Playa Blanca is considered one of the most beautiful beaches not only in Colombia, but in all of South America. With powdery white sand and crystal clear waters of several shades of blue, it’s the kind of beach people dream about. Playa Blanca is easily accessible from Cartagena and many companies offer day trips by boat or by bus. I was fortunate enough to visit twice – once on an organized day trip and another time on my own for an overnight.
Day Trip to Playa Blanca and Islas del Rosario
On my first trip to Playa Blanca with my cousin Anna, we wanted to see what Islas del Rosario were all about so we opted for an organized trip on a large boat. All in all, it cost COP$58,000 per person (as of October 2014), including the boat trip, lunch at Playa Blanca, dock fees, and admission to the national park that encompasses Islas del Rosario.
We walked up to the docks at 8AM. On our way, we were spotted by two vultures, Angelo and Mauricio, both who had sold us tours the day before. They both got into a shouting match over who was going to sell us the boat tours. They kept dropping their prices. We told them neither one of them was going to sell us a tour and continued walking to book the boat tour ourselves at the docks. If you’re going to let anyone book your tour for you at the docks, you can trust the people in the green shirts – they actually work there.
Our boat was the Alcatraz II, one of the most popular boats for this tour. On board, they were selling fresh mango and drinks. There was loud music playing making it a festive atmosphere. We were able to sit on the top deck and get some sun, or on the bottom in the shade. It wasn’t very comfortable anywhere we sat.
The scenery on the trip was enjoyable. First, we passed by Bocagrande, the modern part of Cartagena with all the skyscrapers. Across from Bocagrande on the other side of the bay was Fuerte de San Sebastián del Pastelillo, one of the several old Spanish forts dotting the bay. We were also able to spot Virgen del Carmen, a statue of the Virgin sitting right in the middle of the bay.
At the end of Bocagrande we could see another old Spanish fort, Castillo Grande de Santa Cruz. It sits next to the larger entrance to the bay, also called Bocagrande (Large Mouth). An underwater seawall was constructed across this opening by the Spanish to keep ships from entering the bay. It caused many shipwrecks and is still impassible to this day.
Further along, we passed through Bocachica (Small Mouth), the small entrance to the bay. This is where all ships had to come through to approach Cartagena from the bay. Sitting on Isla de Tierra Bomba is Fuerte de San Fernando, and directly across on a tiny island is Batería de San José. These small forts were the main line of defense for ships passing through Bocachica.
Once through Bocachica, we were out on the open Caribbean Sea. There were many fishermen in small boats casting nets for the day’s fresh catch.
Islas del Rosario
About an hour and a half later, we finally arrived at Islas del Rosario, a group of several small islands containing coral reefs and mangroves and protected by national park status. It was very interesting to see structures occupying such tiny pieces of land with zero protection from the elements.
We cruised around the islands for a good 20 minutes before finally stopping at one with an oceanarium offering a dolphin show for an extra price of COP$25,000 (as of October 2014). We decided not to do it and ended up sitting for an hour under the shade of a tree at a picnic table.
There was a concession stand with very high prices, a literal tourist trap. There were also independent vendors at the dock selling fruit, fresh lobster, and shrimp meals also for very high prices. Anna paid COP$25,000 for a small plate of lobster. A sign posted at the oceanarium warned against buying from these vendors for sanitary purposes, but Anna decided not to heed the warnings. She was perfectly fine and didn’t get sick.
We left Islas del Rosario at 12:30PM and arrived at Playa Blanca, located on Isla de Barú, just over an hour later. Our boat stopped outside the beach a bit and we took a tender to shore. From there, we walked inland about five minutes and had a delicious lunch of fried fish, coconut rice, salad, and patacón (fried plantain).
After lunch, we only had until 3:30PM to enjoy the beach. It was not nearly enough time. We took a dip in the warm sea with crystal clear waters then sat on our beach chairs which we rented for a small fee. The tender took us back to the boat and we departed at 4PM, arriving in Cartagena at 5:30PM.
This tour overall was not worth it. It was nice to cruise through Islas del Rosario to see such a unique environment, but the main purpose of the day was to spend time at Playa Blanca. When you break down the time, we spent nearly six hours on the boat, one hour wasting time at the oceanarium, 30 minutes at lunch, and just an hour and a half at the beach. The first part of the boat ride was great because we were up walking around checking out all the sights along the way. After that, it was just sitting on an uncomfortable boat. If you like sitting on uncomfortable boats all day, this trip was made for you.
Secondly, we were taken to a stretch of Playa Blanca that was overcrowded and it was difficult to relax. Men on jetskis were racing through the water without caution and we thought it was a bit dangerous for people who wanted to go further out than waist-deep water. It’s better to walk further down the beach where it’s more quiet and relaxing.
Finally, if you really want to see Islas del Rosario, take a day trip to one of the resorts on Isla Grande. The positive: the beaches are private and are much less crowded and quieter than Playa Blanca. The negative: it’s a lot more expensive.