Sailing in Colombia

Sailing in Colombia

Sailing in Colombia is different from the ideal conditions in the Eastern Caribbean: trips are a lot longer and other cruiser boats not as common. Conditions can be rough, with strong winds, and navigating is challenging with incomplete charts. Because of these difficulties, some cruisers don’t stop here at all on the way to Panama, and others only visit one port: Santa Marta or Cartagena. As longtime fans of Colombia, we spent extended time in both! Here’s what our experience has been sailing in Colombia.

Western Caribbean map including Colombia
Colombia in the Western Caribbean

All information in this post is based on our experiences sailing the Caribbean coast of mainland Colombia. The country is vast, with Pacific coastline and occupied islands alongside Central America, which are not discussed here.

Welcome to Colombia

Arriving in Colombia on our boat was different from other sailing destinations. Colombia is so big that we saw the country a full day before we could enter a port. And the conditions are rough. Santa Marta, Colombia is infamous for heavy winds and rough seas, so much so that many sailors coming from the ABC Islands or further choose to skip the port entirely and head straight to Cartagena.

rough seas Colombia
Rough seas in Colombia

Sailing in Colombia From Santa Marta to Cartagena

The trip from Santa Marta to Cartagena should take about 14 hours, but, for safety reasons, we chose to break it up and anchor overnight mid-way there. Normally, we’d leave Santa Marta in the evening to arrive in Cartagena in the daytime. We like to arrive in a port, especially one new to us and busy, in daytime.

But, we left in the morning, and stopped halfway to avoid sailing any of the journey in the dark. Barranquilla’s Magdalena River empties large pieces of debris into the sea, including big logs and other heavy loads, which are easier to avoid when you can see. Even in daytime, we were avoiding obstacles, and it’s even worse after a big storm!

If you are sailing from Santa Marta to Cartagena, you can stop for the night at Puerto Valero and anchor outside the marina. Many cruisers leave their boats in the marina and explore Colombia from there. The marina is affordable but/because there is nothing else for miles around. When we anchored there, the only people visible on shore or water were a few kitesurfers from the nearby school.

Sailboats at Puerto Valero Colombia
Sailboats at the marina in Puerto Valero Colombia

Speaking of storms, as we were sailing between Barranquilla and Cartagena, a thunderstorm kicked up over shore. Beginning with booming thunder in the distance, followed by bolts of lightning, the storm scared me. We were the only boat in sight, and did not want the lightning to come any closer. Fortunately, we only had some water spouts and more thunder, but it rolled past without connecting with us or Sava.

storms sailing in Colombia Barranquilla
Storms as we passed Barranquilla Colombia

The Port of Cartagena

One of the coolest things about sailing into Cartagena is the city itself. It’s modern and old and the anchorage and marinas are close to everything. With the conveniences comes the issues.

The port of Cartagena is always busy, with a lot of pleasure boats taking tourists out of the heat of the city, navy boats from the nearby base, private yachts, container ships and fishing vessels. This means boats at anchor, or even at the marina, suffer through large wakes of hundreds of boats flying past at least twice a day: when they leave the Muelle de la Bodeguita, the dock near the Old City, in the morning, and when they return in the afternoon.

Cartagena harbor
It’s nice to be close to the city, but Cartagena harbor is very busy

A big bay, it’s not conducive for swimming, largely due to the peril of avoiding speed boats and also because of the water quality. It isn’t clear and clean in Cartagena. Have a look at the color when we sailed down to the islands a couple weeks ago.

brown water in Cartagena bay
The bay of Cartagena is not for swimming

The port of Cartagena is busy, all the way to the exit channel, which is 2.5 miles from the city. There’s lots to see along the way, including a statue of The Virgin Mary who blesses sailors, fishing boats, private motorboats of all sizes, and the tour ships.

Virgin Mary in Cartagena harbor
The Virgin Mary is blessing mariners in the Cartagena harbor

The Islands off Cartagena

Where are all the tour boats going? To the Rosario Islands and Baru, of course. Cartagena is a great city, but it’s often unbearably hot. We can’t swim at the marina so we like to get away! And so do all the tourists. Boats leave the main dock around 9am daily, and speed down to Las Islas in less than 90 minutes.

Isla Grande view of Cartagena
View of Cartagena from Isla Grande

Once you get to the islands, navigation is tricky, not because of traffic but because a lot of the charts don’t show reefs or entrances into the bays! We learned that going into Cholon Bay. The best bet is to ask other cruisers who’ve been there before to share their paths or let you follow them into the bay. Once there, it’s beautiful! There are several anchorages near Isla Grande in the Rosarios which weren’t even marked on our charts.

Caribbean blue water Isla Grande Colombia
Caribbean blues at Isla Grande, Rosario Islands

So far, we’ve visited Cholon Bay and Isla Grande on Sava. We hope to make it to the further San Bernardo Islands, because they are beautiful!

Map of where we anchored Sava in Las Islas of Cartagena
Where we anchored Sava in Las Islas of Cartagena from No Foreign Land

The islands are lovely with Caribbean blue waters for snorkeling, diving, or just floating. This is the reward after all that rough sailing in Colombia.

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Author: Mel

Living aboard a sailboat, scuba diver, cat parent, cyclist, blogger, love the water and exploring new places.

18 thoughts on “Sailing in Colombia”

  1. Oh wow! I have always wanted to visit Colombia but I never thought about sailing. Your photos are incredible. The water does look choppy. What a great experience. I would love to go sailing one year. I only felt comfortable on water about 10 years ago. So I have a lot of catching up to do. I really enjoyed this guide. Thank you for sharing your experience!

    1. You can sail most anywhere there’s water! Charters run out of the marinas in Manga Cartagena. We saw several when we were anchored in Isla Grande.

  2. What a neat article! Thanks for sharing. My husband is from Argentina and comes from a sailing family. He has told me a lot about their adventures in SA. I thought the water at Rosario Islands looked so nice in your photos – that blue!

  3. We sailed into Cartagena by cruise ship but that was a very different sailing experience than coming in my smaller boat. We too loved that view of the Cartagena harbour from the water. But I sure was not tempted to get in the harbour waters! Great that you got input from other cruisers to visit the offshore islands.

  4. Wow I did not know about sailing in Colombia. I have wanted to go to Colombia but did not know about sailing there. I have sailed only once and in Australia. I think as you said sailing in Cartagena seems amazing. But not sure why the water is murky is it because of the channels? The views are surely spectacular though.

  5. Now that’s a confident sailor! When I read choppy waters, storms – I would not be as brave as you. But what an adventure and a interesting perspective it gives you coming into these harbours.

  6. Enjoyed reading your unique post! It was a lot of learning on conditions for sailing and the obstructions experienced. The Columbian waters look really choppy. I love the deep blue water and the atmosphere in the Cartegana harbour. I have never been to Columbia but when I do, I will sure look to sail into Catagena for a different experience. ????

  7. I have been to Colombia twice but was not aware that it is also a destination for ailing ships! I have been on a sailing boat once in my life in Chile. It was just a half day trip but on the way back we got into a beginning storm and I was pretty sick. It must be amazing to enter Colombia on your own boat!

    1. Hi Natascha, Colombia is popular to sailors for its proximity to Panama and the Panama Canal. If you want to go west from the Caribbean, this is the way to go. Not every cruiser boat stops here though and I think they are missing out.

  8. What an adventurous experience this sounds. Cartagena sounds really cool but I agree with you that it would be great to escape to the islands. They sound amazing to snorkel!

  9. I love to do sailing trips and therefore love visiting places where there is sea. But our trips have mostly been restricted to shortet ones. Sailing in the night without thunderstorms a possibility is scaring though. Therefore a day trip and a break looks a good option. Never been to Colombia and would love being there sometime. Cartagena harbor looks so enticing.

  10. Love the idea of going sailing here! Can’t imagine almost getting caught in a storm – but we had a similar experience in Aruba with an ATV excursion. The waters look incredible!

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