'Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness' - Mark Twain
Logbook: Colombia - Bahia Cholon and Cartagena - August 2009 to February 2010
Bahia Cholon (August 5-11). The Bay of Cholon is a favorite anchorage of Valentina, and we could immediately see why. It's a beautiful bay that is completely surrounded by land, so it offers outstanding protection from bad weather. Sonny & Kay have spent a fair amount of time here in the past couple of years, so they have some friends ashore, and the evening of our arrival, we were invited to happy hour at the "Crow's Nest" - the home of Robert (an American, former LAPD) and his lovely Colombian wife Carmen. As its name suggests, the Crow's Nest sits on top of a hill, with a beautiful view of the bay. As we sipped our happy hour beverages, a storm passed through, and from our perch, we watched a lightning show that was both quite spectacular and a little bit scary. We were glad Slip Away and Valentina were anchored in this well protected bay, but we were also hoping the lightning didn't strike the boats.
We spent six days in Bahia Cholon before continuing on to Cartagena. We visited the nearby village of Baru and met more of the local people - both poor Colombians struggling to feed their families and wealthy Colombians who live in Cartagena or other big cities and have a second home on the Bay. We enjoyed potlucks and happy hours at the Crow's Nest, as well as a Sunday afternoon hanging out on Robert's boat Manatee (an old shrimper that he is restoring to run charters). There was no good snorkeling in the Bay, but the water was clean and refreshing and we swam daily, sometimes to get some exercise and sometimes just floating around on our noodles to cool off.
Passage from Bahia Cholon to Cartagena (August 11, 21 nm, 5 hours). Although we would have loved to spend more time hanging out in Bahia Cholon, we felt like we should move on to Cartagena. We were planning to fly back to the U.S. in a couple of weeks, and we needed to make arrangements to store Slip Away and also get started on some of the boat work we planned to do while here. We had a nice sailing breeze (8-12 knots) off our beam as we headed out of the bay, and then the wind backed and we poled out the headsail and sailed wing-and-wing all the way into Cartagena Bay. Cartagena is a big commercial port, and we entered the harbor through Boca Chica, the main shipping channel, which is well marked with red and green buoys. We were instructed to call "Cartagena Port Control" when we got to the entrance buoy, which we did. The port control radio operator spoke English, asked us a few questions (boat name, hailing port, captain's name, etc.), and welcomed us to Cartagena. A couple minutes later, Port Control called us back to let us know that there was a large ship exiting the channel and asking us to stay close to the green buoys. We did as instructed, and the big ship passed by us. The shipping channel was feeling pretty narrow at this point - it was almost like we could reach out and touch the big ship as it passed. Shortly thereafter, the wind shifted too close for us to sail, so we motored the last few miles into the anchorage in front of the Club Nautico Marina.
Cartagena, Colombia (August 11-26). We had two weeks until our flight back to the States, but we had lots to do. It always takes a few days just to get our bearings and learn our way around a new location. Cruisers who have spent time in Cartagena during the past few years put together a guide to services in the area, and it answered many of our questions - locations of ATM's, grocery stores, recommended restaurants, stores to buy boat parts, etc. If we couldn't find what we needed in the guide, we just asked either the dockmaster at Club Nautico or any of the other cruisers who were around. While anchored in the bay, we paid a nominal fee for use of the Club Nautico's facilities - dinghy dock, trash disposal, water and wi-fi. In the past, Club Nautico's bar and restaurant was a gathering place for cruisers; however, when we arrived, the marina was undergoing a major renovation, and it was completely torn up for the six months we were in Cartagena.
In addition to getting work started on Slip Away, we wanted to check out the city of Cartagena, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With a population of just over a million people, Cartagena is Colombia's fifth largest city. The city was founded in 1533 by Spanish conquistador Don Pedro de Heredia, and it quickly became an important port for exporting gold and silver back to Spain. To protect the city from attack, the Spanish built walls and fortresses around it. There are beautifully restored colonial buildings throughout, and the fortress of Castillo San Felipe, which was built in the 1600's, sits just outside the walls of "old town."
In our first week we accomplished a lot. We took care of some medical visits - saw a local dentist for a teeth cleaning, found the vaccination clinic and got a yellow fever vaccine (not fun!), and Rich got an eye exam and had some new glasses made. We visited the old town of Cartagena and found Bolivar Park where we enjoyed some shade and ice cold limeade drinks on a hot afternoon, took a walking tour of the city, and sampled a couple of good restaurants. We also got started on boat projects - hired Tutti (a popular local carpenter) to repair a couple of holes in our interior cabinetry (excellent work!) and found a boatyard where we could get the work we wanted to have done when we returned from our trip to the U.S.
Ferroalquimar Shipyard (August 20-26). We chose to have Slip Away hauled out at Ferroalquimar Shipyard, which tended to be the popular choice among the cruising community. Here, we could hire our own contractors (as long as they had the proper insurance), the yard had 24-hour security guards, and they rented small apartments where we could live while the boat was being worked on. Although we were always able to live on Slip Away during previous haulouts, given the nature and extent of the projects we had planned, as well as the hot and humid climate here, we decided it would be best to move off the boat this time.
United States (August 26 - October 9). In late August, a week after hauling out, we flew back to the U.S. We had six weeks of travel planned - from Ohio to Maryland to California. We had a number of connections to make on the first leg of the trip, but they all went smoothly - a Spirit Airlines flight from Cartagena to Fort Lauderdale, the train from Fort Lauderdale to Miami Airport, and an American Airlines flight from Miami to Cincinnati - remarkably, everything ran on time. Jan's sister Judy and brother-in-law Fred did us a huge favor and picked us up at the Cincinnati airport when we arrived at midnight.
We spent our first two weeks in the U.S. in Jan's hometown of Cincinnati, and we timed our visit to attend the annual Labor Day gathering at her family's river camp in Kentucky. The two weeks flew by as we enjoyed good visits with family and friends. From Ohio, we flew to Maryland and spent a week with the Donohue's (Rich's sister Kathleen and family). We always like to do a little sightseeing when we visit the Donohue's because they live close to Washington DC. This year, Kathleen took us to see the monument to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as well as Arlington Cemetery where the ashes of Rich's father and mother are interred, and we also went to the National Zoo with our friends Janet & Chris who live in Northern Virginia. From Maryland, we flew to Northern California. We stayed with our friends Patti & Hank in the East Bay, but we were also able to spend a good bit of time with Rich's son Erik who lives in San Francisco. We met Erik's girlfriend Chrissy, and we liked her immediately. After five days in the Bay Area, we flew to Southern California and visited with friends spread out across L.A., Orange and San Diego Counties. Our friends John & Camille in Hermosa Beach graciously hosted us for most of our two weeks in So Cal and loaned us their Mini Cooper convertible which was lots of fun to drive. They had a couple of new additions to their family since we last saw them - puppies Puccini and Jack, who seemed pretty happy to have us around. We also spent a weekend with the Hempy family in Camarillo, where we sampled some very tasty homemade beers and had a great time getting to know their kids who have grown up a lot since we left over six years ago. In Southern California, we satisfied our cravings for In-N-Out Burgers, Krispy Kreme Donuts and authentic Mexican food.
We saw lots of family and friends over the six weeks we spent in the U.S., but we weren't able to get in touch with everyone. We apologize to those we missed.
Los Angeles to Cartagena. In early October, it was time to head back to Slip Away. Spirit Airlines was limiting us to one checked 50-pound bag per person on our flight to Cartagena, and we carefully packed and weighed, and each of our checked bags were within ounces of the limit. We also maxed out the limits with our carry-on luggage, so each of us ended up wearing an extra jacket and putting a few things in the pockets! Camille and John dropped us off at LAX in the evening for our red-eye flight back to Miami, and we bade them a sad farewell. Again, we had a number of connections to make - our American Airlines flight from L.A. to Miami, the train between Miami and Fort Lauderdale Airports, and our Spirit Airlines flight from Fort Lauderdale to Cartagena the next morning. We had allowed ourselves several hours of connection time in Florida, so we weren't anticipating any problems. As we were checking our bags with the American Airlines agent, she questioned us about our Spirit Airlines flight back to Cartagena. This was Tuesday, and she noticed on our itinerary that the date of our flight back to Cartagena was Monday (yesterday). How could that have happened?! Jan was certain she had made the reservations for Wednesday. She had gotten a revised itinerary from Spirit Airlines and noticed they had changed the time of the flight, but she didn't notice that they had also changed the date. And the revised itinerary gave no indication that they had made such a major change. Now what do we do? We stepped out of line, and Jan called Spirit Airlines, but their computer system was down until 6 a.m. the next morning. Oh great! We decided the best course of action was to get to Florida and resolve things there.
We arrived in Miami early the next morning and caught the train up to the Fort Lauderdale Airport. We went straight to the Spirit Airlines ticket counter and told them we were checking in for the flight to Cartagena. The agent told us there was no flight to Cartagena on that day and explained that they had reduced their flights from six days per week to two days per week. Initially, the agent took the attitude that we missed our flight, and that was too bad, but we let him know that was not acceptable, so he spoke with his manager, and we were rescheduled for the next flight, which was on Friday. It was Wednesday morning, so we had two days to kill in Fort Lauderdale. The airline would not pay for our hotel for the two days, but they did arrange a very reasonable "distressed traveler" rate for us at a Quality Inn that also provided transportation to and from the airport.
Initially, when we found out we would be delayed getting back to Cartagena, we were not happy campers. However, the two days in Fort Lauderdale ended up being a nice way to unwind at the end of the trip. Also, by some stroke of luck, Jan bought trip insurance (a real rarity), and the insurance covered our hotel and meals for our two-day delay. We spent most of our first day in Fort Lauderdale sleeping - after a busy six weeks and then a red-eye flight, we were dog tired. The next day, we were a bit more productive. We caught the bus to an outlet mall and shopped for a couple of last minute items - sandals and a spare watch for Jan. We didn't really have room to bring anything else with us in our luggage, so Jan left her old sandals in the hotel room, and she wore both her new and old watches. We were careful during our two days in Fort Lauderdale not to disturb the organization of our packing so that our checked bags stayed right at that 50-pound limit.
On Friday morning, we were well rested and ready to return to Cartagena. We got to the airport early, checked in with no problem and then met Carlos from Frank & Jimmy's Prop Shop who delivered a couple of propeller nuts to take to our friend Luis at LJPropCenter in Cartagena. We squeezed the prop nuts into our carry on bag, cleared security and headed to our gate. The flight to Cartagena went off with no additional hitches, and we even ran into a friend on the flight - Robert from Bahia Cholon, who had also been in Los Angeles for a LAPD reunion.
Back at Ferroalquimar Boatyard. When we arrived in Cartagena, we caught a cab back to the shipyard, and we were greeted warmly by all the employees and our contractors. We got the keys to an apartment, dropped off our bags, and went to check on the boat. While we were gone, Flavit and Alfonso did the work we had asked them to - stripping and painting the mizzen mast and boom and prep work on the hull and bottom. As instructed, they did not proceed with any of the other finish work. They also started some of the prep work on the decks and cockpit, and we had given a key to Alfonso so that they could move some of the items we store on the decks to the inside of the boat and out of their way. The inside of the boat was disheveled, but that was not a surprise with the deck stuff moved below, materials for the boat projects pulled out of storage areas, and bags of gear we had moved from the apartment back on to the boat just prior to our departure. We were disconcerted however to find that the door to our refrigerator had somehow come unlatched. The door was closed, but because it was unlatched, cold air spilled out of it, and with the high heat and humidity, there was mildew on the frame and door, and the cold plate was a huge mass of ice. The compressor was running non-stop trying to keep the box cold, and since the only charging source for the batteries was the solar panels, we were concerned that our batteries would be drained. The batteries were low, but not to the point of damage, so it appeared the door was open for only a couple of days.
We initially assumed that Alfonso must have bumped the fridge door and inadvertently unlatched it when he moved the stuff from the deck to the interior; however, as Jan looked around, she noticed a few other things that didn't seem quite right. There was nothing glaringly out-of-place, but she had an unsettled feeling, one that was compounded when one of the security guards asked her if everything was OK inside. By this time it was late afternoon, so we grabbed a few things to move into an apartment, joined another couple to go out for dinner and called it an evening.
Theft. The next morning, Rich moved the microwave from Slip Away into our apartment, and when Jan opened the door to it, she noticed that some things were missing - our portable GPS and handheld VHF radio that we stored inside for protection from a potential lightning strike. She went out to Slip Away and started looking around. There was a reason she had an unsettled feeling the previous day - we had been robbed. She opened our oven, looking for our backup laptop and USB GPS receiver that we stored inside (also for lightning protection), and they were gone. Our good binoculars and some gold jewelry stored in one of Jan's clothing drawers in our stateroom were also gone. The thief had spent quite a bit of time in our boat and had gone through most or all of our storage cabinets and drawers, as well as the fridge - that's why the fridge door was unlatched. He was not destructive, and it was quite strange that it appeared he tried to put most things back in place, but the few things left out of place gave it away that he had been there.
We were not the only victims - four or five other boats in the yard had been burglarized. We made a report with the police, but our theft wasn't high on their priority list, and it got very little action. The head of Ferroalquimar's security team did an investigation and fired three members of the night security team - one who allegedly disabled the security cameras and two who knew he was doing it, but didn't report it until questioned. The yard also had proof that at least one contractor was involved - a guy named Jorge, who was the son of our contractor Alfonso. The yard had a record of Jorge carrying a guitar out of the yard - when he took it out, he told the security guard that the owners asked him to get it repaired, but he sold it to a pawn shop. There was no solid proof against Alfonso, but he had a key to our boat, and there appeared to be no sign of forced entry. He was also caretaker of and had keys to the boat with the stolen guitar. Alfonso was fired from our job and banned from the yard. Both we and Flavit were happy to see Alfonso go. Flavit didn't need Alfonso's help on our project, but he had brought him in on our project because Alfonso had helped him out during the especially difficult financial times of the past few months. Jorge was allowed to continue working in the yard for another few weeks to complete some jobs for which he had been paid because he had no money to give them a refund. For a couple of weeks, he worked on a boat right next to ours. We were glad when he finally finished the work and was gone.
We spent several days of our first week back in Cartagena dealing with issues of the thefts - filing the police report, meeting with the head of Security, meeting with the head honchos of the yard. One of the yard employees offered to take us to some of the local pawn shops to see if we could find Jan's jewelry. That was an exercise in futility, but we did get an interesting tour of some of the neighborhoods. In the end, we recovered nothing, and the yard took no responsibility for our expenses in replacing the lost items. Fortunately, we had some cruising friends who were flying back to the States for a short visit, and they volunteered to bring replacement items to us.
Life in the Shipyard (October 9 - January 14 ). We were eager to put the thefts behind us and focus on our reason for being in the yard - boat work. We spent the next three months in Ferroalquimar Shipyard while Slip Away got her major facelift. The details of the work are covered on our webpage Refit 2009 Cartagena. It was a lot of work, and we missed our cruising life, but it was worth it as Slip Away now looks like a brand new boat.
As life goes in a boatyard, the Ferroalquimar Shipyard had its plusses and minuses. One of the big plusses was the small apartments that they rented for about $18/day - not extremely cheap when you're there for a long time, but it was a godsend. Whenever we hauled out in other yards, we always lived on the boat, but we could not have tolerated it here. The weather was extremely hot and humid, the mosquitoes were voracious, and there was an incredible amount of fiberglass dust from all the sanding and grinding on the surfaces of the boat. The air-conditioned room with a small fridge and hot plate was a really nice option. One of the negatives was that the boatyard is located about 20 minutes out of town, and we were pretty much in the middle of nowhere along the side of a highway. A cab ride to town was $7-10 one way, so we usually took the bus, which was about 65 cents one way, but the bus took 30-45 minutes, and an hour if you got on the really slow bus! Another plus was that the boatyard had a small restaurant, which served breakfast and lunch primarily for the employees, but we could eat there, too. Lunch was the traditional Colombia "almuerzo" which is a generous amount of food - chicken or fish or beef, rice, salad, sometimes beans or lentils, soup and juice (all for $2.50 US). The food was pretty good, and after a big lunch like that, we didn't need much for dinner. There was one other restaurant close by - Los Cauchos - which served similar fare and was a little more expensive, so we usually just ate at the shipyard, but Los Cauchos came in handy on Sundays when the boatyard restaurant was closed. A big negative about Ferroalquimar was that we were in a big shipyard - not just a boatyard serving private yachts. Sometimes the yard would work all night long sandblasting on big ships, and it was quite noisy. And, all that sandblasting created more dust and dirt.
Most of the yard personnel worked very hard, and they were also incredibly nice and friendly. Most of them called us "Mister Rich" and "Jefa." ("Jefa" is Spanish feminine for "boss.") At first it was just Flavit and his crew calling Jan "Jefa", but by the end of our stay, most all the guys in the yard were calling her that. We called the guys "the muchachos" and they were always happy to help us out - whether it was sanding the decks or helping Rich move something heavy or helping Jan carry groceries from a taxi to our apartment. One day, when Jan was walking back to the yard from getting our cell phone re-charged at a small tienda down the highway, one of the security guys rode by on his motor scooter, and he stopped and gave Jan a ride back to the yard. We were also pleasantly surprised at how many workers were trying to learn English, and they were not shy about trying to speak it with us. More than once, we were approached by a yard employee with a notebook in hand asking how to pronounce words and conjugate verbs.
Both of us had plenty to keep us busy while in the shipyard. Rich did most of the supervision of the work on Slip Away, and Jan had her own "to-do" list, which included a number of sewing projects, website updates, ordering and tracking some shipments from the U.S. (with the help of Luis from LJPropCenter) and keeping our financial affairs in order. Jan was fortunate that many of the projects she worked on kept her inside our air conditioned apartment, while Rich and the other guys were working in high heat and humidity outside. In the Fall, outside temperatures were in the 90'sF, and the heat index (factoring in humidity) hovered in the low 100'sF; in December and January, it "cooled off" to the high 80's.
Celebrating the Holidays in Cartagena. Slip Away was "on the hard" for all the major year-end holidays - Thanksgiving, Jan's birthday, Christmas and New Year's. Although the yard was working on Thanksgiving, we cut out early and went out for a nice dinner in town with Rob & Linda on Cat'n About. There was no turkey on the menu, but the steak was quite good!. On Jan's birthday in early December, we blew off work for the entire day, went into El Centro to run a few errands, and then met our friends Tom & Kathy from Jumbie for some sightseeing. We took a taxi to El Convento de la Popa, a 400 year old convent built on top of a hill with fabulous views of the city. After the convent, we headed to Old Town, had a drink at a bar which sits atop the wall surrounding the city, and then enjoyed dinner at an outdoor cafe along Plaza San Diego.
Cartagena is a popular tourist destination for the Christmas and New Year's holidays. The harbor is crowded with sailboats, cruise ships show up on a regular basis, and hotels are booked. The downtown area is decorated beautifully, and there are concerts, parades and other happenings. In early December, a member of the cruising community organized a bus tour of the city lights, and we signed on thinking it sounded like fun. We spent three hours in uncomfortable seats on a tour bus driving over bumpy roads. The free rum and coke ran out early, and the lights weren't much to write home about. The tour was possibly more interesting for the folks from the anchorage because it passed through a number of the local "barrios" (neighborhoods), but we traveled through those areas on a regular basis while taking the local buses to and from the yard. Another evening, we attended an annual dance recital put on by Los Cisnes Academia de Danzas (The Swans Academy of Dance). The dancing - lots of ballet, but also Spanish dancing, belly dancing and other forms - was pretty darn good. The costumes were extraordinary, and the little students stole our hearts. But the recital lasted three hours, and our bottoms were numb by the time it was over!
Christmas was a very special day. Eleven of us - our hosts Roy & Marlene, Tammy, Rob & Linda from Cat'n About, Brian & Marilyn from Icarian, Tom & Lillianna from Gloria Maris and the two of us - gathered on Damiana for both breakfast and dinner. Roy makes a special "Kringle" which made for a delicious breakfast. Later in the day, we enjoyed a traditional turkey dinner. The turkey was prepared on board Gloria Maris, and the side dishes were prepared on board Damiana and Icarian. Those of us with boats in the yard provided beer, wine, rum and dishwashing support. It had been a few years since the two of us had a traditional Christmas dinner, and it was absolutely delicious! After dinner we had a "white elephant" gift exchange with lots of laughs.
A couple of days after Christmas, we joined the crews from Damiana and Cat'n About for a city tour. Our tour guide Alex spoke English well and took us to the Convento de la Popa and Castillo San Felipe, and we also did a walking tour through Old Town. It was a great way to spend time with our friends and see a bit more of the city.
When New Year's Eve rolled around, we were still in the yard, but we were in good company. In addition to Rob & Linda from Cat'n About, Bob & Annette from Tempest were also in the yard at that time. Roy & Marlene from Damiana came out to the boatyard to join us for Happy Hour, and we had a nice little party as we watched the blue moon rise behind the cranes.
We spent three more weeks in Cartagena, anchored near the Club Nautico Marina, which is walking distance to the Old Town. We sorted out the boat gremlins, decided to do some medical checkups (excellent doctors here and reasonably priced), but the best part was that we also found time to enjoy the city and spend time with our cruising friends. Highlights included beer and pizza happy hours at Pacho y Guillo's, cold limeades in Bolivar Park, good meals at some excellent restaurants, gatherings on Slip Away and other boats, and even an hour of watching some aspiring little leaguers practicing at the local baseball diamond. When we had a few days with no vendor or doctor appointments, we "slipped away" to Bahia Cholon (20 miles away), where we could jump in the water (Cartagena harbor is too dirty), do a quick wipe-down on the boat bottom, and again spend time with friends. It was good to be back to the cruising life!