Panama Canal

Having a scheduled canal transit date of 15th February, with high winds and seas precluding a windward passage back for another look at the San Blas Islands and little hope of transiting earlier, we headed north on a road trip exploring inland Panama. Our planned few days hiking in the small hill town of Santa Fe was cut short after one day when we “got the call” to transit in within 48hrs. The only thing predictable about Panama is that nothing is predictable and expect the unexpected! … but we weren’t complaining!

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So we left the very pleasant Coffee Mountain Inn scampered back the 300+km to Shelter Bay Marina for a last minute shop (yes – even more provisioning), boat clean, stowing of goodies and most importantly, to find line handlers for our canal transit.  We were delighted when JoAnne and Bill (both qualified commercial captains) from SY Ultra, stepped up to the plate. We were very fortunate to secure their help – both great fun with wicked sense of humour and experienced hands. This would be their 3rd canal transit.

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Delays and change of plan were very common throughout the transit. We left later than scheduled from ‘The Flats’ the anchorage just outside the start of the canal. Apart from the 3 yachts transiting, the only other boat in the choppy, windy anchorage (25-30knots) was the one below.  IMG_7160Ivan, our ‘advisor’ boarded us at the Flats for the transit from Colon to Gatun Lake. We passed under the new bridge which will soon connect the Shelter Bay marina side of the bay with Colon, avoiding the car ferries and water taxis which are now used to cross this busy stretch of water.IMG_3080IMG_3086This first stretch of 3 locks up to Gatun Lake was done in the dark. Once close to the locks, we were rafted up to our friends on SY Panache, a Canadian 48′ Catamaran whome we got to know in Shelter Bay.  Manoeuvring the rafted boats with a 15-20kt tail wind required intense concentration and coordination a among the skippers to avoid passing ships in the channel – especially when we were rafted together. Following the large tanker into the lock then maintaining position with the tail wind and turbulence was the next challenge. Every step of the way was a totally new experience!

IMG_3098IMG_3099The line handlers are incredibly important, dropping a line can rapidly deteriorate into the rafted yachts spinning around out of control and a high probability of hitting the very unforgiving lock sides.

IMG_3141Once the boat is secured the large lock doors close and the locks fill.

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IMG_3107IMG_3149IMG_3125Once the lock is filled, the linesman on the shore pull us into the next lock (there are 3 here) and the process is repeated.

 

IMG_3152Exiting the locks at about 9.30pm, we tied up on a mooring in Gatun lake, ready to repeat the process the following day.

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Luis, our line handler

IMG_2719After a leisurely breakfast, our advisors arrived. We were very privileged to have one of the first female trainee advisors for our transit.

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IMG_2762She was very conscientious and pleasant. She should do well, as she even managed to stand up to Ian. Not an easy task for a young woman.

We were very lucky to have a beautiful day and to transit in the daylight. Below is the Culebra Cut, the most difficult part in the construction of the canal.

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Once we had tied up in the lock we could relax for a while. Well, until the big guy started moving towards us.

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Bill thought he looked a little too close..IMG_2759

I guess its all in a days work for these guys.

IMG_2788IMG_2784The closer we were to the Pacific, the more excited we became. Miraflores lock with its webcam caused the most excitement as our friends at Shelter Bay Marina were relaying their photos to us. Sea Cloud and Beachlands (NZ cat) really do look like toy boats in front of the big fella.IMG-20180209-WA0038IMG_2861The doors of the last lock opened and we were finally in the Pacific. The turbulence in the lock and the size of the ship behind us meant that speed out of the lock was crucial.

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IMG_2840IMG_2845Bridge of the Americas ahead, we were now in the Pacific Ocean, only 7500Nm from Australia!

IMG_2869We are now moored off Balboa Yacht club, a great base close to Panama city. Our visit is perfectly timed to enjoy Panama’s annual Carnivale! Never a dull moment here with ships, water taxis, pilot boats constantly passing. When it’s too bumpy at anchor we retreat to the very pleasant Balboa Yacht club.

 

 

Panama City

Our time in San Blas cut short, entered the Port of Colon earlier than expected and under sail after an engine failure. Here is Ian’s account of our fun.

Made an unscheduled “emergency” passage to Panama yesterday which focused our attention and kept us wondering why we do this stuff. We were about to navigate some very tight shallow reefs in the islands when the engine (aka “green death”) decided to fail. After the WTF’s and teeth gnashing settled (having recently put this engine though a very major service at enormous expense) and only just the day before feeling very smug that I got the generator working again, we needed to decide quickly what to do.  Long story short, we had to turn around, head out to sea and embark on a 15hr (120mile) passage overnight to Panama for repairs. Sat phoned the Canal authority and got permission to enter the harbour under sail first and then had a restless night with fluky winds from 5 – 25kts, and uncomfortable confused sea while trying to keep enough sea room off the coast. Arriving 10miles from the Panama breakwater in the dark & rain, there were ships lights everywhere of course. Waited till dawn, kept out of the shipping lanes and kept the harbour master appraised by VHF each 2miles on approach. He was great and very tolerant! One mile out watching the waves crashing over the breakwater and some very shallow shoals to leeward, he asked us to slip in 10 minutes behind a huge tanker- and keep moving! At this point the wind dropped to 5kts, we had everything up and poled out genoa going nowhere. Fortunately the current wasn’t too bad and the wind then piped up to 12kts, dropped the pole, set the genoa on the other side and entered on a broad reach. We slotted in through the gap 4 minutes behind the tanker. It felt like the start line at the RPA Sat races trying to juggle boat speed and position – would have nailed a perfect start!! Then slipped across the outgoing shipping lane and dropped an anchor out of everyones way (on the edge of the explosives anchorage). Having just a entered Colon harbour and safely anchored I finally relaxed the anal sphincter. I guess it puts hairs on ones chest but some days one feels the one’s rich tapestry has enough threads in it and one just “wants a nice house, a dog and a German car” –  and a lot less adrenaline!! Cathy was absolutely fantastic throughout as we were repeatedly in situations where 2 brains were flat out with sail handling, navigation and pilotage. Even pulled out the Skippers Handbook to revise my lights and shapes with so many ships around in the dark.
Colon is pretty much as the name implies! This end of the canal is a bit weird – definitely not the “oral” end of things. I think many of the sailors, if they are not “going through”,  come here and stay here  for a long time. Anyway, we availed ourselves of happy hour and a hearty meal at Shelter Bay marina last night and crashed out by 8.30pm to fight another day.
The engine fixed (by Ian), Sea Cloud measured and a canal transit date of 15th February booked, we settled in to life in Shelter Bay Marina. There are many ‘boat jobs’ to be done prior to heading out into the Pacific, but the list is almost done! To our surprise, life in Shelter Bay is fun. There are morning yoga sessions, nature walks through the jungle looking for the elusive monkeys behind the marina, cruiser dinners, music nights (with really good music) and many interesting people to meet.
We had our first view of the canal through the marina shopping bus window as we passed by the locks.
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The tourist train from Colon to Panama City was another great opportunity to view the canal and Gatun Lake where we will anchor overnight when we transit.
IMG_6966IMG_6971Panama City was a lovely surprise. The old city is being restored, although the ‘gentrification’ is not popular among many locals who live very cheaply in the old crumbly buildings.
IMG_7067The city is a real mixture of old an new as seen from our rooftop terrace.
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We had our first view of the 5m tides that we’ll encounter on Sea Cloud in a few weeks. This will be the first time in our 7 years of cruising that we will have to think about calculations to ensure that we don’t find our dinghy hanging from the dock if we leave the lines too short. Most of the fishing boats sit on the bottom next to the fish market dock.
IMG_6990We checked out the anchorages and marinas close to Panama City – Amador and La Playita.
IMG_7060IMG_7048Then the express bus back to Colon and the marina. Love the colourful Panamanian buses!
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San Blas, Panama

Our return to Marina Santa Marta coincided with the onset of 2 weeks of gales. The wind howled day and night, night being worse when the wind was often was in excess of 40knots. Fortunately, there was a great group of cruisers, also stuck there. We had a few days with our new friends in Minca, the small hill town high above Santa Marta. It was great to do some walking and to escape the wind, heat and grit for a few days.

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Kenny, the host where we stayed in Minca made a very good mojito.IMG_6805Christmas was a good time to be in Santa Marta. The street music and performers were fantastic

 

IMG_6755We found some great restaurants, our favourite Lulo’s (Ian’s vote for best mojito) and Ouzo where we had a delicious meal on Christmas Eve.

IMG_6765 Christmas was spent with a group of new friends on one of the party boats (ie catamarans).

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IMG_6826The marina put on a lovely party for the cruisers on the 26th December, the wind dropped on the 27, and on the 28th, we were out of there!  After an uneventful 2 day passage we navigated our way through the tricky shoals for which San Blas is notorious. We had 3 navigation systems going. Open CPN, which we’d only just installed was invaluable.

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We anchored near our Austrian friends on Fenua in a piece of paradise, Green Island.

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IMG_2575  Coconut palms swaying in the breeze, pelicans diving, calm water and no bugs!

IMG_2596Not long after we anchored the lobster boys arrived.

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Now this is the life – $5 each and absolutely delicious barbecued.IMG_2581

New Years Eve was spent sharing drinks and plans with cruisers around a bonfire under the coconut palms, before BBQ lobster on Sea Cloud with Katharina and Friedl. The only problem with this lovely sight is the thought of sharing the waters with the resident crocodile.

Check in to Panama is not easy these days as formalities can  no longer be done in Porvenir  in the San Blas. So, we’ve just covered 60Nm to Puerto Linton to check in and will head back to the islands tomorrow. Hoping the trip back will be okay, as its usually a beat to windward against the current. At least we can get some shopping done in Portobellow, as apart from the lobsters and occasional veggie boat, there is not much in San Blas. All part of its charm.

Although you can buy molas made by the local women…

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Quilotoa – Otavalo – Quito

IMG_2457I’d read lots about the “Quilotoa loop”, a must do 3 day hike in Ecuador with spectacular views and contact with villagers living a traditional life. Most of the online articles were by fit looking 20 somethings, saying it was one of the most difficult hikes that they’d done. So, I found the ideal alternative, the Black Sheep Inn, an eco lodge in Chugchilan, one of the stopover towns for the loop.

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From here we could experience all that the area had to offer, without carrying packs from place to place. What a great find. Our room our room high on the hillside had the most stunning views over the valley.

IMG_2352 IMG_2357We had great vegetarian meals and interesting company. I even had an excellent massage by one of the local women. The inn was set up about 25 years ago, and what we liked about it was that the money goes back to the local community as all of the guides, drivers and staff are locals. You could easily spend a week or more hiking around here.

The manager, Edmundo, recommended we use a local guide for the Cloud Forest Walk. We were so pleased we did. Our guide Humberto has lived all his life in the area and has an incredible knowledge of the native animals, the plants and their medicinal uses.

IMG_2292 Our walk passed though many ecosystems, the initial pastures were drier, crop and sheep country, on the top of the hill there were lush dairy pastures, then we descended into the cloud forest, which prior to land clearing, had covered all of these valleys.

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IMG_2286The scenery was spectacular, there was now way we would have found our way into (or more importantly out of) the rainforest maze without Humberto. Although he had limited English and we have pathetically little Spanish, he was an incredible communicator. We found out so much about life in the valley over the last few generations.

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Our planned hike to Quilotoa postponed because of rain, we visited the local Sunday Zumbahua market. The animal market had just finished, so there were many people taking home their new acquisitions.

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We’d hope to see Laguna Quilatoa with the clouds reflecting in the water as we’d seen in so many other photos, but it wasn’t to be. Sunday was obviously the day for locals to visit. They were charging down the path to the lake in not so good shoes, obviously not thinking of the climb back up. That’s where the mules come in…

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A local driver dropped Humberto, Ian and I off at Quilotoa to do the hike back to Chugchilan. As there had been rain the day before, there was some discussion as to whether we should do the walk via San Pedro (which we did), rather than the safer route via la Moyà.

What a spectacular walk, not nearly as difficult as we’d been led to believe. There were some steep spots, but fine with the right footwear.

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IMG_2383IMG_2394Our last day at Black Sheep was another seriously spectacular walk, Edmundo’s sky walk. Appropriately named! We could see why they did not recommend it for those afraid of heights as the narrow path along the ridge had serious drop offs both sides.

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Yes, the path goes right along the ridge line!

IMG_2435Sad to leave Black Sheep, we stayed overnight in Latacunga, then on to Casa Sol Andean Lodge, just out of Otavalo.

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IMG_2448Once again, great accommodation, and a perfect base for hiking around Cuiocha Lake, lunching and shopping at Cotahachi, the leather centre of the area, and in the artisan town of Peguche, and of course visiting the famous Otavalo markets. Everywhere we seemed to meet Americans who have either retired to or were planning to retire in Ecuador. Of course, we had to visit the Otavalo Saturday market, finally arriving early enough to see the animals at the local markets.

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IMG_2551IMG_2553and then visit the touristy markets.

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IMG_2557Car returned to the airport, we headed into Quito for our last few days in Ecuador. Arriving on Saturday afternoon was totally overwhelming after being in countryside. So many people and cars. Sunday is great, no cars, just lots of pushbikes in town for the morning, much more pleasant. Our little hotel, Portal de Cantuna, was in a fantastic spot in the old town, just off Plaza San Francisco. It was quirky, very economical, had a good breakfast and very helpful staff. With our savings we ended up having 2 great meals at the 5 star Hotel Casatenga restaurant next door.

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Portal de Cantuna

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Plaza San Francisco

 

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La Compania de Jesus – 7 tons of gold inside

The (not so easy to find) Vista Hermosa was a great spot for a drink overlooking the city lights of Quito.

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IMG_6714There are some excellent museums in Quito. The Casa del Alabalo and  were very relevant with their archeological, historical and cultural displays of the areas we had visited.

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Our last day was spent at the Capilla del Hombre and the Museo Guayasamin, showcasing the work of the important, prolific and influential Ecuadorian artist Oswaldo Guaysamin. Highly recommended.

Our trip to Ecuador was planned so that we’d have 3-4 days in a few places in which there was some good walking. We rented a very small chevy -would get a 4WD next time. Driving was fine, but in the areas in which we drove it was slow because of winding roads and at times stressful. We’d been using maps.me for navigation – a great app which you can download and use offline. The problem is, it didn’t differentiate between minor and very minor (rough dirt) roads, a real challenge for our tiny rental car. We really only saw the middle of Ecuador – for a small country, it is so diverse. There were a few other places we wished we had time for – Cuenca and Mindo in particular, but you can’t do it all.

 

 

 

Ecuador – Cotapaxi and Saquisili Market

It was a shock to the system to fly from Sani at sea level, then drive along the Avenue of the Volcanoes, to Cotopaxi National park. Time needed to be spent acclimatizing to the altitude and Chilcabamba Lodge was the perfect place to do it. It is a lovely comfortable retreat with the most beautiful views of ever-changing (but fortunately not erupting) Cotopaxi Volcano. Cotopaxi’s most recent activity was in 2015.

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cotoThere were good walks nearby and lots of spots to sit to watch the many hummingbirds.

Our tiny rented chevy struggled with the roads to the lodge, so we decided a guide (with a 4WD) for the day would be the best way to get closer to the volcano. The national park is quite beautiful, with many birds, wild horses and paramor grasslands. We met Gaby and Manfred, a German couple who have been touring South America for the past 2 years in their very substantial van. They plan to get to Aus one day, hence the kangaroo on the back which attracted us to them.

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Looking at the cloud over Cotopaxi, our guide tried to delay our ascent, but unfortunately, for not long enough.

cota clThe trek up to the refuge, just below the glacier was pretty bleak – rain, sleet, very strong winds and poor visibility. At 4864m, this was the highest we had been.

refuseusGreat to reach the top for a coca tea – we were the youngest by about 20 years…

refuseFortunately the clouds lifted as we left so we could look back to see the refuge on the way down.

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refuse up

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Cotopaxi Park

We made a very early departure for the Thursday Saquisili Market.

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The market is huge, taking over most of the town. There are sections for fish, small animals, fruit and veg.

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saq7Guinea pigs are the local delicacy eaten for very special occasions.

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The local delicacies were not  really our taste

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The market is very much a local affair, with everyone dressed in their finery for market day.saq9

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Ecuador – Sani Lodge

We flew from Quito to Coca on the banks of the Napo river to begin our 2.5hour trip in a motorized canoe to Sani Lodge. This highly recommended tourist destination is deep in the jungle of Amazonia; set up and run by and for the benefit of the Sani community. The wide and brown river – a bit of a navigation nightmare with sand banks and studded with tree trunks is busy with boats ferrying locals to their homes and tourists to resorts along the river.

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From the main river, it was a 10 minute walk, then a paddle in a canoe before we reached the lovely Sani Lodge.

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sani bedOn our first evening we meet Lucy, the resident 3m long caiman who lives under the deck. Fortunately she only ventures ashore when she is encouraged by staff.

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A night walk uncovered very large, very hairy tarantulas, millipedes the size of dinner plates, frogs, bats and owls but fortunately no anacondas or pumas.

Our small group for all activities was great fun. David from London, Shome,  a Brit who now lives in Sydney and Karen, an American travel writer.

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The day starts early here. We met for 5.30am breakfast so that we could get to the 35m viewing platform early when the birds are most active.

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The birdlife (500 species) varied from tiny humming birds to toucans, many species of parrot, macaws to osprey and vultures and spoonbills and cranes. We were so lucky, as we could see a wonderful assortment of colourful birds from the viewing platform. Our favourite was the toucan, feeding very close to the viewing platform.

touc3touc4Our superb guide (Victor) who speaks the local Indian dialect of Kichwa, Spanish and English who was born in Sani. He was amazing – he could spot a monkey at 200m high in the trees through dense jungle. We saw capuchin, spider and squirrel monkeys. We heard, but did not see the noisy, elusive but very aptly named howler monkeys.

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We spent several days paddling the creeks, walking the trails,  learning about the medicinal properties of plants and spotting a tiny fraction of the bird and animal life. Some favourites were many magnificent prehistoric ‘stinky turkeys’, large herons, and tiny bats which spent their day on a tree in the middle of the creek.

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Victor took us in our small canoe piranha fishing one afternoon – you don’t do that everyday! Victor caught our dinner but the only piranha hooked flicked off before Victor landed him in the boat.

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sunset cerilloWe joined other boats to view the hundreds of parrots who visit  the ‘clay licks’ each day. The clay is important to detoxify palm seeds which form a main part of their diet.

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We walked through more pristine jungle to a recently established butterfly farm run by a local family.

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girl1After our tour of the Sani community centre’s school and food growing areas, we were given the opportunity to taste some delicious traditional local food cooked by the Sani women.

sani commsani cooksani lunchWe turned down Victor’s offer of eating a live larva from the palm tree beetle. These very mobile, thick white critters are about 8cm long and are eaten alive, head first, (as demonstrated by our guide Cerillo) are a great delicacy. The fact that they taste like prawns I’ll have to take their word for!

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The Sani women raise money for the community by selling handcrafts and coffee.

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After our faces were painted in traditional patterns we tried our hand at the art of blowgun hunting – amazingly accurate even for us mugs.

 

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paint boys

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Our last night paddle spotted a number of caiman lurking along the river – surprisingly easy to spot as their eyes reflect the torch light beautifully.

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A too early departure left us wishing we had a few extra days at Sani Lodge. A wonderful place – we’d definitely recommend you add this one to your bucket list! The staff, food, accommodation and guides were all fantastic. Not to mention the sunsets…..sunset 5sunset 6

Back on Sea Cloud – Curacao to Colombia

Six months back in Australia flew by with work (for Ian) catching up with family and friends and preparing for our next long stint away on Sea Cloud.

We were very pleased with our choice of Curacao Marine. It was a great spot to leave Sea Cloud out of the hurricane zone. The new management is very hands on and the work done by the yard very good.  It was easy to get parts shipped in, the ‘yacht in transit’ system works well here. Once launched, Sea Cloud had a few days in the small marina while we worked madly to get her ready for the season. Not so easy when the temperature was in the mid 30’s during the day.

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Although we didn’t see as much of the island as we’d have liked, Curacao was a pleasant place to stay, we did get to sample a few of the restaurants in the restored Pietermaai, area.

curacao curacao2Mundo Bizarro’s Thursday salsa evening was great fun, with a very talented group of musicians.

mondo bizarrosalsa bandWith Sea Cloud ready (well almost) and a favourable weather forecast we left for Santa Marta, Colombia.

To break the journey, we anchored overnight in Rogers Lagoon, Aruba. The view in front of the boat was far prettier than that behind!

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The Columbia basin has a notorious reputation that we were well versed about, but despite all due risk management strategies, it was tough. The local conditions are well known and are driven by a bad combination of strong trades with 1,000 mile fetch + katabatic winds coming down from the Andes + rapid depth gradient from 3,000 m to 200m + strong countercurrent against wind (= steep truly horrible seas). To cap it off,  this area to Panama is called the lightning capital of the world – which we can vouch for!

Although we had good conditions, the relatively short (2 day, 320Nm) passage from Aruba to Santa Marta (Columbia) was more stressful than 95% of the Atlantic crossing due to a combination of waves and very impressive electrical storms.

We kept 75miles clear of the Venezuela/Columbia coast and well outside the 2,000m depth contour. Although wind rarely > 30kts, the combination of ALL of the above created a sea state that we’ve never seen before. Very steep waves ave 2-3m, with horrible sets of 10 or more every 30 mins > 4m and cresting waves. We took a large amount of water into the cockpit and one sneaky one down companionway.  At some point we had to chip away at the 75miles off to get into the Columbian coast, but at this time these horrible seas are more on the beam – it certainly focussed our attention! We know of several boats suffering knock downs and one dismasting in this little patch. To cap it off, most of the 2nd night we had colossal thunder storms with strikes all over the place. At one stage the radar showed us encircled by red storm cells with a small gap at 1 o’clock which we headed for and managed to sneak out the gap unscathed. Needless to say, not much sleep was had!

We were very glad to see daylight and the skyline of Santa Marta in the distance.

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Santa marta

The marina is very pleasant, with friendly staff and many cruisers staying for a few weeks to enjoy this interesting part of the world.  As we arrived, Santa Marta was getting ready to host the  Bolivarianos games – a big event with 34 sports, and participants from South and Central America.

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Unfortunately we didn’t get to see any of the games as we left Sea Cloud in the marina, and headed off to enjoy fascinating land content in Colombia and now Ecuador.  Cartagena & Medellin in Colombia were well worth a visit. The bus trip down from Santa Marta to Cartagena was an eye opener as to the poverty in the country side. We were the oldest backpackers on the bus by > 40yrs! The “bohemian” section of Cartagena, Getsiminde,  was very colourful, with some wonderful street art.

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get art2get art3Our hotel was very close to the very lively Plaza de la Trinidad, the hub of the area.

IMG_1635One night there was a great band with the best juggler

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the next evening, a Zumba class

Fortunately, our hotel, like many others in the area was set well back from the street.

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Once you work out that a restaurant bill of 1/4 million pesos equates to $15 a head, the living is cheap! The street food, which looked very good, was even cheaper.

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Cartagena was lovely with Spanish colonial architecture.cart4

cart5cart3cart 2 Probably shouldn’t have watched Narcos before visiting Medellin! It’s 3.5M population is nestled within a high mountain (> Kosckiusco) valley.

medeThe Comuna13 tour, a 5 hour walking tour of the city filled us in on the complex and difficult history of Medellin.  Comuna13 is where the guerrillas and Narcos ran the show for many years till 2003. Unbelievable the extent of anarchy there in 80’s and 90’s. The area was so dangerous the police couldn’t go there as they were shot by snipers. It took a full scale 3 day military operation in 2003 for the govt to regain control of the district again – the challenge now is to prevent it happening again.

The city has implemented a number of interesting projects. Gondolas and series of escalators have been built to connect the residents of the comuna with the city, cutting a 2 hour commute down to 45minutes.

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As explained by Walter, our terrific comuna13 guide, graffiti plays a huge role in the life of the people living in these areas. The early street art symbolised the battles and difficulties these people experienced, with later art being much more upbeat. These very talented artists are all young, and prolific!

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art8art7On the whole the Colombians are very hospitable and helpful, the food superb. A very lively, enjoyable and colourful place to visit!

We flew into Quito (Ecuador) last night and just spending one night in transit in a tiny village out of town. It’s just 30 miles south of the equator but at 2,500m altitude it’s beautifully cool – a welcome change from the heat on the coast. Sitting on the verandah of a hacienda – watching 3 lamas grazing in the yard – You don’t see that every day!

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llamasOff to Amazonia and up the river tomorrow so have started malaria prophylaxis (had yellow fever shots in Sydney!) and covering up + lots of mosquito repellent.