As a coastal city on the Caribbean Sea, a trip to Cartagena demands some island time. In this post, we will review Cartagena’s 5 Island Tour, a common tour experience in Cartagena. This all day tour takes you to five of the Rosario Islands and includes a night swim with bioluminescent plankton. Read on to get our honest review on this experience as a family.
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Before we start this recommendation, let us be clear. We are typically a “do-it-yourself” adventuring kind of family. If there is a way to use public transit to have an experience over booking a tour, we will typically opt to figure it out ourselves. Not only because “do-it-yourself” adventures are much more budget friendly, but because frankly, we enjoy the challenge.
So when we recommend a tour, it is because we couldn’t figure out how to do it ourselves. Or because even if there is a way to do it ourselves, like the tour to kayak the canals of Venice, the tour is budget friendly and really great.
Cartagena’s 5 Island Tour meets both those criteria.
The Rosario Islands
Just 60 miles from Cartagena by boat is the Rosario Archipelago. Named a national park in 1988, the archipelago is home to 27 islands and a beautiful and important Caribbean coral reef. Turquoise waters surround the islands and there are so many ways to play including kayaking, swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving.
Deciding on Your Island Tour
First of all, it is important to clarify that there are lots of ways to experience island time in Cartagena. Before going to Colombia, we had read several blogs about staying on one of the islands as a more tranquil way to experience the beaches in the mornings or after the day trippers had gone.
But we are much more city people than beach goers so we knew we wanted to just experience the islands for a day with the rest of our time in the walled city. So an island stay was out for us. Onto day tours…
Cartagena’s Day Tours
If you go with a day tour like us you can choose between half- and full-day tours. The half-day tours are typically 6 to 7 hours and are the least expensive of the island tours. These shorter tours typically take you to just Isla Baru, the larger island that is now connected by road to the mainland, where you can spend the day lounging on the beach.
Why We Chose the 5 Island Cartagena Island Tour
While the Isla Baru tours are definitely a good choice for the true budget traveler, (they were typically about $55/person), they often don’t involve a boat ride. Instead the Isla Baru trips include land transport to take you to the beach. It is typical for them to include lunch.
What drove us to choose the longer tour was that, first, we wanted to get to the island via boat rather than bus. Second, we wanted to snorkel. The 5-Island Tour includes all your snorkeling equipment and you stop twice to snorkel.
Next, it was important to us to see a larger variety of islands. The Isla Baru tours give you lots of hours soaking in the sun, but we are not necessarily beach loungers. And finally, we really wanted to experience swimming with bioluminescent plankton. We had missed this experience on the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica because the roads were a lot. We had some real regret about that. So this was our chance to have that experience.
Cartagena’s 5 Island Tour
The tour begins around 8 a.m. All of the tours, including the one we are recommending, starts in the port right next to the Convention Center. If you are coming from the old town, you will walk to the Muelle de los Pegasos, the pair of winged Pegasus sculptures in front of the Convention Center. Once you get to the landing, you will absolutely see groups gathering with tour guides calling names.
We waited about 30 minutes for all of the tour guests to arrive and for us to board our speedboat. If you forgot anything for the day – sunscreen, water, a hat, snacks, a waterproof phone case – dozens of street vendors are selling just about anything you might need.
Some of the vendors are a little aggressive with the asking. But if you don’t need anything for the day, just be firm with a “no, gracias” and they will move on. Remember everyone’s got to make money and part of being a tourist is supporting the local economy so don’t lose your cool when you are asked for the 50th time if you need a “sombrero para el sol.”
From the landing in front of the winged pegasus, you will board a mid-size speed boat. Let me be clear here. Yes, those 20 people who the tour operator had to gather together are all going on this same boat. So get on early and find your seat. I definitely recommend you take a seat at the front of the boat to get the best views. But these are also the seats that have the most wind.
The seating is tight. In some reviews of this tour, people were uncomfortable with how close the quarters were. We travel by bus and train often, so we are very used to sitting cheek to cheek with a stranger. In fact, being so close to people has allowed us to meet some very cool people on our journeys. But if close contact makes you uncomfortable this is not the tour for you. You can book a private charter, but of course, that will cost significantly more.
The Bay of Bocachica
After the boat is loaded, you head out to the bay. Here you will get great views of both the old, walled part of the city and the newer high rises across the bay. The boat makes a quick stop at the Forts of Bocachica: 3 forts built by the Spanish to protect Cartagena.
The guides on this tour are bilingual so if you don’t speak Spanish, don’t worry. After they explain the history of the impressive Castillo San Felipe Fortress in Spanish, they will give an English version. By the way, if the fortress is of interest, you can also tour this fort on a later date. This is only a stop on the water, you won’t be able to get out here.
First Stop: Isla De Pajarales
The first stop on the tour is near Isla de Pajarales. At this point in the tour, the operator will ask if anyone one wants to be dropped on the island to spend an hour at the Oceanarium. The cost to enter the Oceanarium was $28,500 COP or roughly $7.00 (in 2022). We were more interested in snorkeling around Isla de Pajarales so we passed the Oceanarium. But you can read for yourself if it is worth it here on their website.
Second Stop: Snorkeling
An Infamous Plane
Your first snorkeling experience is short, and not everyone from our tour group got into the water. But if you do get in and can swim down, you can not miss seeing the ruins of one of Pablo Esobar’s drug smuggling planes.
I won’t even pretend to understand the complicated relations of Esobar to the Colombia people, both as someone who evokes terror and violence, but also someone who invested heavily in the country. The plane is sunk in the bay right in front of Escobar’s mansion called “La Grande.” Once a mansion with hundreds of rooms, the mansion has fallen in complete disrepair and is now home to numerous wild pigs. As for the plane, the guide didn’t go into detail. In general, the Colombians are not interested in talking about Escobar and seek to distance themselves and their country. But the plane can not be denied. And it is your first stop.
After a brief stop to snorkel above the plane, the tour takes you to a natural coral pool in San Martin De Pajarales. This was my favorite part of the day. While the snorkeling is not as clear as what I experienced in the Galapagos Islands, it was way better than the coral reef off Ambergris Caye in Belize.
Our guide was especially kind because he snapped underwater photos of each group. The next day he sent us the underwater photos, which was such a treat.
Third Stop: Lunch on a Private Island
After snorkeling, it is time for lunch. The tour takes you to a private island where you have an hour or so to relax on the beach. But most importantly, it is time for lunch. Included in the price of the tour is a traditional Caribbean meal. You can select either fish, chicken, or vegetarian. All three of us chose the fish and it was delicious.
Fourth Stop: Cholon in Baru
Okay, I told you we were being honest. So honestly Cholon was not my favorite stop. But that had everything to do with the fact that we are traveling as a family and Cholon is all about the party. And not that we don’t enjoy some festivities, but Cholon was all about the Spring Break vibes.
In essence, Cholon is a small beach. But in Cholon it really isn’t about the beach. Instead, surrounding the beach, Cholon has a series of small thatched huts where people wade in waist-high water drinking cocktails, eating ceviche, and, well, just partying.
The area is surrounded by private and chartered boats, where people are drinking, dancing onboard and hopping on and off to experience some hut time. I can imagine a time in our lives where Cholon would have been great fun. But for us, it was just a break from the boat and a chance to wade around in the water.
If you want to pay more, the tour guides will help you charter a jet ski ride during the stop. We didn’t take one, but if memory serves it was about $50 USD for 30 minutes. A little steep for these budget travelers. But several members of our group went out on jet skis and had a great time. There is also the option to be pulled on a “banana boat” behind speed boat, again an optional extra expense.
Stop Five: Playa Blanca
After Cholon it is about a 15 minute boat ride to Playa Blanca on Isla Baru. This is the last stop of the official tour. Playa Blanca is a very well known beach. With its beautifully wide, sandy beaches, Playa Blanca is a great place to spend the entire afternoon relaxing. And if you choose to see the bioluminescence then that is exactly what will happen.
Let me explain. At Playa Blanca, you have a choice. Those who don’t want to see the bioluminescent plankton spend about 40 minutes at the beach and then load back onto the boat for a final trip back to Caragena. The boat portion of the tour concludes back at the port landing in front of the Convention Center and then a bus takes you back to your hotel.
Those who want to see the bioluminescence–like us– got really cozy on the beach because that is exactly where we were for the next 4 hours. The tour drops you at Playa Blanca around 2:00 and it isn’t until around 6:30 p.m. that a series of small boats come and take you to the lagoon where you swim with the plankton.
So there was a very real moment when I realized that not only were we on a beach for the next 4.5 hours but that I wasn’t going to get home until after 9 p.m. that I thought twice about hanging around for the bioluminescence. But since we had already missed the opportunity in Costa Rica, Matthew and O gave me that “you will regret missing this” look and so we settled in.
In truth, the time went quickly. Our tour guide helped us find a daybed to hang. He also connected us with a local who worked at the nearby bar and told us to “only order through him.” He warned us that given the volume of tourists on Playa Blanca some locals are prone to “ripping off tourists” but that we were safe with him. So we ordered some snacks and took some time to just be.
We had read on the reviews that several groups got to this moment in the tour and even though they had paid for the bioluminescence addition, abandoned it and went back on the boat. And I totally get it. It is a long day. But in the end, we were so glad we stayed and finally got to experience the beautiful blue glow of swimming with bioluminescent plankton.
But if you think the bioluminescence and a full day at the islands might just be too much, then you should book an evening tour just to do the bioluminescence and keep them separated.
Despite our very best efforts, absolutely none of our photos turned out. But trust us when I say that this is a magical experience. With every movement of your arms or legs, a trail of shimmering blue follows.
The tour allows you to swim for about 15 minutes. I would have definitely stayed longer, but because there are only a few places in the world to have this experience, there are many boats in the lagoon. So out of respect, tours are moving through the lagoon fairly quickly. It is possible that tours completely dedicated to the plankton experience allow you to stay out longer. But in truth, the 15 minutes was enough of an experience for us. And even the short amount of time was 100% worth it.
With everything we did in Colombia, the bioluminescence was O’s favorite experience, and that is saying something.
The Bus Back
I can not tell a lie. The bus back was not our happiest moment. Not because the bus was not modern and clean or the driver very competent – it was all of those things. But because after a 12-hour day, and nearly an hour of getting re-sorted into groups and being piled onto a bus (no matter how wonderful the conditions) in our wet swimsuits was not wonderful. But hey, they got to get you back to Cartagena somehow, and a large tour bus can hold way more than the 20 person boats that transported us from island to island.
And yet, even though the ending of this day was not on our list of top travel experiences, it certainly wasn’t on our worst. And despite the late hour and the long bus ride, we would have absolutely done the day over again.
The 5-Island Tour is a big day. In 2022, we paid around $100 per person. The price included the tour guide, boat and bus transport, snorkeling equipment and lunch. We also opted to pay a little extra for the open bar, which included soda, water, beer and some seriously early rounds of shots on the boat.
And was it worth the cost? Absolutely.
If you are coming to Cartagena, you really need to experience the Rosario Islands. And we definitely think the 5-Island Tour is the way to do just that.
Or if you are leaving Cartagena for Bogotá, we have a recommended 2-day Bogotá itinerary.