The Log of Moira


Leaving Cartagena for the San Blas (Kuna Yala) Islands of Panama (January 2008)


These are mostly Susan’s remarks. Larry’s notes are indicated thus <Larry: blah blah blah.>.


Reflections on Cartagena


Fuerte San Felipe, Cartagena, ColombiaWhen we arrived in Cartagena last May, it was the start of the rainy season. The typical day was hot, very humid, and rainy in the afternoon after the morning shower completed itself. The rain kept the boat clean and shiny (with some help from our Colombian helper, Señor Estvarto) but I felt enclosed with water and somewhat a prisoner of the boat’s cabin with its lovely air conditioning.


By January our departure from this beautiful city was approaching, but now the city was awash with light and sun, and the temperature was moderating with an average 88 degrees Fahrenheit. In all the tropic areas of the Caribbean, Cartagena probably has the best climate we have seen from December through March…days and days of sunlight with only the occasional shower.


This was also the prime part of the holiday season for the Colombians. The city was full of tourists from everywhere and the cruise ships were running hard. I loved watching the tourists come through the city, aghast at the heat and sun and moving swiftly after their guide to the next cool church. Few public buildings are air conditioned but the churches afford cool shelter because of the thick coral walls of centuries ago.


I no longer felt like a tourist. I knew this city well now, though I could still easily get lost in the old town with its tangle of streets and allies. Signs are not a big thing in much of Latin America. Your best bet is to ask the policia or the shop keepers. If they don’t know they will often take you by the arm, and once outside ask a friend on the street for directions. I was also more independent because I had been taking Spanish lessons each day of the week for six weeks. Sr. Maury, my Spanish teacher, was strict but gentle and could speak English (though I could often surprise him with American colloquialisms), Spanish, German and French. His previous student was a Hungarian sailor to whom he taught Spanish by communicating in German. Though I still have not had my epiphany in Spanish so that words flow, at least I have more verb tenses and vocabulary and my trusty Spanish dictionary to help me get around and ask questions of the unsuspecting but usually gentle Cartagenan. One of the perks of shopping for food at the local Carulla market was the pleasant young men who packed the groceries and who would, when asked, carry the bags or push the cart back to the Yacht Club. Remember that we do not have a car, so part of the cruising life is to be a pack mule—especially for the ladies who like anywhere do most of the shopping. At the Carulla market, I could use my Spanish to ask for help from the young men (which I did if I had more than four bottles of wine or many packages…this pack mule Fuerte de San Sebastián del Pastelillo, Cartagena, Colombia, with Club de Pesca in backgroundstuff has its limits). As I walked with the men to the marina, I practiced my Spanish to find out what they were studying, where they lived, and how they liked working at Carulla. Most of my victims were talkative and were students at the University.


The contrasts of the city are  fascinating. When King Phillip of Spain built the coral fortifications around Cartagena in the mid 1500’s, he spent 50 million dollars of the gold he took from Central and South America. He told his advisors that fortifications that had cost so much should have been visible from Spain! I can see them today and they provide the backbone of the city. Urban Renewal never got to them, though according to the locals it was a close thing. Someone in the city has been paying attention and so instead of tearing them down, the city lighted the fortifications around the old city and started restoration which goes on today. Fortifications are all around, surrounded by the roar of the modern busses, the Martin Luther King Barrio (one of the big slums of the city), and the rabbit-warrens of small shops where one can purchase almost anything. <Larry: The photo is of the Fuerte de Pastelillo, or the ‘wedding cake fort’, named by someone’s whimsey. You can see the masts of the boats in our marina beyond the fort. Of course, a marina built into a fortress will have good security, won’t it?> Often, if what you want was not available, there would be a concerted effort to build it for you.  Seeing young men and women sitting along the 16th century fortifications using their cell phones and Blackberries amused and pleased me.


The contrasts are political as well. The office of the mayor, a newly-elected female, is open to residents every afternoon on any topic. Guards are common around the street, usually armed and usually private. The policia are also present and usually friendly and approachable. The city feels and is safe and pleasant to be in. I have never felt the least bit threatened roaming around the city by myself or with another. We did stay away from the parades during the Carnaval time celebrating Catholic saints because we were told the crowds were rowdy and the young men took delight in spraying everyone with squirt guns of water. <Larry: …and smearing handfuls of grease on one’s clothes or face. We were approached by a couple of bedaubed kids who were polite enough to ask us whether we wished to be decorated. We declined. The cruisers’ radio net each morning starts with a call for “security, medical, or priority traffic,” to include local crime. In all the time we were in Cartagena we heard of only one incident—a woman had a small camera snatched from the cord on her wrist.>


Keep in mind that ten years ago this was a country under siege. The government was under the control of the drug mafia and local residents could only stand by and watch the slaughter. There is a fascinating book about the era, Killing Pablo by Mark Dowden. This historical work presents the efforts of the Colombians to take back control of the country. With some assistance from the American DEA they captured and killed the responsible drug lords.


You may have read of FARC, the remaining terrorist group in Colombia which controls parts of the jungle areas of Colombia and takes hostages. This is the group that recently cooperated with Venezuela’s president Chavez to release two hostages, both of whom were Colombian, and one a well-known politician.


The Colombian government under President Uribe seems firmly in control of most of the country. Residents tell us they are delighted to have their country back and feel that they are well on the way to a bright future.


The people you meet


We were fortunate to come to know three Colombians during our time here.


Estvarto ("Stewart" in English) Navarro came to our attention through Club de Pesca and another cruiser on the boat Constance. Estvarto was about 55 and a manual worker on boats, doing everything from cleaning bottoms or polishing stainless and fiberglass to helping in pulling the boat from the water to repaint the bottom of the boat. Club de Pesca vets all the outside workers and issues passes to work on the marina property. As a result, though there were many workers in and out of the marina every day, there were no reports of theft or mysterious disappearance of items from any of the boats. Every day the marina workers would inventory items on the outside of each boat, like dinghy engines or snorkeling equipment, and ask about an item if they did not see it. When we had taken our dinghy engine to a shop for repairs, the marina staff immediately asked us about its absence. The outside workers must have a letter from the boat owner if they take items off of the promises. Stewart supported his family with a middle-class living and was delighted to have been approved for work at this marina. He was of tremendous assistance to us. When we traveled away from the marina he would check the boat each day to be sure the air conditioner was working and that the lines tying us to the slip were not chafing. Once a week he would start the engine and spend a day cleaning the boat. Every time we came back to the marina the boat was spotless and in fine condition. Moira loved this attention and wonders where Sr. Stewart has gone! Stewart spoke only Spanish so Larry was the chief communicator, but I could practice some of my Spanish on Stewart; he was always a fine gentleman and very solicitous to me. Could he ever work! We paid him $40 a week for minding the boat <Larry: given that his involvement over the course of the week added up to about a day’s work>. We were comfortable with him and got some insight into the daily life of an uneducated older Colombian who had a decent standard of living with his family. He was proud of his country and loved to hear foreigners praise his beautiful city.


Cruising friends on Moonsong introduced us to a young architect, Sr. Carlos Yrego, who joined us all for Thanksgiving dinner on our boat. Carlos, who spoke fair English, had lived in the States for several years and was now living in Cartagena. His architectural practice was beginning to grow, but he admitted that Cartagena was a tough place to get work because so much of the architectural work was done by several well-established larger firms. He was quiet but also seemed lonely although he talked about several lady friends. He was working on plans to build himself a house outside of the city on a parcel of land he had bought some time ago. He took Nola from Moonsong and me to the farmers’ market in central Cartagena, a massive market place that went on for blocks with hundreds of small tiendas about ten by ten feet in size and stuffed with merchandise. I was able to get a decent watch for five dollars and a small clock for the boat for two dollars. Both are still working fine. Many fruits and vegetables were available in the mercado as well as cheese and fish and meats. It was a marvelous place to watch the active commerce of this city and to see the flow of goods coming in and out every day, much of it unpackaged and presented in the raw. If you wanted a chicken your options included everything from a live one down to a breast of chicken. Nothing here was packaged or wrapped in plastic. Everything was close by and set out to be smelled, tasted and bought. Tastes of food stuff were available and the merchants called to us to try this or that. Items purchased were wrapped in newspaper and put into a bag brought by the shopper. It was good to have a guide, to be sure! Many residents of the City shopped here; it was about half the cost of the supermarket and provided abundant fresh food to the city. Carlos told us that many of his friends, particularly the women, would not shop there because they were uncomfortable in the market place. They would come with him occasionally but never alone. I could understand that and was thankful that Carlos was with us, helping us to shop, and translating where needed. Carlos gave Larry and me tours of the city in his Jeep and on foot. He had  information on the families of the city and the architecture and ongoing restoration. Before we left the city for the San Blas we took him to dinner at a favorite spot called “Crepes and Waffles.” It was our treat as many of these restaurants used by the tourists and cruisers are just too expensive to the average middle class resident like Carlos.


Another Colombian who helped us was the seamstress Marielena. She owned a shop in modern, high-rise district of Boca Grande. The shop was filled with beautiful clothes she and her employees had made. She did beautiful work and could copy anything. She turned three of my favorite molas (delicate and beautiful hand-made appliqué designs made by the Kuna Indians of the San Blas Islands) into showcase cushions for our boat. I also took the worn fitted sheets for our boat bed to her and she was able to make new sheets for us using the old ones as a pattern, and material from new standard sheets I had purchased in the States. When I needed shorts she was quick to turn out copies using an old pair of mine as a pattern. She did lots of work for the cruisers and was able to advise us where to buy fabrics and the assortment of items needed (zippers, buttons, ribbons) from all over the city. She would go to the States each year to pick out fabrics and clothes to copy. Her business was good and she kept five women employed year in and out.


Checking out, Moving on


But it was time to get to the San Blas Islands. The last time we were there the shellfish were mating and not available for purchase. Now they would be available, though only until March 1st. The rain and lightning are mostly gone at this time of the year in the San Blas, and the weather should be ruled by the trade winds, which tend to keep things pleasantly cool in comparison to Cartagena, and free of bugs. We had decided to travel to the San Blas by the way of several small islands off the coast of Colombia. By doing this we would avoid the big seas and winds of the passage along the rhumb line <Larry: straight line course> from Cartagena to Panama.


Tons of projects<Larry: And there are the inevitable boat projects. It seems that ¾ of all boat projects involve a pump somehow. The photo is an un-posed “still life with boat parts” taken during the ramp-up to leaving. We have: a water pump for the engine in the process of being rebuilt, paperwork for the replacement of one of our vital solar panels, fire extinguishers that need to be recharged/recertified annually, a broken plate acquiring a temporary fix (all fixes are temporary) with 3M 5200, and my totem animal, Eeyore, looking over the assemblage with despair.>


Islas Rosarios


The Rosario Islands <Larry: about 20 miles south of Cartagena> are a good place to start the cruise to Panama. The islands, once mostly residential, with palatial mansions, are now a Colombian park, and the mansions are abandoned. We heard two stories abut this. Once the islands became a Park, the government started buying the properties, allowing “life estates” (those in possession could remain) but no transfers. The other version was that the Colombian government had confiscated the mansions of the drug lords and then declared the area a park. I suspect the truth is somewhere in the middle.


Track from Cartagena to San BlasThe Rosario Islands are lovely, with cool fresh breezes and clear turquoise water. Once we were anchored the usual vendors came to the boat. The first two were supposed artists, whom I supported by buying too-expensive bead jewelry and a small pelican made from soapstone. Fishermen offered us our first lobster. The bargaining for four lobsters (about 1-1/4 lbs each) began at 80,000 pesos ($40) and finished at 40,000 pesos ($20). Yes, Colombia is expensive. We would get the same amount of lobster in the San Blas for ten dollars.


<Larry: The Rosarios are the first step on the curving, coastal route from Cartagena to the San Blas. The coastal route, as opposed to the rhumb (straight) line from Cartagena to the San Blas, has a reputation for varying degrees of theft from the boats that travel there. It was remarkable that the Colombian government seems to care!> Before we left Cartagena, we sent by email our travel itinerary to the Colombian Coast Guard, which tries to encourage cruising by the yachts who come each year along the coast of Colombia. The second night we were in the Rosario Islands, a Colombian Coast Guard launch came by at sunset to check on each boat, asking us in Spanish “Is everything all right?”


Our first mechanical trouble started in the Rosario’s: our water maker decided that it would not work. After some exploration by the Captain <Larry: Himself>, it appeared that the high-pressure water pump had died and was not to be resuscitated with any spares we had on board. Going on to Panama rather than back to Cartagena seemed the best course of action, because such items are readily available in Panama City or can be imported quickly from the USA. We carry 140 gallons of drinking water on the boat, which lasts us about 8 days with each of us taking a shower every day <Larry: and much longer with a bit of care>. So we could go on for a while but we knew that we would have to head straight for Panama after a day or two. We did not want to end up in Panama with empty tanks, because it could take several days to find more water in the San Blas, and several more days to sail to the marina at Shelter Bay where we could commence ordering the replacement pump. <Larry: Such a detour would take us out of our planned itinerary, cost us hundreds of dollars in marina fees, and cause us to miss the shellfish season in the Kuna Yala/San Blas Islands.>


As we wrestled with our unpalatable options, the next morning at 8:00am we were listening to the daily radio net that links cruisers in this region. We heard that the boat Shibumi had a used water pump of our brand for sale. We knew Shibumi well so we immediately contacted them for the specifics. By satellite telephone we verified with the manufacturer that their pump would work with our system. The deal looked good from all perspectives so we committed to rendezvous with Shibumi in Porvenir, the entry point for the San Blas. The timing was critical because Shibumi had an appointment to transit the Canal on the 5th of February. To meet their schedule we had enough time to briefly visit the next group of islands, the San Bernardo's, but then we would have to hightail it to the San Blas. So be it!


Islas San Bernardo


Isla Tintipán, ColombiaWe anchored behind Tinipán Island in the San Bernardo’s. This island appeared to be mostly resort-residential. There were some lovely upscale homes on Isla Tintipán, easily visible from our anchorage, and several exclusive resorts.


Another island, just called “Isla Islote” (“Islet Island”) was a service island for the residents and tourists: iron roofed houses were built close together on the island with some tiny shops scattered around. Streets <Larry: sidewalks, really> were narrow, hard sand spaces between the houses. A few of the residents gathered in the main plaza, a scrubby, uncared-for clearing mostly of coral and sand. There were several fish markets on the island, where the fishermen brought their fish to be sold. Fish not immediately sold were kept in a fenced-off area of water on the edge of the island, adjacent to the boats and the market. You could point out Isla Islote, Colombiathe fish you desired from the pen, and it would be retrieved by a man with goggles. We were able to buy two nice snapper and off we went with our dinner. We even got several tomatoes as well! Some nice 55-inch long wahoos and dorados were sold to the workers from one of the resort islands. <Larry: One presumes that the fish were destined for the tables of the resort guests, rather than the workers themselves.>


Our anchorage off of Tintipán was lovely, with clear, beautiful water, but our water maker problem called us to go to the San Blas. We had hoped to keep to the coast line of Colombia for this trip to avoid the stronger weather of a rhumb line passage directly to the San Blas. But we had to go to meet our schedule with Shibumi. We had been warned by the weather reports to expect some boisterous weather. For once the weather forecasts were almost too accurate. We moved quickly on our trip in winds of 20 to 25 knots and waves of 8 to 10 feet. Pretty rough for us but the boat did beautifully and within two days we were off the coast of the San Blas Islands. We began to close with the coast in early evening, and we hove to off the coast until morning. <Larry: I had figured on 48 hours for the 200 mile passage. Because of the favorable winds we arrived early, not on the morning of the 3rd day, but at dusk of the 2nd day.> You need to be able to see the islands and the coral surrounding them by eyeball to approach the San Blas Islands, for which good light is necessary. So we hove to for the night. After 10 hours of rest, about four in the morning, we let the sails draw again and started our last thirty miles in somewhat calmer weather. We saw the first islands by dawn. That is always a beautiful sight. Not only did the weather get better as we closed with the coast line but we could still remember—and anticipate—all the beautiful islands and the anchorages we had enjoyed and the friends we had made the first time we were here almost a year ago.


San Blas Again


Kuna woman in ulu, San Blas (Kuna Yala), PanamaWe anchored in Porvenir, the check-in port for the San Blas, and met up with Shibumi. The watermaker pump worked out beautifully, and Shibumi was so gracious as to make us dinner on their boat. We were so grateful….there is nothing like a warm dinner made by friends after a lumpy passage during which neither of us felt much like eating. The passage reminded me of what our tough boat could do and how much Larry and I could take. <Larry: whiner.> As we get ready to head for the Río Dulce in Guatemala this spring, the memory of the ride over to the San Blas will help me be courageous and tough for that voyage.



Additional photos from this trip can be found in our Photo Gallery and Moira’s Ship’s Store.






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