Saturday, December 31, 2016

Sailing in the Caribbean

I had recently contacted an old sailing friend and work colleague of mine,  Sandra,  whom I had heard had a boat down in Antigua for a few years now and spent much of the last couple of winters sailing the islands.  I was invited to join her and her partner Roman for two weeks in November.  Yes!  From the airport we drove to the boat yard where her 40' Bénéteau  "Caramba" had just been put back into the water for the season.  They had arrived a week earlier to work on her (always work to be done on a boat) and to put another coat of paint on her hull. 

We set sail the next day for the southern coast of Antigua to the picturesque bay of Falmouth Harbour.  A gorgeous day,  nice wind without rolling swells,  perfect for a "shake down" as they say in sailing circles,  to get the sails out and get the boat working after a long stay out of the water.

I had a cabin to myself in the aft quarter of the boat but I preferred sleeping outside in the cockpit area as the wind was warm and the stars were bright.  I quickly became buddies with Tiga, their dog that they picked up as a stray skinny puppy on the neighbouring island of Barbuda the year before.

Falmouth Harbour, along side English Harbour are the most popular anchorage spots on the island.  It is home to the Antigua Yacht Club which hosts the annual boat show that was only a week away.  There were already several mega-yachts arriving into the harbour,  a popular destination for the 1 percenters to show off their 'toys'.  As Roman said however, we were sharing the same waters they were.

We then met up with Paul, a friend of Sandra's who had a sailboat in Vancouver and with whom she raced with.  His hometown friend Chris was also there and together, they got on Caramba and we set sail for Guadeloupe, where we would spend a week.

The next morning we pulled up the anchor and had another amazing day of about 8 hours sailing to the north western tip of the much bigger French island.

The town of Deshaies is a small hamlet at the end of a small bay with lush tropical mountains rising up above.  The routine of dropping and setting the anchor, getting the dinghy off the davits and then piling into it  to motor to shore reminded me of the daily routine I had whilst sailing in the South Pacific (a difficult life indeed!).

Being on a French island meant excellent croissants and baguettes for breakfast.  Chris, who lived in Europe for several years, is quite the foodie and he picked up some really nice cheese and meats that you could only dream of getting on Antigua.  We stocked up on a some beer and wine as well.  It's a quaint town with a mix of locals and France proper émigrés.  Walking around, I heard  that sweet sounding tunes that is 'zouk'  the French Antilles créole music.

When at anchor, you inevitably see quite a few other sailboats, sometimes meeting their owners and swapping a few stories.  It's always interesting seeing the really nice boats.  I noticed that the standard size of sailboats in the Caribbean was about 40 feet.  Also, I would say that it was about 60% catamarans, the majority of those most likely chartered boats.

The sailing guide for the Caribbean mentions that Deshaies is a windy harbour.  It was certainly windy our second and last night, enough that it dragged our anchor and we were all up in the wee hours hoisting and re-setting it so as not to come too close to neighbouring boats.

It was another excellent full day of sailing to a group of small islands off the south-eastern tip of the main one called Les Saintes.  Sandra and Roman said that this was one of their favourite spots in the Caribbean and we could easily see why.  Nice protected bays, beaches, coral reefs  The harbour and houses that dotted the hillside look like a tropical version of the Mediterranean.

"Son of a son of a sailor"

Roman's 'Dark & Stormy' packed a sweet strong punch

charcuterie and drinks on deck

On our second day we rented scooters and drove around Haute Terre, the main island in the group.   The old fort high on the hill is an excellent museum detailing several naval battles between the French and the British as well as local examples of traditional fishing boats and daily life of the islands' natives.   We stopped at several different beaches and had what was probably the best gelato I have had outside of Florence.

After three gorgeous days at Les Saintes, we sailed back north to Deshaies.  Another evening at anchor there before checking out from customs the next morning and sailing back to Antigua.  It was an overcast day, nice winds for the first half then the rain came down in violent sheets.  We had to motor the rest of the time and made it back just after night fall.  We were unlucky at fishing every time we sailed but then Paul finally caught a perfect sized 5 lb tuna on Sandra's old school hand held coil of line. Once at anchor, we had tuna tataki for appies and I then cooked the rest in a coconut curry.  We definitely ate well on the boat  and whenever in town.  The guys left the next day to fly home and we sailed to yet another stellar bay on the western side of the island called Jolly Harbour where I stayed two more days before flying home.   It was my first time on smaller Caribbean islands and  there  could not have been a better way to explore them then on the water and on a sailboat.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

¡Viva Colombia!

My friend Brahm called from Toronto asking me if I wanted to do a quick trip somewhere.  As I had the month of November off on vacation and had plans for the last two weeks, we decided on Colombia.  I had always wanted to go there. However, when I had travelled extensively in South America in the 80s, Colombia was a dangerous place with daily violence from either the drug cartels, communist guerrillas or paramilitary thugs.  The country has  changed since then and is well on the way of being the next 'it' destination of Latin America. 

Brahm lined up a few places to stay in Bogota and Medellin with Air Bnb.  I downloaded the Uber app and we were set to go.  Bogota was quite cool, as in temperature, and it was the season of heavy rains.  To get around, we took the "Trans-milenio" (a massive urban transportation system of buses in designated lanes, sort of like an above-ground metro).  The platform stops were a bit confusing but we figured it out.   The old 'centro' of Candelaria was interesting as was the museum of Fernando Botero, Colombia's most famous artist.  I was also impressed by all the street art in the city.  

After two days in the capital, we took a bus to Medellin.  It was  an 11 hour odyssey, albeit in comfortable seats,  sitting right below a screen that blared really bad Hollywood movies (5 in total) dubbed in Spanish.  Great practice though for your listening skills.  The countryside was a mix of high mountain roads and tropical valleys meandering from one mountain range to another.   It was my first time using Uber and I was sold with its cool interface and fast service. We arrived at our AirBnb in the evening which was a small condo on the 12th floor of a new tower. Cheap, clean,  great views and in the central part of the city. 

Medellin is not as high in altitude as Bogota and its climate is so nice that it's known as the "city of eternal spring." Walking around was indeed pleasant.  The layout of the city, sprawling upwards  from a narrow valley,  is quite the sight.  We took the metro to the 'teleferico', the cable cars that were the first in the world to get public transport to the steep shanty towns of the city.  This model has since been copied by various cities including Caracas and Rio de Janeiro.  Some of these barrios were the same ones that supported, in the early years, the Robin Hood type of antics  of Pablo Escobar, Medellins' most infamous son. 

tight stone-wash jeans are all the rage

More Botero bronzes in a plaza of his hometown, Medellin.

Next up, a flight on a domestic low-cost carrier to the Caribbean coastal city of Santa Marta. It was a  welcoming blast of tropical humidity stepping off the plane onto the tarmac.  We took a bus to the smaller  neighbouring town of Taganga and spent the night. It's bit of a tourist spot above a cove with a small beach.  Local fishing boats are at one end, restaurants and dive schools at the other and pelicans are constantly cruising over the water.  We then decided to rent a car for a week and drive up and down the coast.  Nice to be on the road and stop wherever you want to. Not so nice to lock yourself out of the car though, which we did at a roadside look out point.  We managed to get out of it with the help of another local driver. 

Rivers coming down from the lush mountains of the Sierra Nevada

Driving north-east up the coast we headed for the arid peninsula of La Guajira,  a region unlike any other in Colombia that still has many indigenous communities.  Most of these villages were very remote (and consequently dirt poor) until recently.  We stopped at several beach towns along  the way and noticed the changing geography from jungle to cactus and eventually to sand and bare dry rock.  The last couple of hours to our destination, Cabo de le Vela, could only be reached by 4x4. We therefore left our Renault rental in the town of Uribia for two days and took a colectivo cuatro - cuatro to the village.

Boca de Camarones

Young Wayuu mother 

room for rent in Cabo de la Vela

 la viejita con sus pulseras

hot winds and dramatic skies

It was a great hike out to the cape to watch  the sunset and then seeing the 'super moon' rise on the eastern sky.  Always a warm wind blowing. We stopped for beers at this German's hostel and met a few other travellers. I felt a little sympathetic for the lone American who was somewhat ashamed of where he was from,  given the election results of the US presidency had just shocked the world and made most of us extremely depressed.  Next morning, I woke up early for sunrise and got a kid to drive me out on  motorbike to some further dry rocky cliffs.

We hit the road again, returning to Uribia to get our car and drive back west towards Santa Marta.  We tried going to the town of Minca,  a popular town up in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. It had just got dark and was raining so hard that we turned around and went back to Taganga where it was dry and warm.  It hardly mattered though as we planned to leave early the following day for a somewhat long drive to Cartagena.

I couldn't help but be reminded how much travel has changed in the last decade.  Whereas once we had maps and guide books, now almost everything is done with your smartphone.  GPS, online bookings with Air BnB,  Uber app for taxis...   There is wifi almost everywhere.   Although I have a nice point and shoot camera that I brought,  almost all of my photos were taken from my phone.

We noticed that in Colombia, the Air Bnb scene is still relatively new.  Almost everywhere we stayed,  they had just started being a host. The last one in  Cartagena was in a bit of a sketchy part of town.  The woman who rented the apartment had a long blurb written on how to come back safely at night etc.  No one spoke English and I thought it would be a challenge for any foreigner renting these places without being able to understand much Spanish.  She was friendly and helpful and it was a clean apartment.  Her brother drove the car to a secure parking lot and we had the rest of the day and evening to check out the city on foot.

Cartagena was an important outpost in the Spanish Empire and the old walled city is impressive.  I remember reading about its prominence in a book on pirates, but seeing it made me want to read more on its history.  It sort of reminded me of old Havana  but much of the old city has been cleaned up  and gentrified so much that the original character and its inhabitants has changed.  What was once a small family run shop is now a boutique hotel or an upscale clothing store.   Not unlike many other cities in the world I suppose.

Just outside the walled city, we found one neighbourhood  that was a bit more run down and had lots of character.  It was almost a cliché, but having a beer at a bar next to a seedy brothel with great salsa music blaring and people watching was probably the highlight of Cartagena.  The next day we left the  steamy tropical heat for one last cold night in the capital before flying home.  It was a nice introduction to the rich and diverse  country that is Colombia.