Cartagena is easily one of my favorite cities in South America, with beautiful colonial homes and a laid back Caribbean lifestyle. One thing the city is lack though are beautiful Caribbean beaches.
The beaches in Cartagena are brown sand instead of white and crowded with too many people on most weekends. It doesn’t seem to bother most of the city’s visitors – people come here for the parties not the beach – but thankfully you can still get a beautiful beach experience if you are willing to take a little side trip.
Playa Blanca (the white beach) is actually located on the island of Baru about 1 hour or so by boat from the main port of Cartagena. It is a beautiful, clean beach that fits the picture of the Caribbean paradise perfectly. The water here is calm and warm making it a great place to snorkel and swim.
Playa Blanca has also become a bit of a tourist hotspot and even locals from Cartagena head out to the beach on the weekends. You can find plenty of great little beach shack restaurants, bars, and hostels. Unfortunately, along with the increase in tourism came a large increase in the number of beach hawkers. You will be asked to buy everything from ceviche to massages. If you aren’t interested, avoid eye contact and just say “no gracias.”
Most people visiting Playa Blanca do so on a half or full day tour from Cartagena. You can book a boat ride or tour from the harbor in Cartagena or from your hostel. Avoid booking from the men on the streets. They are known for making up “free extras” to sell the tours and outright lying to people.
If you do book a tour, you’ll have a few options. First, many of the tours are sold as trips to the “Islas del Rosario” but Playa Blanca is not actually part of the Rosario Islands. The beach is located nearby though and many tours stop here first for an hour or so before heading out to the Rosario Islands. You can also opt for just a trip to Playa Blanca. The tours will leave you there and pick you back up when they return from the Rosario Islands. This option is great if you are more of a beach person and don’t want to feel rushed. You will miss a few sites (aquarium, good snorkeling opportunities) on the Rosario part of the tour.
Whether you choose to stay at the beach all day or combine a Playa Blanca and Rosario Islands tour, always always make sure you book your tour on the “fast boat.” There is a rather large tourist boat that does the trip and takes forever to get to the beach or you can get a fast speed boat that gets there in an hour or less. The small boats can be painful on your back, bumping up and down in the waves the whole ride, but you will get to the beach in half the time.
An Overnight Trip
An even better option than booking a day tour is to plan an overnight trip at the beach. Very few tourists do this which means you will have the beach almost to yourself. The tour boats don’t start arriving to Playa Blanca until around 10am and they are all gone by 4-5pm. You’ll have the whole morning to yourself and the sunset all to yourself as well. Plus, most of the beach vendors don’t show up until the tourist do so the beach is much more relaxing as well.
To stay overnight, you can ask the boat tour companies to split your trip, dropping you off one morning and not picking you back up until the following afternoon. Only a few of the companies will do this though and it can be hard to guarantee you have a ride back. Another option is to just book a ride out to the beach and once you are ready to leave, “hitchhike” back in by asking the various tour boats if they have any extra room heading back. Most locals actually head to Playa Blanca on the weekend by land. The Island of Baru is just barely off the coast and you can do a combination of bus, ferry, and cab to reach the beach or to head back to the city.
Be prepared for simple beach accommodations if you plan to stay overnight. Most of the beach hostels have the bare basics of a room or just hammocks in the trees. Its a great experience, sleeping in a hammock to the sounds of the ocean nearby, but you might want to leave your big backpacks in Cartagena at your hostel. Most will hold your bags without charging for a day or two.
Couple Travel Tips
- Be sure you at least stop and have lunch at Playa Blanca. The crab is delicious and fresh out of the ocean.
- If you stay overnight, you might want to bring some snacks. There are plenty of cheap restaurants on the beach but you won’t have access to a market or shop.
- Most people either try and visit both the Rosario Islands and Playa Blanca in one day or skip the Islands all together. The Islands are gorgeous and not to be missed though and your best option is to try and split them up, visiting the beach one day (and staying overnight) and then heading to the Islands for an afternoon.