Turquoise waters lap lazily on the shore as the warm Caribbean sun starts to lower in the sky. Sun-kissed beach vendors push carts of fresh fruit, fried red snapper and ceviche while backpackers-turned-beach bums sell handwoven bracelets (which I am admittedly a sucker for and quickly buy) to beach goers draped languidly across white plastic chairs and towels.
I check my iPhone (even out here in far flung Colombia I am keen to carry this phone with me to snap Instagram worthy photos) and see that the golden hour of 3pm is upon us. But it has nothing to do with sunlight or photography. I look up and like Cinderella being swept back into her pumpkin carriage, I watch as the hoards of tourists that dotted the beach now pile into boats heading back to Cartagena – at 3pm, the day visitors leave the island. Just like that, one of the most popular beaches in the area is transformed from an amusement park of screaming kids, banana boat rides and careless, littering day-trippers to a deserted paradise albeit a few local vendors packing up their stands and conscientious travelers making their way down to the hostels. It seems to be a secret that few travelers know of but to enjoy paradise in Cartagena you simply have to stay put.
Isla Baru (part of the Islas del Rosario) is just shy of an hour outside Cartagena and home to Playa Blanca; a white sand beach with clear Caribbean waters that is of perfect temperature. The gorgeous beach couldn’t be kept secret long and soon enough it evolved from an untouched paradise visited by local islanders to the tourist-facing, beach hawking mecca it has become today. On my first visit to Playa Blanca I was admittedly unaware of how to make the most of my trip and so I filed in line with the rest of the tourists who overpay for a boat ride to the Islas del Rosario. Usually that package includes snorkeling, a sub par lunch and perhaps three hours of beach time on Playa Blanca during the peak hours of the day when the sun is at its hottest, the crowds are their fullest and the beach feels like a cross between Ft. Lauderdale and Six Flags Great America. This time around I was savvy to the nature of Playa Blanca and planned my visit right.
Early in the morning, I traveled to Isla Baru by car along bumpy back roads before being dropped off at the welcoming Playa Manglares hotel. There are perhaps a handful of accommodations on Isla Baru to choose from – including modest hostels nestled on the sands of Playa Blanca for $25/night to nicer-yet-still modest hotels that afford you your own working bathroom, shower and meals. Rather than wait at Cartagena’s marina with sleepy day-tripping families and their caravan of kids, beach toys and inflatable toys; the hotels arrange door-to-door transportation to get here from Cartagena.
To say Playa Manglares is a hotel might be playing too fast and loose with the word “hotel,” because there is nothing manufactured, corporate or predictable about this place. There are no pools, no concierge – simply friendly staff, friendlier owners and a bare bones-yet-comfortable feel to the place. A stay at Playa Manglares is like visiting the beachfront home of a family member who goes out of their way to make you homemade breakfast, large lunches and nice dinners lit by torchlight with waves as its ambiance.
The hotel has only 3 rooms (although it is expanding) and the meals are communal affairs where you quickly become fast friends with the other travelers staying with you. The rooms are open and airy with large beds, balconies, mosquito-net drapery and (by far my favorite part) open air bathrooms where Caribbean foliage and flowers hang enticingly over your rain shower like an Herbal Essence commercial. Perfect for a one night stay (maybe more if you are a fan of camping and not opposed to sleeping under mosquito netting as bugs swirl overhead), choosing to spend the night on Isla Baru offers a dramatically different experience over those who head to Playa Blanca for the day.
With a private beach and hammocks that sway in the ocean breeze just steps away from the surf, staying at a hotel on Isla Baru quickly becomes the obvious way to enjoy the island without stepping over empty Aguila beer cans and dodging running children. To visit Playa Blanca, it is only a 10-minute trip that is made at your convenience so while I indulged in the hotel’s private beach and homemade arepas, it was only until 3pm did I head to Playa Blanca to enjoy a paradise free of tourists.
If headed to Cartagena for the first time, the siren’s call of Playa Blanca will find you everywhere. You’ll be offered “Isla del Rosario” packages by vendors on the street, see photos of people sipping coconut cocktails on your Instagram and run into sunburnt visitors gushing over the beach. As someone who has now been to Playa Blanca three times – the first time as a day-tripper, the second time as a hostel-goer and the most recent as a hotel guest – let it be said that the secret to visiting Isla Baru is staying overnight.
Only by spending the night on Isla Baru do you truly get a feel for the beauty of this small island; do you wake up to the sounds of birds chirping, feel the invigoration of an undisturbed morning swim and watch both sunrise and sunset on an island that feels like your own.
All photos by Nikki Vargas.Tweet