As the white pencil-like buildings of Boca Grande, in Cartagena, appear at a distance surrounded by dark blue surges, our 40-minute boat ride from the Coral Rosary Islands and San Bernardo National Park comes to an end. The blustery wind cuts short our day trip by two hours, and leaves us at the entrance of the bay of Bocachica, between the forts of San Fernando and San Miguel shortly after 2:30 pm.
My companion and I share a secret sense of relief. The ride along the coastline of Barú is the safest route to ride the three-meter high swells on our path that leaves us wet, clutching the edge of our seats, yet comforted by our life vests and thankful for our experienced captain.
Locals know how treacherous the waters can get early in the afternoon from December to April. As much as they appreciate the breeze and pleasant temperatures of the season, they usually recommend an early return. This time of year, the water is refreshing, and if the opportunity grants it, a boat, a private one, is a comfortable way to discover the park, which offers plenty of places to enjoy aquamarine water, coral reefs and white sandy beaches.
Most places require reservations for dropping anchor and lunch. Food and services can be a bit pricier than in the Old City, but most guarantee decent restrooms, shade, deck chairs, refreshments, food and drinks. The catch of the day is a popular dish, and usually served with coconut rice, fried green plantain and salad, which somehow taste better when looking towards the blue horizon while the shade of branches from a palm tree sway above you.
As we leave behind the islands, and come to a halt at the pier of the San Fernando Fort, Joselito, our unsolicited guide, greets us. He asks us to call him “Negro Papa,” and introduces himself as a member of the Cooperative of Seniors of Bocachica, the town on the island of Tierrabomba that guards the fort. Admission to the fort is free and the tour has no cost, but a tip is more than well deserved, which will be shared among the members of the community, as Joselito clearly states.
The Fort of San Fernando is perhaps one of the least visited sites in the Cartagena area, even though it is close to the mainland and offers plenty to explore. Visitors usually speed by on their way towards Barú and the Islands, while a few make a short pit stop, and without disembarking, listen to some of the tactics used to defend the city under Spanish rule from the English and French during the 18th Century.
Tierra Bomba is home to a vulnerable population, and Bocachica a town of fishermen who have seen better days. Some locals are working towards making the island an obligatory stop on the tourism agenda. Many make up the workforce that attends the growing hospitality industry in Cartagena or sell pearl necklaces and local sweets on the streets of the Old City.
The fort is pristine and the tour turns out to be memorable. Joselito manages to draw our attention to the chambers, ramps, tunnels and pillars that tell the story of pirates, slaves and Independence heroes. No worries, no spoilers here. Let Joselito tell you himself, and ask him to speak slowly if your Spanish is a bit rusty.
Steps from the fort, Bocachica offers a palm tree-lined public beach facing the open sea from where cruise ships, cargo freighters and tankers make their way in and out of the bay. Enjoy the local and popular atmosphere. Rent a thatched hut and savor coconut spiked drinks and typical food. An average plate costs about US$11, but always check for prices before you order, and do not accept unsolicited services to avoid hagglers.
“Next time you come to Cartagena, call me,” Joselito says. “Take a taxi boat, like us locals do, it won’t cost you more than $7,000 each way, and you will be here in no time,” he claims. After bidding us farewell, he greats another boat of unexpecting tourists. “Welcome,” we hear him say before explaining how slaves were thrown into the shark-infested moat. Joselito’s hospitality is an open invitation to return to Bocachica, and even though he doesn’t own a phone, he says it is easy to find him around the pier almost every day of the week.
“Just ask for Joselito or ‘Negro Papa’, everyone knows who I am.”
• Use legal, authorized and registered companies for your trip, especially when renting a boat. You do not want to take unnecessary risks.
• If planning your trip to the islands on your own, not chartered through your hotel, give yourself plenty of time in the morning to get to the pier, as traffic and docks get busy. Make sure you know from which pier your boat leaves.
• On your way back to Cartagena, no matter how big your boat is, you will probably get soaked as the waves are high during the January to April season. Always put flipflops, hats, cellphones and personal belongings in a safe place. Use sunglasses to protect your eyes from sea salt. Travel in your bathing suit, and take an extra towel to dry off once on the pier. Sit at the back of the boat, as it is less bumpy and risky.
•Use plenty of sunscreen. The wind, sun and salt act as a magnifying glass. Take a hat. Make sure the place you are visiting offers towels, or if you need to take your own.
• Many places accept credit cards, but take extra cash to pay for services.
• If interested in Joselito’s insiders tips leave from the pier Muelle Turístico la Bodeguita in the Historic Center to Tierra Bomba. Besides the fare, you must pay a departure tax. For more information contact Corporación Turismo Cartagena de Indias. Muelle Turístico La Bodeguita. Centro, Avenida Blas de Lezo, Muelle La Bodeguita, Piso 2. Phone: 575 6550211 / 6550277 www.cartagenadeindias.travel
Hotels and Restaurants:
There are plenty of hotels and hostels in Barú and the Islands to choose from depending on what you are looking for in your vacation and budget, here a few to explore before booking your day trip:
• Playa Blanca has become one of the most popular destinations in Barú. If you don’t mind crowds, this spot offers tents and services, including beverage, food and bathrooms.
• Even though local authorities say they are enforcing control on Cholón in Barú, this spot is popular with party seekers, and well known for excesses and loud parties start- ing early in the day. If you are looking to relax, we highly recommend avoiding it.
• Several hotels in Barú and the Islands offer day trips and mores to drop anchor. Reservations are required for most places, such as in Agua Azul in Barú, with a private beach, a pool, butlers, beverages and food.
•Also, in Barú is Isleta, an island with up to par facilities for day trips. You can rent the island for private events. Services include a pool, a jacuzzi, bathrooms, deck chairs, kiosks and hammocks.
• Isla del Encanto, in the Rosary Islands, is popular with day visitors and overnight guests. With comfortable accommodations, it has plenty of activities to choose from.
• Well-liked by couples, Coralina Island boutique hotel in the Rosary Islands provides a private beach, pier and three meals per day plan. Accommodations are simple, rustic, comfortable and functional.
•Hotel Aura in Barú offers day trips. Hotel rooms are decent and staff competent. The food is fresh. The small beach offers shade, hammocks and deck chairs.
• If you don’t mind loud music as a name stamp, and want to explore the island of Tierra Bomba, check out Blue Apple Beach House and The Beach Hotel. Both invite day guests and offer comfortable accommodation and affordable services