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Colombia – An Uncut Jewel In The Crown Of South America

It’s a very rare feeling to be on the cusp of discovering something special; but our few weeks of sailing around Colombia has been nothing short of spectacular and totally unique.  In the main, Colombia is unspoilt, rugged and raw and we feel privileged to have explored its Caribbean shoreline ports of Cabo de la Vela, Santa Marta, Islas del Rosario and Cartagena.

This fascinating country on the northern tip of South America is best known for its civil war, drugs cartels and emeralds. It’s only in the last few years it has opened its doors to tourism; and it has a long way to go yet in order to build on more than just the inquisitive back-packer. But that’s why now is the best time to visit and witness Colombia’s real beauty.

To get to Colombia, we enjoyed an invigorating and quite lively sail from Aruba to Santa Marta catching a rather tasty 5ft Wahoo en route. A brief stop was planned at an anchorage at Cabo de la Vela, but the weather delayed our departure so, along with four other boats, we were forced to stay a few days – an absolute blessing as here we discovered our first rural Colombian gem. Ensanada Huaritcheru is a bay with a small town, several hostels, bars and restaurants and a host of kite-surfing schools. We sat at a bar, had an iced coffee, perhaps a beer, and watched as the local Wayúu women stitched bags and bracelets in front of us.  We later learned more of the culture and lifestyle of the indigenous people of Colombia and it’s fascinating.

Continuing our journey south, we sailed past the awe-inspiring Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range at sun rise which was another jaw-dropping moment. This breathtakingly beautiful site has a reputation among sailors with the potential to create some very dangerous sailing conditions with katabatic winds that scream down from the 18,000 foot peaks and out to sea. It was another bouncy sail, but our timing was perfect and we only experienced 35 knots of wind and three-metre seas.

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As the sun rises over the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range


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Colombia offers a lively sail


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Two Drifters skimming up and down the waves!


Our time in Santa Marta also packed a punch. Leaving the boat in the marina, we were able to take a couple of days away and stay in a resort hotel a few miles down the coast to celebrate our wedding anniversary. This was our first glimpse as to how the tourist market here is catching on as the resort hotels were certainly enjoying a good start to the season with plenty of Spanish-speaking guests.

Santa Marta is a great city and an excellent base for day trips. For entertainment, history, privilege and for seeing the interior of such a beautiful and undiscovered country, our off-roading trip into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta goes down as being one of the best experiences we have ever had.

We also co-ordinated our own tour – and a 30km hike (yes 30km, it’s not a typo!) into the hills around Minca; witnessing waterfalls, native anteaters, coffee plantations, stunning scenery and supposedly the world’s largest hammock!

More lively sailing down the coast followed and, as we by-passed Cartagena for a few days first at one of the local islands, we looked in awe at its skyline of skyscrapers.

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Skyscraper Skyline


Putting the city on ice for a few days, we discovered Islas del Rosario, a beautiful group of islands just outside of Cartagena. This National Park is another gem to discover; the water is clear and clean and the anchorage at Isla Grande is calm. However, what gives it its charm is discovering the interior, the well-trod paths leading to tiny hamlets, a forest of amazing palm trees, a village square, one or two hostels and more than just a few bars and restaurants that are hidden from view.  It even offers a paddleboard safari between three lagoons interconnected by tunnels leading through the mangrove swamp

We enjoyed some of our best food in Colombia at Isla Grande, sitting at local restaurants and tasting their simple but fresh dishes.  We took a table at a hut in the village square and ordered Arepas de huevos (fried eggs with cheese in a batter) and watched as the cook sauntered off to get some freshly laid eggs and then make up the batter; cooking up everything from scratch. Time is not important here, but taste most certainly is.

Another favourite restaurant we discovered was La Pola, where it’s best to turn up a day in advance to put your order in. The fish is freshly caught and served with fried plantains (bananas) and extremely tasty rice. So simple, so cheap and so local.

Lunch at La Pola, where the pigs roam free and the fish is fresh from the sea


Although, there is a caveat here…tourists boats from Cartagena do rock up to this island in their droves, but they mainly go to the one flashy beach bar where the basic sun loungers are replaced by a four-poster beds covered in white drapes. Very uncharacteristic of the island and very much to be avoided in our opinion. Not least for the fact that a beer here costs twice the price of the little bar next door!

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The kids at Isla Grande, delighted with our Christmas gifts


And then there’s Cartagena itself. A charming city with a huge personality; it’s the Hollywood star of Colombia, pretty and versatile, vibrant and loud, a mixture of old and new, and it’s buzzing pretty much all day and night.  As far as cities go, this is one that you could wander around for many a day and not get bored.

Cartagena has cottoned on to tourism; it’s still a very appealing city but if you want to visit, do it soon as the façade is changing fast.

While we’ve been sailing Colombia, the rally has been accompanied by the Colombian Navy, who have kept an eye on us while at sea and also in the anchorages.  They have made us feel completely safe and very welcome.  On a few occasions, they’ve stopped at the boat to talk, and they are so proud of their country and delighted that we are enjoying it so much. For them, the return of sailing tourism to Colombia is very important and they will do what they can to protect their waters and the safety of those sailing around them.  A heartfelt thank you to the Armada Nacional from Two Drifters for this amazing assistance.

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Next Port of Call for Two Drifters is the San Blas islands in Panama

1 January 2019

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