Whilst drifting around the web reading other sailing blogs, I often come across those that have not been updated for quite a while and wonder what has caused the change in their world. Have they tired of documenting their adventures ? Have they sold up and moved back ashore ? Has something forced them to change direction for a while ? Our reason for taking a break (feeble excuse!) is that we have been very busy and the family and friends that we started blogging for, have been getting updates via other means – most wonderfully, in person.
Time seems to have flown by when I look back at our blog, where we last posted our impending departure from the Honduras Bay Islands towards Guatemala. We have certainly kept ourselves busy on and off the water in the last year. We made it to Guatemala, safely navigated up the beautiful Rio Dulce in Guatemala, secured Wanderlust at the delightful Tortugal Marina, and then contemplated what to do next.
Our plan back in 2016, albeit very loose, had been to buy our own yacht and spend a year cruising around the Caribbean before deciding on our next adventure. One year had turned into two and then three, and despite having had fantastic experiences and met wonderful people, it seemed time to make a change. We were missing our family and friends back in the UK and the travel budget was well and truly depleted. Whilst we had been able to earn some money whilst cruising, it had not always been easy and we were also feeling that it was time to take a break from sailing and try life ashore for a while.
After many, many conversations and having had to dismiss several possible work options, we decided to take the plunge and buy a guest house in the stunning Lake District in England. We had often mused on the idea of running a guest house (and the many similarities to running yacht charters) and hoped that it would provide us with the flexibility to earn some money, see family and friends, continue sailing on occasions, spend time 'back in the real world' and enjoy new adventures. We said our farewells to our special cruising friends, packed up Wanderlust and embarked upon our next adventure.
The first few months of running our new business passed by very quickly. We decided to close during the quieter winter months and so were back on board Wanderlust before we knew it. We had an extraordinary time exploring further afield in the captivating country of Guatemala and catching up with friends, old and new. We also realised that our wonderful yacht would probably benefit from new owners as we were no longer able to spend much time on board. It always seems sad to see yachts sitting in marinas for months on end instead of carving through the waves, exploring the world. We therefore put Wanderlust on the market and returned to our new working life in England.
As anyone who sails knows, things don't often go to plan. As we sit here in 'lock-down' in our empty guest house we have time to reflect again. We consider ourselves very fortunate to live in such a picturesque location – it has certainly helped get us through this strange situation by being able to walk out of the back door and be immersed in such natural beauty. We have had so many positive events in the last year: time with family and friends; lovely guests; exploring Guatemala; developing new skills; seeing our family and friends keeping healthy through a global pandemic. Sadly our thoughts of escaping boat maintenance have been replaced with thoughts about what needs maintaining or decorating next in the house ! Hopefully it will only be another few weeks until we can re-open our business, welcome guests back and continue with this phase of our life adventure.
Whether we continue to enjoy time on Wanderlust as well remains to be seen. We waver between knowing that selling her is the sensible and practical thing to do, and looking forward to enjoying more of the cruising life. How lucky we are. I hope those that are taking a break from their sailing blogging are also doing so for happy and exciting reasons.
So yet another first time adventure awaited us as we set sail for the Honduran Bay Islands. I hope I don't ever tire of the excitement that visiting a new country arouses. After discussion with our fellow rally members and feedback from Group 1 about their passage, we decided to break the journey round the coast of Nicaragua to the island of Guanaja in Honduras, with a stop over at the Honduran Vivario Cays. We had also received frequent comments and advice about the perils of sailing through Nicaraguan waters alone so we decided to adopt the safety in numbers policy and sail in groups.
As darkness descended we started to hear Spanish chatter on the radio and listened intently to see if we could decipher which nationalities were out at sea with us. One of the rally boats near us asked us to close ranks with them as they encountered other vessels which they were not sure about and they returned the favour later as they spotted lights from smaller vessels coming up on our rear. We continued safely on, but then started to hear someone broadcasting over the radio in Spanish asking a vessel at a specific position to identify themselves as they were in Nicaraguan waters. We discussed the situation with our rally neighbours, decided the Nicaraguans weren't hailing us as we weren't at those coordinates, and that we should high tail it out of the area.
Suddenly we heard friends on one of our rally yachts in another group respond to the Nicaraguan radio hail as they were the yacht in the position being broadcast. The next thing we knew our friends were on the radio advising that they were about to be boarded, but were not sure by whom. Another rally member sensibly suggested that any of us who could hear the radio exchanges should start making notes and we did this while waiting with baited breath to see what would happen next. Our friends yacht was then boarded and sadly damaged in the process. After some exchanges and checking of passports, they were allowed to continue on their way. They assumed the men with guns that visited them were official, but it was certainly an unnerving encounter for them.
After an eventful night at sea we were very pleased to reach Vivario Cays and get anchored safely alongside many of our rally friends. As the weather forecast was not great we decided to say put for an extra couple of days before sailing over the Guanaja. By this time the Honduran Coastguard had arrived and spent a couple of days close by ensuring we were safe before escorting us towards Guanaja.
We had an easy sail towards Guanaja, but as we were approaching the immigration check-in anchorage area we started to pick up a conversation on the radio about a friend who had injured himself whilst trying to work above deck. This was a worrying time, but we finally received the update that he had been transferred by helicopter to a hospital on the mainland and was going to be OK. His injury was major, but he had been lucky that it was not worse and we looked forward to greeting him when he was finally released from hospital.
The main island of Guanaja is a relatively quiet place as much of the population live in the capital Bonacca which is squeezed onto a tiny island off Guanaja, with buildings oozing out over the sea in many parts. Water taxis are the norm and we used these for both provisioning and touring around the island. We did the tourist spots of Big Gully waterfall and snorkeling at Michael's Rock, where we swam with an enormous group of jellyfish – almost like swimming through tapioca (I imagine). Luckily they didn't sting, but I really didn't enjoy having hundreds of blobs of jelly bouncing off me as I swam back to shore !
After a few discussions (and beers) over pizza at Hanne's Pizza Bar, the group came up with a cunning plan to delivery our friends yacht to Roatan in readiness for his release from hospital and arrival of family back up from the UK. The entrance to French Harbour on Roatan is an interesting slalom around reefs and wrecks, but we safely delivered the yachts and transferred the 'patient' back to his floating home.
Roatan was not quite what we were expecting and we were amazed by the diversity of animals that are kept on this holiday island. We were very sad to see lions and tigers in cages and wonder what will become of them, particularly as the number of tourists visiting this area seems to have reduced. On the plus side we really enjoyed a visit to Sherman Arch's iguana park where he has created a safe environment for iguanas to live and breed in their natural surroundings. As it was mating season whilst we were there many of the iguanas were out in the forests doing their thing, but we were still surrounded by young iguana eager for some tasty leaves to munch on. It was slightly disconcerting to be 'charged' by a group of prehistoric looking beasts as they spotted food in our hands, but they were fascinating creatures to learn about.
We had somewhat mixed weather during our stay in Roatan and we and many other yachts had issues with our anchors holding. We spent a little time exploring on land and underwater, and spent a few days tied up at Fantasy Island marina whilst Steve sorted out a cracked lid on the engine sea water filter, but we didn't feel that we had grasped the Roatan or Honduran culture. We were also starting to feel that our rally adventure was coming to an end and that it was time for us to sail to Guatemala and get ready to leave Wanderlust for a while.
Entering the Rio Dulce in Guatemala takes a bit of planning around high tides to get over the sand bar at the entrance. The spring high tide was set for the following Monday. but we decided that we would push the bar (literally !) and cross on the Friday before. This gave us a few days to make a quick trip to the island of Utila – our final Honduran stop over on the rally. It seemed a shame not to visit now we had made it all the way to Honduras.
We had a breezy sail down to Utila and anchored up in the very blowy bay near the main town. There were a few other yachts in the bay who didn't seem too pleased to see new yachts, but several of us anchored up for the night and enjoyed a sun downer on board Wanderlust. As we found the bay rather windy and bouncy we moved closer to shore the next morning to try and find a little more protection. Again other sailors in the area didn't seem pleased to see fellow sailors. Apparently there had been problems with yachts dragging in this bay which had made some yacht owners nervous, but our anchor held firm throughout our time in windy Utila.
We made a few trips ashore to try our customary plan of getting the feel for the island and culture, but were a little disappointed by the apparent lack of historical and cultural sights. The island is geared up for tourists (particularly divers) and would certainly appeal to a slightly bohemian crowd, but I think we were just in the wrong frame of mind at the end of the rally to enjoy what was on offer. We would probably love the 'hippie, veggie, surfie' vibe on another visit, but it really was time for us to call an end to our Western Caribbean rally adventure and set sail for the last leg of our journey to Guatemala.
We had really enjoyed our previous time in Colombia and were interested to experience some more Colombian culture – this time on the islands of San Andres and Providencia. These islands are actually closer to the Nicaraguan coast than Colombia and we weren't sure what kind of local feel they would have.
We had to get there first though. This involved an overnight sail from Colon, Panama to San Andres and much discussion was had with our fellow Suzie Too Rally sailors on the best departure time. We had decided on a 2pm departure, but found ourselves slipping lines just after mid-day – the last of our group to leave on that day. Having dodged out of the way of the immense shipping around the Panama Canal area we then started dodging bad weather. There's nothing wrong putting a tack in to miss a particularly nasty and wet squall !
After a relatively quiet night sail we approached the well marked channel entrance between the reefs that surround San Andres whilst being hailed by the port authority to announce our arrival. We then tried to anchor near the local fishing boats. After a couple of attempts the anchor appeared to have dug in, but a swim over it revealed that it was simply caught in the myriad of rubble and waste scattered over the sea bed. Fellow sailors were having similar problems so we decided to join friends in the anchorage area on the other side of Cotton Cay. What a beautiful anchorage this turned out to be. The anchor bit on our first attempt and we found ourselves surrounded by the most stunning clear water in ever changing shades of blue. Even the occasional tourist boat cruising by and the slightly splashy dinghy rides ashore, did not detract from the sheer beauty of the sea water around us.
Our immigration was dealt with by a local agent which freed us up to start exploring ashore asap. We were rather taken aback by how busy and 'touristy' San Andres appeared. We strolled around the shopping centre and sea front promenade, marvelling at how many people were enjoying their beach based holidays and the local bars and restaurants. We hadn't seen anything on this scale for quite a while and it took a little adjustment to settle back into holiday fun mode again.
Always keen to find out about local culture we joined a group of our friends from the rally on one day, hiring buggies for a driving tour around the island. First stop of the day for our small convoy was the 'museum' – really an old island house with some period pieces, but interesting to see and useful to hear the background from a local guide. Dancing lessons were an unusual twist for a museum visit. We will spare you all the pain of watching the video !
A trip inland to the Big Pond proved to be the highlight of the day as our local Raizal guide escorted us around the area explaining Raizal culture, how the local families use the fauna in the area and why the pond is full of caimans. Other stops along the way on our island tour included lunch, the botanical gardens and a beach club, but nothing matched the relaxed and fascinating experience of Big Pond.
After a few days in San Andres, ourselves and another yacht in the rally decided to head off to Providencia slightly ahead of the rest of the group. Our plans were thwarted when the wind decided to puff off and then the engine decided it wasn't playing either after a few hours. We had to turn around and sail back to San Andres to take advantage of the tide and what little wind there was. We also thought there was a better chance of finding any parts we might need on San Andres.
As per usual with the cruising life we sailed into the beautiful anchorage and then set about the running repairs; in this case tackling the nasty case of diesel bug that had blocked the engine fuel pipe. Also as per usual, rally chums rallied round and spent several hours on board with Steve clearing the problem. I kept myself busy in the meantime riding around town on the back of a complete stranger's motorbike looking for boat parts. The locals of San Andres really are very kind and helpful to tourists.
After our enforced extra night in San Andres, we successfully made passage up to Providencia and anchored between between the islands of Providencia and Santa Catalina. These islands proved to have a completely different feeling to San Andres and became one of our favourite stops in the rally. Ashore we found the island to be awash with scooters, mosaics and creative bus stops. Whilst the scooters were a good way to get around the island, I hated seeing babies being carried in their parents arms on the front and back of the scooters.
We took up a recommendation from the first group in the Suzie Too Rally and spent an evening at the local cinema, watching films made on the island about their heritage, language and the black crab migration. An excellent evening out.
The snorkeling around the area of Captain Morgan's Head was very good and we were treated to an encounter with yet another fish we had not seen in Caribbean waters before. Another nature 'first' for us was leaf cutter bees that repeatedly tried to make nests on board. Turtles, fish and coral were also enjoyed on a trip out to Crab Cay and the view from the top of the cay was wonderful.
Our thirst for knowledge was briefly quenched during a fascinating talk from a local resident who explained how Providencia came to be populated and developed, and how they transitioned from British to Spanish to Colombian rule. Providencia folk are basically very rebellious and have an enchanting society based on Raizal and European cultures. Whilst Spanish was widely spoken in San Andres, Creole and English were the norm on Providencia and Santa Catalina with Spanish being introduced at school and via television.
As our relaxed time in Providencia drew to an end we were hit by a brief storm causing ours and other yachts to drag in the anchorage. Again the sailing community pulled together and we returned from being caught ashore in the storm to find our yacht had been safely re-anchored by friends, luckily not damaging other friends yachts. It is so nice to be regularly reminded how many kind people there are in the world.
Having waved goodbye to friends who were leaving the Suzie Too Rally in Providencia, we set sail in convey to negotiate the potentially dangerous waters off Nicaragua en-route to our next rally destination of Honduras. What an eventful passage that turned out to be.....
Having saturated ourselves in palm tree covered islands, turquoise waters and sandy beaches, it was time to explore a different side of Panama. Our next port of call was to be Shelter Bay Marina, via a stop over in Linton Bay to sleep and refuel, which is at the entrance to the Panama Canal. After a frisky sail down (I now hold the speed record of 11.7 knots !!) towards the Cristobel breakwater we radioed in to check which tankers, cargo ships and cruise liners we needed to dodge between to enter the canal area and Shelter Bay. We were advised to proceed and just keep out of the way of the 'big boats', but had an exciting moment when one of the 'big boats' decided he didn't want yachts in the way and radioed to say “clear the area now” - a command that we 'small boats' were very willing to obey !
Safely tied up in the marina we immediately switched into shoreside life and headed for the bar. It was a little bit of a culture shock after Guna Yala to see a 'normal' bar, restaurant, swimming pool etc... and so many people in one place. Shelter Bay Marina is a little out on a limb, but I rather enjoyed the fact we had to cross the Panama Canal via ferry when we wanted to go to the shopping centre. The pay-off for being out of town was the incredible wildlife that surrounded the marina. It was amazing to simply stroll for a few minutes in the early morning and be surrounded by birds and monkeys and other unusual animals. We woke each morning to the sound of the howler monkeys and checked for the resident crocodile in the afternoons. Absolutely wonderful.
A visit to Panama City was a must for us and our visit luckily coincided with carnival time. The marina had kindly arranged the trip to take in a visit to Fort Lorenzo and the new Panama Canal locks en-route, so we had a fascinating day exploring old and new in Panama. Once in Panama City, we returned to the world of high rise buildings and traffic, with a great hotel on the waterfront. After a sundowner in the hotel bar with our fellow cruisers, we headed out to see what the carnival had to offer. We had been advised to carry very little with us in case of pickpockets, but found that it was so safely guarded we couldn't get in ! Steve spent a while negotiating with the police and army about our lack of id cards and passports, explaining that they were all locked up in the safe at the hotel, and eventually our group was allowed to enter. We then had to go through a very thorough pat down/search and at last we were in. It was a fun event with music, costumes and floats, but seemed a little low key compared to some of the Caribbean carnivals we have been to. At least the beer was very cheap.
We spent a couple of days exploring the old city and catching up with our friends who had done their canal transit and were about to sail off to the South Pacific, with a little carnival activity thrown in. It seemed strange to see some of the Guna Yala ladies walking around the city in their full tribal costume and they were certainly a contrast to some of the more risqué carnival costumes we saw.
Back in Shelter Bay and we were finally able to get our new wind turbine fitted after many hours of frustrating hammering to get the old turbine off the pole, with much assistance from our wonderfully helpful rally chums. Apparently the previous owner had decided adding “Locktight” was a good move. I also found the marina to be a fascinating place to see yachts getting ready for their Panama Canal transits. Activities included getting the yacht measured, hiring huge lines and fenders, and stocking up with provisions. A vital element was to obtain additional people on board for a couple of days as mooring line handlers and a number of our rally friends were able to volunteer for this. Some had a night time transit and some a daytime transit, but they all seemed to enjoy the experience. Something we will have to try another time.
The key highlight for our time in Colon has to be a visit to see Steve's son on board the super yacht he works on as 2nd officer. It seems incredible that we were all at the Panama Canal at the same time, but we always say that sailing is a small world. The captain had kindly agreed to us being allowed on board and our dinghy certainly looked very tiny as we tied up to the huge super yacht platform. The yacht was beautiful and our visit was all too brief, but how fantastic to be able to snatch a couple of hours together. Who knows when and where in the world we will meet again.
We really enjoyed our time at Shelter Bay, but felt that we had only scraped the surface of Panama the country. Still, the sea beckoned and having stocked up, we said goodbye to the helpful staff and headed north for San Andres.
I am always excited to arrive in a new country and the San Blas islands or Guna Yala territory in Panama, certainly feels like a different country and way of life. We had read and heard much about the Guna Indians and how they live in their autonomous area of Panama and were excited about developing our own impressions of these people.
Our arrival anchorage was at the island of Los Pinos and this is where we had our first experience of meeting the locals and visiting a typical village. Being a little vertically challenged myself, I was interested to see that the Guna are indeed as short as I had been told. We were welcomed ashore and into the village and struck by the ordered nature of the settlement. The unique tribal dress worn by the ladies was amazingly colourful and I remained fascinated by these outfits throughout our time in Guna Yala.
The apparently simple way of life soon forced us to slow down after the buzz of Colombia and relax back into island hopping. As we moved up the chain of islands the sea became clearer and full of starfish and we started to notice subtle differences in the Guna lifestyle. Some of the island villages had small shops and concrete buildings, some had just a few palm huts amongst the coconut plantations, many islands were uninhabited. How lovely to be back in an area where there are no vehicles and everyone either walks, canoes or swims to get around. We were never going to be able to visit every island (there are over 340), but were pleased to be able visit a number of different cays including The Holandes Cays, Lemon Cays and Naguargandup Cays.
We found the Guna Indians to be friendly and quietly reserved. The locals who visited us in the dugout canoes to sell lobster or molas (appliqué) or fruit, were not pushy and sometimes interested to have a look around the yacht or have a drink on board. Sometimes they preferred to swap coconuts and bananas for sunglasses or rice – exchanges we enjoyed. We had the occasional visitor collecting anchoring fees, but generally felt that the locals were happily carrying on with their own lives with just a friendly wave to the yachties anchored in their waters.
We had some fun times with other rally cruisers when we met up for meals and beach bbqs and were lucky to be able to catch up with other friends before they sailed off to Colon in readiness for their Panama Canal transit. Whilst everyone seemed to be enjoying their time in Guna Yala, we all remarked on the dreadful amount of plastic waste that was being washed up on the islands. It seemed a constant stream of plastic was washing in from other countries and we really felt for the islanders as options for waste removal were limited. One of the village chiefs suggested that 7 tonnes of plastic is washed into their territory each year. Terrible.
Valentine's Day was set to be another fun packed day which sadly ended in complete tragedy. One of our lovely rally friends suffered a massive heart attack and, despite the fantastic efforts of many fellow cruisers and doctor, could not be saved. We had only know each other for a few months, but sailing creates quick and strong friendships and our whole community mourned his passing. His wife was and continues to be incredibly brave as she faces a different future. She takes some comfort from knowing that he was loving his retirement on board their yacht and that they had spent the day laughing and exploring this beautiful area together.
Inevitably our memories of our time in the Guna Yala islands are tinged with sadness, but we also look back at our photographs and remember the fun times we shared with our friends as we sailed through this unique area. How lucky we feel to be able to continue our sailing adventures through fascinating countries, meeting wonderful people.
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.
With mixed feelings, we have finally set sail from Grenada. We have loved our time back on this lush island, full of friendly people and wonderful scenery, but it is time to explore a different area of the Caribbean. First stop – Los Roques. These Venezuelan islands are en route to the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao) where we are due to join the Suzie Too Rally in November. Our visit to Los Roques seemed a safe way to get a feel of Venezuela without scaring our family and friends too much, by visiting the mainland of a country that is currently viewed as a little 'risky.'
On our 3rd trouble free day at sea in company with our lovely friends Diane and Jeff, we spotted land (or rather some vary barren looking rocks) and felt a twinge of excitement as we approached this new country. As we sailed between islands towards the main island of Gran Roque, we were delighted to see how clear the water was with beautiful shades of blue and turquoise. The check in process for yachts involved visits to a few different offices, but everyone was very friendly and helpful. The coast guard found our Spanish quite amusing on occasions and helped by using an online translation tool. He also assured us that we would find Los Roques very safe and secure and we certainly felt this throughout our time in these islands.
The main town on Gran Roque is a collection of colourful homes, churches and other buildings (including bars, restaurants and a couple of shops) around sandy streets, which are full of locals chatting and children playing during evenings and weekends. Many, many of these homes have been turned into attractive bed and breakfast type accommodation (known as posadas) and there seemed to be no shortage of holiday makers flying in and out of the small airport each day. We chatted to some ladies from Caracas on a beach one day, who described how Los Roques was a paradise for them to visit compared to the tough life currently being experienced in Caracas. Let's hope that life in Venezuela improves soon for these lovely people.
We anchored off and explored a few different islands during our stay and felt that life for the locals must be quite tough; the islands are small and exposed, and seem to resist any attempts at local agriculture. Outside of the main island, the locals have to be very self sufficient and we assume rely on fishing for their livelihoods. There are some truly beautiful beaches and many of the tourists travel between these beaches and their posadas each day by local boat. Unfortunately some of our idyllic anchorages turned less friendly at night when some rather evil mosquitoes invited themselves aboard. Although we were safely tucked behind our mosquito net, it is amazing how these tiny insects can keep you awake as they fly up and down the net perimeter looking for a way in to feast on the juicy new tourists.
We saw very few other boats and it is a shame that more sailors don't visit these lovely islands. Our week in Los Roques provided a fascinating glimpse of Venezuelan life and it is amazing how different these islands and local people are from the Eastern Caribbean that we are used to. How wonderful to be able to wade across sand spits between islands, have a beautiful white sand beach all to ourselves, swim in turquoise waters surrounded by fish, turtles and sea birds and be spoilt by attentive waiting staff in a typical Venezuelan restaurant. We also rather love our Venezuelan passport stamps !