25 September 2004
Cartagena de Indias, Colombia N 10.2472 W 075.3249
Welcome to Cartagena "the bubble"
We arrived in Cartagena after a five and a half day sail from Curacao, N A. For a portion of the trip hurricane Ivan created winds from the west and southwest right on the rumb line. This made for a lot of tacking and slow progress. When the winds did changed direction they disappeared making it necessary for us to motor into port. We had avoided motoring during the passage due to an episode with clogged fuel filters. We needed to save the last of our filters in order to enter the harbor just in case the engines stalled and more changes were necessary before we came to anchor. Well, we enjoyed the sail even if on some days we made little progress and we motored into the harbor in quite waters without needing a filter change.
We are now docked at Club Nautico Marina, Manga along with a most interesting collection of boats and owners. After six months of being on the hook, we were ready for unlimited fresh water and even a little air conditioning. The staff at the marina is most simpatico and like most other places there is a cadre of people waiting to help you with any task or any purchase. We were fortunate to get a slip so soon after arrival since the surrounding waters have filled up with boats in the past few days. The boats anchored outside the marina utilize the facility of the marina for a couple dollars a day. Club Nautico is a family owned operation with restaurant and a large staff but the guy who now makes it work for the cruisers is a Brit by the name of John Halley. John is the interface between the English speaking cruiser and the owner of the marina, Sra. Candalaria Bennett and in spirit her husband Norman Bennett. Norman Bennett is not here in person because he is on the run and living under an assumed name. It has been related to us that his sailboat was found to have a substantial stash of drugs onboard. Even though Bennett was not onboard, he decided it would not be in his best interest to face charges of drug smuggling especially since he is or was an expatriate. The marina features complementary Colombian coffee served every morning and most afternoons a lady with a very large fruit basket on her head walks the dock selling her fruit by calling to the yachties "meeelllons, pinnnaaas, mangooes."
It is our observation that somewhere between Bonaire and Curacao we passes a line of demarcation separating the cruising lifestyle of the Eastern Caribbean and to that of the Western Caribbean. The Eastern Caribbean cruising community is comprised of boats that appear to live on larger budgets and enjoy the more highly developed cruising life style. As for example, in most Eastern Caribbean ports you can find just about anything you want within walking distance of the dinghy dock and cruisers are organized with radio nets, potlucks and cocktail parties. In the Western Caribbean boats pass in and out of anchorages without much social contact and judging by the condition of the boats the budgets are smaller. On the other hand this is where you can find "salty" sailors many who have made several circumnavigations. Most have stopped for hurricane season but some seem to be "single handlers" who were enticed to stay in Cartagena to be near a Colombian friend.
Cartagen has a very rich history. In the 16 and 1700's the Spanish utilized this natural harbor as a loading terminal for the gold and other plunder they removed form South America. Of course the port became a target of the French and British and eventually became heavily forfeited. There are a number of historic accounts of the battles fought over the treasures of the city with the most popular being that of San Blas de Lezo, affectionately known as "half a man". Don Blas served Spanish Kings since he was sixteen and had lost his left leg, his right eye and his right arm in battle. In 1741 he was sent to defend Cartagena when 186 British galleons and 23000 men appeared in the lagoon. The British were lead by Admiral Edward Vernon and in the ranks was a regiment of North Americans led by Lawrence Washington, a half brother of George Washington. The Washington family admired Vernon so that they later named the family home site, Mount Vernon in his honor. ( Hey would I make this stuff up?) Well, Don Blas was able to hold the city with his army of 5000 but shortly after the battle he died of a wound in his right leg. What actually won the day for Don Blas, according to British historians, was the fact that the British forces suffered so from widespread dysentery, malaria and yellow fever that they had to withdraw. From the Colombian perspective the soldiers under Don Blas fought courageously to win the battle and years later the spirit of Don Blas was rekindled to lead Colombia's first efforts for independence.
The old section of the city is surrounded by immense walls and historic fortifications while the plazas inside are surrounded by beautiful old churches and colorful buildings that were once estates or official buildings. Each street winds its way to another plaza and all of this history has been tastefully transformed into a commercial district with a plethora of restaurants, bars, a few five star hotels and of course jewelry stores. There are also a number of street vendors trying to sell you local artisan products. This could become a problem but there is a nice system that has been adopted whereby the wave of the index finger is the signal for the street vendor to not approach or at least to back off. The rule is well adhered to especially at night when there are as many security people as there are vendors. Our first night in town was the day of "friendship and love", a Valentines Day without Hallmark. The city celebrated with dancing troupes and street musicians in the major plazas. We were uncertain if this activity occurred every Saturday night or just on the holidays. On subsequent visits we have found lively entertainment almost matching out first visit.
Colombia is known as a very good source of emeralds and cruisers talk of spectacular bargains. The streets of Cartagena are filled with touts aimed at getting you to visit stores willing to pay them a commission. As of this writing we have found no great deals but Rene is still searching. At the southern tip of Cartagena is the modern end of town with a great many hotels, restaurants, bars and office buildings. This is the upscale area of town and yet still has the charm of horse drawn carriages making their way through the streets.
All of what you have heard about Colombia may be true but the city of Cartagena is a peaceful oasis amidst the turmoil of the country that surrounds it. Locally it is referred to as "the bubble " a designation of the city's isolation and its status as the one secure city in Colombia. What might also make you feel secure is the US warship sitting at anchor less than a half a mile away.