A Cartagena Diary

Cartagena, Colombia, 10o 24.677’ North 75o 32.621’ West

Day 1: Cartagena de Indias, Colombia. Just saying this legendary name out loud fires my imagination. Five hundred years of rich history, the political intrigue, the Spanish forts, the colonial architecture. The emeralds! And here we are—having arrived on our own boat! When I woke up this morning, I hurried out into the cockpit and gaped yet again. I can hardly believe it.

Around us are a half dozen anchored boats, flying flags from all over the world. Ashore, Club Nautico is bustling. This is a marina filled with transient cruising boats, the place where cruisers hang out, and the place where those who’ve chosen to anchor out near Ithaka can tie up their dinghies. On the opposite shore we see a dock of serious-looking military ships and submarines. Behind them are modern, well-guarded high-rises where the wealthy live. And ahead of us, spread out like Oz to Dorothy, is the magical skyline of cathedral spires, colonial domes, and clock towers that make this one of the most beautiful cities in the Americas.

Our anchor held through the night, despite strong winds that clocked around the compass. We’ve been warned about the holding here by cruisers we met in the San Blas, who’d come from Cartagena, each telling us tales of mighty winds that blow through here daily. Their advice: watch out! Our friend Erwin, on Dutchess, said he and Kris rushed back to their 60-footer one afternoon when the wind began to howl, and couldn’t find the boat in the anchorage! Then they saw it, in the distance, slowly dragging through the mud, three-quarters of a mile downwind!


| | The clock-tower entrance through the thick walls of the Old City* * *| Douglas and I can’t wait to go ashore and explore. We excitedly lower the dinghy in the water with a halyard (for the passage, we carried it on deck, partially deflated), then we lower the outboard into it, as well as the gas tank, oars, seat, locks, and all the other paraphernalia that lives in it. Douglas inflates the dink with the foot pump; we gather our boat papers, _zarpe_, and personal documents, lock up _Ithaka_, and zoom in toward Club Nautico.

It’s a 20-minute walk from the Club Nautico marina over the bridge, down Calle Largo, through the clock-tower portico in the city’s wall, and into labyrinth of the old town. Inside, we’re inundated with new sights, smells, and sounds. There are plazas, monasteries, cafes, palaces, noble homes, museums, gardens, and boutiques. Inviting restaurants are everywhere, and we’ve been told that they’re some of the finest (and cheapest) restaurants you can imagine. We peek behind large wooden doors that open into lush private courtyards. On every street, overhanging balconies are draped with flowers. We wander for hours. Every time we reach an intersection of two streets, we take turns selecting the next direction to take. Finally, Douglas announces that he’s starving, we find a little local cafe, and tuck into a tipico meal: meat, potatoes, salad and plantains—lunch for $2 each.

At 2, we’re sitting in another cafe, in a plaza of trees, enjoying cappuccinos, when we notice simultaneously that the branches of the trees are swaying and swooshing a lot more than they were when we sat down. We stiffen and look at each other.


“The boat!” we say at the same instant, pay the bill, and rush back to Ithaka. By the time we reach her, the wind is 25 knots and building. We watch the other boats around us to check our position, watch the wind indicator reach 37 knots, and hear our anchor snubber straining. Then, finally, things begin to calm down. We’ve held. So, this is what people meant when they told us about sudden strong winds in the afternoons.

Day 2: We meet cruisers at Club Nautico, and on the streets. There are so few tourists in this town, that when we see anyone who looks like a boat person, we or they strike up a conversation. We meet Doug and Judy Becker from the sailboat Limmerance, and have lunch together. They’ve been in Cartagena for a few months, know all the best places, and with their friend Cindy Robinson from Angel, they’ve put together an extraordinary cruiser’s guide to the city, which you can download for free from (For more information about their Cartagena guide and others they’ve put together for Costa Rica, Panama City and Colon, check out the sidebar at the end of this log.)

Among the useful pieces of advice in their guide is the fact that the two most magnificent hotels in town invite cruisers to freely use their pools. Douglas and I love the sound of this, as this harbor is not one in which you would want water to touch your skin. So, this afternoon, we set off for the Santa Clara’s spectacular roof-top piscina.


As we stand at the poolside balcony rail, before us is a panorama of red rooftops stretching out to the sea. We’re told by an ancient-looking man, who’s worked at the Santa Clara forever, why the handmade tiles on these old roofs are shaped as they are. For hundreds of years the women who made them molded the clay on the top of their thighs. He explained that some women were fat, some thin and that’s why the tiles are varying shapes and widths. Awed by this information, I gaze out again and see it all in a whole new way.

| | The colonial furniture and architecture in Cartagena is a feast for the eyes* * *| Day 3: The wind howls every afternoon, and we decide to bite the bullet, and for the first time in more than a year, tie _Ithaka_ to a dock. We chose Club de Pesca, the local yacht club: brand-new cement docks, 24-hour armed guards and a terrific view of the Old City from our cockpit. No more worry about the holding, and no more rock and roll from all the powerboats zooming by.

We’re into a routine now. Boat projects in the mornings. Lunch on the boat. When the city reopens after siesta, we walk to Club Nautico, where all the cruisers’ action is, to find out what if anything is going on. Then we stroll into town.


Everyone we encounter on the streets says “Buenos!” This is one of the things I love about Latin America. Whenever you pass someone on the street, or on a bus, you give and get eye contact, and exchange greetings. Here, people say “Buenos dias,” or “Buenas tardes,” or “Buenas noches.” Actually, almost always in Cartagana, people just shorten the greeting to “Buenos!”

Day 4: Tonight, we’re invited to an al fresco dinner party at Club De Pesca. We’ve been included because of our Cruising World connection and because the manager of the club, a wonderful woman named Olga Martinez de Lemaitre, wants us to meet some of Cartagena’s sailing crowd, all of whom are thrilled to discover that any cruiser is stopping in Colombia.

Excited to meet some of the professional people here, I put on a pretty dress I’ve just bought in town, a dress gloriously free of mildew, rust stains, and wrinkles, and I feel like a million dollars. At the same time, I notice Douglas putting on shorts and a T-shirt. I encourage him to wear a shirt with a collar and long pants instead, as Latin people tend toward more formal attire in the evenings, but he makes lots of noises about how it’s too hot. After much cajoling he goes with the plan, and puts on long pants for the first time in more than a year, and a Hawaiian shirt, and then complains about it all the way to the party. We arrive. Everyone’s dressed to the nines. Douglas says nothing.

Also at our table are Pachi and Lee Miles. Lee is an American who fell in love with Pachi, from an old Cartagena family, and with Cartagena. He married her and stayed, and now they have a family, a jewelry store, a craft shop, a coffee store, and a travel agency. Lee also publishes a tourist guide called Destination Cartagena. We all talk about tourism, and the lack thereof, which leads us to discuss politics, guerillas and kidnappings, subjects that are on everyone’s minds here. I’m sitting next to a fascinating man, the manager of the gorgeous Hilton in Cartagena, who speaks English to perfection. He tells us about a kidnapping seminar he’d just attended that afternoon.

“If someone who is a hotel guest were to be kidnapped,” he said, “which is an extremely remote risk here in Cartagena, but more of a risk elsewhere in the country, we’re to call this special government number immediately and do everything to keep the family from calling the kidnappers back. Trained kidnapping negotiators are put on the case immediately. This team of people handles abductions all over the world, apparently, and they know what they’re doing. Chances are that they may even have worked with these specific kidnappers before, so everybody’s chummy…”

Pachi talks about the new president, Uribe, and how much hope everyone has that he’ll be able to fight the narco-traffickers and stop the violence in the country. Even in Cartagena, visitors are slower to come now, fearing that the beautiful colonial city, long held as everyone’s safe haven in Colombia, is a bit riskier these days, now that Uribe is trying to clean up the government.

“Everyone is behind Uribe,” she says. “One of the first things he did after he was elected was to declare a one-time tax on everyone’s net worth, payable straightaway. He was the first to pay it. The money is going to fight the narcos and the guerillas. It’s hard to pay this, but we’re all doing it. We need this problem to be solved, or our country will be destroyed.” Everyone nods.

“You know, Uribe didn’t even want to be president,” said a man at a nearby table. “He ran only to change the dialogue among the politicians, to force all the candidates to address the drug and kidnapping problems. He figured he’d lose, then he’d run again next time around. Then an amazing thing happened. The people fell in love with him. For the first time, he was able to give them hope that this ELN and FARC scourge could be taken from us. His campaign got more and more popular by the day. Thousands of people would come out to cheer him on. On Election Day, the people came out in record numbers to vote. He won by the one of the largest landslides in the history of Colombia.”

“What an amazing man,” said another fellow. “His father was killed by the guerillas, and he vowed to avenge his father’s death by fighting FARC. There have been several serious assassination attempts on him already, while he was running for president, and since he was elected. He is a very brave man. I actually know him. He knows I like to play golf, and he invited me to play with him one day. I said, ‘You mean, out in the open?’ He laughed out loud. ‘I know, I know,’ he said. ‘No one will play golf with me anymore! They think they’ll be sitting ducks!'”

| | The narrow streets are overhung with verandas draped in blossoms.* * *| Day 5: We hire a Colombian fellow named Alfonso to do some boat work for us. He’s come highly recommended by a couple of other cruisers, and we liked him right away. So he’s lined up to do some varnishing, cleaning, and projects for us. He is among the higher paid boat workers and charges $20 for an eight-hour day.

Day 6: We’ve been here long enough now that I’m beginning to recognize people around town. I know the lady at the Cuban restaurant where we’ve eaten a couple of times, and she waves to me happily whenever I walk by. I know the schizophrenic woman with the long dreadlocks who paces slowly through Plaza Santo Domingo dozens of times a day, whispering to her deck of cards. I know some of the boys who wait on the corner of the street selling T-shirts or cigars or emeralds. They know I’m not buying, but every day, they try. “Highest quality!” they call. “Buy cigars for your father, for you brother, for husband!” one chants, and then as I keep walking away, he adds,” or for Monica Lewinsky!” I had to laugh. Since then, he likes to try and guess where I’m from, and warn me about things, usually such as: “Don’t change money on the streets.” I love being somewhere long enough to become familiar with some of its characters.

Day 7: I’ve seen plenty of drive-up fast food joints in the U.S. Here, they have drive-up fruit vendors. I see the same little old Colombian woman on the same street corner every day with her display of fruits and vegetables, and I watch fancy cars stop, a blacked-out window roll down and a beautifully manicured hand extends, pointing at this and that. Money is exchanged, and the next Mercedes approaches.

Day 8: Anxious to check out the local art scene, we’ve been on the lookout for galleries. Unfortunately, the violence in the country has leveled a deathblow to the tourist economy; most galleries in Cartagena have closed. Many of the more serious artists who decided to stay in the city now live in an old hotel, where they also have their studios. Collectors arrive and the proprietor delivers them to the individual artists, depending on their interests. This hotel is said to house some of Colombia’s finest artisans and we look forward to going next week. Norma, who owns Cartagena Art, a gallery we walk by every day on our way from the marina to town, tells us no one sells much art these days.

While walking around one day, we’re thrilled to notice a poster for an opening reception that night for an artist named Zilath Quiroz at the Casa España in the Old City. When we arrive, the place is packed. People are beautifully dressed. Waiters bring tray after tray of champagne and hors d’hoeurvres. We wander about and study Quiroz’s work. Paintings mostly—perhaps a bit simple, mostly fish and sea life. Maybe I’m jaded. In any other place, this would be ho-hum. Here, there are waves of applause. Everyone ooohs and aaahs. When Quiroz gets up to make a speech and introduce her mother, who is crying, she gets a lengthy ovation. We, too, find ourselves swept up with the excitement of watching someone have her day, in a place starved for such moments, and we clap wildly.

| | This dazzling mermaid figurehead is near Plaza Santo Domingo, over the door of a shop selling antique nautical items.* * *| Day 9: The women here are the most beautiful creatures I’ve ever seen. Almost every single one is drop-dead gorgeous. I find myself gawking at them as much as Douglas does. The younger ones look poised and wear tight clothes, hip huggers, and low-cut shirts. In fact, women of every age wear tight clothes, and they wear them well. You just don’t see women in sneakers and shorts here. They all look _put together_. I find that I’m tarting up my appearance a bit before we go into town, just to try to stay in the game here. Otherwise, in my cruising-boat comfort clothes, I feel like a complete schlub.

Day 10: I’m looking for a large-size photo book on Cartagena, as a memento. I go to all the nicest bookstores in the city. There are a couple of picture books available, but none are of the quality I want. Everywhere the answer is the same. “No, madam,” they say sorrowfully, “I’m regret to tell you there are no such books these days. We had them a couple of years ago, but now things are different.” She’s referring to the lack of tourists, which means no one has the money to stock an inventory.

I wander over to the magazine section, and peruse the Spanish-language offerings. On almost every cover of every magazine and tabloid that doesn’t display some “Royals” scandal (Latinos love the Royals), is American actress Melanie Griffith in various stages of glamour and grief. I’ve noticed over the past two years we’ve been cruising that Latin America and Spain are just obsessed with every move Melanie makes since she married (stole is probably how they look at it) Spain’s biggest heartthrob, Antonio Banderas. As I linger over magazines, Douglas returns to the street where there are always vendors selling tinto, a plastic cup full of rich, heavily sugared coffee, for about seven and a half cents. Emerald stores are on every corner, offering magnificent jewelry (at incredibly good prices) from stones that are mined in Colombia, the source of most of the world’s finest emeralds. When I linger too long in front of those stores, too, Douglas escapes for more tinto or something stronger.

Day 11: We go to dinner at a restaurant called La Bruchetta, in an ancient courtyard with old trees and vines, a romantic dining room and a menu that is up to the standards of anyplace I’ve ever broken bread. It’s a weeknight and the place is empty save for one other table. Our waiter, who’s proud to work there, takes our compliments seriously, and then asks us if we’d like a tour. He escorts us into the pristine kitchen, and introduces us to the chef, who offers us a plate of carpaccio, very thinly sliced smoked ham with lemons and garlic. All four of us eat it and Douglas and I swoon over the mix of flavors. Our waiter takes us back to our table, and then brings us yet another tray of antipasto and mouthwatering brushetta, complements of the house. Our three-course gourmet meal, including a bottle of good wine, comes to $26.

Day 12: Douglas and I decide to take photos of the magnificent old-city skyline, and the submarines docked near us. Before the sun is too hot, we set out with all our camera gear in the dinghy. Douglas is driving; I’m shooting. We approach the subs. As I start setting up the shots, a dark gray powerboat roars over to us from the military base, and pulls up alongside. The soldiers are armed with machine guns. They tell us in no uncertain terms that photos are not allowed. We apologize, put our gear back in its waterproof box, and quickly turn the dinghy around. When we’re well away, they roar off.

We head away from the military docks and toward Old Town. I start setting up a shot of the clock tower and old buildings that have been the subject of countless other photographs by countless other photographers over the decades. Then, suddenly, from another direction, another dark powerboat roars over, with even more soldiers with machine guns. These are aimed at us.

“What do you want?” asks one of the guys firmly.

“We’re just tourists,” I say. “I just want some photos of the beautiful buildings.”

“Forbidden,” he says. “You must leave immediately.”

“But why?” I say. “We’re just taking normal pictures.”

“It’s forbidden,” he repeats, getting agitated. “Come back tomorrow.”

“What’s different about tomorrow,” I ask.

“Tomorrow OK,” he says. “Today, no.”

Confused, we turn around and head back to Ithaka. The boat of soldiers waits and watches us until we are well on our way.

| | Bernadette captured the skyline of the Old City, just before armed soldiers warned us off. The battleship in the photo is there, we found out later, to protect the President.* * *| Day 13: People in Cartagena say that when there are clouds over the distant El Popa, the beautiful building on the mountaintop overlooking the city, before an hour passes you will get rain on your head. We see the clouds a bit too late on our stroll back to _Ithaka_ from town. It starts to pour, and we hail a taxi. No matter where you go, it costs about a dollar to get around in a Cartagena taxi. Our driver has his radio turned up high. He’s listening to an Uribe speech. We tell him that we think his president is very impressive. He beams.

“He’s right here, in Cartagena!” says the man, clearly thrilled. “He’s speaking at the convention center, to the alliance of South American countries.” Douglas and I look at each other, stunned. The convention center is on the waterfront, exactly where we were yesterday with the dinghy. Now we know why all the armed soldiers with machine guns surrounded us the day before. They were on high alert for possible assassination attempts, and we were a threat to their president.

| | Everywhere you look in Cartagena is beautifully preserved Spanish colonial architecture* * *| Day 14: After a sumptuous dinner in the Old City, we stroll back over the bridge, and pass through the four-hundred-year-old thick stone walls of Club de Pesca. We chat with the armed guard who checks all entering cars for bombs, inspecting trunks and back seats and finishing off with an under-chassis mirror. I share my Cadbury chocolate bar with him, and he tells us with excitement more about Uribe here in Cartagena. A few minutes later, as we stroll down the docks toward _Ithaka_, the quiet of this beautiful night is ripped apart by the sound of bullets being fired. Douglas and I jump a mile high.

“Oh my god!” I cried. “Are you alright?! Where’s it coming from!?” We whip around, our hearts in our throats.

Behind us, the sky is lit up to the heavens in cascades of color. It’s not bullets at all. It’s fireworks, Cartagena honoring their beloved new presidente.

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Cruising Information on Cartagena

For excellent information for cruisers considering traveling in this part of the world, in addition to Tom and Nancy Zydler’s thorough book on Panama, it’s worth checking out Doug and Judy Decker’s incredible website, on which they have posted four different guides for cruisers, put together by cruisers.

The Cartagena guide, researched and assembled by Cindy Robinson on the cruising sailboat Angel, and John Halley, the dock master at Club Nautico, which appears in its entirety on the Decker’s website, is simply the finest cruising guide we’ve ever seen for a single place. It’s a model for what cruisers can do for each other. It includes names, addresses, phone numbers of people whom cruisers have been satisfied with for welding, sail repair, aluminum work, refrigeration repair, fiberglass work, etc. It tells you where to get your scuba tanks filled, who does galvanizing of anchors and chain, and even rates the local handymen! In addition it has restaurants by price range, a discussion of who you can trust for emeralds, medical facilities, where you will find O-rings and gaskets—even where to get your dog’s shots. Check it out.

Their other web-guides include Costa Rica, Panama City, and Colon, Panama. Just go to