Visiting the San Bernardo Islands, Colombia
How To Visit Colombia’s San Bernardo Islands
A scattering of islands off the northern Colombian coast, the San Bernardo islands are far less well known than the neighbouring San Blas islands. They’re less on trend than Providencia, without the historic glitz and glamour of San Andres. There isn’t the lure of private islands and yacht parties that define the Rosario Islands. As Caribbean islands in Colombia go, visiting the San Bernardo islands is as close as you can get to being off the grid in the region.
So go, have palm trees shelter your swinging hammock on an empty Caribbean beach, sip a cheap cocktail, and really embrace the idea of living your best life.
Isla Mucura was the best place I have visited that was never recommended to me. Even the most obscure spots I found myself in in South America had been mentioned to me by someone, somewhere, even in passing. Isla Mucura was born from a random act of google mapping, which brought me to the San Bernardo Islands. Far, far from the typical backpacker trail, you can find yourself totally alone on the perfect white sand beaches, snorkelling solo through shoals of tropical fish just feet from the shore, and exploring the densely tropical little island. The hostel on the island is cheap, and it comes with an array of private beaches, cheap activities and parties that end in the warm waters of the Caribbean sea.
WHAT TO DO?
TAKE TO THE SEAS
Rent out a kayak, a paddle board or a snorkel, or just head straight out into the waves, to explore the seemingly endless expanse of turquoise sea. The waters are calm, the days are hot and clear, and you’ll have all the freedom you could hope for. From giant, colourful starfish spattered along the sea floor, to the hoards of tiny fish that swim alongside you, to the vast black spires of the most intimidating sea urchins I’ve ever encountered- there is plenty to explore just 5 minutes from the island’s shore. You’ll pass by local fishermen if you’re out on a boat, Caribbeans flinging fishnets far and wide, seemingly immune to the heavy beating sun.
Renting any of these options is cheap, and can be done via the hostel recommended below.
TOUR THE ISLANDS
The San Bernardo archipelago is made up of many different islands, Isla Mucura being one of the more popular. With privately owned islands making up a large number of those in the archipelago, there are only 3 that tourists can visit. Mucura, Isla Tintipan, mentioned below, and Isla Santa Cruz de Isolete.
The island of Santa Cruz is the most densely populated place on earth. The pinch of land is built upon and built upon and built upon again, ever inch trampled underfoot. Picture the favellas of Rio de Janiero- stacks of houses, with narrow alleys in between, colourful and brimming with life. There’s kids running through barefoot, playing football against the walls of houses, over the heads of bemused visitors.
102,000 people live on the island, which is roughly the same size as two football pitches. Founded by fishermen looking for relief from the harsh tropic storm, the island grew into a community. Mingle with the locals, if you can understand their rather distinct accents, jump off the edge of town straight into the Caribbean sea, browse the one shop on the island, and experience one of the most unique little spits of land in the world.
From Isla Mucura it is very easy to take a day trip to the nearby islands to explore this curious spit of land for yourself.
Spontaneous and impassioned football matches are the lifeblood of Latin America. I’ve seen games spring up in the middle of markets, in streets wide enough to fit one player at a time, on mountains, in deserts, even on the back of an Amazonian cargo boat. Get involved with the Latin fanaticism, joining one of the many organised games on the island, or one of the many spontaneous ones that break out. Dribbling around towering palm trees adds a unique twist, too. There are also regular games of beach volleyball if that’s more your speed. If you’re looking for something a little more relaxed, the hostel run a yoga class every day at sunset. Watching the skies redden and the sun slip behind the sea, surrounded by tropical flowers, makes for a pretty special stretch.
HOW TO GET THERE
It is possible to get a transfer from Cartagena to Isla Mucura, but it is expensive and confusing to organise. The easiest and the cheapest way to get to the island is via the town of Tolu. Take a bus from the main bus station in Cartagena, which takes around 3 hours, to reach Tolu. From here you can grab a tricycle to the shore for a couple of dollars, and chat to any one of the many tour agents selling transfers to the islands along the seafront. These should cost around $10-15 and include a ‘transfer’ from boat to hostel, wherein a guy will indicate to you which of the 2 paths that exist on Isla Mucura you should take.
WHERE TO STAY
When you disembark in Isla Mucura, there will be a call of ‘hostel?’, which will led to you being pointed to the only one on the island. After a short journey, accompanied only by tropical birds, you’ll reach a lively, action packed hostel. There’s daily activities, a spa, a bar, a restaurant, and best of all tons of undisturbed land to explore.
A big chunk of the island is solely reserved for guests at the hostel, with giant palm trees, access to coral reefs, hammocks that hung over the calm, clear seas. Accessible to everyone from budget backpackers to honeymooning couples, hammocks are available for just £14 ($18) a night, hung together in an open-sided hut on the hostel grounds, and there are private bungalows available for a more comfortable option. You can wake with the sun slipping under the palm-thatched roof, and go from sleep to the cool morning sea within a few steps.
A collection of action-packed activities are organised out of the hostel itself, or you can visit the on-site spa if you want even more relaxation on this blissful Caribbean island. The bar and restaurant in the hostel are high quality and low cost, hosting some great parties.
They also have a bar, where you can get 2 maracuya gin and tonics for around £2, with lively young volunteers that keep the party buzzing in the evening. They serve 3 meals a day, which cost an extra £10 or so a day, if you’re wanting to eat all 3 meals. They serve the typical menu del dias that you’ll definitely become familiar with if you’re travelling Colombia on a budget. These generally consist of rice, vegetables, a choice of fish, meat or vegetarian, and a juice. At this hostel the vegetarian options were actually super filling, based around lentils or chickpeas, which makes a nice change from the standard portion of pinto beans.
The hostel is called Isla Mucura Hostel..
With all the above included, and all the crowds excluded, it’s one of the best-value places I have stayed.
Isla Tintipan & Casa en el Agua
The flush of jungle that sprouts out of the sea to form Isla Tintipan is a shock to the eyes as you arrive from the sea. The sudden burst of tropical birdlife and deep green leaves reminded me of the three weeks I spent in the Amazon rainforest- where life can appear from anywhere, at anytime. Another spot where you can dive from your hostel straight into the Caribbean sea, the rich mangroves and wildlife available in Isla Tintipan offer an alternative to Mucura’s solely beachy vibe. Another popular spot for travellers in the area is the famous Casa en el Agua, a hostel that exists as its own floating island, known for raucous parties and dives fresh from your hammock to the sea.
WHAT TO DO
GET IN THE WATER
As with her sister island of Isla Mucura, Isla Tintipan is home to beautiful places to snorkel, and with calm, warm waters for swimming. It also offers you the opportunity to snorkel through the islands mangrove inlets, coming across swarms of tiny fish, bright red crabs scuttling up the hanging trees, and all manner of creepy crawlies.
If you prefer the wide open oceans, rent a snorkel from your hostel, and dive straight out into clear blue horizons and swim out in search of treasures. A pit-stop for generations of Caribbean pirates and Colombian narcotraficantes, the seas you’ll swim through have lived plenty of adventures. Though it’s relatively unlikely that you’ll stumble upon the lost fortunes of the Queen Anne’s Revenge or the treasures of San Miguel, you’ll find some critters nearly as shiny. Giant starfish settle between bright coral reefs, shrouded by the thousands of tiny fish swimming around you in a tight formation. Enormous black sea urchins guard their seabed homes with spindly spikes, which I’d strongly recommend you keep a healthy distance from. Once you poke your head back above the surface you’ll find yourself swimming just below gigantic pelicans swan-diving into the sea for a spot of lunch. Within a 10 minute swim from the island shore, you’ll find yourself immersed in technicolour Caribbean waterworlds.
BASK IN BIOLUMINESCENCE
Floating out from the night’s quiet shore sees a seamless shift between sea and sky- where the inky black backdrop is scattered with thousands of stars, and the sea is alive with twinkling plankton. These bioluminescent critters cluster around bodies in the water, so even as you’re drifting through the darkest hours, your body is framed by flocking bright lights. As the islands are so far from cities and pollutants, the night sky itself is masterful. Much as in the desert or the jungle, the skies far at sea offer the best views of the planets and the stars beyond.
Tours to the best spots for swimming with phosphorescent plankton can be organised via your hostel.
HOW TO GET THERE
As with the above details for getting to Isla Mucura, boats regularly carry passengers from Tolu to Isla Tintipan. If you’re staying at Casa en el Agua, the owners of the hostel will happily help you to arrange a transfer directly from Cartagena to the hostel.
WHERE TO STAY
The most famous feature of the San Bernardo islands is the novelty hostel Casa en el Agua. A hostel floating somewhere between Isla Mucura and Isla Tintipan, Casa en el Agua offers you the opportunity to string up a hammock, grab a cocktail, and then drive straight in amongst the coral from your bar-perch.
They show notoriously raucous parties out in the middle of the sea, a perfect excuse to indulge in a touch of gringo fun. Given that the hostel, bar, and island are all isolated, the parties carry on there all night. I wouldn’t recommend it to someone looking to have a peaceful space of solitude on the Caribbean’s perfect banks, but a night of debauchery rarely goes array.
I actually decided against staying at Casa en el Agua, as spaces fill up quickly and you need to book well in advance, which isn’t really my style. I came here to visit the bar, for the novelty of sipping cocktails in a bar on the edge of the sea, and to meet a few fellow gringos hopping around the islands. Though less secluded than our cosy bar in Isla Mucura, Case en el Agua is, undeniably, a fun spot.
Isla Roots is the best spot for backpackers on Isla Tintipan itself. Another location settled right on the sea, where it takes only seconds to move from your bed to the depths of the Caribbean sea. With a number of options for renting kayaks, paddleboards, or snorkels, you’ll be kept busy in the day time. With a good bar and a relaxed, drinking vibe, there’s no doubt you’ll be busy in the evening too.
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