Isla Barú & the Rosario Islands, Colombia’s Caribbean Gems
There are many Colombian islands to visit within a couple of hours’ boat ride of Cartagena, the most popular ones being Isla Grande and Isla Barú. You can do day trips to both of these, but we really really really strongly suggest you stay the night. Day trips to the Rosario Islands mean being surrounded by a staggering number of tourists and herded like cattle by the boat guides. You can get some great deals on day trips, but we ended up using the trips as one-way transportation to stay on the islands. This guide will tell you how to get to the Rosario Islands and Isla Baru from Cartagena, where to stay on the islands and what to do. Isla Barú does feature in our ideal 2 weeks Colombia itinerary; go check it out if you’re stuck for a trip plan for Colombia!
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Electricity & WiFi on the Rosario Islands & Isla Baru
Be prepared, unless you’re staying at some high-priced accommodation, WiFi on the Rosario Islands & Baru tends to be sketchy, if it exists at all. In fact, many hostels that don’t have their own large generators will only have electricity for 6 hours a day. This can mean some hot, sticky nights without aircon!
If you have a phone sim that works in Colombia (Brits, we recommend buying a Three sim card as it works for free out here), we did manage to get a slow 4G on Isla Barú.
ATMs on the Rosario Islands & Isla Baru
Um… nope. Sorry. There is no cash machine on Isla Grande nor Isla Baru. You’ll have to take a wad of cash with you, especially as the majority of hostels, bars and restaurants will ask for payments in cash or charge extra to use a card machine. Don’t forget to check out our list of fee-less ATMs to see where you can get free withdrawals in Colombia. To help you budget, an average meal in a restaurant is 25-30,000 COP per person on Isla Baru and Isla Grande, a cocktail is around 15-25,000 COP, and you can get beach vendor nibbles for 4-8,000.
GUIDE TO ISLA GRANDE, ROSARIO ISLANDS
Despite being called ‘Large Island’ due to its title of biggest of all the Rosario Islands, Isla Grande is still pretty small, and you can walk across it (through the only town, which is a simple village with a few shack shops and goats roaming around) in a leisurely couple of hours. Accommodation on the Rosario Islands is limited, and swings wildly from budget hostel to luxury resort with nothing in between. We obviously opted for Isla Grande’s budget option – which was perhaps worth noting budget in quality but not comparatively in price. Most of the hostels on Isla Grande are currently on one plot of land, which was once owned by a dirty-rich emerald dealer who hosted all sorts of parties and general debauchery in the summer houses that have now been converted into hostels. Have low expectations for food, drink and comfort, and you’ll do just fine 🙂
We recommend spending 2 nights on Colombia’s Isla Grande (or any other of the Rosario Islands), because the boat times mean this is the only way to get a real day out of it. We stayed in Hostal Fulano but weren’t too impressed; Hostal Local next door looked much better maintained. If you want something really cool, Hotel Isla del Pirata sits out on its own island just off of the East of Isla Grande. The price range is higher but it includes all meals.
Things to do on Isla Grande, Rosario Islands:
Sun yourself on Playa Bonita
Going to Playa Bonita on the other side of the island to the hostels – warning, some of the patches of beach here are privately-owned. Either walk there or get a 20 minute boat ride (via one of Pablo Escobar’s old mansions, see below). It’s not the most enchanting beach in the world, but the water is clean, turquoise and warm as a bath.
Right next to Bora Bora beach club is a much less luxury-looking restaurant. You have to walk through a small settlement of huts and past the pigs to get there, but the fresh fish lunches are excellent. There are bean bags to relax and watch the sunset from, too.
Kayak the mangroves
Kayaking through the lagoons & mangroves and into the sea is an excellent way to spend a couple of hours. You don’t need a tour, just organise to hire the kayaks through your hostel.
Relax at Isla Grande’s Bora Bora Beach Club
Spending the day at the Bora Bora beach club – VIP packages include a four poster bed for the day, a cocktail, breakfast platter and decent lunch for around £35 each. Get there early to pick a good bed, and stay until the afternoon when all the day-trippers from Cartagena leave at around 2pm and you’ll basically have the place to yourself.
How to get the boat to Isla Grande from Cartagena
Take the boat from Cartagena’s La Muralla port; taxis will know where you mean when you say you’re going to the Rosario Islands. When you get there, you will be mobbed by tour operators who get rather possessive over you if another operator tries to sell to you. Head straight to the vendor windows and ask their best rates. All will add a 16,000 COP national park tax on top. Like colectivo buses, the boats from Cartagena to Isla Grande will not leave until full, so take sun screen and a hat in case you don’t manage to get a seat in the shade. Both times we went, we had to wait over 40 minutes.
Day trips to Isla Grande from Cartagena should cost you around 70,000 COP including a few hours at Bora Bora beach club (below) and lunch. If you want a more exclusive experience on a quieter island, opt for the Isla Isabela day trip for 150,000 COP instead.
GUIDE TO ISLA BARU, CARTAGENA
Isla Baru wasn’t technically an island until a canal was built, separating it from the mainland. While there’s a lot of poverty in the centre of the island, the Playa Blanca coastline is INSANE, and they’ve been developed as a cash-cow for the lucky locals that can take advantage of it (ok, who are we kidding, it’s yet another paradise cashed in by hotel-building Europeans). You can contribute to the local economy by buying food and drink off the vendors that come round, but do be prepared to barter down that gringo tax 😉
If you’re going to go to Isla Baru we BEG you, don’t just go for the day trip. Between the hours of 12pm and 4pm, the beautiful long beach is swamped with tourists, and you can barely see the stunning white sands. At 4pm, the day boats leave, and hardly anyone seems to stay over (at least during the week). Pure paradise, more or less to yourself.
If you don’t believe us, check out our video of our last time on Isla Baru as part of a visit to Cartagena, here:
Where to stay on Isla Baru
To stay, there are actually many options for accommodation on Playa Blanca, Isla Barú. Generally, things are quieter in the middle of Playa Blanca – you don’t want to be too close to the day-trip boats to the South in the day, nor too close to the bars towards the North during the night. We stayed at Hostel Ichtus twice and would definitely recommend it for its wooden-shack-charm, friendly staff and closeness to Nena, one of the best beach clubs on Playa Blanca.
What to do on Isla Baru
Swank out in a beach club
Beach-club vibes all over! While most of the beds available are less than luxury on Playa Blanca, swanky four-poster beds at Nena are some of the best on Baru. Nena beds cost 100,000 COP a day, but we found both times we visited that by only wanting the bed after lunchtime, we could wangle a half-price deal if paying in cash. There’s no obligation to only buy drinks and food from Nena Beach Club once you’ve hired a bed there.
Grab a massage
If you’re a good combination of having a Baru beach club bed and looking suitably gringo, within minutes you’l be swarmed by massage ladies. These women are PERSUASIVE, and often give you free ‘taster’ massages, but unless you do intend to buy a massage, don’t let that go on for too long or else you’re in tipping territory. That being said, the massages are cheap and they are verrrrry good.
Take an Isla Barú boat tour
For night owls looking for a bit of magic, you can take evening bioluminescent plankton boat tours from Baru. The boats leave at 6pm and cost just 25,000 COP (as of August 2019). Your accommodation will be able to arrange it for you.
During the day, you can also take 65,000 COP boat tours from 8:30am around the Rosario Islands (similar to what you would experience if you took the tour from Cartagena directly) to see less commonly visited islands, such as Isabela, or the party island of Cholón.
How to get to Isla Baru from Cartagena
You have three main options to get from Cartagena to Isla Baru:
1. The 1 hour bus from Cartagena to Baru is 30,000 COP, and the bus back is 15,000 (weird, we know).
2. A private car will cost you around 90,000 COP between Baru and Cartagena. All hostels will be able to arrange one to pick you up.
3. Alternatively, you can ride with the day trip boat from Cartagena and visit some of the other islands (including an aquarium and some snorkelling for extra monies) before being dropped at Isla Baru for lunch. Just tell them you won’t be taking the return ride from Baru to Cartagena – though unfortunately you don’t get the boat any cheaper if you don’t take the return. The simple day trip boat will cost you 40,000 COP (£10) including lunch. Keep in mind there is a national park tax of 16,000 COP on top of this.
To get from Cartagena to Baru in this way, take the boat from La Muralla port; taxis will know where you mean when you say you’re going to the Rosario Islands. When you get there, you will be mobbed by tour operators who get rather possessive over you if another operator tries to sell to you. Head straight to the vendor windows and ask their best rates. Like colectivo buses, the boats will not leave until full, so take sun screen and a hat in case you don’t manage to get a seat in the shade. Both times we went, we had to wait over 40 minutes. Of course, you can always attempt to skip this stressful part of the experience by booking a small-group tour in advance.