Monday, September 5, 2016

A La Orden in Santa Marta

Photo courtesy of Anjali 
The evening in Santa Marta begins like this. The sun starts to set in swirled up sorbet colors and we take it as a sign to end the workday. From the marina we walk down the malecon where it seems that the whole city has gathered to watch what the sky will do. There are people dancing on the beach, men selling juices, a woman who sells cafecitos for 500 pesos, wild dogs trotting with testicles or teats swinging, boys whistling after girls, dollars beers from styrofoam coolers, wedding photo shoots, and then me and Max, gringa and gringo, chica and chico, saying no gracias over and over. We tend to draw attention.

From the malecon we turn up Calle 20 and head to the Plaza de los Novios where everything is happening. The plaza is a rectangle of benches and stone gazebos flanked by amber lit restaurants and
flowering trees. Boys practice their break dancing moves in the square and trios of old men in fedoras play and sing. On Fridays young men in Adidas track pants take turns on the stretched goat skin drums of the Tayrona people. Each seems more skilled than the previous. They bang out rhythms so forcefully that broken clubs pile at their feet. The city at night drips with culture and romance. The plazas fill up, everyone drinks on the street, and live music is omnipresent . Every other Saturday, when paychecks are handed out all over the city, it gets really crazy. In general, gringos get a little extra attention (offers of quieres coca are whispered as we pass) but we have never felt ripped off. Quite the opposite, Colombians are affable and accommodating.

Early on Max and I were enchanted by Colombia, and Santa Marta, and have remained here almost three weeks. We have had friends visit from home, explored the mountains, El Parque Tayrona by sea and by land, and had many nights on the town in Santa Marta.  We have local friends to adventure with, a feel for the city, and a bit more boat work to do before we leave. It is certainly different to be right in the heart of the city. There is a nightclub next to us where people dance on a terrace until 3 a.m. The same songs play over and over, regaetone, salsa, regaetone, salsa. A few hours later a Zumba class runs from 6-7 a.m. on a nearby roof. It is loud. We hate the Zumba class. Max day dreams of shooting the instructor with the flare gun. We know that soon we will be alone at distant anchorages, so for now we don't begrudge ourselves the easy step from the boat to a dock, the air-conditioned captain's lounge, or the daily shower.

We decided to stay at the Marina Santa Marta. It was built five years ago and is lauded as the "safest, most beautiful marina in the country" by the local mariners. There is no evidence to suggest
Photo courtesy of Anjali 
otherwise. The facilities are sparkling clean, as are the docks, and the front gate is heavily secured. We haven't felt that Santa Marta is a dangerous city, but it does feel nice to leave the boat to go into the mountains without thinking twice. We pay $23 a night which includes wifi, water, and electricity. We also have a grill area where sailors tend to gather, showers, laundry, and a small store with the cheapest beer in Santa Marta. Within a few minutes walk there is a very nice Carulla supermarket, and a little farther is a huge Exito, which is something like Target. There is an open market five blocks into town where it seems that you can get whatever you want, taking breaks for street food and fresh juices. Specifically, the market is great for having things sown while you wait, finding fabric, having electronics fixed on the side of the street, and small hardware stores where we have been very successful.

Entering Colombia was much different than what our research suggested. The reputation of strict customs guidelines, an expensive agent to help you clear in, or officials boarding the boat to inspect have all been false. We pulled into the marina in the simplest way. A call on 16 and a clear channel
brought us to a dock where men in polo shirts tied us off. After minimal paperwork in the office, we were free to move about. Customs officials never came and we were cleared remotely by the free marina agent. For sailors reading this, don't hire an agent to enter Santa Marta. We did have to pay $100 for the temporary importation of our vessel, but that's it. Many of you have probably not read the sailing forums about this port, but they make it seem much more complicated. Other places on the Colombian coast are not as well reputed, such as Cartegena and Barranquilla. A friend here says if you want to know what hell feels like, anchor in Cartegena. So we have followed the advice of locals and mariners and struck gold in Santa Marta.

As far as the night life is concerned, I have to mention our favorites. We always start with Iguanas where, in a couch on the street, we can sip ridiculously good cocktails made from local fruit while listening to live music. After that we head to a bar to dance called La Puerta where Max and I try to make our hips do what Colombians hips do. Impossible. These people are incredible. La Puerta is a high-ceiling brick maze filled with local art. They play dance music to a silent film background. Shakira blasting while Charlie Chapman fumbles. If you don't dance at this place, some one will make you.

Another great spot is a creperie called Bienvenue opened recently by a French couple we met through a mutual friend. Adjacent to the Plaza de los Novios, Nicholas and Aurelia serve sweet and savory crepes with foreign beer in a very hip store front. Tres Brooklyn.

The neighboring bay, Taganga, is a small fishing village with a  free and secure anchorage. It doesn't have a great reputation because last year two Ausie sailors were tied to their mast and robbed by some locals, but we went there the other night and had a blast. There is a restaurant on the beach called Tacos, owned by an expat from Tennessee named Tony, and his lovely partner Caro. They are incredibly hospitable and Max talked at length with Tony about creating a security patrol that looks over boats while at anchor or on a mooring. As Santa Marta blows up, and more cruisers come, a safe and free anchorage in Taganga will be valuable. For now, we are cautious enough to pay for the dock in Santa Marta. As much as I enjoy likening myself to Odysseus, I don't want to be tied to the mast, even if to escape the sirens. Actually, if the sirens come, I think I am supposed to tie Max to the mast.

On the other side of Santa Marta, there is a bay called Inca Inca where you can anchor, snorkel, and have a lunch of fresh fish delivered to your beach cabana. From there we were able to hike up the mountain for stunning views of the coastline. Unfortunately, Colombia suffers from a plastic
pollution issue, and this particular walk revealed a lot of plastic bags in the cacti. Like in Dominica, they are trying to eradicate this problem, but it looks at times like they have a long way to go yet. How sad it is to look into the turquoise water of the marina and see three Barracuda and a empty Doritos bag. Anyway, there are many places in much worse shape.

Our one disappointment about Santa Marta is that sailboats cannot anchor in El Parque Tayrona overnight. Understandably, they want to prevent destruction of the reef, however, you can anchor for the day, and I am still trying to figure out how that makes sense. We have gone there once so far and anchoring was a challenge. It's deep and then suddenly shallow. The reefs are hard to avoid and it doesn't feel right to hook into a giant brain coral.

The best part of Santa Marta, and maybe the entire trip has been the adventures we have had with friends. Those who have visited us so far, Jay, Anjali, and Henny, have refreshed our sense of adventure by their sheer joy at seeing things that we see often. I remember Henny sitting on the bowsprit for hours surrounded by dolphin in huge seas. I remember Jay literally screaming with joy watching the dark-haired Colombian girls salsa (bit more raunchy than salsa) with one another at a local dance club, and Anjali's tireless hunt for the best ceviche.

At the marina we have also met stellar friends. Manny, who owns a steel-hulled boat called Artic Front, is a 30 year old Colombian who speaks perfect English and German. At night he tells us stories over beers in the street. Stories of fighting the FARC in the jungle, being falsely imprisoned in Panama for smuggling immigrants (he was really just running a charter), and the strange way he came to own a sailboat fit for the southern ocean. He says that the best things that have ever happened to him have happened because he speaks English, and he learned that from video games. That's also how I learned to fight the FARC, he adds. Manny's heart is big and he helps us with everything, whether that means a shared cab to a hardware store, a night of partying on the town, or a BBQ on Artic Front. By his own loud and frequent exclamation, he is a crazy Colombian man.

We plan to leave Santa Marta in just nine days to head to Panama. We have had a tremendous time here and will always feel at home in this town. On the horizon we have challenges awaiting us, getting through the canal for instance, but we also have much to look forward to. Max's sister Anna is coming for three weeks of cruising! Together the three of us will explore the Las Perlas archipelago on the Pacific side of Panama and then head to Nuqui, Colombia to pick up Ian and head for the Galapagos. This has already been an immense experience. but as the school year starts in NY, and we plan to head through the canal to a different ocean, it seems like it is getting even more real.

Here are a million more pictures...