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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.