Posted by: rosyroadsadventures | September 29, 2012

A Change in Culture

N 11° 14.56′   W 74° 13.08′

Santa Marta, Colombia.

Mar Azul’s home for the next month or so at Marina Santa Marta. Flying the Colombian courtesy flag. The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains in the distant clouds.

The transition from Aruba, with its vacation atmosphere and American-oriented tourist amenities felt abrupt. As Bob put it, we are not in Disneyland anymore. The reality that we are a very very long way from home in a totally new place where we can’t easily communicate and where we will need to stay put for a time weighed heavily the first few days. Traveling in this way is so different from jumping on an airplane or cruise ship, where one can have a quick adventure in a foreign place and then zoom back to the comforts and familiarity of home.

Schedule-wise we don’t want to move on to Panama until perhaps late December or January to avoid the rainiest season. Therefore we have several months to spend in Colombia. Our time here is an opportunity to educate ourselves about the culture and experience life here firsthand. Colombia is a truly fascinating country with great diversity and we regret that our exposure will be limited to the coastal regions. It is just too hard to travel overnight and leave our crazy dogs.

Santa Marta is a city in the department (what we would call a state back home) of Magdelena, in the northwest coastal region of Colombia. With a population of over 400,000, Santa Marta is about the size of Tampa. The port is small but active, with multiple freighters coming and going each day. We assume they are exporting more than they are importing and the Colombian economy is reportedly thriving at the pace of +6% GDP per year. Tourism is a part of the economy in Magdelena and geared toward Colombians who venture from the cool interior areas to enjoy the tropical climate and beaches. Bob finds the climate cooler than Aruba, but with the humidity generated from the nearby towering mountains and the lack of a constant roaring wind, I find it warmer most days.

It has only been a few years since the area has been deemed “safe” from the long history of violence that permeated the country. The marina staff firmly suggest we keep our walking expeditions to the centro historico, a 10 block or so square section of town adjacent to the waterfront. I am not exactly a city girl and don’t feel totally comfortable getting around town alone, but would probably feel the same way in most big US cities. There is a large and striking presence of rifle-armed policia and various military personnel on the adjacent streets, a much larger force than we would typically see back home.

The marina is pleasant and has security guards, although the property is not totally secluded from the outside. They have a shaded area with a few picnic tables, a laundromat, a small, air-conditioned lounge and a limited convenience store where beverages and a few basic supplies can be purchased, with outside tables and umbrellas. Compared with prior photos they seem to have made progress in filling the slips here. There are a number of local fishing and party boats berthed here, a couple of relatively permanent liveaboards and about 15 – 20 transient boats, mostly European in origin and mostly occupied. The well-kept floating docks are rare in this part of the world, and we are currently on a T-head, side-tied, which is a luxury. The only bad part is that Lady has figured out how to unsnap the rail cover and jump onto the dock to try to find us when we have left the boat. We may have to relocate to put the boat in a stern tie in an oversized slip, which might not be a bad idea anyway as they report strong winds of 40 knots or so channel through the adjacent mountains from time to time.

In what seems the Spanish tradition, almost everything is paved in the marina, save a dozen strategically placed palm trees poking out of the bricks. There is not a blade of grass on the property, a rude awakening for the dogs, spoiled by the lush park adjacent to the Renaissance Resort in Aruba. The best place we have found to walk them is down the long rocky jetty. They have started paving the jetty too and thank goodness that project seems to have stalled for the moment. I would not relish taking the dogs into town, where strays are literally everywhere. It is not easy to find grass in the city, either. The good part is the lack of greenery helps to keep the bugs down.

Outside of a couple of the marina staff few people here speak English. For me it is unnerving to have such minimal communication abilities. Bob is content to gesture and seek out a rare English-speaking person to translate. He feels like putting in time to study the language is a losing battle unless he is going to stay here permanently. I’m not happy with such limited abilities even for a short time. And more so since I am now listed as ship’s Captain on the Colombian paperwork. It was easier to keep it that way than to try to explain in Spanish what otherwise would have appeared to be a mutiny en route from Aruba.

I found an opportunity to study the language and started classes this week. Profesora Elsa, a native Colombian, is a delightful woman and our 1:1 lessons for two hours each weekday on her fan-cooled covered rooftop terrace proceed at a pace that keeps my head spinning. I am grateful that the rate of $8 US per hour for such high quality instruction is affordable, even for a budget-constrained cruiser. Back home I estimate similar classes might cost $50/hr or more. Elsa does not speak English so our time together is truly an immersion in Spanish. If I can keep up with her perhaps there is hope that I will master enough in a month to have simple conversations.

On the boating front, Bob is working with the Naiad technicians by phone and email (a communications challenge in itself given the slow and intermittent wifi) to try to diagnose the stabilizer problem. We will probably take the boat out to sea soon to conduct some tests which will determine whether a haul-out in Panama (we hope not!!) will be part of our upcoming adventures.

Marina grounds, Spanish-style

We pick our way along the rocky jetty in the am and pm, the best place we have found to walk the dogs in peace. Not ideal walking grounds, but a beautiful spot none-the-less, overlooking Bahia Santa Marta.

Here we are, for the moment, at the end of “E” dock

A familiar creature reminds us of home



  1. Definitely sounds like an adventure. Do heed the warnings in Columbia but sounds like you will get to know the area very well. If you like coffee they may have some good coffee to enjoy with a beautiful sunrise!

    • The coffee is awesome! We are enjoying sampling the different local brands. It is relatively inexpensive at around 9000 pesos for 500g – roughly $5 per pound – for a nice quality dark roast.

  2. I see the sunrise most days…I will have to goose Elaine up one morning to take pictures of the sunrise over the mountains…..

  3. Hi Elaine and Bob – I didn’t see any mention of other boaters you have befriended there…any Americans you can hang with? I love that you are taking Spanish lessons, Elaine! I’d like to do that, too. Continue to be safe and enjoy the adventure!

    • Izzy & Jeff – Jim & Jean (Americans) are here, also arrivals from Aruba. The rest of the boaters we have met are from France, Switzerland, Italy, Holland, England & of course there are local Colombian boaters here too. Have participated in a pm social organized by the marina and a delicious cruiser pot-luck dinner. Fortunately most of the international gang speak English. We are the only power boaters other than the locals and the only trawler here. When not out exploring we have been engrossed with projects – Bob working on an article on lithium batteries, and I with the Spanish study which could be a full-time endeavor with all the homework. It is a pleasant pace and perhaps we are getting a little lazy. We will have to get busier on the social scene or the sailors will think we power boaters are snobs! – E

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