The Caribbean coast of Colombia is absolutely stunning. Impossibly blue water splashes onto the shores of tiny fishing villages, buzzing colonial cities, and the occasional spattering of islands off the mainland. One such archipelago is that of San Bernardo, a small group of islands between Cartagena and Tolu.
These islands are a very popular spot to visit, especially for locals. And for good reason; they’re the postcard image of a Caribbean island. But are they actually worth visiting? Here’s what we think about our visit to the San Bernardo islands in Colombia.
Day Tours to San Bernardo Islands
The San Bernardo islands are easily accessible from Cartagena, Rincon del Mar, and Tolu; with the last being the most common. Visiting these islands, whether for a day trip or spending a night (or several), will still require you to hop on one of the daily boats. And there are a lot of boats.
During our time in Tolu, we asked around at several operators, trying to find the best price to visit the islands. Everyone we spoke to quoted the same 90,000 COP, including lunch. We, however, weren’t just looking to pop over to the islands for lunch, we planned on staying the night on a beach.
A little more digging, and we found a company that would take us for 50,000 each way (per person). Digging into accommodation options online didn’t give a lot of hope for staying overnight without spending too much, so we weighed our options.
Ultimately, we decided to do the day trip, without the provided lunch, for 65,000. And we would take the savings (that we would have spent overnight) to splurge on some famous San Bernardo lobster.
The following morning we, head to the boat launches of Tolu and join the Armada of tour boats.
Immediately, we feel out of place. We don’t often do these kinds of tourist activities. Even though we’re the only obvious foreigners (this place is wildly popular for Colombians), everything about this situation screams tourist. We’re crammed into a boat, life jackets on, with a dozen or so others, in a fleet of two dozen other boats, all jockeying for the first position.
The sea is calm in the morning, so the boat ride is fairly smooth. Around 30 minutes after launch, we arrive at the relatively small island of Isla Palma. The boat pulls up to the dock and lets a handful of people and their luggage off. Ahead, a pristine, white-sand beach sits almost empty.
There are a few tents off in the distance, and some sort of restaurant or hostel can be seen from the shore, but there is little else. This is the kind of place we’d like to be.
Unfortunately, this isn’t where we’re staying. The boat is gently pushed from the dock and slowly sputters away.
Santa Cruz del Islote
A few minutes later, we make an unexpected detour; one that I’m quite excited about. Before heading to the main island for the day, the boat stops for a short visit to Santa Cruz del Islote.
This artificial island, just off the coast of Isla Tintipan, is fascinating for one unique reason. With an area of just over 12,000 square metres and a population of nearly 1300, it’s one of the most densely populated islands on the planet.
Our short visit, though only 40 minutes or so, was more than enough to explore the entirety of the island village. There are no roads (or vehicles for that matter) here, only a few random alleys and paths twisting through the haphazardly-designed village. The buildings are all painted in a vivid light-blue, matching that of the surrounding sea. It’s a congested place, beautifully chaotic in a way, with curious children running and laughing through the “streets.”
The only attraction here, aside from the island itself, is the local “aquarium.” Though it’s little more than a shitty concrete tank with a few fish inside. We skipped this altogether. Instead, we opted to pop by one of the food stalls for a couple of local empanadas, filled with prawns and local lobster. These are, without question, the tastiest empanadas we’ve ever eaten.
When we finally arrived at our main destination, it wasn’t the one we had expected. When booking the day trip, we were told that Tintipan would be where we’d spend the day; instead, we find ourselves landing on the shores of Isla Murcura, the second-largest island in the archipelago.
Considering we knew nothing about either island going in, this was of little concern to us. We stepped onto the creaking dock and walked to the white, sandy shore. At this point, our captain herded us together and explained that we would go for lunch now. We explained that we didn’t pay for the lunch option, and would fly solo. This seemed to both confuse and upset the captain, for reasons unknown.
Not what We had Expected
A few minutes later, our expectations for a relaxing afternoon on a quiet Caribbean beach are shattered. We walk a short distance to where the beach opens up. And it’s mayhem. Hundreds of people crowding whatever bit of sand they can find. Large tents cover seating areas with plastic tables and chairs — all full of people. There are several restaurants along the shore, all cooking the same plate of fried fish with plantains and rice, for every single person here.
We’re standing among hundreds of cattle people, all huddled together in their plastic pens, eating the same meal, drinking the same beer, and floating in the same pool of water. Don’t get me wrong, the sand (when you can see it) is flawless, as is the water (if you can find a spot to swim). But this is not the beach we were hoping for.
The saving grace here was the langoustine ceviche we found at one stall. Fresh crab, prawns and langoustine were on display, and we watched as the cooks expertly prepared the tasty treat. Once we finished our delicious seafood snack, we set on our way to explore the island, and get as far away from this wretched madhouse.
Exploring the Rest of the Island
Following the map on our phone, and the trails through the palm tree forest, we encountered nothing but dead ends. Locked gates and private properties blocked almost every way to the promised beach on the other side of the rock.
Eventually, we found what I can only describe as a small village on the west side of the island. There are a few small restaurants here, a hostel and a bit of beach. The water is clear, the beer is cold, and the locals are friendly. This is the place to go if you’re looking to escape the madness of the east.
Nearing the time to leave, we return through the mangroves to the main beach. Having skipped proper lunch, we grab a quick arepa con huevo (essentially a fried dough stuffed with an egg) while the captain shakes his head in disappointment. We still have no idea why he wanted us to eat with the herd so badly.
The Boat Ride Back
The return journey is far rougher than the way out. The boat bounces heavily over the swells, often spraying everyone on board with a cooling blast of seawater. This is the only time anyone seems to have a laugh, or even smile, for most of the hour-long ride.
The only stop is back on Isla Palma, to pick up two passengers heading back to the mainland. Once again, we pull away from the island we should have visited.
Back at the docks, we join the zombie-walk through knee-deep water with several dozen others.
What did it cost?
The cost for an island tour, including lunch, is 90,000 COP. We asked at five or six different tour agencies and the price didn’t budge.
We spent 70,000 to do the tour without lunch. Though options are very limited once you arrive, so you’ll likely end up spending what you save. Unless you live on empanadas, ceviche, beer and arepas like we did.
Is it worth it?
If you’re short on time, have your heart set on it, and don’t mind the crowds, then sure. Spend the 90,000 COP on a day tour to the islands. If you have a little extra time and money, do yourself a huge favour and spend the night. And you can spend the night on most islands, even the crazy busy ones. Because once the tour boats leave for the day (around 3pm), the islands go back to their natural state of chill.
If we were to do it again, we would, without question, spend the money and stay the night. The limited beach space and the sheer number of day-trippers utterly destroys any illusion of a relaxing island.