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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Colombian Officialdom

Tumaco, Colombia

I don't know why we continue to assume all formalities will be handled on land, but we were still taken by surprise when a boat load of uniformed men came out to Nakia as we prepared to go ashore. They appeared to be representatives of the Coast Guard, Navy, and Marines. Only two men came on board, one to ask John questions and one to perform an inspection/search of the boat. They brought a friendly yellow lab with them but the drug dog had to stay in their boat when they realized both Sarana and Nakia have cats on board. The young man searching Nakia took a cursory look in a few lockers but seemed more interested in gazing at a photo of my 18 year old niece!

Both Eric and John got a lift in the CG boat to continue the check-in process with the Port Captain. They were gone for two hours so I knew something had gotten complicated. Usually this is only computers being down or electricity being out, but in this case our captains were blind-sided by a ships agent requirement. Prior to our departure from Ecuador Eric had done due diligence in researching the possibility of stopping in Columbia. He got high recommendations for places to anchor, and even exchanged email with the Tumaco Port Captain, who assured him we would be most welcome to visit. What everyone failed to mention was that we would be required to hire an agent to complete the check-in process for us.

Ships agents for cruising boats are nothing new and are SOP in many countries. But cruisers are known for preferring to do the leg and paperwork themselves to save money. Agent fees are all over the map but, for example, can be $150 at both check-in and check-out. Countries which see few recreational vessels haven't made any distinction between them and commercial boats so the paperwork is complicated, requiring multiple copies of many forms to several government offices. What takes only a few hours for an agent can take days for a yachtie, who also runs the risk of pissing off men who take their positions very seriously and don't appreciate "do it yourself" foreigners stumbling through established procedures.

So on top of being met by the decidedly unfriendly assistant Port Captain's, "What are you doing here? Why did you come?", our captains now faced an unanticipated expense. Fortunately the PC himself finally appeared and explained to his subordinate that we were here to visit their beautiful country. And regarding the fee, Eric's Spanish is even better than John's and he was able to talk the agent down from $150 to $120 per boat for the entire in and out process. After working with the agent and seeing the results so far, John feels it's a valuable service - he just wishes it was a more economic $50-75.

The next hurdle was Migracion and we had an afternoon appointment to meet our agent again. This time he brought representatives from Customs, the PC's office, and Migracion. We were permitted to tie our dinghy to the CG dock where this meeting took place. Many questions, forms, and passport perusals later, they seemed to have everything they needed. The one thing that the PC kept coming back to though was Sarana's exit Zarpe from Ecuador. While we were in Jama Eric realized that he didn't have his international Zarpe. In the confusion of checking out, Migracion in Ecuador asked for Sarana's Zarpe, Eric gave them the original, Migracion didn't return it, and Eric had no copy (John has learned the hard way to never give any official an original document unless specifically requested, and always makes multiple copies of any document he's given). So Eric made a copy of Nakia's original Zarpe, whited out and "corrected" the boat name, and made a copy of that. This is actually something he witnessed the Bahia PC do to avoid having to make originals for every vessel, so Eric wasn't being underhanded, just expedient. But the Tumaco office caught the anomaly right away and thought it was highly irregular. Although they came back to it a couple of times, Eric managed to assure them that it was just an example of the relaxed practices of the Bahia office.

Now we were finally free to take a taxi into Tumaco proper which is a few miles from the Coast Guard and Naval bases where our boats are. It's a large commercial city of 200,000 people with a rabbit warren of streets, so I'm glad we had a taxi for our first visit (even at the rate of $10/hour which seems high compared to $40 for a round trip shopping day from Bahia to Manta). Our first stop was to an ATM for the local currency of pesos which are at about 2200 to the US dollar, making it important to carry a calculator to help with conversions. We then took our Ecuadorian cell phone to be unblocked for other countries and purchased a Columbian chip and minutes to have on hand just in case. Sarana tried to take care of some US banking business but got lost in a recorded phone tree maze (which concluded, "We're sorry, but we're closed for the holiday."), and struck out when they couldn't connect via the internet either. By this time we were all ready to call it a day, and returned to Nakia for drinks before wishing Sarana a peaceful night.

It's lovely to be safely anchored in a calm estuary and, other than a brief rain shower, we had a restful night. We're still working out minor issues over where exactly to anchor the boats and land our dinghies. The PC feels we're anchored too close to where the fishing boats exit the channel to dock, so we'll take care of that today. Where to land the dinghy is more complicated. We don't want to impose on the CG to use their dock, but the fixed fishing pier is far too high for us and has no useable ladders or stairs. The guys are going out in the dinghy this morning to explore our options for both, and later we may take a bus back to town for some errands and shopping.

John has fixed the script for our position links and we also discovered I missed one degree in latitude in my previous post. The correct link is below.

Linda and John