Tuesday 20 January 2015

Santa Marta, Colombia

‘Juno, this is the coast guard, come in please’.  We are stowing the spinnaker pole on the foredeck as I hear the VHF crackle. ‘Juno, this is the Colombian navy, come in please', the voice slightly more insistent this time, not used to being ignored. To my relief the shoot bolt on the end of the big spinnaker pole springs shut, securing it on the mast. I reach for the hand-held VHF attached to my belt. ‘Coastguard, this is Juno’, I reply, slightly out of breath. ‘Juno, this is the Colombian coast guard, welcome to Santa Marta, we will escort you to the port’.

Two bright orange coast guard vessels sweep up alongside us, crew on the bow, encouraging us to wave as they point video cameras at us. The local port authority now calls us on the VHF, asking for more information and adding their welcome.  Then a large sports fishing boat powers towards us through the surf and we see that the flying bridge is crammed with people, all waving as they approach us. ‘Juno, this is rally control’. I recognise the voice of Andrew Bishop and I can make out the yellow shirts among the crowd.  ‘There are quite a few people here waiting to welcome you’.   He wasn’t kidding.

It is now blowing 30 knots of wind and we surf downwind towards the finish line, the surf dazzling white on the breaking waves, waving to the escort boats while tidying our lines and preparing for our arrival. It is an exhilarating way to finish and as we cross the line, foghorns sound accompanied by cheers and applause. We follow our escort into the marina where the docks are lined with people cheering and waving.  After a brief moment of panic when the bow thruster fails, we reverse up to the dock with volunteers all around to catch our lines.  A bottle of champagne is thrust into my hand and the cork flies out with a satisfying pop.  The owner of the marina, Manuel Julian Davila, shakes our hand and we pose for photographs with local artists on stilts tottering precariously behind us, unused to the perils of a pontoon lurching underfoot as the crowd moves along the dock.

Feeling like celebrities, we are ushered into the air-conditioned marina office, where we are welcomed by dignitaries from the tourist board. The World ARC coming to Colombia for the first time is clearly a big event and World Cruising Club have done a great job to publicise and promote the occasion. What an amazing welcome.

There is a busy itinerary of events during our stay and the first of these is a visit to La Victoria coffee plantation. We head into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada which boasts the highest sea level mountain in the world, rising up from the beach to its snow-covered peak 18,000 feet above. An air conditioned coach takes us to the small village at Minca, then we transfer into four wheel drive jeeps for the climb though the jungle over unmade roads, churning up dust as our convoy makes its way up to the plantation, 1,500 feet above sea level.  The factory is a feat of ingenuity and resilience, relying on machinery imported from England over 100 years ago, lovingly maintained and improved by the third generation family owners who act as our tour guides.  It brings back strong memories of my upbringing on a tea plantation in India with a prime mover driving a shaft from which large belts control all the factory machinery.  The difference at La Victoria is that the main engine is driven by water rather than diesel, delivered at high pressure from pipes running down the mountain from the rivers high above. We have lunch on the veranda looking out over the valley down to the sea, surrounded by huge bamboos, Poinsettia, Bougainvillea and think clumps of citronella grass. The owner enjoys his captive audience and tells us how he regained control of the farm from armed guerrillas who occupied it when his parents died, and he now employs some of them as taxi drivers ferrying guests up to the plantation to subsidise his income from coffee beans.

 Today we go to the beach at Bahia Concha in the Tayrona National Park. An hours drive north from Santa Marta, we enter the southern side of the park and rattle along a rough track until blue ocean appears through the scrub and memosa trees that provide shade to the back packers who have set up camp on the beach.  Our guide leads us away from the throng to the northern end of the beach where our host from the marina, Manuel Davila, owns a beach house where an army of cooks are preparing lunch.    Because the park is protected from development we are surrounded only by the wild landscape of rocky hillside that frames the beach and the blue sparkling water beyond.  The soft sandy beach quickly drops off into deep cool water, perfect for swimming and allowing Manuel and his friends to reverse their powerboats close the beach.  

Again we see the impact of the World ARC in the region as Sandra Howard Taylor, minister of tourism addresses us on the beach in her bikini, not something one would be likely to see in the UK.   During our stay the press coverage has been amazing and we have had long conversations with the charming Toby Hodges of Yachting World, Susannah of Sail Magazine and countless impromptu TV interviews on our pontoon in the marina. The most comical moment was watching Andrew being interviewed by three TV crews in Spanish. The only problem is that Andrew doesn’t speak Spanish. We don’t know where in the local press these TV interviews and pictures will go but somewhere in the archives is footage of Andrew, in his Musto hat and red trousers, gamefully expressing his thanks to Columbia in a unique Spanish dialect, more Milland than Milan, but the crews went away looking happy, if somewhat puzzled by this exotic new language.

One evening we are driven to a restaurant somewhere on the coast where the entertainment at dinner was a cacophony of drums and pan pipes , competing with the howling wind for our attention. The wine was ghastly and the food was tolerable but I was reminded of Andrews Bishops opening speech to us in St Lucia ‘everything won’t always be perfect, and things will go wrong, but you will have some amazing experiences’  - and tonight was another great experience.

For a treat we take a helicopter ride to see the surrounding countryside. As we ascend it feels as if we are zooming out on a huge lens as the panorama opens up beneath us. It is a stunning landscape from the rugged serrated hills along the coast covered in scrub and cactus, across the flat plain and rooftops of Santa Marta up into the rainforest in the hills, culminating in the snow covered peaks on the summit. We hover over the lost city of Teyuna, built in the eighth century by the Tayrona Indians, before descending down to the coast again and sweeping low along dramatic white beaches, strewn with huge boulders and almost deserted.

The final event in Santa Marta is the farewell party and prize giving dinner attended by an array of dignitaries including the glamorous Vice President of Tourism and the youthful British Ambassador who presents us with our prize for come first on the first leg of this marvellous rally.  We leave Santa Marta today with strong winds forecasted for our two-day trip, taking us further west to the San Blas islands where we expect the welcome to be a little more muted but no less extraordinary.


  1. Congratulations team! Sounds like you need black - tie to complement bikinis for your new celebrity status! Columbia looks fascinating from both sea & air! Enjoy the contrasting San Blas Islands .
    Much love Naylors all xox

  2. Love hearing the ping of another welcome update! What a great snap shot of this extraordinary adventure. Love the Ossies. X

  3. What a fabulous welcome - and congratulations! Love your blog... makes my week!

  4. All looking beautifully sun kissed! Love all the photos!