On a recent trip to Colombia we only allocated around three days in Cartagena and just one day to explore the Rosario Islands.
The first time I visited the Rosario Islands I had an amazing time. I stayed a few nights on Playa Blanca with some friends and we literally spent all of our time eating fish, sleeping in hammocks, drinking beer and listening to Bob Marley. So, I was eager to show my boyfriend the coastal pace of Colombia on our trip together.
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We booked a tour through our hostel and the situation just went from one awkward situation to the next. By the end of the trip we were actually laughing about it all because it was just that ridiculously bad, but take a tip and do not do what we did.
Here’s how to have a really lousy time on the Rosario Islands
Firstly, we paid for our tour through our hostel, which the receptionist said the amount covered all our costs for the day including the taxi to pick us up, the boat trip, lunch and taxes. The taxi picked us up right on time from the front of the hostel and drove us to the port.
“Ask for Cesar,” our friendly hostel receptionist said. As soon as we pulled up at the port, around 20 people with clip boards and brochures came over and surrounded the taxi, offering us tickets to visit the Rosario Islands.
“We have a booking with Cesar,” we said, saying thank you to our taxi driver as we got out of the car. Cesar came over then attempted to lead us away, until we told him that the cab hadn’t been paid for because our receptionist said was covered in the costs.
After a couple of awkward minutes waiting with the cab driver, unprepared to just up and leave the poor guy without his payment, Cesar reluctantly came back to pay, but not before a lengthy phone call with the receptionist.
Then we were asked to pay for taxes (12,000 pesos each), which again, we were told were included in the price. They weren’t. Some eye rolling from Cesar was enough for me to put on my don’t mess with me hat. Things were not getting off to a good start.
This time we just handed over the money for the taxes before Cesar was happy to hand us over to the captain of the small boat called Nativo.
Please, for the sake of your safety and sanity, do not go on a tour with Nativo or join the captain who referred to himself as Chocolate. I cannot stress this point enough. And you’ll soon find out why.
After what we thought would be a direct boat ride to the Rosario Islands, we actually stopped by three food vendors, selling their goods from other boats. The first time it was fine, here’s your first chance to buy a beer. But two, three times, just leaves less time for the beach. Eventually we arrived at a small island for snorkelling. To get off the boat you literally had to pay a 12,000 peso fee for snorkelling gear. Don’t want to snorkel? Bad luck. Either pay or stay on the boat, our helpful captain Chocolate said, practically bullying people to get off. We just wanted to go to the beach and enjoy the sun, so we, along with a couple of other disgruntled passengers stayed on board. We sat there for a good 10 minutes while Chocolate tried to pressure us all to get off. The other option was to head to the natural aquarium, a further 20,000 pesos, or sit in the shade or in the small amount of water and wait 45 minutes for the boat to take us to Playa Blanca. We waded in the water and waited.
Eventually Chocolate and Nativo returned, 15 minutes late, to pick his 40 or so passengers up. A few minutes after departure, one of the crew told Chocolate that some people were missing. He’d done the count and they were four people down. “No, I’ve counted and we’re all good,” Chocolate responded. A couple more minutes passed and eventually Chocolate turned back. He’d forgotten an entire family of four, with two little kids in tow. They jump on board, grateful Nativo had turned back, and we finally, finally, head to the beach.
By this time it’s lunch time, right. Close to two hours have passed and still no beach time. We all make our way to an overstuffed makeshift mess hall for lunch. Literally forty minutes pass before half of our table receives a meal. Once I receive my fish, I cut into it and realise that the fish is frozen on the inside. Frozen. We are literally 15 steps from the ocean. In any case, I’ve lost my appetite by this time and the humid air is clinging to my skin. I just want to go for a swim. Then Chocolate informs us that we will now be leaving Playa Blanca at 3pm instead of 4pm, so we’ll only have 45 minutes to enjoy the area. By this time I am taking long deep breaths, trying to calm myself down. “Never again,” a Colombian woman says to her mother, her little boy looking over at me and smiling as he kicks sand at my feet under the table. We turn it into a fun game, and that’s about as much fun I had the entire trip.
Street vendors cover the beach, offering people their pearl necklaces, their ceviche, their seafood, massages, you name it. I take a photo of a guy walking past with some lobsters and he says, half in jest, “You’ll have to pay for that photo.” I laughed and lay back on my beach towel, with what looked like the rest of Colombia all squished onto this small stretch of coastline.
If we’d had more time, I would have kept walking down the coastline towards the left where there are a lot less people. But, of course, I was worried that Chocolate might forget us too, so we stay put. After a few short swims our time is up and we make our way back to the pick up area. Chocolate ushers us back on the boat, most of us are still hungry and grumpy at the thought of how the day has gone. We share unimpressed glances at each other.
At least it’s almost over, I think. Almost. Instead of going straight back to Cartagena, Chocolate cruises along the shoreline and has one of his crew shout that they are picking up extra people if they want a lift. It says in big black letters on the inside of the boat that capacity is no more than 50 people. With all the passengers plus the crew, there are already 50 people on the boat. But Chocolate squeezes another 10 people on. Now we decide to pipe up and my partner calls out, saying that we’re 10 people over capacity. “No we’re not, count again,” Chocolate says. “I can count and we’re 10 people over,” my partner says as legs spill off the boat. The boat speeds up and violently hits the water several times. I pray that this isn’t how I spend my last moments.
Thankfully, we make it back to land, but before we all get up and leave the boat Chocolate finishes the tour by asking for tips. Asking for tips! Can you believe this man? He should be giving us a tip for having endured his horrible tour. My partner and I look at each other and literally laugh out loud. It’s just too much. Finally, with the end in sight, we could see the funny side.
Seriously though, I really feel that our safety was compromised. This type of experience is a sign that sometimes the growth of tourism and the lack or regulation in the industry can have such a terrible impact on a travellers experience, and how that country is perceived as a result.
Once we got back to the hostel we calmly complained, and told the hostel that they should seriously reconsider offering those tours and told them the entire story. The women at the hostel were completely sympathetic and apologetic and were completely horrified by our story. I’m a pretty laid back traveller, and I’m aware that things don’t always go to plan, but when a tour operator forgets his passengers, serves frozen food an hour late, bullies people into buying extras and then has the nerve to ask for a tip, well that’s just ridiculous.
If I could do the whole trip again, I would have just gone directly to Playa Blanca and walked all the way to the quiet part of the beach, placed my towel down, bought a platter of fried fish and patacones and spent the day there reading my book and jumping in the sea. You could also book a trip with a reputable company ahead of time, rather than just wining it. We’ll know for next time, and so will you.
Here are my tips to get more out of your trip to the Rosario Islands:
- Just head straight to Playa Blanca and find yourself a quiet stretch of beach. You’re going to have to do some walking but it will be worth it
- Head to the port by yourself and book a tour once you get there. That’s what I did the first time I visited and it was easier to just chat to the people at the ticket booth than organise it beforehand
- In saying that, though, make sure you go early. I think the boats generally leave at around 9am. The earlier you go the more time you have to enjoy the beach
- Buy your own lunch when you get there, making sure the place looks good and the food looks good too, or you could pack a picnic lunch instead to avoid the high lunch prices.
Have you been to Playa Blanca and the Rosario Islands? How was your experience? Let us know in the comment section below