Bill and I had stayed in a hotel in the old city of Cartagena twice before, one night each on our way to and from the airport at Christmas-time. So sailing to Cartagena should’ve been very familiar, right? Wrong! My impression of this city had been that of a very old, low to the ground, walled city. Upon entering from the sea, it looked like New York City with huge, modern sky scrapers. I was completely disappointed. But I got over it. I love this city!
We entered the harbor as if in a parade. 25 sailboats, single file, maneuvered around cargo ships in transit, small fishing boats with long fishing lines out every which way, speeding motorboats with far too many passengers aboard, and even a submarine under way! Our rally organizer, Suzanne, had arranged with the Colombian Navy to be escorted to an anchorage right beside the old city. When we had visited before, this anchorage was empty; all cruising boats were anchored further south in a crowded area.
We were instructed to call the Cartagena Port Authority to gain permission to enter the nine mile long channel, so the VHF radio traffic was a steady stream of rally folks chatting in several languages. The Port Authority called each of us back again to give us exact latitude/longitude positions to drop our anchor. This created quite a comedy scene as we all entered the tight area, dropped anchors and backed down with 100 feet of chain. Alembic’s designated waypoint to drop the anchor was right under a catamaran’s boat, because they had dropped in their position and backed down 100 feet to our position! This boat had a young boy aboard, so I asked him to watch out as I dropped a huge anchor on his feet. He was entertained, not worried, as we splashed our anchor right beside him. It all worked out. We settled like ships on a battleship board, each of us lining up with the wind and spaced about 100 feet apart. I’d like an aerial photo of our formation. Luckily, the wind has continued to blow, keeping us lined up facing the breeze. If this wind stops, and we drift about our anchors in random circles, there will likely be collisions!
As soon as everyone settled in their assigned spots, we launched our dinghies and headed to shore for a welcome party at Club de Pesca. This yacht club rivals any fancy club in New England. Elegant drinks, exquisite hors d’oeuvres, and beautifully dressed people filled the tiled outdoor establishment. Bill and I are not yacht club people; we have found them to be stuffy and unwelcoming to the “underdressed” or “simple” people. But this was breaking all of my negative images of hoity-toity clubs. They welcomed all of us warmly and made it clear that they would do anything to make our week long stay in their city enjoyable.
Festivities began the next morning with the club’s first Regatta of the year, where all of the captains of the sailboats welcomed any rally sailors to hop aboard. Many of our group took this offer, and experienced this race, with screaming Spanish captains, blaring latin music, a myriad of shots of tequila, many close calls, and even a collision at the start. Most of the rally guests had no idea what was being screamed to the crew, and were entertained by the back and forth shouting followed by plenty of jolly cheering. After the race, we all sat at tables with our boat crews and enjoyed free beer, margaritas, delicious latin food, and hilarious recounts of the day’s race.
We were instructed by a crew member to go to Club de Havana that night for live Cuban music and salsa dancing. Following orders, we headed out at 11 pm. Music started closer to midnight, but we were glad to have arrived early to find a space in the crowded club. True to his word, this was an authentic experience with a bona fide eight member Cuban band. Surrounding us, were Colombians, aged 21 to 71, dancing to the lively beat. Bill, John, and I danced along with them, but I’m afraid it was obvious that we were gringos who wished they could salsa!
The next day, Sunday, was scorching hot at the outset. Hoping to experience a Catholic mass at the old Cathedral, we opted to take a taxi, rather than walk, so we wouldn’t be dripping with sweat upon arrival. The service was serene, with a priest speaking Spanish so quietly, that I could barely hear him from our pew near the back. Throughout the cathedral, fans blew wildly, whipping my hair around, further hindering my hearing, but keeping us cool throughout the mass.
A vagrant, whom we have seen every day in Cartagena, sat in the pew right in front of us, leaving and returning throughout the mass. This particular man can be seen walking in and out of many establishments throughout town, begging for money. Colombians show no signs of frustration when nonpaying guests come in to their restaurants, stores, museums and churches. Most of these wanderers have something to sell, and will approach each customer to ask for money. Many people play music, dance, or try to sell jewelry, flowers, cigars, or handmade art. We have given many people money for their unsolicited performances, but rarely pay for any items. Teenage rap singers, a 12 year old opera singer, a family dressed up as gold statues, a group of street funk dancers, and a violin player were among our favorites. This bum in the church, unfortunately, had nothing to sell, and was clearly seriously mentally disabled. I am curious about the social programs offered for the homeless. Santa Marta and Cartagena seem to have few seriously disturbed homeless people wandering the streets, at least less per capita than I have seen in Portland Maine.
On Monday, we walked to the fort and learned about how many battles the people of Cartagena have endured. This gave me even more reasons to love the people here. The views from the top were amazing.
Tuesday and Wednesday were spent traveling around the city on foot, trying to find many boat parts. We needed a piece of cable, a new cap for our diesel jug, rechargeable batteries, and a few other things. What is a simple task in the US is a full day task here, and we often come up empty handed. That’s okay, though, as we have learned to improvise with everything we do. And the experience of going to a ferreteria (hardware store), drawing pictures, using our Spanish dictionary, and lots of hand signals is fun. Each ferreteria is unique and only carries a few categories of items. They usually have a counter a few feet from the sidewalk, and employees go to the shelves behind to fetch what you are interested in buying. When we do find what we want, we are always shocked by the low price, like the mini batteries for 30 cents a piece.
Today, Jennifer, a local woman who speaks fluent English and French, came to Club de Pesca, to show us the many fruits in season here in Colombia. We tasted all of them while learning about the culinary and medicinal benefits of each. Now we are all better prepared to select offerings from the San Blas folks who paddle around in dugout canoes, trading their produce for items we have on board. Locals in the San Blas don’t need money, but are always interested in our fresh water, canned vegetables to stretch their locally grown choices, and other items for fishing, art or learning.
We will be sad to leave this vibrant city, and plan to return someday soon. We have plans to leave tomorrow, and sail toward the San Blas Islands. But first, we are heading off now to a farewell dinner, put on by the wonderful Club de Pesca. More latin food and drinks and lessons in Salsa!