Cartagena is a gorgeous, well preserved colonial city right on the Caribbean Sea. While it has beautiful architecture, interesting history, and really delicious food, despite being on the sea, it lacks a proper Caribbean beach! Surprising to many, the idyllic Caribbean beaches are an hour away by car or boat. Plan accordingly if you are looking for a Caribbean beach vacation!
There are three main Caribbean beaches around Cartagena. Playa Blanca, Islas del Rosario and Isla del Encanto. Playa Blanca has the Caribbean white sand beaches and can be reached by car (or public bus). Since it can be reached by car, Playa Blanca is often the easiest and cheapest option, as you do not need to go with a tour. It is also the most crowded and local option.
Islas del Rosario (the Rosario Islands) also have the Caribbean white sand beaches, but can only be reached via an hour boat ride. The Rosario Islands are probably Cartagena’s most popular day trip. The Rosario Islands have some hotels, and visitors can stay the night or just do a day trip. If you are just going for the day, you will need to go with a tour group. This is what I wanted to do. A day trip to the Islas del Rosario. However, to my disappointment, when I asked our hotel to book the tour for us, all of the tours to the Rosario Islands were SOLD OUT for the five days that we were day! SO SAD. I was very surprised by this, as all of my research indicated that you could just walk right up to the dock and sign up. Nope, not the case at all.
Since the Rosario Islands tour was booked, our hotel, Casa Claver, found us a spot on a tour to the Isla del Encanto, or the Enchanted Island. I guess we were lucky that that was available. Lesson learned; book ahead. Our tour started with a pick up at our hotel and transfer to the dock, which is just across the street from the main cathedral in El Centro (read: no need to take a car). After a short wait, we boarded a boat with a number of others for the 45 minute journey from Cartagena to the Enchanted Island. The ride over was pretty cool and we saw some sites and how real Caribbean Colombians live. The crew sold water, soda and beer on the boat ride. Here are some of the views:
Shortly before arrival, our guide gave us information about the day. We would have access to a resort’s pool, beach, bar, lounge chairs, etc., a complimentary buffet lunch would be provided at a certain time and for an extra cost, we could visit an aquarium or snorkel (and I think there was one other option). Dan and I had already decided that we would simply beach. The arrival:
Upon disembarkation, we went straight to the beach area and snagged some nice chairs and an umbrella right on the water. The water was really, really nice, but it was not the Caribbean blue that I was hoping for! Nonetheless, we swam a bit and lounged for the majority of the day. We had a waiter who came around pretty frequently for drink orders, which cost extra but were not expensive. You can see Dan lounging below.
Around mid-day, the buffet lunch was ready. While I don’t usually love buffets like this, the food was pretty good and there were a lot of options, including freshly grilled chicken, beef and chicken, as well as a variety of cold salads, bread, fruit, rice and a few other things. I was surprised that I enjoyed the lunch, so don’t skip it if you take the tour.
After lunch I checked out the grounds, which included a pool that was popular with children, some locals selling tourist trinkets and a restaurant, which we were not allowed to use….
The day ended with a 45 minute ride back to Cartagena, passing through mangroves on the way. Very beautiful.
Thoughts on the Tour.
While I did enjoy the day, I did not like that the water was not the Caribbean blue or that we shared the resort with others who were staying there and received preferential treatment (not surprising). In terms of tips for the future, I recommend booking in advance, whether online or by emailing your hotel in advance to book on your behalf. I also recommend brining water, an extra phone battery and sunscreen on the tour.
If you forget to make reservations and cannot make it out of Cartagena, Boca Grande, the modern part of Cartagena, does have a beach but it is rumored not to be very nice. In addition, many hotels in El Centro have small plunge pools that will allow you to cool down.
STEAL OUR TRIP
As mentioned, I cannot recall the name of the tour company that we used. Optitours offers a number of similar trips with online booking.
ON A BUDGET
I recommend skipping the tour and taking the public bus to Playa Blanca.