Thursday, March 31, 2011

Hasta la vista, Colombia, posted via Airmail

Depending on how you do it, it's an overnight trip from Cartagena to the San Blas islands which are sprinkled  along  Panama’s Caribbean coast. As an almost 200-mile straight shot,it's usually a fast trip on the rhumbline, tradewinds generally strong at your back. The problem, sometimes, are the short, steep (2-3 meter ) seas that have been building underneath those trades. And, of course, keeping in mind the chart notation "unsurveyed", you need daylight to see the numerous reefs and shoals on the approach.

We took an alternate route, coast-hopping thru a series of small islands off the coast of southwestern Colombia. The Bay of Cholon behind Isla Baru twenty miles south of Cartagena is a fine and commodious anchorage, and a haven for wealthy Colombians. Baru also has a beautiful stretch of beach being eyed by developers. Across the island the pueblo of Baru is something different, a ramshackle, dirt-floored town that must be a bog in the rainy season.

Eventually we moved on to the Rosarios,  where there's a very interesting private aviary. The resident veterinarian told us many of the birds had been confiscated from bird traffickers. I was really impressed by the care taken. Otherwise, there were a surprising number of roofless, abandoned houses, which made us wonder if there had ever been a hurricane in this 'hurricane-free' latitude. There's also an aquarium that is the daytrip destination of many Cartagena tourists and cruise ship passengers.

The Islas San Bernardos have a resort on one island, and a tiny crowded island nearby where everyone lives, and a big mainly empty island that we anchored behind. We also spent a night behind Cabo San Bernardo, where there was surprisingly little activity of any kind. We did get a late evening visit and inspection from a stealthy Colombian Coast Guard boat, which was at first very unsettling, but upon further reflection, it was nice to know they were out there. Just another reminder of all that goes on beyond us.

At Isla Fuerte, we spent an extra day criss-crossing its shady paths trying not too hard to figure out what required armed soldiers on the waterfront, and more Coast Guard activity. Maybe it had to do with a hydrographic ship anchored on the back side of the island.  Fuerte seemed a nice small place despite the rolly anchorage. The local joke was that there were more burros than people. I don't think that was true, but there were lots of burros, carrying buckets of water from the well, coral blocks for building from the beach, bunches of plantains or bags of coconuts from the hinterland. We were offered a plot of land 'muy barato' where we could build a refuge from the Estados Unidos, which our new friend would look after in our absence from the comfort of his hammock.

The next afternoon we left, planning for a morning arrival on the mainland. If there's life in this belly of ocean, we didn't see it, which is good because, although the Colombia we saw is an impressive country in many respects, there are still hostage-takers and drug-runners, political unrest and corruption, all of which find their way into coastal waters, at least according to Jackline Insurance.

Our landfall was Puerto Escoses, Panama, 8-49 degrees N and 77-37 W. Ghosts live here. Some hang out in the empty Kuna Indian houses halfway down the bay, perhaps waiting for the next planting season or coconut harvest. The others are several thousand Scotsmen (and women, I assume), who attempted to settle here back in 1690. What were they thinking?

Just as we were thinking we had the place to ourselves, a cayuga eased over the bar of a small river hidden in the mangroves. Two Kuna boys and a man not Kuna approached us wanting to know our particulars, why we had not gone to the official port of Obaldia (an open roadstead) and, most particularly, where was our Panamanian flag? In fact we were picking through our bag of flags trying to remember which quartered red/white/blue with star flag represented Panama, and which side went up. As he left he told us we were lucky he was not in his official boat, and that he could not give us permission to explore the river as it was not his jurisdiction.  The two crocodiles that swam past the boat later on, as the sun went down, my length although not my beam, made me glad I'd stayed in the boat all day. So, welcome to Panama.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Club Nautico Cartagena

muelle manga by Felix Malo

Photo by Felix Malo, December 2009, taken from a highrise in Boca Grande. The district of Manga where Club Nautico is, is in the foreground. Backdrop is La Popa, with a monastery atop it. Between the two is the district called Pie de la Popa, where there is much traffic and commercial activity.

The anchorage at Cartagena is capacious; I’d guess there are well over 50 boats there now, over 100 during the holiday season, maybe more. If there ever were a city in need of a decent marine facility, it’s Cartagena.


P1020236tantalizing view into club de pesca

Actually, it has one: Club de Pesca looks  terrific, present repairs not withstanding, but it is perpetually full of the nicer local boats and has a waiting list of years for the visitor.



P1020102 what's left of Club Nautico shoreside

Then there’s the  Club Nautico. They say it once had a restaurant, showers and other facilities. Then it was set to be renovated. Now it is what you see here, in limbo. There’s a complicated story of feuds and lawsuits; the demolition is nearly complete but for whatever reason there is no reconstruction on shore. There are still slips, and water, and electric, and docks ‘with character’. The most salient feature for the visiting boater anchored out is the dinghy dock, and sometimes, access to a water spigot, a place to put trash, and a very helpful dockmaster, John, who is probably starting to feel like a polar bear whose floe is melting.

P1020101 what's left of club nautico seaside

And there’s more. Lots of worlds intersect on this patched concrete slab on the waterfront.The women who sell fruit are often there. All the day workers congregate, ready to paint or polish or repair. Backpackers arrive in groups looking for boats to the San Blas. Others look for shade, and the Internet. The customs and clearance agents hold court. Things are hauled up and down the dock.Usually there’s a boat repair project or three off to the side. There’s a big TV, so if there’s football there’s a gathering. A man with an eye patch is ready to sell emerald jewelry.  The cruisers meet in the evening for happy hour,  and if there are children in the fleet, there are scooter races, sword fights, etc.

Outside on the sidewalk you can get a taxi, of course, but also breakfast or lunch, shots of coffee, bags of juice, more fruit including the jumbo-est strawberries I’ve ever seen, and, my personal favorite, raspado, shaved ice, with tamarindo syrup.

P1020313 raspado man

This is a perpetually smiling and cheerful man, but when he knew he was going to be photographed and get a copy of the picture he closed his mouth I think to hide his few teeth.

P1010792 Gabriel dinghy first try

Off to the side there’s space for projects. This fellow’s inflatable dinghy had  leaks that couldn’t be repaired, so he built something new  from scratch, knocking out this stitch and glue plywood pram, here on its maiden voyage, in about a week, with plenty of peanut gallery supervision.


Sunsetting view towards Boca Grande. You should see what powerful passing wakes can do. It takes a shoehorn, and sometimes a man in the water to deal with underwater moorings, chains and lines, to tie up.

The VHF cruisers net on channel 68 (unless a ship is using that channel to relay docking info) is a wealth of information about where to get things, what’s available, who can do what work, and the eternal favorite, Treasures of the Bilge. The cruising community even has a culture maven who’s up on the latest exhibits of art, theater, films and literary affairs.

So Club Nautico is a pretty good institution in search of facilities to match.If you want to make a fortune (and have one to begin with),  build a marina in Cartagena with proper slips and shoreside amenities. The cruisers will come. In fact, they're already here.