Party in paradise: how to explore Colombia's Rosario Islands

A peaceful escape to the shores of the Rosario Islands can be exactly that, although you don’t have to stray too far to encounter the Colombians’ famous love of a good time.

The Rosario Islands, a chain of small coral islets, some offering hotels, are easily accessed by boat from the coastal city of Cartagena.

Photograph by Chronicle / Alamy
By Hannah Summers
Published 28 Nov 2022, 15:00 GMT

Belkin Chico Martinez eases the throttle on the speedboat and drops the anchor. I take my cue from the guide and plunge into the jade water. The cool immediately soothes my sun-reddened skin as I float on my back, eyes closed, absorbing the sound of silence. “Beer?” asks Belkin, pulling me back on board ahead of our next swim spot. Despite its 1,993 miles of coastline — split between the Pacific to the northwest and the Caribbean to the northeast — Colombia isn’t Latin America’s most well-known beach destination.

Here on the Rosario Islands, an archipelago of 27 isles less than two hours by boat from Cartagena, there are no mass resorts, no roads and barely any people. But those people have a way of making themselves heard. It’s barely 11am and, as we drop anchor at Isla Cholón, dozens of shiny speedboats are moored up around us, fitted with 10 times more speakers than they really need.

They all blast out reggaeton music, each competing to be heard. Beneath a bright-blue sky, hundreds of day-trippers from Cartagena in tiny bikinis sip icy limonadas — a thick rum, coconut and lemon cocktail — and dance ‘the babymaker’ (the clue’s in the name). “Eighty per cent of the country may be Catholic, but 79% are fake Catholics,” says Belkin with a grin. “And the music? If it’s loud, it’s good.

People here need music and other people. It makes us happy.” Nearby at Playa Blanca, one of the best-known beaches in the islands, a long string of bars serves chilled Aguila beers to backpackers and Colombians who’ve made the trip from Bogotá for guaranteed sunshine. From the speakers comes the voice of Shakira, one of Colombia’s most famous exports. “She’s overtaken Escobar as the most famous name in Colombia,” muses Belkin, “which is special, as we try and make drugs a thing of the past.”

Kayakers explore  the waters around Isla  Grande, part of the  Rosario Islands

Kayakers explore the waters around Isla Grande, part of the Rosario Islands.

Photograph by Chronicle / Alamy

Most visitors come to party, but there are stretches of sand far from the blare of speakers, too. Several hours and snorkelling spots later, Belkin and I arrive at Isla Grande, home to San Pedro de Majagua, a rustic hotel right on the beach. Its regular guests — the island’s resident dogs — are always keen to share a shady sun lounger, if you’ll let them.

I spend two days at the island’s sleepy pace, squinting to see the skyscrapers of Cartagena and the glitzy high-rises of its Bocagrande district in the distance. There are dips in the sea and slow, sun-baked walks across the island, where elderly gents in cowboy hats watch the handful of passers by from their front doors. I kayak around the island, too, admiring the mangroves that stretch like skeletal fingers into the water.

A full moon shines high that night. It’s too bright for the bioluminescence that these waters are famous for, but it’s no bother; the gentle sound of lapping waves is a welcome soundtrack to an evening of quiet paddling. On the last night, as the sun turns the sky a dusty pink, a dog hops up onto my sun lounger for a snooze. He gazes out at the orange sun, setting on the horizon, before letting out a deep, contented sigh. Without saying a word, he’s summed up how I’m feeling pretty well.

How to do it

Journey Latin America offers an 11-day Signature Colombia: Culture and Coffee tour, including two nights in Bogotá and three nights in Cartagena, as well as an excursion to the Rosario Islands, from £2,070. The price includes accommodation and in-destination air and road transfers, but excludes international flights.

Published in the November 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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