. Today, Cartagena is Colombia’s main container port and processes around 1,600 vessels each year, including container ships, cruise ships, bulk carriers and the odd cruising yacht. The cannons that point seaward are no longer a threat to foreign interest.
Sailing past these 500-year-old fortifications is a reminder that much of Cartagena’s past is deeply woven into its present. Old forts stand beside modern skyscrapers that line the shoreline of Playa de Bocagrande, Cartagena’s version of Miami Beach. Empty turrets stand next to busy modern housing complexes and sections of fortress break way to streets and pedestrian walkways. La Ciudad Amurallada, Cartagena’s historic walled city, is the most well-preserved and complete fortification in South America. As in the past, horse and cart roll down old cobblestone streets; however, they are now interrupted by lengthy traffic jams.
Perfectly preserved colonial architecture has been repurposed into swanky cafés, upmarket restaurants, local residences and boutique shops. The 11 kilometers of old city wall are a unique feature, as you can circumnavigate the city by walking on top of them. The old, exposed brick covered in beautifully painted graffiti and covered in brightly blooming jacaranda is a perfect example of how the past has been woven into the present, creating one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
We enjoyed every minute of our time in Cartagena. We wandered through San Felipe de Barajas Castle and learned about the constant pirate assaults and colonial invasions, then strolled through the convent and chapel of La Candelaria de la Popa, a beautiful church that sits atop the city’s highest hilltop, Mount Popa. We walked throughout the old walled city a dozen times, seeing popular landmarks from statues of Simón Bolivar and India Catalina that stand in central plazas to gold museums, theater houses, slave quarters and bull rings held within beautiful colonial buildings. We found a dozen or so Spanish colonial-style churches and cathedrals spread throughout the city.
When we were done sightseeing, we soaked up the colorful Colombian environment. We relaxed in street side cafés, listened to buskers strumming local tunes, window-shopped outside upmarket designer boutiques, ate scrumptious local chow in hole-in-the-wall restaurants and gazed at the provocative murals and graffiti that are displayed throughout the city.
While ambling through backstreets and staring at magnificent street art, I remembered the list of reasons not to come to Cartagena, and crime topped the list. When everything around me left me buzzing with delight, I wondered what the negative comments were about.
After gaining first-hand experience, we saw that many of the streets considered too dangerous 20 years ago are now popular hangout spots filled with funky cafes and swanky bars, trendy artisan shops and local art galleries. Rough turned bohemian, and the historically volatile neighborhoods had transformed into a hip, artistic quarter that drew international visitors by the thousands. While I was wary of pickpockets, I had no cause for concern regarding serious crime.
Poor anchorages and restrictions to marinas were also mentioned, but we stayed just outside the Club Nautico de Cartagena marina with our anchor buried deep in the mud. The only rough movement we experienced was created by daily tour boats rushing past us and stirring up significant chop. If you do Cartagena right as a busy tourist, daytime discomfort is irrelevant. By the time you return to your slip, tour boats are tucked in their berths and the peaceful quiet of a flat, calm anchorage surrounded by a city full of sparkling lights presents a view no fancy hotel could match.
Regarding caution with strong winds, the place of greatest intensity is the water between Punta Gallinas and Cabo Augusta. Approach the area with a good forecast, but it requires nothing more than standard good seamanship. The winds can be strong, and the swell can be large, but with a proper forecast you need not avoid the north coast of Colombia. We enjoyed remote, peaceful bays of the Tayrona National Park and the bustle of our anchorage in Cartagena’s busy port, but planned our movement between them with a quick weather check. With time and prudence, entry into the country doesn’t warrant precautions out of the norm.
After experiencing Colombia firsthand, we start a new rumor — Cartagena is a fantastic cruising destination. The winds are manageable, safe anchorages are plentiful and serious crime is a carryover from a bygone era. Take your time, check your weather, trust your anchor and go have big city fun. I came to Cartagena uncertain about what lay ahead, but in a matter of days I’d fallen for its charm. I could stay in the area for weeks, months, even years. Given a sturdy A/C unit, I could stay indefinitely.
The people are friendly, the topography varied, the cruising options abundant. The city is a living history, blending the old and the new, the past and the present. It is radiant, vibrant and absorbing.
Adding Colombia to our itinerary was a fantastic diversion, and if it lays as a detour from your route, do yourself a favor: rewrite the plan. Make sure you don’t look back and see it left behind in your wake. A dog-leg isn’t a detour when it holds all that Cartagena offers. It is the destination.