“Arriving in Cartagena was just like the old days before the pandemic, when we sailed across borders without the need for quarantine or vessel health checks. Other than a simple declaration that we were covid free that was it. Cartagena seemed like normal times, no face masks in public nor did we come across covid anywhere. Of course, it was an illusion, covid was everywhere, just like anywhere else but in the carnival atmosphere of the Spanish Old Town no one seemed to care…”Dave
Nearing the harbour entrance in the early morning dark we called the Colombian port captain on our VHF radio. His answer was swift and immediate – we gave our vessel details, agent name (once more we had to use an official agent), number of crew onboard and declared that we were covid free. The harbourmaster was both friendly and helpful, giving us permission to enter port and assigned us to the anchorage area where we wanted to be. It was an easy two hour passage to the approaches and main harbour – Cartagena is a big place. We finally dropped anchor off the Club De Pesca marina where we had provisionally arranged a berth to complete all customs and immigration. By the time we reached the anchorage it was beginning to get light, there were many other vessels already anchored.
We were quite exhausted. We hoisted our yellow ’Q’ flag to signify that we’d not yet completed customs, immigration and vessel health quarantine then took ourselves off to sleep. Straightaway we noted the warmer temperature and humidity, there was not much breeze around to cool things down like in San Blas. Through our open hatches the noise of the continual harbour traffic grew though still we slept soundly, we decided to stay on anchor the next night then call the agent to complete Colombian formalities the next day. Normally this delay would not be tolerated but no officials bothered us or came by. The next morning we called Club De Pesca who gave us a berth number to tie up for customs which proved to be way too small between already moored vessels, they gave us an alternative that was also a hairy stern tie with bow lines slipped over mooring posts – no sooner had we tied up with around ten marina operatives helping then we were told to once more change slips. After two hours and three berth changes we were secure and tied up.
We quickly got to love Cartagena and Colombia. The city is a UNESCO world heritage site for good reason and we were moored right below the historic Spanish old town, beneath the city walls built to protect the original trading municipality from marauding English pirates. We already had friends here, Ruben the knowledgable delivery skipper we’d known back in Shelter Bay. Here too were many other sailing vessels going in our opposite direction, they’d crossed the Atlantic heading westwards through the Caribbean to the Panama Canal. We had only just tied up when Marie screamed at me from Sänna’s bows, another yacht was making for the narrow slip next to ours, reversing in strong winds that had clearly ruined their intended course – they were heading straight for us. We reacted in panic, quickly grabbing fenders to throw between us – Marie shouting angrily in no uncertain terms. Their helmsman, realising the impending disaster, powered up his throttle to head out, expertly averting the collision that was about to happen. They circled around for one more attempt, my heart sank when I saw their large size – surely their boat was too big to reverse into such a tight space. It was another English boat, I saw their red ensign flying on their stern but at least this time we were prepared. This time the helmsman reversed into the slip perfectly, we fendered them off as best we could. ’Sorry about that,’ the smiling well-spoken Englishman said. They were Patrick & Sheila out from Southampton, they’d crossed the Atlantic onboard Moxie. This was the beginning of our new friendship with a whole bunch of fenders tightly squeezed between us.
Our first priority was to find one of those dark-eyed sultry canvas repairers the Durhamers in Shelter Bay had regaled us about. Ruben stepped up to the mark, saying he knew of a good sailmaker in Cartagena. I contacted Esteban by Whatsapp – they could come and look at our damaged sails the next morning. We got both torn sails off the foredeck, chucked them in to a trolly then took them to the big wide area outside of the restaurant to lay them out flat. Both were in a bad state, I thought the headsail was beyond repair but the staysail wouldn’t take much fixing by a well-handed sailmaker. Esteban came and looked, he was the one who spoke some English but he said it was his wife who did the canvas work, I wouldn’t say she was dark and sultry but by the way she ran her fingers through the torn fabric she clearly knew her stuff – we wouldn’t need to order a new headsail, she said, she could remake it like new. I asked the price – Esteban said he would call me tomorrow.
By now we were good friends with Patrick & Sheila, also with the Australian yacht tied next to them, Brett & Mandy on Clipper. Brett & Mandy had been in Cartagena a while, around four months and had even travelled around Colombia. They knew Cartagena well – let’s go to the historic Old Towns, they said. We had another sleepless late-night extravaganza, not in anyway like the two overnight rough-sea passages we had from the San Blas. Cartagena is a former Spanish colony, the main port of departure to Spain throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for plundered Peruvian silver. Founded in 1533, Cartagena de Indias was also where enslaved Africans were landed to forge the infamous wealth of the burgeoning Spanish new-world empire. The fate of transported Africans is a frightful tale alongside that of the indigenous Amazonians, who themselves suffered untold misery from deadly European diseases and brutal slavery. Cartagena thrived, its merchant riches demanding the same defensive walls that every other Spanish settlement needed to protect the inhabitants from rampaging English and Dutch privateers – the same royalty-sponsored pirates who were beginning to establish their own Caribbean plantations unscrupulously stocked with transatlantic slaves. Eleven kilometres of stone fortifications were planned around Cartagena in 1586, completed in several stages with a second fortification started in 1631 that continued to be built for another two-hundred years. The extensive walls created two distinct localities that are today designated as historic old towns by UNESCO, El Centro and San Diego – the poor working class who lived outside the city gates and the prosperous traders who lived within the safety of the walled city. Constructed in 1549 and still surviving to this day is the magnificent Iglesia de San Pedro Claver, a baroque style church dedicated by the friars to christian teachings of the Dominican order. On the highest hill of the Cartagena mainland, overlooking the city, is the Convento de Santo Domingo, the construction of which began in 1578 – one-hundred and fifty years later work was still being completed.
Every night of the week is carnival night in Cartagena’s two historical districts, Latin American dancers and performers throng the narrow streets and the hard to discover passageways, with rum bars and cheap street-food everywhere – the passion of the nightlife that thrives within these walled principalities is hard for the first time visitor to take in – but eventually, after a remarkably short time, the Latin American rhythm takes over you, it gets to your soul, you begin to think that maybe this is where you think paradise is. But the poverty of Cartagena and of Colombia is never far below the surface, leave the remnants of your street-food and quickly someone will ask for what you cannot eat. Cartagena thrives on its visiting tourists – the city suffered terrible misery during the covid pandemic.
The morning after our first experience of Colombian nightlife we were awakened early by the sail repairer Esteban and his Venezuelan wife. Their repair of our sails was astonishingly low priced. I called Ruben, is this for real I asked? Well, they have a good reputation for workmanship he said. I gave Esteban the go ahead, the work would be completed within a week, maybe a little more. I also got cost estimates to completely replace our battery banks, new solar panels and stainless steel roll bars. The carpenter, who really did have one arm, took away our galley table damaged in Vista Mar to make a new one. We employed Ruben’s deckhand Gabriel on ridiculously low day-rate to clean and polish the whole boat – don’t pay him more than the going rate, said Ruben, if you do you’ll ruin the economic structure of the day work labour. We paid Gabriel the going rate – but gave him a generous lunch allowance to make up some of the difference driven by our guilt.
Sheila approached us to ask if we were interested in sharing a taxi tour, they had arranged a cheap deal with a driver to take them to the Convento De Santo Domingo built high up overlooking the city, then to the Aviario Nacional de Colombia which is a wild bird sanctuary around ninety minutes south of Cartagena. The shared taxi for the whole day would cost about fifteen US dollars each, around ten English quid. We jumped at the chance, the next day the four of us piled into the waiting taxi at the Club De Pesca gates and the driver took us precisely one hundred yards. He pulled up next to three other taxis then tried to offload us into two taxis charging twice the price – we refused. The ten minute argument resulted in the third taxi agreeing to take us at slightly above the original price, a bizarre experience but nothing compared to the hair-raising ride that followed. The driver was fine – but Colombian traffic suffers the delusion of thinking it’s safe and organised – the usual stuff, families of up to five travelling on small motorcycles, fuel trucks presumably full of gasoline weaving between lanes of cars and ubiquitous loud Latin American music erupting from every vehicle we passed – we loved it.
Twisting and turning up the steep hill to the convent monastery reminded us that to try and walk it would have been a nightmare in the midday heat and humidity, tourist tour agencies were charging more than eighty bucks apiece for the tour but we paid the equivalent of around four bucks each at the kiosk – with our shared taxi ride so far I guess it worked out about ten bucks each. It was a magnificent way to spend ten dollars. The monastery began life in 1578 as a convent, taking more than one-hundred and fifty years to complete after which it then pretty much fell into ruin. In 1730 the King of Spain ordered the friars of Cartagena to remake the facade which had been described to him as a yellow monstrosity, the Spanish King then provided further funds which were unfortunately plundered on route by sea from Spain by the English pirate Henry Morgan. This resulted in further delays to the main chapel, which were not completed until the early nineteenth century. Today the monastery towers over the municipality of Cartagena and its ports with wonderful views all round. We left through the ornate gate to rejoin our taxi to the bird sanctuary, around an hour and a half’s ride.
For many years I have loosely been what’s termed a ’twitcher’ – a lover of birds. I’m not as fanatical as some, I don’t race around the countryside loaded up with scopes and binoculars eagerly following reports of rare sightings, I’ve never broken down garden gates and fences in my quest to spot some uncommon wagtail that’s been blown a thousand miles off course and got lost. I simply love birds – more than anything I love listening to birdsong, especially in early morning or the late summer English evening – there is nothing more worthwhile than hearing blackbirds or a song thrush splitting the stillness of a lukewarm day in its desire to lure a mate. To me, this is my paradise, nothing more than a songbird sitting on a rooftop or a telephone wire reminding me how a simple thing can make me relaxed and tranquil. When we sailed Sänna down the Red Sea, we were inundated by colourful yellow pied wagtails, utterly exhausted by their five-thousand mile migration from Europe to Africa – they found their way inside our boat to rest, we fed and watered each of them as best we could – which was a big thing for Marie because she hates birds. Me? I was in my element, it’s still a treasured memory, even above the many desert anchorages and wild harbours in which we sheltered during our long trek south down Red Sea. Often, when we are making long ocean passages, we are followed by a lone albatross or tern for days and days on end – I like nothing more than when I’m alone on an overnight watch, when these majestic seabirds land to roost sometimes only inches away – where I can keep a keen eye in the same way they have minded ourselves through the wind and high sea all day. You might think this weird, but often when we’ve had a torrid time in bad conditions we look up to see the same albatross still gliding and swooping alongside – Marie will turn to me and say it’s her mom or dad (both, sadly, she has lost) keeping their own watchful eye. I know this feeling that Marie has, sometimes I feel the same, Sänna is named in memory of my daughter who, perhaps, deigns to warn us whenever danger ahead is gonna get tough. It’s there, in the graceful flight of the albatross – it’s something hard to explain.
So, to me, the bambloozing taxi ride to the Aviario Nacional bird sanctuary was perfect. I expected a wide remote area of flatlands, rainforest or wetlands not unlike the RSPB bird reserves in England, but the sanctuary here was nothing like this. It was a well thought-out arrangement of exceptionally large netted aviaries that visitors enter to walk through a rainforest or wetted wetland environment, it absolutely gives the impression of being in the wild surrounded by hundreds of Amazonian birdlife species – all for a ridiculous entrance fee of less than five bucks each. The colourful array of different birds, from parrots and flamingos to finches and hummingbirds was worth the whole days expense in my world. It was fantastic. Afterwards the taxi drove us back to the old town of Cartagena, where we ended the day in a cheap street-restaurant people watching until it got dark. A right nice day in the company of good friends.
Marie flew home back to the UK. The wedding originally scheduled for Christmas, cancelled because of covid, was now happening at the end of March. I was gonna follow Marie shortly, there was more work to organise on Sänna – it was hard to leave Cartagena but my elderly mother was not well back in England. Our sails came back fully repaired by Esteban, the workmanship was excellent, I gave him our mainsail for his wife to remake too – the rumours of dark-eyed sultry canvas makers are true. Sheila & Patrick left for Panama on Moxie, the Australians Brett & Mandy went out into the harbour on anchor. Rich & Nancy arrived on Stand Down after their own difficult passage from the San Blas. Emma returned to her work in Panama City while Henry met up with his dad to travel the eastern US. I got to know Ruben’s wife Helen and their three year old son Samual. Then it came for my time to leave Sänna in Club De Pesca, I would fly back home to hopefully return to Cartagena in around six weeks time. To date this has not happened. My mother, she passed away, not long after I was home in April.
My mom went and found her own paradise, a peaceful paradise, one with her loving husband Mac. One more lonely albatross to circle the wild ocean waves.
Dedicated to Shirley Patricia Cole, Jan 1934 – April 2022.
She avidly read everything I ever wrote.
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