Colombia city trip and Guna Yala, Panama

After being in Santa Marta for more than two months we decided to make use of Mila’s safe berth in Santa Marta Marina and go on a vacation to visit Medellin, Bogota and Cartagena.

Travelling inland in Colombia is easy and cheap, by bus as well as by plane. A bus ride from Santa Marta to Medellin would have taken more than 20 hours so we decided to go by plane. The Santa Marta airport is only a short taxi ride from the marina and as we traveled without checked luggage and as there are no customs problems when crossing no borders flying in Colombia is fast and efficient.

Our first hotel there was cheap but quite some distance away from the city center and not very comfortable. As it was also very loud there we changed to a better place after two nights where we could have a good rest on the 17th floor and the Medellin night life was in nearby walking distance.


Hotel selfie
View from our room

Medellin is a very vibrant city, we explored the city by foot, by Metro train and also took the cable car up the hill to have a view of the whole city. There are many street vendors, in general there are loads of people on the street all the time and it often is very loud.

We did a city tour with “Real City Tours” as was suggested by our friends Silvie & Dirk and learned a lot about the history of Medellin. The tour was not only about the former drug trafficking problems with the Escobar cartel, but it was an important part of it. It was hard to imagine that not so long ago Medellin was an extremely dangerous city, as we felt very safe there during our stay. We had a nice stay in Medellin and left for an 8-hour bus ride to Bogota after four days. Of the Colombian cities we’ve been to, Teresa liked Medellin the most.

For me, Bogota was much more interesting. Because it doesn’t need to be crammed inside a valley, there is a lot more space and room to breathe. Apart from the poor areas in the outer parts Bogota is very European and avant-garde for a Colombian city. It is very clean and there are many big shopping malls. Because Bogota is very high in the mountains at 2700m, the climate is very cold for a city in the tropics. We wore long pants and occasionally even a sweater. It was quite nice to have a rest from the usual sweating for some days.

Bogota also has a very active rock music scene, we took the opportunity to visit a concert of the Ukrainian metal band Jinjer. We wanted to attend one of their shows back home in Berlin some years ago, but this concert was canceled because the band could not get a Visa for Germany.

We explored Bogota for three days mostly by foot but also by Bus. Buses in Bogota run like a Metro, so they have their own lanes that are separated by a barrier from normal traffic, and their stops are comparable to a metro station.

From Bogota, we took a plane to Cartagena. Originally we planned to sail there as it is on the way to Panama, but clearance and immigration procedures for boaters are so complicated and have to be repeated everytime you change port in Colombia, so it was easier for us to leave the boat in Santa Marta. In Cartagena we met up with our Swedish friends of catamaran Pangea that took the bus from Santa Marta to explore the city with us.

Hotel with central pool in Cartagena

Our hotel in Cartagena was very scenic, but we could hardly get any sleep there as the city center is very loud and the windows consisted only of blinds instead of glass.

Cartagena is a bit like the big sister of Santa Marta. We stayed there for one and a half days which was enough to get a good impression of this generally nice but also very touristic city.


After three and a half months it was finally time to leave Colombia, where we initially planned to stay for four weeks. For me, this country was the absolute highlight of our whole journey for now. You can really feel that Colombia is on the rise after having serious civil war problems with drug trafficking and guerillas for 50 years. All the people are optimistic and working very hard to raise their economic status. Also, they are very open-minded and social. There are millions of Venezuelans in Colombia due to the crisis in their home country, and in general this is well-accepted by Colombians even if they are quite poor themselves. Regarding our own “refugee crisis”, there are many people back home in Germany who could learn from Colombia.

The only downside of Colombia is that people on the caribbean coast and in rural areas very rarely speak English, but at least this helped us to raise our level of Spanish from inexistent to being able to communicate somehow. Also, in Bogota and Medellin we had the impression that there were a lot more english-speaking people. In Medellin we even attended a stand-up comedy evening in English, in a bar nearby the university.


Finally leaving Santa Marta at sunrise

Shortly before we left we did our usual rig check and noted a broken strand in one of our forward lower shrouds. We rigged Dyneema safety line which doesn’t allow us to use our Mainsail because it is wrapped around our mast.

Nevertheless, it felt good to leave the Marina and go sailing again. We made good speed using only the jib and arrived after exactly two days in our planned anchorage in Guna Yala. Guna Yala is an autonomous territory on the Atlantic coast of Panama that belongs to the Kuna indios. It consists of many small islands, most of them uninhabitated and some with huts on them. Most Kunas live a very traditional life. There is no tap water (they get water from a river on the mainland), no electricity and their means of transport is a dugout canoe. They do use mobile phones and Whatsapp though.

Mila in Coco Banderas

The Kunas we met so far have been very welcoming and friendly, completely different to the sometimes very pushy boat boys we met in the Windward Islands (especially in Dominica). Sailors and Kunas coexist together very well, they sell us fruit, Coconuts, fish or Lobster or they trade it for drinking water, beer or the opportunity to charge their phone.


We met Pangea again and spent some time with them. Barbecued the Mahi I caught on the way to Panama, went snorkeling and fishing and met some new people. We visited Green Island and took the dinghy up Rio Diablo, where Teresa saw a small crocodile. Then we went to the Holandes Cays for christmas. We had a very nice christmas dinner on the Norwegian Catamaran Mais Uma and went on BBQ Island where the Kuna living there made a big fire.

There is a big crocodile (about 4m) living on Banedup, Holandes Cays. We never saw it ourselves but we dinghied a guy that swam to the island and then saw the crocodile back to his boat as his motivation for swimming had faded. Crocodiles are freshwater animals, but they can live on the islands because there are water holes on some islands that contain water that is less salty because of being filtered by the coral. Crocodiles are endemic in Guna Yala and as they are quite fearful accidents involving humans happen very rarely, but they are known for eating sailor’s dogs. I think i also saw the Banedup crocodile running away in front of me when collecting firewood, but i’m not totally sure as it was dark.

When we started to run out of provisions after some weeks, we sailed to Linton in mainland Panama. We rented a car to visit Panama City and the Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal, took the bus to Portobelo and finally bought a second folding bike to explore the area. Biking here is fun as the roads are in good quality and there is not so much traffic. Also, there are road blocks by the Panamanian police all the time and if you are on a bike they wave you through without a search.

So far, we like Panama. We will stay in the area for a while as my brother and his girlfriend will visit us here in February.

milaanchoring.com – Still on St. Martin

It’s been some time since we posted our last blog post, which apart from the usual lazyness is due to the fact that we’re currently still on St. Martin and haven’t left the island in the last two months. We anchored in Marigot Bay for some time, then entered the lagoon and anchored near the dutch border. That’s right, while the whole island of Saint Martin / Sint Maarten is about the size of Berlin, it is divided into two countries.

This also means two different mains systems (110V on the dutch side, 220V on the french side) which is normally not important for us as we are always anchored anyways. And this means not only two currencies (Euro on the french side and Netherlands Antillean Guilders on the dutch side) but three, because everyone accepts US Dollars.

St. Martin Lagoon as seen from the hills between Cole Bay and Philippsburg
St. Martin Lagoon as seen from the hills between Cole Bay and Philippsburg

 

Fort near Marigot bay
Fort near Marigot bay

Dinghy dock of Lagoonies, the probably most common bar in the lagoon
Dinghy dock of Lagoonies, the probably most common bar in the lagoon

Squalls, low season is coming fast
Squalls, low season is coming fast

So why did we stay here for so long? At first, because we really love this island. The combination of the two countries makes it really special in the Caribbean. Due to the french impact shopping for food is a pleasure, prices are at least reasonable and the food quality is quite high, but there is absolutely no nightlife on the french side. On the dutch side, there are dozens of different restaurants, bars, night clubs and casinos. And probably because of this the prices here are also reasonable, for Caribbean standards again. The dutch side even has a SXM phone app which tells you about happy hours and special events every day. We stocked up on food a lot and went to several interesting places in the evenings.

One evening, we went to a boat bar called JabJabs that is anchored in Simpson bay, made friends with the owner and found out that he just opened and is searching for bartenders. So Teresa asked if she could work there and became a bartender some days later. While i had a closer look at this boat i found out that the electric system was an absolute chaos and so was working there as well for some days to get this sorted out.

Teresas workplace of the last weeks
Teresas workplace of the last weeks

What else happened in the last few weeks? We went to a Casino, Teresa spent 11$, i had some luck and in the end spent 2$ for gambling the whole evening and night, which was nice because they serve free drinks as long as you’re playing. We went out to several night clubs and bars, went hiking to Philippsburg and to the fort nearby Marigot bay. We also hiked to La Belle Creole which is a former luxury resort that was destroyed by a hurricane in 1995.

We went to Carnival in Philippsburg with our crazy American friend Jeff in his dinghy which has a 50hp outboard. Oh, and we just recently upgraded our own outboard from 5hp to 10hp for an extremely reasonable price (after two months on a small island you know which people to ask). Now we’re getting the dinghy easily on plane with the two of us inside and go 16kts even when carrying some stuff. We bought a sewing machine because there are some projects to be done and in the end this will probably be cheaper than having a sailmaker do it. This turned out to be a harder project than expected because most of the shops for electric stuff are on the dutch side and they only sell 110V equipment, but Mila has a 220V system onboard. But in the end we found a nice Singer, which is a german brand as far as i know.

Cupecoy beach relaxing
Cupecoy beach relaxing

Cupecoy beach handstand
Cupecoy beach handstand

Another reason for staying here so long was that we had to sort out our future plans. As most of you maybe know, initially we planned to head to the Panama Canal in April and as we’re still here, this will not happen this year. There are two reasons for this, the first is that the hurricane season in the Pacific begins in November which would mean that we would sail from here to New Zealand in about five months. This would mean racing through the south pacific without having time to visit many islands there, which is probably one of the most interesting parts of this journey.

The other reason is that we’re simply running out of money. We initially planned to work in New Zealand, but while our cruising kitty is not completely empty right now, we just don’t have enough money to make it there. We would probably have enough canned food on board to sail there without reprovisioning, but the Panama Canal transit is expensive and visas for the Galapagos are extremely expensive. And to be able to sail these long distances with an acceptable speed we would have to haul the boat here and repaint the antifouling, which is also expensive.

Hello big Iguana
Hello big Iguana

Hello small Iguana
Hello small Iguana

10

So for now, no Pacific for us. Still, as the Atlantic hurricane season officially started some days ago the 1st of June, we have to head south in the next days. The current plan is to make a short stop on Dominica because we left that out on our way north. Then we will head to Grenada which is “kind of” hurricane safe, which means it has never been hit by hurricanes except three times in the last two decades thanks to global warming. We’ll stay there for a week or two to help out a friend with repairs on his boat and then head to Curacao which is hurricane safe. That’s the plan for now, from there we will think about what to do next. Maybe we will find jobs there, maybe we will put Mila on the hard and come back home for some time to work and depending on how this all works out we will decide what to do after the end of the hurricane season in December. The options we have is to sail to the pacific (which we hope to do) or sail back home (which we have to do if our funds are not sufficient) or sell the boat, which we currently can’t imagine.

 

One of the good things of french islands - a 24/7 baguette vending machine
One of the good things of french islands – a 24/7 baguette vending machine

So to sum it up, everything is good onboard Mila, but for now, plans have changed. But actually, we’re in good company with that. We’re underway now for about 10 months and in this time we met several other boats with more or less fixed plans to go through the Panama Canal this spring. And as far as i know there is only one single boat that is currently sailing in the Pacific which is the Little Coconut that we met in Portugal, on the Cape Verdes and on Barbados. All the others have changed plans. Boats have been sold or will be sold soon or are on the hard for at least the hurricane season. Or in one special case, are on the hard because they got stolen but were recovered and got major damage to the hull in the whole process. But in the end (apart from the story of the stolen boat) that’s an important factor of the whole cruising lifestyle: Things never work out as planned. Else, it would probably be quite boring.

Mila in Marigot bay, thanks to our friend Bryan for taking some drone shots!
Mila in Marigot bay, thanks to our friend Bryan for taking some drone shots!

Down the Portuguese coast

(It’s possible to click on the pictures now for a bigger version)

To sum up the last weeks, we were a little bit lazy and just did some short passages down the Portuguese coast. Nearly all Portuguese harbours are in river entrances and can get quite rough even with moderate winds because the Atlantic swell works against the river and tidal currents.

Porto
Porto

Port wine tasting in Porto
Port wine tasting in Porto

We had some great days in Porto with crews from other boats and our friend Moritz who joined us from Povoa de Varzim to Peniche. We explored the city, had an exceptionally good sushi and did a Port wine tasting that was included in the marina fee.

Dolphins
Dolphins

Motoring through the atlantic swell somewhere on the Portuguese coast
Motoring through the atlantic swell somewhere on the Portuguese coast

Sao Jacinto anchorage with Mila in the back
Sao Jacinto anchorage with Mila in the back

After some days we headed south to Aveiro and anchored in the nearby Sao Jacinto anchoring bight, because there is a high voltage cable crossing the river that goes to the Aveiro Marina. According to our charts the minimum height below the cable is 18m, but as Mila has a height of nearly 17m including the VHF antenna we decided not to try out the accuracy of the given cable height.

The entrance to the river delta was quite rough although there was nearly no wind and only about 2m of swell outside in the deeper water. But as we approached the shallower entrance the waves got steeper and quite chaotic. It didn’t help that we arrived exactly between high and low tide. When we walked to the entrance the next day at high water the conditions were a lot calmer.

Going to Sao Jacinto turned out to be a wise decision, because it is an interesting place that is much less touristy than Aveiro. We were the only boat in the anchorage at first, and then another french boat joined us. We went to the only existing bar in the village, which was only populated by locals and had two nice evenings with cheap beer and funny karaoke singers. As this was the only place to go to there were people of all ages, and on the second evening we noticed that there were not only exactly the same people but they even sat in exactly the same spot. So we wondered whose spot we occupied…

Moritz and me went to a fish restaurant and I ordered grilled sardines and got a delicious plate of six of them. This has been the first time in my life that I ordered fish in a restaurant and was not able to eat all of it, but fortunately Moritz was able to help.

Exploring Aveiro
Exploring Aveiro

Sao Jacinto beach
Sao Jacinto beach

From Sao Jacinto we went to Peniche and originally planned to visit the Berlengas Island which is about 5 nautical miles west of Peniche. But this island has no harbour and there was to much swell to use the dinghy to get to land, so we just motored around the island and then went to Peniche.

Peniche harbour
Peniche harbour

When we arrived we were welcomed by the norwegian girls of Paloma which we already knew from Porto. We had told them before that we are really sad about not being able to make pizza on board because we don’t have an oven and so they invited us over for a really nice pizza dinner.

We stayed for some days and walked around the peninsula, went for a swim and to a local bar. The weather was changing a lot between warm sunshine, strong rainshowers and extremely thick fog.

Next stop was Cascais in the Tejo river nearby Lisboa. We didn’t like this town as it is a rich people’s area and so were the prices in the harbour, not only the high marina fee but also 13€ for using the washing machine and the dryer. Because of the conditions on the river we had to stay some days but then went on to Oeiras closer to Lisboa as soon as possible.

Approaching Oeiras was as rough as the other Portuguese river approaches, but this time we had a funny encounter with a portuguese submarine warship. We arrived in the darkness and the submarine was black, had no AIS transponder, the wrong navigational lights (actually it had the lights that a sailboat shows when sailing without the engine running and therefore having the right of way). The lights were mounted so low that i saw the boat at first when it was only about 50-60m away. But all went fine, probably they saw us much earlier and kept clear of us.

Exploring Lisboa
Exploring Lisboa

In Oeiras we met up again with some of the other boats. The marina has its own pool that is naturally only open during daytime but as we decided that all of us are in need of a swim in the late night we unfortunately misunderstood the pool area fence for a pool area boarding ladder. This worked quite well for about 10 minutes until the very relaxed pool guard arrived. He approached in normal Portuguese guard pace (means extremely slow) and friendly informed us that the pool is closed till the next morning. So we went back over the pool area boarding ladder and decided to go to the next beach for another swim and the usual bonfire.

Partying on Landkrabbene with the Girls from Paloma and Tuuli
Partying on Landkrabbene with the Girls from Paloma and Tuuli

In contrary to our original plans we decided not to head to Madeira next but go further south on the coast and then cross the strait of Gibraltar to go to Morocco. While Madeira would definitely have been nice too, we’re interested in going somewhere that is a little bit off the normal cruising routes, so we plan to visit El Jadida and Essaouira because those are the only harbours that we can enter with our 2m draft and do at least have some sort of small pier where a yacht can go to. After Morocco we will get back on our planned route and therefore sail to the Canaries.

Further West and a little bit to the South

Our next leg from Saint-Germain-des-Vaux was to Guernsey. We were accompanied by the Tuulis (check out their website). We motored the whole way through the so-called “Race of Alderney”. It’s called like this because of the very strong currents that can occur due to the tide. But we arrived a little bit early and so the Race was not as exciting as we expected.

Shortly before we approached St. Peter-Port which is the main harbour of Guernsey we had a small thunderstorm coming along our way. Wind speeds increased from zero to nearly 40 knots in minutes and decreased shortly after we finished berthing, which went surprisingly well for those conditions.

The marina has a very motivated harbour master. We arrived in the middle of the night at about 3:30 and he instantly came over in his small dinghy and pointed us to the right berth.

Guernsey was the first “country” where we had to clear customs, but it’s a quite easy procedure. You simply have to fill out a form with all your personal and ship data (and list all alcoholic beverages and all vegetables and meat onboard) and then put the form into a postbox when leaving your boat for the first time.

 

Guernsey
Guernsey

The yacht harbour has a sill to keep the water inside at low tide. Tidal differences are quite high.

The Sill at St.Peter-Port (Guernsey) at high tide
The Sill at St.Peter-Port (Guernsey) at high tide

The sill of St.Peter-Port on Guernsey at low tide
The sill of St.Peter-Port on Guernsey at low tide

 

Guernsey jetty
Guernsey jetty

Guernsey with the old fort in the background
Guernsey with the old fort in the background

Guernsey was nice to visit but at least St. Peter-Port was not as interesting as we would have liked it to be. For me, the most remarkable thing was the extraordinarily good Burger Menu i ate.

 

That's how home-grade "stainless" steel is looking after some weeks in a marine environment
That’s how home-grade “stainless” steel is looking after some weeks in a marine environment

We should have stayed for another night to explore the other parts of the island. Instead, we decided to continue Southwest and went back to France to Roscoff due to a very good weather forecast which turned out to be wrong, we had to use the engine most of the way.

We've been escorted by Dolphins while sailing to Roscoff
We were escorted by Dolphins while sailing to Roscoff

Roscoff is a nice little city with stores that have a quite long lunch break, and when we decide to walk to the next supermarket we usually arrive five minutes after the beginning of this. So instead of cooking we went to a creperie and had some crepes and coffee. Afterwards, we went to a marine chandler and got some emergency parachute rockets. We would have liked to buy them before we started our journey, but in Germany you are not allowed to buy these without a special license. In France (and probably everywhere else on the world except Germany) you simply go to the store and buy the stuff.

Roscoff
Roscoff

We stayed in Roscoff for two days and went to the beach both days. The first day it was a nice relaxing stay, the second day it wasn’t, because we arrived at high tide and there was no beach any more.

Roscoff harbour at low tide
Roscoff harbour at low tide

Roscoff beach
Roscoff beach

 

From Roscoff, we had a nice relaxing sail to L’Aber Wrac’h. We had to sail close-hauled again and made really good progress due to the wave patterns. While our french boat that has been built in La Rochelle in the middle of the bay of biscay really struggles to go upwind in the short and steep waves of the baltic sea or the english channel, it works like a charm in those long and even Atlantic waves. We’ve had waves of probably two to three meters and it was a lot more relaxing than sailing against waves of less than one meter on the baltic sea.

The next leg was through the Chanel du Four to the Rade du Brest (Bay of Brest) where we’re at anchor now about four miles south of the city. We went there by dinghy today and explored the city center.

The next step will be crossing the bay of Biscay, and we hope to get nice weather for the whole passage (about 350 miles) in about a week.  It gets quite cold here now at night so we hope to be in the warmer south soon.