Pacific Colombia

Clark January 23rd, 2008

It’s been a long time, and for good reason. This is a long one, in the style of the old Condesa emails before the blog.

At the moment I am in Bahia Solano, a little town on the Pacific coast of Colombia.

Nobody sails to the Pacific coast of Colombia.

For many years sailors gave this area a wide berth, like 300 miles, because of guerilla, paramilitary, narcotraficking, and pirate activity. But I asked the question, is this still the case? What if it isn’t, and like Peru, this coast of Colombia suffers from a bad rap that is well out of date? After much consultation with the Colombian consulate in Guayaquil, we decided to be the first cruising sailboat to visit in a long time. The consulate affirmed that these waters are some of the most patrolled in the world and that Condesa would be safe. Hmm.

At the moment I am under martial law because the FARC (Fuerza Armada Revolucionario de Colombia) just kidnapped six tourists on the beach, a Norwegian and five Colombians. According to the Comandante of the National Police, who I hang out with sometimes, the gringo on the yacht would have been a much more attractive hostage, but the FARC are jungle-dwelling terrorists and didn’t have a boat to come get me. The people were abducted when they landed on the beach in the nearby national park in, guess what?, a boat. The air is abuzz with helicopters and C-130’s all searching the area because the terrorists and hostages, on foot, must still lie within a 10-20 mile radius, but it’s easy to hide in the rainforest.

To digress, in a crash jibe I broke my main boom, which is now splinted with a piece of mangrove timber. My outboard is dead so I have to paddle the windsurfer board a mile through bull shark and crocodile-infested waters to get to shore. I couldn’t get any paper charts for this coastline–because nobody cruises here–but I figured with my computer and chart software, and a backup computer with chart software, I’d be OK. Both computers died the same day: What are the chances of that? There are no banks or ATM machines here–there are no roads to this part of Colombia, only bugsmasher and boat access–so I have $40 to get me out of Colombia and across the Gulf of Panama. And on top of that, I’m now all alone. My three Bond Girls (more on them later) flew out on Friday along with the mad rush to evacuate the area after the kidnappings. There were only about 15 tourists here anyway, and now that they’re gone–along with the region’s fledgling ecotourism industry–I am the only one.

Sitting duck, you might say? Just the contrary. This is probably the safest possible time to be here. They’ve already got six hostages and the heat is on them. There’s no way they’d go for another with the mass military mobilization to the region. So I get to enjoy my rock star status as the only tourist, the first sailboat anyone can remember (somebody said there was a Quebequois about 3 years ago), and the guy who can surf a windsurfer board over half a mile through the break to get ashore. Today I got to hold an Israeli-made assault rifle, remove and replace the banana clip, and try on a Kevlar vest. Too bad no pictures allowed. For all the activity the military guys are really laid back and friendly, as is everyone around here.

This place is as beautiful as Kauai or Costa Rica. The stark contrast between rich and poor, so evident in most of Latin America, is absent here. Everyone is poor in pure economic terms, but rich in natural beauty and the bounty of nature. Thus, these are some of the happiest, friendliest communities I’ve ever visited. Not even kidnappings and terrorists can dampen their spirits. The population is about 90% black, descended from slaves, and 10% indigenous, whose women still run around bare-breasted, even in the heart of the town. When it cools off in the afternoon everyone comes into the street to chat and play games. Bingo and card games are popular, but they also play all manner of board games, many of which I haven’t seen since the ’70’s: Parchesi, Chinese checkers, and Trouble!

Now that my boom is fixed, I’ll probably get my exit papers in the next day or so and head on to Panama. Even though I don’t feel particularly threatened, it’s a little unnerving that everyone I hold a conversation with is fingering an assault rifle.

To backtrack, a lot, Condesa left Lima in the beginning of December with the first Bond Girl, Jimena, codename Bianca, my better half, Peruvian scholar trained in self defense, diplomacy, knitting. We took a week to make it up the Peruvian coast, stopping in small villages to eat fabulous seafood. It was freezing cold–like wool hats and boots at night with the diesel heater running–until we rounded Cabo Blanco where everything changed. Cabo Blanco is the westernmost point of South America, or thereabouts, and the warm equatorial currents start to be felt. In one hour we went from the cold conditions we had known to the balmy tropics. Condesa spent the next month bouncing back and forth between Mancora and Organos, two of the hippest beaches in South America.

Enter the other Bond Girls: Edulia (who I met a few years ago trekking in India), codename Random Task, French lesbian trained in martial arts, foreign languages, runway modeling…fiercely attached and will die for the love of Benedicte, codename Viper, L’Oreal model, weapons expert. The two are openly affectionate lipstick lesbians, very sweet (when not engaged in mission critical combat) and the two of them are beautiful together. Final Bond Girl, Josefa, codename Natalia, Peruvian 20-year-old swimsuit model and explosives expert. Together they formed the Condesa crew, and I was their captain. Median age, 21. Oldest of them, Edulia, 24. I did my morning inspections to make sure the Glocks were securely strapped to their thighs and not interfering with the cuts of their bikinis, that the dive knives were properly strapped to their ankles, and that spearguns, surfboards and any other superfluous weaponry was carried properly.

It was my finest hour and I was at the height of my powers. Jaws would literally drop as hundreds of world travelers looked on as we motored in from the lone yacht and my four perfect 10 Bond Girls jumped out in the surf to carry the dinghy up the beach. Men followed us, just hoping to pick up the scraps, not knowing they are really barking up the wrong tree with the gay French girls. Such would be life for Christmas, New Years, and the height of the Peruvian summer.

Keep in mind that just eight months ago I was by myself in the Chilean channels with ice in my beard. We also got robbed: When Jimena and I were ferrying water bottles and belongings down the beach for a dinghy launch late at night, somebody nabbed the dry bag with mobile phones, Ipod, wallets, clothes, memory stick, sunglasses, all kinds of stuff. It cramped my style for the next few weeks while I got a new debit card sent from the US. Thank God I keep some cash on Condesa for just such emergencies. Usually it’s $500, but it was $260 in this case, enough to live, but not live it up. Such ups and downs in this life.

After New Years Condesa sailed for Salinas in Ecuador, where the officials were abusive and rude. I filed a written complaint against the customs guy who sexually harassed the girls, but the health inspector was the worst, harassing me for everything from the way Condesa was tied up to having expired medicines in my surgical kit. This has been a running theme lately: The Port Captain wouldn’t let us leave Lima because I didn’t have a captain’s license (we don’t need them for recreational boats in the US). He actually suggested I stay there and study to get a Peruvian captain’s license before I could leave.

Once stocked up and having done our research, we fled the bureaucracy of Ecuador and made a beeline for Tumaco, our port of entry into Colombia. Enroute we crossed the equator and the three girls went from being pollywogs to shellbacks, and I initiated them accordingly. With my computers dead I can’t publish any photos, but imagine a photo of three dripping wet, pretty young girls who had been force fed Champaign and Tequila, baptized with seawater, covered in smashed eggs and flour, and holding a sign that says ‘Shellbacks!, January 10, 2008.’

Speaking of milestones, January 10th marked nine years since Condesa left Balboa Island, AND on this same day I crossed my path at Isla de la Plata, thus completing my circumnavigation. I have now officially sailed around the world, with all rights and privileges appertaining. I may now piss into the wind, and put my feet on the table in the British officer’s mess. How about that, nine years, completing my circumnavigation, and crossing the equator, all on the same day?

We’d heard Tumaco was kind of a dowdy town, but our first entree to Colombia was a pleasant surprise. We were the first sailboat anyone could remember, so we were quite the novelty. Whole families came to see us down at the wharf, where we were tied alongside a rusty freighter. Unfortunately we had to use an agent to check in, and this set us back $150, but it got us in and out in one day so we could charge to our next destination, Isla Gorgona.

Isla Gorgona is a national park, lying about thirty miles offshore. It is tropical and wild, and was home to a prison hosting 2000 of Colombia’s most notorious criminals until it got park status in 1984. But to us it was still somewhat of a prison and we would soon call it Fascist Island. Part of the park’s operations had been turned over to a private concession, and everything cost money. We didn’t even have what they were asking of us, so in the end they cut us a deal, but it still ended up being the most expensive place to anchor a boat on earth. With park entry fees and nightly fees for each of us, it ended up being about $70 per night. Then we had to pay extra to go on walks with mandatory guides, or even to go snorkeling. We saw a big boa constrictor coiled in the grass.

From there we charged to Nuqui, snapped the main boom in a storm, yada yada, wrapped the genoa around the headstay, yelled and screamed in the driving rain, and limped on under reduced canvas. It’s not the first time.

When we were struggling to anchor in the dark with no charts in Nuqui, after almost running aground, a fast boat full of men bristling with assault rifles charged up next to us in a cloud of outboard smoke. I thought, ‘This is it,’ but it turned out they were Colombian Coast Guard, and after some initial bluster were very helpful and said we could call them on the radio for instant help, day or night.

The girls flew out the next day, and were lucky to squeeze on the planes. I sort of fell in love with little Nuqui…everyone was so curious and friendly. Hanging out in the Internet cafe, whose owner, Heller, is a peach, I also got to know the Comandante, who gave me his mobile number in case I ever had any problems.

The next day I went down to the wharf where I’d tied the dinghy up before it died. The wharf is also home to a military checkpoint that checks all traffic going up and down the river. I dare anyone to steal a dinghy tied up there. I DEFY anyone to so much a lay a finger on a dinghy tied up there. I wanted to get a photo of the ten soldiers with assault rifles guarding the wharf, but alas, no photos of any military stuff allowed…and you don’t want to argue with a guy with a loaded assault rifle. I was hanging around talking to the guys–they mostly want English lessons–when they all screamed, dove for their weapons, and ran for cover. Once again I thought, ‘Oh shit, this is really it,’ but it turns out they were all scrambling to get into full battle dress because the lieutenant was coming. He showed up and it was that lieutenant, my friend from the Internet cafe. All he ever wants to talk about is the girls, and like all men in South America, he was devastated to find out that the French girls were gay.

I set sail solo from Nuqui for Bahia Solano and poked my nose into Ensenada de Utria, the very place where the kidnappings took place. The national park is temporarily closed, of course, and for good reason since the guerillas and their hostages are still in the area, but in better times this inlet would be the absolute primo highlight of the whole Colombian coast: Ensenada de Utria is a perfectly-protected anchorage, several miles deep, which would put a cruising yacht in the heart of a national park of primary growth rainforest, just spitting distance from an amazing diversity of flora and fauna. The sounds at night at anchor must be amazing. So tauntingly close, yet dangerously out of reach. Alas, perhaps in another life.

The latest terrorist activity will probably scare the tourists away from the Pacific coast of Colombia for another ten years. It’s kind of nice to know this place is the way it is. In another fifty years the terrorists could be gone and this could be the next Costa Rica. In the interim there are no roads, so no logging or deforestation. These tiny towns are served only by tramp steamer and the occasional prop plane, and the pace of life is slow and easy. Nonetheless, a little voice in the back of my head is telling me to GET THE HELL OUT, before something bad happens.

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23 Comments »

Comment by Charlie Doane
2008-01-24 06:06:06

Hokey smokes! Great blog, Clark. Glad to see you’re up and running and sailing again. cheers!

 
Comment by Ben Ellison
2008-01-24 08:11:12

Clark, if you get an onslaught of Panbo rabble today, blame Charlie!

Clark Beek, way out there

I’m sure the laddies would like to know more about what charting software, electronic charts, and PCs you’re using, or used to use, and also see some photos when possible. Me too. Thanks for a stirring blog.

Comment by Clark
2008-01-24 13:20:11

Ben,

Thanks for the glowing review. You made my day! I would love to be posting photos and all that, but my computer woes have me in the Stone Age, technologically speaking. On my game day computer, I’m 90% sure the hard drive has packed it in. The second string computer is old and isn’t even worth trying…blue screen of death. I was using MaxSea with C-Map on both. Hoping Panama will bring geeks and technical support lines.

Cheers,
Clark

 
 
Comment by Matt H
2008-01-25 06:18:59

This is a great blog, I wish you luck. Panbo made me visit… after reading your story I wish I could send you some parts… but where would they go!

 
Comment by Bruce Angus
2008-02-05 09:16:15

Clark – your stories are great and an inspiration for landlubbers. I was up and down the west coast of S.America on a tramp bulker in the late ’70s which was fun, but not the scale or risk of your adventure. Mind you, I wasn’t able to acquire Bond girls, so your risks afforded you some pleasureable tradeoffs. I’ll stay tuned in. Good luck.
Bruce

Comment by Clark
2008-02-11 08:55:08

Thanks, Bruce. I think the FARC was plenty active in the ’70’s too, but as we were advised, you’re pretty safe at sea, but once you set foot on land…

 
 
2008-03-07 03:02:33

http www sunbingo co uk login asp…

It is right on that uncovering confirmed documentation on this subject can be time consuming….

 
Comment by Monique
2008-04-03 10:48:38

holy crap, Clark. I don’t check in for a while, thinking you’ve settled back into the grind like the rest of us poor slobs, which couldn’t be further from the truth! I’m glad to see you have direction from the good Lord, and the hands of nubile maidens to carry out your various bidding. Enjoy!

Comment by Clark
2008-04-11 09:15:53

Monique,

Is that Monique Simone, I assume? Yes, the tripped has dragged, or lagged, or extended, a bit more than we originally thought. Still in Salt Lake. A guy from there sailed with me for a few days in Nicaragua.

Love Clark

 
 
Comment by Tani
2008-04-07 16:26:04

Hi Clark! I was just informed of your site from Elias! So glad you are doing well! Your adventures are amazing… I can’t wait to be able to sit and read them all! Life is good … Take care!
:) hugs!

Comment by Clark
2008-04-11 09:17:04

The only Tani I think I know is Tani Abe from Uni and Rancho. Is that you? Thanks for the kind words and glad you’re in touch with E.

Comment by Tani
2008-04-13 17:46:12

Clark-indeed it is your old friend from RSJ and UHS!
It’s been a long time — my best friend works with Clarkyour sister-in-law Stephanie and had mentioned that you had set sail a while back. I recently joined the web app facebook and Elias found me and we’ve corresponded a few times. I recall helping your mom years ago at Nordstrom and she told me you were sick… From your pictures and expedition–coulda fooled me! You look great and I am enjoying reading about your journey around the world! I am back raising my 3 kids in Irvine and have been a first grade teacher for the last 12 years at Westpark Elementary in Irvine. Its been fun seeing some of our old teachers… Do you ever visit the OC, or do you stay in Mexico? Next time you’re in town, I’d love to catch up with you! Have a safe journey —wherever you may go next! Hugs!
:) Tani (Abe) Robinson

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Comment by Clark
2008-05-01 11:51:56

Hi Tani,

So Elias has been burning up Facebook and it’s a Uni reunion. Wow, you’ve got a real life. I heard Bill Brooks, my old 6th grade teacher from Bonita Canyon, teaches at Westpark. I’ll be back in a few weeks and my voyaging days will be over, for a while anyway. I’ll definitely be in Irvine to see my mom. She still lives in Turtle Rock. I’ll look you up. I guess I better join Facebook.

Cheers,
Clark

 
Comment by Tani
2008-05-01 15:22:04

Clark-facebook is quite fun/funny! Its been cool chatting with old friends that I grew up with! I have really enjoyed reading about your adventures! You are an amazing writer… Let’s definitely get together while your in town… Let me know when and I’ll round up Morgan, Emerson and Marianne for cocktails! Call me when you get to the OC. (949)290-5485.
hugs! Tani

 
Comment by Clark
2008-05-02 17:49:04

Tani,

Will do! Should be in the OC in late May. Setting sail tomorrow or Sunday for the final push. I just signed up for Facebook, but don’t have time to configure my account, post photos, or figure anything out. Talk soon.

BTW, lots of sick perverts read this website, and now they all have your phone number. Just kidding (I hope).

Cheers,
Clark

 
 
 
 
Comment by Emerson Olin
2008-04-07 19:01:06

Truly amazing, Clark. I’ve rested on my travel laurels since the early 1990s when I backpacked around southern Mexico for three months, living on cans of carrots and pickles and sleeping under palapas. Having now enjoyed your site, I can never again boast about the unconventional life.

Comment by Clark
2008-04-11 09:14:14

Emerson,

Wow, it’s been a long time, maybe since our ten year reunion? Yes, it’s been quite an adventure, but it’s coming to a crashing halt in the next month or so. I’m back in Mex and there’s nowhere to go but El Norte. Are you in touch with Elias? He may be joining me in a few weeks. Where are you these days and what are you up to?

Cheers,
Clark

 
 
Comment by Morgan Bartz
2008-04-16 10:53:39

C-

Man, when my wife and I saw you last year, i wish i would’ve checked out the site immediately — well written, witty and adventurous

Hope to see you when you’re back

Safe travels

mgb

 
Comment by Clark
2008-05-01 11:48:02

Hey Morgan,

Thanks a million. So you must be a father by now, or am I thinking of another pregnant woman from that night and I just really stuck my foot in it? All kinds of Uni people are coming out of the woodwork, I think because Elias Terman is active on Facebook and making all kinds of connections.

Cheers,
Clark

 
Comment by Bill
2008-05-29 09:52:47

Welcome back Clark. I can’t believe your Bon Voyage party was over nine years ago. That was the most hung over I’ve ever been in rough seas. Just wanted to let you know I have been following your travels and that life has been treating we well up here in Idaho. I’ll be passing through San Fran this summer and hope we can hook up.

Comment by Clark
2008-05-29 12:40:26

Hey Bill,

Cool, San Francisco is the plan. I’ll have to hear your near death story in person. I’ve told it so many times now that my version probably differs markedly from yours…like I’ve told that story to at least 20 of our mutual friends. Say, so you know a guy in Boise named Ken Little? He’s a high school friend and people tell me he’s a brain surgeon there.

Cheers,
Clark

 
 
Comment by Isabel
2008-10-29 13:52:35

Hi Clark,

Besides everything so bad that happened to you, I’m glad that you were in Bahia Solano. I am from Colombia and I was in that area 4 years ago. The place is a beautiful spot, nice people, good seafood. We stayed at El Valle, close to Bahia Solano.

Nice blog!!

Isabel

 
Comment by Clark
2008-10-30 22:38:30

Dear Isabel, Nothing bad really happened to me. I just felt very badly for the people who were kidnapped and for the people who were trying to start tourist businesses in that part of Colombia. It was really beautiful and the people were some of the friendliest I’ve met anywhere. I’d love to go back someday, ideally when the FARC is gone but before the gringos discover it. Thanks!

 
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