Buyer, beware. Arriving at Isla Fuerte, Colombia, s/v Eclipse approached the anchorage using the waypoints found in the Caribbean Compass. S/V Happy Times (HT) dawdled further behind. A local fellow in a kayak rowed out to “guide” the Hufford family to the right spot, and Geoff, trying to avoid an unnecessary fee, told him, “No gracias.” The fellow insisted that his services were needed to circumvent a rock that only he knew about.
Antonio demanded 10 mil pesos, about $5US, for his help and even climbed aboard Eclipse without an invitation to collect it. That’s not the right way to start a relationship with cruisers. Antonio insisted so much that the situation became tense, and Geoff finally caved just to get the fellow off his boat. Then he rowed over to HT and clung to a stanchion to provide the same guidance to us.
Antonio seemed nice at first. Then came Geoff’s warning over the VHF about a fee. Once the hook was down, Antonio insisted upon a payment of 20 mil pesos. Mikayla put her foot down. She knows her father doesn’t know how to negotiate. She offered 10 mil. He demanded 20 mil.
Mikayla ducked into the salon where Mike was looking for his cash. When she returned to the cockpit, she repeated her offer, and that’s when Antonio finally understood that 10 mil per boat was acceptable; 20 mil was not. He left after agreeing to bring back some bananas for five mil. He never returned.
Fortunately, our next experience in supporting the local economy was more pleasant. A launch with three fishermen had arrived shortly after Antonio did and offered dinner at their restaurant. Tato, a guia turistico or tourist guide, handed out a business card offering, “Hospedaje. Alimentación. Excursiones.” The food gets us every time.
Geoff dropped off Michelle, Alec, Jerome, Miles, Mike, Mikayla and me at a nearby dinghy dock. He decided to remain behind on Eclipse to keep an eye on the boats, because Antonio had observed all the electronics aboard Eclipse during his uninvited visit.
We made our way through a yard and out a gate to a dirt path. A wire fence on either side kept us on the straight and narrow. We passed a few humble yards until we met a woman headed in the opposite direction. Michelle, always our friendly advance woman, greeted her with “Buenas tardes.” Right away Michelle discovered that she spoke French as well as English, and Silvie became our guide to the village.
Who would have guessed I’d have a chance to practice my French on a Spanish-speaking island off the Colombian coast? Silvie, a native of Normandy, France, has lived on Isla Fuerte for 17 years. She has two children, a 15-year-old girl and a three-year-old boy. (She said that Mikayla was “mucho grande.”) Her husband died about five years ago, and she lives in a house near the dinghy dock. She makes jewelry, but it wasn’t clear if that’s her only means of support.
Silvie periodically reverted to English when her speaking skills or mine failed. She would cover her missing, broken teeth as she searched for the right word and smile broadly when it came to her. We chatted about the travels of HT, the island’s wild donkeys and Fuerte’s 2,000 inhabitants as we walked.
According to the Caribbean Compass’s article written by our friend Connie Elson on s/v Tashtego, the island has many vacation homes belonging to wealthy Colombians. Most residents are caretakers who live full-time in the town of Puerto Limon. Their own homes range from bare adobe walls with tin roofs to better constructed adobe homes with painted exterior walls and design features, some landscaping and fencing.
In the middle of town stands a blue cross and a Catholic church, vacant since there is no priest. Near a building marked “hospedaje,” a cement road about four feet wide runs near the waterfront. There’s not a restaurant in sight.
Tato and one of his friends step out of a yard to greet us. They begin to arrange our dining room by removing a couple of tables from Tato’s house. He sets them to the side of the dirt street. He covers them with a tablecloth and “Voila!” our restaurant appears.
Nearby I find a woman literally cooking over a hot stove. Flames lick the bottom of a cast iron pan as she deftly turns over a whole fish. Her stove consists of three grates, with room enough for six pots, over a recessed area for fuel. It’s probably wood but it’s too hot for me stand closer to observe.
A few minutes later, our dinner arrives via Tato and the cook. Each plate holds a whole fried fish, a scoop of coconut rice, a few slices of fried yucca and a salad combining red onion, grated carrots and diced tomatoes. It’s delicioso! The cook beams as we tackle our food. The fish is cooked just right with a crispy skin. It’s bony, typical of local fish. The salad has a great flavor, as does the rice.
A few kids walk by and try not to stare as we eat. A tweenage girl is not as subtle. She has climbed the wall behind our table for a bird’s eye view.
Twilight is about to fall as we finish. Tato offers to take us back to the boats. Michelle is very excited about her first ride in a lancha. Tato’s buddy drives the boat easily along the shore, and five minutes later we’re saying our good-byes from the deck of Eclipse.
Despite Connie’s enthusiasm for the anchorages she cites in her article, they are not “must-sees.” We bypassed the first anchorage in Isla Grande of the Rosarios due to the rolly anchorage. We opted for another one on the south side of Isla Rosario. It, too, was rolly but a small headland offered some protection from the waves. Our second stop at Tintipan (N09˚47.27,W75˚50.18) in the San Bernardo archipelago was pleasant. A monohull was anchored when we arrived. Brita and Dave swam right over to introduce themselves and report on the anchorage. We had a good breeze throughout the night, and, although a bit rolly, the sea calmed down around 1:30 a.m.
The passage from Tintipan to Isla Fuerte dragged on without any wind. Finally, it picked up during the last hour, and we sailed comfortably into the anchorage (N09˚23.18,W76˚10.46). Our encounter with Antonio wasn’t a game-changer, and we enjoyed our time with Silvie, Tato and the other people of Puerto Limon. When all is said and done, however, it would be easy to pass up Isla Fuerte and the other two anchorages and head straight for the San Blas Islands.