We loved visiting the Caribbean islands off the coast of Cartagena during our trip to Colombia. Cartagena is super hot during the day and the local beaches are not very nice so your best option to cool down is to hop on a lancha (small speed boat) and head to the islands. Most of the islands are within a couple of hours from Cartagena making them ideal for day trips but we also recommend staying overnight to experience these perfect islands without the crowds. During our stay we visited Isla Grande and Isla Baru as they were the most highly recommended and easiest to get to.
Getting to the Islands
Getting to the Islands by Boat
The easiest way to get to the islands is to walk to the main ferry terminal just outside of the walled city and buy a ticket on a local boat. On your way to the ferry dock you will encounter more than a couple “tour guides” offering to sell you transportation to the islands. Most packages will claim to include a welcome drink, lunch, beach chair and round trip transfer for around $50 USD per person.
It is important to note that not all boats are the same. The larger Alcatraz Ferry takes about 2.5 hours to get to Isla Grande where the faster speed boats, or lanchas, only take about 1.5 hours. The ride to Isla Baru is about 1 hour in the fast boat. Be warned that on the smaller boats you can get wet but if you don’t mind 80 degree ocean water I highly recommend them as you will get more island time.
The boat docks are extremely crowded and a bit chaotic as all boats leave around 9am. We were told to arrive at 7:30 but really didn’t need to be there until 8:30!
Returning to Cartagena
Most of the boats return to Cartagena from the islands around 2:00. If you bought round trip tickets your captain will tell you where and when to meet. If you did not buy round trip there will be plenty of people walking up and down the beach yelling out “Cartagena” and they will work out a “good deal” with you. We paid about $10 each to get back to Cartagena from Isla Baru. From Isla Grande we paid about $15.
Getting to the Islands by Car
Isla Grande is only accessible by boat while Isla Baru is not actually an island so it is accessible by taxi as well. The ride takes about 1.5 hours but the big benefit is that it is on your schedule. We wanted to sleep in after New Years Eve in Cartagena so we decided to use this option. The cab driver ended up just staying for the day with us on the island and we paid about the same price as we would have for the boat.
Isla Grande Day Trip
Isla Grande is a bit further than Isla Baru so it is less crowded and the water is even clearer. It is the biggest island in the Rosario Islands archipelago. When purchasing the day trip to Isla Grande it is important to know that all of the resorts are NOT the “same same” despite what the pushy tour guides will say. We tried to buy a ticket to Bora Bora Resort but were told by the tour guide that they were sold out and to go to Cocoliso instead.
Isla Grande Beach Clubs
We later discovered that Bora Bora is a great day club with house music and daybeds against the backdrop of a beautiful turquoise ocean. Cocoliso ended up being a giant slab of concrete with no sand. The ocean floor is covered in large rocks and is not very clear. Despite the claims of our tour guide Cocoliso did not offer a welcome drink and the included lunch was served cafeteria style. The pool area isn’t so bad. It has a swim up bar and ocean view. However it is pretty crowded with young kids and there are often scuba diving classes.
Luckily for us there was an enterprising man with a boat offering rides to the better side of the island. After a quick 10 minute ride to Bora Bora we were back in the good life. Rather than pay another $50 for a daybed at Bora Bora we elected to walk next door to La Pola which has them for free! They also serve up some of the best comida tipica on the island and cold cheap beer. As if that was not good enough, you can also get fresh local lobster. Local fishermen pull up their boats to offer fresh lobster and ceviche for less than $5. We also heard that Gente del Mar and Isla Coralina are great resorts for day trips to the Rosario Islands.
Isla Baru Day Trip
Isla Baru is the closest and most popular island for Cartagena Day trips. When you get off the boat or arrive by cab walk with the ocean to your left until you get though all of the crowds (and there are a lot!).
One you get to a more tranquilo part of Playa Blanca you can get a chair with the purchase of a coco loco (or anything else) and enjoy! We loved this beach as it reminded us a lot of Rosarito with its crazy crowds, noise, banana boats and countless local vendors. Other than to cool off in the amazingly perfect ocean (think 80 degrees, no waves and being bright turquoise) you don’t ever have to leave your beach chair. Every few minutes a local will come by offering everything from a massage and hair styling to fresh ceviche and drinks. If that is not your style you also have the option to pay for a tent which will supposedly limit the amount of people that ‘bother’ you.
Staying on the islands
Why go back and forth to Cartagena when you could just stay in paradise?! We ended up staying over night on Isla Baru and Isla Grande and we definitely recommend it. All of the day trippers leave around 2:00 and the island takes on a whole new feel. If you have the time definitely plan to stay a few days and relax.
Staying on Isla Grande
We ended up staying two nights on Isla Grande and had an amazing time. The most popular hostel on the island is called Hostales Paraiso Secreto (Secret Paradise Hostels) and it is actually made up of 6 similarly styled hostels owned by different Colombian hostel companies with locations in Medellin, Bogota, Cali, etc. We stayed in Galeria but they all looked to be about the same. The hostel complex has a fun communal pool, bar, and restaurant. Emily, a girl we met in Spanish school in Tulum, wrote a great post about the hostels here.
Activities On Isla Grande
We did a combo tour organized by our hostel for $10. It included snorkeling a sunken airplane and reef. The plane, like most things in Colombia, supposedly belonged to Pablo Escobar. We had an awesome time practicing our breath holding while we dove down and took pictures of the plane. The ocean is clear enough to see most of it from the surface but with the help of our guide we were able to get some incredible footage of the inside. At the reef we saw plenty of fish, coral, and even a sting ray. The snorkeling was not as good as the BVI’s but it was still a lot of fun. Unfortunately our GoPro was stolen in Cartagena so we don’t have the pictures from our snorkel tour.
See a Chicken Fight
We do not condone animal cruelty and can understand why someone would be against chicken fights but it is part of the local culture so we decided to check it out. There is a chicken fighting arena in the center of the island and the locals hold chicken fights fairly regularly. We did not go inside the arena but it is still possible to see most of what is going on from the outside. All around the arena people are drinking the local beers while Reggaeton blasts from a huge speaker. It is a pretty big event and it seems like most of the locals on the island turn up for it.
Visit Pablo Escobar’s Vacation Home
On the snorkel tour we were able to see the large vacation home of former drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. It is possible to walk around the abandoned home but I would not recommend it as we did see several squatters living in there.
Kayak in Bioluminescence
This is something we really wanted to do but unfortunately there was a full moon so it was not possible. If you have ever seen the classic travel movie The Beach then you know what bioluminescence is all about. The large lake in the center of the island is filled with millions of tiny plankton that give off a glow when they are moved. As you paddle across the lake the bottom of your kayak and the paddles are supposed to look like they are glowing. We did do this once while swimming on Isla Holbox and I will say that if you are on the island when the moon is right you should absolutely check it out.
Eating on Isla Grande
There are not many options on the island so we ended up eating at La Pola a few times. They serve up three dishes (fish, shrimp, and lobster) and they are all pretty good. The fish was our favorite. It is served as a whole fish lightly fried with coconut rice and sweet plantains. The whole dish cost about $10 and it will fill you up. Plus you cannot beat the view from their mismatched plastic furniture. La Pola is right beside Bora Bora Beach Club and is a short walk from the Hostales Paraiso Secreto.
Nightlife on Isla Grande
Isla Grande is not a party island. Except for the mild beach party put on by the hostel there is not a lot going on after the sun goes down. That being said if you have an incurable urge to go to the club there is one in the main town. The night we were there was a local woman’s birthday so we were treated to a couple free beers. The “club” is nothing more than a small cinderblock room with a stereo and fog machine. But the locals were very nice and you never know, it could be fun.
Staying on Isla Baru
The main problem with Playa Blanca is the crowds. But at 2:00 when they all leave, this slice of heaven gets 1000% better.
We considered renting hammocks on the beach for $10. But after thinking about mosquitos and theft, we chickened out at the last minute and booked a room at Hostel Icthus. The hammocks ended up being legit. If you are adventurous and don’t mind sleeping in one don’t worry about making a reservation in advance. Each hammock comes with a mosquito net and a locker for your belongings. That being said we loved Hostel Icthus and it was still a great deal at $35. We had a balcony above the sand where you could hear the waves and look out at the amazing ocean view.
Activities on Isla Baru
Playa Blanca has lots of water sports. If jetskis and banana boats are your thing this is the island for you. They are going all day long and are affordable. We are more the “coconut drink and tan” type of travelers so we didn’t get a price. But we herd from other travelers that with a little bit of negotiating they are some of the cheapest rentals around.
Eating on Isla Baru
A sunset dinner on the beach is a must! Most of the restaurants on the island serve either comida tipica or pizza. By the time we were on the island we were getting a little sick of the local Colombian food. But we decided ‘when in Rome’ and ordered another whole fish. I am not sure if it was because we were watching sunset in the sand from little plastic chairs or what but it actually ended up being one of the best fish we had the whole trip.
Both Isla Grande and Isla Baru have minimal (if any) wifi and are a perfect opportunity to slow down. If you are looking to read a book, catch a tan, and just recharge after a crazy bit of traveling, the Cartagena Islands will not disappoint.
Want more information to plan your trip to the islands? Check out the Colombia Lonely Planet here.
On Island Time,