By Joanna Marracelli
Ah, the Carribean coast of Colombia. Palm trees sway in the gentle breeze to the beat of reggaeton, salsa and cumbia which blast from seemingly everywhere, sand and surf is always just a minute or two away, enticing offerings from the sea are served up fresh while the sun shines blisteringly overhead. The beach rules here and it’s one of the main reasons why tourists, both Colombians and foreigners alike, come to the shores seeking to soak up the sun, sand and crystal clear waters.
Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, is one of the most visited cities in all of South America. Often referred to as the jewel of the country, the classic colonial architecture will seduce you with its vibrant colors. Several years ago, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city oozes charm from each one of its sunny cobblestoned streets which boast numerous open-air cafes, friendly costeños, horse drawn carriages and an infectious charisma all its own. But along with all of this beauty comes the usual suspects. Namely, hordes of tourists which tend to ruin some of the atmosphere.
Fortunately, there is a place where one can have all this charm including sea and surf but without crowds, provided you go at the right time of the year. Tolu, Colombia, a mere two hour bus ride away, provides the gateway for the lush San Bernando archipelago (there are 11 total islands) which along with the Islas Rosario, forms the Parque Nacional Natural Corales. The secret hasn’t been let out of the bag for foreign tourists yet but it does draw large crowds of vacationing Colombians during the high season. Thankfully, the high season is fairly short-lived and thus easy to dodge.Three times of the year exist here. The temporada alta (high season) is best to be avoided as it sees, literally, swarms of Colombians. This runs from the end of December through the end of January and also includes the Semana Santa (the holy week in April). The temporada media (shoulder season) runs from June 15-August 15. This season could be okay provided you avoid weekends but do expect a higher number of vacationing families in general. The temporada baja is the low season and is ideal for experiencing this paradise in peace.
There are two main ways to reach the San Bernando islands. You could take a boat directly from Cartagena but then you would miss out on discovering the seaside town of Tolu. Instead, I recommend you take a bus from Cartagena, visit the town of Santiago de Tolu for a night and the following morning take a boat which visits two of the islands in the archipelago. In order to do this, you have to make your way to the Terminal de Transporte in Cartagena which lies quite outside the city (about 45 minutes). Any of the ‘Metrocar’ buses will take you there from the city center or you can simply take a taxi (this is a more expensive but quicker option). Once at the bus terminal, you can by your ticket to Tolu. Expreso Brasilia is the favored company due to their professionalism, on-time departures and icy cool buses. Cost is 30,000 COL$ (about US $15). The ride is just over 2 hours and serves as a welcomed respite from the heat. Buses leave almost every hour, tickets need not be bought in advance during low season.Santiago de Tolu sits on the Caribbean coast in the Morrosquillo Gulf and has its own fair share of alluring beaches (the best being Los Delfines and Montecarlo). The town is ‘muy tranquilo’ like many places along the coast. Its bicycle taxis loudly blare party music and compete with one another to ride you around the promenade. It gives the town a local charm. Arrival to Tolu in the afternoon means time for a late lunch at recommended restaurant La Red. Just down on the waterfront (ask any local where it is), La Red serves up fresh fish in a variety of ways and also offers up fantastic arepas with shrimp. For accommodation in Tolu, there are a few mid-range options and even some beach cabin rentals but one hotel stands out as superior to the others. Hotel Costa Linda boasts an ideal location directly on the beach, rooms with a private balcony topped off by an ocean view and excellent service. The price is reasonable at $185,000 COL – just under US $100 for a double room.
For those on a budget, like me, look no further than the oasis at Villa Bobilla Guesthouse. This guesthouse offers an outdoor kitchen where hummingbirds whiz by and guests can cook up their own gourmet masterpieces. Rooms are basic but feel more luxurious thanks to the hammocks in the garden and upstairs outdoor TV lounge. $60,000 COL (US $30) per night for a double room makes it easy to forgive the spartan rooms.
Either the night before or the morning of, head down to the waterfront (malecon) between Calle 14 & 15, to recommended Club Nautico Mundo Mar . Go before 8 am unless you already have your ticket. Boats depart at 8:30 am. Since it was the low season, the cost was only $50,000 COL (US $25) for the round trip. There are many other companies also offering tours to the islands but this one weighs in as the best. There are two options here. You can either do a day tour which includes a stop on Isla Palma. Here, there is an ecological park to visit. Later the tour finishes up on Isla Mucura, where you can have a fresh fish lunch, swim in crystal waters and snorkel in the coral reefs before returning around 3:30 pm.The other option, and the one I advise, is to spend at least one night or more on Isla Mucura. This needs to be arranged with the driver of the boat in advance to ensure that they will have space to pick you up on the return. The boat trip takes about an hour total time and after the stop on Isla Palma, you will arrive on Isla Mucura just shy of noon. Here you finally get your slice of true, unspoilt paradise. White sand beaches, dotted with palm trees, warm Afro-Caribbean hospitality, dazzling sunsets and water in every shade of iridescent blue make it easy to fall instantly in love.
There are two main possibilities for spending the night (or multiple nights) here. Please note that in addition to these two, we spied a rustic place that offered basic rooms but it was closed. And we also saw an older, more run-down hotel but it looked abandoned. If arriving in the high-season, be sure to check into those options too, as they may be open at that time of the year. Open all year round, is the luxury hotel Punta Faro. The folks here have dibs on the best beach on the island and have built a fairly luxurious (by Colombian standards) resort. Prices include 3 daily meals and go for $677,000 COL (US $350) for a double room per night. In exchange, you’ll have air conditioned rooms, gorgeous beachside huts and kayaks and snorkel equipment at your disposal.The other option and perfect for those on a budget who don’t mind more rustic, basic accommodations, is to stay with a woman called ‘Lina’. Just ask the locals when you arrive where to go to find her. You will cross half the island through a series of mangroves and go past a small, friendly village until you finally reach Lina’s little paradise. She offers rooms in rustic, palm-thatched huts or if you have a tent, like we did, you can camp. Camping costs just $25,000 COL (US $7.50) and $38,000 for a cabin. There are options for various trips in and around the island including snorkeling in some of the offshore fantastic coral reefs for $30,000 COL per person (US $15). Meals are cooked by Lina herself and are absolutely delicious and a great value. $6,000 COL for breakfast, $12,000 COL for lunch and dinner was priced at 16,000. (US $3, $6, $8 respectively).
I have to talk about the food here. The island has some of the freshest fish I have ever eaten. For our dinner Lina expertly prepared some of the traditional Carribean coast eats of Colombia. Fresh fish fried, especially the local specialty of pargo de rojo con arroz coco y patacones (red snapper with coconut rice & fried plantains) are cooked up fresh and served to you with an unbeatable view of the Caribbean sea. Breakfast will find you indulging in the local specialty of arepas con huevo (arepas with egg) and a cup of tinto (black coffee that is mildly sweet with spices like cinnamon.While you’re down on the beach, more opportunities for fresh fish abound. Ceviche can be had at the various cocteleria’s and if that’s not enough, order one of the large plates of fried pescado (fish). Don’t miss out on drinking the quintessential cocktail, the coco loco. It consists of coconut cream, rum and ice blended together and served in a freshly cracked coconut. Pure bliss. Drink it under the palm thatched shade or directly in the sea for maximum refreshment. If you get tired of coco locos (which I doubt), you can switch to the local Colombian beers like Aguila, which are cold and refreshing but a bit light in the flavor department.
You can catch the speedboat back to Tolu the next day between 3 and 3:30. You’ll arrive back in town just before 5:00 pm. Whether you are coming from Cartagena or cities more inland, for a true escape to paradise, a trip to Tolu and the San Bernando Islands simply cannot be missed.