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Colonial Shipwrecks of Colombia: Getting to the Site

Our plane on the runway in Apartadó. Credit: Fritz Hanselmann/The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University
Our plane on the runway in Apartadó.
Credit: Fritz Hanselmann/The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University

National Geographic Grantee and Texas State University Research Faculty Frederick “Fritz” Hanselmann and a top-notch team of archaeologists from Colombia and the United States are leading an expedition to locate and document historic shipwrecks off of the Caribbean coast of Colombia.  Follow along with Fritz’s updates from the field. 

As part of our working group on the Sunken Ships of Cartagena Project, the Instituto Colombiano de Antropología e Historia previously made us of aware of another project they were directing and asked us if our team would survey an area of the coast that might contain remains of an early port and early 16th century shipwrecks off the coast of the Darién jungle, near the modern border with Panamá, concurrent with their efforts to excavate the terrestrial site of Santa María la Antigua del Darién, the first successful Spanish continental settlement in the New World.

Taking gear to the dock in Turbo. Credit: Juan Martin/The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University
Taking gear to the dock in Turbo.
Credit: Juan Martin/The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University

Part of the fun was actually traveling to the site, as a few mountain ranges of the easternmost portion of the Andes lay in our path.  As underwater archaeological survey is very equipment-oriented, we were loaded to the gills with dive gear and survey equipment, but that didn’t damper our spirits.  Rather than take days to arrive by truck and boat, we opted for the airplane/taxi/boat combination….but little did we know that it would be such a multi-faceted journey to go off of the grid in search of the remains of some of the first Spanish explorers and conquistadors.

A panga departing from Turbo to the coastal communities. Credit: Christopher Horrell/The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University
A panga departing from Turbo to the coastal communities.
Credit: Christopher Horrell/The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University

The trip turned out to be a Colombian version of “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles”, minus John Candy (RIP).  We took two cabs with five people and five large bags full of gear to the airport in Cartagena, where we caught a flight to the airport in Rionegro.  From there, we took an hour long cab ride to Medellín and another airport downtown, where we caught a flight to Apartadó in the heart of the region where bananas and fruit are harvested.  Another hour long cab ride from Apartadó (one with people, the other with equipment) to Turbo, which is the port where the South American portion of the Pan American Highway ends, as there is no path through the Darien Gap to connect Colombia and Panamá.  From Turbo, we had a panga ride of over and hour with 50 other people, our stop being a small coastal fishing community of Triganá, our base of operations north of Bahia de la Gloria, where we would be conducting the survey.

Self portrait of the team on the panga ride to Triganá. Credit: Juan Martin/The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University
Self portrait of the team on the panga ride to Triganá.
Credit: Juan Martin/The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University

While tiring, it was a beautiful trip that provided us stunning vistas of the Andes, the coastal fields of banana trees, and the lush greenery of the Darién that comes right down to the volcanic sand beaches of the coast.  We arrived safely at our home-away-from-home in Triganá at Cabanas Anayansi where we were greeted by wonderful hosts with fresh seafood, after which we boated around the survey area to get the lay of the land.

Funding and support provided by a National Geographic Society-Waitt Grant, the Universidad del Norte, the Ministerio de Culturathe Instituto Colombiano de Antropología e HistoriaHalcyon Dive Systems, Cabañas Anayansi, Dive and Green Dive Center, the Way Family Foundation, and The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University.