29 May 2013

Uncover Colombia Interview: Elaine’s voyage across the Colombian Caribbean coast aboard the Mar Azul

Posted in Travellers Experiences in Colombia, Blog

This week we bring you another edition of our monthly interviews. 

We would like to thank Elaine for taking the time to answer our questions and share their experience and photos with us and our readers. Elaine and her husband have been travelling in the Caribbean for about two years, so if you want to read more about their adventures check their blog: Mar Azul Adventures

Happy travels!

The Uncover Colombia team

- Tell us something about yourself (Where are you from? who you are and/or what you do?)

My husband & I always hoped to do extensive cruising on our own boat. Several years ago we decided it was time to make the dream a reality and not wait until we retired. We sold our house, moved aboard the ‘Mar Azul’, a Defever 44′ Offshore Cruiser, and left behind our careers in aviation and hospital administration for a time. We have spent the last two years traveling through the Caribbean.



Mar Azul Route to date – Image courtesy of Mar Azul Adventures

- Why did you decide to visit Colombia?

About a year into the trip we had to make a decision about our return route to the US. We could retrace a more familiar path by island-hopping north along the Eastern Caribbean chain or attempt longer passages and visit less traveled coastal destinations in South and Central America. We decided to go for the challenge. We spent three months in different ports in mainland Colombia between September and December of 2012 and later visited the Colombian island of San Andrés located off the coast of Nicaragua.



Approaching Colombia/Panama border near Sapzurro – Image courtesy of Mar Azul Adventures

- What sort of things did you like?

The best part of our trip was being able to learn about the culture by seeing first-hand how people live. Because of the length of time we were there our activities went beyond typical sightseeing. Doing simple daily tasks like getting around town, grocery shopping & locating supplies was part of the education. We were fascinated with the web of commerce along the streets and the contrast of the upscale shopping plazas. We enjoyed wandering around and observing the many differences from home. We got the chance to know several Colombian families which was really special.

- What didn’t you like?

Santa Marta was our first stop in Colombia and while the city was more developed than I had imagined I definitely experienced a feeling of culture-shock. It was compounded by the fact that we intended to stay several months based on seasonal weather patterns that affect sea travel. Away from the marina we stood out since there were few blue-eyed, blond tourists. It was intimidating not be able to communicate well. I was feeling really far from home. It was different than being on a vacation where know you will jump on a plane in a week or two and be back to familiar territory.

- What was your favourite experience?

Hands down the best part for me was having the opportunity to take Spanish lessons while I was in Santa Marta. A two month stay gave enough time to complete a basic intensive course and I found reasonably priced individual instruction. It was wonderful to learn from a native Colombian and then to have so many real life opportunities to practice the language. Toward the end of the class we covered a section on Colombian culture which presented information about life in the different regions of the country. My Spanish still needs a lot of work, but gaining a basic competency allowed me to converse with people I otherwise would not have been able to connect with and that greatly enriched our experiences in Latin America.



Colombian university students we met in Santa Marta – Image courtesy of Mar Azul Adventures

- Did you have any problems, finding accommodation, transport, food, etc?

We spent the majority of our time along the mainland in marinas, except in San Andrés where the yachting facilities are limited and we stayed in the beautiful anchorage which was perfect. Marina Santa Marta was a very comfortable place with many interesting mariners passing through from all over the world. Cartagena doesn’t have much marina space for transient boaters and we felt lucky to be welcomed into Club de Pesca, a local yacht club.



Baptist Church in San Andres
Image courtesy of Mar Azul Adventures

There was a very good food selection at the larger supermarkets. Fresh produce and a wide array of essentials could also be found at the open air “mercados” where mostly the lower classes shopped. It is fun to sample local products in different places and in Colombia we enjoyed great coffee, excellent cervezas, arepas, fresh jugos naturales and high quality produce. There were a few things that were not readily available like certain cheeses, whole wheat flour and American-style crackers, and certain meats like steaks, bacon and sausage were prepared differently. The nice part about shopping in Colombia was that so many items are locally produced including food, clothing and appliances. If you selected mostly local products the total grocery bill was way less, maybe 50% to 60% of what we would pay in Florida. We found wonderful international restaurants, high quality food courts and a couple of recommended street vendors serving delicious fare. Again the prices were lower compared with US dining outings.



Street vendors in Taganga – Image courtesy of Mar Azul Adventures

Rental cars were pricey (around $100 day) and while we have used public buses in many other countries the inexpensive taxi fares (for example, 4000 pesos or about $2.20 US for a ride within Santa Marta) swayed us to be loyal taxi users. We have really missed those plentiful little yellow taxis since leaving Colombia!



Downtown Santa Marta & yellow taxi – Image courtesy of Mar Azul Adventures

- Which other countries did you visit besides Colombia and How does Colombia compare with these countries?

After leaving Florida we traveled to the Bahamas, Turks & Caicos, Dominican Republic then Puerto Rico & Virgin Islands (Spanish, US & British). We visited most of the Eastern Caribbean islands as far south as Grenada, traveled west to the “ABC” islands of Bonaire, Curacao, Aruba, and then made the passage south to Colombia. So far we have stopped in 21 different countries, each unique. Colombia was different in that it was the first country that was continental and not an island. There is so much more diversity there in terms of geography, climate & culture.

- Which image did you have about Colombia before going there?

We had talked to people who had been there and read travel reports and blogs to come up with our initial game plan. We heard such a wide range of perceptions I didn’t know exactly what to expect. That is part of the adventure, to go and figure it out for ourselves. We knew that the violence problem was improving, still a concern in some places, but that we would be reasonably safe staying in the initial destinations we had chosen. I had this image of the country as being somewhat unsophisticated and a vague picture of Santa Marta as a smaller city where there might not be a lot to do. I knew Cartagena had beautiful historic sections but was concerned that the harbor would be dirty and industrial and not an appealing place to stay.



Cartagena Boca Grande area – Image courtesy of Mar Azul Adventures

- Did this image change after your trip?

Absolutely! Santa Marta, to my surprise, turned out to be a sprawling region about the size of Tampa. There was much to do and I felt comfortable walking by myself in the daytime within the Centro Historico area. The extent of military activity going on in the region was a little bit of a surprise. We did not feel particularly targeted as tourists nor less safe than in any big city back home. There was a large contingent of police, military and security personnel just about everywhere we went. We got local advice about where to go and we never had any problems or felt threatened in any way. Cartagena turned out to be so beautiful, cleaner and much more residential than I had imagined. The huge diversity of the population was very striking and while we saw extreme poverty we also saw contrasting wealth and sophistication. The amount of economic activity occurring in the country was unexpected. In some ways we felt like we had gone back in time to the days when the US economy was booming. I think sometimes we Americans write off South America as a “third world” sort of place and don’t comprehend what is occurring in this part of the world.

- Would you like to come back?

We know that we only sampled a very small part of what Colombia has to offer in our coastal travels. We have two aging pet dogs traveling with us and were not able to take overnight trips away from the boat while we were there. I would love to return and visit the inland areas, see Bogota and some of the other regions including coffee country. We could envision spending more time in Cartagena one day when we retire from boating. It has appealing residential areas with a relatively low cost of living, lots to do, great shopping, an interesting culture, and good access from the US.



Another spectacular sunset in Santa Marta – Image courtesy of Mar Azul Adventures

- What would you recommend to someone considering Colombia as a destination?

Talk or correspond with other travelers to find out their recent experiences. While news reports are not always accurate I would take a look at Latin American news sources to get insight on current issues. Once there, tap into current local knowledge about “do’s and dont’s”, where to go and what to avoid. We modified our itinerary, added stops in Puerto Velero and the Rosarios and rerouted our trip to Panama through Sapzurro after talking with the locals. We often find that our perceptions are very different from that of others, so you have to make your own decision about what you think you might like to explore and what feels comfortable for you.

- Any final thoughts?

Colombia was one of our most memorable destinations and our visit greatly expanded our knowledge about life in a very different culture. The next visit will likely be by air and I definitely won’t complain about a day or two in planes and airports compared to the process of getting there in a small boat!