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The 3 Best Adventures in Colombia: Part 3 – Visiting the San Bernardo Islands

Visiting the San Bernardo Islands, colombia

This is the final part in my series about the 3 best adventures in beautiful and diverse Colombia.

 

Be sure to check out my previous posts about hiking epic Valle de Cocora and camping Parque Tayrona

 

Visiting the San Bernardo Islands

 

"I've never heard of the San Bernardo Islands"

 

Exactly! This little-known island chain feels like it's a million miles from anywhere. If you want to have a truly off-the-beaten path Caribbean island get away - this is the perfect way to do it. You'll feel like you discovered a piece of paradise that no one knew existed.

 

Where:

 

The San Bernardo Islands are a small island chain in the Caribbean, 80 kilometers south of Cartagena, accessible only be boat.

 

Very few international tourists venture south of Cartagena on the coast, so there is little tourism in this area (especially outside of Colombian high season December-January and holidays).

Why:

 

Each island is different and super interesting. There are 10 islands in the San Bernardo archipelago, but the three that receive the most tourism are Mucura, Santa Cruz, and Tintipan.

Boat to San Bernardo Islands Colombia

 

Mucura is the most touristed island. It has perfect white sand and still turquoise waters. The main swimming area is really incredible with some of the calmest water I’ve ever seen. You can swim out very far and still be only be waist high in the water. There are also a couple restaurants, hotels, and amenities here.

 

Santa Cruz del Islote is interesting because it's the most densely populated island on earth. It is only ⅛ a kilometer squared (or just over 2 acres) but contains 1,200 people, 90 houses, 2 stores, a restaurant, and a school. Each house is touching the next, the whole island is concrete, and it appears as if almost every square inch is used. There are little walkways and alleyways to walk between buildings, and sometimes you feel as if you are walking through someone’s home. Locals were friendly and happy to sell us some paletas (popsicles) from their home so we could cool off on the hot day.

Santa Cruz del Islote, San Bernardo Islands, Colombia
Window in Santa Cruz, San Bernardo Islands, Colombia
Door in Santa Cruz, San Bernardo Islands, Colombia

 

Tintipan was my favorite of the three. It’s incredibly gorgeous and very, very quiet. We only saw a handful of other tourists there during our stop. There are several mangrove swamps you will pass through with exotic birds, and the beach is picture perfect. There appeared to be only one restaurant here. We all ordered the fresh fish for lunch and it was delicious.

Man on boat at Tintipan Island, San Bernardo Islands, Colombia
Fresh fish on Tintipan, San Bernardo Islands, Colombia
Boat in Tintipan, San Bernardo Islands, Colombia
Coastline of Tintipan, San Bernardo Islands, Colombia

 

The coves next to the island were super calm, clear and great for a swim. The snorkeling was also fantastic there. With the absence of people, there were lots of beautiful and colorful sea creatures to see as we swam around.

How:

 

You can head to Rincon del Mar (see below for full breakdown on how to get there) for a few days and take a day trip to the islands. The cost of the day trip tour is very reasonable at 40,000COP pesos per person.

 

Or you can take a boat from Cartagena for 2 hours and stay on one of the islands. Lodging is mostly luxurious and expensive, but there are 1 or 2 budget options on Mucura island. There is also one hostel called Casa en el Agua, that is quite literally a hostel in the Caribbean sea, surrounded by water. It seems to be a bit of a party hostel catering to a young crowd, so may not be for everyone. They can arrange boat transportation directly from Cartagena.

 

It’s also possible to take the bus from Cartagena to Tolu, and then take a boat from there. Tolu is farther down the coast then Rincon del Mar, and a little more developed for tourism.

Be Prepared:

 

The islands are quite a way out into the sea. You must take the boat early to get there, as the waves get bigger later in the day. There are even many days when it isn’t possible to make the trip because the waves are too rough. If you are doing the trip from Rincon del Mar, try to arrange the trip asap so you have a better chance of finding a calm day to go.

 

Also be prepared if you are prone to sea-sickness. It can be a bumpy ride!

 

While our tour was great, and I was happy we did it, our boat did break down 3 times on the way to out to the islands. This is a very poor area, and it shows in the condition of the boats. It never felt unsafe and we were helped out by the next boat that came along. Just be prepared and try to go with the flow.

 

There are no ATMs in town, so be sure to bring all your money with you from Cartagena. Cash only is accepted here!

 

Bring any specialty food or snacks with you. Food options are limited on the islands and in Rincon del Mar.

 

Bring sunscreen and insect repellent with you. It will be difficult or impossible to find it on the islands or in Rincon.

 

Bring a good book, a deck of cards, or something to pass the time while you sway in a hammock.

 

Wifi is limited or nonexistent here.

While there:

Visit Rincon del Mar:

 

This was a really special and impulsive side trip for us. We decided to come to this tiny fishing village when we saw an poster in Cartagena’s Mamallena hostel for a new “sister” hostel that just opened in Rincon del Mar. From what we could tell, there was very little to no tourism there yet, and it was mostly “untouched”.

 

This was all very true. The Mamallena hostel in Rincon del Mar is one of the only accommodation options in this small fishing village. There were one or two other guesthouses, but we never saw any other tourists there even though it was high season.

 

It’s a tiny village with one beachfront road. It has a very Caribbean vibe and the locals are all of Afro-Caribbean descent.

boat thru alley, Rincon del Mar, Colombia
house in Rincon del Mar, Colombia
sign in Rincon del Mar, Colombia
Wall of signs in Rincon del Mar, Colombia

 

To Get There:

 

Head to the bus station in Cartagena. It’s a bit of a distance from the city center - 45 minutes or more. It’s possible to take a city bus, but we opted to take a cab since we had our big backpacks and wanted to save time. The taxi ride was 20,000COP.

 

Next find a bus heading to San Onofre. The ride will be about 2 hours and should cost around 20,000COP per person. Buses are air-conditioned and comfortable.

 

Once out at the San Onofre stop, you’ll find motorcycle taxis. Negotiate a fare to Rincon del Mar - it should cost between 8,000-10,000COP per person. You will literally get on the back of their bike, hold on to their shoulders and ride 20 minutes down dirt roads to the coast. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a helmet. They nonchalantly throw your luggage in front of them and balance it between themselves and the handlebars as they drive down the bumpy roads. Getting there is half the adventure!

entering rincon del mar by motorcycle, colombia

Entering town by motor-taxi

This was one place I have felt truly out of my comfort zone. Locals are not used to tourists so it feels very different from other tourist destinations. It was amazing to see a little village operating as it would have decades ago, not catering to the whims of travelers. However, once you make an effort with locals, they’re friendly to you as well. The kids run around all day, ask you your name curiously, and play games on the beach.

kids on beach in Rincon del Mar, Colombia

 

Stay:

 

I highly recommend the Mamallena hostel in Rincon. Arturo, the manager, is super helpful and nice. The rooms are very rustic, but comfortable (privates even have air conditioning!) and very cheap at 60,000COP for a private double or 20,000-25,000COP for a dorm bed.

 

The hostel is directly on the beach, so you are just steps to the sea. The common area on the beach has lots of comfy hammocks, picnic tables, and mats to lounge on. You’ll find yourself passing full days here, reading, dozing, and swimming.

 

There is a shared kitchen and some very basic wifi.

 

To Do:

 

There is almost nothing to do there besides lay in a hammock and swim in the sea. So it’s very relaxing and truly “tranquilo”.

sunset in Rincon del Mar, Colombia

 

To Eat:

 

There are no true restaurants in town, but there is a family next door that cooks breakfast, lunch, and dinner for guests upon request. They offer fresh fish of the day, shrimp, or chicken. Meals are simple, but fresh.

 

The hostel also has a shared kitchen if you prefer to prepare your own food. Just be warned there are no grocery stores in town, only a couple small tiendas with basics. I recommend to bring any specialty food items in with you (such as granola, peanut butter, or nuts). You can buy things such as eggs, rice, basic veggies, and pasta here in town.

 

Also look out for the daily fruit vendor and sweets vendor. They both walk the beach daily selling whatever is fresh. The fruit vendor typically has pineapple, bananas, mangos, and watermelon. The sweets woman has whatever she made that day - usually yuca bread (delicious!), candied papaya, and sesame bars.

 

There is also a woman across the street, who makes fresh squeezed juices and sells them out of her house. Ask Arturo where to find her.

beach in Rincon del Mar, Colombia

 

If you are looking for a true Colombian Caribbean experience, the San Bernardo Islands and Rincon del Mar shouldn’t be missed!

9 Responses

  1. MELODY
    | Reply

    Great site and beautiful photos! My interest is piqued!

    • Susan Ripley
      | Reply

      Thanks Melody! Glad to hear it!

  2. Ryan Christie
    | Reply

    very useful information, thanks for the tips!!

  3. Lyssie
    | Reply

    I love this post and want that true, local Colombian trip you talked about! I’m headed to Cartagena in May from a Saturday afternoon to Wednesday morning. I’d love to visit Rincon del Mar and the islands, but do you think it’s feasible if we want to stay at least one night in Cartagena too? I’m willing to have long days with little sleep to fit it all in but not sure how the transportation schedule might fit…

    • Susan Ripley
      | Reply

      Hi Lyssie!

      I’m so excited for your trip! I definitely think you can fit in Rincon del Mar and the islands if you don’t mind cramming it in. If you get in early enough on Saturday, you could make the journey to San Onofre by bus (2 hours) and then hop on a motorcycle taxi for the last 30 minutes. I would only try to make it same day though if you think you can make it before dark. I’ve used Andestransit.com before to look at bus schedules. To be honest, I don’t know how accurate it is, but it might give you an idea.

      You could spend Sat, Sun, Mon night in Rincon del Mar, and make the day trip tour to the islands.That should be plenty of time to get a feel for the area. I’d recommend contacting Mamallena hostel if you have any other questions about transit or to book at their hostel in Rincon: http://hostelmamallenarincondelmar.com/index.php/how-to-find-us/

      Then you could head back early Tuesday morning, and spend the whole day and night in Cartagena.

      Hope you have an amazing time! Be sure to let me know how it goes!

  4. ivo
    | Reply

    Hi!

    Very interesting topic. We´ll stay soon in Rincon for four days. I wonder how to find day trips to islands or for snorkeling from Rincon del Mar?

    • Susan Ripley
      | Reply

      Hi Ivo,

      Nice! I’m sure you will have a great time. Any hotel or hostel should be able to arrange day trips to the islands. I stayed at Mamallena in Rincon del Mar and they arranged very affordable trips.

      For snorkeling, I think the best bet is to snorkel around the San Bernardo Islands. On our day trip we snorkeled off two islands and saw some great colorful fish.

      Have a great trip and let us know how it went!

      Susan

  5. Stuart
    | Reply

    Hi, this is Stuart from Hostel Mamallena. I’m really glad you liked Rincon and have written about it, its a special town and we are excited to be seeing the town grow and the people improve their standard of living with the tourism that we are bringing to town.

    I hope you dont mind my comments but I thought I would post a couple of updates. Arturo has moved on and Lilia is now in Rincon providing the same excellent customer service. Shes also just opened up a small, casual bar on the beach. The hostel has also expanded to the house next door which has really increased the amount of hammocks and the social areas, and the kitchen is a lot better.

    We’ll soon be starting a regular shuttle bus from Cartagena to Rincon, which will be priced very closely with going by public transport but be a lot easier. You can either contact us at [email protected] or [email protected] for more details and reservations.

    Rincon has changed slightly, its now not uncommon to see foreigners in town! But its still Colombias best undiscovered little beach town, so you should get here while you can

    • Susan Ripley
      | Reply

      Hi Stuart!

      Thanks for letting us know all the updates! It’s only been just over a year since I’ve been there, but sounds like a lot has changed! Glad to hear they have been positive changes.

      I’ll be updating this post soon so it can be as current as possible. And hopefully I can get back to Rincon soon so I can see the changes for myself! I’ll be in Cartagena again early next year, so will have to stop by and say hi. 🙂

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