The Rosario Islands, welcome to Colombia’s Caribbean
Just off the coast of Cartagena, an hour or so boat ride away, lie Colombia’s Islas del Rosario, the Caribbean Islands that will give you a fix of that idyllic beach you’ve been craving. They were definitely what we needed after the not so relaxing beach experience in Cartagena and Santa Marta and brought us back to a more wild and rustic type of tourism.
Avoid the touts and head straight to La Bodeguita pier where you can get tickets to your desired destination. Most people seem to do an island tour which they call ‘island hopping’ but it really isn’t as you do not descend from the boat except for a visit to the Aquarium, so make sure you triple check what you’re getting into before you pay. Since we had quite a few days at our disposal, we chose to spend a couple of nights on Isla Grande, which I’m sure you’d never guess is the biggest of the islands 🙂 hence we took a boat that went straight there and it ended up being one of the highlights of our trip to Colombia.
Islas del Rosario Accommodation
Do not make my mistake and picture Bali or Thailand style resorts because you will find nothing of this sort. I was amazed to discover that the island is in fact mostly left intact and there are only a few eco hotels scattered here and there, which I guess are part of its charm.
NOTE: eco-hotel in Colombia is quite different to what we have back in Europe or elsewhere.. We had booked what looked like a wonderful little eco-hotel, however not only was it basically in the middle of the ‘jungle’, it had no running water, a bucket for a shower electricity only a few hours a day, it was swamped with mosquitoes and had no mosquito nets in the bedrooms. This may sound like fun to some, but when you’ve just spent 4 days in the jungle in extreme and basic conditions, got sick and are still recovering from the mosquito massacre on your arms and legs, these are not ideal conditions. I lasted all of 10 minutes before I decided we had to find somewhere else.
We trekked around the island and at one point bumped into some other tourists. In a slightly desperate tone I asked them where they were staying, since I had heard from a girl on our jungle tour that there were a group of 7 hostels which she loved. To my relief they confirmed that was where they were staying at the Hostales Casa Nativa Paraíso Secreto that they were great, so we wasted no time in tracking them down. We finally stumbled across Paraiso Secreto and the famous ‘seven hostels’ – apparently where the cartel stayed back in the day, but now redone to bright, welcoming hostels, all the same size but each with its own personality. I didn’t care what the price was, my heart was already set on staying! Thankfully there was room in Hostel Las Velas and the rooms were also perfect, with all the basic necessities such as mosquito nets, running water and even a kitchen for us to use.
NOTE NUMBER 2: forget supermarkets. Discover the rustic wooden shacks that sell a variety of goods.
Once we had trekked back to our previous accommodation, had the awkward conversation about wanting to leave and made our way back to the hostel with our bag, we finally set off to explore the beaches. I was delighted to find that the beaches were everything I’d hoped for, like something from a postcard. The water not only varies from absolutely transparent to the most stunning shades of intense turquoise and dark blue, but is also warm. The sand is soft and white, caressing your feet as you walk and the sun on your skin just feels amazing. Add my boyfriend to all that, I was in heaven!
1) Explore the island by foot and make your way to the various beaches, which are all different but equally beautiful. There are only about 4 or 5 different ones and the hostels had their own tiny private beach which was actually awesome as they had an epic sound system set up, as well as hammocks and swings. There is Playa Lila, Playa Dulce and La Cocotera which charges a small entrance fee.
2) Negotiate with a fisherman and hitch a ride to snorkel in the coral reef and around Pablo Escobar’s plane ruin. We only paid $20 for the two of us for an hour or so excursion and it was great fun; they provide you with masks etc.
3) Make your way to ‘el pueblo’ (the village) for a very authentic vibe and a true feel of what the island life is like for the locals. You’ll see goats, pigs and chicken roaming the streets together with stray dogs, see kids playing with empty bottles filled with sand and get an idea of how poor people truly are. You can however have a good meal in some very dodgy looking shacks (to call them restaurants would be too much) for just a few dollars which ended up being safer for our stomachs than the food in the jungle! If you feel like getting away from rice, plantare and meat, you can ask around for the ‘supermarkets’ which are genuinely just sheds that sell a variety of things, but where you can find things like eggs, pasta and fresh vegetables.
4) If you’re staying at the 7 hostels, definitely make sure to head down to their little beach to soak in the sunset. We witnessed some of the most spectacular colours, reflecting onto the sea and enveloping us in shades of pink. Once again we bought a bottle of rum, a juice, mangoes and passion fruits to make our own cocktails and enjoyed them while sat on the swing watching the sunset and listening to the great tunes the DJ was playing.
How to get around the Islands
We probably did a somewhat atypical route there and back as we were trying to save money since the boat tickets are pretty expensive (around $45 each incl. tax just from Cartagena to Isla Grande) but it actually worked out very well as we were able to see everything we wanted and more! We did: Cartagena to Isla Grande on one of the normal ‘lancha’ (boat with around 30-40 people.
For the return journey, we negotiated with a fisherman for him to take us to Cholón for $20 each and from there we talked to the locals and managed to join a boat that was doing island hopping to take us to Agua Azul and Playa Grande in Barú and then to Cartagena for another $20 each. So we ended up paying a similar amount as the way there but saw far more beaches! We had no real interest in Playa Grande as it’s so touristy, so we managed to just basically do a 20 min ‘transfer’ there before heading back to Cartagena where we started.
We found Cholón pretty awesome, but we soon realised that was because we got there at 8am when there was NO ONE except a few locals looking at us baffled by these two gringos on a beach so early. They kind of adopted us and we had a good time seeing them slowly set up shop and chat. Around 11am boat loads of tourists started arriving with reggaeton music blasting from each of them which gave it a whole different atmosphere.
Overall, I’d definitely recommend the Islands. They make for a great escape from the madness of the cities and give you the chance to relax in the middle of stunning nature.