Colon and R&R in Cartagena, Colombia March 28 2007
It is time to move on and get focused on the Panama Canal. We left Chichime (3/12) at 7am in order to have a leisurely sail and pre-sunset arrival in Portobelo. We sailed most of the way with s/v Serai and were anchored in the amazingly beautiful Portobelo anchorage by 4pm. The anchorage is tucked between two mountains with fort ruins on both sides...visually stunning. After four weeks without internet it seemed we would go one more day without it because the town library closed 5 minutes before we arrived and the one restaurant with wifi is closed tonight...oh well...we'll grab a bite to eat and walk the town. Christopher Columbus passed through here in November 1502 followed by Francis Drake in 1570. Pirates came next (Henry Morgan in 1668) because the town was overflowing with riches plundered from South America as they were stored in warehouses before being shipped to the Spanish Crown. We were feeling weary (didn't even get a photo of the fort) and called it an early evening. We slept soundly...slept even better knowing that a French cruiser was no longer in the anchorage. It seems he has been tossing gasoline on other cruiser's boats and setting them afire...crazy, but quite a hot topic of conversation on the cruiser's morning radio net.
Off we went from Portobelo (3/13) for Colon and Shelter Bay Marina. We were hailed on the radio by a boat headed out behind us and learned we were both headed to the same place. As he (Bruce of s/v Fifth Element) has been there before we were grateful for some local knowledge...the marina gets good marks but is not yet on any charts because it is so newly constructed. The harbor entrance is a bit hairy with a single opening between two stone breakwaters...and most traffic is no smaller than super tankers...not the most maneuverable of critters. Down came the sails and engine into full so that we could get out of everyone's way as quickly as possible...Chris looking ahead and Erin looking back. A quick scoot and we were snug in a slip (no power and water yet but pristine, new floating dock).
Shelter Bay Marina is on the site of the former Fort Sherman. It is growing quickly and is a nice alternative to the flats (for anchoring) or the Panama Canal Yacht Club (no reservations - first come first serve), especially since we would like to leave the boat for a few days and do some land travel. We have been walking in the mornings when it is cool and try to glimpse capibara (sort of like a cross between a rabbit and a guinea pig), howler monkeys and several different kinds of birds. The howler monkeys have the vocal chords of a mack truck but the body size of a mini-cooper...quite intimidating until you see them. The birds range in different sizes and colors and songs. One bird in particular, chestnut oropendalo, has a song that sounds a bit like notes from a metal washboard with nests that look like ornaments hanging from the palm trees. Apparently, they pick the same tree year after year. Added excitement came to the marina one evening in the form of the Earthrace boat fueled on biodiesel (aka fry-o-lator grease). The boat looks a bit like it should belong to Batman. It is attempting to set an around the world speed record.
But now it is time for all sorts of scheduling tasks...getting things lined up for the passage through the canal and arranging a land trip to Cartagena, Colombia. The canal was first; got an agent, scheduled the official boat measurement, paid fees and the date setting has begun. Second was Cartagena. You are probably thinking...Pablo Escobar, cocaine, kidnappings...eeek. Well, not so in Cartagena. We heard tons of great things about the city from cruisers while we were in the San Blas...and we decided to make a little land vacation out of it. Oh, but first we made a quick trip to the supermarket in Colon. Holy cow! It was practically a religious experience after the meager options in the Bahamas...aisles of full shelves, several types of fruits and vegetables and even multiple types of cheese! We were ecstatic. Erin celebrated her birthday with Chris with dinner at the marina...we were in our finest cruiser wear on the patio of the restaurant.
We took the bikes out for the first time - surprisingly, a pretty seamless assembly - and rode to Fort San Lorenzo on the Chagres River. The Chagres has seen more gold than all other rivers in the world combined due to its route for the Spanish after plundering South America. The Fort is strategically placed at the mouth of the river and was such a jewel of a location that it was sacked and changed hands and burned to the ground more than once...back and forth between the Spanish, the French, the English and, of course, the pirates.
3/17 and we are off to Cartagena! It was tough to find two bags acceptable to go in the baggage hold...but they were eventually found. The ride to the airport was longer than the flight (a mere 45 minutes complete with a quesadilla snack and a cocktail). We knew airport security would be a new wrinkle for us and we simply hoped to go with the flow. Not too much to say except that the Colombians have given the "search your bags" inspection a bit of a game show flair. A line forms (you and your bags), walk up to what looks like a metal detector doorway...but no...you just push the big plastic button on the side. A light then turns on at the top of the arch...green...keep going and have a nice day...or red...stop and have your bag searched with a fine tooth comb. Kinda fun. Chris got green and Erin got red.
Cartagena is regarded as the most beautiful walled city in the Caribbean. It was amazingly untouched by pirates and dueling European powers that swung through the area in the 16th - 18th centuries. As a result, the remains of the fortified Spanish town (El Centro or Ciudad Amurallada) is a slice out of time. Surrounded by thick stone walls (requiring almost 100 years to complete) it is a jewel of Spanish colonial heritage with plazas, churches, narrow streets, heavy wood doors with ornate knockers and balconied houses in a wonderful state of preservation. We stayed at Casa La Fe (www.casalafe.com). Located in the heart of the walled city complete with air conditioning, breakfast and a rooftop pool and sundeck...and owned by a former cruiser. It was a great treat to use as much water as we wanted, flip through the TV channels and have a leisurely breakfast in the garden to start the day. Mostly we walked and walked. Each day doing a bit of museum visiting (Gold Museum, Modern Art Museum and Palace of the Inquisition), reading in fountain filled plazas under the shade of trees, eating at restaurants as well as from the abundant street food and hearing the lively salsa music flowing from every open window and door.
The grand dame hotels of Cartagena (the Charleston and the Hotel Santa Clara) were nice spots for an afternoon soda or an evening cocktail...the Santa Clara (www.hotelsantaclara.com) comes complete with a below ground tomb inside the bar which adds some color to the already interesting history of the place...at various times a manor house, a convent, a hospital, military headquarters. The streets were clean and touts at a minimum...okay...maybe that was because Bush, Kohl and Bill Gates were there just before and during the time we were there but gosh did the town sparkle. We often walked the top of the wall around the city in the cool of the morning, ducked into air conditioned museums during the heat of the day and ventured back out for dinner about 8pm...very impressive stamina for us but nothing in comparison to the Colombians whose night does not even get started until 11pm! Food was delicious and varied; wonderful beef (filet mignon and carne asada), exotic fruits and juices, ceviche (delicious fresh fish, shrimp or octopus combined with lime juice, onion and a touch of cilantro and mint) and corn and cheese combined in a hundred different ways. Restaurants ranged from tables covered with white linen (and all the service that that entails) to small, local places with "comida corriente" (fixed price meal for approx $3) to street carts (erapes - puffed tortillas filled with beef, egg and cheese). We even ate at a Cuban restaurant (complete with a stained glass window of Che Guvera) and had the most wonderful mojito and fried plantains while Cuban music played on the giant TV screen, video style. When our five nights were up we were ready to return to Barefeet.
3/22 we arrived back at Shelter Bay Marina and learned that we would be accompanying Bruce (s/v Fifth Element) through the canal...he needs line handlers and we are eager to see the process before going through ourselves. Bruce is an amazing single hander (sails alone) and a fun guy to be around. The trip included Bruce, us and two others from the marina (total four line handlers per boat are required). We left in the afternoon (3/24) and headed to the flats to anchor until the advisor arrived to take us through the first set of locks (Gatun Locks)...along with four other sailboats...we were rafted two and three together, respectively. We then had dinner aboard as we were tied to a mooring ball in Lake Gatun (no swimming please - alligators). It was an early 6am start (3/25) for the remainder of the canal. It was a great experience but we are both more and less confident for our own transit...there are lots and lots of variables...from multiple people on multiple boats (all needing to "row" in the same direction), multiple languages, line handlers tossing lines from the locks to us (not always the best of shots...and, avoid the solar panels, please) and advisors that do not always see eye to eye. That said - all went smoothly and without a major mis-step.
There is a fun air of excitement around the marina as boats prepare and take off for a transit through the canal. It is easy to spot the time frame...tires wrapped with trash bags hung from the boat as bumpers is a dead giveaway that a canal transit is imminent. We are on this track, too, and can feel the excitement. Back on Barefeet and we have a few projects to complete before making our transit; provision for the transit (food for everyone), laundry, remove/clean/replace both bow u-bolts (yuck - fiberglass dust), watermaker servicing, fill diesel tanks (hand pumped from a 55 gallon drum) and anything else that materializes in the meantime. We are slotted to go through the canal April 2 and 3. You can see us via the canal web cams at http://www.pancanal.com/eng/photo/camera-java.html. As for timing. If our schedule mirrors Bruce's...which it should. We will leave April 2 approx 4pm with advisor aboard and arrive Gatun Locks approx 6:30pm...spend the night in Gatun Lake then leave early April 3 for the remaining bit of the canal...arrive Miraflores Lock approx 12:30/1pm...then continue and be moored in Balboa Yacht Club (Pacific side) by 3pm...we are one hour earlier than East coast time because Panama did not change their clocks as the US did.