This is the seventh in a series of posts chronicling my January 2018 trip to Colombia. You can read an overview/preview here.
Although Cartagena is on the Caribbean, if you want to get a real beach experience, you have to leave the city. For a lot of people, this entails taking one of the tourist boat tours from the Bodeguita tourist dock to one of the Rosario Islands, about a 45-60-minute boat ride away. These tours typically stop at pre-arranged stops to buy junk and then the Aquarium, before either going to a private beach at a hotel or, on cheaper trips, to Playa Blanca on Baru, a peninsula that juts out into the sea, southwest of the city. I’d read that Playa Blanca was very crowded, and that you are constantly confronted by people selling stuff, so it didn’t strike me as ideal.
Alternatively, several of the hotels in Baru and the Rosario Islands offer day trips (as well as overnight stays). These stays maximize your stay at the resorts themselves, since that increases your likelihood of spending money at their restaurant bars. I booked a daytrip with the hotel Sport Baru. For 171,000 COP (plus a 17,000 COP departure tax) (about $60 total), it included the speedboat ride to/from Baru, lunch, use of nonmotorized sports, towels, and chairs on the hotel’s beach, and transportation to Playa Azul.
The booking said to arrive at the Marina Santa Cruz in Manga, a not-touristy-area, at 8:15. I ended up getting there way too early—about 7:45 — as the taxi only took about 15 minutes. There was a small bar at the marina, and otherwise lots of different groups meeting for small boats to Baru and the Rosario Islands, including for the Hotel San Pedro de Majagua hotel further out. I’d say about half the people in general were doing day trips, and half were doing overnight stays.
We boarded our speedboat at around 8:45, and there was a total of about 8 other guests. We pulled out at around 9am and then two people came running who just hadn’t been paying attention. The terribleness of people would become a theme on this trip. We actually had to stop at the main tourist dock to drop off paperwork and I was very glad I wasn’t on one of those boats, as it was a crowded shouting mess.
The ride over to the hotel in Baru took about an hour. It was pretty but fast so not great for photo taking. I got some video at the beginning and end though.
Upon arrival, there was a sugary welcome drink and a ten-minute “orientation” – mostly geared to overnight guests. Then it took another 10 minutes to pay.
The beach area was disappointingly small and crowded, with not much space to swim. Guys come by and try to sell you jet ski rides. There’s also a small volleyball court. One reason I had chosen Sport Baru was it included use of kayaks but the area to kayak in was so small it wasn’t worth it. Also, of note, the hotel is not on the open ocean, but an inlet.
I had just sat down when they announced boarding of the boat for the ride across an inlet to Playa Azul, which I’d read was a nicer, though public, beach. I thought about skipping it because I wasn’t sure I’d want to stay on it for two hours but was very glad I did not.
It’s only a five-minute ride to the barrier island and the beach is exactly what you expect from a Caribbean beach in a somewhat remote location. Reviews suggested it would be crowded, but it wasn’t. When you get off, you walk past a number of stands selling drinks and food, then a bunch of places allowing you to rent plastic chairs. If you keep walking to the right though, you get to an area that seems to be part of the Agua Azul Beach Resort. It’s unclear to me whether that whole beach is public, but I laid there on a towel under palm trees for 90 minutes (as did many others) with no problem. There were a few people that came by offering to sell drinks, snacks, and massages, but nothing disruptive. I did a get a beer that was cold and perfect.
Now, for the disturbing/sickening part of my day. When you go back to board the boat, there’s a set of wooden stairs you climb, and a local man who dumps water on your feet to wash the sand off. I gave him the equivalent of about 75 cents and went on my way. Well, a loud American man in his 60s responded to this situation by shouting “Propina, propina! Everyone in this country wants a damn propina.” My general philosophy is that if you have enough money to travel, you have enough to tip according to local custom. And even if you’re going to be rude and cheap, just be quiet about it. But it got worse.
He was with a slightly younger woman who seemed to be his girlfriend. She spoke Spanish, and once they got seated on the boat, she called the foot-washer over to give him a tip. “Negro!” she shouted.
I already felt uncomfortable. Yes, the man was of Afro-Caribbean descent, as is the majority in that part of Colombia. But shouting “Black!” at someone is just as racist in Colombia as it would be in the States. Black Colombians experience a ton of racism and disproportionately live in poverty. But even if I didn’t know this, I wouldn’t ever say that. But, reader, it got worse.
Her traveling partner thought this was hilarious, and kept saying “Negro” over and over again. He and his girlfriend kept laughing as he called the guy by that name. And he said “well I can’t use that word here, so I’m going to use it as much as I can here.”
I felt so uncomfortable. I gave him a death glare, and did mutter “It’s racist here too,” but wonder if I should have said more. I was seething for quite a while – the whole boat ride back and thinking about it back at the hotel as well. Trump’s America! I will, though, break one of my own rules and include a picture of the guy:
Back at the hotel was lunch, which included a fish soup, a choice of nonalcoholic beverage, and then a whole fish with a small salad and coconut rice. It was fine, and after a small dessert I made my way to one of the lounge beds where I dozed and read for about 30 minutes and then it was already time to head back to Cartagena on a 3:30 boat.
The boat trip back to Cartagena was much rougher, as I had been warned. Definitely glad I had my Sea-band, as I was literally being tossed out of my seat. We did get a close-up view of Cholon, a party area where boats pull up and turn on the music around swim-up bars and food stands. I was back at the marina in Manga at 4:30, where I used the Easy Taxi app to hail a taxi back to town.
The day as a whole went very quickly, and I think if I were in Cartagena longer, I’d spend a night on one of the islands. The Sport Baru hotel was fine but I’d try and find a place with a better beach and/or a pool. Overall, I am very glad I spent a day outside of the city, and Playa Azul was the most relaxing part of my entire trip.