Our YachtBalvenie blog has been going a few years now. It captures our experiences around the world as we explore by sea in our 47ft sloop "Balvenie" (draft is nearly 2.5m). This blog is the summary of our Cruising Info for all the places we have visited since we started the blog (so it does not have the beginning of our adventure). I have collated the cruising info here together for those that just wish to print it off, without having all the photos and stories that accompany it. For our entire story and all the great photos see http://yachtbalvenie.blogspot.com/

As always please remember these were our experiences which may be entirely different to others. All care has been taken with this information, and as with any navigational aids should be treated as a guideline. If you are following in our wake, have fun out there and stay off the hard stuff!!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Belize – From South to North ….. Jan/Feb 2013

Passage to Belize

We checked out of Utila in Honduras and did an overnight sail in light easterlies the 82miles.  We went through the shallows on the south western corner of Utila in good light and do not recall seeing less than 5m.   We had very rolly and messy seas for most of the journey but it flattened out the closer we got to Belize.  We arrived just after dawn and entered via Sapodilla Pass. 

General

We used the Cruising Guide to Belize and Mexicos Caribbean Coast by Freya Rauscher, it is an old guide and ours wasn’t the latest edition but it is very comprehensive and the best available.  There is very little “life” on any of the cays, don’t plan on dinner and drinks ashore too often.  Because of our 8foot draft we did not go to the northern area (Cay Caulker etc) above Belize City, but it is more touristy.  There was very little phone coverage, no wifi accept for Placencia, internet cafe in Dangriga, ATM’s in Placencia and Dangriga.  We were in company with New Zealand yacht Bandit for nearly our entire stay in Belize.  We never felt unsafe at all and there were no reports of any problems when we were there but we do like visiting these remote places in company.  For weather info we listened daily to Chris Parker on the SSB, downloaded the GRIB files via our satphone and listened to the daily Northwest Caribbean Cruisers Net. 

Anchorages

Lime Cay     16 06.155N   88 16.636W

3.7m Rocky.  We just pulled around into this anchorage after our overnight passage to await better light to move a little further.

Nicholas Cay     16 06.997N   88 16.105W

6.6m grass and hard sand patches.  Beautiful island, sandy beach.  Caretaker lives ashore and many derelict damaged buildings from a resort that got wiped out in a Hurricane.  Nothing open now.  We dinghied over to adjacent Hunting Cay island to pay our Park Fees.  Paid USD10 each, think the actual fee may have only been BEL10 each which is USD5, who knows!  All very laid back and they reminded us to check in when we got to Placencia.  Good snorkelling.

Tom Owens Cay     16 11.248N   88 13.941W

6m dropped in sand, settled over weed.  Cmap charts show no entrance inside reef and reef slightly further east than it is.  Failed to spot shallow patch in middle of channel shown in guidebook.  Really do need good light for this entry and anchoring.  Plenty of room for the 2 of us but then 2 charter/tour cats came in and things got quite tight but they were in shallower water.  Type of backpackers/dive resort ashore, nothing fancy and no bar/cafe/internet but they made us welcome ashore for a walk around (takes nearly 3 minutes). No wifi

Placencia     16 30.550N     88 21.814W  (by adjacent island)

7.5m sand/mud.  Good sail up in lovely flat water from Tom Owen.  Charts accurate enough.  Anchored by island for first couple of nights as slight south westerlies sending swell in and flatter by island.  No wifi over here.  Placencia is the main town accessible on the Belize coast and is a popular anchorage.  It can get very rolly in southwest winds and would be ghastly in south winds but there are options close by to move to if you need.

Placencia     16 30.667N     88 21.958W  (off town)

6.5m mud.    Port of Entry  Checking in procedures were a bit of a challenge and advice on how to complete them varied immensely depending on who you spoke to.  Basically the facilities are not at Placencia, they are at Big Creek but you can not take the Big Boat there and those that went by dinghy were denied landing access.  It seems this is quite a fluid situation so check with others already there first.  To get to Big Creek (only Skipper need go) walk up main road to water taxi (on left by Hardware/Timber store),  they go to Independence at 10am or 12.30pm, BEL6 each way.  When off water taxi get car taxi to Big Creek, drivers know where to take you and will wait for you BEL25 return per person but this fare varied greatly.  Check in cost BEL160 for 2 of us on New Zealand Passports and included one month visa and 2 weeks cruising permit, general consensus was just get a couple of weeks and pay rest on checkout if charged. We checked out at Dangrira, see below under Garbutt Cay for details.  We had wifi with external aerial, Paradise Resort. its locked but go into bar for a drink and get code.  Didn’t eat there but meals didn’t look too inspiring.  The little shacky bar on stilts next to it is great and always busy, quite noisy with live music (but our sort of music) most nights but closes early.  Both these places have dinghy docks.  There is a laundry 7BEL behind these two bars, just walk inland and its on the corner right hand side of first block, downstairs in a 2 storey wooden house (there is a sign on the terrace)  it is very basic but its a washing machine!  There was another laundry but I never looked hard for it.  The main dinghy dock is a little further north behind some derelict piles, don’t go in too close as it shallows at low tide.  There was a big new wharf being built, the dinghy dock is before that.  This dock is basically at the bottom of the main street.  There is a gas station there but it was closed most of the time and an ATM.  Further up on the left is the first of the Chinese Groceries, there are two more (newer and slightly better) some walk up this street almost out of town. These two are worth the walk and had some things we hadn’t got in months.  Back down after Chinese No 1 there is a bike hire/souvenir place 6BEL half day worth taking for an afternoon.  On the right is the Above Ground Cafe, very good coffee and free wifi but not many seats.  Next along on the left is Greg’s Fruit &Veg, it is more expensive but the produce was much better, they also have lots of meat (best option in town for meat) and dairy products in their fridges and freezers that you don’t see but just ask, they are very helpful and the quality was very good.  There is another mobile vege truck further on the left next to the sports field, it came most days, quality of produce varied.  Just after this is a blue shack which has quite simply the best burritos ever tasted, they are only open for lunch – if you like Mexican do not miss this place (don’t think it had a name but has two lift up wooden windows and a couple of seats.)  Another much smaller mobile veg stall was a little further on the right, quality not great but had some different things.  We ate out at Omars (byo liquor), and the big place next to it (has free wifi) and across the street at Dawns.  Dawns was excellent and her hot chilli sauces to buy have a real zip.  There are more cafes and some great icecream shops, there are a couple of bakeries that you have to order in advance but one that you didn’t, can’t remember name but it was a locally owned (many places are foreign owned) place that had a few signs up (maybe called Johns), all the bakeries were on the footpath that runs adjacent to the beach, parallel to the main street.  There was a cellphone provider and we investigated getting a sim but they did not do prepay and also advised we would not have coverage once we left town so we did not pursue.  We loved Placencia, found it a laidback place where we felt safe, it is very small but has most of what you need, a real jewel. 

The following are in the order we visited them, it may look a little odd if you plot them but you are at the mercy of the weather more so here than in the rest of the Caribbean as the USA Winter Northerlies get this far south and affect the local weather.

North Long Cocoa Cay    16 33.645N     88 06.274W

3.5m find a sandy spot in between soft coral.  Caught a couple of Yellowtail Snapper enroute, yummy.  We intended to stop at Rendezvous Cay but with a couple of yachts already there we were unable to find shallow enough water to anchor.  We moved on the extra 3 miles.  Snorkelling ok but we had ben told it was excellent  but maybe didn’t find the right spot.

South Long Cocoa Cay     16 29.943N     88 12.664W

Dropped 8m settled 13m.  Quite hard to find a shallow spot.  Sand and hard coral.  1st day we snorkelled the top left shoreline and it was ok.  2nd day was lovely and flat so we went around the top and drift snorkelled nearly back to the boats (retracing much of the previous day).  It was outstanding, maybe the best we saw, loads of fish, a nurseshark, beautiful soft corals, excellent, don’t know why it was so much better than the first day but light was better and flatter seas.   We returned to Placencia from here to sit out another norther.

Sittee Point    16 48.179N     88 16.028W

4m mud.  Very good coverage from the north here.  Did dinghy excursion up the river trying to find the town, weather turned rainy and never made it.  Good bird spotting.  Left after one night but returned as conditions to rough to enter pass to get to Twin Cays

Twin Cays     16 49.663N     88 06.250W

4.5m mud.  Excellent all round coverage within mangroves.  Hard trip from pass through shallows, water very hard to read depths and with 2.5metre/8 foot draft we did not have much to spare , nurdled our way through and never touched the bottom but you do need calm conditions if deep draft.  Nice snug anchorage in the mangroves, heard there are crocodiles but never saw any in Belize.

Southwater Cay     16 49.068N     88 05.129W   &     16 48.928N     88 05.123W

6.6m/6m sand.  The 2 1/2miles from Twin Cays took us 1 1/4 hours, got down to 3.1m enroute, took it very very slow but it was worth it, absolute stunner of an island and lovely anchorage – paradise found.  National Park fee payable, 10BEL per person.  On our 2nd visit conditions were calm enough to take the dinghy outside and do a drift snorkel back through the pass.  It was excellent - saw schools of tarpon, a lionfish & lovely soft corals.

Tobacco Cay     16 54.093N    88 03.968W

5m find a sandy spot.  Had a lovely sail in the 4m shallows inside the reef up from Southwater Cay.  BEWARE in our guide book it showed a shoal going right across the entrance to the anchorage that you need to avoid, in the newer version this was not shown but IT IS STILL THERE.  So take your time and try to have light behind you.  There is life on Tobacco Cay, a small resort with a great little shacky beach bar for sundowners.  Think they may have done meals if you order in advance, no wifi.

Glovers Reef     16 42.985N     87 51W

6m sand.  A very lively exit from inside the reef at Tobacco Cay with plenty of water over the bow, but then pleasant sail 25 miles to Glovers.  Entrance was easy to see in good light.   Lovely anchorage, could snorkel straight off the boat.  Went ashore to sit on the beach for sundowners but caretaker asked us to leave, this is a private island. After much pleading and telling him we had sailed all the way from New Zealand he let the 6 of us stay without setting the dogs on us!  Dinghied around to neighbouring island with small resorts on it following day, very very quiet, more places where it would be necessary to prebook dinner if you wanted.  One place has sign for wifi but there was no one there, extremely laid back dive holiday place.  We didn’t venture further inside Glover reef as another Northerly was coming so we headed back to the mainland and entered through the wider channel at Southwater Cay and stayed there another night.

Garbutt Cay     16 58.168N     88 05.596W

12m muddy.  Caught 2 fish enroute.   Mangrove anchorage, good shelter and holding  Beach ashore looks lovely from a distance, not so nice up close.  Harry (the local mayor!) paddled out, nice bloke traded lobster which we really didn’t need but gave him some books, tiny rum and coke.    Next day we left Balvenie and the 4 of us went on Bandit to Dangriga to check out (our 1month was nearly up), there was an onshore wind which didn’t abate so Mark, Brenda and I went ashore in the dinghy while David drove Bandit around.  Very lively and wet entry and exit over bar on river in dinghy.  Tied dinghy to dock on left, walk up to bridge and turn left.  Supermarket on corner, fruit and veg stalls along road, Customs and Immigration along further on right, internet cafe almost opposite C&I.  Checking out quite quick but had to wait for staff to arrive.  Customs Fee BEL45 and Park Fee 15BEL, weren’t charged any more for Cruising Permit. 

Middle Long Cay     17 15.787N     88 05.539W

4.5m sandy mud.  Had a brisk sail up inside the reef.  Went snorkelling over the partially sunken wreck just to the south, lots of lobsters but they had too many places to hid.  Quite good snorkel but quite murky water and big barracuda lurking in the dark!

English Cay     17 19.750N     88 03.066W

3.5m sandy patch in coral.  Snorkel stop only, too exposed for overnight.  Snorkelled on outside off reef in very clear water.  Not a huge variety but thousands of fish and some we hadn’t seen before.  Definitely worth the short stop, and our last snorkelling for the season.

Bannister Brogue     17 26.450N     88 04.216W

4.2m sandy mud.  Total protection within mangroves, yes more strong winds to tuck up from.  There was a resort on one of the little neighbouring islands but we did not go ashore.

Robinson Island     17 21.637N     88 11.199W

11.5 m mud.  Moved here as much more room to swing for sitting out northers for a couple of days.  Nothing there but good protected anchorage.  Did a couple of fun dinghy excursions around the mangrove islands.

Turneffe Island – Cay Bokel     17 10.391N     87 53.798W

2.7m hard sand/coral …. then the tide went out!  Our worst night ever at anchor. Had intended to anchor on southwest tip of Turneffe but lee shore when we got there so entered through reef in poor fading light, guide book showed 9 feet inside we never really found it and had our worst ever night at anchor, aground for hours.  Wind shifted to southeast and got very bouncy over reef, finally got off and into slightly deeper water and left at first light.  Had hoped to go to Lighthouse Reef from here but southeast too strong.

Turneffe Island – Southwest Tip     17 10.333N     87 55.164W

4.2m  sandy spot.  No longer a lee shore so stopped here to gather our thoughts.  Decided to abort plans to go to Lighthouse Reef and made our way up Turneffes west coast heading for Mexico.

Turneffe Island – Midwest     17 14.267N     87 56.945W

7.5m  sandy spot, just kept nudging our way in, went over a couple of shallow patches.  Just an overnight stop. Had a good forecast to head north with easterlies so that was the finish of Belize. 

Heading to Mexico

Forecast was not correct and we were hard on the wind the entire way, Gulf Stream running with us giving us a couple of knots current but wind over GS gave us horrible seas.  Couldn’t take shelter on Mexican coast as lee shore and very shallow entrances to the couple of anchorages.  Considered stopping in lee of Chinchorro Bank but arrived at dawn and water flattened giving us false sense of improvement!!!  Carried on and anchored during the night at Cozumel, Mexico 

To read our full blog postings with photos of Belize click on this link  http://yachtbalvenie.blogspot.co.nz/search/label/Belize

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Honduras – Vivorillos, Guanaja, Roatan & Utila ….. Dec/Jan 2013

Vivorillos Cays   15 50.249N  83 18.290W  

7m sand with coral patches.  We had departed Low Cay north of Providencia (185 miles) at 9.30am the previous morning, had we known we would have been so close to making it in in daylight we would have left earlier.  We did however have a visual on the cays before sunset, the wind had died out after some lively squalls so we decided to try for a night arrival.  The lighthouse is no longer operational on the farthermost west island but there is an AIS signal transmitted advising there is an island there!   We do not have AIS so not much use to us, but our friends do and they picked up the signal.  We stayed west of the island in deep water then curved around and made our way very slowly in behind the shelter of the cays and reef.  The seabed was very uneven and we saw depths ranging between 4.5m to 8m.  There were no onshore lights just a couple of anchored yachts with lights which we saw and one with no lights that we did not see at all until the next morning – not good practice.  We had a peaceful night and left around 8.30am so did not go ashore.  Those that have stayed report a lovely spot to explore for a few days. No cell coverage.

Guanaja – Isla Bonacca   16 26.515N   85 53.432W

4.8m sand patch on edge of neighbouring small island.  Trip from Vivorillos (155 miles) took 25 hours so we timed our arrival through the outer reef system for a couple of hours after sunrise which gave us good enough light in clear skies.  There is no longer a lighthouse operational however there was a bright flashing white (like a strobe light) that showed over 30 miles out, at first we thought it was in the water but it is on top of the island, the distance made it difficult to tell.  There was also a constant bright white to the north of it also on the top of the island, visible same distance. (very easy to think they were fishing line markers but they never get any closer).  We entered south of Half Moon Cay, there is still a marker on the western edge of the reef to the west of it.  There is ample room to drop sails once through the first reef entrance behind this reef.  We went between Pond Cay and Bonacca with good light behind us and it was easy to see the couple of shoal patches.  Exiting on the eastern side of Bonacca was totally clear of shallow water.  Ashore  ~  We took the dinghy over about half way along the island there is a main dock with an indentation that we tied/locked to.  The Port Captains office was right there so we saw him first.  Then we had to go to Immigration, carry on past Port Captain to end of path and turn right, go almost to end (2nd to last), then you have to go back to Port Captain.  No charge for anything but we did hear of the odd cruiser being charged $US10 here and there.  All completed within about half an hour.  There is a bank with ATM machine almost on the junction.  Exchange rate December 2012 was approx 100Lempara = USD5.  Maximum with drawl was 4,000LEM.  On the path back to the Port Captain is the TIGO shop.  For onboard Internet we bought a simcard for 50LEM and a month data package which included 5GB for extra 500LEM, this worked very well for us including skype.  The lady set everything up for us, she was very helpful but basically didn’t say one word to us!  There were several small fruit and vegetable outlets and we timed it well as the produce boat arrived and had the best selection we have seen in a very long time.  A couple of ok supermarkets.  Its a small place – everything is easy to find, no roads just all footpaths.  We did not stay the night anchored here as it was very busy with local traffic.  There is a new fuel dock and we understand it also has water.  Prices unknown.

Guanaja – El Bight/Sandy Bay   16 27.256N   85 52.247W

9m mud.  We came around the eastern side of Dunbar Rock and saw about 3.8m least depth.  Quite a rocky looking bottom and water clear so we just went slow, once over the shallows there is plenty of water.  Most boats anchored a reasonable distance offshore to stay away from the bugs which weren’t TOO bad. Lovely anchorage, very calm water, peaceful and scenic.  Boats were standing by on VHF 72.  We did not see the piling in the anchorage noted in NW Caribbean Guide Book.  We stayed for Christmas, the Manati Lodge ashore serves good food and cheap drinks.  Good signal for phone/internet.  We did a great hike over the island to the northern coast, we went with a local cruiser who knew the way, good you certainly get lost otherwise but there were some shorter marked paths.  Wear long pants as there is a lot of cutting grass.  We had lunch on the northern coast other side at the Green Flash Restaurant and they bought us back to our dinghies by boat through the canal cut for 600LEM for the 5 of us (lunch extra about 120LEM pp).  Tried a few spots by dinghy for snorkelling, nothing good and lots of little jelly stringers.  When we left we sailed inside South West Cay and outside the other reefs, visibility was good and we saw no obstructions or uncharted shallows.

Roatan – French Cay Harbour   16 21.244N   86 26.699W 

9m sand/mud, some patches of grass.  We held fine but some boats dragged after sitting out gusts over 25knots for days.  Arrival with a brisk nor’easter behind you is a little difficult.  There is no lee from the land so seas do not flatten and there is really no room to tuck behind Big French Cay either to drop sails so its head to wind and a free salt water wash.  Then it really was quite hard to see the channel in, but 2 boats had gone in before us so we just headed slowly for the entrance waypoint in the NW Caribbean Guide at 16 20.85N 86 27.00W, then headed due north straight towards land and flat water, you then leave a wobbly looking pole to starboard and start turning right towards the two buoys which look white but are very faded green (port) and red (starboard), they are about the size of little dinghy fenders.  They are close to land and stay close until you are past the houses and docks.  Think the least depth we saw was just under 4m.  There are several reef shallows in the anchorage but it is a good sized and there were about 20 boats while we were there and could have taken more.  There is good coverage from the reef and land by can get choppy in high winds.  General calling channel 72Morning VHF Net channel 74 @ 9am.  There are 2 options for tying up, Brooksy Point which offers about 15 stern-to berths in a very protected pocket, they offer a range of services including laundry, wifi (not accessible in the anchorage) dive tank fills etc.  The other is Fantasy Island which can accommodate many boats side tied around the island.  They have fuel facilities, need to pre arrange.  We did not need to check in or out here but if you do it is necessary to get taxis to Coxens Hole. Ashore ~  Dinghy dock to walk to town/supermarket – go back out between the faded red and green buoys turn right and then turn left.  Veer over to the right and tie up between some shrimp boats on a very dodgy dock.  Lock it, there normally seems to be someone around, they appreciated the odd can of coke.  There is an excellent Eldon Supermarket, best we have seen since Santa Marta in Colombia except for meats which weren’t great.  There is an ATM in the supermarket.  Close by if you walk west down the main road past the Petrol Station on the corner there is a fish market (on left behind big fence, closed weekends), excellent inexpensive prawns and also in here is a Gourmet Food Distributor very good selection of goodies but pricey, they will deliver to Frenchys Restaurant in the anchorage.  Carrying on down this road a little further is Ace Hardware on the left, LPG Gas Refill Centre on the right (240LEM for 9kg while you wait) then either further an open air mall with some clothing shops, banks, coffee shops and another supermarket (not very good).   Mike at Brooksy Point organises and takes an island tour on Fridays from around 9.15am to 3.30pm, USD20 pp including dolphin show (yes we see plenty of dolphins but it was ok).  You stop at West Beach for lunch (not included), a good way to see the island and Mike is very informative.  Brooksy Point also organises a pizza night (pizza are bought in) they were excellent.  We had a special dinner at Frenchys one night, mid range prices – nice enough.

Utila – East Harbour   16 05.598N   86 53.866W

We had rather a lively sea state downwind from Roatan but the water does flatten considerably as you close on the harbour.  We only had our headsail out so didn’t need to turn to windward but it would have been ok.  The flashing light shown in the guide book is still there and operational but the stake shown at the entrance is not.  Again we headed for the entrance waypoint of 16 05.15N   86 54.10W and slowly and carefully made our way in.  A bearing of 020M lines you up with a white painted church steeple, there is now a large wooden yellow house in front of the church but you can still see the steeple.  It clouded over just as we arrived so we found spotting the deep water and sandy anchorage patches hard but there is loads of room and we anchored in 7m sand, good holding in over 30knot gusts.   Ashore ~ We took our dinghy into the dock at the Utila Lodge, it has no name water frontage but it is just to the right of the yellow house and church mentioned above and the dock normally has some white wooden chairs on it.  There is a dock inside the outer one and they were very receptive to us tying up there, it seemed safe day and night.  We didn’t eat there but had a few happy hour drinks.  Along their alleyway is a lady offering free Spanish lessons, need to pre book.  Across the road a bakery with good cinnamon buns, another bakery with good wholemeal bread on same side along to right maybe 5 minutes walk set back slightly.  We had lunch at Munchies very average and they have slow wifi.  Had dinner at El Picante Mexican, its the bright yellow and red wooden building waterfront, it was ok, think they have a dock too.  A few stores/mini markets scattered around town with varying quality of fresh produce, you really need to visit them all and pick through.  Bush’s general store has a slightly chilled room for veg and reasonable frozen meat selection.  They also have a petrol pump outside.   Our TIGO internet connection in our dongle worked very well at anchor.  Quite possibly the rudest staff member at Immigration we have ever come across, she was obviously not having a good day, only spoke Spanish and absolutely no attempt to go even the slightest bit slow. Port Captain is next door, go there next, they are both on the big ferry dock, there was no charge for checking out.  We had to get photocopies of something for Immigration and there is an internet/copy place set back in a garden also on the ferry dock..  Bank is on the corner by the ferry dock.  The Jade Seahorse is on the road inland from the Bank on the left a little way – its straight out of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and definitely worth a look.  Street food empanadas were cheap and tasty. 

We had planned to stop at the Water Cays on the western end of Utila enroute to Belize but there was too much swell and protection did not look to be adequate.  We did leave that way though, sailing over the shallows which was a touch heart stopping when the water got very clear.  Don't think we saw anything under 5m from memory.  

Overall

We enjoyed our stay in Honduras immensely, the wind howled through much more than we were expecting but that is part of life on a boat.  We didn't have any security issues and never felt unsafe, we locked the boat when we left it and set our alarm at night.  We locked the dinghy in Roatan and Bonacca.  We did however stick to the main anchorages so didn't get to experience as much of the Bay Islands as we originally intended.  They are more Caribbean than Central American, very laid back and most enjoyable - worth the stop for sure

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Colombia – Providencia ….. December 2012

Passage to Providencia

We ended up in Panama for the summer/hurricane season.  We had carefully watched the weather for this dead end corner of the Caribbean for many months and knew that there was a small window to get north from Panama, with the least amount of pain.  The hurricane season “officially” ends 01 Dec, many boats start heading north during November as there are sometimes westerly winds, although they are very fickle.  You also run the risk of a late season hurricane forming in the Western Caribbean, which is possible, and are left with no where to run.  The weather had been appalling in Shelter Bay Marina, Colon during November – days and days of rain – so we weren’t inspired to leave.  We finally pulled out 30 Nov and did a short sail east to Portobelo, this improves the angle ever so slightly for laying Providencia.  We had originally wanted to explore the Boco del Toros area of Panama but as it lies further west it tighten the angle even more for the trip to Providencia so we ended up missing it.   We left Portobelo 7.30am on December 01 and did a night arrival into Providencia on December 04 at 1.30am, it took us 66 hours to cover the 255 miles direct route, we put in several tacks, sailed hard on the wind every inch of the way in very light winds and moderate seas except for the occasional 25knot squall.  Friends that left a day before us had very squally conditions and uncomfortable seas, a yacht that left a week after us from Boco del Toros was dismasted.  This is definitely a passage to pick a good weather window for and to try and get done before the infamous Christmas Trades set in.  The other option is to try for a window across to Cartagena on the Colombian Mainland and then have more of a downwind passage to Providencia.  That stretch of water can get very lively when the trades are blowing and some very big seas are not unusual.

Entry into Providencia

Looking at the charts it shows miles of shallows, several markers that don’t appear to go anywhere and it is very confusing.  We did a night arrival and it was straightforward.  There is a lit sea buoy (shows on CMaps) at 13 24.00N 81 23 .71W, it flashes white.  Head to it keeping well offshore then you turn towards land down a wide entry channel (approx 143 mag, there were leading lights onshore but they were hard to pick out as they were the same yellowish colour as other lights nearby).  Coastal traders and the small Navy ship come in this channel, there are 3 red markers on starboard and 2 green markers on port.  One was not working on our arrival but it was repaired within two days.  The chart shows this channel going over a reef, it shallowed down to around 4 metres at this point.  At the last green marker (approx 13 22.61N 81 22.68W) turn left towards Santa Catalina (almost due north) try to stay left keeping out of the channel to the dock (used day and night).  This is around 3.5m – 4m and it holds this depth quite some distance in, so take it slowly and nudge in.  We anchored at 13 22.70N 81 22.50W in 3.5m thick mud.  Try to tuck up as far as you can, when the wind went to the North a slight swell did creep into the back of the anchorage.

Ashore

At anchor 04 – 16 December 2012.  Call Bush Agency on VHF 16 on arrival.  Mr Bush (English speaking) seems to be the only local agent and it didn’t seem an option to side step him and try to check in independently.  There are several opinions of his service and costs on various sites, he is quite abrupt on the radio but well mannered, pleasant and helpful in person.  He will arrange a time to meet you on the dock to process your papers.  He asked for us to come in a couple of times during our stay but we didn’t until we wanted to arrange our departure, this didn’t create a problem.  You need to give him at least a days notice of departure.  No payment until you leave, we were charged USD140, Colombia is not a cheap place to check in and out of!  Take dinghy to the left of the big dock and tie up at long dock that runs across the front of the town square.  Town is right there, takes 10 minutes to see it all. Exchange rate Dec 2012 USD10 = COP16,500.  A few small supermarkets on road that runs inland slightly up the hill have reasonable provisions but poor fresh produce, most appeared dead on arrival ~ may well come from mainland on unrefrigerated trader.  Three supermarkets up here.  One on right will exchange USD, or there is an ATM at Bank on town square by dinghy dock.   Bakery on road up hill on right side has very good wholemeal bread.  A couple of small hardware stores also up here, and keep walking about 500metres for the small hospital on left.  Back down by the dinghy dock looking towards land on right side, ground floor old very handsome but rather dilapidated old wooden building there is a small kiosk that you can buy a Simcard or Chip as they call them for phone/internet.  The chip cost 19,000 (may get English or Spanish speaker) can buy credit here OR, go across road to Internet Cafe and very helpful English speaking lady activated it and sold the credit which was 20,000 for one weeks/1.5GB internet, daily was 3,500 and we when we activated for another day it gave us three days which was good as we also picked up the signal after we left when anchored up at Low Cay.  We did pick up an unlocked WIFI signal at anchor but it was very fluky.  Petrol/Diesel  Can take dinghy across to far right end of board walk, might need to paddle last part, tie up, walk along road maybe 150 metres to Gas Station or get while you have your mule.  Petrol was 10,000COP a gallon, didn’t need diesel but it was less.  Eating Out  A real lack of choice, Bamboo Hut has closed down, we had dinner ashore one night but it was very average.  All up Providencia was a great stopover, a very clean, well kept island with the islanders seemingly proud of their home ~ after Panama is was very refreshing.

Activities

Mule Hire  (has 4 wheels not 4 legs)  To see the island you either hire a mule (sort of a dune buggy) or a motorbike, we shared a mule its 100,000COP total so not cheap (our half 50,000)  includes fuel,  we got ours from Camila Rentals which was in a hardware store on road up hill just by bakery.  Loads of places had them for hire, all same price.  You can drive around the island in no time, but there are little side roads to explore, stunning South West Bay to linger over a very long lunch, photos to take and a few short walks to stretch the legs, or the big hike up to the summit.  Make sure you do the walk across “Lover Lane” bridge that joins Providencia and Santa Catalina, turn left and do the walk all the way out to Morgans Head.  Board Walk first, then steps up and down, then lovely well tended bush walk along coast to end, return same way, allow 3 hours with loads of time for stops and swim at Pirates Cove.  Then take the dinghy out to Morgans Head and snorkel all the way back to headland under the steps, saw fish we hadn’t seen before, a big eel, a yellow spotted ray, the most beautiful shell ever, some lovely corals and reasonable amount and mix of fish.  We did this most days as it was sheltered from the wind and a very pleasant way to get exercise. 

Other Anchorages

Anchoring before the last green cannel buoy just off the cute little beach on Santa Catalina before the main anchorage looked feasible, there was plenty of depth and would be a good option in stronger Northers, although when the wind was from the north there was a swell creeping in so maybe a little rolly.

Low Cay - There are not too many places on the CMap charts it notes “Good Anchorage”, but inside the reef to the east of the lighthouse at Low Cay it does so we decided to spend one night there on our journey to Honduras.  We anchored at 13 31.147N 81 20.085W in 10m on a sandy patch.  The reef is not as solid as we would have hoped and there was alot of water coming over and through gaps in the reef.  We were there in light easterlies and didn’t think much of it.  Snorkelling was ok but very choppy and hard work.  Still had phone coverage good enough for internet.

To read our full blog postings about the journey to and from Providencia and our time there click here for our other blog

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

San Blas Islands (Kuna Yala) - Panama ….. April - June 2012

Background – We decided to do what is known in these parts as the “National Geographic” tour of the San Blas Islands in the autonomous region of Panama known as Kuna Yala.  Most cruisers potter around in the western San Blas in an area covering about 15 miles of palm tree islands with cute sandy beaches, waters every colour of blue, good snorkelling and very few villages.  We sailed overnight from Colombia and decided to come in to the chain much further east at Isla Pinos and make our way west, exploring all on offer on the way.  Even though the San Blas are part of Panama and just a few metres in some places off the mainland coast they are a world away.  Imagine you are going to a remote tropical island group in the South Pacific.

Weather - We planned our visit for the end of the trade wind season but before the rainy season, arriving 26 April and leaving 04 June 2012.  In the main we had light and variable winds…pottering around under motor in glassy seas which made the anchorages idyllic. Yachts transiting the canal  in March/April and moving through this area during the trade wind season may have a more lively experience. However, it sure has rained and the thunder and lightening was spectacular. On several occasions it lasted many hours and had us cowering below expecting the worst at any moment. We have experienced monsoon seasons elsewhere around the world but nothing compares with the lightening we have seen in this region so far, bearing in mind the rainy season has just started !!. The moral is… if you visit in the rainy season to avoid the Caribbean hurricane season - and there are many many yachts doing this - make sure you have deep pockets or are insured for lightening strikes!!!.     

Reference Material – We purchased The Panama Cruising Guide – 4th edition by Eric Bauhaus at Budget Marine in Curacao.  At nearly $100 USD it is the most expensive guide we have ever purchased, however it is an exceptional guide and has been worth every cent .  DO NOT think about doing the route we did without it as the beginning of our cruise was in unsurveyed waters, the cruising guide was our bible with spot on waypoints, charts and aerial photos.  We were given an electronic copy of the charts from the book to run with Open CPN towards the end of our stay in the San Blas, if you can find these online to download then do it, they are great and except for a couple of minor discrepancies we found them superb and easy to use on Open CPN (we had never used Open CPN before but did already have it downloaded on our laptop and now quite like it).  There is the Panama Connections Cruisers Net daily on SSB radio frequency 8107 at 8.30am local time.  As our SSB died the day we left Santa Marta (we hope to get it fixed in Panama City) we have not partaken in the net but it is an excellent source of local knowledge, some cruisers have been in these parts for years..

Provisioning – If you spend as long as we did then you need to do a MAJOR provision before you leave wherever you are leaving from.  I don’t like to spell it out because if you are reading this you are probably experienced at provisioning but lets say 6 weeks ……… that’s 42 days, say one packet of muesli lasts 5 days (not on Balvenie) that’s 9 packets of muesli, we use a litre of milk a day - 42 litres of milk!, a couple of beers each a day - eek 84 cans of beer, don't forget the flour and yeast for the bread …. and so on.  I’m experienced – I didn’t bring enough.   Basically other than getting random fruit and vegetables (if you are lucky) you should bring absolutely everything you will need to get you to at least Portobello or Colon.  Also remember the bugs, especially if the trade winds aren’t howling – bring plenty of bug spray, personal repellent and mosquito coils with you (we haven’t had mosquitoes but have had no-see-ums).  There is a ban on commercial fishing for April and May so cruisers are asked not to purchase fish, crabs or lobsters off the locals during this breeding season, although we saw several buying lobster.  I will note below what was available (if anything) where applicable.  There was a cruiser that offered a service of provisioning in Panama and bringing it to the boat in the Western San Blas, he added 30% but your shopping with your receipt got delivered in a chilled environment right to the boat.  Sadly he recently passed away but there is some talk that someone is taking over the business – but don’t count on it. 

Phones/Internet/Money -  Phone - There are a few cell phone towers, they seem to get hit regularly by lightening – or that is the general excuse for them not working.  On the seldom occasion we did have coverage we were able to use our international Gymsim simcard however Panama is in the 2nd highest rate zone in the world and it was very expensive.  Our satphone was actually cheaper per minute.  Internet – learnt to do without!  Supposed to be available at the school in Nargana but not when we tried.  Available via plugin at the small shacky bar (no power or lighting) on Naguarchirdup in the West Lemmon Cays, worked at random when we were there, but when it did work it was good enough to skype. Cost USD3.00 per hour.  Some boats that had come the other way had a Digicel sim (sim/chip US$3 one month internet US$14.95) that they had enabled data packages on and either used dongles or tethered their phones, however signal at best was very poor and they were even having problems getting a good enough signal to do text only emails (while climbing the mast to get a better signal!).  Money -  Panama uses American Dollars.  Get these in Grenada at a bank or out of the money machines in Bonaire or Curacao and maybe Aruba (money machines in Colombia did not dispense USD,) and bring small denominations, as many one dollars a you can.  We arrived with USD780.00, as I write this we are anchored at Isla Linton, one anchorage away from Portobello which has an ATM (we hope), we only have $9 left, so have spent around $770 from 26 April until 08 June.  We had to pay to anchor in a few places, bought food and alcohol whenever we could, got a few molas, went out for dinner once and spent most of it on officialdom.

Checking In – We checked in at Porvenir, this is almost as far west as you can go in the San Blas, but there is nowhere before this that can process yachts arriving.  Our “zarpe” (exit paper) from Colombia was dated 18 April and we checked in 30 May, this didn’t appear to be a problem.  The cost of visas seem to change daily, Ours (on our European Union passports) were USD50 each and we don’t actually know if they are for 6 months or a year, we forgot to ask and it doesn’t say on them.  There was also a $10 fee for something, maybe for taking our thumb prints!  Then we moved to the Port Captain – our cruising permit for one year was USD193.00 valid for all Panamanian waters, and he issued a new zarpe to get us to Portobello which cost USD16.70.  So all up it was welcome to Panama and bye bye to USD319.70, and no going out to dinner that night or buying just one more mola!  

Wildlife -  Firstly the bugs – bearing in mind the trades had stopped blowing we had very little wind to keep the bugs away.  When we got any sort of breeze, just 3 or 4 knots was enough, we would normally be bug free.  We had no problems at all with mosquitoes, heard only one during our stay.  No-see-ums were a problem, especially for Mark, they just love him.  They really are tiny and you don’t see them but you feel the bite and they last about 4 days.  We tried all the preventions we read about – applying baby oil, personal bug spray, fly spray, burning mozzie coils which all helped, but we still get bitten on occasion.  We expected the outer islands to be better, some were, some weren’t.  We generally managed to keep them out of the boat at night by spraying before bedtime, and we doubled up the netting on our mozzie nets.  Flies came out in some places, as did big dragonflies and moths the size of small birds - they all came and went.  In the water we often got stingy bites, we don’t know what from. Crocodiles, now you don’t want to get bitten by one of those!  We didn’t see any, don’t know anyone who has seen any, asked locals swimming up rivers and at mangroves edges and they all said “no problem”.  We jumped overboard everywhere (except downstream of the villages with outhouses!), when it was murky we got out quickly

AND NOW TO THE ANCHORAGES – FIRSTLY THE “NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TOUR”

Isla Pinos     08 59.790N     77 45.440W
7.5m off sandy beach and before sandspit and village.  This was a little further south than the suggested anchorage in the guide but the winds were almost Nor’west and this had better shelter.  We decided to make landfall here from Colombia as it has no outlying reef to navigate, so made for a safe easy landfall.  Ulu (dugout canoe) came out to collect US$10 anchoring fee, receipt given.  Cellphone tower on island but there was no signal.  Took dinghy to dock at village for a look around, small not much there.  Managed to buy some fruit off David our unofficial tour guide.  Swam here.  Flat water.

Ustupu     09 07.748N   77 55.765W
5.9m thick mud between village and mainland in some very murky waters.  US$15 anchoring fee, didn’t have change for $20 but told us he would wait ashore for us at 4pm with change, when we went in he was there with our $5.  Quite an amazing town really,  it is the largest in San Blas with over two thousand inhabitants, (looked like 75% under 18) all in thatched huts built inches apart from each other – very cosy!  Felt extremely overpopulated.  There were waterways running through it all, outhouses built over them.  A few small stores but didn’t look to be much.  Made welcome ashore but no photos (just a few sneaky with no people in them).  A small bar/restaurant but no beer.  Cellphone tower but again no signal.  Airstrip.  Bad No-see-ums.  No swimming here.  Flat water. 

Achutupu     09 11.547N   77 59.299W
5.6m thick mud, found some much shallower mud before this – whoops!  Having just done the village experience we gave this one a miss.  We went to Dolphin Island Resort on Uagitupu which had no food, drink or guests but we stretched our legs.  In Lonely Planet the little huts here go for around US$150 a night, no wonder they were empty.  Supposed to be quite good stores on Achutupu.  Again there was a cellphone tower, signal came and went at random.  Did not swim here.  Flat water.

Five Palm Island     09 17.530N   78.07.332W
8.5m sandy patch.  Just a short stop to visit postage stamp sized island, surrounded by clear waters.  Cute island on leeward side, plastic dumping centre on windward.  Had quick snorkel, swim and shore excursion.  Too rolly to stay overnight.  Found an uncharted 3m patch between here and Mono Island.

Mono Island     09 16.376N   78 07.518W
4.5m mud.  Anchored between island and mangroves, not as protected as it reads in the guide unless you got very close to island.  Big wooden signs in water apparently said “No Anchoring allowed” but we didn’t actually read them, just told by other cruisers later.  Nothing there except for a few no-see-ums. Quick swim off beach.  No roll but slight chop in the afternoon, 

Snug Harbour – Mamaraga     09 19.580N   78 15.269W
13m mud.  We went north east past all the islands and shallows then turned back south to enter.  We could not visually see the 2m shallows.  The passes through the islands further east were not clear either (we approached just after midday but it was cloudy).  When we explored by dinghy there DID NOT appear to be enough water for a yacht between Yauala, Apaidup and Mamaraga.  Sat out 2 days torrential rain and some wicked thunder/lightening here, but lovely anchorage.  US$10 anchoring fee.  Dugout canoes came by selling fruit, veg, fish and kuna bread. Some had it onboard, some got delivered next day – some didn’t!  Nothing on immediate islands, but community with stores on Ukupseni (Playa Chico).  Another yacht dinghied down when Colombian trading boat came in there and got some diesel.  Great beach on Yauala for swimming, watch depth for dinghy through pass (its shallow but just do-able).  Also swam briefly off boat.  Flat water.  Turtles and dolphins in bay.

Isla Tigre and Farewell Islands
Firstly tried Isla Tigre.  Made it in through the reef entry but it was extremely hard to see (cloudy again and mid afternoon).  Anchorage was empty but there didn’t seem much room within the reef.  We moved on.  Carried on to Farewell Islands which shows only as a fair weather anchorage but conditions were benign.  Struggled to find shallow enough water with 360 degrees swinging room which we need in these light and variables.  Lovely looking island but we moved on.

Nargana     09 26.646N   78 34.975W 
6.5m definitely mud.   Came here twice.  We entered between Corazon de Jesus and Usdup Airstrip, straightforward entry.  The anchorage on the other side of the water pipe between the island and the mainland is much larger, supposed to have less bugs but it gets the generator noise 24/7 and is a longer dinghy ride.  This is the best provisioning in the San Blas, but don’t get your hopes up.  It is entirely dependant on what has come in as to what is available.  In the way of dry stuffs you could get basic provisions, no choice of brands etc and you will probably need to visit every little store to complete your purchases.  We managed to get cockroach spray (no flyspray or personal repellent but the cockroach spray works real well), mozzie coils, the last couple of boxes UHT milk, milk powder, cornflakes, canned tuna, fresh chicken (ask for it) lettuce, tomatoes, celery, bananas, pumpkin, onions, potatoes, carrots, cabbage and kuna bread (little dinner rolls- go very stale, very quickly).  The produce is not refrigerated and can look pretty sick when you buy it but does perk up once refrigerated.   From passing dugouts we bought mangoes, pineapple and avocado.  Internet is supposed to be available at the school, we tried 4 times without any luck.  Cellphone tower on the island, was out probably 80% of the time we were in range.  Diesel and petrol are said to be generally available but we didn’t need any.  We ate out at the cafe right on the end (there is only it and Nells – Nells was closed), just Chicken and Chips and cold beer, they had nothing else (not even coke) but it was cheap and tasty.  We tied up the dinghy at various spots along in front of the cafes and dinghy repair place.  There is a bank but no ATM.  We were not charged to anchor but some boats were.

NOW ONTO THE GOOD BITS - “WESTERN SAN BLAS ISLAND PARADISE”

Coco Bandero Cays     09 30.776N   78 36.967W  
8m sand  wow, it’s just beautiful, 4 small islands with white sandy beaches. Clean water, reasonably clean beaches.  Can walk around all the islands in minutes. Popular with the backpacking boats that do the Panama – Colombia run so can get a little noisy.  One island had caretaker family, rumour has it they may do meals sometimes.  They also came around selling wine, beer and soft drinks – wine 1 litre boxes US$4 eachExcellent snorkelling all around by dinghy or just off boat on reef at western end between outer two islands.   Very good protection from all quarters, flat water and wonderful swimming.  Ladies paddled out in ulus selling molasCellphone coverage if Nargana tower working and boat swinging the right way.  Do not pay the locals a $1 to dispose of your rubbish, we saw them paddle out with a huge bucket full of rubbish (mainly plastics) and tip it in the middle of the anchorage – most then washed up ashore!  Sort it all and have a rubbish bonfire every now and then.  Didn’t get charged here to anchor.

Green Island     09 28.829N   78 38.099W
9m sand.  Another lovely spot although water was quite murky and very hot, may be under water fresh spring.  Beach not as nice and lots of rubbish on windward side but you can walk all around the island.  Cellphone coverage if Nargana tower working.  Nothing ashore.  Swimming and snorkelling not so good as murky and lots of big stingrays.  Flat water.  Didn’t get charged here to anchor.

West Cocos     09 31.067N   78 38.838W
6m in sand off end of little Two Palm Island.  The recommended anchorage already had 3 catamarans in it so left little room for us between the bigger island and the breaking reefs, so we were more exposed.   Very good snorkelling around the little island, can snorkel right round it, a small wreck on outer side, good corals and some good fish, does get some surge.  Good swimming clear water. Did rubbish burn on Two Palm Island one sundowners.  Cellphone coverage on and off (getting further away from Nargana).  Charged US$10 just as we were lifting anchor to leave.  Slightly rolly but not too bad, would have been flat in with the cats.

East Holandes Cays – Swimming Pool     09 35.364N   78 40.480W  
This area is a popular “landfall” for boats coming straight from Colombia or further afield in the trade wind season, heading onto the Panama Canal.  There is a big break in the outer reef close by and you can do a big loop around the bottom of the reefs and islands to get into the lee and some flat water.  A recently wrecked yacht on one of the reef edges is a reminder that any landfall should be done in daylight, in good conditions and with a keen lookout.

2.6m sand with gin clear water.  We would normally not anchor in such shallow water when there is deeper water right there, but it was so beautiful we just couldn’t resist.  Stayed 10 nights.  Many choices for anchoring.  Frequent rays under the boat, the occasional shark, lots of starfish.  Amazing water activity at night – very noisy and lots of splashing.  Several surrounding islands, Banedup is known as Bug Island so didn’t venture ashore there.  BBQ Island at end has caretaker family, heard if you want to go ashore for sundowners, pot lucks etc you need to pay US$1.  We went ashore for walk around and swim off sandy beach, some backpacker boats despatch their customers here.  Very good snorkelling off northern end of BBQ Island on coral bommies, then further out from there to the inside of the outer reef.  We tired to get out to where there is a tunnel though the reef further west in then reef but tried unsuccessfully twice to find dinghy passage through the shallows.  Very poor cellphone coverage (using Nargana cell tower).  Charged US$10 for anchoring here, valid for one month.  Vege boats came twice while there with poor selection but not bad quality (they stop at all the other islands first) but better than nothing and kept us going.  Also had fresh chickens, some sausage and wine.  Very protected and flat but heard it can be too rolly with big swell over the reef (it’s a huge high and deep reef) in strong trades but can easily move 100 metres to better coverage.

East Lemmon Cays     09 33.791N   78 51.600W
8m sand.  Not much space when we arrived, little anchoring pockets with shallows around.  Snorkelling ok off reef at southern entrance, my blocked ears had reduced our snorkelling time significantly.   Several islands to swim or dinghy to.  A couple had people camping and lodging ashore and had small “bars”, very laid back.   Another vege boat visited us here, quite well stocked with produce and chicken, also wine and beer. We had no cellphone coverage but other boats did.  Flat water.

Porvenir     09 33.381N   78 56.898W
9m sand.  We didn’t intend to stay the night and probably would have gone further around the island to the west if we had.  Slightly rolly, could be very rolly.  The approach into here is a reasonably narrow entrance between the island outer reef and another reef on Sail rock.  Would not be advisable in a lively northeast wind and swell coming down the San Blas Channel, you can go right around them all though and anchor in the lee of the island group on the south side and dinghy through if necessary.  You would probably only come here to check in/out at Porvenir (see check in info right at top of posting) or get provisions at the adjacent islands.  Also airstrip, small hotel and restaurant on Porvenir   Cellphone coverage from tower on mainland but it wasn’t working either!  Nearby Wichubhuala had a main grocery store by the big concrete dock.  A very poor selection but I did get flour, yeast, milk powder, cornflakes and little else.  The only produce they had were pumpkins, the nearby bakery had no bread till after 2pm.  There looked to be a liquor store opposite the grocery.  I tried to get a Digicell Sim card from 3 places that had Digicell & phone posters up, they all only had recharge cards.

West Lemmon Cays     09 37.719N   78 54.028W
9m sand.  We came around the bottom of the reef in through the 2.5m shallow entrance between the islands as it was better light and flat water.  We can confirm that there is 2m shallow ledge between the two anchorages, it is spot on on the Bauhaus charts and quite hard to reverse off!!  However the Bauhaus depths in the rest of this side of anchorage showed much shallower than we had, it was over 20m in much of it and the shallows were only around the edges by the 3 islands.  There are many laid moorings in the other part of the anchorage, all occupied.  The snorkelling on the outside southern reef by Tiadup was very good and possibly saw the best, most varied and colourful corals during our time in the San Blas.  Not such a pretty anchorage, the main island of Naguarchirdup had a swampy spit that looked very unappealing at low tide but they have a shacky bar with 3 internet connections (only one was working), good enough to skype on. Internet US$3 per hour, beers and cokes US$1.50 each.  They have no power (so make sure laptop fully charged) and no lighting – its a daytime, head torch or type by Braille thing.  We managed to get our New Zealand 9kg LPG Gas bottle filled here, they decanted it and did it same day for US$16 – we think we were very lucky with our timing as believe it is not often available.  They also offer a panga (fast boat) service to Carti where you connect with a 4 wheel drive through to Panama City, (takes 3 hours) you need to stay the night in PC then can come back next day laden with provisions for another few weeks in paradise.  It’s an expensive option I believe but many cruisers seem to do it.  We exited through the deeper pass to the north and motored out into the Caribbean Sea – the end of the San Blas.

To read all our postings on our journey through the San Blas Islands complete with great photos go to http://www.yachtbalvenie.blogspot.com/ and click on the San Blas or Kuna Yala label on the left hand side bar
Another wrecked yacht lies abandoned on the inside reef in the Lemmons as a reminder to us all that in these waters you always must proceed with utmost caution.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Colombia – Santa Marta, Rosarios & San Bernardos ….. April 2012

Passage Aruba to Colombia – We spent many mornings during February and March listening to fellow cruisers checking in on our morning net who were underway from the ABC’s to either Colombia or Panama.  During a good part of the trade wind season this piece of water at the top of Colombia has the reputation as being the 5th worst in the world, from the conditions encountered by almost all of the fleet that went through at this time it lived up to its reputation. All of them were very experienced sailors. Very big seas were reported, combining with some mean winds whipping down off the Andes, and sometimes an adverse current produced very confused seas.    It certainly wasn’t a passage we were looking forward to but as we were not under a timeframe pressure to transit the Panama Canal we had the luxury of waiting until the winds eased and the swell settled.

We departed from the southern anchorage on Aruba 8.30am 05/04/2012 and arrived into the marina in Santa Marta, Colombia 4pm 07/04/2012, we only motored one hour of the 281 mile passage.  We left with a weather window indicating no more than 15 knots from the North east, most of the time we had less until we closed on Santa Marta and had over 20 knots with the afternoon sea breeze while trying to douse the cruising chute!  The sea state was changeable, very flat and comfortable for the most part but we also went across some very agitated patches that we imagine could have been quite nasty in strong winds.  For a lot of the time we had current against us, sometimes over 2 knots.

Arrival into Colombia – We chose not to stop enroute down the Colombian coast although we had looked at the options.  Our weather window was so good we decided to keep going and get the miles behind us.  The winds accelerated as we neared the islands just off Santa Marta but once we rounded them we were in relatively flat water.   We went between the mainland and Isla El Morro and came around into the lee of the headland.   The Commercial Port is tucked up in the northern head of the bay, the marina is off the beach to the south of the port behind the marina breakwater, the entrance is on the northern end. (more info below)  You must use an agent to clear into Colombia.  Dino is the local agent, he is based at the marina and will find you.  He speaks reasonable English, brings all the forms for filling in and takes everything away to have it processed then brings it back.  There is a “temporary importation” customs form that is very important, if you are staying longer than a week or so (not exactly sure of length)  make sure that this is all processed correctly, we have spoken with a catamaran owner who had his boat impounded here because Dino didn’t process the paperwork correctly or in time (not sure which but beware).  Our total cost for checking in/out was US$75, paid when we departed and could be paid in either USD or local or a mixture.  The local money is Colombian Pesos and it’s easy to be a millionaire!  Approx rates were USD1 = COP1800, EUR1 = 2240COP or NZD1 = 1400COP. (Apr 2012)

Reference Materials – There are no cruising guides to Colombia.  It seems that Colombia is getting safer and safer all the time so maybe it will open up more for cruising.  We did a lot of research before we left and found the Tashtego website and articles by Pizzazz on the Caribbean Compass site most helpful.

Santa Marta Marina  – contact on VHF 16 or 72 (excellent English spoken by some staff)  Approx marina entrance was 11 14.67N  74 13.053W.  This varies to the waypoint advertised by the marina, there one is possibly the location of the office!  There was shallow water on the final approaches, around 2.5m close in, you head at right angles for the northern end of the wall (i.e. straight for the beach) and there was a buoy you keep to starboard then turn right and go in through the entrance.   Night arrival, as always not something we would recommend but could be done.  The outer breakwater wall that is running parallel with the beach  had purple/blue lights (not very bright) along the top of it.  We don’t recall port/starboard entrance lights.  If conditions were calm you could anchor north of the marina entrance, between it and the small fishing port, but this would be in around 3m, give yourself swing room as sometimes a light breeze from the south west comes in overnight.  Remember this is a working port with a couple of big ships coming and going a day.  If visibility was good enough , conditions calm and you can’t get anyone on the VHF then enter the marina and sneak onto the fuel dock, its a very long dock.  The fuel dock is on the left (at present no pumps but a truck comes down, not sure of price)  The marina berths are side on to the prevailing winds which can make for interesting docking, luckily it was not full and we had a double finger berth, floating dock pen to ourselves.  The marina facilities are excellent, air-conditioned bathrooms are of 5 star hotel standard, laundry with 2 washing machines and 2 dryers, and a tiny book exchange.  Get laundry tokens from the staff in the Security Hut at the road entrance for 5000COP each (make sure you put money in correct slot, easy to put it in the dryer by mistake!)  24 hour security, felt very safe and secure, we left the boat here whilst travelling with no hesitation..  WIFI the marina WIFI signal was good enough on the boat but to use skype needed to head up and sit by the office.  It is also possible to buy a Digicel Simcard (or chip as they call them), Sim costs 19,000COP and one weeks internet access is 25,000COP with 1.5GB I think.

In and around Santa Marta – There is a excellent 2 page handout, written by cruisers for cruisers you can get from the office or link to it here.  It really does tell you everything you need to know.  ATM machines would give a maximum of COP400,000 each time, which even in Colombia doesn’t go very far.  They did not give USD. Provisioning  we found the Exito Supermarket (more a Hypermarket) very good for everything but fresh vegetables. They have superb whole beef eye fillets fresh/vacuum packed in their butchery for about USD28, sublime!  Carrefour fruit and veg was good, it’s 4,000COP each way in a taxi, or minibuses go too from just outside the marina, they have Carrefour in their window.  There are many stalls around the Exito selling fresh produce.  A bakery is just down the main street going inland opposite the marina on the left.  DHL is also on this street, before the bakery, the post office is opposite DHL.  We took a taxi up to the mountain village of Minca, either get taxi to Minca taxi station or walk along waterfront till Calle 11, walk up thru all the market stalls along here till you get to the hardware shops, the Minca taxis leave from outside Surtiferreterias No 11A-50 which is on the right side and does actually have a sign up saying Estacion Minca.  There were 4 of us and it cost 6000COP pp each way, he waited for us up there.  We also took a taxi to the nearby bay of Taganga, (but easy to get a minibus) – the taxi was 8000COP each way.  It’s a cruisy little backpackers hangout with pleasant enough beach.  Some boats have anchored in there but there have been some security issues. 

Side Trip to Cartagena – We chose to do Cartagena by bus instead of taking the boat down as we originally planned to head across to Providencia and onto Guatemala from Santa Marta.  As it happens our plans changed and we went south instead so sailed straight past Cartagena without stopping.  We booked a shuttle minibus through the marina office for 42,000COP pp each way, on the way down it picked us up from the marina and dropped us off just outside the entrance to the old town and we walked to our hotel.  On the way back we booked with the same company but we had to get a taxi to their office in Cartagena and there was no way the driver was dropping us as the marina even though we were the only passengers left and it was only 4 blocks.  Don’t remember shuttle company used but still much easier than getting local buses and not much more in cost.  Our visit to Cartagena coincided with a Heads of State Summit and President Obama was in town – bad timing on our part.  The bad part was that accommodation was at a premium and prices highly inflated.  We stayed at the Hotel Zaguán de la Huerta on Calle del Jardin in a pleasant part of the old walled town, our room was very nice but 237,900COP per night (USD132 – way over our normal budget).  It was within easy walking distance to everything within the walled town.  The up side of arriving with President Obama was that security was at an absolute peak, heavily armed police everywhere, I suspect all the street people had been rounded up and relocated, buildings everywhere had just had a very quick lick of fresh paint, hanging baskets full of flowers adorned balconies – it was incredibly beautiful and we wondered why we had ever left Europe and realised how much we missed the glorious architecture of so many of the old towns and cities there.  We stayed 2 nights and saw everything we wanted to. 

Heading South to the Rosarios -  On our exit Zarpe we stated Porvenir in Panama as our next Port of Call and asked for “all stops inbetween” to be noted, Dino said this would be done but it was not put on the Zarpe, oh well.  We left Santa Marta at 9.30am and arrived into the Rosarios 24 hours and 135 miles later, we motored for an hour to start before the breeze filled in and then for the last 2 hours in glassy seas.  It was a very pleasant and uneventful trip, we passed the Magdalena River mouth in daylight and saw very little shipping or logs - we had been warned about the logs.  The water colour certainly changed to a murky muddy brown for many hours.   The wind died completely just after dawn and we motored the last 10 miles to the Rosarios.  We anchored on the northern side inside the reef.  This is NOT an anchorage you would want to head for with ANY following sea, you would also not want to get caught in there if northerlies came up as the reef is below water level so protection would not be good.  We had perfect conditions for our stay. Waypoints for entry (use at your own risk - try to have good visibility – go slow – and remember we draw 2.4m so we don’t cut corners!)  There were a few posts that we could see on our final approach, the one you want is at 10 11.07N 75 44.50W, it lines up quite well with an olive green two storey house on shore.  Keep this post to starboard, it is on the reef but stay reasonably close as there is also reef on the left.  Turn quite sharply after it to the right heading for 10 11.01N 75 44.65W then you go between 2 posts and turn sharply to the left.  The following 3 waypoints are close together and give you a general line to follow  10 10.97N 75 44.64W – 10 10.90N 75 44.47W – 10 10.90N 75 44.31W, this is all quite close to shore and inside some more posts.  We anchored at 10 10.921N 75 44.299W in 5.5m sand.  A local yacht came in from the other direction between the house on the island and the mainland but we did not see where they came through the reef.   

This is a very interesting group of islands, some just tiny rocks, others the size of a football field, some even bigger but nearly everyone had some sort of structure on it, whether it be a tin shack or a palatial holiday home.  We explored them all by dinghy, there certainly looked to be opportunity to anchor on the southern shore but it is reef strewn so you would need to do a exploratory trip first with GPS and depth sounder in the dinghy before taking the big boat.  I don’t remember if we had cell phone coverage there, but there were no free WIFI signals.  There was a small resort just along from the anchorage and a much bigger one on the south shore, we didn’t go into either.  No visits from any officials.  The snorkelling on the outside of the reef where the first post is (where you did the sharp right) was very good, interesting seabed contours worth a look if calm and sunny.  

Further South to the San Bernados -  We exited the Rosarios the same way we entered and did a big loop around the shoals to the west before we headed south.  We encountered a very solid pole sticking out at 10 02.407N 75 48.577W, it was in the middle of nowhere in very deep water.  We went round the eastern end of Isla Tintipan and made our way along the southern shore.  We had total cloud cover when we arrived and dropped anchor at  09 47.258N 75 50.329W in 7.5m sand and rock.  With better visibility we may have chosen a spot further in.  Conditions while we were there were squally and the anchorage a little choppy.  We did take the dinghy almost along to the tiny island where everyone lives, we didn’t go right there as there was a small Navy boat on the dock and we didn’t want to draw attention to ourselves.  The main island seems to be exclusively owned by a few rich Colombians who come down to entertain and party in their waterfront mansions on occasion.  Officials  We were woken at 6am by a boarding party from the Navy/Coast Guard, all in full combat gear with machine guns.  One spoke reasonable English and they asked for our papers.  It was now 6 days since we had checked out of Colombia but this was not raised as a problem, they asked when we were leaving and we said the following day as the weather was not favourable that day.  They radioed all our information to their “Mother Ship”, filled in a few forms, and were extremely polite and professional and left after about 20 minutes.  No WIFI signals, can’t remember about phone coverage but there probably was a tower on the little island.

Onto the San Blas/Kuna Yala -  We retraced our track around the east then north of  Isla Tintapan before setting sail westwards to Isla Pina in Kuna Yala, Panama, 136 miles and 25 hours later.  We sailed until we were 10 miles out when we motored into 20 knots on the nose, we were NOT supposed to get a westerly!

To see all our main blog postings with photos click here.  Then scroll down the left hand sidebar and click on Colombia for all postings relating to Colombia or Rosarios or San Bernados just for them.  There will also be a separate posting for Providencia which we visited in December 2012

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Bonaire ….. March 2012

BONAIRE – Kralendijk   12 09.426N   68 16.841W
There is no anchoring permitted in any of Bonaire's waters.  Overnight stays are only permitted on the moorings buoys off the town of Kralendijk (USD10 per night).  There are other mooring buoys around the island but these are only for day use when diving/snorkelling.  We were about middle in the row of buoys, in about 8.5m of very clear water, you can dive or snorkel off the boats!  To the north (left) there were about 15 going all the way along to the marina entrance, they are in single file along the shallows in shore.  To the south (right) towards the town there are two rows of buoys, the ones closest inshore seemed to have a depth of around 3 metres, they are only just in front of the 2nd row and very close to the beach.  Only the buoys with 2 little floats and 2 lines are the correct ones.  You need to have 2 lines to attach, one for each float.  Night arrival is reasonably straightforward, just keep nudging up towards the land very slowly until you can see the line of boats then try and find a free mooring.  Just to the left of our waypoint were two regular looking mooring buoys which were picked up by boats doing night arrivals, just leave first light and get a proper one before you are spotted!  Most boats prefer to be away from town as there are a couple of late night bars, especially at the weekend.  There are a couple of dinghy dock options.  Karels Bar is set over the water and you can tie the dinghy up (they have the late night music) but you really need a stern anchor and remember NO anchors.  We paid USD10 a week and got a key for the dinghy dock at the “marina” with about 10 berths outside It Rains Fish Restaurant.  Get key from Henk, in a yellow house with wooden shutters about 3 to the left of restaurant. 

Checking in is along the waterfront to the south, fruit stall on the way, keep walking till you see the Douane (Customs) Building just before gated off areaOne stop, open 7am – 7pm daily, no charge, all crew must be present, quick and easy. Tourist office is along this end of town. one block back.  They were extremely helpful and we organised our Total Car Hire through them.  Total came and collected us from the dinghy dock and took us to the airport for the paperwork.  Small car USD$58.00 (USD is the currency of Bonaire), we used USD10.00 petrol for one day.  There really isn’t much to see on the island but still interesting to get out and about for the day.  Most of the shops are on one street, one block inland from water, running parallel – there is not much here, but does have Digicell, Banks, ATM’s etc on this street.  There were pay wifi signals available at anchor, also found one unlocked but not reliable, we went daily to Lilly’s Ice-cream and Coffee Parlour they had free internet at good speeds, on street going inland called Kaya L D Gerharts I think.  Keep walking past here to big supermarket on next corner, if the boat/plane has arrived then produce was good.   Budget Marine are also in the back here.  There is a laundry (not self service) out by the stadium and another couple of supermarkets, they are a fair distance, saw them when we had the car, be ok to bike to but quite a way to walk.   We had an exceptional meal at La Guernica, on the waterfront to right of dinghy dock, mains around USD28 (normally over our budget but we had been in the boonies for a couple of weeks and spent no money!)excellent food, service and setting. 

You need a Marine Park Permit, USD10 to snorkel or USD25 to dive, think it’s valid a year.  We got ours from the Yellow Submarine Dive Shop, its on the waterfront heading north towards the marina, not surprisingly it's in a yellow building and has it's own dock (totally dinghy unfriendly unless you are an acrobat). The snorkelling was the best over on the little island Klein Bonaire, fair run in the dinghy but worth it.  Need to tie dinghy to a mooring and swim in.  Water (US.10c per gallon), Diesel (US1.09 per litre) and Petrol (US1.52 per litre) available along at big marina, north at end of mooring buoys, you need to pay for your buoy here, either dinghy down or walk.
To read our full blog update on Bonaire and see the pictures click here 

Friday, March 30, 2012

Venezuelan Islands – Blanquilla, Los Roques & Las Aves ….. Mar 2012

REFERENCE MATERIALS AND EXIT PAPERS FROM GRENADA
When we checked out of Prickly Bay in Grenada we gave Bonaire as being our next Port of Call.  We were unsure of whether we would be able to check in and out of Venezuela so felt that would be the best option.  We used the Cruising Guide to Venezuela and Bonaire by Chris Doyle which was a good enough reference guide.  Our CMap electronic charts weren’t great, but we did have detailed paper charts also.  As with any reef navigation it really is an eyeball affair and is best done with the sun behind or overhead and preferably clear skies, not always possible unfortunately.  Remember “If in doubt – stay out”

BLANQUILLA ISLAND – Two Palm Beach    11 50.276N   64 38.864W
12.4m clear water, could get in closer but we were under tow (what fun).  Absolutely magical place, water fairly flat even though there was a reasonable swell running, good enough protection from the wind.  We came in from the top of the island, avoiding the southern tip as there is a settlement there and we didn’t want to draw attention to ourselves.  There were a few small local fishing boats around, including the helpful ones that towed us in.  They brought us fish the following day, nice guys.  Just nothing there except a wonderful long white sandy beach, reasonable snorkelling on the rocky/reefy outcrops off the beach.  Had 2 nights there without seeing anyone of authority.  No phone coverage.

LOS ROQUES – Several anchorages below
We did not attempt either of the two channels that you can enter through the reefs before the island of Grand Roque.  There was a very big swell running (wind around 25 knots and swell about 3 – 4  metres) so carried on and went around the top of Grand Roque and down its western shore.  We got fairly flat water once in its lee but some pretty lively bullets flew across the water.  Probably was phone coverage here but didn’t check.  No phone coverage, stores, restaurants – anything - anywhere else in the Roques or Aves.

Grand Roque   11 56.706N   66 40.856W
Dropped in around 3m settled in 8m, hard sand and coral.  Very shallow for quite a way out then drops right off.  We had planned to go ashore to try and obtain a cruising permit.  Information on just what this would entail and the cost was very vague as no one else we knew of had been here this season and affairs in Venezuela seem to change by the day.  Our friends on Bandit (who we buddy boated from Grenada to Colombia with) dropped their dinghy and went across to a neighbouring Swedish boat.  The Swedes had just been ashore to get a permit and had been quoted USD900 (we think for just 5 days).  When they tried to negotiate they were told they could not have a permit at all and had to leave immediately.  They were heading east – into the swell and winds we had just come from – so objected strongly pointing out that it was unsafe to leave port, they were then given 48 hours to leave and were told they could not move from where they were currently anchored.  Welcome to Venezuela!!  Bandit and Balvenie decided to slip out of the anchorage and away from the officials, find somewhere a little more remote to anchor, and play it by ear!  We did not see or were not approached by anyone of authority during our entire stay in Venezuelan waters spanning 02 – 15 March 2012.

Crasqui   11 52.934N   66 43.852W
10m sand, down the bottom end of the island off lovely sandy beach.  Found many unrecorded shallow spots (3m) on our way into anchor but took it very slowly.  There was quite some current where we were and we may have been better a little further north. Reasonably flat water but no cover really from wind.  Lovely long white sandy beach.  Landed dinghy on south of island and went through a shell lined short walkway to windward side for reasonable snorkelling off the beach.  Huge pile of conch shells on beach (thousands).  A couple of huts ashore that looked like they may have served lunch but a little hard to tell really, they were not that welcoming!

Augustin   11 52.168N   66 43.338W 
12m sand off the fishermens huts.  Need to eyeball reef end on entry, CMap was a little out.  Nothing much there, again quite a lot of current so fairly agitated sea all night slapping against the boat.

Sarqui   11 53.588N   66 48.356W
Dropped in 4.5m settled in 8m in a sandy spot.  Lovely small island.  Tried to find our way in to anchor off Espenqui but couldn’t get in close enough so carried on to Sarqui.  Did some good snorkelling off the windward side of the island, just walked around there and swam out to coral heads.  Super beach for watching the sun to set but as with all the anchorages so far, it offered very little respite from the constantly howling wind. Nothing ashore.

Cayo Remanso at Isla Carenero     11 53.103N   66 50.679W
Headed straight towards the sandy wee beach on the right as you come in and dropped in 5m.  The good thing about the trade winds blowing constantly is that you know you are not going to swing!  We stood off the entrance while 2 yachts came out, the entrance does not have a passing lane, very narrow but short and easy to see once you are abeam of it in good light.  We loved this anchorage, all round protection, dead flat water, shelter from wind behind the mangroves, small but “big enough for sundowners” beach, clear water and the most stunning lagoon with good snorkelling off our stern and plenty of places for dinghy exploration.  Absolute top spot and we risked two nights here.

Elbert Cay/Bequevé   11 50.606N   66 55.806N
Sat in 2.4m (yes we draw 2.3m!!!) and we were still a fair way offshore.  Anchorage was quite different to what we were expecting from the guide book.  Wasn’t great but ok.  The wind whistled through.  Big long beach to walk along, good for birds and lots of jet black lizards. Good jump off point to Las Aves

LAS AVES – Anchorages below

Isla Sur – Aves de Barlovento    11 56.677N   67 26.379W
12m sand/mud?  Think we were in the western most anchorage of the four shown in the guide book, tucked up behind mangroves out of the wind and off a small beach in the corner.  Was reasonably straightforward to enter.  Wonderful inlets in the mangroves to explore and we took the dinghy in with our happy hour drinks and spent ages floating around watching all the bird life. Exceptional.  Nothing ashore on this island but there was some sort of shack on Isla Oeste that looked to have inhabitants but we saw no one.  Lighthouse was operational.

Chinook Wind Reef – Aves de Barlovento     12 00.574N   67 25.928W
8m in sand patch amongst coral heads.  Not somewhere we not normally would have gone to anchor but we wanted to visit our friends abandoned boat Chinook Wind  which had ended up on the reef here in the middle of the night just 2 weeks prior to our arrival.  We were anchored inside the outer reef in reasonably flat and very clear water.  The roar of the surf breaking on the reef and the unobstructed wind howling through the rigging were somewhat off-putting, but we dropped anchor, launched our dinghies and went with Bandit the final distance inside the reef to Chinook Wind. A sorry sight but pleased we made the effort and said our farewells.  Conditions eased to just under 20knots so we decided to stay the night.  Snorkelling on the surrounding coral bombies was excellent, an abundance of fish life and very clear water although the corals were not very colourful.  Note there is no lighthouse at this northern end of the reef - it is on the southern tip quite some distance away.

Curricai/Long Island – Aves de Sotavento   12 02.524N   67 40.768W
7.4m sand with coral patches, probably could have gone in much closer and only had sand.  We came in around the top of the group, cleared the reef then made our way down in deep water on the leeward side.  This island was just gorgeous, another sundowners on the beach island, walks along the sandy shore, snorkelling on the windward side was good.  Great spot and could have stayed longer but there is a coastguard outpost on a neighbouring island and we had had a very good run at being undetected, so we just stayed one night and quit while we were ahead.  From here it is just 43 miles to Bonaire, and back to civilisation.

click here to go to our full blog with the stories and photos on all our travels.  To find the updates on the Venezuelan Islands click on that link in the labels on the left sidebar.