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Colombian Formalities and Procedures - Our Understanding after 10 weeks Cruising

By Sue & Andy Warman of SY Spruce — last modified Nov 12, 2012 05:04 PM
Sue and Andy Warman, of SY Spruce, spent 10 weeks cruising Colombia - from Taganga Bay (arrived 17th June 2012) to Sapzurro including Tayrona Park, Cartagena, Islas Rosarios, Islas San Bernados, Isla Fuerte - leaving Colombia and entering Panama at Puerto Obaldia on 27th August 2012.

Published: 2012-11-12 13:50:00
Countries: Colombia

Sue & Andy posted a report in July based on a month's cruising in Colombia. This is now the updated report after 10 weeks in the country.

This is our understanding of the immigration, customs and port authority formalities and procedures applied to foreign cruising yachts visiting Colombia. Information is based upon some 10 weeks duration in Colombia:

  • Our experience after arriving at Bahia Taganga (near Santa Marta) in June 2012 and sharing knowledge with two other vessels. All three yachts have used the same agent, Dino Alfonso – CSC Caribbean Sea of Colombia Shipping Agency SAS.
  • Staying in Santa Marta Marina while engaging in excursions ashore
  • Cruising from Santa Marta to Parque Tayrona and anchoring in a number of bays
  • Sailing  from Santa Marta to Cartagena: where we stayed in both Club de Pesca marina and anchored off Club Nautico
  • Cruising from Cartagena via Islas Rosarios, Islas San Bernandos, Isla Fuerte and on to Sapzurro. After a few days in Sapzurro we left Colombia and cleared into Panama at Puerto Obaldia


It should be noted the processes for managing foreign vessels in Colombian waters have not been designed specifically to enable visiting yachts to cruise the Colombian coast. The processes have largely been developed to manage commercial vessels and fishing vessels, both Colombian and foreign flagged. It should be remembered the Colombian Authorities have been engaged in a struggle to enforce security in their waters during recent years with curbing activity by drug smugglers a high priority (particularly in the Santa Marta region). Therefore their processes are intended to give a high level of visibility, control and awareness of the activities of all vessels operating in their waters. However, as will be evident, the system operated is bureaucratic and can be expensive (more than $US250 for less than 2 months useful cruising time). We have found the Colombian people to be very welcoming, friendly, hospitable and incredibly tolerant of native English speakers mutilating their beautiful historic language.

Agencies Involved

There are three agencies plus your agent who are involved in the necessary formalities and permissions:-

  • Immigration – responsible for permission for individual crew members and passengers to enter the Republic of Colombia and to stamp visas into passports depending upon the duration of stay permitted for different nationalities.
  • Port Captain(s) – Responsible for the navigation of vessels entering a defined jurisdictional region within Colombian coastal waters eg Santa Marta, Baranquilla, Cartagena, and for controlling the movements of vessels within Colombian waters. Note that the forms indicate the port captain is acting for the Ministerio de Defensa Nacional – Direccion General Maritima
  • Customs – responsible for temporary permission (Importacion Temporal de Vehiculo Para Tourista), depending upon planned duration of visit (see below), to bring a vessel into Colombian waters without being liable for importation taxes

Initial Process

The initial process is the same for all vessels arriving irrespective of how long you intend to be in Colombian waters:-

Port Captain
Registration with the Capitania de Puerto for the jurisdictional region entered at the port of entry. We understand the port captains will only deal with vessels through an agent. A fee is charged by an agent for this and immigration clearance (ca $Pesos50,000). The process involves a four part duplicate form being completed with vessel details. The yellow page copy once signed by the Capitan del Puerto and the Agent is returned to the vessel. This shows your approved berth location in Colombia plus other information about your vessel. This form also shows an Estimated Date of Departure from the port captain’s area of jurisdiction. If you depart the jurisdiction by this date; with the authorisation of either a National Zarpe (going to another Port Captain’s jurisdiction) or an International Zarpe  (leaving Colombia) then all is fine. If you will be staying longer in that jurisdiction you must notify your agent so he can extend your registered date of departure. If you don’t do this it can cause problems for both you and your agent.

Your passports will be supplied to the immigration department along with an application for entry form. In the case of Europeans such as ourselves we were approved for 90 days entry, a copy of the application form and our stamped passports were returned to the vessel by the agent.  We understand it is possible to extend the validity of the visas stamped in your passports for up to 180 days total duration of stay in Colombia (depending upon nationality).

  • Note 1: If you want to cruise between port areas then the expectation is that you will proceed directly from one Port Captain’s jurisdiction to another on the basis of a National Zarpe. It seems to be understood that vessels may stop overnight or if they have problems but your Zarpe is not officially a cruising permit. If you want to do more extended cruising see Permanent Permit and Zarpes below.
  • Note 2: If you arrive in Colombia waters without a Zarpe (clearance papers) for the port at which you arrive then a legal investigation is required to be opened by law. A legal person will be appointed to represent you and you will be liable for the costs.

Staying in Colombia for more than 5 days

A Temporary Importation Permit for the vessel must be applied for unless staying in Colombia for less than 5-days.  A failure to comply with obtaining a valid permit has resulted in vessels being chained to the dock by customs officials, pending payment of a fine or taxes, as recently as June 2012.

  • This application takes the form of a letter sent to the office of the Chief of the work group of Importation along with copies of the Yellow Port Captain’s form, the ships registration papers and the photograph/visa pages of the captain’s passport. Our agent did this work and a fee is charged (ca $Pesos50,000) . A copy of the application is stamped by the Customs office and returned to the vessel. This is your proof that an application is pending.
  • An arrangement will be made for a customs inspector to visit the vessel, meet the captain and check the particulars on the application are correct.
  • Providing the application is approved the Temporary Permit will be returned to the vessel between 1-2 weeks after the application.
  • Note 1: Sometimes the customs inspector will actually come aboard the vessel for inspection, other times they may choose to view the vessel from shore.
  • Note 2: This Importacion Temporal de Vehiculo Para Tourista is normally valid for the same duration as your immigration stamps in the passport. If you are leaving your vessel in Colombia while the crew travel abroad, or you extend your immigration visa, then the temporary permit expiry date can be extended.  A customs inspector in Santa Marta told us this may soon change to 180 days –thereby harmonising the whole of Colombia onto a common standard.

Staying in Colombia more than 15 days (this time is unclear)

If you intend the vessel to remain in Colombian waters for more than 15 days then the costs may increase significantly above those associated with a short term visit, due to Port Captains in some ports (Santa Marta, Baranquilla, Cartagena) requiring a Permiso de Permanencia to be procured.

Permanent Permit (issued by Port Captain)
If you are intending your vessel to stay in Colombia longer than 15 days or intend  to cruise in the Jurisdictional areas of Santa Marta or Cartagena then you must apply for a Permanent Permit (Permiso de Pemanencia para Yates y Veleros de Bandera Extranjera).  This permit is issued by the Port Captain(s) and can be applied for after the temporary importation permit has been approved by the customs office.  This timescale seems unclear: if you intend to cruise in the jurisdictional area of the port you are meant to apply before you move from your initial berth/anchorage, if you stay in one place boats appear to be required to get a permit after varying lengths of time.

The issue of a Permanent Permit can take until approximately 23 days after application and a charge of $Pesos 175,700 (June 2012), payable directly at a bank, is made by the Port Captain’s office. Your agent will also make a charge for his services (ca $Pesos 50,000). The Permanent Permit is an approval to legally have your vessel in Colombian waters for a defined period and longer than 10 days.

It seems the Permanent Permit is normally valid for different durations depending upon the port area where you initially clear in and the current application of the rules.

  • We are told that an initial duration of validity of 2-months now seems to be the normal expiry applied at Santa Marta region.
  • A renewal must be applied for before the expiry date. A fee is payable to the agent for each renewal,  another charge of $Pesos 175,700 will also be charged by the Capitania de Puerto. We understand this renewal is normally made valid until 365 days after the issue of the original Permanent Permit.
  • Note 1: We understand (information from agent) that if you have left Santa Marta either before a Permanent Permit is required, or a renewal is due, and are travelling along the Colombian coast, under the authority of a national zarpe, that it is not required to have a valid Permanent Permit in national waters outside of the jurisdiction of Cartagena, Baranquilla or Santa Marta.
  • Note 2: The authorities at Cartagena did recognise our Permanent Permit issued at Santa Marta that was still valid.
  • Note 3: Discussion with other yachts at Cartagena revealed the time before a Permanent Permit is deemed required at Cartagena is unclear. Three yachts with different agents were told they needed a Permiso de Permanencia either immediately, within 10 days, within 12 days. It should be noted agents benefit from charging fees for obtaining a Permiso. Some yacht crews say it is up to the agent to interpret the rules but there is clearly an official line (although unclear) and in the event of a contravention one assumes it will be the vessel and not the agent who is penalised.
  • Note 4: If you leave Colombia with your vessel and then re-enter, for example cruise the Colombian Caribbean coast then transit the Panama Canal to cruise the Colombian Pacific coast, the complete process for entry and all fees will be due again. The Permanent Permit and Temporary Importation Permit will be rescinded each time you leave Colombia.
  • Note 5: We understand that vessels which have remained in the marina at Santa Marta (ie not cruising) have not previously been required to have a permanent permit. However, it seems the Port Captain is now pressing the agent to inform owners of vessels who have been in the marina for more than the pre-requisite time, they are now required to have a permanent permit. This seems related to the recent change in the law dated 8th May 2012.


It is also necessary to obtain a zarpe  to be permitted to leave the authorised anchorages/berths described on your “yellow page copy” of the initial Port Capitain’s permission. There are 3 types of Zarpe that can be issued to permit departure from the approved berth:  Jurisdictional Zarpe,  National  Zarpe, International Zarpe.

Jurisdictional Zarpe
Once you have been registered as having entered a new port captain’s jurisdiction, and a Permisso Permanencia has been requested (or already held), you may apply for permission to cruise within that jurisdictional area. Upon request through your agent a Jurisdictional Zarpe will be authorised stating the approved zones within the jurisdiction you are authorised to cruise. This type of Zarpe is normally issued for a maximum validity of 20-28 days duration after which it must be re-issued if you wish to cruise the area for longer. Local fishermen in the Santa Marta region also have to obtain a new Jurisdictional Zarpe in the same manner.

Note: There are special zones which need additional approval to cruise eg The Tayrona National Park near Santa Marta. To cruise this national park you must first have a Permanent Permit and can then apply for a special park cruising permit. A Tayrona Park permit is valid for around 20 days. The permit can be renewed for the same fee for another 20 day period, either continuous or not, providing your other documentation remains valid. It is also required to have a Jurisdictional Zarpe in addition to the Special Park Permit to visit Parque Tayrona. This permit does not approve you to land ashore in the park which requires the normal US$17 per person per day to have been paid at the Park Office in Santa Marta before stepping ashore.(Guests of ours were apprehended while ashore by park wardens).

National Zarpe
Permits you to exit the jurisdictional area of one port captain to transit to an official port of entry in another port captain’s jurisdiction. Upon arrival you will be issued with a new “yellow page copy” designating you as permitted to occupy an authorised anchorage or berth.  Although vessels might stop overnight while en-route or in the case of bad weather, it is not expected there will be a delay in completing the passage and reporting your arrival to the Port Captain of the new jurisdiction.

International Zarpe
Clears you out to leave Colombia waters for a named port in a foreign country. Part of the process for obtaining one will involve immigration stamping your passports as exited and relinquishment of your Temporary Importation permit and permanent Permit (if issued). You will be expected to leave Colombian waters within a reasonable period, normally 24 hours.

  • Note 1: There is an agent fee to arrange the issuance of zarpes.
  • Note2: There is no single document that constitutes a “Cruising Permit” as used in other countries. The medium to longer term Cruising Permit is effectively the collective holding of a valid Temporary Importation Permit, Permisso Permanencia (depending upon location) and Zarpe
  • Note 3: Our agent in Cartagena said it was not possible to clear out of Colombia at either Capurgana or Sapzurro near the Panamanian border. Although there is an Immigration office at Capurgana used by yachts carrying backpackers between Panama and Cartagena this does not apparently provide facilities to clear vessels.
  • Note 4: We cleared out from Cartagena for Puerto Obaldia in Panama. En route we stopped at Islas Rosarios, Islas San Bernandos and Isla Fuerte. The only challenge we had from a Coast Guard vessel was at sea off Isla Fuerte. They seemed to be checking the information we gave them over the radio as to our names, exit port, destination port (Puerto Obaldia). We were permitted to continue after 15 minutes without being boarded. In the event we stopped at Sapzurro (Colombia) for a few days before going to Panama. Coast Guard vessels did appear at Sapzurro but we were not challenged. We do know another vessel which was en route from Santa Marta to Porvenir in April 2011, was checked by a Coast Guard vessel in the San Bernandos and were told to leave the country by the following day. It therefore seems cruising between Colombia and the Panamanian border is effectively achieved without officially sanctioned paperwork and only works providing the authorities do not enforce their own rules.
  • Note 5: We have been told by an American vessel that holders of the Permiso de Permanencia are allowed to spend up to 60 days cruising in Colombian waters after issuance of an International Zarpe, whereas boats without the permit are supposed to leave within 24 hours.We have not verified this from any other source.

Our Recommendation for Cruising in Colombia (Going East to West)

We would recommend vessels sail directly to Santa Marta  (or possibly Bahia Taganga, although there was a boarding incident after we departed) and enter and leave Colombia at that port. Ensure you stay less than 10 days at Santa Marta, this will avoid the need for the expensive Permiso de Permanencia plus associated agent fees. With only 10 days available for activities things to consider are:

  • A short stay at a hostel at the nearby hill town of Minca – we stayed at Casa de Lomo. There are splendid walks to waterfalls and through forest to be enjoyed here in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
  • Ciudad Perdida – Magic Tours (the one we used) and other travel agents can organise trips to visit the Lost City in the Sierra Nevada. This is a tough hike of 46Km (round trip)with a guide, staying in Cabanas with either hammock or bunk bed accommodation. The hike can be done in either 4,5 or 6 days depending upon your fitness and stamina, the cost is the same irrespective of how many days. All food, transport and costs are included in the price.
  • Tour through Parque Tayrona and out to Cabo de Vela seeing spectacular countryside in the Sierra Nevada.
  • Visit Cartagena by road (buses, taxis) for two-nights . This will give enough time in Cartagena to see the magnificent architecture and some of the museums without too high costs on hotels and food.
  • It is possible to fly to Bogota from Baranquilla which is a bus/taxi ride from Santa Marta.

We would recommend that if you have already been cruising in the East Caribbean islands, and possibly the Western-most Canary Islands, that Parque Tayrona by sea is not different enough to justify the high additional costs of the Permiso de Permanencia and agent fees for the other required permits.

Once your chosen itinerary has been conducted at Santa Marta then we suggest you clear out for Panama (Puerto Obaldia/Porvenir/Colon) and possibly visit Cholon Bay, Islas Rosarios, Islas San Bernandos, Isla Fuerte, Sapzurro en route. Our view is that, if you have extensively been cruising in the East Caribbean islands, these islands are not different enough to be must see locations. Sapzurro was gorgeous, but again, if you are pressed for time and have already been hiking in the forests of Dominica or Tobago, it is not necessarily a must see location. If you want to clear in to Panama at Puerto Obaldia then Sapzurro is a sheltered anchorage, with a small village, where you can wait for reduced swell before entering the exposed anchorage at Puerto Obaldia.

Our recommendation is based on our experience that there are lots of things to do and see in the Santa Marta region, the views with mountain backdrops are wonderful, there is a relatively inexpensive marina with good facilities if desired, and provides a secure place to leave your boat for a few days. The climate in Santa Marta was much less hot and humid than at Cartagena.

Not many people speak English so having some basic Spanish is necessary for heightened enjoyment.

Sue & Andy Warman - SY Spruce
SY Spruce