Looking over at Alex, I could see his face reflecting the same mix of nerves and excitement bubbling within my chest as the reality of our situation began to dawn on us–we were in Colombia heading to an island with no idea of where we’d be spending that night. It wasn’t for lack of planning that we found ourselves in Colombia without a bed; rather we let the overall vibe of Cartagena and its “figure it out in the moment” mentality infuse our travel plans. With our backpacks huddled around our ankles, bandanna headbands and sun kissed skin we looked like two vagabonds waiting for our boat to drop us off on the shores of Isla Baru.
Isla Baru is an island just 20 km off the coast of Colombia in the nearby Islas Del Rosario archipelago. Of the 27 coral islands that make up the Islas Del Rosario, Isla Baru is the main draw because of Playa Blanca and its sugary white sand and Caribbean blue waters. There are two types of people that visit Playa Blanca: the first are the day-trippers who sign up for a packaged Islas Del Rosario tour and eventually wind up on Isla Baru to enjoy the idyllic scenery. The day-trippers bathe in sun and sea whilst sipping coconut cocktails until they are loaded back into boats and swept away to the comfort of their hotels in Cartagena. The second type of traveler to visit Isla Baru can go by many names—overnighter, backpacker, hosteller—and will ultimately swap comfort for experience by finding a hammock, palm thatched bungalow or patch of sand to spend the night on Isla Baru.
How Strong is your Stomach?
At the Muelle Turistico de la Bodeguita, the marina where boats sweep people away to the islands, choosing how to get to Isla Baru proved chaotic. Locals hovered by the entrance to the marina waving brochures and clipboards, mixing promises of better prices with affectionate Spanish phrases of “mi reina” or “my queen.” In choosing how to leave the shores of Cartagena we learned there are two questions that every traveler must ask themselves: Do you want to go directly to Playa Blanca and how strong your stomach is?
The tours, which start at around 35,000 Colombian Pesos ($17 USD), usually take a scenic route through the Islas del Rosario often stopping at one of the islands where people can choose between snorkeling and visiting the local aquarium. After an hour spent watching tropical fish in either a tank or the ocean—your choice—the tour finally continues on to Playa Blanca to give day trippers at least four hours of languid sun bathing. The strength of your stomach comes into play when choosing how to get to the islands and whether you prefer the faster “lanchas” to the larger, slower boats. Wild, exhilarating and memorable—the lancha moves quickly and is tossed around effortlessly as waves slap against the side drenching everyone onboard. By the time the little lanchas have pulled onto the sandy shores of Isla Baru, most people look as though they just swam the distance from Cartagena.
Finding Hugo’s Place
Our room, if you can call it that, is a hut with a palm leaf roof and a single bed draped by sheer, white mosquito netting. To access the room we have to dip our sand covered feet in a bucket of water at the bottom of a rickety ladder and climb up to the huts overlooking the turquoise sea. For the steal of 50,000 Colombian Pesos (or $25 USD) we have found our own corner of paradise.
Finding a place to spend the night was surprisingly easy but choosing a place proved tricky. When our lancha pulled up at Playa Blanca we hopped out and immediately started down the beach, past the day-tripping sunbathers and various vendors, in search of where we would be resting our heads that evening. Our first stop was a series of hammocks under mosquito netting that offered no privacy or protection from the stray dogs roaming the area; after a pained and pleading look from my fiancé we continued on. The next spot offered private rooms, sans windows, that looked like a jail cell merged with a cubicle; one look into that dark, damp room with questionable stains on the single sheet and I was the one giving the pained look this time. Like Goldilocks testing out the bear’s three beds, the third place—Hugo’s Place—proved just right.
Hugo’s Place is a charming and rustic hostel offering beach bungalows and hammocks on the north side of Playa Blanca. When we arrived we quickly learned that only one bungalow remained and three Argentinean girls were hotly debating over whether or not to take it. In a rare moment of telepathic communication, my fiancé and I exchanged a look and knew we simply had to have the last bungalow. Whipping out our inner New Yorkers, we pulled out 50,000 COP and snagged the room with the same intensity we use to hail a cab during rush hour in Manhattan.
“A la Orden” or “At your Service.”
Playa Blanca circa 12:00pm is a very different place than Playa Blanca circa 3:30pm when tourists sail back to Cartagena. Around noon travelers from around the world flock to the pristine beach turning the island into a veritable United Nations convention complete with local vendors selling everything from knock off Ray-Bans to fresh ceviche. The vendors, ranging from children to elders, hail from the poorer side of Isla Baru to sell what they can to earn a living while offering up that common and friendly Colombian phrase of “a la orden” or “at your service.”
A local coconut vendor caught my eye as he quietly pushed his cart in our direction. He wore a floppy hat that covered his face and a holster for a large machete hung from his jeans, which were loose on his strong but thin frame. His skin was taut and darkened by the sun while his hands showed signs of hard work without rest. We ordered coconut cocktails from him and watched as he expertly whipped out the machete and opened the coconuts—a process that clearly had become second nature. It was sobering to watch this man continue on, without complaint, selling coconuts to travelers for less than $2 USD. Watching him and the other vendors, some weighed down by local produce balanced precariously in bowls above their heads, left me in awe of how friendly, proud and kind these Colombians can be.
Sand, Sea and Serenity
At 3:30pm the beach transformed completely as locals returned to their homes and tourists to their hotels leaving only sand, sea and serenity in their wake. With local Aguilla beers in hand, the waves lightly lapping against the shore and our table nestled on the sand just steps away from our bungalow, I knew we had made the right choice in staying on Isla Baru for longer than a day. Tomorrow morning we would have Playa Blanca to ourselves until about noon when boatloads of tourists would be delivered to the island and the waiting vendors. Like Cinderella after midnight, tomorrow would revert the now flawless beach into an amusement park of banana boat rides and ice cream carts but at that moment, with a bowl of fresh fruit and the sunset painting the Caribbean Sea, we had paradise to ourselves.