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Isla Grande, Colombia is an island paradise near Cartagena with beautiful beaches and turquoise water – a great place to escape and unwind for a few days. There are no cars on the island, only walking paths with hand-painted signs pointing you towards your destination. Wifi and other resources are limited, encouraging you to slip into island life.
And now that you’re imagining relaxing on a sandy beach with a cocktail in hand, I’m going to tell you, there are actually a lot of things to do on Isla Grande. As the largest of the Rosario Islands, there are several small excursions in and around the island. Tours are easy to book directly with your hotel once you arrive. Or you can spend an afternoon simply wandering the paths and into the small community of Orika. Use this guide as a resource to plan your exploration of the island.
Where to Stay: Isla Grande Hostels and Hotels
If you’re already sold on spending a few days on a tropical island, you’re probably wondering where to stay in Isla Grande. When I planned my trip, rough waters caused the port to close on the day I planned to travel to Isla Grande from Cartagena. My previously booked hostel was understanding and I decided to travel to Rincon del Mar during that time, returning to Cartagena a few days later. When I rebooked my trip to Isla Grande, my top hotel choice was only available for 1 night so I decided on a second eco-hostel for the other night. Both were great choices for different reasons.
There are lots of hotels on Isla Grande, but the best ones sell out so I do recommend booking your hotel ahead of time. I met a few travelers walking with their bags, looking for an accommodation with availability. Since there are no cars on the island it’s a task to search for a place after you arrive. If you book ahead of time, the boat will ask where you are staying and drop you off at the closest dock. Here are my top picks for where to stay.
This is one of the best locations on the island – great for watching the sunset from the swings overlooking the ocean. Located on the water, this rustic hotel includes a private swimming area with a large deck to lounge. And the southwest location protects it from the afternoon winds that make the water choppy so you can enjoy more time in the water. Some of the private cabanas have an ocean view while the dorm room is basic but sufficient. The staff was friendly and the restaurant on site is reasonably priced for the island.
Colorful bungalows along tropical planted paths in a tranquil setting make this a great budget hotel on Isla Grande. The staff welcomes you with an explanation of the property and available tours to the enchanted lagoon, snorkeling, or through the mangroves. While it’s not located on the water, it is a short walk to Playa Libre, the main beach on Isla Grande. To ensure you enjoy a peaceful stay, there is no wifi and charging your devices is limited to the evenings. If you decide to stay in the mixed dorm, large screens keep it breezy and allow you to see the stars from the bed.
A modern Isla Grande hotel with a private beach and lounge chairs. Beautiful grounds with grand trees and hammocks to relax. The rooms are spacious and bright while still evoking the feeling of an island bungalow. This luxury accommodation has air conditioning in the rooms, which may be something you require if you are not used to the heat and humidity.
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What to do on Isla Grande
For a two or three night stay, there is plenty of things to do on Isla Grande and your hotel will make you aware of the offerings once you arrive. I found the tours moderately priced, especially since several include time on a boat.
Go Diving or Snorkeling
The crystal clear waters that surround the island will beckon you to explore the sea life below. For the best experience, book a boat tour to go diving or snorkeling over the reef system that is part of the national park. Some tours will also take you to a place in the water where it is rumored Colombia’s most famous drug lord sunk a small plane more than 20 years ago. Prices vary from 30-40,000 COP. The island dive shop, Bloop, is located at Eco Hotel Las Palmeras (see places to stay) A two tank dive with equipment costs 225,000 COP which you can arrange once you are on the island or send a message via WhatsApp.
Explore the town of Orika
One of the things that drew me to visit Isla Grande is the fact that there is a community living on the island. The town is Orika and has a population of about 1,000 people. To get there, follow the signs from your hostel to the middle of the island. There’s not a lot to see – a few small stores, a discotech that I heard is busy on the weekends, but the walk is enjoyable as you pass by the life of the island.
Swim at Playa Libre
This is the most popular beach on Isla Grande for both locals and tourists. While it’s not huge, there is enough space for everyone to enjoy. And the water is that perfect shade of blue. You can bring your own snacks and beverages or order from the nearby restaurant, Sol y Papaya. They serve a variety of fish and shrimp as well as chicken with prices ranging from 20-42,000 COP. Another beach on the island is Playa Orika. Look for signs to point you in the right direction. There is not much of a beach here but there is a comfortable place to get in the water. Best of all, you’ll likely be the only person there.
TIP: The winds become strong in the afternoon, making the water choppy. It’s best to arrive earlier in the day and wrap up your beach time by 2 pm.
Watch the Sunset from El Hamaquero
One of the reasons I recommend staying at El Hamaquero is for the spectacular sunsets over the water. You can watch the sunset from other restaurants and hotels on this side of the island but the spot at El Hamaquero is tranquil. Choose to watch the sunset from the bench swings overlooking the water or from the ocean itself.
Bioluminescence in the Enchanted Lagoon
This Isla Grande activity needs to be timed correctly with the moon. If it is too bright you won’t be able to see much if any bioluminescent organisms. In fact, just five days after the new moon, it was a bit too bright to get the full effect and thus felt a little disappointing. You can hire a guide to take you by boat to the docks for 25,000 COP per person or walk to the same dock, rent a snorkel mask, and jump in the water on your own. To see the bioluminescence you need to move your arms around in the water, ideally close to the tree line where it is darker. While this was not my favorite thing to do in Isla Grande, if you have not seen bioluminescence in the water before I recommend considering this as an option. And it is a great activity for kids.
Tour the Mangroves
If you’re into seeing different birds or just a different landscape than the open ocean, consider a canoe tour of the mangrove lagoons. My private tour started by charting through calm waters as the guide explained the names of the three connected lagoons. As we entered the first lagoon, the guide slowed the boat to get a better look at the birds we passed and identify them in Spanish. He also pointed out iguanas sunbathing in the trees. Some were so small and blended in with the array of green colors that I determined my guide had superior eyesight.
Between the second and third lagoon is a 350 meter tunnel of mangrove just wide enough to fit the canoe. As we entered, the branches lightly scraped the sides of the boat, alerting the wildlife to our presence. It is a beautiful sight to see the birds take flight ahead of the boat, gracefully escaping to a different part of their sanctuary.
The third lagoon is a closed lagoon with the only exit being the way you arrived. On the paddle back, we made a stop along the shore to walk into the small village of Orika in the center of the island. A tour of the mangroves is a pleasant way to spend more time on the water and see some of the island’s wildlife. The tour was about 3 hours and cost 40,000 COP. I booked it directly with my hostel, Eco Hotel Las Palmeras the day before.
TIP: Try to request an earlier start time. My tour began at 9 am and the guide confirmed my suspicions that there are more birds earlier in the morning.
SUP or Kayak
If you’re into more of a workout on your tropical island vacation, several of the hotels have paddleboards and sit on top kayaks for rent. It is another way to see the island and explore the nearby lagoons, though I recommend starting early before the afternoon winds pick up. Rental prices seem to be standard at 20,000 COP.
How to get from Cartagena to Isla Grande
The only way to get to Isla Grande from Cartagena is by boat which takes about one hour depending on the winds. Eco Hotel Las Palmeras (see where to stay) suggested Mary Cruz Cartagena Travel. They offered to pick me up free of charge an hour before the 9:30 departure time, saving taxi fare since I was staying just outside of the center of Cartagena. You can contact them via WhatsApp to secure a reservation at +57 310-655-5905 or +57 300-200-3922.
Alternatively, you can reserve your space at the Cartagena port the previous day. The cost is 50,000 COP each way plus an 18,500 COP entrance fee to the Rosario National Park. There is no discount for purchasing a round trip ticket, so it’s best to buy your return ticket once you are on the island and know which company will be leaving at your desired time.
Speaking of choosing a desirable time to return to Cartagena. After hearing a horror story from a friend about the often choppy, death-defying ride in the afternoon when the winds pick up, I was a bit wary about the return trip. I arranged a morning boat departure with my hotel the night before. There was still some larger waves that made the boat slam down hard but not nearly the terrible stories I had heard about. However, it did drop us off at the back of the mercado, directly in the middle of the bustling fish section. Having been to the market already I knew my way around but it could be confusing otherwise.
On the way to Isla Grande from Cartagena in the morning, the whole boat ride was fairly calm with only one unlucky passenger receiving a regular saltwater splash in the face. She took it with a smile as you do when you’re heading to a salty Caribbean island anyway. I was most worried about my electronics getting wet but my lap stayed dry and there was plenty of space in the middle where they stacked a fairly large amount of bags, all of them dry when we reached the island.
Have you been to Isla Grande, one of the Rosario Islands? I’d love to hear about your experience on this island paradise in the comments.