Isla Grande, Colombia: Cocktails in the Caribbean Sea on the Rosario Islands
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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 in a leisurely couple of hours. Inland of the island is mostly just overgrown mangroves, forest and lagoons, save for a very small village – Orika – with a few shack shops and goats roaming around. The vast majority of the accommodation sits at random points along the unpolished back-to-nature coastline.
This guide will go through the best things to do on Isla Grande, smashin’ places to stay (whether budget or baller) and tell you how to get from Cartagena to Isla Grande, Colombia. Stay till the end for a few useful FAQs!
After you’ve read this guide to Isla Grande, Colombia, make sure you don’t miss these:
Being so close to Cartagena, it’s a very popular day trip, (though I’d say Isla Barú probably clinches the title of most popular). Isla Grande is a perfect little getaway from the heat of the city, just 22 miles away as the flamingo flies.
It’s said that Isla Grande (alongside many of the other Rosario Islands) has a history of being a holiday home destination for king pins of both the narco and emerald trades. One can only imagine the kinds of things that happened here!
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Best places to stay on Isla Grande, Colombia
I recommend spending a minimum of 2 nights on Colombia’s Isla Grande (or any other of the Rosario Islands), because the boat times to and from Cartagena mean this is the only way to get a real day out of it. Accommodation on the Rosario Islands is limited, and swings wildly from budget hostel to luxury resort with few options in between. ‘Glampackers’ may find themselves a little stuck in the middle.
We obviously opted for Isla Grande’s budget option – which was perhaps worth noting budget in quality but not comparatively in price. We stayed in Hostal Fulano in a complex that was once owned by a dirty-rich emerald dealer who hosted all sorts of parties and general debauchery in the summer houses that were then converted into hostels around a shared pool.
However, it looks as though this has now been taken over as one mini-resort called Secreto, in which you can reserve anything from a bed in a dorm up to a 16-person private villa. The new owners have definitely done the place up, and it looks a lot nicer than when we stayed here.
Unless you’re going to splash big bucks on where you stay on Isla Grande, have low expectations for food, drink and comfort at your accommodation, and you’ll do just fine 🙂
Another option for lower-budget accommodation is the lovely Eco Hotel Las Palmeras; loved for its family-run vibes and relaxing roundhouse. This one is really good value for money compared to other places on offer on Isla Grande. Colombia isn’t cheap everywhere!!
On the other end of the scale, there are a smattering of high-end hotels and even private islands for those who have a higher budget and a taste for all things fancy. Some of the best resort experiences on Isla Grande are basking on a sun-lounger amidst the utter perfection of Hotel Isla del Sol and appreciating the nature that surrounds you from the luxury of your marble-bathroomed cabin at Hotel San Pedro de Majagua.
But if you have the money, THE thing to do in the Rosario Islands is to stay on a private island. There are plenty close to Isla Grande, check out some of the options below. Baller alert.
This is one of the nicest beaches on Isla Grande, Colombia. It’s on the other side of the island to the many of the hostels, so either walk there through the forest or get a 20 minute boat ride around the island. Some of the patches of beach here have signs saying they’re privately-owned, so be careful about where you plonk yourself down. The water around this beach is clean, turquoise and warm as a bath – seriously.
There are lots of stray dogs that pass through here, but they seem friendly to humans. I’ve also heard rumours of there being pigs, but never saw them myself.
2. Snorkel the reefs
The area around Isla Grande is known for its fantastic snorkel spots. The area has a few reefs, and plenty of fish. To snorkel around Isla Grande, you can either swim out from Playa Bonita or Playa Las Mantas/Playa Libre, or arrange a boat tour through your accommodation to take you further out to sea.
3. Kayak the mangroves
Kayaking through the mangroves of Isla Grande and then round the island’s coastline back to your hostel 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 and explore by yourself. Navigating is easy, you can’t really go wrong.
The mangroves open up into several lagoons before taking you through tight rivers that lead to the sea. Mastering all the bends between the mangroves and then pushing through the sea current is quite the workout for your arms and abs!
4. Become a VIP at Isla Grande’s Bora Bora Beach Club
Spending the day at the Bora Bora beach club is a fairly bougie experience for this part of the world – 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 3pm and you’ll basically have the place to yourself. There are around 50 four-poster beds to choose from, but some are obviously beachfront and others aren’t.
5. Eat local
Right next to Bora Bora beach club is a much less luxury-looking restaurant called El Hamaquero. 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. You can also find zero-frills local food in the town from one of the teeny family-run restaurants.
6. See Pablo’s derelict mansion
You know me, I’m not a fan of the Narco-porn that’s swept across Colombia to try and reel in tourists who have developed a morbid fascination with the Escobar days. However, what I like about Escobar’s old mansion on Isla Grande is that it hasn’t been turned into a tourist attraction; it’s just the symbolically crumbling ruins of what used to be incredibly grandiose. The best way to see it is to take a boat ride around the island.
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 18,500 COP national park tax (impuesto del muelle) 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. Most of the boats luckily have shade once you’re finally allowed on, and the 40 minute breeze of the ride to Isla Grande is always welcome. The waves don’t tend to be too rough, but you may get a few splashes, and hopefully don’t mind getting your legs wet when you disembark at certain beaches. A water-proof valuables bag is highly recommended.
Can you visit Isla Grande from Cartagena as a day trip?
Yep! Lots of people visit the island as part of a multi-stop day trip from Cartagena. Though you see less of what Isla Grande offers, these boat tours give you the advantage of experiencing a greater number of Rosario Islands within your given time – without having to bring your suitcase. It would be very difficult to arrange a day trip to Isla Grande without being part of a tour unless you pay for a private boat – that’s because of the times of the return boats.
If you buy tickets on the day at La Muralla port, day trips to Isla Grande from Cartagena will cost you around 70,000 COP, which can include a few hours at Bora Bora beach club (above) and lunch. A typical day trip to Isla Grande from Cartagena will also include a stop-off at the aquarium, a snorkel spot and Isla Barú on the way back.
Now, the ticket touts at La Muralla port will all claim higher quality, but they’re essentially just competing on price, which means they tend to offer as basic a service as possible without people complaining. The only way to get a vastly different itinerary or to really guarantee you’re getting a higher quality experience is by booking a swanky smaller group boat like this one in advance.
Visiting other Rosario Islands from Cartagena
Those after a more exclusive experience on a quieter Rosario Island (not that Isla Grande is particularly crowded), might want to opt for the day trip to Islabela, a pristine eco-resort on Isla Marina, for around 150,000 COP instead. On the other hand, Isla Cholón is known as the party island, where boats pull up and people party in the warm sea together.
FAQs on Isla Grande, Colombia
Does Isla Grande have electricity & WiFi?
These are not always a given; lots of the accommodation options on the Rosario Islands remain basic, so if you’re a digital nomad who’s planning on working from a beach in paradise, perhaps reconsider doing so on Isla Grande. Colombia’s islands generally have *alright* 4G coverage, so if you’re on a SIM plan that picks up the local network you can get by. Like Isla Barú, some hostels do not have electricity all day, but this is unlikely to be the case in the more upmarket hotels on Isla Grande.
Where can I find an ATM on the Rosario Islands?
Oh honey, no. Make sure you prepare for your trip to Isla Grande by getting a nice chunk of cash out in Cartagena (separated across wallets as suggested in my 50+ tips for backpacking in South America). Budget an average of 30k COP ($8.50 usd) each per meal on the island, and obviously bring a little extra for cocktails.
Some hotels and restaurants on Isla Grande will have the option to pay on card, but many will add an extra charge for the honour, and since the internet connection can be temperamental it’s not an entirely safe bet.
Can you walk around the island?
Unfortunately, Isla Grande is not the kind of island that you can just casually stroll around in its entirety. There are significant areas of coastline that are cut off by mangroves and private properties. There are thankfully a few forest trails that go from one side of the Isla Grande to the other; the island has no roads , nor so much as a paved footpath. That’s a reason why I like it so much though, it feels strangely untouched for one of Cartagena’s most popular day trips.
To go the easier way, there are lots of locals with small motorised fishing boats who are happy to give lifts for a negotiated price.
Is Isla Grande safe?
Mostly, yes. The only problem I heard of whilst staying there was of petty theft from some of the hostels – lots of accommodations have pane-less windows to make you feel like you’re out in nature, which is lovely but not the most secure idea when thieves can easily slip back into the forests after climbing out of them. These thefts happened in the afternoon, when most tourists were out exploring the island. Make sure you use a locker with a thick padlock.
Our hostel manager recommended that we didn’t go out into the forest at night – there are no street lights (well, there are no streets) and the wilderness really is pitch black, so it would be easy to get lost or targeted by people who know the area much better than we do.
When is the best time to visit Isla Grande, Colombia?
The best time to visit Isla Grande is during the shoulder season, when the weather is still decent but prices are high. Now, since this is an island in the Caribbean, you definitely want to avoid rainy season – which is April to May and September to October. The below storm happened in April, but came and went within an hour or so, back to blue skies. Prices are likely to be higher around Christmas, Easter and the US summer holidays.
Where to go after Isla Grande, Colombia
Other islands close to Cartagena to consider:
Isla Barú, the paradise island that’s almost on the mainland