A new year in Colombia and time for a new destination for Wanderlust and the crew. Having topped up the boat with Colombian goodies we treated ourselves to one last meal at The Balcony at Ouzo restaurant. This had become our favourite in Santa Marta as they have a rather eclectic menu of quality food, nice wines, good service, an open kitchen and a great location on one of the squares where we could watch the street entertainers from above. What more could we want ?
The following day we had a great sail to Puerto Valero for an overnight stop en route to Cartegena. The ever present Armada came onboard to check our papers and wish us a good journey onward to Cartegena. Despite reduced winds the next day, we made good time towards Cartegena and all too soon the ultramodern high rise buildings came into view - an impressive skyline that is visible from a long way out at sea. We were enjoying our relaxing cruise down on the head sail when we had a call from the rally crew to tell us to hurry up as the welcome cocktail party was starting soon ! Obviously we couldn't miss out on free cocktails and nibbles so we put the iron sail on to assist our passage into the fortified city.
The area allocated for the Suzie Too Rally boats was in a fantastic location – a view over the old walled city one way and the new area of Bocagrande the other. The Armada made regular patrols around our yachts and Club de Pesca provided us with facilities for secure dinghy mooring, internet, rubbish disposal etc... It was only a 15 minute walk into town too – fabulous. After a great welcome and catch up with our rally chums, we took a stroll to a local eating venue where an outdoor eating area was surrounded by kitchen vans selling a wonderful selection of foods. We had a choice of empanadas, tacos, pizza, burgers, sushi, bbq, crepes, pasta, etc..etc.. A great venue for a large group as everyone could eat their preferred type of food.
Next morning it was time to start exploring this new city and our first stop had to be a look in the trees at Santander park. I know this seems odd, but we had been assured that sloths lived in this park and we were very keen to see them. We were unlucky first time, but perseverance paid off later in the week when we struck lucky. Fascinating creatures who share the park trees with some lively red squirrels. The old walled city was as wonderful as we had been led to believe and we enjoyed a stroll around the busy streets, shaded by colourful balconies and full of entertaining street sellers. The Naval museum provided amusement as we read about the “pirate” known as Sir Francis Drake and behaved like big kids in the submarine and war ship exhibits.
The Christmas and New Year lights were still in evidence and provided pretty, colourful illumination during our evenings out. The Colombian passion for music and dance was again expressed in the streets, clubs and at the convention centre, but it didn't feel quite as lively as Santa Marta. Perhaps we were not looking in the right places ?
The highlight of our visit to Cartegena has to have be the arrival of our lovely friends Betty and Dave from Gran Canaria. As luck would have it they had booked a Columbian holiday that coincided with our visit and enabled us to share a few days together on board Wanderlust in this amazing country. We had a wonderful time catching up, laughing, eating and drinking. We even managed to squeeze in a day sail to Playa Blanca, getting thoroughly soaked on the way back to our anchorage. All too soon we had to wave goodbye to our friends and then it was our turn to wave goodbye to Cartegena and visit some Colombian islands.
We spent a night in Isle de Rosario, but decided to continue on to Tintipan so that we could visit Isla Islote which we had seen a BBC video about. Islote was built by local fishermen and is now one of the most densely populated islands in the area. The local people were very welcoming, but we felt that we were intruding on their island and didn't stay long in the end.
After a couple of nights at Tintipan we had a very slow drift down to Isla Fuerte in light winds; a laid back arrival that was reflected in the culture of this new island. We really liked the casual feel of Fuerte and the contrast to other areas of Colombia that we had visited. We spent an extra few nights here waiting for a weather window to cross to Panama, which gave us time to take some walks around the island, relax at the La Playita Hostel and play our favourite Mexican Train dominoes on the beach. Our rally chums provided a little excitement one evening as they were on their way to our yacht and their dinghy engine failed. Unfortunately we didn't have our dinghy and engine in the water to enable us to rescue them. As they drifted out to sea in the dark, we decided to call the friendly Amada who we knew where in the next bay. They responded immediately and the sight of their flashing lights approaching was obviously enough to scare our friends engine into action. We called the Amada back to let them know our friends had rescued themselves, but they very kindly said they would still go and check all was well with our friends.
With the arrival of a suitable weather window our small flotilla raised anchors and set sail for our next destination – Panama. Our overnight crossing was not without drama when one of our rally boats suffered a break in their forestay, but the experienced couple on board managed to get their mast secured with fellow rally members escorting them onwards to Panama. You can be sure that the rest of us went and double-checked our forestay fittings the next morning !
Whilst being very excited to be in Santa Marta, we were keen to explore a little further whilst we had opportunity to leave the yacht in a safe location. Having searched around on the internet, I had found a company (Amazonas Jungle Tours) that provided Amazonian adventures on the borders of Colombia, Peru and Brazil. Too good to miss, I started investigating flights and found a relatively cheap option from Santa Marta to Bogota and on to Leticia on the Amazonas region. However, when trying to pay for the flights online with a British credit card I was amazed to see the price of the tickets treble !! Not a happy bunny at this stage as you can imagine. Luckily Steve suggested visiting a travel agent in town to get the 'local rate' and thereby curbing my stress and language (sorry Mum and Dad !).
Our travel arrangements worked well although I did have slight wobble when we started our descent into Bogota and as I was commenting on the pine trees, I started to notice the other passengers donning jumpers and coats. Ah yes, Bogota is at a higher altitude and therefore appreciably cooler than Santa Marta. What a pity we were wearing shorts and flip flops. In the end, we only had a short wait in the temperature controlled airport before boarding our flight to Leticia, so no problem really.
We were greeted at Leticia airport by Sergio from Amazonas Jungle Tours and then taken to the office to size up for wellies and waterproof ponchos. En route we passed Santander park where the nightly spectacle of hundred of parrots coming in to roost takes place – it was an incredible sight and sound ! Having then dropped our belongs at a hotel for the night, we set out to explore Leticia. Our highlight of the evening has to have been watching the local burger restaurant serve up dozens of meals in the space of minutes.
Next morning we transferred down to the harbour at Tabatinga and boarded the Lineas Amazonas water taxi to travel up the Amazon to Puerto Narino, via stops in Brazil and Peru. I had to keep pinching myself – I was actually travelling along the huge chocolate mass of water that is the Amazon !
We were met at Puerto Narino by our guide Jesus Fernay and interpreter Cat. After a quick walk through the delightful village to drop off our bags at the hostel and we were taken to a restaurant for lunch. We really enjoyed the local food and juices (my vegan option was particularly good) and then headed back to the dock to board a small boat to see if we could find the famous pink river dolphins. We were not disappointed and saw pink and grey river dolphins as well as lots of birds and butterflies in the 'floating jungle.' A quick rest stop and change into our swim wear and it was time to swim with the piranhas. I thought Jesus Fernay was joking, but I can confirm that I saw a local fisherman pulling piranhas from the water where we jumped in ! Apparently they don't bite humans, but I exited the water very quickly when something brushed my back. Fellow swimmer Sarah also exited quickly when something brushed her back (minus the girly squeak I let out), remarking on the fact the you "can't see what's coming for you in the chocolate water."
We then set out for an evening boat trip caiman hunt with local guide Johnny even bringing a baby caiman on board for us to see, before releasing it to continue its night-time hunting. A very full day was topped off with another delicious meal before we collapsed into bed.
The following day we had a hearty breakfast to set us up for a hike through the jungle. It had been raining and our wellies and ponchos proved very useful, as did the walking stick Jesus Fernay cut for me, although I still managed to land on my bum in the mud. Having been shown numerous trees and plants and received explanations on how they are used by local tribes, we visited a conservation area where we met howler monkeys and caimans. Back in the village, we climbed the lookout tower to enjoy the views over Colombia and Peru whilst stuffing down local ice creams. We also had time to visit a local home to purchase some chuchuwasa (a spiced alcoholic drink) in order to fortify ourselves for the evening ahead. Now it was time for our night time jungle walk....
Having witnessed my less than graceful slips in the jungle during the day, Jesus Fernay was at pains to suggest that if I took another tumble I should keep my hands in the air. Apparently the jungle was full of tarantulas and scorpions at night – lovely ! Our torch lit walk was another fascinating insight into this incredible part of South America and was full of tarantulas, poisonous frogs and other wildlife. Inevitably I landed on my bum in the mud, but boy did I keep my hands in the air !! It's not so easy to get back on your feet without using your hands and I did have to resort to begging someone to help me up and “quickly please.”
After more delicious local food we opted for another early night and I was reminded of youth hosteling days in the UK where you spent the day 'swishing' in waterproof clothing, desperately trying to dry it overnight and being resigned to putting wet clothes back on in the morning. At least the Amazon wasn't cold.
All too soon our time in the jungle came to an end and we boarded the ferry back to Tabatinga and Leticia. Luckily we had some time to look around Leticia again before our flights back to Santa Marta and spent an enjoyable couple of hours in the Museo Etnográfico. Another unusual experience found us sitting in on a lecture about masks around the world, in Spanish, by a Swiss gentleman – really quite interesting if a little random. Arriving back in Santa Marta was a strange experience as all the other rally boats had moved on to Cartegena and there was no-one for me to bore with stories and hundreds of photos of our adventure. We'll catch them !
We had been looking forward to setting foot on South American soil for a quite a while and Colombia certainly provided a fantastic first experience of this diverse continent. We had an overnight sail from Aruba to the very windy anchorage of Ensenada Guaritcheru where we did a quick pit stop to sleep before continuing on to Santa Marta, where we were due to spend Christmas and New Year. We had been warned about strong winds (up to 40 knots) from the Sierra Nevada mountain range as we rounded the coast before entering the bay of Santa Marta, but in the event it was fairly calm and we were greeted by a view of huge modern tower blocks and the friendly and welcoming Armada – the Colombian Coast Guard. The Armada were to become a regular feature of our time in Colombia and we found then to be welcoming, helpful, reassuring (more of that later in our Colombia story....) and a credit to their country.
Having hovered around the marina entrance for a few minutes we were escorted in to our berth for the next couple of weeks and, after a few formalities at the marina office (thanks to the organisation of the Suzie Too Rally our formalities were very simple - an agent managing immigration, customs etc.. on our behalf), headed to the nearest restaurant for lunch. We spotted an ATM and took the opportunity to make our first Colombian peso withdrawal. An easy task you would think, but much discussion was had about how much we could try to request from an English bank versus how much currency our bags could carry. We settled on 800,000 peso each (about £200) and then spent some time trying to work our what each note was worth. The new currency is rounded up so that for example 50,000 pesos is a 50 note, whereas the old currency shows all the digits e.g. 50000. A trifle confusing for weary travelers.
Having caught up on eating and sleeping, we then relaxed into our time at Santa Marta with regular sundowners with the other rally members at 5pm on the quayside and regular walks into the vibrant old town. The old town is a network of streets (many pedestrianised) that buzz with; street sellers selling everything you could image from fresh fruit to sunglasses to cigarettes to hats to drinks; street performers dancing, singing and playing music; taxis honking their horns when they have to wait more than 1 second for the traffic to move; and people strolling or rushing around their business.
We found meals and drinks so cheap in Santa Marta that we hardly cooked on board and instead spent our time getting to know a little of this amazing country. I enjoyed some Spanish lessons whilst Steve had a heart-warming visit to Fundehumac to deliver donations from the Suzie Too Rally cruisers and spend some time with the children there. We took a trip out to the village of Minca to explore coffee farms, waterfalls, Colombian chocolate and some particularly vicious insects. A two day trip up to the Tayrona National Park saw us visit the small lost village on horseback, meet the local army, share a hostel room with 8 fellow cruisers and experience the local buses. Santa Marta Marina also kindly took us to a private house in the countryside to spend a day relaxing by a pool in a tranquil location.
Christmas and New Year passed in a blur of eating and drinking with Santa Marta providing a colourful and entertaining playground. So far Colombia had exceeded expectations and we were wowed by so many of the things we had seen, but our next adventure was to prove even more special – the Amazon.
It has taken a while for us to adjust to this new area of the Caribbean. We've found the change in scenery and lifestyle from the Eastern Caribbean to be quite marked and have had to keep reminding ourselves that we were still in the Caribbean, and not some other part of the world. A few weeks on from our departure from Grenada and we have had some time to settle in and embrace these changes.
We found our time in the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao) to be a mixture of different cultures, a different style of tourism and a link back to the more European lifestyle that we used to live.
Bonaire - the stark landscape on this first island we visited was quite a surprise, but there was something rather beautiful and peaceful about the acres of cacti and unusual rock formations, particularly in the lovely Slagbaai National Park. Bonaire has a large sea salt industry and seeing the salt ponds changing their colours from rose and turquoise into black and white during the day and into dusk, was a unique experience. The huge salt 'mountains' resemble snowy peaks and seem incongruous in the hot climate. There is also a large population of donkeys on the islands (a legacy of agricultural industries that introduced them over 200 years ago) and we often played 'dodge the donkey' as we drove or cycled around the island. The main draw for Bonaire is the wonderfully clear water and abundant sea life and we were amazed how much we could see just from the deck of our boat, let alone when we got into the water to snorkel. One of my main reasons for visiting Bonaire was to see flamingoes in the wild and was not disappointed, possibly a little obsessed even. The local Papamiento and Dutch cultures seem to co-exist well and we even managed to liven up the local Dutch quiz night by having to ask for English translations to Dutch questions about English ! A fun night out and some lovely new friends made.
Curacao – an island that conjured up exotic expectations, but unfortunately our visit left us with mixed feelings. The capital Willemstad has some great architecture in a picture perfect location and was well dressed for Christmas. We did the typical tourist things – visiting the the old Dutch plantation houses (known as landhuis), snorkeling over the Tug Boat wreck, wandering around the African museum and of course photographing more flamingoes – but I never felt I could grasp the culture of Curacao. The local people and housing were too mixed to give a real identity, the scenery somehow not as interesting as Bonaire and Western influences seem to be taking over the island. Curacao was the meeting point for the Suzie Too Rally and we enjoyed getting to know our new cruising companions, but I think everyone was looking forward to setting sail away from the island.
Aruba – the name has always evoked images of cocktail bars and beautiful beaches and in some respects the island lived up to this image for us. Unfortunately the image that now comes to mind also includes a huge shopping zone. Fabulous if that's your thing, but it's not really ours. Aruba seems incredibly popular for holidays that revolve around huge resorts, shopping and eating, but I would be amazed if the hundreds and hundreds of shops, restaurants and tourism related business we saw can all be making a decent living. Obviously we took the chance to be a little hypocritical and partake of some Christmas shopping and enjoy a few meals out ! We took a trip out to Arikok National Park with some Suzie Too Rally chums and enjoyed the change of scenery and the opportunity to see how the local people live away from the resort areas. Adding to our list of 'random experiences' we also attended a performance of the Nutcracker Suite by the local ballet school. It was a fun way to get into a 'Chrismassy' mood and spend an evening dressed in something other than sailing shorts. We finally managed to get our decks treated (see our Semco page), but felt that we were really just killing time waiting for the weather window for our sail over to Colombia.
We would happily visit Bonaire again should we ever sail that way in the future, but sadly our memories of Aruba and Curacao mean we are unlikely to return to these islands. I don't think they will miss us.