Until not too long ago, the Colombian coast was avoided by cruisers because of its bad reputation. The country was a dangerous place for locals as well as for visitors, whether they arrived by land, air or sea. This has changed tremendously over the last decade. Colombian ports are growing in popularity, while the ‘no-go zone’ these days is located in neighboring Venezuela. The voyage from the ABC islands to Panama used to be a long, hard sail but the accessibility of safe harbors along the Colombian coast now offers rest and refuge to break up the journey west.
Cabo de la Vela, a 120 mile overnighter from Aruba, presents a big, flat bay to spend the night. The scenery is attractive and one can anchor far from shore to avoid bugs and commotion from the small settlement. The clock is set back an hour and when the workday is finished, curious fishermen and families pass by in small boats to gaze at the sailboats and their crew. Remember to smile for the camera!
Cartagena – the old and famous beauty of Colombia – has always been a favorite port of call while on the way west. The town of Santa Marta, however, was the biggest surprise to my husband Mark and me.
Anchoring in the commercial harbor is possible, but most cruisers prefer a stay in the modern and safe Marina Santa Marta. The facilities are clean and comfortable with state-of-the-art air-conditioned bathrooms and a functioning laundry room, both with an abundance of hot water. The staff is friendly, the manager and receptionist speak English, the marina fees are affordable and the interesting town center lies within walking distance. Western-style grocery stores, colorful local food stands and markets, bars, and restaurants abound. A week spent enjoying the good life flies by too quickly.
Santa Marta has an ugly beach that overflows with people during weekends and holidays. For a beach vacation, you’re better off in one of the neighboring coastal towns. The attraction in Santa Marta is the atmosphere of a colonial town, popular with Colombian visitors. A stroll along the boardwalk, while taking in the busy beach scene, the Indian statues and the many carts selling lime juice, skewered meat and other local food pleases the senses. The historic town center reveals picturesque buildings, peaceful squares and vendors selling everything from small cups of coffee to frozen shrimp. When darkness falls, the area really comes alive. Bars and restaurants fill up and the boardwalk and plazas turn into a buzzing scene of locals having fun. Teenagers, couples in love and families with children promenade, and the Latin American culture and atmosphere are ever-present. During the Christmas period decorated statues, lit up at night, cause merriment all around.
Buses enter and leave Santa Marta at different locations and taxis are an easy and affordable means of transportation. A ride to anywhere in the city costs the equivalent of US$2 for up to four passengers. A great day out is to be had at the Tayrona National Park, an hour east of Santa Marta by bus. Here, you can explore the jungle trails, forests and coconut groves or wander along a handful of yellow beaches. If you like to ride then horses can be rented to take you to various parts of the park. A refreshing dip in the ocean can be had in La Piscina and Cabo San Juan and it is possible to spend the night in one of the campgrounds. During the rainy season, the trails can be very muddy.
More and more cruisers prefer to visit the amazing city of Cartagena by bus from Santa Marta to avoid the unattractive anchorage and the extra agent fees in Cartagena harbor. Whether you’re looking to take a break for a few days, a South American culture in which to immerse yourself, or a comfortable base to explore the sights and sounds of Colombia, the vibrant town of Santa Marta provides it all.