Colombia, an incredible country to discover! Part 1

You might think of Colombia as the cartel controlled country of Pablo Escobar and the Orejuela brothers.

You might think of it as a dangerous, messy country where guerrilla groups (like FARC) kidnap politicians and affluent people to finance their cause and paramilitary groups, financed by drug money, fight the insurgents.

Well, that Colombia now belongs to the past.

With the dismembering of the Medellin and Cali cartels, and the disarmament of guerrilla groups like the FARC, things have changed.

And people are eager to show the true make of their country. Which is kind, not violent. Humble, not arrogant. Focused on productivity, not idleness.

There are many reasons why Colombia has been one of our favourite destinations so far;

  1. people are so friendly, welcoming, and polite that you instantly feel at home;
  2. their history, both ancient and more recent, is really interesting to discover;
  3. you get to enjoy a great variety of landscapes and places; from the mountains and jungle of Sierra Nevada to the palm tree fringed white sand beaches of Capo San Juan (Tayrona National Park); to the beautiful and developed cities of Cartagena and Medellin;
  4. the abundance and variety of fruits and vegetables available is incredible and…
  5. …everything is so cheap!

Do you really need more reasons to visit such a country?!

When we got to Santa Marta in mid February, they had recently relaxed the Covid restrictions, and we were struck by the incredible amount of people strolling about the streets of the small town centre, around Parque de los Novios, buzzing with bars and restaurants.

Santa Marta Town Centre

Santa Marta (and the whole province of Magdalena it belongs to) had really strict anti-Covid measures in place during the lockdown, with the town almost completely shut for 5 consecutive months. No wonder people were so eager to go out now that they could!

Wearing masks was compulsory, and there was still a curfew in place; restaurants would shut around 8pm and no one was allowed out after 11pm.

11pm? That’s the middle of the night for us sailors!?!?

We were not really troubled by these restrictions, and happy to be able to travel around to discover the beauties of such a wonderful country, despite the unfortunate circumstances.

Our visit to Tayrona Park and Minca

We spent the first week in Colombia visiting Minca, a beautiful and peaceful town in the foothills of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, and the National Park of Tayrona, both easily reachable by cab from Santa Marta.

Minca

Minca is a famous destination for yoga and spiritual retreats and happy/hippy-like people! Just be aware of mosquitos when you go there! We got eaten alive by some kind of Frankenstein mosquitos, whose bites would leave you with and a strong desire of peeling your skin off to get rid of the unbearable itchiness…

Enjoying a Music Festival in Minca!

Having said that, we had great fun visiting the thermal waters of Pozo Azul, which were freezing cold and gave us a nice break from the heat. We went there on a Monday morning, as we were told it can get quite busy at weekends. Colombians tend to come here to cool down and relax after the working week.

My leg after our visit to Minca….!

After our dip in the refreshing waters of Pozo Azul, we were taken to La Victoria coffee plantation by motorbike, up the winding roads of Minca, and then through dirt roads across the jungle. Once there, we headed straight to the bar and tried some tasty arepas – it was passed lunchtime and we were all starving! Lunch was followed by a first taste of their coffee, then our tour guide appeared and took us around the coffee plantation. The visit lasted about an hour and was very interesting thanks to our knowledgable guide.

What we learnt about Colombian coffee, so called “washed coffee”:

  • Colombian coffee is technically a type of Arabica coffee, or better said, is derived from Arabica coffee;
  • Coffee beans are actually green :), they turn dark brown when roasted;
  • Colombian coffee is de-pulped (the skin of the cherry is removed) straight after it’s picked, washed, left to ferment in water for 18-24 hours, and then dried. In natural coffee, instead, the cherry pulp is removed once the drying process is complete, not before;
  • Colombian coffee is more fruity and has more acidity than the natural coffee. Washed coffee enthusiasts praise this kind of coffee for its purity, since it allows you to taste all the vibrant notes and distinct flavours of the variety.
  • For more info on all the steps of the ‘washed coffee’ process, you can check this article!

Tyrona National Park

The Tayrona National Park is a massive park, with 3 entrances and different routes you can either walk or ride with horses. We chose the middle entrance, El Zaino, and walked for 2 and half hours, all the way to Capo San Juan, and then back. While walking along the paths through the forest, we saw Capuchin monkeys sitting on tree branches and skilfully opening and eating coconuts. We also spotted a capybara, and some parrots amongst other wildlife.

The landscape was incredible throughout, and there were plenty of little kiosks along the way, selling all kind of refreshments. We even had a proper hot lunch, with grilled fish and ceviche, in one of the many restaurants by the beach. By the end of the day, we were exhausted and decided to spend the night in an eco-resort near the Park, Quetzal Dorado, (www.quetzaldoradoeco.com).

Everything was going so well, until…..Gc decided to cut his foot open!

The day before our scheduled trip to Cartagena, Gc had a ‘cleat accident’…

A small premise, before getting into the nitty gritty of what happened just after 11pm at Santa Marta marina, sometime around mid February 2020.

Many years ago I made the mistake of telling GC that I really liked his feet and hands! Well, ever since he’s been trying in all possible ways to disfigure them.

Within 2 years, he managed to;

  1. brake his little toe (kite surfing accident),
  2. brake his left foot’s big toe (a desk slipped from his hands and fell right over it braking it into 3 parts, ouch!!)
  3. severely damage the other foot’s big toe. This story would definitely deserve a chapter of its own, but to cut it short, he somehow kicked a cement ball mistaking it for a real football!!

Clearly, he has no luck when it comes to his feet….

This particular night of mid February at Santa Marta marina, he was adjusting the mooring lines as the wind had picked up and was now blowing quite strongly. I have to say that while at the marina, we often experienced winds of 40+ knots coming down the high mountains of Sierra Nevada that surround the marina. And the boat was often covered in red sand that was difficult to get rid of…

Anyway, this particular night of mid February at Santa Marta marina I’m telling you about, Gc was fixing the lines, and in doing so, feeling very feline-like, he jumped down the port side of the boat and landed with all his weight on something rather hard.

What had he landed on?

It was one of the pontoon’s S- shaped cleats and he had landed right on top of it with his right foot. Pain and blood followed.

Someone else instead was already sleeping very deeply and soundly, dreaming of walking around Cartagena while eating an ice cream! Suddenly, someone was calling her name, one, two, three times…Paola, Paola Paola! The sound becoming louder and louder. Rather annoyed, this someone finally woke up and dragged herself upstairs still half asleep…

What was in front of my eyes was a war like type of scenario. Blood everywhere, Gc’s foot up on the table and some internal parts of it, that should have stayed so, were now way too visible…

All I could think of doing was…fainting!!

For the first 5 minutes I could not stand up! I had very limited autonomy as my head kept spinning around, and I had to keep my centre of gravity very low when walking around trying to help Gc, gathering bandages and antiseptic spray.

What a disaster! One man down… and one woman lying down!

Gc’s new shoe!! Home remedy of a boatman!

Despite my insisting, Gc didn’t want to go to the hospital. He was adamant he was not badly hurt and we could just go to sleep and deal with it the day after. Thirty minutes later, he was in bed snoring while I was regularly checking his breathing to make sure he was still alive and wouldn’t bleed to death during the night….

The morning after, I accompanied ‘DIY Gucci shoemaker’ to the hospital. Thanks to Kelly, and all the marina staff, who were very helpful and supportive, we got in touch with a private clinic that was happy to receive us and look into the matter more closely.

Several forms later, Gc was given a real life tutorial on how to give stitches to…his foot! He kept saying we needed to learn how to do it, in case of accidents at sea, so I guess this was his chance to learn first hand…or first foot :)!

Sailing in the 5th most dangerous waters, ever!

Cabo de la Vela had been our nightmare for weeks – the countless sailors we’d spoken to agreed on one thing only; “be careful when rounding it, thatā€™s where the winds compress and blow like crazy, there are huge waves and the wind blows at 40+ knots”. To my probably naive question, when is the best time to do the crossing, the answer had been “when it’s less shitty”!

The 400 miles between Aruba and Cartagena are famous for having the worst weather conditions in the Caribbean, and the passage ranks among the top five worst passages around the world.

Though all sailors agreed on the fact that we shouldn’t underestimate Cabo de la Vela and that the crossing from CuraƧao to Colombia was the roughest of the Caribbean’s, there were different currents of opinions when it came to the best way to round the Cabo, with some sailors saying the safest way was to keep more than 100 miles off-shore and be weary of the gusts (“reduce all sails and bring them all down if you need to, motoring your way through”); and others saying it was much better to go closer to the coast as to be protected from the wind gusts.

Half relaxing half sleeping, fighting the seasickness caused by the confused seas!

I’m glad we asked!

It goes without saying, we were all a bit nervous before departing. To be on the safe side, I called all family members and friends in case it was the last time I heard their voices :)!

This was one of those times I wished I didn’t have so much information about the passage, and boats in general! When we first bought Gladan, I enjoyed sailing so much more! You know why? I had no idea of all the things that could break and go wrong and therefore it was all about, you know, enjoying!!

You know what they say, “if there’s anything worse than knowing too little, it’s knowing too much”…

For example, one of my misconceptions at the beginning of my “sailing career” was that I’d feel reassured by the presence of the coastline, thinking “what could possibly go wrong?… there is land nearby!”

What I’ve quickly learned is that if you’re caught in the middle of a storm with strong winds and big waves, you’re better off waiting out at sea than trying to, for instance, enter an harbour. The things you learn along the way!

The Crew

With Beatrice, Gc’s niece, it was three of us onboard for the crossing. Well, two (kind of) experienced sailors and a beautiful anchorwoman in charge of reporting our sailing voyage minute by minute.

Beatrice and GC in CuraƧao

We couldn’t find any sailing buddies on a similar time schedule, so we were going to cross on our own. And since Beatrice’s boyfriend, Ludovico, was going to wait for us in Colombia, there was no time to waste!

The pre-departure

Few days before our departure, we met a couple, an Italian skipper and his English partner, who had just sailed upwind for 3 consecutive days from Santa Marta to CuraƧao. They had been bashed by 30+ knots of wind and 3 metres waves for, I’d like to stress that, 3 consecutive days, while treating themselves to roast chicken and vegetables, and apple pie.

Now, I’m kind of a competitive person and I thought – if they managed to do it upwind while fleshing out a chicken thigh, surely we can do it downwind while slicing a pizza!

And off we went!

The departure

We set off from Santa Cruz Bay, north-west of CuraƧao, very early in the morning on San Valentine’s day. The wind was 20 to 25 knots so quite ideal for sailing, but the sea was very confused with waves coming from different sides, making the first part of the journey rather uncomfortable. The sky was grey most of the day but, at least, it did not rain.

Beatrice and I on shift :)! Though it might look otherwise, we did keep an eye on the road, from time to time!!

The sea conditions improved when we got closer to Aruba: the sea was flatter and we were sailing at a broad reach (at 135Ā° off the wind).

We also got signal because of the proximity to land, so Gc could do some of his beloved Facebook lives and Beatrice could speak with Ludovico to reassure him; we had started our trip and we should get to Colombia in a day or two…

The second day of the crossing, the sun was shining and Gc didn’t miss his chance to polish his beloved Gladan!

Bioluminescence, my friends!

The best part of the trip was the 2nd night of sailing, when we passed by the Los Monjes islands, off the Venezuelan coast. For the first time since we started sailing, I witnessed the phenomenon of bioluminescence.

What an incredible thing to experience!

While Gladan was smoothly sailing across the ocean, at a comfortable speed of 7.5 knots, downwind, his wake was populated by teeny tiny sea fireflies that made the whole experience magical!

The funny thing about this phenomenon is that the light produced by the microscopic plankton is actually a defence mechanism. The light these microorganisms release helps to temporarily blind their predators, or to attract their predators’ predators, taking the attention away from them! Teeny tiny yes, but incredibly smart!

Beatrice enjoying the first lights of the day!

Rounding Cabo de la Vela

We had planned to round the tricky Cabo de la Vela in daylight but Gladan sailed so fast that we got there around 4 am, in full darkness.

The wind blew at 30 knots. We had only the jib on and were ready to reduce it when necessary. We had opted for an in between option (from the two conflicting ones that had been recommended to us), and decided to keep 30 miles away from the coast, following the 100 metres depth line.

Our track for the crossing from CuraƧao to Santa Marta.

We were all on alert; the treacherous Cabo was here, and so were the huge waves!

As in all matters of life, perception is key. Depending on the point of view you adopt when looking at things, you perceive them differently. This applies to waves as well!

One thing is to see a 3 metre wave from the cockpit (meaning from a position of disadvantage, where you feel like you’ll be submerged by it, should it decide to briefly pay you a visit) and a totally different one is to experience it from the height of the flybridge, zipped inside the enclosure (and sometimes also tucked in below the blanket… ).

As I said, it’s all a matter of perception. And waves do look smaller when you’re taller than them – that’s why I spent most of the passage on the flybridge!

Long passages can be very tiring..!

When wind gusts reached 35 knots, we reduced the jib till it looked like a handkerchief, and waited to see what’d happen next. We had to keep an eye on some unexpected shallow patches we got quite close to, with the sea depth suddenly dropping from 100 metres to less than 20 metres. We realised that something was wrong because the waves quickly got steeper, so we adjusted the route to move away from the shallows.

Big waves…..
Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta!

Several hours later, we could see the peaks of Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the world’s highest coastal mountain range in the world. Our destination was close!

Little we knew that the worst was still to come. The last few hours were the scariest ones, at least for me. Once we reached Cabo de la Aguja, it was time to turn and start heading south towards the marina de Santa Marta. The wind reached 40 knots and waves were coming from the side.

A female frigate bird with her freshly caught prey.

During our last miles, we had big following waves, a few of which broke into the cockpit and flooded it. Since we had left the saloon’s door open, I rushed downstairs from the flybridge, and shut the door behind me. Luckily no water had got inside, but it could have been very dangerous. I spent the last thirty minutes or so tiding up the messy living area, while Gc and Beatrice were filming the huge seas behind us.

Beautiful sunset @ Santa Marta marina.

Arrival in Santa Marta

Once close to the marina, the sea was flatter and we were filled by the excitement of realising that;

a) the passage was over and we were still in one piece,

b) the 3 days long ride on the rollercoaster was about to end

c) we were finally going to sleep!

Ludovico, Beatrice’s boyfriend, was already waiting for us on the pontoon. The marina of Santa Marta was different from what we were expecting. It is very modern and surrounded by skyscrapers and high mountains.

We made friends with the security guards of the marina – everyone was very polite and efficient there!

It’s part of the IGY chain and it’s a gated marina, with security guards checking on people coming and going, as Ludovico could testify; he was thoroughly questioned before being allowed in!

The view from our dock, inside the marina.

We celebrated the successful ending of yet another adventure with very cold beers. We had made it through the fifth most dangerous waters in the world, in one piece!

There is nothing like a well deserved drink after a long passage!