Imagine a string of 27 Caribbean islands, some so small there is only room for a small house, seemingly linked together like a rosary. Coral formations, many of the islands offer snorkeling, canoeing, swimming, diving, and even water skiing. Now imagine some of these small islands turned into hotels via architectural ingenuity because there is nowhere to build but up! Islas Del Rosario is now a national park, trips leave from the dock Muelle Turístico in Cartagena. The many boats cruise by a different number and selection of islands so check that out before deciding on a boat. I think all of them stop at Isla de San Martín de Pajarales, so small you can walk around in about 5-8 minutes! There, you get the chance to buy some lunch and can visit the small aquarium if you like. Or, enjoy swimming or perhaps just sitting on the beach.
The hotels do require advance reservations because rooms are few and popularity is high due to the fabulous sunsets and the relaxation of sitting beside the water and enjoying watching the birds, fish, and occasional turtle. We were not able to find a room in our price range yet wanted to see the islands anyway.
Upon the recommendation of Marta, an owner of Hotel Villa Colonial in Cartagena, we chose to explore the islands with a boat tour. Although there are three types of boats – small powerboats seating fewer than 10 and larger open powerboats seating perhaps 20, we opted for the safety of a larger, enclosed boat due to the size of waves we had seen.
The trip to the Islas was fun because of the music and stories told by the entertainment personnel of the boat. They kept people laughing to pass the time. The view from the deck was striking as we watched the walled city of Cartagena pass by. That view was replaced by one of tall apartment and office buildings, signs that some are doing very well economically in this laid-back yet bustling metropolis.
Once the boat neared the Islas on our one-hour trip out, fellow passengers (many locals) expressed their approval in many languages – Croatian, French, Spanish, German, English, and more. One tiny island held a hotel seemingly built of corrugated steel four stories tall, such a tight fit that the bushes had to grow out over the water.
A necessary part of the building code appeared to be a ground floor that the ocean could rush through, surely learned from centuries of ocean waves wiping out buildings.
On the trip back, the schedule included a stop at la Playa Blanca (white beach) for lunch and relaxation. This leg of the trip was the most challenging and revealed that the boat crew needed additional training and equipment to bring the trip up to the safety levels usually found in the US and Europe.
Need for Additional Safety
Tides turn and, while the trip to the Islas was smooth, the return trip to was very rough. There was no warming posted or broadcast but suddenly some susceptible to seasickness began moaning and eventually vomiting. The anxiety of the adults spread to children who had been fine in rough seas but who, upon being clutched by a parent and told not to throw up, did. Ah, the power of suggestion… Colombian women screaming “Sangre de Cristo” contributed to the seeming despair of many.
Because the benches on the boat were close together and crowded, some lost their balance, some began vomiting (no sickness bags were provided), and chaos quickly developed. The foot of one person who lost his balance struck the head of a woman from Slovenia whose scalp gushed blood. There did not appear to be an established procedure to treat her injury. Eventually, she was taken downstairs where the bleeding was stopped with a compress and ice.
A lucky break: We were fortunate that the toddler across from us was shifted to the left shoulder of his father before he sprayed his stomach contents on those around him! And, fortunately, we were seated at the edge of the crowd, near the ladder! Thank you, Universe, that we were among the first to board and had the choice of good seats.
Just when it seemed that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were due for a visit, the boat arrived at where it dropped anchor. And this is where safety standards need to be greatly improved. Passengers were required to descend from the boat onto a flat launch that took them to shore. This is something we had done previously in Greece and similar locales. The big difference here is that the equipment used was not stabilized and depended heavily on ship personnel assisting passengers onto the launch. IMHO, the opportunity for a fall was way too high and many of the passengers were elderly or parents carrying small children.
When I stepped onto the launch, the man holding my arm let go just as the wave came in and the launch tipped. Fortunately, another passenger caught me. There should have been ropes to hang onto.
Once the launch neared shore, passengers were required to jump off the tilting launch onto the shore. Again, there were many elderly passengers and making a three-five foot step was not that easy for them. One young girl in her twenties slipped off the launch and, on her way down, hit the back of her head on the launch and was knocked unconscious. The crew was not ready for this! Two men grabbed her arms to help her stand up, unaware she was unconscious, and she simply fell back into the water. Before we could reach her, other passengers from shore rescued her and carried her to the beach where she did receive assistance. Thank goodness she did not drown!
The luncheon was good, fried fish, rice, and salad, and fruit. But, the peddlers! There must have been a peddler for every 5-10 passengers, most selling exactly the same things – sea animal carvings, beaded jewelry, paintings of the area, sun tan lotion, water, hats, bootlegged CDs.
Tired of being surrounded, we broke away to take a walk to the end of the beach. How romantic! Palm trees, thatched huts, the azure ocean waves, and bright coral and yellow flowers, the two of us standing in the tropical splendor – surrounded by four peddlers.
Re-boarding, again more risky than necessary, found us all safely back on board with an ocean calm enough for a quick and uneventful trip back to Cartagena.
Would we take this trip again? Nope, at least not on a big boat. But we might consider the medium-sized speedboats whose passengers said they passed by more islands and had an easy landing at Playa Blanca!