When I was planning my trip to Cartagena, the Rosario Islands kept coming up in my searches. All of the photos looked absolutely stunning – the Caribbean waters, the natural beauty to see on each island, the snorkeling, and of course, all of the seafood. A lot of people do day trips from Cartagena with a tour company which basically takes you snorkeling, around one of the islands for lunch, and back to Cartagena on a whirlwind day out.
While that’s a great thing to do if you’re only in Cartagena for a few days, my friend and I decided we wanted to spend a few days relaxing on the beaches, so we looked at spending a few days out on the Rosario Islands.
Isla Grande Versus Isla Fuerte
As the name might suggest, Isla Grande is the largest of the islands in the Rosario Islands. It has the most beaches, the most resorts, the most restaurants, and the most activities to keep you busy – however, if you’re only planning a trip for a few days, you’ll find plenty to keep you busy on both islands.
Island Grande offers snorkeling trips, has a dive school on the island if you want to go diving. It has large resorts like the one we stayed at, Cocoliso Resort, and yet it still feels small and private. The beaches aren’t too busy, especially after the day-trippers leave at 3pm, and the sunsets were absolutely incredible.
Isla Fuerte is slightly smaller and it only has a few places to stay. That means if you don’t book well enough in advance, then you won’t be staying over night there (which is basically exactly how we made the decision to stay on Isla Grande).
If however, you do plan well enough in advance, Isla Fuerte sounds like a wonderful place to escape the city for a while. There are sloths that you can spot as you walk along the island paths. You can go diving, snorkeling, and hiking on the island. There also seemed like more opportunities to go kayaking or boating from Isla Fuerte, but I’m not 100% certain about that.
Where to Stay on Isla Grande
We stayed at Cocoliso Resort which was pretty good. I would use the word resort lightly. Most places on Isla Grande are a touch rundown, but we still got air conditioning, a pool with a waterslide and swim-up bar, and the price of the room also included free transportation to and from Cartagena. The rooms are really clean and they were cleaned each morning when we were out enjoying our day by the beach.
Our stay didn’t include meals, but we brought tons of fruit from the mainland for breakfast every morning, ate lunch at one of the nearby beaches, then had dinner at the hotel restaurant which we charged to our room and paid for at the end of our stay. If you wanted to, you could have all of your meals at the hotel restaurant or order from the outside bar and eat your meals poolside.
If you are looking for a party spot on the island or something slightly more budget, check out Paraiso Secreto. It’s a region of the island with tons of hostels and even its own private beach. The specific hostel that kept coming up again and again in my research was My Casa Nativa. It’s one of the hostels that’s on this side of the island and has private rooms as well as super cheap hammocks for less than $10 per night. Be sure to book early because these places book out quickly thanks to their great price.
For super duper luxury, book a stay at the islands only five-star resort, San Pedro de Majagua. It has absolutely gorgeous cabanas with hammocks on the patios where you can just chill and read a book. It has its own private beach, tons of lounge chairs, a massage tent with plush looking beds, and they have all of the tour booking companies on-site if you want to go snorkeling or diving while you’re there.
I took a walk through the hotel grounds while I was on the island and I was seriously lusting after one of those cabanas. Like most of the places on the Rosario Islands, you’ll have to book at least a month in advance, even further in advance if you are coming during busy times like Easter, Christmas, or summer, if you want to snag one of these places.
What to Do on Isla Grande
There are tons of activities to keep you busy on Isla Grande. One of the things I loved about staying at Cocoliso, and why I would recommend it to others, was the easy access to walking paths and the fact that there were tons of local guides always around to take you somewhere new.
Every morning, we’d get dressed for the day and head out to the pool area around 9:30 (the new boats arrive for the day at 10, so it’s best to beat them to the guides). Then we’d chat to one of the guides – they all stand around the pool area with maps wearing blue t-shirts waiting to take you somewhere for the day.
On our first day we paid a guide a few dollars to take us to Playa Libre, which is the beach you see in all of these photos. It was my absolute favorite one that we visited during our trip to the island. We spent the entire day here eating seafood that was cooked by one of the beach vendors, drinking beers sold to us by a different beach vendor, reading books, and hanging out with all of the beach dogs (who usually tried to eat our food and get sand on our blankets).
The second day I was on the island, my friend and I got up early again and met the same guide outside our place around 9:30 (her name was Guila and she spoke very little English, but she was hilarious). This time we wanted to do a walk around the island and then take a ride on a canoe through the mangroves.
You could definitely walk the island on your own. There aren’t many trails so it’s hard to get lost and even if you do, there are always locals around willing to take you back to your resort for a small tip. However, the mangrove system seems to only be accessible with a guide, so I recommend getting one. We paid just under $20 each (50,000 Pesos) for the guide for the whole day and she definitely deserved it after that canoe trip!
That afternoon we headed back to Playa Libre because it’s that good. We got freshly cooked lobsters with rice and patacones (fried plantains) for about $20 each.
On our final day on the island, we headed over to Diving Planet, which has a desk at Cocoliso. You can either book a scuba diving trip or a snorkel trip with them. We paid 55,000 Pesos which worked out to be about $20 at the time. You can pay with credit card which is pretty convenient since there aren’t any ATMs on the island.
The snorkeling was great. They took us out on the boat around a few of the different islands where we got to see Pablo Escobar’s vacation home, tons of beautiful little islands with only one house on them, a few different bays, then we dropped anchor and plopped ourselves into the water. The fee included flippers, a mask and of course the snorkel. You could test each out before getting into the boat so that everything fit the way you like it.
The water where we snorkeled was really calm and we were so buoyant! There must be a ton of salt in the water here, because I pretty much floated without trying. If you’re a bit of a nervous swimmer in the ocean (I can definitely be a nervous swimmer sometimes), then you’ll find this pretty relaxing. I barely had to kick my flippers. Plus there the guide had a floatation device that you could grab onto at any point if you got tired.
How to Get to Isla Grande
All boats to the Rosario Islands leave from the El Muelle La Bodeguita near the clock tower in the old town between 8am and 10am. Many of the resorts you book through, like Cocoliso or San Pedro de Majagua will have their own boats. When you book with them, you’ll be told when to get to the marina and where to go.
Regardless of whether your boat is included in your resort or not, you have to pay a 16,500 Peso port fee. This works out to roughly $5 or $6. You’ll pay that before you go through the turnstyles. There are literally tons of people working there who will direct you. A little bit of Spanish goes a long way here.
If you book a stay at one of the hostels at Paraiso Secreto, they don’t have their own boat, so you have to get your own. A ticket will cost about 40,000 Pesos (about $15) each. Make sure you tell them what part of the island you want to be dropped off at and they’ll bring you directly to that dock.
Most boats leave the island in the afternoon. Be sure to check the day before you’re leaving so you don’t miss it (there is usually only one or two a day that go back to Cartagena).
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