Posted by: rosyroadsadventures | November 26, 2012

Down the Colombian Coast

N 10° 24.95′   W 75° 32.68′

Cartagena, Colombia.

It is about 110 miles from Santa Marta (third anchor mark from the left) to Cartagena (anchor on the left), and took about 18 hours in our slow-moving vessel.

With a stopover at Puerto Velero we were able to divide the 18 hour overnight trip from Santa Marta to Cartagena into two daytime passages. It is more interesting to travel close to shore and we prefer to see the coastline when possible.  Crossing the outlet of the Magdalena River at Barranquilla is best done in daylight in order to watch for debris that is swept from the inland mountains down the mighty river and into the sea.  The alternative is to deviate far from shore, which would be necessary at night.

Puerto Velero, also known as Punta Hermosa, is a large bay south of Barranquilla. We had read several cruising notes that described a nice anchorage. Not having a good feel for what areas of the Colombian coast are really dangerous I was hesitant about anchoring out. We had heard that there was going to be a new marina in the area, and upon further internet research we found information about the Puerto Velero resort. Several email inquiries later we had a reservation in the brand new marina that had just opened for business.

We left Santa Marta at 4 am on Wednesday so that we could be sure of an afternoon arrival. It was easy to exit the well-marked harbor in the dark. Seas were light, as forecast, and we enjoyed a beautiful sunrise.

Sunrise over the mountains of Rodadero

Mid-morning conditions stiffened and we were treated to some of the most vigorous waves we have encountered thus far. Navigating from the flybridge – necessary to stand watch for debris – made the motion more exaggerated. We took some wave splashes into the flybridge windows – a first – and the forces caused much of our aft cabin closet to unload all over the floor. Two to three foot seas?  Not.  Fortunately nothing seemed to be damaged and a southerly turn near Barranquilla resulted in a calmer downwind point of sail. One thing has been consistent along the Colombian coast – the wind and seas are not very precisely predicted. Multiplying the sea forecast  by 1.5 X to 2.5 X seems a better predictor of the conditions one might encounter. The good news was that the stabilizers functioned well, with no hint of the problem we had coming from Aruba.

Approaching the mouth of the Magdalena River was really interesting and something we had never experienced before. We saw a greenish-brown horizon in the distance that startlingly looked like land approaching. Since the waves and current were pushing southward, the line where the river flowed was clearly delineated on the northbound side. For a couple of miles we rolled along in the foamy brown seas. We saw no debris other than one log well north of the river and a few palm fronds. The depth sounder indicated a couple of times when stuff must have floated by well beneath the keel.

Approaching the muddy Magdalena River outlet into the Caribbean Sea

The muddy Magdalena transformed the Caribbean Sea into what looked like chocolate milk

Puerto Velero is tucked around a point that has extended considerably with shoaling since our charts were made. The large bay is well protected from all conditions except a strong southwesterly surge. We arrived and were greeted by Diana, the Coordinadora, who speaks great English, and a very helpful dock crew.

The marina has an unusual Mediterranean mooring system and they provide the lines. Two lines hook the stern of the boat to springs attached to the dock. The bowline is secured to an underwater mooring system well below the surface.  The line was full of muck when we hauled it on deck and by the time we were finished docking we and the bow were covered with mud. The feed line got wrapped around the stabilizer fin, and one of the dock staff had to go for a swim dislodge it. The shore water pressure was almost nil so I ended up cleaning everything with a seawater bath. For a short stay it hardly seemed worth the mess.

Attaching to shore power was another challenge. Colombia uses the same standard that we do in the US (60 hertz) so we thought, no problem. It turned out the outlets were not compatible with our plug. We consulted with the electrician and they worked to connect our plug to one of their adaptors.  The end result was we discovered they are currently using a 50 hertz generator to power the marina.   So we were in the same situation we found in much of the Eastern Caribbean where the shore power would not be safe to use for fear of damaging the motors in our appliances. It turned out that the owner is from Spain and it appears he designed the marina with European needs in mind.   We are not sure this set-up will work well for our European friends either, once they connect the facility to the 60 hertz local power source in the future.  It really was very odd.  Bob wishes he could have discussed this further with the electrician so he could better understand the unusual arrangement, but the language barriers were too great. Anyway, the breeze was pleasant, we didn’t need air conditioning, and we ran the generator to charge the batteries and cook.

On Thursday, Thanksgiving Day for we Americans, we toured the project which is still under construction and the immediate area. When finished, the resort should be a very pleasant addition to this area where Colombians from the interior of the country can get away for an aquatic oriented vacation or weekend. The protected bay is great for small boat sailing and watersports, although the muddy narrow beaches don’t appeal to those of us who have been spoiled by the finest beaches that Florida, the Bahamas and the Caribbean has to offer. We had lunch at their restaurant, El Kiosko, which was a treat as it is normally open only on weekends at least for now. They prepared a huge platter of Colombian goodies for us, and with leftovers it was plenty for both lunch and supper. I was thrilled not to have to cook, and Bob loved all the “carnes” – various Colombian meats, served with fish, “papas”, the little round potatoes and plantains.

We think that without further changes the marina will have a tough time attracting transient cruisers like us for more than a quick stopover. Civilization and provisioning is a 120,000 peso cab ride away unless one wants to walk a couple of VERY hot miles to hop a bus to Barranquilla. For more than a one or two night stay, we were told that we would need to process paperwork with the Barranquilla port captain, requiring hiring another agent and more time and expense. Colombia, like most of the hispanic countries, requires permission to travel from port to port.  Americans and most Europeans really aren’t used to that.  For people who might want to leave their boats while traveling, the marina did not seem as strongly built as Marina Santa Marta. There is no breakwater, and we would imagine it could get extremely rough in the rare southwesterly. The shore power situation, as we understand it, will be problematic for some vessels. Compared to Cartagena and Santa Marta, cleaner water off the boat for swimming and watersports seems the biggest advantage here, plus the added security of staying in a guarded facility vs the anchorage.  The staff here expressed they are committed to overcoming the barriers for cruising boats, so it will be interesting to see how this all works out in the future. They really bent over backwards to try to please us and we wish them success with the project.

Mar Azul docked at Puerto Velero

Shady beach kiosks line the muddy beach. Casitas are being built over the water as well as on land, and a hotel is planned for the future.

Outside of the resort, the shore is lined with dozens of little beach kiosks and casual local restaurants that were not open during our weekday visit. We understand the area is very popular on the weekends and it would have been fun to experience that.

We were anxious to keep moving toward Cartagena and the weather over the weekend was supposed to become much brisker. We decided to anchor for the last night since it would have been too difficult to try to detach from the unusual slip arrangement in the dark. Then we got up at 3 for a 4 am departure for the last leg to Cartagena. The 9 hour, 50-mile trip was pleasant and uneventful.

A pretty travel day passing between Puerto Velero and Cartagena.

In Cartagena, we made our way in the Bocagrande harbor entrance, suitable for smaller vessels. Big ships use a channel farther south which would have made our trip longer. The approach looks easy, with a clearly marked red and green buoy. However, under the water is a wall that was built by the Spanish many years ago to keep out invading ships and apparently it was very effective. It was sort of eery to pass by knowing that wall was broken only between the channel marks.

The Captain had no trouble navigating the narrow entrance through the underwater wall. And he is officially the Captain of record again. Our zarpe was mysteriously returned naming him as Captain and me as Crew. A little Latino machismo among the officials? Perhaps they felt sorry for him. Oh, well – it works for me!

Once in the harbor, we made our way to the anchorage and set the hook. We decided to visit Club de Pesca in person to see if we could move up our reservation, which was to start December 1st.  We had been told that no English is spoken there and we thought that communication would be much harder via VHF radio or telephone. The Club has excellent security, and when we dinghied over and made our request at the fuel dock we were almost turned away. A print-out of our email reservation confirmation turned out to be our passport to enter. They directed us to a place to tie the dinghy and escorted us to the office, where Edgar, who speaks better English than I speak Spanish, was able to help us. He introduced us to the dockmaster, Johnny, and he found a slip for us. We got to assess the slip from the dock, again easier than trying to get directions in Spanish over the radio. An hour later we returned with the big boat and were secured in our slip.

Looking west toward the Bocagrande district of Cartagena, which roughly compares with South Beach. Lots of hotels, condos, restaurants, shops here. Mar Azul is the second boat from left, in our slip at Club de Pesca.

Our spot is on a newly built pier away from the more beautiful areas near the main clubhouse, next to the busy fuel dock.  But it is perfect for us, and hopefully our barking crew will not annoy the club members here and we won’t get thrown out. There is a little plot of grass nearby for quick doggie bathroom needs and a tienda that sells beverages and a few basic food items.  Bob has enjoyed comparing notes with the American crew on the fishing boat in the next slip.  We have a great view of the pretty bridge over to the Walled City and it is fun to watch the party buses at night, loaded with cheering tourists, zoom across. We are well situated to explore Cartagena.

View from our boat toward the Walled City. Perfecto.



  1. We are getting ready to head out in our 48′ HiStar motor vessel and will be following almost the same route, except going more slowly and maybe not as far. I am curious as to how your dogs are received, and how you keep up with the permits necessary for each country. We will have our African Grey parrot along, and I’m in the process of obtaining the permit for the Bahamas and going through the massive paperwork and testing required. We’ve been told that most places aren’t as stringent with pets that never leave the boat, but we don’t want to take chances. We will probably check into the Bahamas in Bimini. I love your blog — just found it today and can’t wait to start at the beginning and read about your adventures.

    • Iris, I should probably write a summary of our experiences with the officials at some point. It has been less problematic than I expected. All the countries have animal importation rules, but in most of our destinations to date we have found that they really don’t care about the presence of animals on a yacht in transit. The British affiliated islands are an exception and can be more cumbersome. If you plan to put your animals on a plane at some point you can expect a lot of red tape associated with international air travel. I will send you an email separate with more details. Good luck with your journey!

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