You know you are way, way south when sailing at 10 Lat. I had the 8pm-midnight shift behind the helm while on a voyage from Curacao to Panamá. Beyond the satellites and falling stars, I was also treated to the constellations. The Big Dipper off starboard was positioned upside down, spilling out its cosmic soul to us sailors below. About 10:30pm to port the Southern Cross would make its appearance, laying lazy on its side just above the horizon. As if being woken up to a new night, the constellation would rotate clockwise so that by the end of my watch, the Cross was at a respectable, almost-upright position.
Those are the nocturnal thrills of doing a passage. But daytime delights, while more earthbound, are equally impressive. Nearly every day during my daytime shift from 8am to noon we had dolphins rush the boat and then swim off the bow in a playful race.
These mammals are amazing with their speed and agility, and seem to enjoy in staying just a fin and a splash ahead of us. And of course there were the seabirds—terns, frigate birds, and brown boobies. I surprised to see a tropic bird with its distinctive snow white plumage and trailing tail feathers. In the past I’ve spotted this species in the northeast Caribbean, but apparently they exist this far south as well.
Our course along South America’s Caribbean coast tracked the same route that Spanish ships cruised more than 400 hundred years ago in search of New World gold and silver. It was a heist of gigantic proportions—Incan treasures and others’ mineral wealth that filled the coffers of Spanish royalty back in Valladolid and Madrid. As we approached Colombia’s Guajira Peninsula known for its strong winds, we experienced gusts up to 40 knots. While our high-tech Kevlar foresail handle the fresh gale with ease, I thought about explorer Alonso de Ojeda during his 1499 expedition here. He and his crew were the first Europeans to ever see this coast. His tiny fleet of three, 15th century boxy caravels must have struggled mightily in these seas.
After a three-day sail from Curacao, we made landfall at Santa Marta, the first of Spain’s settlements along the Colombian coast. It was conquistador Rodrigo de Bastidas who founded the town in July 1525, wrestling away land and what gold could be found among the Tayrona Indians.
Santa Marta today boasts nearly a half million residents. It is a loud, bustling regional commercial center. Our marina, located in the industrial heart of the harbor, gave us no respite from the noise. Add the reverie and frenzied preparations for Carnival about to begin in days, and it was time to get out of town.
By Day 2 we took off for some peace and quiet in the mountains. We caught a collectivo bus and headed for the Sierra Nevada crossroads of Minca.
This small village 650 meters above the sea is a popular hangout for back packers. They gather here to do off-road biking, hiking and visits to nearby waterfalls. We chose to hop on moto-taxis and bounce up a steep dirt track for 20 minutes to the La Victoria coffee plantation. It’s a splendid old hacienda that began in 1892. Much of its ‘industrial age’ equipment is still used producing delicious organic coffee from the beans gathered on the finca’s steep slopes. Back in Minca we strolled a dirt road out of town and were treated to some of the 350 species of birds that reside here. Flocks of screaming parrots flew overhead. Horses passed us along the way. But the find of the day was rufous breasted jacamar sporting green iridescent plumage and a long bill. The bird looked like a hummingbird on steroids. The one we saw though was eight inches long, much bigger than any hummer. We ended the afternoon back in town at the Lazy Cat Restaurant for a late lunch. The garden tables at the back were occupied so we ended up on the front porch watching village life pass slowly by. I drank a delicious Happy Toucan Irish ale made by Minca’s upstart microbrewery, Nevada Cerveceria. They also brew Happy Jaguar, a golden pilsner.
The next morning, we cast off from Santa Marta and headed west to the Panamá Canal. It was two days of little wind and constant motoring. We were greeted by a floating armada of freighters outside Colón. Dozens of vessels were queued up, waiting for passage through the canal. This extraordinary sight gave perspective to the enormous scope of world trade and commerce that exists in our modern world. We maneuvered through the big ships and docked at the Shelter Bay Marina. Our time aboard was over. Our boat will now head through the canal with our two mates, Andy & Sadie and a new crew to begin a Pacific voyage that will last years.
We packed our bags, and after a few days wandering the alleys in Panamá, flew back to Bonaire. Looking down at the Caribbean from 30,000 feet, our two-hour flight covered what we had sailed in five days. But sailing along the tenth latitude was much more rewarding. As J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, “Not all those who wander are lost.” Rather, we just set a different course.