When people imagine Caribbean paradise it always seems to include a nice white beach, doesn’t it? For me, Caribbean paradise is not so much a beach but a rocky little island surrounded by coral and the cleanest turquoise colored water. In Colombia, that place is the Rosario Islands.
Located about an hour or so from the historical city of Cartagena, the Rosario Islands consist of over 40 islands all protected as a National Park since 1977. Before 1977, local families from Cartagena used the islands to build vacation homes and the government allowed them to retain rights to these homes as long as they pay a yearly “rent” and obey certain conservation rules to protect the environment of the islands.
You can visit the islands on day trips from Cartagena or as part of a scuba diving course. While there are many small private islands, the two largest islands of the group offer activities beyond the water.
Most tours make a brief stop on the Isla Rosario to visit the Oceanario Aquarium. Travelers give this aquarium far from rave reviews and the entrance price is almost never included in your tour so be prepared. The aquarium is small and geared towards conversation rather than entertainment. There is a small dolphin show though.
This is my favorite island of the bunch. As the name implies, this is the largest of the Rosario Islands and it is one of the few islands with full-time, local residents. The island is avoided by most tours and the majority of the island’s shoreline is covered with private homes and hotels. The interior of the island is a great place to wander around and has a few small communities where the workers who care for the vacation homes live with their families. There is also a great private bird sanctuary on the island that almost no tourists visit, despite it being free.
Skipping the Tour
Most people get to the Rosario Islands as part of a tour from Cartagena. The tours cost $20-30 per person and include a very short trip to the islands, a quick chance to snorkel, and a less than amazing stop at the Oceanario Aquarium. Most of your time on the day tour is actually spent getting here or at the nearby Playa Blanca which is also on an island but not really considered part of the Rosario Islands by most locals.
Instead of going the tour route, give yourself a chance to really experience the islands. There are a number of great and affordable hotels on the islands which often include transportation as part of your stay. You will probably end up on a small, cramped speedboat but the trip will be direct and much quicker than the tourist boats.
Another option is to speak to the sailboat captains in the Cartagena harbor. There is a large market for taking tourists to Panama but a number of the sailors are also willing to take you out to the islands for a weekend. This is the absolute best way to visit the islands as you can literally put down anchor and swim through the crystal clear waters to shore.
Couple Travel Tips
- Take sunscreen with you! There aren’t any “stores” on the islands and if you forget or run out of sunscreen, you will regret it, especially if you are staying for a few days.
- Explore the islands by yourself even if you end up on a tour. They drop you off and expect you to stay at the “beach” but you will likely have time to wander around and see the real homes and people living on the islands, not just the beach front hotels.
- There are rumors that the first “hostel” has opened up on Isla Grande. Head to the Casa de la Chicheria in Cartagena to ask about it; this is the same family who apparently is opening the hostel.