My trip to the beach was a bit wet, as the 65’ sportfishing yacht Mamo blasted into five-foot waves and 20-knot headwinds. But as soon as it turned the corner into Bahia Concha, the roiling water gave way to a calm aquamarine lagoon with a stretch of white beach. We spun around and dropped anchor, then a deckhand dove into the water to swim a line ashore. With close to 50 guests of all nationalities watching from the beach, I carefully climbed onto a bright yellow kayak to make the trip ashore. As one spectating Swedish sailor later put it, “It was like watching the queen arrive, and then putting her on a banana.”
Why would a boating writer from California find herself paddling to a beach on the coast of Colombia, a nation burdened by a history of violence and narcotics trafficking? We had come for a picnic. But this was no hot-dogs-and-burgers barbeque. Waiters in dark slacks and crisp white shirts scurried around preparing rows of linen-covered tables topped with china and real metal flatware. The entire local lifeguard team stood by, in case any of the guests were in danger of drowning—or an American VIP toppled from her banana.
As a result of Colombia’s chilling reputation, tourism suffered greatly at the end of the 20th century. But following a huge drop in crime, the country hopes to turn that reputation around. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC World Drug Report, 2012) poppy cultivation in Colombia dropped 20-fold from 2000 to 2012. And the Colombia Ministry of Defense says guerilla forces have depleted almost as dramatically. So now the country is performing a makeover, with the intent of putting itself on the map (or chart) as a destination again—especially for cruising sailors.
I flew to Colombia to check out two boating events: a boat show in its third year, and the first-ever stop-over of a bluewater cruising rally. Both events mark the beginnings of change, change which you can see the moment you step off the airplane. You can’t get through the airport in Cartagena without going past racks of T-shirts that say, “It’s Colombia, not Columbia,” as if you needed a reminder that you’ve landed in the South American country where everyone seems to look and sound like Sofia Vergara. And at the Cartagena International Boat Show, the clientele appeared to have just walked off a movie set.
Funding the Fun
According to Sandra Howard-Taylor, vice minister of tourism, money is now being allocated to boating projects–lots of them. The country has embraced the slogan, la nautica es para todos, loosely translated as ‘boating is for everyone.’ And so, with improving facilities, spectacular scenery, and unmatched hospitality, a fledgling boating industry is gaining a foothold.
Formal events in Latin countries attract much officialdom, with camera crews and government representatives cutting ribbons. They sing no fewer than three anthems: one each for city, state, and country. Next come lengthy speeches. But if the Cartagena show is any indication, the formality and government-sponsorship are good news for tourismo nautico, because the movement to grow a recreational marine industry isn’t just getting funding—it’s also getting attention.
The number of U.S. exhibitors attending the boat show was up this year, and included diverse brands ranging from Mastercraft to Steve and Doris Colgate’s Offshore Sailing School. European builders like Beneteau, Bavaria, and Lagoon participated. And although boating seems to still be the domain of the country’s elite, and powerboats far outnumber sailboats, sailing is also getting a foothold. Bluewater cruisers seem likely to lead the way as the country opens up to nautical tourism, since they venture farther and require more facilities than most other boaters.
Cartagena is a good launching pad for the industry. The largest industrial city in the Caribbean, it was designated a World Heritage site in 1984 for its walled city, which is chock-full of Spanish colonial architecture and renowned restaurants that tempt visiting cruisers. It’s also centrally located along Colombia’s 1,110 miles of Caribbean coastline, on a downwind sail from the islands of the Eastern Caribbean. Most enticing may be that Colombia is below the region’s hurricane belt, so it provides a safe place to wait out the season.
Colombia’s domestic boating scene is changing as well. Panama, a 300 mile sail from Cartagena, offers a zero-tax boating environment and that has put pressure on Colombia to do the same. It’s expected that by 2016 their hefty VAT will be gone, and that will help many U.S. and international manufacturers export boats and accessories to the country.
Cruisers will need a zarpe (customs clearance) and advance marina reservations, because a general lack of boating infrastructure is still a hurdle. Today, there are a handful of private marinas with only two offering berths to visiting cruisers. That’s changing, though. Five new projects (with 50 to 500 slips each) are expected to come online in the next five years, according to Procolombia, an arm of the government charged with promoting tourism.
The World Cruising Club, the organizational arm behind the World ARC rally, is leading the way for sailing cruisers. Managing director Andrew Bishop took a chance and accepted an invitation from the owners of Santa Marta Marina, on the country’s Caribbean coast. In 2015, it became the event’s first-ever stopover in Colombia.
And that’s how I came to be embarking upon my banana. To witness first-hand how Colombians are embracing boating—Latin style—and to join sailors from the fleet of nearly 20 ARC boats that had just sailed 800 nautical miles from St. Lucia, on the first leg of an odyssey that would circumnavigate the world in 15 months.
Facilitating the Changes
Santa Marta is a three-hour drive northeast of Cartagena, and lies at the western end of Tyrona National Park. The park is home to five spectacular bays, including Bahia Concha, where we were anchored. The area is famous for having the highest seaside elevation in the world, with soaring mountain peaks that rise directly from the ocean. Within walking distance of a colorful downtown, the 256-slip marina is state-of-the-art, with concrete docks and good security.
The ARC cruisers were well-hosted and found the stop helpful for repairs after their first leg. A few days before their departure to Panama, Santa Marta Marina arranged for the beach barbeque so the whole ARC gang—along with some foreign journalists—could relax. Mamo, my ride to the picnic, was named after the position of priest, guide or leader of the indigenous Kogi people, who inhabit the local mountains. The boat belongs to the marina’s part owner, an American-educated Colombian with perfect English and a family business in organic agriculture. Clearly, he was the “mamo” of the hosting entourage.
There may be much formality in the way Colombia is opening up to boating, including speeches, anthems, and ribbon-cutting ceremonies. But the country’s unique approach also includes having one of their wealthiest investors sharing cocktails on a beach with the bikini-clad vice minister of tourism, while toasting ARC cruisers. It’s a mix of ceremony and laid-back Latino nonchalance that visiting boaters will find intriguing—like everything else about the country and its culture.
Back to the beach: Gin cocktails soon appeared as supplies made it from the boat to shore via kayak, and the afternoon devolved into sea stories and dreams. Howard-Taylor was pleased with how tourismo nautico was unfolding all around us, and our mamo and host noted his envy of the cruisers and their pursuit of happy voyaging. Then he shared his plans to bring eco-tourism to Tyrona Park, where wealthy individuals can own land but cannot develop it. “I’ll fly people up in a helicopter,” he explained, as I wondered how ‘helicopter’ and ‘eco’ wound up in the same breath. But despite my reservations, I admitted that I would love to go. “My helicopter is not flying until next week due to repairs,” he added. “You’ll just have to come back.”
I’m happy to report that Colombia’s image rehab seems to be real. I found no drug lords, and no violence. Yes, I will come back. I’ll come back for the boat show, the cruising, the people, and I hope, another ride on Mamo. Because Colombia is finding its spot on the boating map—and the rest of the world should know about it.