Saturday, December 31, 2011

Checking in and out Procedures for Colombia

I don’t particularly enjoy writing about rules and regulations in different countries (not in the least because they keep changing all the time) and I’m sure nobody really loves reading about them either, except the cruisers who plan to visit these countries. So, it is for them I write this blog about our experiences clearing in and out of Colombia, where the use of an agent is required. The information out there is very contradicting and my two cents probably makes things even more confusing, but here you have it, another person’s view on Colombia’s red tape… Things would be more straightforward, done right and less expensive if we could do the formalities ourselves.

Clearing into the country in Santa Marta is cheaper than in Cartagena, where your boat also gets inspected upon entry. Friendly and helpful Dino is the agent in Santa Marta and he is related to the clean, modern and safe Santa Marta Marina. His fee is US$53 which entitles you to a stamp in your passport and a yellow clearing in form for the boat, supposedly a temporary importation permit (which we for some reason never received, even after asking for it a few times) and a zarpe to your next port, whether this is still in Colombia or another country. If you choose to leave from here, your passport will receive an exit stamp as well. So, basically for about $50 you can clear in and out of Colombia if you only stay in Santa Marta. Also, the port captain here is said to put “y puntos intermedios” on the zarpe, which lets you stop along the Colombian coast to rest at night, on your way east or west to your next destination. This is unheard of and discarded in Cartagena.

When you move on to Cartagena, which we did, there are a few agents to pick from, namely David, Manfred and Paola (from Cartagena Caribbean), who came to our boat by dinghy from the moment we arrived, so our choice was made quickly. She charges $53 (100 000 pesos) for dealing with the paperwork here: another yellow clearance form, exit stamps from immigration in your passport and a zarpe to your next destination, more than likely a port in Panama. As far as we understand it, you need a cruising permit if you stay longer than 14 days in Colombia. But, the cost is US$80 and the process takes several weeks, making such a thing obsolete for us, only planning to stay a little over two weeks. We know of many people who had to wait for their cruising permit, only to leave the country next…

When arriving in Cartagena as your first port of entry in Colombia, the price ranges from US$100 to US$ 150 without the cruising permit. Most of the agents don’t really know the laws and regulations and especially Paola is a queen in telling you whatever you want to hear. Or, she just guesses things she thinks or hopes are reality. In our case, this brought a lot of frustration, time loss and confusion. When she left the country for her Christmas vacation and left all the (paper)work to her “assistant(s)”, matters didn’t get easier, quicker or less confusing…

If your boat spends more than two months in the country, you will have to apply for a permanent importation permit, which costs around US$200 and is a very time consuming process as well. This is only necessary if you plan to haul the boat for a while, fly back home, or decide to visit a lot of places in South America while your boat stays safely in Santa Marta or another marina (don’t go to the Club Nautico “dump” with the big boat!).

If money is not your biggest restraint, but comfort is, we would highly recommend anybody to check in and out of Santa Marta, spoil yourselves with a couple of weeks (or a month, which gives you ten days free on top at the moment) in the very convenient and comfortable Santa Marta marina and visit Cartagena overland for a few days. The marina is just wonderful, with modern docks and facilities (think air-conditioned bathrooms with hot showers, washing machines with hot water, efficient dryers, working electricity and water spigots at every slip), a friendly and helpful staff and a pretty and historic town with a multitude of bars, restaurants, parks, shops and grocery stores within walking distance (cabs all over town cost US$2 a trip). This way, you don’t only get to enjoy Santa Marta fully; you avoid the extra agent fees in Cartagena and more importantly, the filthiest, busiest, bumpiest and most annoying anchorage in the Caribbean!

Local Colombian boat taking on water after running into a "backpackers" cruising boat in Cartagena harbor...

Friday, December 30, 2011

Christmas in Colombia

Mark and I were determined to make it to Cartagena, Colombia, by Christmas and therefore felt pretty much on the move and focused since leaving the out islands of Venezuela in November. The reason for making Cartagena harbor before the end of the year was two-folded: the Colombian coast is known for its heavy weather and nasty storms once mid-December comes around, with fewer and shorter opportunities to sail after that, and many cruisers had told us Cartagena is the most magical and fun place to be for Christmas. Even though the sailing trips were fairly slow most of the time (we really missed not having a spinnaker; heavy winds off Colombia? Hard to imagine…), Irie made it to Cartagena on December 15th. Right in time, based on the gale force winds that battered the Colombian Coast for weeks to come, two days later.

The old town was pleasant and beautiful, with a little bit of a Christmas atmosphere in the streets: some squares were lit up and certain areas had colorfully lit statues; locals were doing last-minute shopping in the busy stores. Santa Marta, however, seemed more bustling, especially in the evenings, and the Christmas spirit there was ever-present. The thing that put us off most about having a “Christmas in Cartagena” was the annoying, busy and filthy anchorage. Basically from the moment we arrived, we couldn’t wait to leave again, apart from the old town’s appeal. We couldn’t imagine sitting there another weekend – Christmas weekend of all times! – getting tossed around in our pitching catamaran while local families and commercial captains would buzz around the harbor, creating massive wake, all day long.

Together with a bunch of other cruisers (Why didn’t they all stay in Cartagena for its splendid Christmas?), we moved to a big and pretty mangrove anchorage called Cholon, about 16 miles south of Cartagena. Lack of wind had us motor most of the four hours and researched waypoints helped us through the tricky entrance into the lagoon. Ex-cruisers Robert and Carmen, who own the refitted Venezuelan fishing boat Manatee, invited all cruisers in the area to their house for a potluck Christmas dinner. They provided the space, a turkey and the trimmings, while the guests brought a side dish, their drinks and a “treasures of the bilge” object they couldn’t use aboard anymore as a gift. On Christmas Eve, a group of cruisers went caroling around the harbor. It prompted us to decorate our cockpit – and ourselves - a bit. We almost forgot it was Christmas, having arrived in Cholon only an hour or so before!

Around 30 people gathered in the house on the hill that Christmas Day. The atmosphere was festive with Christmas decorations present in details like ear rings and clothes, wonderful dishes stalled out on a big table, kids playing around, cruisers socializing and the view over Cholon with lush islands dotting the lagoon was marvelous. The scrumptious food was a highlight, of course, and everybody had done their best to provide something special. Mark and I spent the whole morning making enough tostones and complementary sauce for an army. Whoever brought a gift was able to pick a wrapped gift or an already opened gift and a lot of laughter was had. We all had an interesting and tasty afternoon and appreciate Robert and Carmen’s hospitality to host this Christmas event in their “Crow’s Nest”!

View of Cholon and all the cruising boats from Robert's place "Crow's Nest".

The entrance to Cholon is a bit tricky - you have to pass very close by these palapas.

A bunch of cruisers caroling on Christmas Eve.

Sunset in peaceful Cholon.

A couple of picturesque islands dotting the area around Irie.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Cartagena in Pictures

The price you pay (other than agent fees and a $20 weekly fee to use the dinghy dock and “facilities” in the dilapidated Club Nautico marina) for a visit to magnificent Cartagena as a cruiser is having to deal with the VERY unattractive and uncomfortable anchorage during your stay. The water is filthy, the port facility is loud and smelly and the water in the bay is in constant turmoil because of the busy boat traffic. You roll and pitch all day long (with the occasional big wake at night) and the only way to deal is to spend as much time ashore as possible, preferably in the historic center of one of South America’s most beautiful cities. 

The unattractive harbor of Cartagena.

Walking through the Getsemani neighborhood to reach the centro historico.

The church of the Tercera Orden in Getsemani.

Torre del reloj (clock tower), the main entrance into the walled city of Cartagena.

One of the many pretty streets in the old town.

Part of one of the walls, close to our anchorage, on the walk to the old town.

Castillo San Felipe, an impressive fort with many narrow tunnels and walkways.

India Catalina statue, outside the walls of Cartagena.

The busy bus depot on the east side of the walled city.

Las Bovedas in the San Diego area.

Walking on the walls surrounding the old city.

Colorful street in the San Diego area.

Centro historico.

One of the many picturesque churches in the center of Cartagena.

Convento de Santo Domingo.

Rubenesque statue on the Plaza Santo Domingo.

The cathedral of Cartagena.

The Colombian hero Simon Bolivar in "his" park.

Plaza de Bolivar.

San Pedro Claver temple.

Historic street in the center.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Cartagena: Colombia’s Historic Beauty

Another 24 hour sailing trip brought Irie and her crew from Santa Marta to Cartagena. Lack of wind and the urge to pass the Rio Magdalena before dark had us motor for six hours on end. Once through the murky mess of the river delta at Barranquilla – luckily without big, damaging debris about 5 miles off shore – we could take full advantage of the brisk wind that had picked up while we were keeping a close eye on our brown surroundings. The challenge now was to slow down enough to avoid reaching our next port before dawn. It was blowing over 25 knots and we were flying, while reducing our jib to almost nothing. For the first time since leaving Grenada, no squalls passed us and, except for the odd salty wave crashing over the side, we stayed dry the whole 110 miles!

On the morning of December 15th, we entered unattractive Cartagena Bay without adding ourselves to the statistics of beaten up sailors, ripped sails and sinking cruising boats (one did just that off Barranquilla two nights before we left), results of the reputedly dangerous coast – weather wise - of Colombia. While anchored in very deep, dark brown water, surrounded by ugly high rise buildings and a noisy, smelly industrial port, without any wind to keep the surrounding boats “in place” at a safe distance and whilst being tossed around by the constant wake of passing pleasure and local boats, we hoped our stay would become worthwhile and that Cartagena would live up to its attractive reputation.

It rained for days on end – we made it here right in time - and during an afternoon break, Mark and I walked the 20 minutes to the old walled town of Cartagena. We aimlessly strolled through its narrow, characteristic streets with historical buildings and protruding balconies, gazing at picturesque churches and plazas and taking in the scene from a bench in one of the parks. A walk on the ramparts is said to be a romantic past time at night, so we just had a quick glimpse for now and postponed this event until later.

After the afternoon’s exploits, we hoped to come back one day for a “real” historical tour when the sun would be out and the town would be shown in all its glory. In the meantime, we ran some needed boat errands and met up with cruising friends visiting from Santa Marta. At night, Cartagena turns festive and becomes even more alive. The structures are lit up and chairs and tables dot the alleys and squares. Vendors become more persistent and the atmosphere is totally different. We are both looking forward to explore a bit more soon!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Tayrona National Park

During our week in Santa Marta Marina, it was easy to just spend the days wandering about town, meeting up with friends, soaking up the air conditioning and displays of products and foods in the big Exito supermarkets and mall and catch up on internet stuff. We could do this all day and all week, but, since we were in Colombia after all, I really wanted to see and do something else in the area. Axel, Liz and Mark were game to break their daily routines and we opted to visit Parque Nacional de Tayrona.

The correct bus stop, on the opposite end of town, was reached by cab ($2) and once the bus driver was ready to leave, his dilapidated vehicle ($2.50 pp.) dropped us off at the park entrance a little over an hour away. The drive revealed some of the country side and a lot of typical towns, where little stores and carts selling wares line the main road and smaller dirt roads lead to local houses. The entrance fee to Tayrona National Park is quite steep ($17), all Colombian things considered, but it is well maintained and enormously popular with tourists, backpackers and Colombians alike. To save our energy, we took a shuttle bus ($1) to the trailheads. Now, two hours after departure, our expedition could begin!

Many visitors to the park stay multiple days and campgrounds are located in different sections. You can bring your own gear or rent a tent, hammock or cabin. We decided to cover the “eastern grounds” in a day and that involved a lot of hiking. It is possible to rent horses to do this job. First, we followed a trail to Arrecifes Beach which led us through jungle and forest for about one hour. We managed to dodge most of the mud puddles, keeping our shoes relatively clean. The beach consisted of a massive expanse of grey sand, backed by the jungle and green shrubbery. A rainstorm had us hide for shelter before continuing on to La Piscina.

Back on the trail, we were soon “blocked” by a brown river. Where is the bridge? The shoes came off and from that point on, stayed off. We managed to explore the rest of the park barefoot without any problems. The trail became hard to decipher, so we followed the river to the ocean and continued along the beach to La Piscina, considered a great place to swim. The darkish water and grey sky weren’t all that inviting for a dip and I kept wondering whether we would ever see the sun in this country. We sure were spoiled in the Eastern Caribbean with the blue water and white beaches! After an enjoyable and tasty lunch (with red wine!), Axel and Liz (and our less heavy backpack) decided to stay on the yellow beach and relax, while Mark and I walked the last stretch through forest and coconut groves to Cabo San Juan.

Cabo San Juan is an attractive point with beaches on both sides and a few picturesque rocks dotting the water and shore. It amazed Mark that so many people would do this great effort to come all this way to sit on a beach; but these were notoriously the nicest beaches of Colombia! After a quick break, we headed back to our friends and started the return journey. About halfway from Arrecifes to the shuttle bus, a massive rainstorm paid us a visit. The sky opened up and a torrential downpour had us soaking wet in minutes. Good I tried to keep my new shoes dry before… The trails turned into rivers and it actually became quite fun to complete our hike, once we realized we were wet and couldn’t do anything about it. The rest of the trip home was pretty uneventful with a nice hot shower to top the day off.

Map of Tayrona National Park.

Orange juice stand along the hike. Everything is brought in by horse.

Tourists can rent horses to get to the several beaches.

Stuck! Time to take the shoes off!

Leaf cutter ants are present everywhere and cut whole trails through grass and earth.

Muddy trails...

Hiking through Tayrona NP.

One of the better views along the trail.

La Piscina Beach.

Big iguana on the way to another beach.

Palm grove towards Cabo San Juan.

Cabo San Juan.

 Crossing the river on the way back.

Wringing out towels and clothes before riding back to Santa Marta.

(Thank you Axel Busch for contributing some - the better - of the pictures!)